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Costa Rica, Great Small Country…

K. Sapozhnikov


I have to confess, a week before my coming to Costa Rica, I did not have a clear idea what was there in store for me in that Central American country, which is rarely noted in the international news report, and mostly in brevier, at that. The memory recalled once heard stories on ineradicable provinciality in Costa Rica, banana and lemon beauty of its landscapes, rural unpretentiousness of the capital of San Jose.

The sensation to face the Latin American “village in the middle of nowhere” got firmly established as my friends gave some useful addresses in San Jose. In epoch of a general post standardization and unification those addressed sounded moving and naïve in a rural way. Here is one of those, by the way, and not the most difficult: "District Paso de la Vaca , avenida 7, 150 metres to the north from the fruit stall "Marisol", then 500 metres to the east to the lamp stand with the advertising plate "Insurance Company Fenix", from there on 100 metres to the south to the news stand "Prensa Libre". There is house No. 50 with a door painted blue". It seems easy, but in the course of the searches for the “house with a door painted blue” it became clear that in the towns of "Tikliandiya" you have nothing to do without a compass. Why "Tikliandiya"? Because there live people in Costa Rica that call themselves "ticos" – and because they often add a pet ending "tico" to words.

Preparing for the trip I troubled myself to look through Internet what there was written about that country in Russian sites. Most attention in terms of Costa Rica paid by our travel agencies seemed to praise its beauty, climate and hospitality. Hospitality was in the first place, as for the Russian citizens no visa is required to enter the country. They did not fail to note that the population of Costa Rica amounts to 3 million and a half people, and the territory is 51 000 square kilometres. Most Costa Ricans are Catholics. The national flower is orchid Guaria Morada. There was some information on behavioral habits of the natives. Costa Ricans when shaking hands appeared to try not to look into each others eyes as a peering look straight into the face is taken as bad manners display. Kissing hello and good-bye in both cheeks of men and women is a common case, a tradition as it is. Nevertheless, hyperdisplay of mutual sympathy in public is not welcomed. By no means, Costa Rican will like a hob-and-nob address “thou”, only “you”! Even in Costa Rican families children and parents use the respective “you”. The following could be treated as useful pieces of advice and recommendation of travel agencies’ sites to an unsophisticated tourist: do not stroll along the streets of towns and villages in Costa Rica in swimming suits, do not expose yourself on beaches, be careful when making acquaintances in the streets as a charming girl can be a transvestite, in other words, a potential AIDS carriers.

I flew to San Jose by "Taca" aircraft that I was recommended in the Costa Rican consulate. It was in the consulate that for the first time I saw a wheel barrow painted by bright flower ornaments from wheels to edges. No doubt, it was put in the reception lobby not only as a decoration but as a symbol of Costa Rica in some way, its folk and labor customs. Later on, during the trip, I used to come across wheel barrows of that kind in the most unusual places: bank lobbies, hotel conference halls, souvenir markets. As a rule, wheel barrows were piled up by decorative sacks saying "Cafe de Costa Rica" or plastic banana clusters. Such big and small wheel barrows drafted by bulls or men used to be the main “means of transport” of Costa Rica countrymen until nearly 50s of the last century…

Hotel Presidente I stayed at the "President" hotel situated in avenida Central San Jose. On this pedestrian boulevard floods of citizens and bright tourist groups, mostly from the United States, got mixed in constant Brownian motion. According to statistics, annually at least about a million Americans come to Costa Rica, the latter provides the guests with high-level comfort, exotics, leisure and security, what is of great importance in the times of anarchical international terrorism.

Sometimes the present day Costa Rica is spoken about that it resembles Cuba of the time of Fulgencio Batista. Casinos and playing-machine halls burst open their doors attractively. Drag trafficking sets bases on the territory of the country to transfer halogenated “goods” to the USA and Europe. Sex-tourism is flourishing, law enforcement agencies are struggling with it, but fail to. The Costa Rica parliament is planning to adopt a number of laws regarding sexual crimes against children. The acuteness of the problem is stressed by a recently made film “Password: A Look into Darkness” ("Password: Una mirada en la oscuridad") in the country, its melodramatic plot is developed through a standard triangle of characters as if taken out of the criminal news: "a juvenile girl – a greedy Costa Rican – a lustful tourist ". The film was awarded the national 2002 Magon prize, possibly, not so much for the artistic achievements as for the acuteness.

