Is there a pulpería in your life – or down your memory lane?

I was walking to my homestay last week in Los Santos – more on that in a later post – when I stopped with a little cry of delight and scrambled through my bag, looking for my phone so I could take a photo. The woman at the center of the image was a little bemused, but during my 15 years in Costa Rica and 12 year married to the calmest man on the face of the Earth, I’ve gotten used to receiving tolerant smiles in response to my bursts of enthusiasm.

She was a pulpera, presiding, priest-like, over her altar: a counter displaying confites, coffee, plastic bags of baked goods. Behind her: milk, tuna, Salsa Lizano. the essentials of life. To her left and right, posters advertising canned jalapeños and Pozuelo cookes (Es… Muuuucha Galleta!). All around her, a halo of light from a single bulb hung just under the corrugated tin roof.

Costa Rica’s pulperías are fading from the landscape, unable to compete with the minisupers and larger chains that offer better prices, one-stop-shopping, and plenty of parking for the many Costa Ricans who now prefer to use their cars for all their errands. I’m sad that for my daughter’s generation of suburban josefinas, “Jale al Fresh” will probably be the phrase uttered most often, thanks to ubiquitous chains like Fresh Market and Vindi. For Costa Ricans older than she is or from smaller communities, the phrase is “jale a la pul” – let’s go to the pulpería. I’m not certain of the formal definition of a pulpería, but I’d say it’s a little store run out of, or at least adjacent to, the owner’s home. Sometimes there are aisles you can walk down; more often, you can’t touch anything that isn’t first handed to you by the owner.

I’ve never had a deep, life-changing friendship with a pulpería owner – or any friendship at all, for that matter – but there’s something about handing over your coins to the same person, week after week. Maybe I wasn’t in on the neighborhood gossip, but at least I heard slices of it, got a glimpse into the rich networks of family and friends that, anywhere else, were invisible to me. And somehow, I felt cared-for by the inquisitive eye of an older pulpero who, you could tell, was wondering what the hell I was doing there. It’s different to interact with young cashiers at ampm who are bored out of their minds.

Our pulperías aren’t gone yet, but I already miss the ones that have disappeared from my life or from their fast-changing neighborhoods. All those that remain are well worth celebrating, and, of course, supporting. I have some readers with memories of Costa Rica that go back years and even decades. I’d love to hear about the pulperías in your past.

And if you’re ever in need of a breath mint or a bag of papitas in San Pedro de Tarrazú – I highly recommend that you make that happen, by the way – you know where to go. Well, you don’t, actually, but just ask for the pulpería. 

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! Each month in 2020 has a monthly theme, and February’s is marriage equality, so scroll back through the month to see several posts highlighting people and organizations working on behalf of this issue in Costa Rica. 

What are your grapes for 2020?

Happy New Year!

I’ve written before about the Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes at midnight, one for each month of the year ahead, and making a wish for that month as you do so. I like to do this on New Year’s Day.

I wished on grapes for my daughter’s birth and Obama’s election (and reelection), so I can tell you it’s very effective. My terrible memory has allowed me to forget most of the failed grapes, although there’s definitely one sitting in the White House. Today I’ll be chewing away, dreaming dreams for the months that are about to glide past.

Here’s one: for February’s grape, I will be wishing for my daughter to get a first-grade teacher she loves. And for November, well, I think you can guess. What will you be wishing for?

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

Day 30: Let’s startle the world with beauty

Boyero with his oxcart in Costa Rica

Superfluous beauty is one of the best things about the human race. We’re gratuitously violent and stupidly destructive, and then we write novels. Build cathedrals. Paint intricate designs on oxcarts when it would have been so much easier for the hardworking people who fill, empty and guide them over misty mountains to leave them unadorned.

Who started this, in fact? Who was the first person to say, “This cart is an opportunity for startling beauty?” Costa Ricans and those of us who know the country say, “Of course, another fabulous oxcart,” but imagine coming across one for the first time, out of the blue, as you push heavy sacks of coffee through the hills or fog or heat with your normal, simple cart. Wouldn’t your jaw drop? You’d shrug or smirk, but just picture that spectacular blaze of color out of nowhere.

Just think – whoever it was, the person who first painted an oxcart was our relative, our fellow person. We all have that same potential to make something lovely that has no business being lovely. Any of us can choose to startle the world with beauty. May this weekend include a chance to make something unnecessarily awesome (on a plate, on a page, on a canvas, in a garden) – and may we take those chances when they come.

Day 21, Monday Motivation: Meet a Nicaraguan refugee changing lives in Costa Rica.

Day 22, Tuesday Beauty: An international treasure hunt for the lost tapes of a music legend.

