Comida is the Spanish word for food. Here in Costa Rica, for hustlers and the truly destitute alike, comida is high on the list of magic words used to pry coins from gringo pockets.
The locals peg me for a gringo so fast you would think I was wearing a Stars and Stripes top hat. They often skip the formality of testing my Spanish and launch right into thin, broken English before I open my mouth. At street fairs the guys running the numbers games light up like kids at Christmas when they see me. Beggars find me in a crowd.
An obvious North American walking about in the capital of Costa Rica, as in other big cities, cannot give money to every beggar who asks for it. If he does he will soon be like a Pied Piper leading of a platoon of beggars. The conventional wisdom is that every gringo is rich as Croesus.
A heart of stone isn’t the only solution, however. But some standards are helpful. A longtime expat offered me his advice. First, he doesn’t give money to the able bodied. That he is often cursed for it, often in English, confirms what he hopes is good judgment.
He told me he also tries to support the many single-product, mobile entrepreneurs. Pens, cards, cookies, coconuts, avocados, wild flowers… there’s a free market in street vending, fueled by pocket change, that supports a lot of hardworking people. As a free market fanatic, I love this strategy.
One of the toughest calls to make in downtown San Jose is to decide which children begging for food are really simply hustlers. A request for "money for food" is often a request for money for DVD’s and designer sunglasses. Distinguishing between the hungry and the hustler is a challenge. My expat pal suggests offering food only. If the offer is declined, how hungry could the kid be? When it’s money or nothing, he recommends nothing.
I recently got to test his system in a part of town where the test was unexpected. I had just picked my sons up after school and driven across town for a piano lesson. The teacher’s house is in a good neighborhood in San Jose, a suburb without the downtown grittiness. The American embassy is there. President Arias lives nearby.
My boys are 13 and 14 and always hungry after school. With time to kill before the lesson, we were sitting on the covered patio of a small bakery. They were tucking into apple tarts and pastry. Their less-than-buff dad was not eating, trying not to stare.
The neighborhood looked prosperous. The street was clean. The bakery faced a preschool, cheerfully painted in primary colors. Next door was a veterinarian’s office, with a doggie salon, no less. There are no poodle groomers in real third world countries. On the corner a modern illuminated sign advertised cosmetic dentistry.
But even here near the President’s home, the array of security bars and razor wire is a reminder that neither prosperity nor honesty is universal.
The porch we sat on was three or four steps above the sidewalk. A little boy and his slightly older sister walked up in front of it. The boy’s chin was at floor height. He stopped and looked up at us with bright, coal-black eyes. He had a round face and dark hair buzzed down close to his head. His face and hands were dirty. His clothes, what I could see of them, were even dirtier. I noticed later he wore no shoes. The older sister stopped just out of sight past the edge of the patio. He kept looking over to her and back to us.
He mumbled something in Spanish. I looked to my younger son, Ryan, who is picking up the language a lot faster than the rest of us, for a translation. "Comida," Ryan said. The magic word. Ryan said it just like the locals do, making the "d" sound something like a "th" does in English.
"He can have this, Dad," he added, offering the pastry he had half consumed. Ryan loves pastry. That he was so quick to give up something he loves and certain we weren’t being hustled settled the issue for me. There was no question these kids would pass the expat’s test.
I went back into the bakery for sandwiches, pastries and orange juice. I offered the bag to the boy through the railing. He hesitated and looked up astonished and suspicious of the old fart — very likely a gringo loco. His hesitation gave way to disbelief at his good fortune. A preference for cash was never an issue. "Gracias, señor" he said. He and his sister had the comida out of the bag before they reached the corner.
Poodle salons or not, Costa Rica still has a few miles to go to the first world.