Saturday, August 31, 2013


Côte d’Ivoire utilizes many of the larger genres and notable African musical characteristics, like other countries and regions in this region of the continent. Traditional vocal polyphony is a striking characteristic of much of the traditional music. Polyphony means that two or more lines are singing (or performing) at the same time, and each line is independent of each other – different from a melody line being sung above the harmony.   And likewise, they’ve also extended it to rhythms as well with the use of polyrhythms, working in much of the same way.  It creates a highly complex rhythmic line.

Percussion is very important in African music, and you’ll find the use of “talking” drums not only across Africa but in other areas of the world that was part of the African diaspora (South America and the Caribbean, for instance).

Several different styles of music came out of Côte d’Ivoire. In the early 1990s, musician Freddy Meiwey helped pioneer what’s called Zoblazo. He basically took traditional Ivoirian rhythms and merged it with electronic instruments and created a sort of party music by adding lyrics of the same effect.  Zouglou also stemmed from around the same time by disgruntled university students. It presented a little more satire in its lyrics and usually involved a dance to some made-up god.

A popular style that emerged in the last decade, especially since the beginning of the civil war, is a style called Coupé-Décalé.  It’s mostly a musical movement among the younger generations of Côte d’Ivoire. The music takes its influence from heavily percussive African styles found in deep bass, samples, or minimalist arrangements. Lyrics tend to be a range of topics from happiness to daily life in Côte d’Ivoire to the sentiments on the growing political events.

I’ve found several artists available to listen to on Spotify.  The one that I like the most is Tiken Jah Fakoly.  He’s a reggae artist who is widely known and listened to across the country. Because a lot of his lyrics are in support of bringing up the oppressed and are generally against the way the government handles things, he’s been living in exile in Mali. Even the country of Senegal has declared that him as persona non grata over criticisms of their president, meaning that he as a foreign person is officially not welcome to enter their country. This song is from the album African Revolution, which I'm pretty sure will be added to my collection. 

I’ve also discovered Christina Goh.  She was born in France, but grew up in Côte d’Ivoire, and then returned to France to study. Known as The Black Pearl of Afro-Blues, she wrote a set of poems that later became the album Christina Goh Concept.  Most of the music uses the djembe (a type of goblet drum), guitar, voice and occasionally the piano. I really like this album, and it’s grown on me. I like her voice, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to get this album as well. 

Other artists I included in my playlist include Alpha Blondy, Ernesto Djédjé, David Tayorault, and Magic System. 

Ivoirian dance, like most other African dance traditions, is closely tied to its music. Many of the dance styles are named after the music it’s danced to.  However, there is one type of dance that generated out of Côte d’Ivoire called the mapouka. It’s basically, for lack of a better word, a booty dance, where the dancer – mostly women, for obviously reasons – faces away from the audience and shakes her booty without really moving her hips. There was a push in the 1980s to make it popular, but that plan sort of failed. Only when the government banned its performance in public did it really become popular. There’s nothing like telling someone “no” to make them want to do it.

Up next: the food!

Friday, August 30, 2013


Hands down, Ivoirians are known for their woodcarving skills. And if there is one thing they are most known for would be masks. Masks, in and of itself, are not something new or unique to Africa in general. But each tribe or group of people that create them puts their own cultural touch to it.  Masks serve a variety of purposes and are created in a variety of styles as well:  some symbolize deities, some represent deceased individuals, and other are created in the likeness are animals.  Ivoirians believe that these masks have their own soul, and when you put the mask on, the soul of the mask enters the wearer’s body.  This is why only certain people can wear certain masks.  And in fact, not just anybody can even own a mask. 

But in modern times, masks aren’t merely the only things that Ivoirian artists do.  Today, artists have expanded their field to include all types of art, including photography, sculpting, textile arts, and painting. 

One of the most famous photographers in Côte d’Ivoire is Ananias Leki Dago. He’s won several awards for his work over the past decade.

Another artist who has won several awards for his work is sculptor Christian Lattier.  Many of his pieces are in a special collection held at the Musée National de Ivory Coast in Abidjan. 

Ouattara Watts is a painter whose works are renowned the world over as a neo-expressionism artist. The thing that makes his art interesting is the use of recycled materials in his art. 

