Liar! Liar!

Kashá lumber for our house.

I saw a post in a local English language newspaper, The Tico Times, recently about slang terms in Costa Rica. The word “vara” caught my eye. Oh, I thought, this should be good.

Vara (in English “Rod”)
This word that is used as a means of measure, in Costa Rica also means lie or liar. Its origin dates back to the time when the metric system was not yet established, so the fabrics were sold by yards equivalent to 0.91 cm, and wood was sold by rods equivalent 0.84 cm.
And as some merchants sought to take advantage of the difference between both measures, those clients who noticed the deception said: “Stop cutting the rod” from where the expression was reduced to saying the only rod [vara].

Ha! I thought, how appropriate. I was one of those who cried LIAR! Repeatedly.

If you buy wood in Costa Rica, nine times out of ten your woodcutter will cut in varas, that ancient and mysteriously created Spanish measurement. But it’s also more than likely he will sell the wood to you in pie, feet.

I have attempted to research the origin of the vara and have been stymied in my efforts. The closest I’ve gotten is through Wiki World and a few obscure blogs related to woodworking. It seems the prevailing thought is that the vara originated in Spain’s northern central province of Burgos, then a power center in the early 16th century. It was calculated with many other


integers (toes? Fingers? palms?) and finally became the accepted norm for a yard. It’s complicated. The trouble is a vara is not a full yard. The actual conversion is somewhere around 32.91 inches. A yard is 36 inches.

Three inches + a fraction is not a lot, you might say, but imagine a house built with thousands of board feet of lumber. I did endless calculations—the calculator became my constant companion. I obsessed over how much money we lost with each delivery, and I argued endlessly with our lumber broker, who, by the way, made us just that. But I knew my stuff, and he hated me for it:

1 vara = 33-1/3 inches = 2.777778 feet
To convert varas to feet multiply by 0.36
To convert feet to varas divide by 0.36
Then add the whole board feet calculation to that mix. Yah, my brain was on fire

In the end, it was hopeless and, bottom line, I lost. I did have a cutoff number of what I was willing to pay, though, and at the end of our ordeal, I came in .10 cents under my board foot cost allowance. After one knock-down-drag-out with the guy, my son, who was visiting at the time, remarked, “Wow, Mom, that was worse than a drug deal going down.” But less lucrative for me as well as the wood cutter, I assume.


Because the Spanish brought the vara to all of Latin America and eventually California, it was used in surveying measurements in Southern California. And San Francisco. The first mayor of that city hired a city planner Jasper O’Farrell. O’Farrell, for reasons no one understands, created 50-vara blocks and 100-vara blocks north and south of Market Street.

My father loved to tell a story from his youth about working for a renowned surveyor in the 1920s; the last remaining guardian, according to Dad, of the measure and San Francisco’s ancient plot maps. When the city updated with new planning, they used this surveyor (and my dad) to re-plot some of the downtown city streets. Dad was the rod holder and often had to enter buildings as much as ten-twelve feet for the surveyor to get a proper reading of where the point used to be during O’Farrell’s time and his vara period of topography. Dad said he never knew how the city changed the maps and who benefited or lost out, but it employed him for an entire summer.

The vara still lives in Costa Rica and many other Latin American countries, but I love the fact that it’s used to call out those using it: Liar!

Independent Thoughts~

It’s Independence Day in Costa Rica and around the rest of Central America tomorrow.

September 15th marks the date when, in 1821, the five provinces under Spanish control since the 16th Century threw the buggers out and set off on their own.

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua were all administered by an iron-fisted independently appointed Captain General, headquartered in Antigua Guatemala. Under the control of the Capitania, the provinces grew increasingly restless.

You would too.

I guess when a distant power controls all the commerce, collects excessive taxes, and burns people at the stake for crimes against the Church, people become unhappy. Those that weren’t incinerated by the Inquisition were required to tithe 10% to the Catholic Church, in cahoots with the monarchy of Spain. It was an untenable situation and bound to explode sooner or later.

By the fall of 1821 angry crowds gathered in the streets of towns all over Central America, graffiti covered the walls, and leaflets blew through the streets. Fear bubbled up among the nobility of a mass uprising.

On September 15, 1821 the then governor of the Capitania, one Gavino Gainza, held a meeting in Antigua with military leaders, the Church, and members of the aristocracy to decide what to do.

Outside an angry crowd grew steadily more uncontrollable, rattling windows and banging on doors. Then came the unexpected. Apparently fireworks were set off outside by the mob. The delegates, thinking the crowd had finally erupted with blood on their minds, hastily drew up a document of independence.

And so it happened.

I knew most of this. What I did not know was that it was the intension of a group of liberal thinkers in those five countries– then provinces– to form a federal republic modeled after the United States, The United Provinces of Central America.

They had high hopes for the republic, which they believed would evolve into a modern, democratic nation, enriched by trade crossing through it between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. But their dreams were crushed and the Union dissolved in a civil war between 1838 and 1840. Its disintegration began when Honduras separated from the federation on November 5, 1838.

Various attempts were made to reunite the federation during the 19th Century but no one was successful for long. Those who tried were assassinated or died trying. Perhaps this would have been our fate in the United States had we not had a relatively stable Union before the Southern States decided to secede. One wonders what would have happened if we had had our Independence for a mere ten years before the Civil War threatened to tear our country apart?

Central America remains a ragtag bunch of countries unsuccessfully trying to go it alone. Only since the late 20th Century have they begun to work with each other to gain strength in numbers in the global economy. But there are still squabbles among them.

I wonder what it would have been like had they succeeded in forming The United Provinces of Central America? With all the riches and natural resources of these countries, had they banded together to form a united republic, would much of their troubled past been a figment of someone’s imagination? Would the United Fruit Company have been able to dominate the financial future of the countries for so many years?

I think about this today, this day of independence, this day celebrated all over Central America… but done so separately.

We will have parades and road races here in Costa Rica. The Tico Times says: “Watch for road closures as torch runs and parades fill the streets. Be prepared to drop everything at 6 p.m. Sunday to sing the Tico national anthem. And on Monday, plan on government offices, as well as banks and most small businesses, to be closed.”

    Photo by Ronald Reyes, Tico Times

But it could have celebrated so much more.