Small town social media politics

It was late at night when the phone rang.  I didn’t bother answering it because it’s always for my wife and since I feel confident in my secretary Spanish I just let her get it.  This time though after about a minute of talking she turned and handed the phone to me.  In a look of astonishment I tried to read her face as to why I needed to get involved. 

Was it a telemarketer?  Somebody trying to prank us?  Or some lost tourist calling out of desperation?  I fumbled with the phone and slowly raised it to my ear.  “H-Hello” I said not even sure what language I should be speaking.  I received a poorly articulated, mumbled response that sounded much more like gibberish than Spanish or English.  After repeated attempts to establish who this person was and what they were asking me I was about to write this person off as a prank artist when their was a sudden change in the tone of the voice.

Gone was the soft, mumbled whisper now replaced by a deeper more polished tone.  “Dustin, what is the password to my Facebook account?”  Stymied I was still trying to piece together vital information.  First off, who is calling me and why at this time?  Is this person safe?  For all I know maybe he was being held for ransom by computer hackers… “It’s me. A, Ale-le-jo, ejo, Alejo..” Alejo?  I thought for a moment and that’s when it made sense.

A few days earlier I had received a call, during normal business hours, from my wife’s uncle about help setting up a Facebook page.  I was a little perplexed as it’s not everyday a middle aged banker starts a social media account.  There had been rumors circling the last month or so that he would be running in next February’s elections for mayor of San Ramon.  It wasn’t quite Joe Biden buzz but it was to the point where even I was getting asked in the street. Something had to be up.

Well, when he arrived later that afternoon he came sporting bumper stickers: Alejo Castro Mayor 2016, thus putting to rest the rumors that had been circling the last month.  As far as a social media announcement he had his heart set on Facebook.

I didn’t think he knew exactly what it was for or how to use it, but he knew that he needed it.  Like he read it in a campaign strategy book or something.  He probably also read somewhere that nothing is officially official until Facebook says so.

I mean this is the uncle that comes over on the weekends to hang out with his sister and brother in law, the one who invites us to go ride his horse.  This is the one who visited my parent’s house and was most amazed by how green the grass was and how beautiful it looked when it was all mowed and swept up.  This guy couldn’t be farther from social media than Pluto is from the Sun.          

Our first meeting couldn’t have been closer to the truth.  He sat in the living room with my in laws and yelled instructions to me while I sat at the kitchen table making the page.  Occasionally he would use my wife as a messenger when I couldn’t hear him over the roar of the TV or the dog barking for attention.  I felt like I was at my grandparent’s house where my Grandpa would yell at us from his armchair instead of getting up and walking over to see what we were doing.

I felt honored that he would trust me enough to make the page for him.  Maybe that was a sign that I’m now part of the family and it felt good. No one close to me has ever gotten involved political so much that they started a campaign and it was great knowing I had successfully made my contribution to the campaign, well, up until the phone call.  The following day I was working in my office when there was a knock on the door.  I went to the door and there was the banker.  Dressed in a suit and tie and flashing around his smart phone, he was really trying to act the part now.

“Chito (a Costa Rican word for boy) how do I get all my social media friends to ‘like’ my page?”  I was taken aback.  “Is that your smart phone?”  I asked, or was he borrowing it from someone?  After corralling his wavering arm I managed to take a look at his phone and it turns out it was indeed his and he even had the Facebook app installed.  However still no page likes.

In Costa Rica the term “pobrecito” (you poor thing) is used when people notice that you are not achieving what you want to achieve.  Usually right after they say that they will offer to help in some way.  I didn’t say it but I was definitively thinking it so I invited him in and we figured out how to get ‘likes’. 

Since then I haven’t been awaken in the middle of the night with any social media emergencies and I’ve also seen that he’s been adding content to his page.  I’m not convinced I taught an old dog a new trick but I think I’ve bought myself some time until the next campaign event.  I just hope he doesn’t ask me to open a Twitter feed for him, then I’ll be the pobrecito. 

Alejo Castro 2016


A Sacred Pilgrimage or a Walk of Shame?

As my wife tugged my shoulder, she urged me on impatiently.

“Come on, come on just a little bit further!!” she said. “My uncle was at this bar last night, and he said there were a bunch of fights, so I want to see what it’s like today.”

I quickened my pace but not my expectations.  I’ve been to enough festivals and block parties to know I’m probably not entering a battle zone, but then again it’s not every day there is this much excitement in San Ramon.

