May 27th, 2009

The Old Corner Grocery

About thirty years ago, shopping in Costa Rica was very different from what it is today. Imported goods were scarce and very expensive. Manufactured goods—clothing, furniture, and large appliances—were all but unavailable, and shoppers with the means would buy them outside the country. However, fruits and vegetables were plentiful, and most Costa Ricans could buy these at small corner grocery stores called pulperías. Once a vital part of daily life, the pulpería has all but disappeared from the newly modernized Costa Rican landscape. Many Costa Ricans fondly describe the pulpería as a symbol of the country’s slow-paced and charming past.

Pulperías were always small, modest buildings that crouched unassumingly on street corners. They usually had colorful names that referred to nearby attractions or to desirable attributes. Locals gathered there daily to buy milk, cheese, and eggs before refrigeration was common. Pulperías were popular gathering places, and most customers prolonged their visits, talking and joking with their neighbors as they bought their daily supplies.

Pulperías had a feel and look uniquely their own. Their floors were often unfinished wood planks. Because the doors stood open all day, pulpería floors were warmed by the sun and slightly dusty. To either side of the open doors wooden bins held fresh fruits and vegetables, and plantains and onions often hung from hooks in the ceiling. Employees stood behind wooden counters that had been worn smooth with use. Customers requested items stored on shelves behind the counters. Pulperías always smelled of warm wood and gently ripening fruit.

For children, the best part of the pulpería was the glass-fronted shelf that held candy. It sat at eye level on the wooden counter, each candy relegated to one section of a vertical grid. Just as children could buy one individual piece of candy, adults could buy an individual cigarette, a match or a cotton ball pre-moistened with nail polish remover. One-colón coins and smaller céntimo pieces still had value, and almost every transaction involved just a few small coins.

Pulperías—also known as abastecedores—still exist in Costa Rica, and they still retain some of their traditional flavor. However, flashy new stores are slowly taking over what was once the sole domain of this small corner grocery.

Read about an art exhibit dedicated to pulperías.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 20th, 2008


Before Costa Rica became as developed as it is today, most of the country was agricultural. Some of the provinces, like San José and Alajuela, had relatively large cities, but the rest of the country was rural. Until about fifteen years ago, many of Costa Rica’s roads were unpaved, not all places had electricity, and lush vegetation covered much of the land. The rural countryside is called “el campo,” and the people who live there are called “campesinos.” These “campesinos” are an important part of Costa Rica’s national identity.

In Costa Rica, humility is probably the highest virtue. Pride and arrogance are looked down upon, especially in politicians, and soft-spokenness and quiet deference are considered great attributes. Describing someone as humble—“humilde”—is high praise. Costa Rica’s heroes, like Juan Santamaría, often came from the “campo” and are almost always described as humble, as Juan Santamaría always is. Costa Rica’s favorite presidents were all humble men as well, especially in retrospect.

In general, “campesinos” are idealized and described as being filled with a noble sense of humility. The Costa Rican national anthem, like most of the country’s other patriotic songs, praises field and other manual laborers, hard-working “campesinos” on whose backs the modern country now rests. The red stripes of the Costa Rican flag are often said to represent the red faces of agricultural workers, who did their work virtuously, without seeking undue praise or attention.

During the early 1900s, in a period of heightened cultural awareness, students of Costa Rican tradition attempted to unearth and preserve the traditional dances of the “campesinos,” promulgating the idea of a national Costa Rican dance form. A collection of several dances now comprises the Costa Rican dance repertoire. Although some argue that these “bailes típicos” are more a cultural afterthought than a legitimate tradition, the dances are interesting in that they celebrate the Costa Rican “campesino.” The women wear ruffled peasant blouses and long skirts, and the men wear work shirts and the canvas hats typical of traditional Costa Rican farm workers. All dance barefoot, and the men often twirl red bandannas—the very bandannas they presumably used to wipe the sweat from their brows as they toiled in the fields.

Even as Costa Rica marches confidently into the future, there is a strong national sense of its agricultural beginnings and a strong feeling of love for the hardworking “campesino humilde.”

