I is for Importar un Rábano

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

radishOr, le importa un rábano. Literally this means “it has the importance, or worth, of a radish.” I have also heard no importarle un pito. For a translation of that just think of Rhett Butler’s comments to Scarlett O’Hara when she begged him to come back.

I am pretty fond of the radish because it is fresh, has crunch. Pito isn’t bad either. Pito translates as cigarette, a jot, boo, whistle, or hiss.

I enjoy collecting foreign idioms because they are perfect, as well as fresh, metaphors for my writing. When that cliché rears its ugly head (hear that?), or my critique group points one out, sometimes searching for a new way to express that thought can be difficult. They are clichés because they adhere in our brains like glue, a kind of mental fly paper that the writing hand sticks to when feeling lazy or uninventive.

An idiom from a foreign language can add just the right tone and a new twist. My work in progress is about living in this country, so using metaphors that come from here seems logical and I think adds flavor of the pieces I write.

Other ways to work on the issue:

  •  Use all your senses to describe a scene or a person
  • Keep a journal of experiences—many of these posts are coming from my journals, by the way.
  • Read, read, read.  Some of my favorite writers have wonderful new and imaginative metaphors. TC Boyle and Neal Stephenson are masters of the art.
  • Exercises to flex the brain.
  • Write a new metaphor every day for a year. You will get better at it.

So, how clichéd is your writing, and how do you find new ways to express those flabby old radishes that crop up from time to time in our work?


H is for Hacerse Bolas

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

  Hacerse bolas is to become confused, which is easy to do if you don’t speak Spanish very well. Like me.

But for a long time I didn’t have to learn the language.

The area where we live, the Atlantic coast, was first populated by indigenous natives and then by West Indian blacks, who came to Costa Rica to work for Minor Cooper Keith, the American who built the railroad from San José to Limón in the 1800s. The government gave him vast tracts of Caribbean lowland as a form of payment, and eventually he founded United Fruit; Costa Rica is the original Banana Republic.

These people of color stayed after the railroad was completed and called Limón home. They worked on Keith’s plantations or fished along the Atlantic coastline or farmed cacao here for many generations.

All that changed in the late 1970s when a mildew blight infected their cacao crops, With their harvest and income depleted, they sold the land to people like us. Now the area is filled with European and North American expats and Spanish descendants from the Central Valley– a cultural melting pot– but for many years the primary language here was either English or patois.

Being a lazy person, I consequently didn’t learn Spanish and still do not speak it fluently. I still get lost in a rapid-fire or highly complex conversations. One drink and I’m articulate. Two and I’m expressive, communicative, and eloquent, or think I am. Three, and I revert to being like a two-year old who asks for things with gestures, rudimentary words, and temper tantrums.

So, for years this was our routine when we were looking for a shop or a business in San José. Alan drove and I would tell him pull over when I saw someone I thought looked friendly and might know the area. I’d ask if they knew the place we were looking for. Depending on which way they pointed, we drove in that direction until I found another person and repeated the drill. It took Alan years to realize I hadn’t understood a jot of what they’d said.

“You always looked like you knew what you were doing,” he told me one day when it became obvious I had no clue. We backtracked a lot in those days, were lost more often than not, but we eventually found our way.

There is less hunt and peck these days. Now I know San José and many of its shortcuts. Alan still drives, but I can navigate at least three blocks ahead of us. I work on my Spanish, even though their verbs drive me insane, and I’m only caught scratching my head a few times a year. I can even use the telephone to inquire about things. Now that is progress.






G is for Guachimán

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

Guachimán is another name for a watchman. Some dress in formal uniforms, have a police baton, and a gun like the guy on the left. They guard neighborhoods and individual businesses. Tourists are often alarmed to see these men with automatic assault weapons at the grocery store or ferretería (hardware store), but, hey, you get used to it. Crime is everywhere.

There is also the entrepreneurial watchmen, or car parker. In downtown Limón, and many other towns across Costa Rica, a driver has a choice: leave the car unattended on the street and hope it doesn’t get ransacked by a car prowler, or leave it with an informal attendant. Often they are one and the same, but no matter.

The car parkers in Limón are a half step up from vagrancy, but they never want very much money, and we have never lost anything over the years, so we use them. (Oh, I take that back. We did get burned once when the car was in a secure parking lot.) When we park our old Jeep pickup on the street, inevitably some vago in tattered clothing staggers from doorway, where he’s been sleeping, and points vehemently with one hand at the truck and simultaneously at his own eye. “I got it! I got it! I watchin’ it!”