We sped up the sidewalk toward the bar. There was music blaring in the parking lot and a DJ reminding patrons they could only consume alcohol if they were under the tent surrounded by police officers.  We figured we might see some blood on the wall or teeth on the floor and even though it was a Sunday morning, maybe another throw down.

However this wasn’t like a heavy metal concert, or even the beer tent at my local hometown days festival back in the US.  This was part of the annual Lady of Los Angeles pilgrimage, a Catholic tradition that involves people walking to the basilica from all over Costa Rica to pray to the Lady of Los Angeles and ask for help and guidance.

The street party was completely unaffiliated with the tradition, of course, but it was obviously taking advantage of it. And it wasn’t unusual.  The condensed version of the Lady of Los Angeles story goes like this: A young girl found a small statue of the Lady of Los Angeles in the forest and took it home with her but couldn’t find it the next day. She returned to where she had found it and it was there again. That happened over and over.  As a result, the town decided to build a basilica at the site, and every year people make the pilgrimage from all parts of Costa Rica to ask her for forgiveness and help with their lives. They walk for days, some barefoot, and some even on their hands and knees.

In theory, this should be a beautiful, sacred event. They close the main street for miles leading up to the basilica, and even if you are not religious, you are welcome to walk along with the crowd. Many people choose to go with friends as a fun way to spend the day.  Some use it as an excuse to get in some exercise, and others, well, use it as an excuse to get drunk and fight.

I was really baffled seeing people walking around with plastic cups with what I thought had to have been ginger ale. It was a hot day, so soft drinks would make sense. But it began to dawn on me that there was a little more going than casual ginger ale drinking.

You didn’t have to look far from the basilica to see signs advertising beer. There are only two bars in the small town and it seemed like they needed to make all their sales for the year on this weekend.  Panning down to the street, I started to notice people pulling up in the back of pick up trucks in cowboy boots and hats as if there were a parade. Here there were people who have walked miles, maybe for days and others were acting like it was a tailgate party.  Nowhere would I have imagined a scene of this kind.

The Catholic church has events year round in San Ramon, and they are always family-friendly. They have a parade of saints where they march each of the surrounding town’s saints around the downtown area. They have Holy week processions. They even have a big two-week “hometown days” type event where they have concerts and carnival games.

At none of those events have I seen consumption of alcohol. So I was puzzled and beleaguered at the amount of alcohol at this event.  I can see people walking along with friends just for fun, but the amount of alcohol was overwhelming. I saw groups of teenagers walking down the street with bottles of liquor in paper bags. There was a first-aid station set up for the pilgrims but if I had to guess they probably attended more drunk than sober people.

Maybe this was too big of a culture shock for me. This was my first time participating, and despite everything that was going on the pilgrims didn’t seem to mind. Or maybe the ones who feel disgusted just don’t even go anymore. We visited some friends who lived down the street from the basilica, and they didn’t even seem to notice the event was going on.

I didn’t come across any evidence of violence and didn’t stay long enough to see if the fighting resumed, but I saw enough to know that a fair number of “participants” are hurting the image of this  sacred pilgrimage.  I know God works in mysterious ways but even He should have been upset. I was half expecting He would send a lighting bolt to fry the DJ’s sound system.  That would have sent a message.

Returning to the U.S. is no Foregone Conclusion

People almost never ask me if I will leave Costa Rica, but they really should.

As upwardly mobile as society is, nothing is ever set in stone, and I’m no exception. I’ve cliff-hanged about my intentions of staying in Costa Rica many times. But no matter how many times I’ve wanted to stay, something has always come up and forced me to leave.

Recently, I was put on the spot by a visiting colleague of mine from the United States. It was her first time to Costa Rica, and she decided to come visit me and my family her first night here.

She started with a softball: So how does a twenty something year old gringo end up in tropical Costa Rica?

I get asked this question about as often as it snows in winter, so this was an easy one. This time, I chose to go in chronological order: The first time I was in college, the second time I was volunteering, then I met my

They even have pizza in Costa Rica, what's not to love?
They even have pizza in Costa Rica, what’s not to love?

girlfriend, started a business and married my girlfriend and rode off into the sunset.

It was my best explanation yet. It included all the highlights, the tense, do-or-die deal-breaker moments and the realization of my new life. Had I had a pen and paper, this would have been the first draft of my autobiography.

At the end of my tale, which she had shown great interest listening to, there was a brief pause, followed by her question: “So when do you plan on going back to the U.S.?”

I was mildly startled by the question. “What kind of question is that?” I thought.

