Sunday, November 19, 2006

Costa Rica Souveniers That Give Back

I don't really know why I was thinking about this subject -- perhaps it was reminiscing about the crap that most people tend to take home from Costa Rica with them (Imperial beer t-shirts, engraved machetes), perhaps it was seeing a friend yesterday who is raising money for homeless pets with her own version of a "calendar girls" calendar (see item #2 below) -- but I got to thinking that there are a bunch of great things one can take home from a visit to Costa Rica as souvenirs that will actually help out small organic farmers, homeless animals, and indigenous and low-income craftspeople. Here is my short list, which I will add to in the future as I think of other things to add.

1. Instead of the typical Imperial beer or "Pura Vida" frog t-shirt, why not pick up one that helps out homeless animals? My favorite is designed by the ANPA animal shelter in Guadalupe/Moravia. It has a cartoon of a zaguate that looks like a cross between a chihuahua and a poodle, and reads (in Spanish, of course): "Don't be a racist, adopt a mutt!" You'll have to either go to one of ANPA's adoption fairs (the big one takes place the first weekend in March every year at the Outlet Mall in San Pedro) or stop by the adoption house in Guadalupe. While you're there, consider bringing a donation -- food, blankets, dog toys, or money are all greatly appreciated. I like ANPA the best because they are a no-kill shelter; AHPPA also helps out many, many animals, though they only get 30 days before they are euthanized. Still, this organization does the best that it can, and can also use donations for its shelter; by purchasing a t-shirt you are helping to save lives. Isn't that a little more meaningful than hitting yet another generic t-shirt stand? (I also have two bumper stickers on my car from AHPPA; one reads (in Spanish, again!): "I saved thousands of animals today by castrating my pet." The other: "Don't buy an animal, adopt a mutt!" Wouldn't it be great to stick one of these on your car, then be able to start a discussion with someone who does not speak Spanish when they ask you what they mean?)

2. How about Costa Rica's version of the "Calendar Girls" calender? This one also helps homeless animals through the organization SASY, set up by my friend, Miss June. I saw Miss J. yesterday and she told me how well the calendar was selling, and was so excited about the organization and all it was doing to help stray animals in Costa Rica. I'm absolutely thrilled for them, as they've only been around for about a year or so. At $15, you can't go wrong, and just think of all the comments you'll get on this calendar! You can order one online, or stop by any of these retail locations to pick one up.

3. Try my absolute favorite coffee, produced by Los Nacientes. It is 100% organic and can be purchased at the weekly organic fair held every Saturday morning in San Cayetano (and I'll post the directions here as soon as I find them). At about $1 for a 1/4 kilo bag (that's 1/2 pound for you Yanks), you take take as many bags as you can fit in your suitcase and help out small-scale organic farmers at the same time. Sure, you can get Cafe Britt organic (for about $7 per 1/2 pound/1/4 kilo) in almost any supermarket, but why not make the trip to the organic market instead and support farmers instead of large corporations (can anyone say, "owned by Starbuck's"?). While you're there, you can have a glass of fresh-squeezed organic orange juice, and try organic homemade baked goods and breads. You'll want to get there (actually you'll need to get there) by 7:00 a.m. (yep, the sun rises early in Costa Rica!) in order to get the goods, but it will certainly be a trip that's not on everyone's itinerary AND you'll still have the rest of the day to take any of the many day trips from the Central Valley.

4. Speaking of things not on everyone's itinerary, if you're one of those people who enjoys off-the-beaten-path activities (I am!), you must pick up the guidebook The Real Costa Rica. Published by COOPRENA, this book is absolutely indispensable for anyone wanting to see the authentic sights and sounds of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, it is not sold in bookstores or online, so you'll have to contact COOPRENA ahead of time via their website to see how you can get a copy of the book. It is bilingual and actually includes all kinds of fabulous information (such as turtle nesting seasons, bus schedules, etc.) and I really do find it a great source of information and ideas for trips I'd like to take (after having lived here for six+ years). 5,000 colones (or around $10).

5. I love the indigenous craft of carving dried jicaro gourds. Yesterday, at the Women's Club's annual bazaar (tip: great place to find used books in English on the cheap), another friend had her stand set up with all kinds of wonderful organic herbs, spices and teas, as well as these great carved jicaros in the shapes of tapirs, armadillos, and pacas. I have also purchased them in the past carved into candle holders and water pitchers. They are beautiful and can usually be had for just a few dollars (or less) when purchased directly from the craftspeople themselves. Check that guidebook (#4) or their website for tours to indigenous reserves!

6. If you visit Monteverde, be sure to stop by the CASEM art gallery and pick up at least one or two pieces of art made by local artists, the vast majority of whom are local women relying on their art to support their families.

7. A really, really cheap yet pretty cool souvenir is made by homeless kids that work some of the intersections in downtown San Jose (especially the one from the main highway from Escazu into the city). They create little grasshoppers out of braided palm fronds for about 100 colones (that's 20 cents US, people). I hate to see children in the streets at all, but for some of them, who have absolutely NOTHING, begging is the only way they can get any money to buy food or things for their families. Truthfully, I have not see the grasshopper-making kids in quite some time, but whenever I do, I buy at least 2 or 3 grasshoppers from them. I like them, and it reminds me to be thankful for what I do have in my life whenever I see them. If you don't like giving money to homeless people (I know, many out there will say "They'll just use it to buy booze or crack!" and in many cases you're probably right), offer them a sandwich or a box of juice. Think of what your one small gesture can mean to a child who spends his days asking for handouts in the middle of the street in a metropolitan city before you turn your head or say no.

I hope that these ideas have inspired you to take home something more than the run-of-the-mill trinkets that you see in every gift shop around the country. When you buy a SASY calendar, they are able to spay or neuter several dogs and prevent many unwanted puppies from being born. A few grasshoppers may enable a homeless kid to eat that day; a piece of handcrafted artwork or a trip to an indigenous community can help support a Costa Rican family. You'll take back more than a souvenir, you'll take back memories that last a lifetime, and you'll give something in return. Isn't that way cooler than yet another Imperial t-shirt?

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