While I am not much of a beach person, I find myself sitting on the beach at Manuel Antonio on the last day of the year. After six months of living through an unusually grueling rainy season northwest of San Jose, the paleness of my skin is as much a reflection of my mood as it is a lack of sunshine. Fortunately, the sun is in abundance. There is beautiful surf rolling in and out with proletarian surfers attempting to catch the less than gigantic waves. Tourists on a day trip roll along not far from shore on a polished-white sailboat. An occasional whistle is heard signaling that someone needs to be dispatched from a nearby restaurant to bring some food or drink to a sun-worshipper unwilling to give up a prized spot on the sand.
This beach, set across the street from the usual rattrap of t-shirt shops, restaurants, and bars is crowed this holiday weekend, but not unpleasantly so. Sunbathers keep a respectable distance from each other. While there are a number of families on holiday enjoying the playa, there are not nearly as many snowbirds from North America as I would have expected. A Costa Rican family with grandparents, parents, and not less than a baker’s dozen worth of children, sit near me. They have a full bar set up on their beach towel, complete with vodka, gin and “Centenario,” Costa Rica’s most well known, but not best, rum. They also have enough mixers to make even the most experienced bartender proud.
Enjoying the luxury of not having to hide among the shadows of the palm trees that dot the far edge of the beach, I find myself wondering about with the local people who live and work here. I wonder about those people who ply their trade day after day hoping to make a living from the conveniences expected by developed-world citizens before the sunshine again retreats behind the clouds of the rainy season. I reflect on their lives and livelihoods — probably not a bad day for reflection on the last day of the year.
My new friend on the beach is Jorge, the snow cone maker, who I have gotten to know over a few days. He seems to cautiously notice my skin transforming from modestly ashen to bright red while fastidiously keeping to his route along the beach. It becomes apparent to me that generations of family history must have made his dark brown skin immune to the ills of the sun. He looks darker than most Costa Ricans though. He could have indigenous blood in him, or perhaps he is Nicaraguan or El Salvadorian. It might just be that his many years of living at the beach accounts for his dark complexion. He does not appear to be more than 40 years old.
Jorge travels up and down this stretch of dark sand beach dozens of times a day bringing chilled joy to the masses. I have had snow cones many times before but never one con leche; the milk swirled adeptly in a zigzag pattern on top of the cone by Jorge’s experienced hands. The shaved ice now saturated with sweet, creamy condensed milk and combined with cherry syrup does not wear thin even after eating three of them in rapid succession.
As I watch Jorge push his snow cone cart up and down the beach, my business mind turns on. I wonder a number of things about him. First, as any good businessman is likely to do, I wonder how much money he makes a day at $1 a pop. In a half hour, I observe him dispense ten cones, three of them to me. So, he could be earning $20 an hour, which I suspect for a Tico, is a good income. I also realized that I was thirty percent of his business in this short time span so perhaps I was due a discount on my next purchase. However, I will not ask for one.
My second thought about Jorge’s small sliver of the snow cone industry is to consider whether he runs an efficient business. As I watch him make his way along the beach, I wonder if his snow-cone route brings him the most income. I think perhaps he should be going in and out among the sunbathers rather than traveling in front of them.
As the day wears on, the beachgoers inch their chairs, towels, and umbrellas back at fairly consistent intervals as the tide creeps closer to them. I notice, somewhat surprised, that Jorge does not alter his route moving at the same leisurely clip as he had all day. An occasional parent runs over and purchases two cones most likely to keep her sniveling kids occupied.
Later in the afternoon, Jorge stops for a few minutes not far from me appearing to be just as weary from the sun as the rest of us. Thinking it to be a convenient moment for me to approach him and make conversation, I seize the opportunity.
“It’s hot out here,” I tell him casually in very broken Spanish. “Si, muy caliente,” he responds wiping his forehead with a scraggily, soiled hand towel. I want to know why he has not altered his path in the sand since his customers have all moved significantly away from him. I do not want to be pushy, however, especially when the sand and the sun are enough to try one’s patience on this hot day.
He asks me, as any good businessman would, if I would like another snow cone. I decline not wanting him to think I am just another overindulgent Norte Americano, even though it has been some time since my last one. Gaining some bravado as he does not appear to want to move on despite my having just rejected his business proposition, I ask him more about his voyage up and down the beach. “I see all of the people are far away from the water now but you are still here.”
Before I could further explain myself and ask my burning question, he breaks into a thin smile perhaps because my abrupt statement is as obvious as the sun is hot. After he unclasps a button from his shirt to let some additional air in, he points to his small thin lump of ice seemingly taking up less and less space in the bottom of his cart. “It is almost all gone. No ice, no money.”
“But it looks like you have enough ice for several more snow cones?” I would have thought he would want to sell as many more snow cones as possible before the ice became just a small trickle of water leaking out of the bottom of his patched-up cart. My mind rattled with several good reasons why he should get out there and “Sell! Sell! Sell!”
“Yes, I want to sell many snow cones.” All the while, he fidgets with his numerous bottles of syrup, wiping some down, closing others, but making no effort to move on. “My family depends on me.”
I was not sure he understood me. If he hustled up to the edge of the beach that meets up with Manuel Antonio’s main strip, where the beachgoers were now congregating, he could perhaps sell a few more.
“If your family depends on you, then why not go where the customers are?” It seemed there was just something I did not understand about his business and I hoped he would provide an answer that as a foreigner in this country and to his business, was not be apparent to me.
“It is 4:30. I have to be home by 5 to prepare dinner for my children.”
That is as good an answer as any I could have imagined.
Written by Andrew MastrandonasAndrew Mastrandonas is a native-born New Yorker living in Costa Rica where he owns a bed & breakfast, runs a tour company, and writes about travel and culture. For more information: http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/AndrewNCostaRica, http://www.AngelValleyFarmBandB.com, and http://www.boomersincostarica.com