Going to bars or clubs before they open is always strange: music is loudly thumping, lights are moving festively across walls and floors and bartenders are standing at the ready with bottles open and kegs tapped. All of this is happening while the bar is completely empty, making it an eerie experience that I typically attempt to avoid. But, I was on a mission this night.
The reason that I arrived at this trendy bar so early was to help with the setting up of an event to raise funds for Café Pendiente, an initiative that began here in Costa Rica one month ago. Café Pendiente (a term that I'm going to use throughout this article because of the awkwardness of the English translation "suspended coffee," which evokes the image of a cheap breakfastime magic trick) is a movement that began—supposedly—in Naples more than a century ago. It is a rather simple concept: If you go to a cafe and order a cup of coffee, you may also order another cup of coffee and have the cafe hold it "pendiente" (or suspended) for anyone who comes later and wants a free cuppa joe. Due to the combined forces of the recent recession and the proliferation of social media, the formerly obscure Italian cultural practice has had a resurgence in recent years and has spread to many other countries.
As a minor-league journalist (at best), I volunteered to help out with the event so that I could snag an exclusive interview with one of the principal figures behind the movement: Margarita. Unfortunately, I have not yet become accustomed to the concept of Tico Time ("Tico" being shorthand for Costa Rican) and had to wait about half an hour after arriving at the bar for anyone related to the movement to show up. It turns out that Margarita couldn't arrive until well after the event began because of some last-minute errands she had to run to help make the fundraiser a success. So, I took this as a chance to speak with one of her comrades: Clarents.
Clarents is one of the driving forces behind the Café Pendiente collective. Approaching him for an introduction, I immediately noticed that he checked all of the boxes as far as having the bona fides of a youth activist was concerned: hair done up in a freethinking bun, stylishly ridiculous sweater, glasses and a cheerful, expressive gaze belying deep thought about the social significance of every word and action.
"Café Pendiente's growth has been incredible," he told me, gesticulating grandly, "So incredible, as a matter of fact, that we can't keep up with the demand from cafes to sign up." 10 cafes have already become part of the movement, with 20 more waiting in the wings. This fundraiser is being held so that Café Pendiente can afford to pay for the materials that it gives to participating cafes to advertise the idea.
Café Pendiente Costa Rica has its origins in a post on the IndignadosCR (a movement similar to the various Occupy groups in the United States) Facebook page in April. The post was a surprisingly anodyne addition to the politically-charged page, and it was perhaps for this reason that its popularity took off. Being a social activist is difficult in a world of negativity; it often feels like one's efforts amount to little more than tilting at impossibly-large windmills. Café Pendiente offers an opportunity to do something that can act as a positive antidote to these feelings of futility. Buying a cup of coffee for another person is a simple act that serves as a signifier of the capacity that humans have for altruism.
As I helped prepare some materials for the fundraiser, which consisted of a raffle for 35 donated prizes (ranging from free books to a bungee jump to two nights in a luxury beachfront hotel), my impression was that this event was months in the making. I was astonished to learn from Clarents that the planning for this event only started about a week before it was held. This fact is compelling evidence of the extent to which the idea of Café Pendiente taps into an urge that Costa Ricans have to show generosity toward their fellow humans. This giving urge is so powerful, in fact, that the biggest problem that the organization has is convincing people to ask for free coffee when it's available. Clarents strongly emphasized this point: "We have to acculturate Ticos to the idea that it's OK to ask for a free coffee. This isn't something that we've created specifically for the poorest in our society; it's for everyone to enjoy." I, myself, have gone to participating cafes and felt shame about the idea of asking for free coffee.
As the preparations for the event concluded and supporters of the movement filled the bar with heat and energy, I wandered around, soaking up the unambiguously positive atmosphere. Simply being in such a place that night was refreshing to the spirit. I attempted to speak with Margarita as she flitted around the bar, ensuring that everything was perfect. However, I couldn't get her attention for more than 45 seconds between minor crises that she needed to resolve and the interminable number of people who had to greet her. It was fascinating to see such joyous passion; she is a woman possessed by a desire to see this movement be successful and I was happy to tap into that energy, even if it was only for 45 seconds at a time.
Just for the hell of it, I bought a raffle ticket for four dollars. My secret hope was to win the bungee jump, but I had no illusions about my chances. Sadly, I had to depart the fundraiser before the raffle was complete because I had to go to work the next day. I left my ticket with Clarents and asked him to contact me if I won. Now, many people would have taken this as a chance to claim any prize that I might have won. However, Clarents contacted me a couple of days later with the news that I had won something! The prize was a $40 gift certificate at a local women's clothing boutique. Not a bungee jump, true, but I have been looking for a nice set of pumps that I can wear to work.
On the face of things, Café Pendiente may not seem important to a country facing so many socio-political problems. I would argue, though, that it plays a vital role as an refuge of optimism that demonstrates generosity of the Tico spirit more clearly that anything else I've yet seen here.
If you're interested in helping the coffee farmers in Costa Rica who really make Café Pendiente possible (as well as innumerable other small business owners in the country looking for credit), please consider making a loan to a borrower here in Costa Rica. It's quick, easy and is the best way to pay forward some love!