Archive for October, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away

October 29, 2008

The open-valve pissing that has buried houses, destroyed roads and flooded crops is about to end here in the Central Valley, according to this article from Costa Rica’s National Meteorological Institute. This means that, during the next three to four weeks, weather will transition from the balls-out deluge, the pounding tempests that have filled my home with mold, mud and indolence. 

Such joy brings the thought of six monthos of blue-skied dry-season glory that I can already imagine my Levi’s proudly flapping themselves dry in the mountain breeze. Still, the consequences of the current rainy season, which has been one of the worst on record, will endure. Because of improper drainage, roads are pockmarked with axel-snapping potholes, and even simple drives have become games of chicken as speeding vehicles try to avoid gaping craters as they hurtle towards each other. Road repair takes a while here, and I suspect the roads here will be in acceptable shape by April, just in time to be washed away during the next rainy season.

That doesn’t matter, however. With the impending sunshine, one will be able to go outside without the constant threat of a drenching. Umbrellas, once useless against the heavenly flush, will become irrelevant. I’ll be able to drive without using a dirty t-shirt to wipe the fog off my windshield. The sun will shine. Birds will chirp. All will be right with the world.


Thievery Strikes Again

October 28, 2008

In an effort to turn over a new leaf, I had invested a tidy little Costa Rican sum in a used mountain bike. Ostensibly, this mode of transportation would allow me to flex my legs as I improved my physical health, all the while pedaling past velvety coffee fields, whitewater streams and colorful bursts of tropical color. Life was about to get better, one kilometer at a time.

I got exactly eight kilometers before it got worse. 

After an afternoon jaunt through a local neighborhood, I loaded the bike into the Lesbo Rider, stopping briefly at a friends place. Quicker than a Domino’s pepperoni gets to your door, my phone rang. “Are you Mr. Peter? Did you get robbed? Because I found your agenda, journal and eyeglasses in the lot next door.” 


One step outside revealed the two passenger doors open, my lock bored out, everything in the car gone. 

In a way, I am at fault here. I should have known that one cannot leave anything of value in car, even if for a few minutes. I should have gone for my bike ride, driven to my friend’s house, taken the bike out, parked it in her living room, and reloaded it when it was time to go. 

Or I shouldn’t have even purchased a bike. I know many people who have been surrounded as they rode leisurely around town, beaten into relinquishing their Trek. 

As I posted below, the police will classify this robbery as “carelessness.” But once again it’s a sad testimony to what’s happening in what was once Latin America’s most egalitarian society. Everyone I know who has been here for any length of time has suffered at the hands of delinquents. Home burglaries, stolen cars, cellphones taken at gunpoint. Somebody once climbed onto the balcony of my office, to steal a broken coffee table and an umbrella. I have even lost all the rubber stripping on my car. A pair of pants from luggage on the bus. Two garbage cans. Some old, bald tires. 

Part of my “carelessness” stems from the fact that I still do not recognize, or at least fully believe, the truly dire situation that Costa Rica has been experiencing in the last decade. With an underpaid, poorly equipped, semi-literate police force, what can you expect? With laws that allow criminals, even murders, back onto the streets hours after being apprehended, what can you expect? With an alarmingly growing gap between the upper and lower classes, what can you expect? 

Somehow, I expect better of the country. I expect that at some point, passionate, honest, capable politicians will take the rotting reigns of this runaway country and snap them straight. That they will strive to make deep, fundamental changes. To heal wounds. To outrun the storm. 

However, each time I experience or hear about the audacious actions of the large criminal class – and I hear about them often – my expectations wither a bit more. The flower of my experience here in Costa Rica still has a few drooping petals left, but if the currents conditions prevail much longer, I’ll either have to get used to living in a desert, or plant my garden elsewhere.

On The Typewriter and Waiting

October 24, 2008

The typewriter is an instrument of the tropics. I remember my initial jaunts through Guatemala and my surprise at hearing the steady, uniform clacking in a soothing percussive riff at the local Typewriter School. It is a sound that accompanies me to virtually all trips to Central American government offices. You dreadfully stand in a dank, cramped office where manila folders bulge from sagging bookshelves; everything is furnished from a 1970s catalogue called “Government Cubicles,” stained with decades of abuse and disrepair. At a desk sits either 1) A sweaty, mustachioed bureaucrat, his stomach pushing the thin fabric of his short-sleeve button-up shirt to the limits, his lethargic hands pecking deliberately at the strange machine on his desk, pushing his aviator-style eyeglasses up every now and again, or 2) an overly made up, dumpy middle-age woman in a polyester suit that, when combined with her hairstyle, makes her look like a horribly warped picture from a Latin disco circa 1982. She is slightly better at typing than her male counterpart, but shoots off barbs of sharp words in the form of poor jokes or obvious observations to her slumping, dying coworkers. The lighting is the flickering florescence of governmental madness that breeds inefficiency, corruption and contempt. The typewriter indeed forms an integral part in the orchestra that plays Latin America in my brain.

Costa Rica, being ahead of the curve down here, has been gradually phasing out the typewriter. Most transactions are done with computers, and the song of dot-matrix printers fills government institutions. The computer has been a boon to getting things done here: most ID cards are machine produced; your bank passbook is automatically updated; and a few keystrokes will call up all your businesses registry information. The only disadvantage is that, when the power goes out, which is often, the computers do not work. Whereas I can imagine our Nicaraguan colleagues diligently typing away by candlelight, my Tico brethren can only sit, arms crossed, and declare their impotence due to the power outage. The same happens when the “system” goes down. This also happens frequently. All of us down here are used to going to the bank to pay bills, paying with a credit card at a gas station or trying to get a copy of the deed to one’s house, only to hear the dreaded phrase “no hay sistema.” The system is down. You’ll have to wait.

