Observations from Costa Rica, 2017November 29, 2017
Every time I come back home to visit my family I notice how differently things run here in Costa Rica than in the US. There are some blaringly obvious contrasts, while others are details so subtle that it took me 7 years abroad to even consider. On this trip, I hung out with a lot of non-Costa Ricans (from the US and elsewhere) who came for my brother’s wedding, so they kept asking me about peculiarities as they noticed them on their own. Seeing other people point out things that seemed odd to them made me become more aware myself. Here are a few of these observations:
Unlike in the US, retail in Costa Rica is thriving. The first shopping malls here started popping up in the early 90s, and the gold rush has not stopped. With rising standards of living, and a growing economy came purchasing power and the desire to buy into big name brands. People are eager to let go of their cash for generic status symbols. Compare this to the US and the rise of artisanal/bespoke/craft goods over homogeneous retail (see also Venkatesh Rao’s Premium Mediocre). Interestingly, the Costa Rican retail boom is fully physical - ecommerce is nearly non-existent and people love going to the malls to do their shopping. Some possible explanations: while broadband penetration is high relative to our neighbors it is still pretty low, there is no robust logistics infrastructure (think UPS), and no company has tried to kickstart online shopping here. This is a large business opportunity that’s up for grabs.
The ways that Costa Ricans use the apps on their smartphones are very different from the US. Everyone here uses Waze. Everyone. It is well known that our streets have no names and that people get around by reference points, but this time around I saw a lot of billboards and signs with variations of Waze’s smiling car logo, and URLs to the Waze “pin” for a given store. Similarly, businesses use WhatsApp to communicate directly with their clients. We heard at least two ads on the radio prompting listeners to get in touch via WhatsApp. For example, when we rented a car to go to the beach the clerk insisted that we WhatsApp him copies of our documents, instead of sending them via email. And yet, everyone uses Uber to get around (hi, Alan!).
The press in Costa Rica is quite yellow, and there is little interest in long-form, in-depth local content, so the market doesn’t supply it. We have no equivalent of the New Yorker or the Atlantic. There are opportunities for investigative journalism, with lots of cool stories waiting for someone to write. The stories are amazing, and the kind that the public in the US would be interested in. Hannah and I spent a few days in Puerto Viejo, and we talked a lot about the Afro-Caribbean culture and how different it feels from San José. For historic reasons, there is a much higher concentration of black people there than elsewhere in the country. People in the US would read about that. Everyone rides bikes there, which is unusual in the rest of the country, and we think may be due to an entrepreneur deciding to heavily market it to tourists. People in the US would read about that. We noticed thousands of dead puffer fish laying on the beach, and when we asked around, no one knew the real reason why (I could only find one article on it, and it was fairly weak). People in the US would read about that. We went to a restaurant owned by a guy who was a community activist, became a representative in the Costa Rica legislature, and is deeply tied to the town’s development. People in the US would read about that. Notice that all these ideas come from 3 days on the Caribbean coast, a place I had never been to before. It sometimes takes an outsider to see there is a story to be told. I can imagine a study abroad program where journalism schools send people to live in Costa Rica for a summer and churn these out, arbitraging journalism.
A while back I had told Hannah that I find the number of American flags in cars, stores, and streets in the US kind of crazy, and that this kind of noisy nationalism bothers me. Turns out there are also flags all over Costa Rica, I just didn’t really notice them until my girlfriend decided to start pointing out every one we passed. This was an odd realization of the power of indoctrination: I see the American flags plastered all over NYC, Chicago, or San Francisco as loud and obnoxious, but fail to notice the equivalent in Costa Rica.
The longer I am away, the more I start to understand these subtle differences and catch the details that I totally ignored before. Coming back home makes me see my birthplace with new eyes. It is its own version of having a beginner’s mind.
What are some other oddities that you’ve noticed in your trips abroad? Let me know on Twitter.
Photo: by me, also posted on Puerto Viejo.
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