Day 23, Wellness Wednesday: A parenting epiphany at the skate park.

Day 24, Thursday Exploring: A pic from a Costa Rican park (no one has identified it yet!).

Have a great weekend…

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

Your brother’s my cousin’s ex-girlfriend’s son? A Costa Rican screenplay

You know what is truly pura vida, to me, after 13 years?

More than a beach or a rainforest porch, more even than a cafecito or a birra bien fría, pura vida might consists of sitting in the back of a taxi while, in the front seat, two Costa Ricans figure out how they know each other.

Courtesy of The Tico Times / Photo by Alberto Font

It’s always entertaining, always funny, always different, and usually better the older the two people are – except I guess it tops out around 60, because if they’re older than that, they’ll probably have figured out each other’s family histories before they even open their mouths.

Continue reading Your brother’s my cousin’s ex-girlfriend’s son? A Costa Rican screenplay

A room of our own: Costa Rican choteo and Virginia Woolf

Originally published by The Tico Times,

When I worked in English-language education and visited an advanced young-adult class in San José, I asked them what their biggest challenge to language learning was. Lack of time? Mastering irregular verbs? The delightful traps with which the English language is laced, such as the multiple pronunciations of -ough, with no rules to follow whatsoever (think tough, bough, through, dough, cough)?

Nope. Their answer was none of these, and they all had the same one. El choteo, they answered in unison, a few sheepish glances flying across the room. When they opened their mouths to speak English, they told me, they knew that if they made a mistake, they’d be ridiculed by their peers. On the other hand, if they spoke perfectly, the mockery might be even worse – who do you think you are to speak so well? So they kept quiet, which is of course disastrous for a language learner. Their oral proficiency suffered because they were afraid to speak up.

To chotear is to take someone down a peg, to mock, particularly when people show aptitude for something or getting too big for their britches. “Uuuuuuuuuy,” you might hear if you’ve done something right, with the intonation that goes with a strut and a la-di-da hand gesture. It goes hand-in-hand with Costa Ricans’ love of fun and wordplay, but many Costa Ricans have told me it is also rooted in a cultural aversion to standing out, to individual achievement, to ego. On several occasions I’ve heard Costa Ricans compare this aspect of their culture to the famous analogy of the crabs in a bucket that pull down any fellow crab that starts to haul itself out.

Constantino Láscaris, in his excellent book El Costarricense, outlines this view of choteo as well, but ultimately dismisses it in favor of a lighter, more positive view. “El choteo is funny,” he writes. “The jokes might be good or bad, accurate, dirty or less dirty. But it represents an extraordinary popular wisdom. A people that tells jokes gives an outlet for passions… The President of the Republic is the delicious object of choteo, as well as all legislators, no matter who they are.”

See also: Costa Rica is for lovers – the affectionate language of daily life

I think both interpretations are probably correct. I have often been grateful for the fact that in Costa Rica, it’s tough for someone to get high and mighty, or to go to extremes, because someone will also be there to make fun. At the same time, I think it is also true that this might inhibit some people, and maybe even keep them from following certain passions.

San Gerardo de Dota: plenty of room for thought.

I found myself reflecting on el choteo in an unexpected context recently, and in a beautiful place: San Gerardo de Dota, where, on a cabin dangling off the edge of a mountain, I read A Room of One’s Own for the first time. In air just about as cold and crisp as you can find in Costa Rica – which is to say, utterly delectable, demanding warm socks and wood fires at night – and in a silence that, aside for birdsong, is just about absolute, I read Virginia Woolf’s brilliant analysis of what happens to women who try to climb out of the crab bucket, artistically speaking.

I read Virginia Woolf’s imaginings of what would have happened to Shakespeare’s sister, if he had had a sister whose brilliance was equal to his own. In that patient, detailed way of hers, she paces through the possible actions Shakespeare’s sister might have taken in order to pursue her passion and live as a writer. No matter what thread Virginia pulls on, it does not end well.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Via Wikimedia Commons

Months ago, when my obsession with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was at its peak, I read that his family works to give him and his wife a support system, especially in terms of childcare. The article said something like, “Their priority is to make sure he has the space he needs to create.”

It sounded so delightful – and necessary, for all those of us who think that Miranda (speaking of Shakespeare’s relatives) is the Bard’s Nuyorican spiritual twin. I want his family to give him space to create. Please, provide him with whatever he needs to make the Next Great Thing.

I also want that space for myself. When I think about claiming it, though, I feel presumptuous. A voice says, “¡Ni que fueras Shakespeare! ¡Ni que fueras Lin-Manuel Miranda, mae! ¡Ni que fueras Virginia Woolf!” Ni que fueras: a classic choteo opening. “As if you were.” Think again. Come back down to earth. Ubíquese.