My husband likes to engage these men in conversation—he knows all of them— and sometimes it has unexpected results. One day he was chatting with our parker-for-a-day, and the guy asked, “What you doing here?” Alan, at first confused as the whether this was a philosophic question about being an expat in Costa Rica, started to answer, “Well, we’ve lived here— ”

“No, I mean what’s you doing in Limón? Today!

Alan said,  “We’re looking for tires.”

The car parker’s face lit up, eyes blazing, and he rushed the truck. Bending down, he asked, “What size is she?”

I laughed and told Alan, “You better tell him you were joking or somebody’s car will be missing all four tires tonight.”




F is for Frito

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)


Accident at Nestor Creek

Frito means “in trouble,” sort of our way of saying, “It’s toast.”

It used to be wild down on the Atlantic side of this country. It’s called the Free Zone because it is the area between the Panamanian frontier and the first puesto de policía (police check point) at Cahuita. Twenty years ago there were only two police officers stationed in Puerto Viejo and the government didn’t fund them very well, so people took care of things themselves.

There was a wreck on a one-way bridge close to our property several years ago. A car and a four-wheeler had played chicken about who had the right of way. The four-wheeler lost the contest—no surprise there— and was upside down under the bridge when we arrived. The car, parked in the middle of the bridge, had a large dent in the front end. The female driver stood next to it waiting for the police. A small group restrained the owner of the four-wheeler who wanted to mix it up. Cars, trucks, and a bus were backed up on both sides of the bridge, and a group of men argued with the woman, imploring her to move her vehicle.  She refused.

When there is a car accident in Costa Rica, drivers are supposed to leave their vehicles in position and wait for the police. They then write-up a report and turn it over to the governmental agency that handles all things Insurance.

That may work in San José, but all of us knew the police were not coming. I once called them about a fight that had broken out between one of our workers and another local over some stupid insult. The police told me, “When we can borrow a car, we’ll be down to check on it.”

The men finally convinced the woman to move her car off the bridge, but it was probably the bus’ air horn that made the biggest impact. Traffic resumed. My husband and I went on into town to run our errands.

We  bounced over the rough road into Puerto Viejo and were just in time to see two men pushing the police car down the dirt street toward the police station. More trouble with the engine. ¡Frito!

E is for Estañon Sin Fondo


Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

Old-time pulperia

Gluttony. I don’t believe I am a glutton, but I do tend to hoard food.

For a long time I stockpiled because there simply weren’t any decent pulperias ( grocery stores, mostly called tiendas in other Latin American countries) in our area, so if I saw something we needed, or I wanted, I bought two or three and stashed the rest away for later use. My larder was chock-a-block full and the freezer packed tight.

Back in the late 1980s a whiny old Italian ran our local pulperia in Punta Uva. Leno had an epiphany on the plane when he emigrated to Costa Rica whereby it was revealed that his true calling was as a curandero, a healer. I am sure it was mere coincidence that he had no other way to support himself when he left his home shores.

Sometimes, without notice, Leno closed the store because he was holding sessions. His patients paid for his services with Guinea fowl, chickens, ducks, or geese, and an attack by one of these was fairly common when trying to buy food. If he was available, he slouched behind the counter of his little multi-colored, rundown shack and kept a board across the entrance, barring anyone from passing.

No matter what the weather, he had some complaint. “It’s too hot and sticky” he would say, running his hands through his uncombed white hair. Three days later when the rains came he’d vetch, “It’s too cold and the rain… it’s so depressing.”

He never let me pick the items I wanted, instead he held up vegetables that were ready for the compost and asked how many I wanted. Rotting, rubbery carrots, some black-spotted cabbage, and a small bin of onions that reared half the world’s population of fruit flies was the extent of his inventory.

I’ve heard Hell’s punishment for gluttony is being force-fed rats, toads, and snakes for eternity. It couldn’t be any worse that those vegetables. Mostly, unless desperate, we traveled the 40 kilometers to Limón and the bigger markets, but that took hours because the roads were so bad.

photo by Hubert Steed

Now, of course, there are grocery stores you can walk into and browse the aisles, handle the fruits and vegetables, and pick your own. The roads are paved, so running into town is a viable option, and Puerto Viejo even has a Saturday market where vendors from the Central Valley bring an array of farm-fresh vegetables. Fennel the size of softballs, carrots so full of juice they practically bleed when you cut them, red and yellow onions, zucchini, eggplants, and greens. Ah, the greens! When I first saw the pile of Swiss chard at one stall I nearly bought the entire stock.

It is hard for me, and I must repeat to myself like a mantra, “Only buy one, Sarah, there will be more next week.”





