Saturday, January 31, 2009

Word of the Day: Chingo

Don't be alarmed--this has nothing to do with a similar word in Mexican vernacular. On the other hand, it still isn't church talk. Chingo is slang for 'naked'.

Side note:

In rural areas there are always stories going around about crazy people who sneak into houses and steal things. One time in my community rumor spread about an old man, dubbed "robatangas", who would sneak into homes and steal women's panties. On another occasion a neighboring town had a similar case (although not with panties) of a naked white man called "macho chingo". (I swear it wasn't me.) People were dead-serious about their belief in these crazy characters, just as people in my community were dead-certain that witches existed in our bucolic town. Needless to say, I meet rural Costa Rican stories with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Word of the Day: Caja

Caja, of course, means box in Spanish. But in Costa Rica it also refers to someone's torso.

In the Costa Rican countryside you get used to people being openly descriptive with respect to physique. Ticos will often comment on the shape and size of cattle, as well as humans. Some people I know comment on how much skinnier or fatter I am than the last time they saw me. Apparently these things change from one day to the next.

I guess that "does this make me look fat" question is a relevant one after all.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Word of the Day: Machorra

Machorra essentially means tomboy in Costa Rica. I don't think this needs any further explanation.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Word of the Day: Rancho

Rancho in Costa Rica is a thatched roof enclosure, often in the shape of a cone. The frame is most often made of wood. Ranchos are typically roadside bars/restaurants in rural areas; however, a person of considerable economic means may have a rancho to accompany his home (like the one in the picture). In such a case, a rancho is the equivalent of a gazebo you'd find in some yards in the US. In order to prolong the waterproof seal formed by the grass roof, many ranchos are lined with plastic from the inside.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Costa Rican Earthquake: Antes y Después

As many of you may already know, on January 8th, a devastating earthquake hit Costa Rica. It registered 6.2 on the Richter Scale and caused massive mudslides around Volcán Poás, killing around 40 people and causing massive destruction to many people's homes.

At the time of the earthquake I was in Santa Fe de Guatuso, a place that is not incredibly from the epicenter but very flat and not prone to mudslides. I could feel the incredible force of the earth beneath me, but the amplitude of the movements was great, causing a forceful swaying of the house back and forth without any damage to its structure. I assured my family back in the States that "not a single tchotchke fell from atop the TV". Anyone who's seen the living room of a typical tico home knows what I'm talking about.

Of course, the earthquake was no laughing matter for the many people near the epicenter and their relatives across the country. Thanks to these photos provided by the Costa Rican Volcanology and Seismology Observatory (OVSICORI-UNA) you can get a good idea of the earthquake's severity:

The La Paz Waterfall, before and after the quake

The Río Sarapiquí valley after massive mudslides

A Costa Rican soda (diner) near the epicenter, demolished

Costa Rican Spanish Word of the Day: Alto

OK, so alto isn't exactly a Costa Rican word, but I have had some very serious run-ins with Costa Rican stop signs as of late, so I thought I'd expound a bit...

First of all, just to get the language straight, ALTO--in all caps--is what you'll find on stop signs in Costa Rica. (Some countries use 'PARE'.) Alto is also a noun used to mean 'stop sign'. So, you might hear someone say: "en el próximo alto, a la derecha", which means "at the next stop sign, to the right".

Stop signs are all over the place in Costa Rican cities, but they're not always obeyed. First of all, most people don't come to a complete stop. To those who would point out that many people in the US execute a "rolling stop", let me just submit that a Costa Rican rolling stop is more roll than it is stop.

Also, even when cars are indeed forced to stop, they will only stop after having crept far beyond the stop sign to ensure visibility around the corner of adjacent buildings and parked cars. Often this is necessary for visibility, but for the most part it's out of habit. When driving in Costa Rica, you must be aware of this, so as not to be alarmed, while also being defensive of people who indeed are encroaching on you at an intersection. Easier said than done.

The most difficult part about stop signs in Costa Rica is that they are often accompanied by stop lights or "semáforos". This, digo yo, seems like a very deadly combination. First of all, if you obey the stop sign (which I assume most foreigners do out of habit) while you have a green light, you could get rear-ended by someone who obeys the green light. If you're a pedestrian, you could assume that a car with a stop sign is going to stop while you cross the street, but if that car also has a green light, it will likely keep on going. The picture featured above shows an intersection where I tried to cross in front of a stop sign without knowing there was a green light for crossing traffic. Luckily I noticed what was going on, narrowly avoiding a rough encounter with a moving automobile.

Aside from the contradiction of having both signs and lights, another problem is that the street lights are largely invisible to pedestrians. Imagine a street light that hangs down into the middle of a very small, crammed intersection. You can only see one of the four sides of the street light, and you can only see that one side if you're looking almost directly overhead.

As I was driving around Heredia with a Costa Rican friend, I had a hard time running through the stop signs, even after she assured me that it's the street light you must obey. I was finally able to get rid of that silly impulse to actually stop at stop signs, but I couldn't help but wonder why on earth there are still stop signs where stop lights are implemented.

I'm open to explanations (but I have to admit that I'm erring on the skeptical side).