“Of course I plan on… I mean in a few ye-ye-years… This will all… eh, eh… When I get a job with CEO pay!” I finally blurted out to dodge the question.

I didn’t know why that was so hard to answer. I should have been prepared. Wondering why I wasn’t kept me thinking the rest of the night.

I came to the conclusion that it was quite a loaded question.

Had I planned to go back, I couldn’t expect people to think what I’m doing here is serious. It would seem this almost 10-year voyage that led me here would be for nothing. And if I didn’t go back, would I be running from the American dream?

I’ve never thought much of what other people think of me, but this was heavily influencing my answer. How I answer might cause people to form a different opinion about me.

The question reminded me of a couple I met once in Costa Rica. They had been married for 15 years and had no children, and every year they are still asked about having children.

They had no children because they didn’t want any – and I’m sure they decided that a long ago and that it is a non-issue for them – so I imagine they, too, are caught off guard when the question comes up.

I wonder if they ever make up an excuse just so people won’t think it is so different. Maybe that should be my strategy, too. Maybe what I am doing is a little too off the norm and people unconsciously assume this will all end.

Well, here’s one reason that’s a faulty assumption.

From 2004 until 2013, I never had a single address for more than 10 months at a time. Whether I was at college in Minnesota, teaching English in Spain, riding out the recession at home or traveling throughout Central and South America, I never had any intention of settling down.

So you would think that now after over more than two years in one place and one year of marriage I would be itching at the sides to make a change, if only to go back to the United States. But that thought has never really crossed my mind.

I still travel back a few times a year, and I have a place here for my parents to stay whenever they want to visit. Plus, with technology, a video call is never more than a moment away. If I do get lonely there is more than enough family to go around.

Over the years, I’ve been “adopted” into many families and married into one whose family tree is bigger than a sequoia. I don’t know in what moment the question became irrelevant but other than in the CEO salary scenario, I think I am pretty well settled in.

My colleague really stumped me that first night with that innocent, curious one-liner, and my answer probably wasn’t satisfying at the time. But redemption was served up fresh the next week, when my colleague, now back at work, messaged me: “Oh my gosh, Costa Rica was so wonderful, I can’t believe I was only able to stay for a week.”

I’m sure now she doesn’t even recall asking me that head-scratcher in the first place. Maybe that is why no one really asks. Spend any amount of time here and you’ll forget you had that question for me in the first place.

¡Pura Vida!

The Rains Have Returned?

mountain range

Wednesday afternoon April 15th felt a little strange.  Something didn’t feel right.  Maybe it was the cloud formations in combination with the wind patterns but something didn’t feel right climatically.

In Costa Rica it really isn’t difficult to say what the weather will be: rainy or sunny.  What is difficult to predict is when and where it will be one of those two options.  You can travel a few miles down the road and go from sunny and clear to cloudy and rainy.  Sometimes you can look out your window and see (and hear) what appears to be a storm approaching however it may never arrive and just stall out where it is.

Weather patterns don’t enter from the west and exit east.  They just develop and expand for a few hours until their energy runs out.  That’s what made Wednesday afternoon so interesting.  It hasn’t rained in San Ramon since December and the rainy season typically begins sometime in April or May.  It really depends on where you are though in Costa Rica.  Some places it rains the whole year, other places only 9-10 months and some places only 4-5 months.

Rain cloud or normal cloud?
Rain cloud or normal cloud?

That afternoon as I was looking out my window towards the NE I saw the storm cloud.  Was it raining just outside of town?  Or was it just threatening?  Should I take the clothes off the line or risk being caught off guard?  I decided to play it by ear because something didn’t feel right.

I went back to work and after about an hour I heard the slight “tac—tac—tac—tac” noise that the rain makes when it hits the metal roof sheeting.  I jumped out of my chair and went into the backyard to confirm my suspicions.  Yes the clothes were being sprinkled on by big cool drops of rain, totally refreshing on this 80 degree day.  A few minutes later the “tac-tacs” on the roof would increase to a full blown snare drum so loud that you would have to yell to have a normal conversation.  For instance, imagine you are watching TV in your room and your mom comes in and starts vacuuming.  If you are lucky and have a two story house you can escape the madness by hanging out on the ground floor until symphony subsides.

Now some people may dread the idea that it is going to rain for the next 8 months but with so many droughts all over the world this is really a great blessing.  Everything in and around San Ramon has turned to a dirty, brown color and the wind has howled up numerous clouds of dust making it impossible to keep anything clean for more than a few hours.

