Ticos (the name Costa Ricans have given themselves) are a very complex and unique Latin American sub-culture. There are two theories as to the origination of the term ‘Tico’. The first is that Costa Ricans tend to end words with ‘tico’ rather than the widely-used ‘ito’. For example, ‘chiquito’ meaning ‘boy’ or ‘small’ is pronounced ‘chiquitico’ in Costa Rica which could have arisen from the other theory, the word ‘hermanitico’, (‘little brother’ in Spanish), an amicable way Costa Ricans would refer to themselves and each other years ago.
Ticos have an international reputation as being soft and kind, conformists and pacifists, and is certainly warranted as a massive welcoming committee to tourists. First impressions are very important to Ticos, which plays right into tourism. They live in a third millennium Eden with an ideal climate, lush green mountains, ample fresh water, natural agricultural capabilities to feed themselves and enjoy the spin-offs of first world technologies. They have universal health care, and even care for multitudes of poor and destitute Nicaraguans. They enjoy a good football (soccer) match, seldom raise a hostile voice, are very family oriented, they allow the loser to save face, and ALWAYS try to create an appealing first impression. They like shaking hands and after you have met the opposite sex once, they lightly greet each other by brushing the cheek with a smacking kiss. Don’t ever attempt a lip to lip unless you are already intimate, or want a real strange look. They seem to always take a moment for small talk with any business, including on the phone and e-mailing. You will almost never see a Tico (other than beggars) with shabby or dirty clothes, though their wages start around a dollar an hour. I’m never sure how they do it!
However, many Ticos are now concluding that not just anyone can be successful, as in the past. The first impression smile quickly vanishes as reality creeps in. Unlike years ago when the country was young, with hard work and a sense of business, anyone could make a proud name for himself (and his ten kids). Today it seems only the few rich get richer, educating their young in private schools, driving around in big 4WD vehicles and living behind high walls, alarm systems and guards. With excessive teenage pregnancy rates, and the constant influx of even poorer Nicaraguans (plus a sprinkling of others from the Caribbean basin) the rising population of Costa Rica has stretched available arable land and resources to its limits. The better quality foods, especially sea foods, are always exported to wealthier markets while first world technology products have transportation costs, and often unreasonable tariffs. Import a car and pay nearly it’s book-value in taxes. The labor intensive clothing industry thrives in Costa Rica, so hand-made clothes are cheap, but profits are often repatriated to the First World. Building materials…well, you get what you pay for – from lean-to tin, used plywood and cardboard shanties, to etched pearl-white marble staircases. At this writing, April, 2011, a gallon of gas is over $5, half a days wages for some.
Though many Ticos don’t talk about it, they are starting to shake their heads in wonderment and fear of the future, especially in the lower echelons (if they haven’t given up already). Drugs seem to reduce or help them forget their negative outlook on life, of course leading to addiction and compounding their problems. And like everywhere on the planet, there is increasingly organized crime. Domestic and street violence goes often unchecked as taxes aren’t being properly funnelled into law enforcement and social programs.
But tourists generally won’t see this other side of the Costa Rican smile. Most tourists fortunately follow popular corridors; San Jose airport to Manuel Antonio to Monteverde to Arenal Volcano to Guanacaste or the southern Caribbean, a few are starting to head south towards the Osa Peninsula, and many check out central San Jose before flying home. Therefore tourists are shuttled or drive through Costa Rica avoiding the more dangerous zones, especially in some Nicaraguan-populated urban barrios. Two thirds of Costa Rica’s population lives on two percent of its land, the Central Valley from Cartago to San Ramon because it has the nicest, most productive spring-like climate. Obviously, this is where the greatest amount of problems originate, though nowhere in Costa Rica is immune.
