San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rican Curiosities

THE Italians have a great expression: “Tutti i gusti son gusti,” or “All tastes are tastes.” This is also true of beliefs, customs, traditions and, sometimes, even laws. In other words, none of the following is meant to be judgmental or offensive. What is curious or abnormal in one culture is perfectly reasonable in another. Here are some examples of what I mean.Psychic January. Last January, in the village where I live, people were saying that according to Las Pintas, we were going to have “mucho verano” (a lot of summer) this year. Las Pintas are the first 12 days of January, and each day represents a month of the year. Jan. 2 represents February, Jan. 3 represents March and so forth. The weather on each of these days is a prediction of the weather in each of the corresponding 12 months of the year. It is an extended version of our Groundhog Day.A Dangerous Calm. Costa Ricans believe that earthquakes, whether small ones (temblores) or large (terremotos), only occur when everything is absolutely still –no wind, no rain. When the leaves on the trees aren’t moving, Ticos get nervous. When I first came here, I thought it was a superstition, but after being here for 15 years, I must admit that it seems to be true. Every time I’ve experienced a temblor, it has been as still as can be outside. I don’t understand it, but that’s the way it happens.Cleaning Up the Environment. The campesinos here shave the hillsides along roads down to the dirt when the rainy season starts. This is called “cleaning,” and it is considered a must. As a result, when the heavy rain comes, massive mudslides occur. This, in turn, leads to loss of land and lots of repair expenses. My husband and I leave our hillsides along the road green, and we never have mudslides. But the people who live around us just don’t want to hear that what they’ve been doing for centuries is counterproductive. In fact, this year, a sweet neighbor boy took pity on us and “cleaned” our hillside for us. Now, we, too, are in danger of having a mudslide.AWalk on the Wild Side. Costa Rican sidewalks, as many of you well know, are a chaotic patchwork; but do you know why? As it turns out, the people who own the land in front of the sidewalk also own the sidewalk and have the responsibility of maintaining it. This arrangement has two catches: there is noone to police the sidewalks and catch the owners who are failing to keep them up; and even if such police existed, it would do no good, as the fines range from ¢100- 500 ($0.20-1). This tends to kill the motivationto make improvements.Poor Toad! Many Costa Ricans, even the most educated, believe that if you are sick, you can get well by catching a sapo (toad), rubbing it all over your body and then hanging it upside down. When it dies, you get well. I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of this cure because I’ve never felt like going toad hunting when I was sick. Besides, I’m convinced it would make me feel sicker to hang some luckless creature upside down.Getting Unstuck. Costa Ricans define a certain intestinal malaise as a pega (pegar primarily means “to stick”). I once heard a Costa Rican doctor on the radio explain that a pega was an excess of thefatty substance that lines the intestines.The cure for this disorder is sobar, whichmeans “to work something until it is soft.”In this case, however, it means to massagevigorously (and how!) the lower part of anarm. Only certain people know how to dothis correctly. I have had it done (ratheragainst my will). It didn’t help. I knowthat it does help Ticos, but I don’t know ifthis is because of faith or some secret thatmodern medicine has not discovered.Christmas in July. Costa Ricanweather follows the typical pattern of tropicalcountries. From about the middle ofNovember until the last part of April, therain slows to a near stop on the westernside of the country. The weather becomesglorious on the beaches. The CentralValley and the mountains surrounding it,however, often suffer temperatures in the50s and 60s (Fahrenheit) in December andJanuary because of the winter air comingdown from the north. Then, from Mayuntil November, it begins to rain buckets,usually in the afternoons. The mornings,though, tend to be hot and muggy becauseof spring and summer up north. In othercountries, these two seasons are, of course,called, “the rainy season” and “the dryseason.” Not so in Costa Rica. Despite thecold of the Central Valley and CostaRica’s location north of the equator, Ticoscall November to May verano (summer)and May to November invierno (winter).As a result, I often find myself freezing insummer and roasting in winter.What about the Caribbean side, youask? She’s a nonconformist. Generallyunpredictable, the Caribbean plans hersunniest time during the rainiest time onthe Pacific side.These are just a few examples of many in my collection. Stay tuned, and I’ll give you more next time.

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