That afternoon it rained for about an hour.  As I write this two days later it hasn’t rained since then and I haven’t felt the indescribable sensation that it might rain.  Maybe it is

Ready for the rain
Ready for the rain

something that you pick up unconsciously after living here for awhile.

I do know that the transition will be happening soon and I am looking forward to the greening pastures and the reduction of dust in my lungs.  I’m also hopeful the rains will allow Costa Rica to keep its streak of producing all its electricity renewably.

What a difference Guatemala makes Part 1

Antigua view from hills

This blog typically is directed at all things Costa Rica however I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in Guatemala (a neighboring central american country to the north of Costa Rica).  This is part one of a series of posts that will cover my week long trip.

A lot of people assume all countries in this part of the world are all alike: poor, underdeveloped, politically unstable, hurricane prone etc. Having lived in Costa Rica awhile now I would like to share some differences I noticed between the two countries.  (note: In Guatemala I spent half my time as a tourist and the other half as part of a mission team working in rural impoverished communities).

Only $15!!
Only $15!!

1.  Guatemala has cheap tours (compared to Costa Rica).  I wanted to cry.  I spent two nights in Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO heritage site and probably the most touristy city in Guatemala yet I felt like everything was a steal in comparison to Costa Rica.  They had many tours that were outrageously cheap.  Volcano hikes, boat trips, bungee jumping, and just plain old market shopping where you could find prices half of what they would be in Costa Rica.  I looked dumbfounded at the price sheet and not in a million years could I offer tours that cheap.  We went to hike a volcano and had round trip transfer (1hr each way), park entrance, and tour guide all for about $15 a person.  A tour like that runs about $30 in Costa Rica not including transportation.

2.  Costa Rica I think has better bang for its buck than Guatemala.  Sure you pay a little more but you get friendly, outgoing, English speaking drivers/guides.  I’m not saying that Guatemalans are mean or unfriendly but they are more timid in nature.  You as the tourist have to initiate conversations with them and once they feel comfortable with you they will start to open up and tell you all about their country.  You should also know a little bit of Spanish as the English is not as good as it is in Costa Rica.  Our guide gave a huge sigh of relief when she found out everyone in our volcano hike group spoke some Spanish.  I don’t think the tour would have been as engaging if they would have had to speak English.    I also wasn’t that impressed with some of the nicer restaurants I went to in Antigua.

I complain a lot sometimes about restaurant food in Costa Rica being expensive however I have a theory.  Despite being expensive the portion sizes are enormous.  I think restaurants raise their prices and then justify it by serving more food which I think is fair so really my gripe is not with the price but rather with how they are encouraging an obesity epidemic.  I didn’t feel the same in Antigua.

One nice restaurant that I went to and ordered a cheeseburger that was about the size of a typical kid’s meal burger and I got some french fries that were good but I only got about half that I would get at any Costa Rican restaurant.  On top of that the rum and coke I got tasted quite watered down and was served in a glass slightly larger than a shot glass.  For full disclosure purposes I should note that we received a 10% discount to eat at this restaurant because it was owned by the hotel we were staying at.  So technically we were “recommended” this restaurant, however it may have been a desperation tactic to get people just to eat at their restaurant.

The best overall meal price-for-quality had to have been a pizza that I got at a fast food joint in Antigua.  It was pretty decent pizza that I got for about half of what I would normally pay in Costa Rica.  Actually, I got a medium supreme pizza and 2 pepsis for the same price as my kid’s burger and half fries from the previous restaurant.

These were some observations from the tourist part of my trip and are not meant to be generalizations about the country as a whole, just my little piece of Antigua and the surrounding area.  Stay tuned for upcoming posts comparing the culture, economy, weather, sanitation/health, infrastructure etc of Guatemala and Costa Rica!

Now some pic comparisons:

Water Volcano - Antigua, Guatemala
Water Volcano – Antigua, Guatemala
Arenal Volcano- Fortuna, Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano- Fortuna, Costa Rica
Antigua, Guatemala with active volcano in background
Antigua, Guatemala with active volcano in background


San Ramon, Costa Rica sans active volcano
San Ramon, Costa Rica sans active volcano
My adopted Guatemalan dog
My adopted Guatemalan dog
My Costa Rican dog
My Costa Rican dog

All that revolves around the park…

CR Dustin
At the park

This post originally appeared in a local publication in May 2014 in Verona, WI.  It highlights the experiences and adventures of Costa Rica Frika founder Dustin, now living in Costa Rica.