If one supposes tourism to be an easy business, they are in the wrong. Is it an easy affair to live in an apartment where there are always crowds of curious, pop-eyed, childish and whimsical guests? The hosts of the "house" have to "tune to" the client, sometimes to the prejudice of their own idiosyncrasy, customs, lifestyle. There is nothing to do about it, high technologies, banana and coffee export, travel industry – these are four foundations that mostly support economics in Costa Rica.

It is not a rare case when "tuning" goes too far. May be that is because of the fact that in some restaurants to get a menu card in Spanish arouses a bit of a panic, and you will hear a retort: “I am sorry, señor, we serve in English". School and universities pay much attention to studying English as it almost guarantees employment in the national travel industry, and for the more enterprising ”ticos" employment in the United States, where the Costa Ricans are welcomed. Of course, Costa Rica favors the reputation of a "democratically oriented and peace loving nation ". It should be noted here that, according to 1949 Constitution, the army in Costa Rica was dissolved and military caserns were turned into museums.

Friendliness, prudence, innate nobleness, tolerance to the weak sides of others, frugality, self-respect are those domineering traits of character of an average Costa Rican. They are sometimes called the "Aryans" of the Central America, meaning not the self-sentiment of racial "superiority" of "tico" (that could hardly be imagined), but elements of self-control, worldly caution and suspension in taking decisions that cannot go with the temperament of other peoples that inhabit the Central American Isthmus. That is possibly why Costa Rican politicians and diplomats are often included into peace-making missions. They are trusted in. They will not go against their principles.

The most famous umpire in Costa Rica is former president Oscar Arias, who helped stopping the everlasting domestic conflicts in Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he became the most famous Costa Rican. Now guides always show his modest villa in San Jose to tourists, without a single doubt that the name of president Arias is known to everyone. His reputation still stands high. "Ticos" have no doubts that Oscar Arias has not said his final word in the policy both domestic and international.

But let’s get back to the topic of major tourism that Costa Rica is making good money on, as the country is not deprived of a variety of the "lays of the land" - volcanoes, waterfalls, rapid mountain rivers, multi-kilometre sand beaches, impenetrable jungle. It is in Costa Rica that Spielberg made nature shootings for his film "Jurassic Park". As ecological and adventurous tourism is in fashion, most part of tourist tribes are sure to spend their time close to the nature: some enjoy pre-programmed risk of rafting in crazy Reventazon river, others prefer contemplative and informative routes to reserved parks, which are in great numbers in Costa Rica. To put it straight, instead of the adventures I preferred group trips to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts visiting the reserved parks that were on the way. By all means, we were mostly delighted with the “unfeared behavior of birds and animals ". A puma deflated somewhere in three hundred metre distance from the path of view and did not even turned its whiskered face to us – it got used to visitors of its environment. A tapir got out of the bush, dawdled indecisively and disappeared followed by the belated photo-shooting. A bird quetzal was swinging on the branch, amazing us by its feathers, red and green with golden shimmer. Cockatoos used to posing, demonstrated with pride their beaks bend as yatagans. They have likely been taken pictures of even more often than famous Hollywood stars. And how many tourist groups they have seen …

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is in two hours distance from San Jose. The main route offered to tourists leads to Puerto Limon. It is a town of bright colors, tropic aromas and befuddling heat. The sauna sensation arouses from the very first minutes of being there. The shirt gets wet and sticks to the body. The eyes water from the merciless rays of the sun. You have nothing to do there without eye shields. Not long ago the province Limon was watered by heavy lingering showers. The rivers overflowed the banks, sweeping everything on their way: villages, banana trees, asphalt of the roads, the railway bed. According to the Red Cross, at least 75 thousand citizens have suffered from the Act of God in some way or another. Toiling themselves along the roads, their hands stretching, their eyes begging – no need to explain, it is clear: they have lost everything. The government appropriated about 300 million colons to settle the most burning problems. The International Red Cross guaranteed a three month payment of foodstuff, drinking water, sanitation goods to be delivered to the place of tragedy. They have raised money, clothing and rubber shoes for the victims all around the country. However, but they are short of donations dramatically. These are hard times, everyone is hard to live in. A careless smile of a Costa Rican can often be delusive. But he does his best to look optimistic not to scare his chance for a bit of luck …

Smooth-tempered San Jose inhabitants do not frequent the Caribbean coast: Puerto Limon is far too exotic, unbalanced and unpredictable. There are more "dangerous quarters" there than in the capital, “Afro-Caribbean” characters prevail in the crowd, as a lively recollection of those days when slavery existed in Costa Rica. Economic imperative of the colonial epoch means: there are no volunteers, go in search for slaves, as someone have to toil in cacao plantations. Later they had to search for cheap working force to build the railway San Jose - Puerto Limon, to maintain banana trees, to gather coffee beans. That is how the immigrants from the Antilles and China appeared in the country. The native Indians could not stand the sweat-bearing toil, they died out, and now there are not more than 15 thousand aboriginal descendants in the country.

