What is native to Costa Rica, comes out once a year and travels Central America sharing stories, advice, songs, riddles, facts of the world, home remedies, scientific discoveries, the history of big hair, instructions for building concrete posts, diagrams of Spanish shields, calendars of the Catholic saints, gestation periods for goats and pictures of the Roman coliseum?
It’s the Almanaque Escuela para Todos (School for Everyone Almanac), and it’s done all this and more for 42 years. It’s more informative than television, more portable than a newspaper, more fun than encyclopedias and – at just under $1.50 – a whole lot cheaper than a computer.
The publication, available on the street since Oct. 27, has a Central American literary status comparable to the Old Farmer’s Almanac in the United States, and its affiliated radio program belongs to the best tradition of old-time, gather-’round-and-listen radio.
In San José, at the corner of Avenida 4 and Calle 1, Juan Carlos Navarro lately sells about 25 a day of the glossy-bound, newsprintpaper, 192-page booklets. He distributes hundreds to other vendors.
Why do people buy it? “Diay, there’s such a variety of things in there… things that one has no idea of,” he says, lighting a cigarette and watching the morning pedestrians.
Escuela para Todos began in 1963 as a radio program of the Central American Cultural Extension Institute (ICECU), when an Austrian living in Costa Rica, Roderich Thun, decided to share local wisdom, scientific knowledge and wonders of the natural world with rural Central Americans.
When you ask Costa Ricans 50 and older about the Almanaque, many of them launch into nostalgic tales about life in the countryside, hard work and slow transportation.
The Escuela para Todos radio program and almanac were standard fixtures before rural farmers had televisions.
“The older ones would read it to the younger ones,” says Daisy Mesén, who grew up in the 1960s with 10 brothers and sisters in northwestern Costa Rica. Flipping through the 1982 Almanaque, she pauses at a picture of an armadillo, pointing out how some folks used their shells as baskets to carry eggs.
The ICECU radio program, mostly a question-and-answer format, still airs on 73 Central American stations and generates about 80 letters a week. In 1966 the first Almanaque was born, and in 1987 Escuela para Todos became a separate foundation.
ICECU is now a state-sponsored entity, and Escuela para Todos finances itself through almanac sales. The two programs share their material, both of them shooting for a mostly rural audience.
On the east side of San José, the Escuela para Todos/ICECU offices show little sign of change over four decades. Four writers prepare for next year’s almanac while vendors stock up on a few of this year’s 434,000 copies, as they do at distribution points in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. A tiny recording studio has a small table with a couple of microphones and a five-bar xylophone. Several rooms shelve hundreds of folders of questions, sent by listeners, each of them with an answer attached.
“This is the animal section,” says ICECU general secretary Ana Cristina Fernández, who explains that if they can’t find an answer in the files, the research team will look for at least three sources to back a good response. Some of the letters are read on the air, and all of them get a letter of reply. Fernández pulls out a folder and opens it to an inquiry from last January: Where in San José can one sell homemade leather products?
It’s questions like this that drop through the cracks on Google, and it’s refreshing to know that an organization like this can still exist without a Web page, though Fernández says they’ll put one up – to share their mailing address. The program is for people who don’t have computers, she says.
According to Escuela para Todos, the popular media take for granted concepts that few really understand, and even well-schooled specialists are often ignorant outside their field. In any case, who wouldn’t want to know how fast flies travel, whether armadillos can contract leprosy, and why the world’s tallest waterfall is called “Salto Angel”?
The publication itself is rather anonymous: apart from a biblical reference or two, none of this year’s 63 features is attributed to a particular author, and we can only assume the accuracy of the interesting facts and oddities.
This year’s edition has an article about Francisco Morazán, one about Joan of Arc and one about Leon Foucalt’s studies of the pendulum. The editors mention Jesus Christ more than once, and place one of his parables at the end of an article about middleclass-turned-poor Argentines who collect and sell cardboard.
“We’re Christians here – Catholics,” says Fernández, adding that when people send inquires about which religion is correct, ICECU generally advises people to follow their hearts.
On Avenida 6 and Calle 5, Rubén Uribe flips through the 2007 Almanaque: “We’ve got history… stories… world catastrophes… ancient ruins… origins of last names…”
He sits on a stool against a concrete post, selling tabloids, candy, legal codes and cigarettes. Uribe, 60, first read the Almanaque 30-odd years ago, when it went for ¢5 (about $0.50 at the time).
Though it sells alongside the graphic, sensational and popular dailies, the Almanaque is simple but not condescending, and it’s almost entirely free of advertising.
According to its founding documents, both organizations’ ethical base is that every human being deserves respect. This seems to translate into ideals of helping your neighbors, marveling at the world, learning about everything and doing things yourself.
The writers, whose names don’t appear with their work, follow institutional commandments, the first being: “You must be convinced that every natural phenomenon, every scientific problem and every type of philosophy can be made understandable to all people, even if they can’t read.”
The seventh (there are 10) should be the goal of any decent journalist: “Be fascinating, clear and brief.”