The earliest forms of literature, as with most other areas of Africa, come from the oral storytelling traditions.  Each tribe or ethnic group of people certainly has their own stories told in their own languages.  And while colonialism generally led to a lot of changes in Africa that wasn’t always welcome or warranted, there were some things that came as a result of it that wasn’t so bad.  Ivoirian literature as we know it is written in French, a “second” language for most Ivoirians.  And yet, at the same time, because many of these countries have 60 or 70 different indigenous languages, French acted as a lingua franca among the people.  And by writing in French, a lesser impact more or less set up literature from Côte d’Ivoire to be mainly read in the European market first and the African Francosphere market second.

The subject matter certainly varies from writer to writer and from decade to decade. On one hand, there are traditional stories that have been chronicled, and on another hand, there is the political and socio-economical sentiments.  Ivoirian literature also ranges in genres including poetry, short stories, plays, and novels.

Born in Abidjan, Marguerite Abouet later moved to the suburbs of Paris.  Although she tried to write novels at first, she really made her name as a graphic novelist.  Although her first graphic novel, Aya, depicted life in Côte d’Ivoire, and it was often speculated that it was semi-autobiographical, but she insisted that it wasn’t.  She collaborated with her artist husband who did the illustrations. It was rather successful both in France and abroad, and there are others that followed the first one. It’s available through – I read a little of a preview they have. I might try to buy it one of these days. My library actually had a different book called Akissi that I’m requesting.

Also born in Abidjan, Bernard Binlin Dadié was a novelist, playwright, poet, and politician, holding the position of Minister of Culture for nine years during the 1960s and 1970s.  Influenced by his experiences when the country was still under French control, one of his first major works was taking traditional stories and folktales and then comparing and connecting them to the modern world.  He is also known for his widely-read poem “I Thank You God.”

Ahmedou Kourouma studied in various countries in his youth, only to return to Côte d’Ivoire just after its independence. Because he questioned and generally opposed the new leadership of the country, he was subsequently exiled for the next 30 years, dividing this time between Algeria, Cameroon, and Togo before eventually coming back home. The first novel he wrote (Le soleils des indépendances) was highly critical of the government, which almost always places the writer in difficult situations.  Even in the wake of the 2002 civil war, his outcries threatened his safety once again. Although he’s written several novels, he’s more well known in the French-speaking world than in the English-speaking one.

Véronique Tadjo often considers herself as pan-African since she has spent a lot of time all over Africa. One of her parents was Ivoirian and the other was French, which helped contribute to her love of travel, learning, and the academic life. She eventually got her bachelor’s degree and doctorate, spending time teaching English and French at the college level. She also travels giving workshops and seminars in writing and literature, especially children’s literature. She’s won several awards for her books – the book Mamy Wata and the Monster was chosen as one of Africa’s Best 100 Books of the 20th Century, making it only one of four children’s books to be included.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, August 26, 2013


New Years Day (January 1): Some of the churches and mosques have a special services to bring in the new year at the stroke of midnight, and the people often wish each other the gift of peace for the coming year. Given the political events and civil war in recent years, that’s a huge wish to place for everyone. Afterwards, the parties continue with fireworks displays, ever-flowing beer, and music and dancing until the sun starts to rise again. Many people send well wishes and even gifts to their closes friends and family around this time.

Prophet’s Birthday (varies): Also called Mawlid or Maouloud.  Along with 47 other countries of the Muslim world, Côte d’Ivoire also holds the Prophet’s Birthday as a public holiday. (I think I finally figured out why in a lot of the Islam-based websites I read that the initials PBUH was after the Prophet’s name almost every time it was written: I’m fairly certain it stands for “Peace Be Unto Him.” But correct me if I’m wrong.)  On this day, Muslims decorate the mosques and their homes, reciting special prayers, reading passages about his life, and many people will also prepare food to give to the poor and/or other acts of charity.

Easter Monday (varies):  Starting days before Easter itself, these celebrations are an important time for most Ivoirian Christians. Maundy Thursday is often spent washing the feet of new believers to the church. Many people use Good Friday as a day for going door-to-door evangelizing and trying to encourage non-members to convert. In the US, Easter Saturday is generally quiet, but in Côte d’Ivoire, many people stay up all night to sing, dance, and pray their way into Easter Sunday, which starts out with special, often larger, services held at the church.  Often, the Easter stories are tied together with the underlying message of hope. Afterwards people continue celebrating with a large meal (often with rice and meat) with friends and family. Easter Monday a declared day off of work and school, most likely to recuperate from the intense celebrations for the past few days.