If there is one thing that resists the times of change, it has to be a park.  Grandparents can watch their grandchildren play just as their grandparents watched them play as children.  For me, it is a capsule that brings time to a halt as the world races around it and nowhere is this phenomenon better observed than in San Ramon.

In Costa Rica, to be considered a “town”, an area must have the following: a park, a church, a school, a soccer field and a bar. The best designed towns use their park as the main gathering space and the rest of these amenities make an orbit around it, like the sun at the center of the solar system. Only at the center, no one is running around trying to complete their own world orbit.  Here, you can find couples eating ice cream, the elderly playing chess, and families watching their kids play. In other words, everybody sits comfortably on their axis. This is where people go to get their entertainment: meeting up with friends, watching community performances, or just people watching. The park is where the laid back “pura vida” lifestyle really shines through.

San Ramon Park
San Ramon Park

Any day of the week you can go to the main park in downtown San Ramon and see people hanging out. My wife goes to the park just about everyday. It doesn’t matter if she has to run errands or not because it’s really her way of getting refreshed and socializing with whoever she might bump into.

I force myself to make it to the park a few times a week now I could never believe the amount of people I would find there. What are they all doing? Are they waiting for a bus?  Is there going to be mass soon?  Are they waiting for their kid to get done with school?  Don’t they have anything better to be doing?  Usually right after I get done asking myself those questions, I bump into somebody I know and we start to chat and before I know it we have been talking for 20 minutes.  Didn’t they have to be somewhere? Weren’t they wondering if I had to be somewhere? What is so special about this park?

Finally, I concluded that being from the “land of opportunity” drives me away from the park everyday and into the office. I am a workaholic.  It now makes sense to me why I rarely saw people at the park in Verona growing up and even less if the park didn’t have a playground or a soccer field (San Ramon’s park does not).  Many of us are workaholics who are taught to continuously strive to improve our situation. Still more of us are just trying to get by.  The majority of Costa Ricans fall into the latter category, they are trying to find make ends meet with the limited employment opportunities that their country offers.

A wise Costa Rican friend of mine once told me that there are rich people and poor people lying sick in  hospital beds. What difference does it make should they both die? They both go to the next life as equals. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked when you can’t take any of that with you.  He did mention the importance of having a good lifestyle, but quality of life takes precedence. (And while he has a good quality of life, he agreed that he wouldn’t mind having a little more lifestyle as well). That’s the choice I find myself having to make on a daily basis. Is a smart phone considered a lifestyle or life quality choice?  Watch enough TV commercials and I’m sure you’ll be thoroughly convinced otherwise.  Maybe that is what I miss when I stand there, perplexed,  looking at the 60 year old man chatting with his buddies at 10am on a Tuesday at the park.  He doesn’t have an iphone or a 60¨ flat screen, but he is emanating life quality in HD.

The park in San Ramon not only serves a purpose for the day crowd but it also provides a haven for nightlife.  I used to joke with my friends that the only thing to do in San Ramon was to go the park, but this isn’t far from the reality.  The highlight of a teenager’s weekend might be to go with their friends on a Saturday night to the park and watch everyone drive their cars around the park. After a long week of work, people like to display themselves and one way of doing that is to take a few laps around the park. If you can do it in a nice car, even better.

This is a scene that is repeated all over Costa Rica. Consumerism is alive and well throughout the country, but locals are willing to do it at their own pace. Even those with employment reason that if they work less now and have to wait a few more months for the gratification of having the latest gadget, then they’ll gladly take their time and do things at their own pace so as not sacrifice “park time” or “life quality.”

About a year ago, the city gave the park a face lift.  It put in new sidewalks, re-landscaped and installed cool LED lights that allow the color of the park to change every few minutes.  All this effort affirmed the great pride that the town takes in displaying its prime attraction.  You see, without a park, a town looses its center of the universe.  With nothing to orbit there is no base, no starting point, no common ground or identity to the town.  All you have are cold concrete buildings, open for business.

Harvesting coffee in Costa Rica

Ever wonder what it’s like to pick coffee? I decided to go one day for the experience and… if your good at repetitive tasks, can work fast, and can withstand bugs, plants and getting lost, then you would be good at this. Plus great for hearing the outdoors, and guys this might be the closest experience to being pregnant that you could have.

Picking coffee is kind of a lost art, what was once a lucrative job is now relegated to immigrants and older Costa Ricans who grew up with it.