Racial discrimination existed in one form or another in Costa Rica until adoption of the 1949 Constitution. After its enforcement all “Afro-Caribbeans” and Chinese, born in the country, became full citizens. Nevertheless, according to a competent source, “the Costa Rica society has failed to assimilate the layer of middle-class immigrants from Africa possibly because of the fact that they do not have an adequate opinion of their neighbors with Spanish roots. Thus, every one of these ethnic communities display certain indifference to one another". Something similar is happening in the Chinese community that with a bee-like persistence sets “family enterprises” one after another: small restaurants, green groceries, liquor stores, flee markets "made in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan".

There exist another national colony; its isolation is quite understandable: these are pensioners from the USA and Canada, amounting, at a conservative estimate, from 35 to 38 thousands. Dollar pension gives them the advantage of preserving a rather decent level of living in Costa Rica. The climate in the Central Valley is supposed to be one of the most favorable to health; it is there where the Americans on “the well-deserved rest” are concentrated.

Undoubtedly, Costa Rica, a spot of land of well-being and relative flourishing in the Central America, cannot be absolutely happy then its neighbors go through the crises and for all efforts cannot saddle the bucking horse of the neo-liberal reforms. The main characteristic that the isthmus and Caribbean neighbors are not all right, is illegal immigration. Most of those immigrants come from Nicaragua. I happened to watch endless strings of Nicaraguans coming back to their native country for Christmas. At first it seemed that the bright buses of "Tica Bus", "Nica Bus" and "Deldi" routes are going the same route as I am – to the most beautiful resorts in the Pacific cost in the north of Costa Rica, where tourists lull in the sun on the sand beaches of Pochotes, Naranja, Coco getting tanned in various degrees. ”Those are not tourists”, explained guide Vicente. “They are Nicaraguans coming to Costa Rica in search of a job. They will spend the Christmas holidays with their families and then will be here again. On the frontier posts of Penas Blancas and Los Chiles legal "nicas" will pass through the control and will go further, but the illegal ones will have to search for walkarounds, shouldering packs with their stuff and gifts. Those who have no passport problems amount, according to immigration authorities, to about 6 thousand. Those without passport are more two or threefold. Whatever they earn in Costa Rica, it is of great help for living in Nicaragua.

Salvadorians, Panamas, Guatemalans, Haitians, they all come to "Switzerland of the Central America" for the better lot and often strive for success to become rich. That is the reason for criminality growth, as "ticos" believe. Apart from immigrants, there are more than 12 thousands of refugees in Costa Rica from different countries of the world, and 7500 are from Columbia. It is difficult to keep everyone under control, but the police in Costa Rica is one of the most effective in the world. The crime detection rate is on the highest level, that is possibly because Costa Rica is a small country, everything is in sight, neighbors know everything about one another.

"Nothing has happened in Costa Rica since the Great Space Explosion", I happened to hear this phrase more than once from the Costa Ricans. And if nothing is happening, the population is “bored”, the newspapers have nothing to write about. And a fellow-correspondent has to seek after scandals, catch the government officials by the slips of the tongue, stir the air for it not to smell like a standstill, drowsiness, and a hopelessly balanced life. Everyone is subject to everyday and deliberately mistrustful, if not to say, unkindly mass media surveillance: president, ministers, deputies, political party officials, other distinguishing figures in social life.

But is it true that there was nothing special in the history of Costa Rica? The Spanish colonization, the eventful 19th century, when, by the way, the first coffee (1832) and banana (1880) lots were exported to Europe. And what about the heroic rebuff of the Costa Ricans to the Northern American filibuster adventurer William Walker, who tried to colonize the countries of the Central America in 1858? Is it worth enumerating all the historic events of the past 20th century? It is enough to mention that the guerrilla (1948) dates back to it, when about 2000 Costa Ricans died. There are bullet marks still visible on the towers of the fort "Bella Vista", turned into the Historical Museum, they are left for the edification of descendants: come to the agreement, use of force is not the argument. Being small in territory Costa Rica is a grand brave country that can stand up for its interests by way of a dialogue, compromise and delicate “you” address. I recall a casemate of the former fortress where there was only one exhibit on the display – that was a rifle broken in halves. That is the symbol of the "Dove" by Pablo Picasso level.

