Friday, July 1, 2011

Directions “a la Tica” or How I Got Lost Before I Found Myself in Costa Rica

If you’ve ever been to Costa Rica and tried to get around San Jose as a foreigner you were probably surprised to discover the lack of street signs and the confusing manner in which “Ticos” (as Costa Ricans call themselves) give directions.  For instance, if I want to go from the Parque Central (Central Park) to the Mercado Central (Central Market) the directions might be: From the northwest corner of the park, walk 200 meters (100 meters = one block) west and 100 meters north and you will find the entrance on your left-hand side.

If you don’t happen to know that 100 meters roughly equals a block, independent of how long the block is, nor have an internal compass or don’t know certain points of reference, then you are going to find it very difficult to get around Costa Rica.  Although the streets do have names, hardly anyone knows them with the exception of perhaps Paseo Colón / Avenida Central.  Nor do the majority of the streets have street signs to give you any point of reference.  To top it off, people who live in San Jose are generally lousy at giving directions.  Ticos also happen to make references to places that no longer exist.  For instance, you might hear one say “…and make a left at the old Coca Cola bottling factory” which hasn’t existed for a long time or that you’ve “…gone too far if you reach the old tree that no longer exists because it fell down last year during a major storm.”
Houses, at least in rural towns in Costa Rica, do not have address numbers and are differentiated by their color, the color of their gate, a particular plant or tree that might be planted in their yard, the number of floors or the style of roof that it may have.  For instance if you want to get to your friend’s house, you might hear the following directions: Walk up the hill 800 meters until you find the house with the white and blue gate and the palm tree which was struck by lightning last year.

This cultural difference in defining points of reference and giving directions highlights the difference in development between Costa Rica and the United States.  Although Costa Rica is a well-developed country in many manners, and certainly superior to the United States in many social and political aspects (for instance, Costa Rica has no standing army and has not had a war since a short Civil War in 1948) this is one striking example of infrastructural development that we take for granted in the United States. 
I believe that this lack of a simple system for orientation is a result of rapid development without proper planning which oftentimes occurs in the need to catch up with the countries and economies of more industrialized, developed nations.  It also is an example of one of many inefficiencies which can make certain supposedly simple pieces of business much more difficult here (another example of development that we also take for granted is an organized and efficient system for collection of garbage and recycling which I will touch on in another blog post).

During my first four months here, I’ve learned to take and give directions “a la Tica” and come to know and appreciate a lot which we take for granted back home.  I’ve also realized that development takes patience, and is a never-ending but potentially rewarding process.   Furthermore we cannot cast a critical eye on the development of other nations without also looking critically of the development that needs to happen in our own country.  In fact, in relation to the widening gap between rich and poor, homelessness, racism and immigration, our national debt and the increasingly hostile divisions within our government, we have a lot of work to be done at home.  With hope, when I return from the Peace Corps in two years, the lessons I’ve learned in development can be used and applied in the United States, in my own backyard where we, too, have so many problems and inefficiencies which are waiting to be attended to.

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