Archive for November, 2008

On Loneliness, or, I Got A New Bike

November 22, 2008

Loneliness is a combination of circumstance and choice. At least for me it is. There are moments in which, as an expat in a still-strange land (even after seven years), I find myself about as far removed from my previous reality as ever. I frequently feel alone. After white-knuckle drives, shaking potential thieves, or even in seemingly simple transactions. For example, last night I was in a bar in San Pedro, and I ordered a rum and coke. The bartender punched some numbers into a computer, and pulled out a can of Cuba LIbre, a foul swill of a beverage if I’ve ever had one. So I intervened by stating, “could you make me a mixed drink instead of that can?”

She looked at me agast, eyes wide open and whispered “What?” as if I had casually asked her to drop her trousers, defecate in a glass and allow me to lick it like an ice cream cone. So I tried from another angle. “Well, I don’t like that kind of canned rum and coke. I would prefer a mixed drink, with some Centenario rum, please.”

“I can’t do that. I’ve already punched the can into the computer.” This, she informed me, was a permanent action which could not be changed. “Besides,” she said, “the can and the mixed drink both cost the same.” I looked to the other two bartenders standing next to her, pleading that someone have some sense of reason. All I got was some blank googly-eyed stares, like Muppets peddling beer to college students.

In earlier days I would have argued, then gotten all riled up, then stormed out of there, leaving my friends at the table, without their cans of rum and coke. But now, weathered by years of not being able to make myself understood, by thousands of failed transactions, I acquiesced, paid for the can, and returned to my table.

That moment at the bar made me reflect on past experiences, on the days when I was buying that drink for myself, sitting by myself, wondering how the hell I could ever begin to understand the local idiosyncrasies.

I also reflected on how the hell I still haven’t figured it out, after all this time.

Of course, there are many other aspects of culture and language that make an expat feel like a fish out of water here. Dating is a tragic series of misunderstandings and conflicted values. Friendships are formed and fizzle like a dancing Roman candle. And even the expats come and go. Most people use Costa Rica as a temporary springboard, a resting place, a transition between Before and After. Many stick around for six months, a year, some for two or three. But inevitably, they leave. So friendships with expats down here always leads to the going away party, a relationship fleeting like a summer love but without searing passion, like a slow handjob that stops halfway through: better not to even get that started.

So this is what I was feeling as my birthday approached last weekend. This being the start of my fourth decade, a proper celebration was in order, but the truth is I did very little to organize anything. I told a couple of friends a couple of days before the day, and expected to be sitting on my friend’s couch, drinking beer, watching a football game.

So when I arrived and saw my friend Phil in a toga, complete with sprigs of vegetation behind his ears, I was a bit surprised. OK, so we can watch ESPN in togas. That’s cool.

People started filtering in, and before I knew it, the house was full of revelers, and an improvised band complete with guitars, bongos and accordion, was playing House of the Rising Sun, which I belted out with the uninhibited aplomb of the happily inebriated. The crowd laughed and sang, a boisterous international mix of cool people. Then, Happy Birthday, and Phil gave me a sheet of paper which listed contributers to the Stolen Bike Fund. If you’ve read previous posts, you’ll know that my investment in a mountain bike lasted less than 48 hours before it was pried from inside my locked car. So when the song ended and Phil came up behind me rolling a brand new mountain bike, I just about lost it. Or maybe I did. I really don’t know. I was awash in the moment, welling with the realization that I do have a community of people who understand and care about me. For the first time since leaving my family 5,000 miles behind, I felt at home. Entre familia. It was, without a doubt, the best gift I have ever received.

And so the ride continues. I will continue to (mis) order drinks, to unwittingly commit irrevocable faux pas, to embody the boorish gringo. But now, at least, I know I’m not alone.


A Economist’s Response

November 10, 2008

Seth Gitter has answered my call for an economist here. Check out this post, and the rest of his blog for all you budding economists out there. 

To continue along with what I feel is unrational economic behavior, there is a house for rent in Heredia. My friends used to live there, paying $500 a month. It’s in a middle-class neighborhood, off a main road and is extremely dusty, noisy and cramped. This particular house has three bedrooms, 2.5 baths and a small back yard. 

