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.


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

Cross Cultural Good Eats

I smile when I remember the first meals I passed off as good eats. For every recipe, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a can of creamed soup for every recipe.  We munched late night tater tots and frozen fish sticks when it still felt cool to have an oven and pay the electric bill.  Life was good, even if my cooking  wasn’t.

I began to pick up on things.  Don’t be seduced by the discount on ketchup into buying half a dozen bottles.  It will go back on sale before you have to stand the first one on end.   True story.

Enter a deep freezer for Christmas.  Stocking it became my favorite pastime.  We scanned the sale ads for meat, prayed for rhubarb patches, and gleaned our friends’ sweet corn fields. Filling up the open space was easy.  Turning the booty into treasure took more finesse.

I learned—by serving surprisingly tart lasagna at a large family gathering—to taste each element of a recipe and to start adjusting flavors.  Cooking became a little less math and a lot more art.

Living in a foreign country puts a whole new spin on making good food.  While U.S. style cans and brands are popping up on shelves here, they tend to be pricey when available.  It’s been an adventure to adapt to the local offerings.  Sometimes the results disappoint.  Sometimes they get rave reviews.  I thought you might enjoy a peek into the process.

20180508 IMG_9148 cdocIf you were in my mother-in-law’s kitchen making her Italian Soup, you would cook up some Jimmy Dean Italian sausage and ground beef, chop onion, celery, & carrots, open 5 cans (tomatoes, tomato sauce, red beans, green beans), shake in some seasoning, and set the pot to simmer.  A fair amount of work, but still possible on a weeknight.

Here in Costa Rica, it all starts with the weekly farmer’s market.  The best prices and selection, along with cheerful banter, happen there before lunchtime.  It’s the only place to get baby green beans that aren’t matured to bumpy toughness.  Cruise the stalls for fresh tomatoes, celery, carrots, and onions, too.  Feel pleased that you understood the numbers rattled off so quickly in Spanish.  Ask how everyone’s family is, as you count out your coins and brightly colored bills to pay.  Stop at the brick and mortar grocery store on the way home for dry beans, tomato paste, ground pork, and beef.

At home, set your kiddos to snap the green beans so you can get them washed and steaming.  I know it’s tempting to throw them raw into the soup, but remember the one time we tried that.  Right, it tasted like grass.  Some people might go for that.  We prefer soup with green beans over Green Bean Soup.

Brown the pork and beef like normal, adding seasonings to make the plain pork more like sausage.  It’s okay, you can google the recipe. Try not to marvel that there is absolutely no fat in the pork.  Drain off the water that made up the other 15% of your ground beef.  Cattle in this country have to grow big on grass, so most red meat here is lean.

Chop/slice the onion, celery, and carrots as usual, and then before you clear the cutting board, seed and dice your pounds of fresh tomatoes.  This is where we give thanks that we spent our Christmas money on a food processor.

Hydrate the tomato paste back into a sauce with water. For real, it’s a thing.  Yes, you can buy 4 oz packets of tomato sauce at the store.  But who wants to open and squeeze out (and pay for) 8 of them per batch?  One and a third large packets of paste will get you a rich 4 cups of sauce.  Whisk in a little sugar and salt to make it tasty.

If you are getting tired at this point, I usually am, too.  Think of those dear faces who gather at your dinner table.  Keep going.  You can do it.  I believe in you.

20180508 IMG_9147 edit cdocIf you forgot to soak your dry beans overnight, you can bring them to a boil  and quick soak them for an hour.  It really does help our bellies to drain the soak water afterwards.  Get them going in fresh water in the pressure cooker for a 40 min. process, or set them to boil for a few hours.  (Check to make sure they softened up.  Every once in a while, life sells you some old beans that refuse to dance to the music of moisture and heat.  It’s helpful to realize they are still crunchy before you marry them to the rest of your ingredients.  Another lesson learned the hard way.  The kids tried not to complain too much.)  Drain and rinse the cooked beans to keep the aforementioned “soup-with-beans”-over-Bean-Soup balance.

When everything is (finally) ready, put it all into one extra grande pot and add the seasonings.  Let’s be honest, you always add too many beans and vegetables to stretch the batch, so add double of every flavoring to start.  If you happen to have any pepperoni, whether smuggled in from the states or bought locally with hefty import taxes,  dice up a bit of the precious goodness and throw it in with love.  Bring to a simmer for the flavors to meld, and keep tinkering with more tomato paste, salt, pepper, sugar, hot sauce, basil, and oregano until you say, “Mmmmm.”

It only took you most of the day.  That’s why you made a huge batch.  Now the family has a hearty supper and the freezer has some treasure to chill.  It may not exactly be my mother-in-law’s Italian soup, but it is definitely cross cultural good eats.  Enjoy!

Linking up with Velvet Ashes: Enculturating

Making Home

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it.  During the official welcome of our family in an Hogar de Vida staff meeting, I glanced down at my sandaled feet.  Little white freckles peeped happily back up at me.

There was flour dusting my toes.

I didn’t even brush it off.  My heart was so content with our welcome and the baking spree that had decorated me.  That morning my mixer had labored over wheat bread for our family, cinnamon rolls for the meeting, and rolls for the team’s dinner.  I was tired, but happy.  This is what I was made to do.

That feeling has warmed my heart many times over the last few weeks.  We’ve hosted three teams from pickup to drop off, shared meals and the story of God’s work in our lives, shopped, cooked, cleaned, sanded, painted, and learned names to match beautiful faces.  On the trail behind us are a good many “firsts,” marking out the path to the feeling of “home.”  I have carried a one month old new arrival from the house tia’s arms to a medical eval, feeling the flutters of first-mom jitters all over again.  We now know just where to put the glass in the refrigerator to catch the condensation runoff that’s supposed to be routed below, and where to get our favorite produce at the farmers market.  We can see the work the Lord is doing here, and the difference that it makes every day.

Familiarity has paved the way.  Evenings spent reading books aloud on our couch, early mornings hanging laundry.   Goodnight kisses, Spanish greetings, movie nights, and bright sunrises.  My running shoes have ventured out to tread the hills, and my lungs have caught up.  Joy has come again.

We are home.