Labour Day (May 1): Celebrated with many other countries on this day, Labour Day is a day to celebrate the workers of the world and to address the state of labor and labor issues.  Currently, among some of the larger labor issues Côte d’Ivoire faces involve the use of child labor, despite government efforts to curb and regulate the issue, it still happens. Civil war and political strife often makes it hard on people to feel that child labor is a necessary decision in order to make ends meet, and resources just aren’t available to both businesses and families. It’s estimated that 46,000 children are employed as child laborers under inhumane conditions, often trafficked in and abused, instead of attending school. Many of these abuses take place on the cocoa bean plantations – Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading producer of cocoa. (On the other side of the coin, Europe is the leading importer of cocoa – various reports list Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain among the top chocolate consumers of the world.) Like similar situations elsewhere in Africa and the world (and even the US), issues of labor and education are far more complicated and interwoven to have a simple solution.

Ascension (varies): This celebration occurs 40 days after Easter and is traditionally celebrated by Christians as the day they attribute to Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  Schools and businesses close for the day. There may be special services held at churches for people to attend.

Whit Monday (varies): Also known as Pentecost Monday.  Traditionally held on the 50th day after Easter (hence, PENTE-cost), there is often a special church service held where many hymns are sung in honor of the day.  The traditional belief behind this day is that 50 days after Jesus was resurrected, the Holy Spirit came to the disciples and gave them the “gift of tongues.” The name Whit Sunday (or Whit Monday) came from the wearing of white clothes by the newly baptized. 

Independence Day (August 7): Celebrating its independence from France in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire certainly packs the whole day with festivities for everyone. Outdoor community festivals are planned with parades, a variety of food and drink, music and dancing, cultural displays, soccer games, and fireworks in the evening. Some of the more popular foods include aloko (bananas fried in palm oil) and a local palm wine called Bangui (not to be confused with the capital of Central African Republic). The town decorates businesses and homes with the national colors and hangs the flag everywhere. 

Revelation of the Qur’an (varies): Also known as Laylat al-Qadr. It’s the night traditionally attributed to being the night when the verses of the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad. Many recite extra prayers and read passages from the Qur’an. The Qur’an doesn’t necessarily cite a date for this day, and it’s celebrated in slightly different ways depending on whether you’re a Sunni and Shia.  But generally it is celebrated on an odd-numbered day during the last ten days of Ramadan.  

End of Ramadan (varies): Also known as Eid al-Fitr, this day is marked by a huge feast celebrating the end of Ramadan, the month-long fast of Islam.  Special prayer services are held at the mosque to mark the end of Ramadan and are followed by an elaborate feast with friends and family.  A large variety of foods and drinks are displayed on the table, and it certainly depends on where you live and how much money you have as to what particular foods are served. Many people also give small gifts to the children at Eid as well.

Feast of the Sacrifice (varies): Also known as Eid al-Adha or Tabaski. It’s tied to the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son simply because God had asked him to, all to stop the sacrifice at the last minute.  There are several prayers that are read on this day and special prayer services are held. People dress in their best clothes on this day, and one tradition is to slaughter an animal and divide the meat into keeping some for your own family, giving some to other family members, and giving some to the needy as an act of charity.  Those who don’t have the opportunity to slaughter an animal in this ritual will often donate money to charitable organizations to purchase food for the needy instead.

All Saint’s Day (November 1): This is a Christian holiday in honor of all of the saints. Many saints already have their own feast days (especially in the Catholic tradition), so this day is to honor all of the saints who do not have specific feast days. On this day, all who are able will usually attend a special mass.

National Peace Day (November 15): Somehow, this holiday hasn’t been written about much, but generally from what I’ve gathered, this is a holiday that the government has set aside to working together to try to regain Côte d’Ivoire as a peaceful nation. In light of the instability that has taken place over much of the past decade or so, regaining peaceful footing is something they are striving and working towards on a long-term path.  It may be later than sooner, but I’m hoping that they will achieve peace and stability again.

Christmas Day (December 25): One tradition in Côte d’Ivoire is that people will gather at their church on Christmas Eve night to participate in a huge festival that lasts until the early morning hours. There’s feasting, singing, dancing, skits, games, music, prayers, and stories. Sometimes the kids will find a corner and fall asleep (which I’d probably be with them. As I’ve found, partying in your 30s is far lamer than how I partied in my 20s.).  They don’t do the commercialism associated with Christmas that you find in the Americas and Europe – in fact, gifts aren’t really exchanged all that much.  (Often they will exchange gifts with people for New Years.)

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Back when I was in elementary and middle school, I learned this country as the Ivory Coast.  Now, they prefer the Francophone form of the name: Côte d’Ivoire.  It lies in western Africa, surrounded by Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and the Gulf of Guinea. 