My friends left because the owners increased the rent to $800 a month. To put this in perspective, the average urban-dwelling Costa Rican family earns around $700 a month. After the rent increase, almost a year ago, the house has only had a tenant for two months. The rest of the time, including right now, it has sat vacant, producing no income for its owners. Why would the owners eschew a sure thing at $500 or $600 a month for the hope of generating slightly more income with an above-market-value monthly rent? Why would they prefer to leave their home to the elements instead of using it to produce income, which is its ostensible purpose? 

I can only offer a couple of unsubstantiated ideas. One, the owners don’t need the money. Perhaps the house has been paid for, and they don’t want to bother with tenants unless the price is right. Or, it’s a pride issue. The owners might be thinking, I’ve put a lot of money into this house, and I refuse to rent it for less than I think it’s worth. 

What do you think?

What They Told Me About My Internets, and How The Laws of Supply and Demand Don’t Apply

November 6, 2008

I have been waiting for high-speed internet at my house for a long time. Over three years, to be exact. I have called the ICE, the government monopoly on telecommunications, every few months and their response is always the same. A bored voice on the other line says, “There are no ports available.” When will they get some ports in? Again, the same answer every time, and quintessentially Tico: “I wouldn’t know what to tell you.” (No sabría decirle). 

Then, a couple of months ago, the voice of boredom informed me that there were indeed ports available, and that I should head to my nearest ICE office to sign my contract. I was out the door before he would not know what to tell me. 

You have to understand: I really, really want fast internets at home. I have an office in downtown San José, but getting there is a life-threatening obstacle course full of bone-jarring potholes, weapon-weilding hoods, unbelievably drunk bums, and a variety of vehicles piloted by reckless, unskilled drivers with absolutely no fear of the potbellied authorities. This drive, which features 34 ninety-degree turns, takes me anywhere between 40 minutes and two hours. I hate it. 

As it currently stands, I do have dialup internets at home. This dinosaur is more like the Information Backalley, and pages load with all the lethargic plodding of a bureaucrat pecking at his typewriter (see post below). Frequently the phone goes dead, and with it my staticy lifeline to the world. 

I parked a few blocks from downtown Heredia. I do this so I don’t have to pay the guachimán, which is pronounced watchy mon. These are the people you see in orange vests, swinging nightsticks (or just small branches) while ostensibly offering mafia-like “protection” for your car. “I’ll keep an eye on it,” they say, nearly touching their own eyes with their index and middle fingers, then using those two digits to point at your car. When you leave, you pay the guachiman. This is a socially endorsed, tacitally accepted form of extorsion. 

So I walked to the ICE’s office, and I took a number: 67. The sign flashed Now Serving: 77. So I would have to wait to 99, at which point it would go back to zero. Ninety spots could stand between me and my fast DSL connection. I decided to give it 20 minutes. 

After a half hour, they were serving 84. I left and came back the next day.

I got in after a 40 minute wait, signed my contract and glowed with thoughts of downloaded music, You Tube videos and uploading pictures on this blog. “When do you think they’ll install this?” I ventured. The man on the other side of the counter said, “Within a month, could be. The technicians will call you. But don’t get your hopes up. There are not a lot of ports available. They might not get to you.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“There’s a lot of demand in your area, so they’re only installing a few ports.” 

This irked me, so I took a deep breath and asked the obvious question. “If there’s high demand, why don’t they try to meet that demand? Wouldn’t that generate more money for the company, and make the populace happy?”

“No sabría decirle.” 

This statement was incomprehensible to my capitalistic sensibilities. It is not, however, an isolated incident. A letter from Lew Hayes in this week’s The Tico Times, a San Jose-based weekly English-language newspaper, reads 

When I first moved to Costa Rica in the mid-1970s, I bought canned mushrooms at a local pulpería [small convenience store]. After a bit, the owner stopped stocking them, and when I asked him why, he replied, “They sell so fast that I can’t keep them in stock, so I don’t bother ordering them anymore.”

I suggested that he place a larger order, but it fell on deaf ears.  

Many people have similar stories. I don’t really know how to classify this. Any economists out there care to explain the economic principles guiding this line of thought?