What does one do in such a situation? I used to feel my blood pressure rise until I began to sweat through my shirt. I used to clench my teeth and curse the system. I used to curl into a ball, rock back and forth, look to the heavens and cry, why? Why?

Eventually, I got used to it. And I learned. Now, I don’t go anywhere without a backup plan, something to read, a journal, anything to take advantage of the system’s down time. Because once you learn how to deal with it, you do as the locals do. You wait. And you find out that you’re no worse for the wear. You might even get something accomplished. 

Pistoleros run the show

October 22, 2008

There are roving bands of armed thieves everywhere, and the police are unwilling and/or uncapable of stopping it. Thus, the law-abiding sectors of society are forced to live behind bars, concertina wire and armed guards, while the criminals run free in the streets. (once I figure out how to post pics and such, I’ll show you what my neighborhood looks like). 

What to do? The local police department claimed a few days ago that most street robberies are due to “carelessness” (literally, descuido) by the pedestrians. Carelessness seems to be defined as having the incredibly poor judgement to walk on the streets, to own a cell phone and think you can use it in public, to have the gall to answer the door when someone rings the bell. 

Sadly, the descuido stems from the government’s lack of attention on this issue. Every day more foreigners are robbed, returning to their home countries with tales of marauding pirates aboard motorcycles, and the illiterate cops who do not even write down their reports. And once foreign investment and tourism leave Costa Rica for good, this place will turn into Honduras: a barren, impoverished wasteland governed by gangs. 

With all the environmental protection laws Costa Rica has enacted, which have benefitted the country (and the world) enormously, government officials are letting the country rot from within. And eventually all hollow trees fall.

Nicaraguan Snot and the Booger Bus

October 21, 2008

I recently took the bus to Nicaragua, from San Jose. The Booger Bus. I had a free ticket. The result is the Return of the Incredible Dripping Nose, which has taken root after three long days of bone-burning fever. These international rollling incubation dishes are great for travel if, like me, you have an extremely limited budget. The downside is that you also travel with 53 other people too broke to afford proper health care, in a vehicle with windows that don’t open. So the fella two seats back who hacked cloud after cloud of bristling bacteria thoughtfully shared his calamity with me (and who knows how many others), the after effects of which I am enjoying right now. 

Oh, the bus. I also liked Smoker Guy, who looked like he might play bass in a Costa Rican version of a Metallica cover band. He sucked down heaters on the curb before boarding the BB like a man about to be marched in front of the firing squad. This he did because he knew that were were about to board a no-smoking bus. Because the windows don’t open. However, about 15 miles from the border, where we’d all be herded into a teeming mass of currency exchangers, passport stampers and shuffling peasants hopeing to cross to the other side. Smoker Guy ducked into the bus’s bathroom (yes, this was the Executive Service, complete with crapper. However, before taking off, the bus driver announced “In order to avoid bad odors, please use the restroom only for number one.” That’s how he put it), and smoked a cigarette. I don’t know if he though he’d pull one over on us, but within 30 seconds the entire bus filled with smoke. And we couldn’t open the windows. So we’d just have to tough it out. And in typical Costa Rican fashion, everybody bitched quietly to his/her seatmate, but nobody said anything to the offender. 

Smoke, sneezes, fried chicken and sweaty passengers combine scents to produce a cloud so thick you could bottle it, send it to France or Finland or Fairbanks where the recipient would open it and, like a genie, the cloud would materialize in front of the surprised target. It would turn into a visible vapor fist, which would first pummel the victim’s olfactory bulb before lodging itself in his sinuses. 

Anyway, my conclusion is this: I would prefer to fly, but until I can afford it, I’ll stick with the bus. And the way things are looking, I’ll be rolling across the border for a long time to come.

A Little Bit About Me and My Rot

October 20, 2008

The Rot is insidious. But one day, like a man splashing water in his face in front of the mirror just as the weight of the crisis hits, you realize it. And then you see it everywhere: the bums who buzz for change around any busy intersection; an hour-long wait in a line in which the dozens of defeated patrons gazed at a silent TV portraying koala bears birthing; the careening taxi who blares his horn instead of applying the breaks, resulting in a completely avoidable traffic accident; knowing that even though you ordered the garlic butter sea bass, you will most likely receive a breaded version, and you will eat it without complaint. It’s not that daily vignettes of incomprehensible actions are something new; you’ve seen it for years. The Rot is set in once the madness doesn’t seem strange any more.  

Six months. If you left your house to nature for half a year, the jungle would wrap its mossy fingers around it, making entry without a machete impossible. Nature’s incredible transformative powers are amplified the closer you get to the equator. A simple fern becomes a huge piece of dinosaur salad. A tree falls, and quickly decays into mulch, from which spring instant jungle. Vacant lots become tangles of vines draped over long-rooted trees, dripping with bright violet and yellow flowers, almost overnight. Leather becomes a mass of mold spores at about the rate milk spoils. And one’s sense of what is known and right and how things are done warps. Because life deteriorates as quickly as it proliferates in the tropics.

Now imagine seven years at nine degrees north latitude. 

Free Hamburger, Already Tenderized

October 18, 2008

The Costa Rican daily La Nacion reported a collision between a car and a bovine in the Caribbean province of Limon. While crashes with four-legged  beasts on Costa Rica’s dark highways are not uncommon, this particular account caught my eye. “The livestock’s owner did not show up on the scene, so some curious bystanders took advantage of the occassion by butchering the animal and handing out the meat,” reads the newspaper account.  

Which makes me wonder: how many of the delicious beef dinners that have I consumed came from sources other than the slaughterhouse? With over seven years under my belt here, I suspect plenty. And that’s OK. Better than leaving it to the vultures, I suppose.