San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

First world problems: Replacing a camcorder

I left my camcorder on a bus. Just left it. Nobody slashed my bag while I napped. No one slipped a hand through the zipper. One minute, I was looking at footage I’d taken in San José, the next minute I was stepping off the bus in Alajuela. As soon as the bus accelerated, coughing clouds of diesel into the air, I realized what I’d done and started to run.

No está aquí,” said the driver, when I finally tracked him down. He shrugged and grimaced. “Alguien la tomó.” Not here. Somebody took it. He even mimed the act of picking up my camcorder and walking off with it.

I didn’t take this news lightly. I was willing to run across all of Alajuela, find the terminal, search every bus, track down the same driver, question him, then interrogate two station agents and a janitor before giving up. The camera wasn’t fancy – a $300 Canon Vixia, about the size of a soda can – but that was $300 I didn’t want to spend a second time. The camera had accompanied me across hundreds of miles of bike trails and deep into the Rocky Mountains. To just abandon it on the TUASA express was the height of stupidity.

But so it went. The camera was gone, and I would have to buy another. No problem, though. There were stores in the Central Valley, right?

Video cameras, however, there are not. I visited Gollo stores. I browsed the aisles of Wal-Mart. I tracked down every Radio Shack in a four-canton radius. No camcorders. There were cameras, yes, and sometimes even really nice cameras, but nothing in the way of digital video. Visit after visit, the conversation went like this (in Spanish):

ME: Good afternoon. I’m looking for a video camera.

VENDOR: Ah… a video… camera?

ME: Correct. For taking video.

VENDOR: Ah… well, we have these.

(Shows display case full of point-and-shoot cameras, the kind you would dangle from a key ring).

ME: Okay, not what I need, but thank you.

VENDOR: With pleasure. Pura vida.

What began as a mild inconvenience grew into a study in Tico microeconomics. Nearly every electronics store I visited had a special glass case filled with cheap little cameras. Some stores even had high-end DSLRs, Canons and Nikons galore, with which I could comfortably shoot a wedding. But camcorders didn’t seem to exist. It dawned on me that here in Costa Rica, there was simply no demand for them.

“Not many people shoot video here,” a Tica friend told me, herself a studied photographer. “If they want video, they use their regular cameras.”

It also occurred to me that shooting video is only half the story: In order for moving pictures to have meaning, you have to edit your footage as well. As a part-time video journalist, I had taken this for granted for many years. After all, I have a decent computer with exceptional RAM. I have Final Cut Pro and all the imaging software I can handle. In the U.S., these are reasonable commodities; any Burger King cashier could save up and buy an iMac on Amazon within a few months – the package would arrive at the front door. Not so in Costa Rica. Not everyone has access to Amazon. Indeed, not everyone has a coherent address. What was the point of having a really nice camcorder if all you did was fill up memory cards with random takes?

In stark contrast, Tico photographers are everywhere. In every park, on every beach, there are native Costa Ricans screwing 50mm lenses onto their 7Ds and contorting their bodies to photograph flowers with maximum depth of field. Since arriving in Costa Rica, I have spoken with no fewer than five people about the joys of maximum bokeh on a 1.8 F-stop. I have met photography students and working photographers and amateurs who happen to know more about cameras than I do. One friend showed me his back room, where a laundry sink was bolted into the wall.

“This would make a great dark room,” I said.

“It would be perfect,” he said, “if only anybody shot film anymore.”

We hung our heads in reverence for that lost art.

After a full week of searching, I started to feel desperate. I had some video assignments coming up and no equipment to capture them. Meanwhile, the loss of my Vixia had humiliated me; I have traveled widely, often in crime-addled regions, and never lost so much as a comb. What would I forget next? My phone? My passport?

My boss offered words of comfort. “I lived with a burner [temporary phone] for like 3 years,” he wrote me in an email. “Finally when I got a new iPhone, within 3 weeks I had left it in a cab. $1,000 mistake. So, you’re not alone, man!”

Mistakes happen, I finally conceded, though not before bitching for days to my wife. “Nobody’s sick,” Kylan said. “Everything’s okay. You’ll get another one.”

But would I? After a visit to the Escazú Radio Shack, where I assumed camcorders would be stacked in mountains, the clerk only shook his head.

“The Multi Plaza,” he intoned. “You should go to the Escazú Multi Plaza. They’ll have it.”

I was new in the neighborhood and had never heard of the Multi Plaza. What was the magical place that everyone whispered of? How could I get there? And was it known for camcorder wholesalers, or should I dare not to dream?

At long last, Kylan and I spent a Saturday seeking out the Multi Plaza, which – as everyone in Escazú knows – is really just a colossal shopping mall. Throngs of people filled the concourses and escalators, and had I not known about a Sony store in the Multi Plaza’s deepest bowels, we might have roamed for hours.

In the great corporate war among camera manufacturers, Sony had barely crossed my radar. My entire experience vacillated between Canon (my brand) and Nikon (the rival). They are practically identical in every way, except for styles and features that only pros would obsess over. When I think of Sony, I think of videogames and widescreen TVs, not home video equipment. But if it shot in dependable hi-def, what did it matter?

The manager was Felipe, a bright-eyed college kid who hoped to visit the U.S. within the year. The entire staff was young, and they were as professional as four-star hoteliers. After a few volleys of decent Spanish conversation, they switched to English.

“It helps us a lot to speak English,” Felipe said. “We like when Americans come here, because we have a chance to practice.”

The Sony camcorder I purchased was similar to the Canon Vixia I ordered from Amazon two years earlier, give or take some anatomy. What had cost $300 in the U.S. cost about $350 here, plus a new SD card, without which the camcorder would be useless. But the salesmen didn’t just hand me the camera and walk off; they opened the box, removed each item and displayed it.

“This is the battery pack,” said a technician. “So you have power in the camera.”

The tutorial wasn’t necessary, since I had used all sorts of cameras over the years and knew the drill, but after so much searching, I appreciated the old-world salesmanship. If the Sony guys could have handed me the camcorder on a velvet pillow, they probably would have.

Now I’m back in business – new gear, just as compact, with a slightly better resolution. And a lesson learned: In Costa Rica, gringos might be surprised by what is and isn’t available. I was astonished that the one thing I had lost was the one thing I couldn’t easily find.

This time, it’s not leaving my sight.


Out with the old, in with the new. 

Robert Isenberg

Contact Robert Isenberg at

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