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!

Digging A Well

Thirsty? Start digging! Aside from a few neighbors who share a drilled well, each house has its own hand-dug well.


Find a high spot to dig your well, preferably not downhill from cow pastures, your latrine, or that spot in your backyard where you burn your trash. Get a shovel, rope and bucket. A typical well here is 8 meters deep, so I hope you’re not too thirsty just yet. Get some gloves to avoid blisters.


When you finish digging, you’ll build a concrete cap for the top of your well. You can leave mud walls as they are. If you have $500 to spare, splurge on a pump. If not, get used to that bucket!


If the water tastes funny one day, or if you notice bits of decaying rat in your bucket, you may need to clean your well. Drain it (good luck!) and pull out all the muck at the bottom. Hopefully you’ll find someone else to go down the well—although if you don’t mind toxic gases, claustrophobia, darkness and heat you can make a decent buck doing it yourself.


Water from your homemade well is “non-potable.”  I personally have had no problems. The Peace Corps volunteer here 20 years ago got Giardia six times, was medevaced to the States for a week, came back to find her house had been robbed, called the police, and is now happily married (with 2 kids) to the OIJ agent who came to investigate the robbery. She says she also lost a few pounds.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Attitudes Towards Risk

When I watch how (and what) Ticos drive, I get the impression that they are more open to taking risks than Gringos. Ticos also have to deal with less predictable infrastructure, public services, and currency fluctuations. Ticos operate on a shorter economic timeframe, borrowing at high interest rates and often just scraping by. But risk acceptance isn't the whole story: Ticos are notoriously indirect comminicators, perhaps as part of a strategy to reduce the risk of conflict. Socially, they're relatively risk-averse. That makes sense when you might spend your whole life in a town with the same 300 neighbors!

(I know, these generalizations aren't quite fair)