The country itself has been known more names than Puff Daddy (or P. Diddy, or whatever he goes by now).  The French and the Portuguese were the main two Europeans exploring the area (and by exploring, I mean claiming and exploiting), and both have referred to this area as Ivory Coast, reflecting what the major trade products were at that time.  Likewise, there was also a “Grain Coast,” “Gold Coast,” and a “Slave Coast” as well.  While there were other nicknames for the area (“Teeth Coast” being one of the slightly creepier ones, unless you’re a dentist), the name Ivory Coast prevailed.  During the mid-1980s, the Ivoirian government insisted that the official name of the country should be changed to Côte d’Ivoire (in French), no matter the local language worldwide.  However, there are many people in the Anglosphere – including journalists and media – who still call it Ivory Coast. (Not me, of course. Even though I do have a copy of the AP Styleguide, and there’s no mention of it, so maybe that’s their problem.)

Historians believe that the earliest people in the area probably came from Berber caravans from the north and settled into the area, dealing in salt, gold, spices, slaves, and anything else they thought might be tradable. It was influenced by the Ghana Empire and later by the Mali Empire.  During the 19th century, the French started making their way into Côte d’Ivoire and by the 1840s, the French had signed treaties with certain tribal leaders and declared those areas as a French protectorate. Soon, the French started to pour in and establish their place in the country with the hopes of using the coastal regions as a strategic post in the trade routes. Of course, their presence didn’t go without conflict. What was happening in Côte d’Ivoire was very similar to what was happening in the Colonial United States. Ivoirians at that time were, for all intents and purposes, considered French citizens. They were expected to contribute to their taxes and adhere to their laws, but they had no political voice. They were only allowed to keep the aspects of their own culture as long as it was concordant with what the French agreed to. So, naturally the Ivoirians fought back – with independence as the ultimate result, which wouldn’t happen until 1960.

After independence, the country grew to be French Africa’s most prosperous country. It became a leading producer and exporter of pineapples, palm oil, coffee, and cocoa (three of my favorites. I have no experience with palm oil since it’s a little expensive here.).  They did have a coup in 1999, which led to a civil war in 2002.  They finally managed to get in an election in 2010, only to find it was riddled with fraud, which unfortunately led to a second civil war in 2011. 

Cocoa beans
Lying a little farther inland is the capital of Yamoussoukro (pronounced yah-muh-SOO-crow).  However, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire is the coastal city of Abidjan (pronounced ah-bee-JOHN).  Even though the official seat of government takes place in Yamoussoukro, there are a lot of administrative offices and embassies that are in Abidjan.  The capital does claim to have the largest Christian church in the world, according to the Guinness World Records: Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro.  The building is 322,917 sq ft and 518 ft high. Yamoussoukro’s airport is also only one of two in Africa that can accommodate the Concorde.

As far as religion goes, the country is generally divided into three major religions: Muslim, Christian, and animist: the majority being Muslim and animist, and a smaller portion being Christian.

Because of the French occupancy, the French language is the official language of Côte d’Ivoire and serves as the language of business and education.  French also serves as a lingua franca since there are roughly 65-70 native languages that are also spoken in various regions of the country, the largest being Dyula (also spelled Dioula or Jula, part of the Mande language group).  Dyula is often used as a trade language in various West African countries and is sometimes written in Arabic script, sometimes in Latin script, and sometimes in the indigenous N’Ko script. 

So, as I prepare to make my return to West Africa to a country named after a trade in something that can no longer be traded legally, I realize there’s something about this region that I really enjoy, but I can never truly put my finger on it. Perhaps because it’s seemingly what I think of as “African,” with a mix of French influence? Perhaps its African Reggae?  Perhaps its just knowing the people here are resilient – looking at photos from Google Maps for some of these places, you HAVE to be resilient to live there. Maybe all of it, maybe something I’m not sure of yet. But I do know I like it.  And the recipes seem amazing at that.  So, that being said and in the best French I can muster, allons-y!