D is for Dicha

Costarican idioms fro A to Z (loosely interpreted)

D is for dicha, or luck. When you ask anyone in Costa Rica how they are, they almost always answer, “Muy bien, por dicha,” or, “Muy bien, gracias a dios.”  “With luck,”  or “Thanks be to God,” we are doing okay. They acknowledge with this common greeting that their wellbeing is not an assured thing.

When I was in nursing school we learned in our cross cultural classes about something called locus of control. The idea was first introduced by Julian Rotter in 1954 and has come into and out of fashion in psychology ever since.

The idea is that everyone has a locus (Latin for place) where they feel their life is controlled. People with a high internal locus of control believe that events result primarily from their own behavior and actions.  Contrarily, People with a  high external locus  feel events outside of themselves decide if they are successful or not.

I’ve always found this concept fascinating and how it applies in things like obesity, diabetes management, and exercise, but I also think it applies to politics and the current state of inequity in the USA. For instance, has the recent economic decline in the USA flipped some people who firmly believed they had control over their destinies in to the external locus group? Hard not to see how that might happen. How many people lost jobs and fell behind in the mortgages or became homeless through no fault of their own? Do hard economic times change the statistics?

In Rotters’ time (the 1950s and 60s) the data showed whites as having a propensity for internal locus, blacks and hispanics, external. And in the 1950s it’s easy to see how those statistics might hold up. But now? I doubt it. My guess is white people are feeling less secure in their ability to steer their own ship, unless, of course they are in the 1%.

Costaricans tend to acknowledge that not everything is within their control. Life has taught them that.

I once thought I was firmly in the Internal Locus group. I could do anything I wanted. Now, being— of a certain age— I have discovered that even though I have done everything correctly, life sometimes offers up a curve ball when I thought it was coming right down the middle.

What’s your locus of control? Click here for a short questionnaire.




C is for calenton de cabeza.

Costarican idioms from A to Z (loosely interpreted)

The verb calentar means “to heat,” so this expression means “to get angry” (hot headed).

Do I have a problem with this?


This has probably been my single highest hurdle living in Costa Rica. When I first arrived twenty years ago (can it have been that long?) any little thing would have me venting my spleen. Their insane driving habits, long lines in banks, multiple locations where we had to pay bills, nothing I wanted in grocery stores, no Internet, no PHONE, all had me in a constant tizzy.

Poooor Sarita.

“Why can’t they do things in an orderly manner?” I bitched to my long-suffering partner.

His response, “If you want it done like they do it in the USA, why don’t you go home?”  That always shut me up, because what I really I wanted was to be with him.

A couple of things changed the way I approached all these brain-combusting situations. One was a comment by my Australian son-in-law. He said once in casual conversation—and he is right—  “The First World is an anomaly; the way things happen in the rest of the world is the norm.” Well. I had to think about that.

Why should there be staid and starchy traffic patterns? Why did I assume there should be quick and efficient access to a teller? In almost all non-westernized countries there is a general chaos (loose anarchy?) and what I have come to call “informal payments.” But there is also also personal freedom of a kind I was unaccustomed to in the USA. No police will stop you when you are trying to kill yourself on a motorcycle without a helmet, there are no federal safety regulations (to speak of), and if you stand under a guy on a ladder and he drops a hammer and it hits you on the head, well… you have the fault. People in the Third World assume you have common sense and will take care of yourself.

The other thing that happened to change my outlook relates to yesterday’s post: the propensity of Costaricans to pick a legal fight. Once involved in one of those, all other irritants seem minor by comparision.I have learned to pick my battles.

Now, I always take a book to the bank and can sit for long periods of time until they are ready to wait on me (love my Kindle). The Internet has cleared up my time paying bills, so those multiple locations and days to pay bills are no longer and issue (that really was annoying, I have to admit). There are now often more choices in our grocery stores on this Caribbean coast than in San José, and I have an iPhone (I believe everyone is calmer when operating an iPhone).

There are still irritating things that happen, but just drop by the Department of Motor Vehicles in almost any state in America and it will prove that Costa Rica is not unique in exasperating chores.

So (mostly) I don’t sweat the small stuff, even when all of it piled together could create a bonfire for the brain.

And I remeber to breathe.


B is for Bochinche

Costarican idioms from A to Z

In Costa Rica, bochinche means “to mix it up” or “to fight.” But, curiously, it is also a Costarican national dish.

When ordering the almuerzo, or lunch, one can order a casado or a bochinche. The only difference is the way they are presented. The casado is a combination plate of rice, beans, a stewed meat, a salad, and, if you are lucky, a crispy, sweet fried plantain. The bochinche has all the same ingredients but is served in individual small bowls. As my friend Lidia, who owns Lidia’s Place, a small soda (cafe) in Puerto Viejo, says, “You get’s to mix it up.”And actually it is not surprising to me that the bochinche would be a national dish.