Internationally Ticos have a reputation of being in tune with nature, yet they are still flushing most of their toilets straight into the rivers and oceans. They are proud of their ‘Global Peace Initiatives’, yet neighbors let their dogs bark at nothing all night taking away the local peace and quiet of the neighborhood. They seem very pro-democratic yet accept social connections (nepotism) in a business or government setting, rather than fair play. Costa Rica and it’s people have the reputation as eco-friendly yet many roads are strewn with litter and garbage. Trying to recycle is difficult as there are very few deposit stations. They proudly have no military but they do have five different types of police, many with military training, not to mention their reliance on Big Brother, the USA, should the going ever get tough. They establish strong lifetime family bonds yet family arguments are quite common and emotional. God’s gift of Costa Rica being so clean and green is undermined by massive illegal, yet under-enforced deforestation. Earning an honest living is corrupted with the growing affect of living on a stepping stone in an illicit drug trafficking corridor between Colombia and the USA. Most Ticos do not have an extensive worldly education, yet many are living among a cross-section of first world tourists, introduced to their ways and their complex technologies.
Please understand I am only generalizing here, there are good people in every society. It is just that occurrences like the following happen too often to write off as a coincidence. Ask any foreigner living here. First impressions of a trustworthy and hard working Tico are often diluted by the same person when he is caught lying or stealing after he has your trust. This behavior is not chastised to the extent of other societies. Lack of integrity is almost socially acceptable. After you give a key to a maintenance man to fix your plumbing, you end up finding it necessary to change the lock. Something of value almost invariably goes missing when two or more Ticos are potential suspects, each blaming the other. The first one to grab it, actually wins! And if I can recommend one thing, buy an existing building rather than ‘building your dream’ unless (a) you are masochistic or (b) you are going to supervise it yourself, and even then, be extremely cautious.
In order to understand how the Tico culture evolved, we need to replay their history. The complex Aztec, Mayan and Olmec cultures north-west of present day Costa Rica lost their controlling influence when southerly migration reached Costa Rica’s rugged, swampy and jungle-clad environment. Of those people that did continue their migration south and east on the Isthmus of Panama, few decided present day Costa Rica was where they would make their settlement. Most kept moving into continental South America creating the sun-worshiping Mesoamerica and the Andes civilizations.
When Columbus arrived at the Caribbean shores of present day Costa Rica during his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, he found little evidence of human settlement. It is estimated there were maybe 200,000 indigenous people, spread out and living in jungle settlements, isolated from each other. Sub-cultures evolved with little outside influence, the individual chiefs calling the shots. It seems these isolated tribes met to trade, and possibly meet the opposite sex at a place called Guayabo near present day Turrialba. Unlike Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, the European settlers found there were comparatively few indigenous ‘heathens’ to indenture into slavery in the name of Christ, or to procreate with. Then reducing indigenous numbers even further, a large proportion died by either the musket or by foreign-brought diseases to which they had no natural resistance. As a result, smart governance in Costa Rica outlawed the use of free indigenous labor.
However, Costa Rica had an amazing advantage over other Central American territories. With rich volcanic Costa Rican soils and ideal temperatures especially in the Central Valley, the European settlers easily survived by their own efforts, tending their own gardens and raising cash crops, especially important was their coffee, while raising children and animals. Coffee was taxed to build roads, schools and hospitals. Little coffee plantation owners mixed in with the owners of the big coffee distributors, allowing upward mobility not seen elsewhere. Ticos never had to survive in a hot dry climate with mediocre soils found generally elsewhere on the Isthmus of Panama.
As a sign of early democratic thinking, nearly all of the Spanish governors and after 1821, the Costa Rican presidents, ruled with great benevolence. Ticos choose presidents who preferred advancing the good of the majority ahead of selfish motives. They intentionally worked from a weakened power base preferring to allow the natural economic forces to develop the Costa Rica. The Catholic church encouraged governments and plantation owners elsewhere in Central America to repress and enslave the heathens in the name of Christ. But in Costa Rica, reform for the good of all was the modus operendi. Many Costa Rican leaders were educated in Europe and progressive Latin American countries like Argentina and Chile. Their modern ideas were the cornerstones of Costa Rica’s future.
