Friday, September 9, 2011

The Top 4 Things We Learned in Costa Rica

1. We like eating our food out of convenient packets. I'm not talking about those wonderful ketchup packets we discovered at Chick Fil A this summer. I'm talking about unexpected condiments packaged in unexpectedly large, screw-top packets.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

When I first spotted them on the shelves of the local grocery store, I was a little grossed out. There's just something off-putting about your jam being of a squeezable consistency. But food items like these were either the cheapest or only choices we had, so we purchased them. And boy am I glad we did!!

You know how annoying it is when you get down to the bottom of the jam jar and you've got to really work the knife around to maximize the fruit preserve removal? Inevitably, you get that crusty, sticky jam from the jar opening on your knuckles and it takes a 15 minute surgery-style scrub session to get all that crap off your fingers!

Such is NOT the case with the squeezy goodness of the jam in a pack! All you have to do is roll the packet bottom-up, like you do with a toothpaste tube and you get all the product out and you don't have to worry about the mess!

We loved it.

2. The locals often use ATVs to get around and don't even own a typical family car. On our ATV tour, we passed through a few small towns. I would even venture to say these were just villages by American standards. One village only had a population of THIRTY NINE people! As we were chugging along I was thinking we were riding on ATV paths that had been cleared by the government or the tour companies and that the locals used some paved highways that we couldn't see to get around. After a bit I noticed there were houses along these rough 4-wheeler paths and I asked our tour guide if they were inhabited or abandoned. He explained that yes, these were people's homes and we had been driving on their local roads.

I was flabbergasted! Paths like the one pictured above would suddenly have a little ramshackle house with a fence around it and peeking through would be a little kid waving to the friendly tourists. I asked how they got around, cause there was no way a regular car would be able to get through here in the rainy season. He explained that most families use ATVs or dirt bikes to go from place to place--they don't even own a traditional vehicle! Sure enough, a little while later we saw a guy driving his ATV, his little girl sitting on the gas tank between him and the handlebars. It appeared that he had just made a food run because she was holding on to a plastic grocery bag.


3. The simple life is taken to a whole new meaning in Costa Rica. One of the things we loved about our vacation was the laid back pace of everything! Not just because we were on vacation, but because the whole country is a lot more chill than America or even Saudi Arabia. Things move slow in Costa Rica because they have to!

We visited during the rainy season, so the roads were usually wet and we often passed newly-cleared mud and rock slides on the roads after a hard night's rain. If you try to move fast during the rainy season, you're likely to go right off the road, into the back of another car, or drive right into a massive mudslide. You're forced to slow down.

When we were on our ATV tour, we stopped at our tour guide's mom's house for some coffee. I was LOVING getting to actually see how and where real Costa Ricans lived: there wasn't a single gringo for miles! After our guide showed us his mom's farm and gave us a quick tour of his hometown (we stood in the middle of the road and he pointed to places as we rotated in a circle. The town was that small), I started riddling him with questions.

"Do you have internet up here?" I asked.
He quickly put down his coffee cup and excitedly said, "Yes! The school just got internet this year! But we don't have internet in our houses. Only at the school."

The school just got internet this year. It's 2011. Al Gore invented the internet in 1997.*

*not entirely true.

"Well, what about television? Do you get local TV stations? Cable? Satellite?"

"What about mail? I haven't seen any mailboxes, so how do people get their post?" I asked, trying my hardest not to be patronizing. I was genuinely curious because we don't have at-home mail delivery in Saudi Arabia, and I'm pretty sure it's just because people are too lazy to try to figure out a system.

"We have mail, but it goes to the city." The "city" being Jaco, where we were vacationing. It was approximately 45 minutes to an hour away, down a mountain path that was currently a caked river of mud. And I would use "city" as a very loose term. It's a medium sized town by American standards. "The mail goes to the post office in the city and we have to go pick it up. Usually if I know I am coming to see my mother, I will get her mail and bring it to her. Or if someone in the village is going to the city, he will go to everyone's house and ask if they need him to pick up anything while he is gone."

Volunteer mailmen/errand boys. That's how people function in these tiny mountain villages!

"What about hospitals? If you're pregnant, do you deliver at home, or do you go to the hospital?"

"Well, if there is an emergency and it's really bad, someone will call the Red Cross, then put you in their truck and you go meet the ambulance. If it's not that bad, you can wait for the Red Cross. If you're pregnant you have to go to the hospital in Jaco or San Jose, but you have to go 1 week before you are supposed to deliver. Two weeks if it's the rainy season because you might not be able to drive on the roads."

Whaat?! That was so interesting to me! He clarified that if you go into surprise labor you just have to deliver on your own or hope the Red Cross gets there in time...but if it's the rainy season they probably won't come.

I was fascinated by the fact that this was how these people lived day to day and they were so incredibly happy! No one grumbled about how inconvenient it was to get anything done, or that there wasn't even television to fill the time. Because the roads are so bad, most Costa Ricans are subsistence farmers. They live off the land and if they need to purchase anything, they'll sell a cow or a few chickens and get what they need. And they seemed perfectly fine with that.

The whole thing made me so humbled.

4. American tourists are obnoxious. Granted, this is a lesson we learn (and I'm sure contribute to) everywhere we go, but there were little things in Costa Rica that made us not so proud of our fellow countrymen.

We noticed that most of our waiters and tour guides had very Anglo names. One night, Henry served us a fantastic meal at a beachfront restaurant. I remember thinking, "Henry...really?" Then our ATV tour was guided by Alan.

I mean, come on. Alan!? A Costa Rican native named Alan!?

The jig was up when we were having coffee with his mom and she kept calling him Alejandro. That's when our suspicions were confirmed.

People Anglo-fied their names, we assumed, to make it easier for the American tourists to pronounce and remember!

That made us so upset! It's one of mine and the Mister's biggest pet peeves!! Our students do it too. I went the whole school year last year calling a girl by the name she told me she goes by, only to get laughed at by her friends when I called her that same name in the hallway. When I asked her why she told me to call her by a name her mother didn't give her she said, "Well, teacher, it's easier for you to say."

BUT IT'S NOT YOUR NAME!! I guess I should be--what? honored? glad? I don't know--that she was trying to make things easier for me, but IT'S HER NAME! Tell me how to say it correctly and I'll try my darnedest to pronounce it that way.

I felt the same betrayal by our tour guides and waiters! Your name is your identity, and you shouldn't change it because of the pale faces that have taken over your local economy! We are in your country, we should be inconvenienced and taken out of our comfort zone. That's why we travel: to experience local culture!!

I understand that the majority of the American tourists who are vacationing in Jaco probably don't have the same attitude. They're probably going down for a little tropical solace from the corporate grind and don't want to have to worry about sounding like a buffoon when they say Jaco with a hard "j" instead of Jaco with a Spanish "j" (that means it's pronounced "Haco"). I just hated that the locals had to change their identity to mollify my people.

Vicariously yours,

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