Mar 12 2008

La observación de Costa Rica

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At Brasalito

At Brasalito, C.R.

The short context for what follows: In March (2008) we – Randy Stapilus, Linda Watkins – spent some time touring around the Central American nation of Costa Rica, a place we had not visited before. What we saw there doesn’t directly relate to Northwest public affairs, but we found much of it mind-opening, and thought some of it might be of interest.

Briefly, we spent time in San Jose, the capital and largest city (the more than two million people in the metro area account for half of the nation’s population), and based ourselves at a friend’s house in one of its suburbs. We visited tourist destinations like Monteverde and some that could be, like the Orosi Valley. We stopped into larger cities such as Liberia, Cartagia and Puntarenas and smaller places like Tilaran and Sarchi, beach country, cattle country, and rain forest.

Some thoughts.

bullet Costa Rica, with the rest of the countries south of the United States, gets the description of “Latin America.” But it’s quite different from many of the rest (not that they all don’t have their differences). It appeared, for example, to be about as economically prosperous overall as the United States. You could see driving around that large numbers of Ticos (the usual term for natives of the country) live pretty well in houses that are different in style from those in the United States but are far removed from the usual image of Third World. There are loads of local businesses, and the quality of vehicles on the road is eye-grabbing — generally newer, better-maintained and apparently more expensive than on the road most places up north.

bullet The United States is an enormous presence there, however, and that’s most visible in businesses. On the main commercial street a couple of blocks from the suburban home where we stayed, you could — in the space of a couple of miles — patronize McDonald’s, Burger King, Tony Roma’s, TCBY, TGI Friday’s, KFC, Radio Shack and others. What surprised was not that these businesses had a presence in Costa Rica, but that their presence was so extensive — many of these businesses could be found even in smaller communities, about as thoroughly as in the United States. (Chicken is a very big dish generally in Costa Rica, and Church’s Chicken, more than KFC, was a huge presence nationally.) US products and brands – all thoroughly represented. Dollars are readily accepted. While you see many of the same brands and products you’d expect to find in a large urban US area, the feel is entirely different: Ticos and Ticas move in an envelope of energy that denies any stillness or introspection; cars (the majority smaller SUVs) and trucks and buses cram narrow streets, turning two lanes into three or one or however many may be convenient at any given moment. The noise is ubiquitous: honking horns, diesel exhausts snorting, and motorcycles zipping in and out of traffic openings an unpracticed eye does not even see. Well-dressed professionals hurry toward banking or finance jobs or any one of the professions we’d see in any large city, but right next to the suits you’ll see the traditional dress of natives, and farmers delivering truckloads of tomatoes, melons and other fruits and vegetables to the stalls in the Central Market. The clothing and shoe stores display a mix of high fashion designs that you’d expect to find in Manhattan, alongside t-shirts and tennis shoes that could as easily have come from a small town secondhand store.

bullet The largest supermarkets we saw were the Mas y Menos and Hiper Mas stores. Both are owned by Wal-Mart. Hiper Mas, with its grocery and household goods sections, looks and feels a lot like a Wal-Mart supercenter, though maybe a bit more upscale.

bullet However, some of the best shopping was in the local markets, either the farmers’ markets found in many communities or, in San Jose, the big downtown central markets, with hundreds of vendors selling all sorts of products. Those are particularly popular local shopping spots.

Protest at San Jose

Protest in San Jose

bullet Culturally, the United States has made enormous inroads as well. We heard some local Central American music playing in stores and other public places, but much more American music — specifically, mostly rock and pop from the 70s through 90s, Top 40 music, even in smaller towns and even in businesses clearly oriented not to foreigners but to locals.

bullet The language of the country is Spanish, but Anglophones are in no trouble. A big percentage — half or more — of business signage either is in both languages or in English alone. English-speaking travelers are catered to in most places. (The visual effect is not far from Northwest places like Pasco or central Hillsboro or maybe Caldwell.) And a lot of the people a traveler would come into contact with know English, either fluently or enough for useful communication. English is in such standard usage that you have to wonder how natives feel about that . . .