Ticos tend to be fair skinned, taller and more European facial featured than residents found in other Central American countries who largely interbred with the shorter, stockier, dark skinned indigenous people.
So with altruistic governments, rich soils, and an ideal climate to easily survive and flourish, and the possibility of upward mobility, the tall handsome Costa Ricans felt positive about themselves – so smart, so successful … self-pride was instilled and reinforced among themselves, almost looking down their noses at others who didn’t have it so easy. Even today this sentiment can be noticed. They are a very proud, generally happy people, Costa Ricans first, Latin Americans if they must.
But in reality today, half a million Nicaraguans ‘Nicas’ actually do most of the dirty laborious work that the Ticos refuse to do. Because of their extreme poverty, no real social safety net and coming from a generational war zone, unemployed Nicas are often in the evening news for committing a variety of crimes. This only increases the Tico prejudice against them.
Ticos live like there is no tomorrow. This has a double meaning. Yes, they enjoy life and some studies put them as the happiest people on the planet – quite an accomplishment! Very few complain about anything. They live for the present and as a result, have trouble thinking about and planning for the future. They’ve have never had to until now. Unlike those trying to survive in a harsher climate, nobody ever starved or froze to death in Costa Rica. Ticos have been able to kill a chicken or pick a banana when hungry, or look for a roof when it starts to rain. If you told a Tico I have ten dollars, take it, OR come back tomorrow for a hundred dollars, most would take the ten dollars and also return tomorrow wanting the hundred as well saying they misunderstood you. Many have trouble understanding short term pain for long term gain, and often procrastinate until it is too late.
Many Ticos feel that in order to win, someone else must lose and, for example, they will destroy a potentially successful business relationship if they think they have the upper hand at the moment, integrity taking a back seat as they burn their own bridges. Many fail to understand the concept of a win-win relationship. And when they do work, it seems precious few take real pride in doing a job to the best of their ability. Half finishing it, grabbing their money and running seems to be their motivation.
After living here since 1995, I have learned never to tell a Tico what to do (unless you are paying him, then supervise his work), and never offer unsolicited advice as it will probably not be received in the spirit it was given, ie. a nail scratch down the length of your car as thanks. Many of the men in Costa Rica were raised by their mothers and never had a real man to set an example. The most confusing day in Costa Rica is Father’s Day. Often Ticos refuse to accept experienced advice, thinking they are being insulted.
Ticas (female Ticos) seem to be better adjusted to today’s world. They are dominated by males, and are accustomed to being somewhat second class citizens. They tend to be more honest than their male counterparts, but if given an opportunity they are still Ticos. Most however seem happy to have a job, and take directions and advice enthusiastically. Unfortunately I would estimate that the majority of teenage Tica girls feel it is their God-given right to get pregnant not long after they reach puberty, as the father quickly and quietly slithers out of sight.
Many Ticos often say what they think you want to hear rather than the true answer you are looking for, especially if you don’t know them. For example, if you ask directions you will always get an answer, whether they know the correct answer or not. Having no answer, for some insecure reason, makes them feel stupid (on first impression).
Almost expect Ticos to be late as they expect you will be late, twenty or thirty minutes is about normal, but often upwards to an hour or more. If you leave before the hour, they get upset that you wasted their time. Their concept of time is heavily emphasized in the present and taking up someone else’s time isn’t so bad, it’s still the present!
The value of life in Costa Rica seems cheap. Morning joggers run on the narrow pot-holed roads with the traffic, bicycles compete for space on the major highways with the transports driving 100 kilometers per hour. I swear about a third of all Costa Rican drivers don’t take the fact that they are behind the wheel of a car seriously. They drive in their own little world, never using their mirrors or turn signals, looking at the passengers as much as the road, hands motioning in the air as they talk. Many drive like they are talking on a cell phone, but they aren’t. And the ones on cell phones are on another planet. This lack of attention to driving is the last thing you need on narrow bumpy Costa Rican roads, intermixed with pedestrians changing tires, fast and slow drivers, children, deep pot holes, camouflaged speed bumps, dogs and little signage. Terrifying traffic statistics underlines my point.
