Observing Conformity

Having visited Costa Rica a few times, the diversity and palpable tension of their modern day transmogrification struck me as chaotic initially. During this recent trip, on the cusp of the summer to rainy season transition, I see things in a slightly less naive light. Soaking in the magnificent thunder storms and sudden torrential downpours, this place will always hold a place in my heart. There is change unknown coming to this country, it is as obvious as the stifling humid heat of the afternoon before the rain breaks.

This change, is it capitalism and commercial interests subjecting the Ticos to their view of how things should be? Is it their own desire to shed the past and grow into a new definition? Running from who you are as a people is a generational thing, short sighted and ultimately a betrayal of the traditional recognized only too late, parts of it lost for ever. Change as conformity, adopting the other as your own?

A poignant example of this, visiting a local Jazz bar expecting some quality music of the genre coloured by their own tastes. Nope. Instead I am treated to a local Tico band named Diesel performing a rather impressive rendition of the Foo Fighters. As the only apparent non-tico it’s an incredible view of who the younger generation looks up to and where they see their future.

They sit at their tables, well dressed, cocktails, hair, and manicures intent upon the performance. Is it mimicry, or is it just delayed appreciation due to cultural barriers and media adoption? The decor speaks of modern North American clubs, the lighting, the stocked bar and bouncers. Yet there is a salient Tico aspect to much of the details. The wood in the construction, hand made clay effigies of famous musicians, distinct menu options not found elsewhere.

Perhaps the bar didn’t have a dishwashing machine as any in North America must have by law, the bartender was unperturbed. While observing his amazing expertise in washing wine glasses by hand he caught where my attention was. Pantomiming a woman drinking from a glass, pinky extended, and a flourish of a pouty lipstick sip he chuckled with a shrug and rolled his eyes. In that moment there was no Tico, no Canadian, no anyone, just a shared understanding of a common plight.

Shift to another day, downtown San Jose, Central Market, in search of a Soda to observe and immerse. Spending a considerable amount of time casing the options, taking some photographs. Settling finally on likely the most cramped one I could find it didn’t disappoint. Sitting at the bar stool I had to constantly keep my camera bag tight to my side lest it be tweaked and strummed by the stream of life flowing at my back. The food was good, not mind blowing, it was secondary to my appetite.

What appeared in front of me once settled and out of my own thoughts was an incredible orchestration of an almost entirely woman staff spread across several Sodas. Each island of control was like a sports team, yet they were appeared to share one or more kitchens. Each had their own callers, who were relaying needs for more empanadas or maybe just emphatic competition? There were also blockers, they would catch a tourists eye with a flourish of a menu and the promise of a fully belly. The diva’s in the working area of the Soda would then take over with gusto to figure out what suited your appetite.

Watching this for an hour or so was fascinating, how they work so effectively in extremely cramped spaces. The attention to detail of on going hygenics, cutting up a mango quickly or addressing the stock of fried plantains. Witnessing the crushing of fresh lemons by hand, flesh the color of oranges, like balls of paper to make the best lemonade. There was a definite sense of competition between the Soda’s, who could entice a customer to sit at their island, an obvious expression of enthusiasm with each new castaway.

Seeing the influx of American themed eateries popping up everywhere was disheartening. Locals want to eat something other than Gallo Pinto, the stuff of their childhoods. I’m the visitor pining for true local food, scoffing at the knock offs with the fancy menu’s and rock and roll ambience. There are thankfully plenty of Soda’s left. Stepping into one they light up when you make an effort to order in Spanish. ¿Otra cerveza por favor? Mucho Gusto!

For now this coexistence serves all the needs. Having capitulated to group outings at the knock off’s, I found they are well executed albeit with a healthy side of irony. Having spent just over a month here over two trips I struggle to recall a single grumpy Tico. They all seem to be in good spirits, always curious where you are from. You really sense the pride they take in their work, who they are as a people and their attitude for living. It’s a paradise of diversity to challenge the romantic cliches, look a little deeper and you will find it.


We all have an urge to conform in a myriad of ways. It’s the backbone of societies and communities everywhere. Even in Portland, town of the strange, the drive to be different results in a recognizable pattern when you step back and look at it all. Here I am wanting to conform with the old Tico ways, to feel how they live and try to understand somewhere different. The better I understand how others live, the more I understand myself, and life in general. Pura Vida!

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