By Patrick Connelly
In the United States, timekeeping and punctuality are extremely important. In Costa Rica, on time is thirty minutes late.
This single cultural difference is the cause of incalculable headaches, marital verbal jousts (usually in public), and the occasional complete gringo psychological meltdown. For the uninitiated, the manner in which life progresses in Costa Rica can be a quite a shock. Life is slower, catered to be savored.
Costa Rica is unique in that its culture has been carved and crafted by so many different nationalities. Geography is the culprit here. The country lies in a peculiar spot on the Central American isthmus that allows for cultural invasions to occur freely; most notably, because it lacks a major indigenous population. A whopping ninety-four percent of Ticos classify themselves as white or mestizo, while less than four percent are Afro-Caribbean or indigenous. Consequently, Costa Rica is an anomaly on the isthmus in that there is not the prevalent indigenous culture or the indigenous versus white dynamic as seen in Guatemala or Belize, nor the visible social ills that often accompany it.
To make up for the lack of indigenous civilizations, Costa Rica became a land of immigrants, much like the United States. Perhaps this is why people from the U.S. find the country so appealing; indeed, the idea of the American dream is alive and well here. Europeans and Chinese immigrants arrived en mass at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing with them their respective cultures; more recently, North Americans have added to the cultural dynamic. As far as Latin American countries go, it is a real melting pot.
Which is not to say that San Jose is like Rome or New York. This is, after all, a Latin American country, and with it comes the standard-bearers of Latin cultures. For instance, driving. The first time a highway built for two lanes becomes a makeshift four lane monster – with motorbikes weaving between cars and trucks – one realizes they are definitely not in Kansas anymore. As in much of the Latin world, the siesta has gone the way of the dodo, replaced by the need to improve the bottom line; however, in the more rural and mestizo parts of the country a post-lunch nap is still enjoyed. As with the first point on punctuality, make a mental note: businesses – sometimes all businesses in a town – may be closed for a few hours in the afternoon. Find a nice hammock, a good book, and relax.
While the Central American staple of beans and rice – comida típica - is ubiquitous throughout the country, Costa Rican food is as diverse as its people. As a result of the large immigrant population, tourism, and the McWorld which we now live in, everything from fast food to filet mignon can be found quite readily, even in remote locales. One will definitely not go hungry in Costa Rica, nor will one end up eating fried ants and monkey stew.
Like people from the U.S., Ticos have forged their own culture and identity from their unique geographic position and diverse racial makeup. They are incredibly proud of their country’s achievements, particularly the fact that Costa Rica has not collapsed into civil war or ethnic slaughter like so many of its neighbors. “More teachers than soldiers” is a popular claim to fame. A certain mean between the extremes is the goal of most Ticos; in other words, proud but humble.
While they may be humble, machismo still exists among Costa Ricans, albeit not to the extent of other Latin countries. In the Meseta Central and along the coasts machismo has been replaced with modern day liberalism, and the old vestiges seemingly only exists within the taxi and bus driver community. However, in more rural areas with large mestizo populations women may occasionally receive inappropriate catcalls (dubbed piropos); ninety-nine times out of a hundred these are innocent, merely males asserting their masculinity to their nearby amigos. Ignoring the calls and whistles usually does the trick.
Back to the first point. We estadounidenses often forget that our culture is one of the most work-driven and fast moving in the world. Not always being punctual does not mean that Ticos are lazy or inefficient; in fact, they are very industrious…when its deemed necessary. A business meeting at five thirty starts at five thirty; similarly, a bank will open its doors promptly at the same time every morning. To exemplify the achievements of their country, Costa Ricans will go out of their way to make foreigners feel at ease, trying their best to impress. Additionally, altitude defines attitude. In the urban mountain ranges things are generally a bit more punctual, a bit more scheduled, a bit more…U.S.. Along the coasts and in the rainforests life moves slower; manaña is said to be the national answer to everything. But this is part of Costa Rica’s charm, the ability to live life at the perfect pace. It is truly pura vida.
Picture provided by barnabywasson on flickr