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Everything that I’ve read about Costa Rican cuisine mentioned that it was simplistic.  And I tend to agree, even though I’m sitting here exhausted after being in the kitchen for the past six hours, more or less. 
My colorful peppers.  So deliciously beautiful! 
I actually looked ahead and realized that the gallo pinto I was making listed Salsa Lizano as an ingredient that you top it with. I had never heard of this, but rather thought I could probably just buy it at one of the local Mexican grocery stores perhaps. I’m glad I did a little research on it, because I found a blog talking about it – saying that it’s the flavor that is truly Costa Rican – but that most of the brands sold here in the US contain MSG and other chemicals we don’t need. (Our family especially can’t have MSG in the house: it gives my husband extreme migraines and seizures if he has it. But really, NO ONE should be eating that mess.) So, I used the recipe given and made my own last night.  When I think of salsa, I usually think of something tomato-based, but that’s not necessarily true.  This used onions, carrots, chiles (I used green chiles), sugar, lemon juice, vinegar (I used white wine vinegar), ground cumin, salt, molasses, and chicken broth – and everything goes into the blender.  It was pretty strong; next time, I’ll use half of the cumin and half of the vinegar.  My husband really liked it, though. 
One of the best breads on earth. 
Today, I started with the bread. For this, I chose yuca bread.  I did manage to find yuca flour at the international market.  It also included sour cream, a stick of butter, and white cheese, which I used queso fresca.  It came in a “wheel,” so I grated it first, hoping that it would work better.  It’s a naturally crumbly cheese, so grating it was no trouble. The recipe pretty much called to mix everything together and put it in a 9x9 inch pan, but I used a metal loaf pan instead. It also didn’t list how many minutes to bake it for; it just listed until it gets brown (For me, it was around 40-45 minutes). This bread had a crusty top and was soft on the inside; the cheese and the sour cream gave it a creamy flavor to die for.  I’m pretty sure heaven has this bread.  I think this has got to be why Costa Ricans live longer than us.
My breakfast for tomorrow. I'm trying to talk the kids into wanting this for their birthday. 
And this must be a special country, because I couldn’t just stop at one thing to bake: I had to make two. The other one I couldn’t live without was Queque Seco de Naranja, or Orange Pound Cake.  I had never made a pound cake, and actually I’m not sure if I’ve ever made a cake from scratch before.  If I have, it’s been so long, it doesn’t count anymore.  It starts out with mixing your oil and butter together. I don’t have a hand mixer, so I used a whisk and stirred quickly for… geez, I don’t know, it seemed like forever.  Then I had to add two eggs and four egg whites and mix again.  Now it was time for the wheat flour, sugar and baking soda. By now, it was pretty creamy.  Then I had to slowly add in the orange juice, milk, and vanilla extract, stirring until everything was mixed and smooth again.  After I took it out of the oven once it was done, there wasn’t anything listed about any kind of glaze or anything that goes on top. I didn’t really want a dry cake, so I made my own.  I took a little bit of apricot preserves I had and mixed in a little ground cinnamon and ground ginger and spread a very thin layer on top and the sides.  Then I sprinkled just a little cinnamon and ginger on top.  The cake was so moist, it almost looked like it could’ve been used in a commercial.  The flavor was subtle, yet my husband and I decided it tasted a little like a spice cake without the spice.  One thing that I want to try next time would be to substitute almond extract instead of the vanilla extract.  We also think it would be great with some crushed pistachios in it as well.  Mmm… My kids were confused why I was making a cake, because normally I only bake cakes for birthdays. But actually, my little sister finally entered her 30s todays.  (As a friend of mine described it, “The decade where you can have both pimples and wrinkles at the same time.”)  
I could eat them all. But really, one was plenty. 
Ok, so now on to the meal itself. I chose chiles rellenos.  I used red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, brushed them with olive oil, and put them in the broiler for about 15 minutes.  The tops got a little burnt, but that’s ok since I was cutting it off anyway.  I was filling this with browned ground beef, onions, garlic powder and a little salt and pepper. I added an egg to help bind it together.  Once the peppers cooled just a little bit, I cut the tops off and scooped out most of the seeds and filled it with the ground beef mixture. Now, here’s where I veered from the recipe.  It calls to dip it in batter and fry it.  But I was far too tired to mess with all of that.  So, I topped them with cheese and dried cilantro (since my fresh cilantro was no longer fresh anymore – it turned into some sort of slimy mess that came from the X-Files). Regardless if it wasn’t “authentic” it was still good. 