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 18th, 2008

Inadvertent Recycling

Costa Rica is one of the preferred destinations of ecologically minded visitors. A large percentage of the country’s overall land area is dedicated to national parks and wildlife preserves, and visitors can have eco-friendly adventures all across the country. But before “green” activities—and tourism—became quite as popular in Costa Rica as they are today, Costa Ricans took part in the kind of inadvertent recycling common when goods are scarce. Unfortunately, modern life has put an end to much of this necessity-fueled recycling.

Packaging materials—styrofoam, bubble wrap and cardboard inserts—were practically nonexistent in Costa Rica about twenty years ago. People wrapped all valuables in newspaper, which was a prized commodity. Gardeners, who cut the grass with razor-sharp machetes, wrapped their tools in newspaper bound with string. Everyone stored old newspapers at home, and people reused the same wrinkled sheets over and over again. In the areas around San José, men pulled wooden carts through the streets, collecting old newspapers or other clean papers that people might not need. These papers then made their way to the Central Market (Mercado Central), in San José, where vendors used them to wrap fish and pieces of meat or to protect their vegetables.

Glass was also valuable, and some of these cart-pulling men also collected bottles from the houses around San José. Few home-goods or decorating stores existed in Costa Rica at the time, and people collected pretty bottles to use as vases and decanters. Thermoses were expensive and hard to find, so workers often transported their milky coffee to work in repurposed Coca-Cola bottles. A small bottle-cutting industry also thrived in Costa Rica, and people could buy drinking glasses made from all colors and sizes of bottles that had been sliced in half and filed smooth.

At about this same time, disposable plastic bags and plastic food containers were a rarity in Costa Rica. No stores sold Ziploc bags or Rubbermaid containers. People reused plastic bread bags for their lunches. Some market vendors sold their products in plastic bags that had once held other items. Almost everyone had a drawerful of plastic bags that they had washed and reused numerous times. Some people owned the odd piece of Tupperware, which they cared for assiduously and used repeatedly. Everyone also rinsed out plastic yogurt and margarine containers, keeping them to use for food storage. People often encouraged one another to buy particular foods at the grocery store, solely because they came in sturdy containers that would withstand many uses. One particular ice cream company used such fine containers that when it went out of business, most people were more sorry about the disappearance of the containers than about the ice cream itself.

With increased trade and more foreign imports, Costa Ricans now have access to hundreds more products than were available in the 1980s. Sadly, this new access has created in Costa Rica a new sense of disposability. Companies no longer pack their products in durable containers, and nobody reuses containers or paper the way they once did. Convenience has given rise to more waste. However, perhaps Costa Rica’s new eco-friendly identity will push it closer to the mindset of its inadvertent recycling days.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 24th, 2008

Artwork that Once Worked Hard

Before there were cars and buses, paved roads and traffic lights, Costa Rica’s most common mode of transportation was the oxcart, or “carreta.” Dirt roads crisscrossed the countryside, winding through coffee farms and sugar cane plantations. Farmers loaded their goods onto wooden oxcarts to transport them to market.

Oxcarts all looked relatively similar, and their traditional shape has since become an iconic Costa Rican design. Oxcarts had one axle, to which were attached large, round wheels. These wheels were flat and had no spokes. Two oxen usually pulled the cart, a heavy wooden yoke over their necks. Someone often walked in front of the cart, guiding the plodding oxen to their destination.

At first, oxcarts were plain and unpainted, their wood slowly weathering to a natural grayish brown. But the simple lines and utilitarian beauty of the oxcarts soon lent themselves to decoration and embellishment. Oxcart decoration became something of a national art form. Wheel-painting was particularly popular, and artisans decorated cart wheels with brilliant geometric patterns that radiated from the center of the wheel. Yokes also became a popular design element, and painters covered them in flowers and curlicues.

Now that Costa Rica’s transportation systems are fully modernized, oxcarts are almost nonexistent as transportation. Some rural farmers still use them, but oxcarts have now become mostly decorative. Restaurants and museums across the country hang hand-painted yokes and oxcart wheels on their walls. “Carretas” are the subject of many nostalgic historical paintings, and entire oxcarts stand in the lobbies of theaters and art galleries nationwide. In 1988, during the first presidency of Oscar Arias Sánchez, the Costa Rican government officially declared the “carreta” a national symbol. And in 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the “Oxherding and Oxcart Traditions in Costa Rica” a “Masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage.”

These beautiful, cultural symbols once put in generations of hard work.

Read about UNESCO and Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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