Thursday, February 2, 2012

Welcome Letter

I wrote a letter for new Costa Rica CED volunteers. It's a start at trying to sum up the good and bad about the PC experience:

Dear Future CED Volunteer,

Congratulations! Peace Corps has chosen you for one of its most vibrant posts--where Peace Corps has served uninterrupted since 1963 and volunteers report high levels of satisfaction. While you miss out on the thrill of going to a Central Asian country no one has ever heard of, you'll find plenty of excitement in Costa Rica. It's yours for the making.

When I was in your shoes, I stayed up late reading everything I could find about Costa Rica. You probably feel excited, overwhelmed, and in the dark about what awaits you. Don't worry. No matter how little you pack or little you know, you'll have ample opportunity in Costa Rica to sort things out.

First, you'll spend several months "on parole" as a trainee. Peace Corps will watch your every move and squeeze every ounce of training they can into your culture-shocked brain. PST will drain and sometimes frustrate you, but you'll also enjoy the company of a good host family and start lasting friendships with your fellow volunteers.

After you swear in, the horizons will open and you'll suddenly feel far away from everything. But even in a small town, you'll find no end of people to meet, coffee to drink, or businesses to chat about. You won’t rush to start a killer project to double your town's GDP. Rather, you will take your time to make friends and sound out what projects might be feasible. You will follow your neighbors' cues, whether for an informal English class for high schoolers, business tips for store owners, founding a microfinance bank or teaching a women’s group to use Excel. The typical type-A CED volunteer will struggle to adjust to a new pace and style and pick him or herself up after false starts. But you will learn to work independently, set your own goals, design your own projects and--in many ways--be your own boss. And when you've been in site for a year, it may feel more like home than where you came from.

Life as a PCV will be what you make it. You could be busy every day or you could read 100 books. You could become a soccer star or organic farmer in your free time. Of course, you'll be the same you, and some days you'll feel that your life isn't that different here than in the States. But you'll leave Costa Rica with two years of wild stories, skills you never thought you'd need, and travels your homebound peers will envy.


Alexander Douglas

Tico 20

Community Economic Development

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Mysterious Pulpería

My town, like most small towns in rural Latin America, has no grocery store or hardware store. We shop at pulperías. That's probably best translated as "general store." Think 7-11, except that it's owned by your neighbor and run out of her house. You can buy machetes or dried beans in bulk, but unfortunately no Taquitos.

Pulperías seem like a goofy system at first. My town of 400 has five pulperías, although two of them are limited to soda and junk food. The pulperías charge a uniform 20% markup with a few exceptions (rice, beans, oil, and flour are generally a 12% markup). Now, why would I need three convenience stores to sell canned tuna and dried beans for 10 or 20% above recommended retail prices? It's especially weird when the convenience stores don't carry the grocery items I need to buy frequently--fresh produce, for example. Why don't we centralize retail into a single grocery store in the center of town? Or, if we want to avoid a monopoly, if we don't have the scale to drive down costs, why can't we leave town every two months to buy dried goods and then shop at pulperías for produce and milk and other perishables?

Now I have a new theory. Amazon saves money over traditional retailers by keeping very little inventory in warehouses. Instead, producers manage their inventory. It's called Just-in-time inventory management. Maybe the pulpería system is similar. When you've got five or ten kids milling about your house, you can send one to the pulpería every time you need another egg or cigarette. And the pulpería will sell you a single egg for the same unit price as the kilo (yes, eggs here are by the kilo, not the dozen). Now as a housewife you don't have to tie up much money in "inventory" and you don't have to worry about storing ingredients or having them go bad. Maybe that's a more efficient way to handle shopping. And why don't pulperías carry produce? Simple--you can send your kids to buy it straight from the farmer. Unless it's a pineapple, of course. Then you can't buy it at all.

Monday, March 7, 2011

E-Commerce in Rural Costa Rica

My headlamp broke. Here it's not hard to buy a flashlight, or an el cheapo headlamp in Ciudad Quesada, but since I bike on rural roads I need a reliable, super-bright, hands-free, energy-efficient light. That leaves two options:

-11 hours busing to the Colombia store in the mall in Escazu, in San José
-Have someone mail me a headlamp

Since I'm a site rat, I chose the second option. Ah, glorious online shopping! So many options! But:

Hiccup #1: Amazon wouldn't accept my Costa Rican shipping address. But that's ok, because Sierra Trading Post did. Still sailing high: I get $10 off a $40 headlamp! And I've saved myself an overnight trip to San José!