I am choteándome a mi misma, pulling myself back down into the crab bucket, which many people – particularly women, I’d argue – are all too good at.

But here, right here, as if she could hear my inner choteo, is what’s so brilliant about Woolf’s famous essay. She has doesn’t argue with these voices; she sidesteps them. She makes no pretense that everyone in her audience have works of genius stored within, waiting to pour out. Rather, she argues that no matter how talented we may or may not be, we all have a role to play. All books are the continuation of the books that came before, and all original thought, even if imperfectly expressed, moves the ball forward for the team she imagines of women writers throughout history.

She says that Shakespeare’s sister “would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.” We must recognize “the common life which is the real life and not… the little separate lives which we live as individuals.”

The common life, which is the real life.

That’s why I think el choteo has an upside and a downside. It has an upside because the common life is the real life. No one of us is such a big deal, all on our lonesome. When we start to think that we are, it’s good for our friends and family to shake us out of it with a little humor. I can think of some people in my home country, the United States, who would be much better people – and leaders – if they were doused on the daily with some healthy choteo.

At the same time, each of us has a chance to contribute something to that common life. We do have a worthwhile reason to carve out what we need for that purpose: a room of our own, whether literal or figurative. We do have a mission to fulfill, because whether we produce masterpieces or only mediocrity, we have a shot at providing the next genius, Shakespeare’s sister, with a boost. A leg up. A starting point a little further down the road.

So to every tentative English student, every aspiring writer, every one of us feeling a little pretentious as we claim our space as artists or thinkers or learners, I think Virginia would say, if she were here in Costa Rica: accept your fair share of choteo with a nod, and let it keep your feet on the ground, rooted in our common life. But after that, simply carry on. Don’t stop. Create something. No matter what they might say.

Read previous Maeology columns here.

Katherine Stanley Obando is the editor of The Tico Times and the author of “Love in Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter,” a book of essays about motherhood, Costa Rica’s unique street slang, bicultural parenting, and the ups and downs of living abroad. She lives in San José. For more from Katherine about Costa Rican life and culture, follow her on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to the Love in Translation blog.


Why a Costa Rican Holy Week is a treasure to be savored

Nature Landings Cover Screenshot 2017-03I’m pleased to be writing a new column for Nature Air’s magazine, Nature Landings: “Word on the Street.” The magazine is full of fascinating travel stories, cultural information and more, and I’m proud to be a contributor. With permission from Nature Landings, here is a look at this month’s musings as published in the April-May edition. Look for the column the next time you’re in the skies enjoying what truly is the most spectacular way to see Costa Rica.

Oftentimes in Costa Rica – a country that lacks the spectacular Holy Week celebrations of, say, Antigua, Guatemala – Holy Week seems best characterized by a long list of things you can’t do. Drinking is one of them, since dry laws prohibit the sale of alcohol on key religious dates (ineffectively, as demonstrated by a popular nickname for Semana Santa: Semana Tanda, or Drunken Week).

Shopping is another, although much has changed since the days when you could barely find a place to buy bread on high holy days. Each year, more and more shops keep their doors open, increasing convenience but eroding tradition – all the more reason to embrace Holy Week while we can.

There is a whole host of activities that are forbidden on Good Friday, for religious reasons or by long-standing superstitions. Don’t eat meat. Don’t go swimming in a river or ocean, or you will turn into a fish. Don’t hit your children, or your hand will fall off; there’s one superstition we can all wish were fact. Don’t wear red, since it implies support for the devil. And since it’s a day of mourning, don’t run, play or work.

But alongside all the can’ts, what you can do during Holy Week in Costa Rica, especially in its town and city centers, is slow down, reflect and relax as at no other time of year.

Nature Landings Photo 2017-03 MQC
Courtesy of Nature Landings. Photo by Mónica Quesada.


It is a hot season, and very still. Streets empty; miel de chiverre, or squash jam, is lovingly prepared over stovetops nationwide; painstaking preparations are made for local processions. Regardless of your religious affiliation, something about Semana Santa invites reflection – or, at the very least, peace and quiet.

It’s worth seeking out this national pause. It’s worth leaving behind the rush of everyday life, or even, for the tourist, taking a detour from the beach to experience Costa Rican town life at its finest: with stores shuttered and schools locked, people of all ages can come together in the street behind the solemn beat of the Romans’ drums.

Walk with them, and you’ll be reminded why we want traditions to survive in the first place: because they connect us to history, even when that history isn’t ours.