Fighting is a state sport here. For all the public relations blitzes about having no military, and the myth that Costa Rica is The Switzerland of Latin America, these people are scrappers.  Historically, they have stolen land from their neighbors and fought wars over it;  Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula were both stolen from Nicaragua, The Southern Zone stolen from Panama, and last year the Costarican government had armed conflicts with Nicaragua over the Rio San Juan border to the north.

This is not something expats learn until they have lived here for some time. The urge to mix it up goes from the highest levels of government right down to campasinos. Almost everyone I know has either been in court, or is in court, over some stupid conflict or another.

One friend of ours bought a plot of land from someone he grew with, his neighbor for over twenty years. Six years after the purchase, and with the price of land skyrocketing, they burned him out and claimed he’d never bought the land, despite his having documents to prove otherwise. Their rationale? He didn’t pay enough money and they needed more. There are fights like this one going on all the time, legal brawls between families, brother against brother, expats versus the locals, and most famously, one hotel owner who fought the government for twenty years. They finally tore his hotel down and he died two months later, but not before he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs.

You can spend years in the legal mosh pits over something as illegal as the previous owner changing his mind despite having signed a bill of sale—”Oh, someone offered more!” Not to put to fine a point on it, it’s a form of extortion.  Ask any Costarican—  they can quote the law as though they’d been to law school, and they are ready to mix it up. The courts are complicit in all this; often, is comes down to paying your way out.

Perhaps Costa Rica should establish a military and conscript  everyone in the country to serve for at least two years. Maybe that would curb the appetite for battle.

So, yes, B si for bochinche, a very Costarican dish.


A is for Apuntarse

Costarican idioms from A to Z (loosely interpreted)

A is for Apuntarse: to join, as in join in an activity, or a club (or a blog challenge). The verb matricular is also used here, but that is better translated as “enroll.” The informal is apuntarse (¿Alguien se apunta a escribir una blog A a Z?).

I’ve never been much of a joiner. Perhaps that is one reason I am an expat living along these Caribbean waters. It might also be because I lived a nomadic life in my youth;  my parents moved almost every year while I was growing up. No, we were not a military family, instead we were a political family. My father was a back room politician with the Democratic Party, a mid-century James Carville if you will.  In any event, I went to eight grade schools in eight years. So I guess I never saw the point of joining anything or even making close friends, because I was sure we would move. And we did. Outside my brothers and sisters and extended family of cousins, I can count only one friend  who I’ve kept in contact over the years. We moved a lot.

Being apart became a way of life for me, so being an expat is a natural extension of that. People always ask if I mind being a stranger in a strange country, and really the answer is, no, I don’t mind. In some ways it is easier because here I know am different. In my own country friends expected me to join book groups and other social groups, and I did do some of that when my two children were growing up,  but it has never really interested me.

Until now.

Recently I have realized the importance of joining a group of some sort. I am watching my father, also a non-joiner, in the last years of his life. He is now adrift in his late nineties, living in a memory unit in Oregon. He does not want to do crafts or join discussion groups, he does not want to go to the wine and cheese parties the staff plans or take a drive to the country. He sees no point in exercise clubs unless, like he did in his youth, you are training for the Olympics. Instead, he sits.

As he has always done, he sits in his chair with the newspaper or a book, but now he has no idea what he is reading and carrying on a conversation about politics is pointless and frustrating for him. When I visited him last January I looked at him and thought, this is what happens to isolated people in their old age. It frightened me because I see so much of myself in my father.

My mother, in her mid-nineties, is a cat of a different color. She joins book groups, tai chi groups, exercise groups, gardening groups, and is gregarious to a fault. I think sometimes she would rather be distracted by a social encounter than to seriously look at her own situation. But her mind is fully intact. So, those are my role models. One who is an introvert (and  a bit of a misanthrope), and the other could be called a gadfly. I think I need a balance of the two. I treasure my solitude and do not wish to give that up, but I do need to create a social world for myself. And I have to a degree, the Internet being what it is.

I belong to several online venues. I have an online critique group that I adore, The Internet Writing Workshop. I have participated for the last five years and developed friendships that are very close; a recent illness of one of our members caused a flurry of emails across the globe.  There is always Facebook, and it surprises me how much I really enjoy belonging to Facebook. And, I just joined a writer’s corner of the Internet, Backspace.  Now here I am in this A to Z blog challenge.

I am coming out of the woodwork. My mother always said I was a late bloomer.



Remembering to Breathe

Each inhalation, an opening gate. Each exhalation, an accepatance.

Moving step by step––in breath––I make my way to the beach.

And beyond.