Traveling through Costa Rica and on the Christmas Eve, at that, I could not but tasted "tamal", a national Christmas dish. One of the local newspaperman recommended a public restaurant "Nuestra Tierra" to me, located in a two quarter distance from the Historic Museum: "They cook the best "tamales" in San Jose there "How do they look like?" "As usual. Like a small green parcel criss-crossed with a cord ". "Why green"? "Because of the palm leaf that wraps the eatable "tamal" mass. Those “parcels” are put into the boiling water, and in thirty to forty minutes the dish is ready. You cut the cord, opens the palm leaf, and here you have got the quintessence of the Costa Rican cuisine. A tickle of the palate, thought, they say, in terms of calories and cholesterol, "tamales" serve the health as a time bomb. During the Christmas holidays an average Costa Rican puts on weight because of excessive consummation of the dish. And it is no wonder, as to cook it you need pork and maize flour, and pieces of smoked ham, crow, rise, black beans, prunes, olives, peas, etc. at that. Every cook has their additional secret ingredients for “tamales", their modus operandi, their unique taste. You can disagree with me, but to my mind, "tamal" is the unsurpassed height of the Latin American cuisine "… So, after this fiery speech I hurried to the restaurant "Nuestra Tierra" and asked for a tamal to taste… Delicious, budgetary and, what is most important, exotic, as the cuisine "know-how" of this dish popular in the Central America and Mexico, according to the explorers, dates back to the pre-Columbian times, during the flowering of the Maya Empire.

A Costa Rican will always keep up the conversation on the "coffee topic ". The national economic well-being is dependent on the coffee prices on the world market, that is why there are as many coffee experts in Costa Rica as the citizens. The press, radio and television announce any “coffee” piece of news as a priority. For a Costa Rican only a football topic can compete with a coffee one in terms of emotions. The over-production crises due to unusually rich harvests of "golden beans" in Brasilia and Viet Nam and recession in demand for it in the United States and European countries impacted negatively on gainings in Costa Rica. According to "La Republica", in 2002 international sales of the Costa Rican coffee were on the level of previous years, but the world prices fell down that the income hardly exceeded 146 million dollars. For comparison, in 1996 the country earned 417,3 million dollars in coffee trade.

By all means, a Costa Rican "cafetalero" has to find a way out of the unfavorable slut, in particular producing a high quality beans. If an ordinary coffee sack in 2002 was paid 60 dollars, then an elite coffee sack cost more than 100. International coffee companies started giving credits "under the guarantee of the harvest" to their permanent suppliers from Costa Rica. For instance, transnational company "Starbucks" for several years has been buying beans, produced in the district of Tarrazu and has been selling out it as a high-quality product "for gourmands". A cup of such a coffee, a coffeeman pays from 5 to 8 dollars without hesitation.

But it would be a mistake to think that the best coffee sorts are exported from Costa Rica, and the local markets sell the worse ones, which do not fit the export. There is not bad coffee Costa Rica. And do not take it as a local slogan, it is a fact. On every occasion I asked the Costa Ricans which sort of coffee they prefer and did not hear the same name twice! "El Monte", "Rey Tarrazu", "Britt", "Dorado", "1820" and dozens of names to every taste and purse. A bit coffee pack costs from 600 to 200 colons in average, i.e. from 1,5 to 5 dollars. Tourists pack their suitcases with coffee from Costa Rica, and the customs officer in the airport named Juan Santamaria smiles indulgently: "This way, senor, our coffee is the best gift in the world"… And it is really so, all souvenir shops I looked in had a shelf with the aroma coffee packs. To attract tourists "Cafe Britt" at first makes a theatrical show about the mystery of growing the “golden beans”, then gives an excursion on the coffee hacienda. The final part of the "happening" is the tasting of the best sorts of "Britt"… The number of sporting events conducted under the “aegis of coffee” is impossible to count: cycle racing, tennis tournament, juvenile football championship. The special menu card in "News Cafe" on the ground floor of the "President" hotel, I counted 26 variants to prepare coffee, one enticing than another.

