Tag Archive for Costarican idioms

K is for Kilo

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

cocaine05Okay, I’ve run aground; K is a difficult letter in the Spanish alphabet. There are all sorts of K words, but they are mostly translations of things like Kant, Karachi, Kurdish, etc.

So today  I thought I would discuss Kilo. Most Americans know it as a unit of weight; one we refuse to use in our weights and measures system. Remember when the USA was going to switch from the imperial to the metric system? What a disaster. Americans just refused to do it.

I became accustomed to the metric system when I worked as a nurse, and it is such a no-brainer I’m surprised Americans are reluctant to make the switch. 10 X 10= 100, 100 X 100 = 1000. What could be easier? But we get caught up in the conversions… let’s see, a kilo is 2.2 pounds… so that makes my ten pound bag of sugar… how many kilos?

Americans are more adept at associating kilos with drugs. Cocaine. Marijuana. Columbian cartels and the Mafia. I think Americans think it sounds more like a foreign invasion if it’s in that foreign measurement. Screaming headlines like: COSTA RICA SEIZES 900 KILOS OF COCAINE. Well, clearly, this is a foreign problem. But, whether the reports are in metric or Imperial, the problem is All-American. All drugs grown or manufactured on this continent are headed for that market.

Both Panama and Costa Rica share the dubious distinction of being narrow countries on the isthmus connecting South America with the rest of Central America. Consequently, there is a logjam of drugs headed north.

The fishermen who live in Manzanillo talk about the Two Waters, the area off the coast where big boats with powerful motors run up and down the coast. They have found jettisoned packages of cocaine and brought them home. Certainly a better return than a boatload of pargo. There were a couple of bad boys down here that took to running that course at night, looking for the boats and stealing their cargo. One can only imagine the gun battles out there on with bullets flying in the salt spray. Their boat mysteriously caught fire one day. It exploded, killed one and burned the other two badly. Dangerous work.

If the contraband is not running on the sea it is laboriously making its way overland on ancient Indigenous trails. We often hear the US DEA planes flying overhead, and for about six months one year we heard loud regular explosions at night. Alan, who spent a year in Vietnam, knew immediately what it was: aerial reconnaissance, looking for marijuana fields and transport routes.

The only arrests we read about in the papers involve low-level targets. The big fish always seem to get away, and the kilos keep flowing north.


J is for Hij’ue Puta!

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

¡Hij’ue puta! (pronounced Way-Poota)

Okay, if you are sensitive close your ears; this one’s a swear word. It’s also the one most used in Costa Rica.

Literally it is translated as “shit whore,” but it is used the way we use son of a bitch or the F word to express shock or indignation.  Or, it can be used to express amazement. ¡Hij’ue puta! that girl is gorgeous.

hognosed pit viperJust seen a snake?  ¡Hij’ue puta!

I saw a snake once. I was speechless. Not one swear word out of me.

I wrote about it and the essay appears on Gordon Grice’s blog, Deadly Kingdom.

Here is the beginning:

Costa Rica is home to many of the world’s deadliest snakes, including thirteen species of pit vipers. The largest of these is the bushmaster (Lachesis muta), but it is the fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), or terciopelo, that locals fear the most.

When we first moved to Costa Rica our neighbors repeatedly warned us about them. They believed if I merely saw a man bitten it would bring bad luck. I wasn’t keen on seeking one out, but sometimes a snake is just where it is. 

One February morning back in 2007 my husband and I drove to the county seat to pay our garbage bill. I dressed casually in shorts and a tank top for comfort in the tropical heat. Alan parked our old, dependable Jeep pickup in front of the municipal building and I asked if he wanted to go with me. Getting the predictable answer, I left him there and walked in. Ten minutes later, I was back. I climbed into the truck and started to tell him about my success over bureaucracy. 

 Then something caught my eye.”    (Click here to read the rest of the essay.)


Note: the photo at the top of this post is of an eyelash viper I spotted on our property a couple of years ago. Below is the fer de lance, responsible for the largest number of snake bites recorded here every year.








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.”