To go with this, I made what’s called “gallo pinto.”  I found a recipe for the quick version of this national dish and latched onto it. I fried some onions, then added a can of black beans (gravy and all), added in long grain rice that I already cooked, some Worchestershire sauce, and some coriander. This is what the Salsa Lizano is supposed to go on, but I also poured some of that salsa on the chiles rellenos as well. 
My husband is still trying to figure out how to eat his fourth helping. 
Altogether, this was one of the best meals I had in a long time.  (Ok, I know I say that every time I cook. But I’m not lying.) Even if I find that I don't follow a recipe exactly.  But really, who does?  Even if it’s a dish I make all the time, I make it slightly different each time.  Sometimes I feel like adding something new, or sometimes I didn’t realize I was almost out of something when I started cooking.  And sometimes these improvs just get written into the recipe.  I do try to stay close to the recipe for wanting to try to make it authentic.  But imagine finding a recipe for something your mother used to make.  For most people, they’ll say, “Well, my mom added this,” or  “We didn’t put that in there, but it might be good.” For every recipe, there are hundreds of variations. I always think that it’s ok to change up recipes to meet your and your family’s own personal preferences.  Invent, improvise! I see recipes as merely suggestions on how to make a dish, even though I do try to stick by them for the most part.  As I tend to say, “You never know when you’ll find your next favorite.” 

Up next: Côte d’Ivoire

Saturday, August 17, 2013


The music of Costa Rica is as diverse as its people.  Geographically speaking, it makes sense that it has had a lot of influence from calypso, reggae, and other Caribbean styles of music.  It’s also been highly influenced by Mexican music as well.  Today, the younger generations listen to more British- and American-influenced rock as well. 

Some of the common instruments used in folk music include the marimba, ocarina, accordion, different types of oboes, and guitar.  Musical styles and instrumentation does vary slightly regionally.  The state of Guanacaste has the strongest folk music traditions.

Costa Rica doesn’t really have one true style that is “Costa Rican” per se, but they have taken styles that are popular elsewhere and sort of make it their own so to speak. They’ve made their mark in all different genres: classical music, jazz, rock, metal (weirdly enough, metal is pretty big in Costa Rica), and folk music.

I came across the rock band called Evolución that I like pretty much. I’ve been listening to the album Amor Artificial. They rely pretty heavy on the guitars but taking caution to not overdo it. Sometimes the music is pretty predictable but in a way, it makes it easy to listen to while working. But there are songs on the album that stand out as well.

The group Malpaís mixes a little bit of rock with some jazz and folk music as well. I like the album I’ve been listening to, Historias de Nadie. It’s different from what I expected, and I appreciate their musicianship. 

Reggae is huge in Costa Rica.  This is one of the remnants that they borrowed from the number of Jamaicans who arrived in Costa Rica for work.  One reggae musician I discovered is Michael Livingston.  I’ve been listening to the album Natural.  I really like this album.  It falls into the category that I call “chill out reggae.”  At times, it almost resembles African reggae in its style, melodic lines, and instrumentation. After doing additional research, I don't think he's actually from Costa Rica, but I think he spent a lot of time there honing his skills. He's popular there, so that's good enough for me. I like him too. 

Most of the more popular folkloric dance traditions do happen to also originate from the Guanacaste region, commonly showcased as part of the Annexation of Guanacaste holiday events.  One dance called the Punto Guanacasteco is one in which the women two-step toward their partners as they seductively dance toward the women. 

There’s another dance called La Cajeta, stemmed from the candy-making traditions of making a rich milk caramel.  This process is long, taking days to complete, so when the caramel is finally done, people dance this dance to celebrate that it was ready to eat.  And it was alsosomewhat symbolic of the sweetness of first love. In both traditional dances, the women wear long skirts with ruffles on the ends, and the hold the skirt to move it from side to side as part of the dance as well. 

Other Latin dances are also quite commonly danced in Costa Rica as well. Dances such as merengue (from the Dominican Republic), cumbia (from Colombia and Panama), and salsa (from Cuba) are enjoyed with a Costa Rican twist as well.

Up next: the food!

Thursday, August 15, 2013


In the early days, as in the early nineteenth century, the people who were living in Costa Rica would hire painters to come all the way from Europe to paint their portraits. At that time, having your portrait done (and done well), was more or less a status symbol, and pretty much anyone who was anybody (or wanted to be somebody) had one done. These artists came and pretty much just never left Costa Rica. And these artists who stayed ended up teaching the local residents their art, whether it be painting, sketching, or sculpting. Generation after generation, the Costa Ricans (or Ticos, as they’re known by their nickname), took these European techniques and combined it with their own national identity and style and what’s called Pura Vida to create their own styles.

