What’s Up With the Matches?

no vale la pena

“Daddy, I want to show you how to make missiles.”

Those words should inspire a little bit of fear in any father, particularly one charged with oversight of a boy whose curiosity often leads him far off the beaten track. A boy such as Thing #2.


“Sure, don’t worry. They aren’t bad. I’ll show you the YouTube video.”

Moments later I felt a little relieved to learn that the missiles being discussed were made by using a small square of aluminum foil and the head of a match. The match head is wrapped in the foil, which is squeezed around a metal or wood skewer. Heat the foil and the small piece of aluminum shoots off. Pretty cool really—as long as it’s outside, under supervision and in the rainy season.

Thing #2 lured me outside and we began clipping off the heads of matches and assembling the arsenal. After a few minutes we were ready to fire a salvo. We heated the foil and…nada. Well, there was a small hiss and a bit of smoke. Since my bride was not present there was discussion that possibly it was exactly this type of outcome that led to the creation of the phrase, “It went over like a wet fart.”

A second round of research was conducted. The solution, we decided, was more match heads. Boxes of Costa Rican matches were emptied, their contents beheaded. More tearing and folding occurred. Sadly, we succeeded only in creating a small quantity of slightly charred foil, and a heavy dose of disappointment.

Thing #2 picked up on the now empty boxes of matches and declared them worthless. I am not a chemist, but I concurred with his analysis. When we moved our household goods we inadvertently brought in a quantity of oversized, strike-anywhere matches (I know, I know, it’s contraband but it was an accident). We, ahem, burned through that supply fairly quickly and then found ourselves buying the locally produced matches.

I think it’s fair to say that the best way to light a fire using matches made in Costa Rica is to already have something on fire nearby that you can use when the matches fail. These are, to be sure, the ultimate in safety matches and likely the best thing that’s ever happened to the lighter industry.

I knew I would be taking a trip to San Jose with Thing #1 in a couple of days, so I promised Thing #2 that I would visit a couple of hardware and grocery stores and see if anyone carried matches that actually worked. I kept to myself the fact that I was also going to visit some hobby stores to see if I could get some more engines for the model rocket shells we have stuck in a box below the stairs. Regardless of what happened with the matches, I knew the rockets would work.

Thing #1 and I walked in to the most highly touted hobby store in San Jose two days later. We saw an assortment of remote control, gas-powered cars and planes. We saw no end of spare parts for the cars and planes. What we didn’t see was rockets.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Do you folks carry model rockets?”

She smiled, but not in a happy way, and replied, “No, the government declared them illegal.”

I was not prepared for this answer, and found myself wanting to question it.

“Illegal? Why?”

She threw up her hands. “Who knows? Something about safety.”

I pointed to a huge, gas-powered plane with a wing span well over a meter. “Isn’t something like that more dangerous than a model rocket?”

She nodded, and ended the discussion by adding, “Pura vida.”

We thanked her and left. I was a little sad knowing that the days of model rockets were gone, but had no time for self-pity as I needed to wade through the substantial traffic to get to the Costa Rican equivalent of a Home Depot. Upon arrival I asked if they had matches (fósforos in the local parlance).

“No, but even if we did you wouldn’t want to buy them. The matches here suck.”

I nodded my agreement of his assessment and pondered next steps. I had been certain the hardware store would have matches. I am wired such that I cannot leave a hardware store without buying something, so I thought I would pick up a small butane torch that I would soon need for a project (it’s complicated, but trust me, I needed it).

I found the torches with no problem, but noticed that while there were ample supplies of propane, but no butane canisters.

“Excuse me, where do you keep the butane?”

“Oh, we don’t have butane,” replied the employee unfortunate enough to have been walking by.

“You sell the torches, but not the fuel?”

“That’s right,” he replied.

I arched me eyebrows thinking I might be able to compel more information out of him. He resisted so I finally asked.

“Is there any reason that you stock propane, but not butane?” I was fairly certain that one was no more hazardous than the other.

He twirled his hand as if to indicate that the universe itself was to blame, then replied, “It’s our policy, but it has something to do with the government.”


Thing #1 and I left. Our spirits were low at this point so I thought we would next try one of the larger grocery stores that we don’t have back in Monte Verde. Surely, I thought, they would have something different in the way of matches.

A few minutes later I confirmed with an employee that all they had were the same lousy matches sold everywhere else. For good measure, the employee added, “Those matches are worthless.”

We agreed on that point.

I started to walk away and noticed out of the corner of my eye that the grocery store sold canisters of butane. Apparently the policies and laws that impacted the hardware store did not apply here. Unsure that I would ever see them again, I purchased several cans of butane and began rehearsing how I would tell Thing #2 that his dream of home-made missiles was over before it started—and that the rockets in the storage box were only going to move if we physically threw them.

I completely get that it is up to me to bend to the will, the customs and the regulations of my adopted homeland—not the other way around. The fact that I can wear a machete on my belt at the grocery store, but model rockets have been banned out of safety concerns, is something I will eventually get behind.

I don’t need to be reminded that up until quite recently same-sex marriages were only allowed in certain states back in the U.S.—a trend that continues with regard to marijuana, legalized gambling, which stores are open on a Sunday, whether or not you can buy liquor or beer on the seventh day and, of course, if alcohol is ever available in a “dry” county.

Every spot on the planet has its quirks. You learn to live with them or you’ll drive yourself nuts.

All that being said—what’s up with the matches Costa Rica???

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