San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Even More Costa Rican Curiosities

IN previous articles, I gave you some lists of what I call “Costa Rican curiosities” – curious, that is, to us Gringos. Here’s the last of them.Quick-Change Artist. When I first came to Costa Rica, I was used to traveling about 300 miles and crossing a chain of mountains to find a change of climate and scenery. Thus I simply couldn’t understand what Ticos meant when they told me that Alajuela, northwest of San José, was “muy caliente” (very hot) or that San Ramón de Tres Ríos, east of the capital, was “muy frío” (very cold). Since it was just a question of one side of the city or another, I assumed they were using some kind of expression that referred, perhaps, to the people of the communities.Not so. In fact, from one side of San José to the other, the weather does change. In truth, all of Costa Rica is like this. If you don’t believe me, try taking the Inter-American Highway from Cartago, east of San José, to Perez Zeledón (San Isidro de El General) in the Southern Zone on a December or January morning. All in all, the trip will take about two hours. As you ascend the Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death), it will get colder and colder, until you reach a point at the top where you may find frost. Then,as you descend, it will quickly become tropical again. It’s kind of like going to the zoo and visiting the penguins and the monkeys.A Rotten Trick. Palm leaves to thatch a roof can only be gathered during the luna menguante (waning moon). If they are gathered at any other time, they will rot. Costa Ricans also cut their wood in the menguante so it will last longer. This is not a superstition. I leave it to a reader to provide the scientific explanation.To Each His Own. In Costa Rica and, as far as I know, in every other Spanish-speaking country, people have two last names – their first and second apellidos (surnames). The first apellido is the first surname of the father. The second apellido is the first surname of the mother. Thus, if a child is born to a father whose last names are Castro Martínez and a mother whose last names are Flores Abarca, the child’s last names will be Castro Flores.Moreover, if the child is a girl – let’s say her entire name is Gloria Yolanda Castro Flores – she will keep these names all her life. When she marries – let’s say her husband’s last names are González Ríos – she may, if she wishes, add de and her husband’s first apellido to the end of her own name. Then she would be Gloria Yolanda Castro Flores de González, but this would not show on legal documents.Nor will she ever be called Mrs. So-and- So. She may be called Doña Gloria or simply señora, but she will not be identified by her husband’s name. It is a system that comes from Spain, and it works extremely well in that it identifies people more clearly and allows women to keep their identities.Water, Water, Everywhere. Costa Rica is a narrow strip of land between two vast oceans. Yet few Ticos know how to swim. If you watch the news, you will see lots of Tico drownings. Sometimes the victims are even fishermen.Feast or Famine. In the United States, I have wandered forever through large stores such as Wal-Mart or Fred Meyer looking for a clerk to help me. In Costa Rica, in contrast, I sometimes feel nothing short of harassed by clerks who won’t leave me alone to make my own choices or just look around. At times, in fact, I have left without buying anything just to rid myself of the person hanging over my shoulder. There is really nothing very curious about this. Salaries are high in the United States. Here, they pay clerks a pittance, making commissions precious indeed.Oxymoronic Legislation. I used to zip all over Costa Rica in a 1973 Chevy Nova. It burned a bit of gas, but it was a good, safe vehicle for someone like me. If I still lived in Oregon, I might still be driving it, but not here in Costa Rica. Here, for more than three years now, we have been under the iron fist of Riteve, the private Spanish company that carries out Costa Rica’s new, strict requirements for mechanical inspection (revision técnica).An emissions inspection is something that every country in the world needs, but this is a lot more. Yes, Costa Rica, a third-world country with, perhaps, the worst roads this side of Africa, expects that everyone drive around in perfect cars. Meanwhile, in the United States people have the right to drive anything on wheels that has the basics. I can’t tell you how many sad stories have come out of this legislation, most involving poor people who relied on their faithful wrecks to survive.To Throw or Not to Throw? It seems to be something close to a crime in Costa Rica to throw used toilet paper in the toilet.I find this strange, as the toilet paper of today practically dissolves when it hits water, but what do I know? Tico children become traumatized when they use the bathroom in my house and have to throw the paper in the bowl. Gringo children in Costa Rica become traumatized when they have to use the bathroom in just about anybody else’s house.THAT’S it for Costa Rican curiosities. Se terminó. By chance, do any of you Ticos out there have a list of Gringo curiosities? If so, e-mail them to me at

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