This phrase Pura Vida keeps coming up in all of my research. While it literally means “pure life,” it’s used to mean something more like “full of life,” “this is the living!” or “everything’s going great.” It’s somewhat used in a variety of situations, but from what I’m gathering, is that it’s used as an answer to the question “How are you?” when things are great, in the meaning that you’re grateful for life itself. But I’m also sensing it’s much closer to the feeling/way of life that I first encountered in Brazil of “life may not be the best, but it can be much worse than it is right now, but why worry about it, let’s enjoy the company and food and drink and where we are right now, it is what it is, whatever happens will happen.” And it’s this feeling that Costa Rican artists try to convey in their works.

Some of the more famous artists are Gonzalo Morales Suaréz (mostly famous for his paintings, mostly paints in a style resembling realism), and Ibo Bonilla (mathematics and architecture professor, famous for many buildings and public sculptures).

Costa Rican literature really didn’t come together as a genre until just before the beginning of the 20th century.  So, it’s fairly young as far as literature goes. Their literary history is more of less divided up into generations.

The first generation was called the Olympus generation (about 1890-1920). Generally, they are the establishment and were the beginnings of setting the sense of their nationality. Writers from this era were Manuel Argüello Mora (who was raised by his uncle who was the President of Costa Rica in the mid 1800s whose great-great-great-niece is actress Madeleine Stowe), Carlos Gagini (author, linguist, and Esperanto-speaker), and Manuel González Zeledón (journalist as well as Ambassador to the US).

Next came the repertory generation (about 1920-1940). Literature at this time took a slight turn. The language itself and styles changed, utilizing different forms, less classical, less formal, using and utilizing parody, satire and off-color, grotesque or dark humor. Writers who emerged during this time were Joaquín García Monge (considered one of Costa Rica’s most famous writers), and Carmen Lyra (educator, journalist, she started the first Montessori school in Latin America, her face is on the 20,000 colones bill [starting in 2010]).

The 40s generation actually lasted until the early 1960s. During this time, social reform, land reform, and the introduction of multi- and trans-national corporations began to be on the forefront of topics discussed.  Literature became the catalyst and forum for voicing opinions on these subjects during these times. The civil war took place halfway through this generation as well.  Major writers include Fabián Dobles (a writer of many mediums, became known for his work on and with the plights of the poor and social unrest) and Carlos Luis Fallas (author, political activist, won a prize for his work Marcos Ramírez). 

The urban generation came next and lasted until the 1980s. Literature in this era generally reflected the urban growth taking place, where the city was a common setting, and it also highlighted the industrial movements and corporate modernizations that were taking place in Costa Rica. Major authors include Carmen Naranjo (also served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel as minister of culture), and Jorge Debravo (poet, grew up in a poor family, was first published when he was in the 9th grade, killed at the age of 29 by a drunk driver, the National Day of Poetry is held on his birthday, January 31).

Today, literature is a combination and culmination of influences of all of the preceding generations. It keeps emerging and changing and is constantly influence by everything around it.  One writer, Oscar Núñez Oliva is one of the most famous writers to come out of Costa Rica.  His first novel, El Teatro Circular won a national prize in Costa Rica in 1998, a year after it was published.  He’s since then published two other novels. 

Up next: music and dance

Monday, August 12, 2013


New Year’s Day (January 1). For most Costa Ricans, it’s time to head to the beaches, no matter how you get there. Whether you’re staying in expensive beach resorts or camping on the beach itself, it’s a time to spend with friends and family doing a lot of eating and drinking. One of the most popular drinks is Costa Rica’s famous beer called Imperial. For those that choose not to head to the coast, there are still plenty of things to do inland, namely huge fireworks displays.  And of course, Costa Ricans also do their New Year’s Resolutions as well.

Maundy Thursday (varies). Pretty much the entire week of Holy Week is one big celebration for most people. Many churches hold several special services during Holy Week. Maundy Thursday, also called Holy Thursday, is commonly celebrated with the institution of Holy Communion. It’s common for re-enactments to go on throughout this week. During this time starting the night before Maundy Thursday, bars and liquor stores close for the mandatory dry laws that take place until after Easter.

Good Friday (varies). Special services are held, and stories about the arrest and trials of Jesus are read. It’s a common tradition among Catholics to not eat meat during Lent, so seafood is a common substitution. Many television stations will also run Easter themed movies as well. It’s also pretty common to make empanadas with the honey from a fruit called a chiverre (a watermelon-sized fruit related to a squash.)

Easter Monday (varies). After the hustle and bustle of Easter, which is oftentimes started with church services and ended with local street festivals filled with food vendors, music, dancing and all sorts of other community events.  Easter Monday is the beginning of what is called by some as Bright Week, the week after Holy Week, the week after Jesus’ resurrection.