bullet Get on the road and one huge difference from the United States emerges immediately: A whole different style of driving, highly aggressive but also pragmatic. Stop signs and stop lights, speed limits and the like? Suggestions mainly, more than imperatives. You thought that was a two-lane road? Heck no, we can squeeze in a couple more lanes — there’s at least an inch or two between cars. You want to switch lanes? A couple of feet distance between cars should be enough to squeeze in. And yet the result of all this is neither chaotic nor destructive. Not only did we see scant evidence of accidents (no more than probably less for equivalent mileage back home), we noticed hardly any dents or scratches. These are extraordinarily skillful drivers (certainly our driver was), and we’d have a much harder time successfully managing Costa Rican traffic than they would managing ours. (Strong hint: If you’re headed to Costa Rica, don’t even think about renting a car and driving it yourself, certainly not on your first trip. Legally, you can do it. Practically — you don’t want to go there.)

bullet The roads are better than you’d expect for “Central America.” The remote and rural roads can become rough, of course, but the main highway structure is of quality comparable to most of that in Oregon and Idaho, superior to Washington. The highways have a fair number of road signs and pointers indicating where you’re going, although away from them signs are few, and almost no city or town streets have signs (or, apparently, even names) at all. A direction to someone’s house wouldn’t be “7223 Broad Street” but rather something like “Exit from Highway 23 at San Antonio, 400 meters north to Mas y Menos supermarket, left 500 meters up the hill to the big palm tree, blue house on the left.” Not surprisingly, mail pickup and delivery can be dicey.

bullet There’s a large ex-patriate community in Costa Rica, including many Americans but also quite a few other nationalities, and they seem to be liked and accepted. But not all outsiders are. On a few occasions we saw graffiti saying, “No Nica aqui” – no Nicaraguans here. The Costa Rican economy is stronger than Nicaragua’s on the northern border, and hundreds of thousands of “Nicas” have headed south for work, some illegally. There’s some local animus against them, and stories circulating they’re not the best of people. It sounded an echo of things we’ve heard back home regarding other unwelcome nationalities.

bullet There was little to no indication of violent crime, or civil unrest (though we did witness a large downtown protest parade in opposition to terms of the Central American trade agreement). And natives like to point out that Costa Rica has no army, though it has a comprehensive set of police forces. However, we were routinely warned, by natives as well as others, about persistent property crime, and to be careful about one’s belongings when in public. And the most disquieting thing we saw in the country was the unusual (by U.S. standards) number of heavy barred fences and gates and cross-barred windows and doors. It was the sort of thing that in the United States usually is associated with declining and crime-ridden urban areas, but in Costa Rica seemed to show up almost everywhere – most homes outside very rural areas (and even some there) seemed to be heavily fenced and gated.

bullet The Internet is available almost everywhere, not only in the larger cities and resorts but even in remote rural areas. We saw sodas — small businesses where people could stop in for refreshment and for convenience store goods, operations located in most neighborhoods and rural districts in the country – far from any urban area nonetheless offering wireless broadband connections. At the same time, we saw lots of Internet cafes (you can get on line for about 60 cents an hour) — far more than in the United States, and many Costa Ricans use them for net connections rather than individual accounts. The reason for that in part is the county’s national telecom monopoly, which has been charging high-side prices for phone, net, cable TV (the American networks are generally available, along with other regional nets) and other services. (This includes cell phone service, which is available but so far seems to have only a smallish number of customers.) That may be about to change if new trade agreements are pushed through: After that, many of the big American and European telecom players are expected to enter, drive down prices, and bring a large number of Costa Ricans onto the grid.

bullet Prices for property and goods that a U.S. citizen might seek out probably average out to comparable to U.S. prices, or maybe a little higher. In a supermarket, fruits and vegetables and coffee (some of the best in the world made here) cost less, meats and dairy might cost more. Electronics costs more; furniture (and Costa Rica produces great furniture) costs less. Locals spend less generally, however, because they usually buy fewer of the expensive products and their traditional foods are heavy on traditional rice, beans and chicken dishes.

bullet Yes, the old-fashioned “sweet” Coca-Cola is available (as it is in Mexico) in Costa Rica.

bullet Finally, when the travel brochures marvel at the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people – as so often with most countries – they’re telling the truth about Costa Rica. It is a drier place than you may think, relatively little of it being rain forest; but overall it is wonderfully scenic. And the people overwhelmingly were welcoming and exuded a quiet pride in their country. In Costa Rica, the phrase for their lifestyle is “Pura Vida” – our driver reminded us of that as we admired the Orosi River after a hair raising drive up to the Volcano Irazu, then back down into the beautiful agricultural lands of the Orosi Valley.

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