Thursday, July 2, 2009

"She's sooooo Gringa!"

It's easy to discern those of us who spend a chunk of time in Costa Rica each year from the rest of the crowd... How? Dinner table talk and casual conversations with other ex-patriots and part-time residents quickly turn to discussion of household moisture-control methods and insect eradication. "Damp Rid" refills and boxes of fabric softener outnumber articles of clothing in our checked baggage bound for Costa Rica. If you've ever hauled lighting fixtures or bathroom faucets over international borders, you know what I'm talking about! We are more preoccupied with smuggling household items and our familiar creature comforts into the country than we ever were about smuggling Cuban cigars or bottles of Lizano out! Times have changed, though. Generic refills for Damp Rid containers are now readily available in Auto Mercado and Kion, and for a fraction of the cost and inconvenience of buying them in the States and cramming them into our luggage. I can buy "Pledge" furniture polish in the local Costa Rican grocery store as easily as I can at home. Kion regularly stocks Wisconsin-made Johnsonville bratwurst, for crying out loud! But something else has changed, too. Some of the simplicity is gone.

My Tica friend laughs when she hears Americans lamenting the loss of easy access to favored stateside cleaning products or household items. "She's sooooo Gringa!" she says of the American woman who complains in her blog that she just can't buy a decent bed sheet in Costa Rica--one that doesn't pill when laundered... "and those lumpy pillows!" continues the American. After months of transporting our favorite "stuff" from the States it occurred to me: Costa Ricans have gotten along just fine, thank you, without all of our perceived necessities. They continually self-report a higher life satisfaction rating than Americans. For every prescription drug and over-the-counter pill I brought to Costa Rica from the U.S., a Tico acquaintance of mine can identify a similar remedy grown locally and culled from native Costa Rican plants or derived by mixing a couple of common household ingredients.

Simplicity. I am happy to report that my last couple of trips to Pura Vida have felt more relaxed. I'm a little less preoccupied with what I "need" and more content with what is readily and locally available in our second home. A Caprese salad. Mozzarella from Monteverde (purchased in Junquillal's mini-super), tomato from Tierra Pacifica's organic farm, and fresh aromatic basil from the plant at the side of the house (originally grown on Tierra Pacifica's organic farm!). Avocado, mango, and pineapple that never seem to go out of season in Costa Rica, but which I can rarely manage to find ripe when called for in a recipe in the States. Ask around Junquillal and you'll quickly find someone who makes fresh tortillas and empanadas, or has a recipe to share that features fresh local ingredients.

What about those household cleaning products we can't live without? There's good news and bad news. The good news is Tide, Purex, Lysol and all the other name brand detergents we buy in the U.S. now line the shelves of the Jumbo and Auto Mercado in Costa Rica. The bad news is they are just as harmful to the environment in Costa Rica as they are in the U.S. In fact, phosphates and detergents in many cleaning products are less regulated in Costa Rica than at home, so ingredients may differ in seemingly-identical products. Remember all the commotion about lead content in toys and other products imported to the U.S. from China in recent years? Check out some of the goods in variety stores in Santa Cruz. Products made in China easily outnumber those made in Costa Rica. Items that are banned from store shelves at home are readily available in Costa Rica. What to do? Buy gifts and toys that are Costa Rican made or grown... like banana paper note pads, hand-embroidered bookmarks, Costa Rican fair trade coffees, soaps and candles that incorporate local herbs and coffee beans. More and more products made in Costa Rica support local artisans or communities, are sustainable, and made from renewable or recycled resources. The prices are great, too, especially if purchased directly from the community or artist rather than from a pricey tourist trap in bigger towns. Your money stays in Costa Rica but you still take a piece of Costa Rica home!

When life gives you lemons... make cleaning products! Vinegar, baking soda, citrus juices like lemon and orange, lavender, and other herbs are all readily available and can be combined to create non-toxic cleaning products and deodorizers for your Costa Rican home. Benefits include less packaging waste from store-bought products, less exposure to chemical allergens, and less harm to household pets (and mosquito and ant-eating geckos!). Start slowly... Commit to making one small change at a time. I've found it gets easier once you start.

I'll leave you with one suggestion. Reduce. There's no shortage of plastic waste in Junquillal and throughout Costa Rica. Plastic grocery bags are everywhere, including along the roadside and on the beach. They pose a danger to turtles and other marine life, as well as to land-dwelling animals, if chewed and swallowed or should the animal become entangled. If you pack one "must have" item from home, make it a reusable poly-pro or fabric grocery or tote bag. They range from 99 cents to $1.50 and can be found everywhere from your local grocery to Trader Joe's or Target. My 99 cent Trader Joe's bag made approximately 5 round-trips as a carry-on bag from the U.S. before it was coveted by a friend in Junquillal. She liked the floral pattern on the bag and now uses it for hauling her own stuff. Rob invested in a set of "Eco Silk" brand fabric bags at home that take virtually no storage space but can be reused continuously. We bought a second set for the Costa Rica house. They can be carried with us to the mini-super or to Santa Cruz for our groceries and purchases in lieu of plastic store-provided bags. I would guess we save an average of 3-5 plastic bags per grocery trip. That's a few less bags that might end up in a landfill or on the roadside.

With many new houses nearing completion in Tierra Pacifica, it will become easier to share our resources and ideas to improve our community's sustainability! This goes for household hints and ideas, resources for local labor and food, and more. Why recreate the wheel when there is a good chance one of your neighbors has been there, done that, and learned a little along the way!

Pura Vida!