My Tica girlfriend was propositioned by the government driving examiner in order for her to get her driver’s license, one lady who definitely should not drive! The roads are full of drivers like her, unable to make the vehicle an extension of their body. I suspect many never had family vehicles, so it is a novelty to even be in a car, let alone driving it! On a multi-lane highway, slow drivers just pick whatever lane they want, often the fast lane, forcing faster drivers to zig-zag down the highways constantly changing lanes. And more and more cars and drivers are permitted on the narrow congested roads each year.
I am happy to see that Ticos are starting to watch dog food commercials or whatever, and seeing how dogs are much better as part of the family rather than tied up in the backyard on a four foot chain its entire life. No wonder Ticos are so afraid of dogs, many became vicious after a lifetime of abuse and neglect.
But the bottom line
Much of the blame should go to the government, a perfect example of the Peter Principle, where people advance within an organization to their point of incompetence. It seems all of the government is over their head in making any meaningful positive decisions and changes. They could give driving tips during commercials of football (soccer) games. They could encourage integrity, and that lying and stealing hurt everyone. They could reward innovative thinking rather than feeling stupid that they didn’t think of it. They could educate young girls (and boys) about family planning. They could educate about the pitfalls of drug abuse. The government, simply a consortium of Ticos, refuses to take advice from others or follow the lead of successful countries, preferring to do whatever minimum amount of work they are required to keep their job.
Costa Rica is a Third World country that is under a lot of North American influence. They are shown the styles, the technology, the culture, the communications, but they are reluctant to learn how to use these gifts, preferring their own Tico adaptation, which doesn’t seem to include benefiting society in general; helping the poor escape poverty, sex education that isn’t under the control of the antiquated Catholic church leanings, reducing red tape and streamlining things, even encouraging ingenuity. Where is the intelligence when they jam the already crowded streets with expensive parades and permit strikes to disrupt traffic? If they would only spend the money wisely, but you just can’t get through to the top floor, because everything is over their head.
There are thousands of examples of the Peter Principle at work in the Costa Rican government. Let me mention an example that affects me and my hotel, highway signage. My hotel, Adventure Inn, is in a major hotel district, Ciudad Cariari, just off the trans-America highway half way between the international SJO airport and San Jose. If tourists miss the turn off, they need to drive miles out of their way to get back to it. My guests constantly complain they can’t find my hotel. One hotel has been grandfathered in and allowed a sign on the highway. I put up an identical sign but it was repeatedly taken down by the government. I solicited all the hotels in Ciudad Cariari to pay for and I erected a beautiful sign saying Cariari hotels with an arrow to get off the highway, again it was taken down by the government. I went to the government and asked what can be done because thousands of tourists were missing the turn off, and they said they would do a study. That was three years ago, and the results of the study was that they would do something about it. To this day, nothing has been done about it, except I see another hotel has been ‘allowed’ or bribed their way to put up their own sign.
The government doesn’t seem to understand that road signage is important in tourism, and tourism is important to Costa Rica. They have their secure job, and their boss is also over his head. The thought, everyone knows where they are so why do they need signs? They know where the speed bumps are, why paint them? Costa Rica is like a bad example of the U2 hit song, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’. Try to find a house in San Jose without street names and numbers. Rather, they use for example, 250 meters west and 25 meters north of the old emergency entrance of the Hospital Calderon Guardia, with Ticos on the street directing you every way but correctly. People are constantly driving in circles, trying to find their destination, jamming the streets even more.
Costa Rica is a wonderful country but it seems to be lacking the political will, open-mindedness, intelligence and experience that could help educate Ticos in many ways to make their lives better, and without a lot of money being spent, just prioritize things. But you just can’t tell them anything. It is going to take some new strong modern global-thinking leadership, and unfortunately I don’t see it anywhere on the horizon.