Tuesday, 16 March 2010

On Commuting and Costa Rica: Bright Lights and Stop Lights .... PART II

Silky Anteater, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

I've got toothache this week which means it’s even harder for me to think of something intelligent to say than usual. So perhaps I can just talk a bit about my impressions of Costa Rica, where I spent a happy 10 days at the end of February. But there is a link with progress, admittedly a bit tenuous....

My first post on this blog back in January finished with an important question: I wonder what the Costa Ricans call their traffic lights? If you want to know why this question was important, then take a look at my post. But if you cannot be bothered to open the link then, in short, I noted that Costa Rica is regarded by some as one of the world's happiest countries and that perhaps - if their happiness is driven by some facet of their culture - they would have a more positive name for their traffic lights than the pessimistic "Feu Rouge" that the French label them.

I liked Costa Rica very much and it would be hard not to. But rather than bore you with details of all the different animals I saw, I will talk about my impressions of the Costa Ricans' subjective wellbeing.

First, is it a happy country? I'm not going to pretend to make informed comments on a country I visited for less than 2 weeks. And I am sure it has its fair (or unfair) share of unhappiness. But most of the people I met were remarkably friendly, and apparently relaxed. There was a distinct lack of pressure in just about everyone I spoke to and I don't think I heard a single car horn the whole time I was there. As someone there said to me "Life is short, but time is long". Which I think was her way of telling me to relax! (hey, I was stressed because I couldn't find a Tapir). Perhaps the relaxed attitude was a symptom of happiness. Perhaps it was a cause. But of course I was on holiday and that alone will bias most observers’ attempts to be objective.

Second, why might the Ticos (the Costa Ricans) be so happy? Well you would be much better asking a Costa Rican. I am sure the weather helps. But perhaps so does the fact that so much of the countryside is protected and there is, as a result, such a beautiful and accessible natural environment. Another factor might be that so many people are ready to help one another (at least they tried to help me - I spent a considerable amount of time lost and people were asking ME if I needed directions .... one guy even turned his car around and led me out of town).

These sorts of things are, I believe, very important to our wellbeing and quality of life.... but how often do they get measured by official statistics in most countries? And so how often are they treated with the prominence they deserve? Maybe Oscar Wilde was having a go at us statisticians when he spoke about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Finally, what do they call traffic lights? This is actually quite funny, and lends weight to my soon to be patented Traffic Light Test. In Costa Rica they call traffic lights "semaforo" which is unfortunately neutral on the optimism/pessimism scale. More interesting - and to the point - was what happened when I stopped at some roadworks somewhere in the south of the country. One lane of the highway was closed, and I was at the front of the queue. There were no traffic lights. There was no sign. But the workman on traffic duty said something to me in Spanish. He was obviously telling me to wait but my Costa Rican passenger translated it as "Wait for the flag". She didn't understand either....

A line of traffic came through the roadworks from the other direction and the driver of the last car was flying a red flag out of his window. He passed it - relay baton style - to the workman who waved me on my way with a grin, and presumably passed the flag to the last car in the queue behind me. And that simple system says a lot about Costa Rica. First, having to pass the flag from driver to driver creates a little more social interaction. Second, it requires trusting them to actually give it back (or the whole system will fail) which relies on social capital and might generate a little more. And third, it made me laugh and a lot of others too judging by the looks on people's faces. I thought it was wonderfully low tech, trusting and friendly. So perhaps there is something in this theory of mine after all.

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