Whenever an American city or neighborhood, big or small, has a festival, there are weeks of preparation involved followed by fliers and social media advertising. In Costa Rica, they just seem to spontaneously happen. I could hear marching bands practicing regularly into the night only to suddenly take to the streets for God knows what. Music might be booming down at Mercado Viejo or, as had happened on more than one occasion, a group of Mascaradas (a popular Costa Rican tradition of dressing up as large, masked characters often with roots in national legend) could be dancing in circles warming up before a procession. Even in my pueblito, there was always something happening.
Living in little Ciudad Colón 22 kilometers outside of capital San José reminded me of how people talk about 1950s America. Everyone shopped with the local farmer and butcher. Chain restaurants were a rarity and the downtowns of small town America were booming with activity.
Now, that’s all gone. Small town America is largely a ghost town with a six-lane bypass around it thanks to over half a century of unchecked suburban sprawl. While Costa Rica has and continues to make some of the mistakes we’ve made, their sprawl doesn’t even begin to compare with ours and their small towns remain largely intact. In most Tico towns, you can still walk to the grocer, the local farmer’s market, the gym, and just about anything else you’ll need.
I’ve been out of university for more years than I was in it, yet I’ll continue chipping away at my mountain of student debt for some time to come. At the University of Costa Rica, 12 credits will cost you 164,820 colones or $309.81. That’s less than two months on my current payment plan.
Americans tend to give a general head nod in the direction of someone they know to satisfy any pleasantry obligations. Hugs are seemingly exclusively reserved for sorority sisters seeing each other for the first time since college.
Costa Ricans, however, know how to make you feel like they actually give a damn when greeting you. Whether it’s merely a “Buenas” when passing a stranger with a warm smile on the sidewalk or entering someone’s home, you’re bound to be greeted like the most important person in the world at that given moment. In the States I greet my friends with a nod, at best a firm handshake. With my Mama Tica, it was always a hug and kiss on the cheek followed by the biggest bear hug from Papa Tico who I swear was the Costa Rican Santa Claus minus the beard. “Joe! Cómo estás? Todo bien? Pasa, pasa, pasa…”
Families in the States seem to often be the cause of some sort of neurotic behavior or material generated for visits with the therapist. We move far, far away and lament the Holidays when visits become obligatory. Obviously there are exceptions. But in general, that’s far from the case in Costa Rica where it’s still common to stay with your parents until you get married. Of course you still have the option to leave the house before any nuptials, but it’s not at all frowned upon to stay with your folks into your 30s whereas familial living in the States is looked at with the same concern as a virgin old enough to remember the Clinton years. Once you’re out, regular family meals and vacations are still very much part of the dynamic and something to look forward to.
A mixture of footsteps slamming against the concrete and bike gears shifting can be heard as early as 5:30 in the morning when Ticos meet the rising sun with a bit of exercise. Others might head to zumba, which is not viewed with the same challenge on a man’s sexuality as it is in the States. Younger Ticos will stick with soccer or volleyball in the park. It seems like the whole country will have gotten a workout in before most Americans even roll out of bed.
“What’s the weather gonna be like?” “How’s the weather?” “I can’t believe how cold it is!” Most Americans have an unhealthy obsession with weather talk. Costa Ricans simply let the weather be what it’s going to be without the annual surprise. For instance, Ticos aren’t surprised when it’s windy in the valley throughout the winter because that’s what happened the year before and the year before that. Americans, however, seem to find themselves completely flabbergasted when snow comes in December as if this is new territory.
Walking in the United States of Automobiles has become such a rarity, we now have to track it on health apps or wristbands to guilt ourselves into moving around a bit without our cars as if legs are some sort of novelty. The majority of Ticos still take public transportation and actually walk places. Their towns are even still built for pedestrians to reach things, like restaurants and markets, without the use of a car. In the States, we’ve built entire cities around the idea that everyone has a car, which leaves pedestrians playing real-life Frogger should they attempt to cross needlessly wide roads that cut through neighborhoods with the nearest crosswalk practically a drive away.
Ticos have created the world’s tastiest condiment and it’s called Salsa Lizano, a kind of Worcestershire sauce that goes perfectly with everything from the morning’s gallo pinto to the afternoon casado. If my talents in the kitchen actually extended beyond the cereal bowl, I’d be opening up a Costa Rican restaurant tomorrow.
Many North Americans or Europeans who have made the move over to Costa Rica have done so because there’s very much a palpable sense that life is more important than work. Their tourism campaigns even prod us Norteamericanos for trapping ourselves in cubicles, moving from bed to car to work and back without even a hint of sunshine and fresh air. This is where the pura vida mindset (and expression) comes in with enjoying life taking precedent over grinding yourself to death for some guy in a suit at the top of a tower.