Juan Santamaría Day (April 11). Considered a national hero, this holiday is celebrated on the anniversary of his death.  American William Walker was a lawyer, adventurer, and filibusterer (basically someone who goes on unauthorized military missions to foreign countries with the purpose of supporting some sort of political action). He had went to Nicaragua and had taken over, declaring himself as president for a short term and was working his way towards taking over Costa Rica as well. The Costa Ricans weren’t having this, so this drummer boy in the Army, Juan Santamaría, volunteered to go to a hostel and set it on fire, thought to be a decisive maneuver by the higher-ups – he went only on the stipulation that his mother will be taken care of if he lost his life in the process. It’s this act of bravery that is commemorated annually. 

Labor Day (May 1). Costa Ricans celebrate Labor Day with parades, street festivals, marches, and eating traditional food. Schools and businesses are closed for the day to celebrate. Like many other countries, it’s also a time for the State of the Union address by the president to the people.

Anexion de Guanacaste Day (July 25). The province of Guanacaste in the northwestern-most corner of Costa Rica used to be part of Nicaragua. This holiday celebrates this province’s decision to join Costa Rica in 1924. While it’s celebrated all over the country, the largest celebrations are in the province itself: the day is filled with street festivals, traditional food, music, dancing, and bull fighting (the good part is that the bulls are not killed in Costa Rican bull fighting).

Virgin of Los Angeles Day (August 2). The Virgin of Los Angeles, or locally called La Negrita, is the patron saint of Costa Rica. Millions of people flock to Our Lady of the Angeles Basilica (Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles) in the city of Cartago, about 10 miles from the capital city of San José.  Many people come and drink and/or wash themselves in the water of the rock the basilica was built on, and many leave silver trinkets in the shape of the body part that they would like cured.

Mother’s Day (August 15). Mother’s Day is celebrated in coordination with the Catholic holiday Assumption (of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Mothers are given gifts such as flowers, chocolates, taken out to their favorite restaurants and are given other special treatments. Mothers are generally the rulers of the home, and many also work full time out of the home as well, so on this day, the rest of the family wants to show her that she’s appreciated. (Father’s aren’t left out: Father’s Day is the 3rd Sunday in June – like in the US – but it’s not an official holiday.)

Independence Day (September 15). Unlike many other countries, Costa Rica didn’t win its independence by means of war. It simply just declared it. So, unlike many other countries, it’s Independence Day celebrations do not include a military parade, since they don’t have an Army. But they do have parades honoring national heroes, and there are street fests, music, dance, food and drink – including the ever-favorite Imperial beer – and soccer games among other activities. The day before Independence Day, many people including school children will take to the streets with homemade lanterns called faroles, in honor of the first Independence Day and the rallying for support for their independence that took place.

Cultural Day (October 12). Known as Columbus Day in the US, prior to 1994, it was known as Dia de la Raza, or Day of the (Hispanic) Race. They had since changed its name to Dia de las Culturas (Cultural Day) to celebrate their diversity of European, African, Caribbean, and Asian heritage.  It’s usually celebrated with street festivals, bull fighting, and a lot of good local and traditional food. 

All Souls Day (November 2). Also known as Day of the Dead, Costa Ricans in general don’t celebrate it as much as other countries do, but many Catholics take it quite seriously.  On this day, many people take this time to visit the graves of loved ones and decorate the gravesites, do basic maintenance, and hold vigils.  Some churches may hold special services on this day as well. 

Christmas Day (December 25).  Even though Costa Rica never sees snow, it’s a common decoration throughout the country, most definitely influenced by points much farther north. There are a lot of parties, festivals, and parades that take place around this time of year. The three main parades are El Carnival (a lot of music and dance and showy costumes), El Tope (a parade with dressed-up horses pulling carriages and highly decorated and elaborately painted oxcarts), and El Destile de Luces (a parade of lights held at night). People bring in Christmas trees a few days before Christmas, and they’re usually painted white and are usually smaller than what we see in the US and other countries. In Costa Rica, it’s not Santa Claus who brings the toys – it’s the baby Jesus himself.  (It seems odd to me that a days-old baby can do so much. Here’s what my kids did: sleep, cry, drool, nurse, poop, repeat.)  Christmas Eve is spent enjoying a fabulous meal with family, followed by Midnight Mass.  And where we have football games here in the US, their tradition is to watch bullfighting.

Up next: art and literature