Costa Rican Culture Shock: Cover Your Ears

Everyone’s stereo has its own groove. Culture is the same way. From headbanger to salsa, enjoy sound bites of daily life as heard by a prairie girl in small town Costa Rica.

Some like it loud.

Toucans and macaws fly the friendly skies here in the tropics.  Their unique calls sound for miles, but they’ve got nothing on the people. Local eardrums must be made of sterner stuff. Be it church worship or vendor trucks that loudspeaker their way through the neighborhoods, volume is set high. Fun and resonance just go together. Every grocery store promo has musical hoopla. When your neighbor rents a karaoke machine for their backyard party, earplugs and fan noise are your best friends. Or if you’re keen, go over and join them.

Curbside delivery available.

About those bullhorn trucks: it was a glorious day when our ears first caught the muffled words of the jingle we’d heard for weeks. “Eggs, big and fresh!” was so catchy it became a family joke.

img_8696

While not always easy to understand, the assorted ding ding men are convenient. Many people rely on feet and public transportation to get around. From my front gate, I have options to buy fruits & vegetables, nursery plants, tamales, get rid of scrap metal, donate to charity, change my political leanings, and hear the latest toy store Christmas sale.

My all time favorite, though, has to be the broom man. With his own voice and a loaded shoulder, he walks the block singing out, es-CO-bahs. That sounds so much cooler than brooms, you have to admit.

No mail for you.

One thing that never comes your way: mail. Sure, we get junk flyers tucked into our gate now and then, but no correspondence or bills to the house. There is a postal service. You can rent a P.O. box and do your own pickup. Why don’t they deliver? One reason is address. As in, we don’t have one. In language school we filled out government forms with something like: 150 meters south of the school, blue house with the green gate. Even in the middle of the big city, things can still feel down-home country.

If you never get paper bills, how do you know what you owe? You go online or to a store with your ID to check and make payments. Fast shut off for no-pay is a great motivator for personal responsibility.

One new arrival’s learning curve went like this: Each morning he looked at his gate for bill slips. Cable adverts showed up, utility statements did not. Water went out. That’s normal here, right? Power went out. Interesting. After a bit of this double deficiency, he asked the neighbors how they were coping. What? Did you pay your bills? What bills? Go to the liquor store on the corner and pay them. How much? Don’t worry, the lady at the checkout will tell you. It sounds crazy but works pretty well and saves trees to boot.

img_8693Mini Marts Everywhere.

Since many families do life without a car, little convenience stores called pulperías dot the neighborhoods. All the basics within walking distance makes life easier. An old story plays out the day of a mama Tica going out in the morning to buy an egg for breakfast, then back out in the sunshine to get an egg for lunch, and later stopping in for the egg for supper. Small houses, invasive critters, and preference for fresh cooked meals sway people away from big pantry stock ups.  Temps never get cold enough to keep you indoors, either.

I’m still a big fan of the big chill, though.  I joke with ladies about my batch cooking/freezer meal strategy. They shake their heads and smile. Poor gringos. My family seems well-fed, so they don’t worry about us too much. I took a sliced, frozen loaf of banana bread to a neighbor once, stretching my vocabulary to explain slice-by-slice versus whole-loaf thawing. New territory for both of us: me with words, her with an ice block on the counter. The next day she raved how it tasted delicious after being *eyes wide* frozen.

My shelves tend towards apocalypse-prep abundance, but I’m told stores do an excellent job of keeping food handy until you need it. Every week’s shopping pivots around the community farmer’s market. Plantains, avocados, pineapple, and mangoes: the tropics do them right. The best prices and selection of all things fresh draw crowds all morning. Bakeries are also popular; family kitchens and recipes run to stove tops rather than ovens. Bread with sour cream makes a nice addition to afternoon cafecito, so baguette loaves parade the sidewalk for the traditional “little coffee” break. Whatever time of the day you like it, locally grown coffee is a mountaintop highlight.

One of my favorite Costa Ricans recently moved to Florida. She vetted this series for things lost in translation or needed to complete the picture. Her verdict: “This makes me miss home. I’d kill for a pulpería.”

It’s no shock that life is different in the land of pura vida. Whether you put in earplugs or sing along, buy only for today or pack the cupboards, Costa Rica is a great place to live a soundtrack with the ones you love.

Catch the rest of the Culture Shock experience in this three-part series: Up Close and Personal & Talking Trash


What does “home” look like for you? What do you miss most when you travel? Share your favorite stories and tips in the comments.

Macaws Photo by Alan Godfrey on Unsplash


11 comments

  1. Kris, you have done it again. Can’t think of a single thing I would have said different. I am absolutely LOVING it here. There IS a small town feel here, even in the city. The biggest thing I have to do is remember that this is Costa Rica, my adopted country. It is what it is. And it isn’t the United States. So we have to learn to deal with close neighbors, lied everything, and maniacs on motorcycles. When we learn to do that, we will TRULY have Pura Vida.


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