Hiccup #2: Sierra Trading Post only ships by UPS. That's a shame, because they charge a $27 flat fee, whereas I've received padded envelopes of the same weight for $5 or $10 via normal mail. It's also a shame because I know both my mailmen by name (Edwin and Roberto), whereas UPS had to both call and email me to ask directions and coordinate delivery. I thought about asking a friend to buy the headlamp and ship it via normal mail, but I figured that just the time waiting in the post office wasn't worth saving $10 or $15. 

Hiccup #3: Import Duties. The Government of Costa Rica demanded $20 for the privilege of bringing the headlamp into the country. That's 67% of the headlamp's value. Maybe I should have asked a friend to send me a headlamp. If they opened the package and sent the "used" headlamp as a gift, I doubt it would have been subject to import duties. 

Hiccup #4: Costa Rica also charged me $40 for "Storage and Customs Services." 

Final price of the nominally $40 headlamp? $117, or 28% of my monthly budget. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Help me Design a Solar Dryer

For all you engineers out there--I'm going to build a solar dryer (for drying pineapple!) and I want your help. There are a lot of plans out there, but for simplicity's sake I've chosen the attached. Here are my questions--is this the right model for me? How should I tweak it? Would it make sense to replace the insulating material with something of higher thermal mass, like crushed glass, as one of my neighbors suggested?

I live 11 degrees north of the equator, near sea level. The sun is intense. Wind is limited. Annual rainfall is a little shy of 4 meters. Average temperature is somewhere around 23C. Annual evaporation is around 1.7 meters. Cloud cover is more than I'd like--but most days you get at least a few hours of good uninterrupted sun. When we get back into rainy season we might have to modify the dryer or choose a new design which we can run with firewood, but for the moment I'm hoping to keep this project green.

There are more dryer models here and elsewhere online.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


When a politician receives a gift, it's unethical.

When a Peace Corps Volunteer receives a gift, it's community integration.

I receive lots of gifts-especially pineapples and lunches. When my neighbors give me gifts they feel more comfortable receiving my free services, and I feel more welcome (and full). But I wonder-are my neighbors trying to pay me for services which I as a Peace Corps volunteer must provide for free? And do neighbors who feed me gain better access to my services in return? I'll certainly spend more time at their houses!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy New Year from Costa Rica

Cutting banana leaves to make tamales, a traditional Christmas food.

Happy New Year! I hope this year has treated you well and I hope the next one is even better.

When the year closes, I’ll have spent 304 days in Costa Rica, a little more than a third of my Peace Corps service. I’ve survived non-potable water, cold showers, limited internet, and more mud than I could have imagined. I’ve made countless friends—both gringo Peace Corps peers and Costa Rican and Nicaraguan neighbors, many of whom impress me with their generosity, intelligence, and hard work despite limited formal education. Although I miss family and friends, I’ve come to feel at home here, too.

I’ve had the privilege to try my hand at well digging, cow milking, English teaching, computer repairing, community organizing, papaya planting, school constructing, rice milling, and tamale making. I make my bread in a rice cooker, my pizza in a wood-fired oven, and pay a neighbor to wash my clothes by hand. Just as in the States life is mostly busy and often pleasant, although never before have I had the privilege of making so many decisions about my work and my schedule. During these months I’ve been struck by how difficult development work is and how much of it depends on the people. Although I’m proud of the work I do, I know I’m only a small piece of the puzzle compared to my neighbors who invest in their farms and shops, their children’s education, and their communities.

When the year closes, I’ll have 504 days more as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Keep in touch as I continue my service!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Buying Pineapple

It’s hard to buy everything you need when you live in a rural area. You’d think you could at least buy a pineapple, though. We have no shortage of pineapple—at 7.2 bushes per square meter and about half a year to grow a pineapple, I estimate we produce nearly a billion pineapples a year. So what happens when I set out to buy one?


Stores don’t carry pineapple. The local general stores, called “pulperías,” specialize in staples and shelf-stable goods. The closest you’ll get to fruit is a handful of onions and potatoes. So I take the other approach: I visit pineapple a pineapple farmer on Thursday, when they harvest in preparation for the weekend farmers’ markets. I ask if they’ll sell me a pineapple. Sell? They give me two. Despite numerous attempts, I cannot buy a pineapple. Nor am I able to receive only one—I’m always given two.


When I put on my economist hat, I don’t think of a gift as simply a gift. Even if it’s given with no expectation of returned favors, it’s still a symbolically significant transaction, and it forms part of a non-financial economy. I’m not sure why pineapple is treated this way; is it because they expect I’d steal it from the fields? Is it to avoid looking stingy? And is it equally strange of me to prefer buying a pineapple than constantly asking favors?


Maybe next time I’ll buy a thousand pineapples at once. Then I will pay—about 20 cents each!