San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Times have changed: Tales from bygone days

Recently I saw an interview on television with Teresa Salazar, an attractive and articulate author in her 80s who described scenes of San Jose in the 1930s. “There were only two cars in the whole city and they crashed into each other,” she described.

“The city was very clean back then. Garbage collection consisted of a cart pulled by a mule, followed by a flock of vultures,” she added. “And modesty! You wore a coat over your dress when you went to church to cover up. Women wore hats and gloves to shop, even in the Central Market.”

Such tales will soon be lost to history, and it will be up to archaeologists to figure out how people lived back then.

I was reminded of my own family’s tales about World War I in central Europe. They told how the Austrian army fell apart because soldiers had no desire to lose life or limb for an unwieldy empire that did nothing for them. So when they reached the front lines, they kept on going straight to the other side to surrender. Whole units did this. This was especially true for the men from the occupied territories of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Serbia, who had more in common with the Russians than the Austrians. This little bit of history is mentioned in the Czech novel “The Good Soldier Švejk” and in Marshal Tito’s autobiography. I heard it from my father, who said that in the end they sent soldiers from the east to the western front and those from the west to the eastern front, where there was less chance of them crossing over.

As urbanization sprawls into rural areas, village life will change and street scenes that made up part of village life will be forgotten. I thought about this the day I saw a man from the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Board (AyA) walking down the road checking our water meters and stopping under a mango tree, where he picked up a pole left by previous mango munchers to knock down a few ripe ones. Another few years and that will be considered stealing.

Then there was the day I was waiting at the bus stop. A hearse stopped and the driver asked if I knew where the muerto (dead person) was? I suppose that’s not an unreasonable request when addresses are measured by distance from the chicken farm.

Petty theft is part of village life, especially in summer when doors and windows are wide open. But when doña Carmen discovered her iron missing, she had an idea who took it and followed a trail of dusty footprints in the road straight to the thief’s house.

We often find taxis or delivery cars parked in shady parts of our road while drivers take a nap or a break during the day. But one time a seemingly empty car aroused our suspicions; after a while, someone went to investigate and found a bedroom scene in the back seat.

Still fresh in memory is the time all of Orlando’s pigs escaped from their pen and wandered out into the road, where they blocked foot traffic until they could be rounded up. I write about these scenes to keep them alive a little longer and to let others know about life in the campo as it was.

Coming soon: What happened to bad people in the colonial era?

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