To have a cup of coffee in a long winter is like to get an inspiring and warm greeting from the tropics…

Another national trait of "ticos" is the "desire to change places", eagerness to open the "new horizons". But from all trips a Costa Rican is sure to come back to their great small country, where there is more order, more common sense and the game rules between the citizens and the state are clearer. In a Costa Rican newspaper I read a letter in the “opinion” column:

"No gloating, it does not fit here. But have a look at what is happening in the Latin America: Argentina is in coma, Venezuela is in convulsions, Colombia is bloodless, Peru was bossed by swindlers. Does not it add to our self-esteem that we, the Costa Ricans, after traveling abroad come back to our home country without fear? But there is an anxiety that the situation may change for the worse. Striving for easy money, consumer and individualistic spirit, mob organizations may lead to deplorable results. And then we will have nothing to be proud of".

There are likely grounds for the anxiety. The family crisis in Costa Rica, where the strong family clans form the base for the society, becomes more evident. For instance, a number of old men put into social insurance clinics have risen dramatically, the younger family members simply "forget" to take them back. They give wrong addresses and telephone numbers. Analogous facts are registered in terms of children, especially with congenital defects. In Costa Rica 53 % of children is born outside the wedlock, including 59 % by single mothers. The law on alimony payments met skeptical comments throughout the country: it will not be effective, because the legal fathers, as a rule, do not follow the court rulings of that kind. He can pay something on a "mutual agreement", but not according to the court ruling …

Sure, a lot is being changed in the modern Costa Rica lifestyle, and it gives a sensation that some "ticis" cannot understand themselves and the set order of things as they used to. They start doubting. In the hall of the Museum of Indian I noted the stall with a number of questions to the visitors. Some fund was carrying out the questionnaire procedure. I wondered, that they questioned about what was an axiom in Costa Rica. Supposing: - Why are we sure that we, the Costa Ricans, differ from other citizens of the Central America? - Are we the real pacifists? - What does the term an "ecological country" mean? - Does it seem to you that “nothing has happened” in our country for too long"? Hasn’t somebody in Costa Rica come to the conclusion, that the country is in the "standstill" and it is time for reformation?

To the luck of the Costa Ricans, in the century of total privatizations the political leaders of Costa Rica "hurry in a slow way", preserving the state monopoly on energy, telecommunication, social security service, health service and education. However, the pressure to the politicians from the part of those who feels it necessary to “go neck-and-neck” rises. Especially it has become more evident in terms of discussions on entry of the Central American countries and Costa Rica to the free trade zone. They started negotiations this January, but the USA representatives have already laid the main claim to the Costa Ricans: mandatory privatization of telecommunications. As they are outdated and do not meet the demands of the free market and global trade.

The Costa Rican supporters of privatization of the said “ineffective’ state enterprises point to the more quick neighbors - Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans. They are the pace-makers – they have privatized everything they could, and we are draggling behind, guided by the antediluvian economic patterns and state control. But they somehow forget to say that privatization is not a cure-all and that it failed to help the isthmus neighbors solve at least one chronic economic problem, the core of which is poverty of the majority of population. Domestic instability in those countries affects the "conservative" Costa Rica, being the oasis of relative well-being.

Nevertheless, no one will state that Costa Rica "slows down" the process of regional integration. The majority of its citizens are for strengthening of the Central American trade and economic block to defend their interests in negotiations with the United State on the free trade zone from the mutual position. From this January within the framework of the Secretariat on Economic Integration in the Central America (SI-ECA) the Administrative device to tackle differences and conflicts in terms of regional trade was initiated. It took 40 years to adopt the decision to create the "device", and it was not Costa Rica that was the main obstacle.

I reflected on the success of the Central American integration when wandering through the narrow passages of a three-storied souvenir paradise "La Casona". The salesmen with an unusual easiness gave souvenirs produced in Panama, Salvador, Honduras for the Costa Rican ones. The souvenirs from the distant places – Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela were present in abundance. I failed to realize which ones are supposed to be the Costa Ricans. I bought several shirts with a picture of the erupting Arenal volcano, painted toucans made of wood and a small painted wheel barrow. Then I went to avenida Central and dived into the lively crowd, where the tourists were in the minority as compared to the Costa Ricans. The happy faces of scholars, clowns making a show on the square, idlers sitting on the stone curbs of lawns and fountains as if on zavalinkas, old couples sipping beer on the restaurant terraces. "Pura Vida", - I recollected a popular saying in Costa Rica. At first I interpreted it from the ecological point of view. A statement of the fact that there is clear environment in the country. But then recollected another translation: "A life without vanity!". That is the quintessence of the routine Costa Rican lifestyle.

It is marvelous that there are countries in the world where a life without vanity is possible …

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