Friday, September 21, 2007

La Luz

Spanish for "The Light". But in Costa Rica it also means "The Electricity". The other day a grua (flatbed) towing a lancha hit the overhead electric cables that cross the street in front of our office. The boat was too high on the flatbed to pass underneath. The driver was going too fast for the guys on the boat to lift the cables up over the bridge of the lancha to avoid hitting them, causing some minor chaos when the cables got hung up on the bridge. (I use the word "chaos" loosely - it's an oxymoron here because every day is somewhat chaotic with regard to maintenance of any sort of infrastructure, and you just get used to it). The cables didn't come down, but after the mishap, they crossed the street at a lower elevation. In other words, there was less clearance beneath them after the comical collision.

About an hour ago, a large truck attemting to pass beneath the sagging cables finished the job. There was a bright flash and a loud bzzzzzzztt outside the office as cables snapped and a transformer blew up. I looked up from my desk to see a live wire fall, just missing coming down on the head of a man crossing the street. To my amazement, he didn't even flinch. I jumped up to get a better look. The live wire was resting on top of my pickup parked out front. A concrete telephone pole whose support cable had snapped was bouncing against the cross cables running at 90 degrees to another wooden pole right next to it. My pickup was directly in the path of the concrete pole's trajectory if it were to fall! The offending truck was making a very fast getaway. The driver was clearly very experienced at maneuvering his vehicle. I sensed this was not the first time he had found himself in this sort of predicament.

Traffic into and out of Coco came to a grinding halt. Horns began to blow. Motorcyclists weaved through the snarl, threading the needle to one side of the fallen cables. The rain poured down in buckets as it has been for three days now, and continues to do so with no end in sight until November. I think I have mold growing out of my ears now, it's been so wet. We are without power and internet, of course.

My secretary called Coopeguanacaste (the electric company in our area) to report the incident. The person on the other line said she would need to transfer the call. After a few minutes, she came back on the line to tell my secretary that there was no answer at the extension to which she was trying to transfer the call. My secretary asked her if it it would be too difficult for her to get up, walk over and tap the person's shoulder sitting at the extension to which she was trying to connect. The lady got the message.

A few minutes later, Amnet (one of the cable companies here) showed up and began work on the lines. The wooden pole across the street had snapped in two. Again, to my amazement, they were able to hoist the fallen cables high enough using ladders as supports to start the flow of traffic again in about 20 minutes. I was then able to move my pickup from it's precarious position.

The power has just come back online. The internet's up. We're back in business! Took about an hour. Unbelievable! A record not only for Costa Rica, but even for Chicago or Cleveland, I would say.

But the day's just begun...

¡Pura vida!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Carros II

The morning at Inmigración went well on Wednessday. The afternoon was a completely different story.

I had not only flown to S. Jose to get my cedula, but to recover my pickup from the taller in S. Jose to drive back to Guanacaste. I had to be in S. Jose anyway, and I saved the cost of having the truck sent back on a flatbed. I also wanted to have a talk with the manager at the taller.

I hailed a cab at Immigration and gave the driver the name of the taller. He said he knew where it was. He didn't, and we ended up on the wrong side of town at another taller. After putting him on the phone with the taller to get directions, the next 25 minutes were spent zig-zagging through town in horrendous traffic, on potholed side and backstreets all the way to my final destination. I had no idea where I was. I told the taxista this. San Fancisco de Dos Rios, it was called. The taxi driver offered to wait for me so that I could follow him to the autopista leading back to Guanacaste.

Of course, I arrived at the taller at lunch time and there was no one at the taller. The taxi driver didn't want to wait around, so I paid him and he took off.

When the taller re-opened after lunch, I examined the invoices. They were marked "CANCELADO" ('CANCELLED"), as I had transferred the money from my bank account to the taller's bank account the previous day. I was impressed! A guy drove my pickup around the front of the taller as a MOPT crew (Ministerio de Obras Publicas y Transportes - the equivalent of the Dept. of Roads and Transportation) was cordoning off the road in front of the taller to begin road work. There was now no access to the taller and I had to inspect my car across the street with heavy machinery whizzing around me in a deafening cacaphony. I received driving directions at the same time. I got into the Bolero and took off with only a modicum of confidence in the direction I was heading.

To make a long story short, it took me about an hour to find my way to the autopista to Alajuela that then leads to Guanacaste. I stopped for directions three times. On the first stop at a Chinese grocery, a guy drew me a map that appeared quite good. I had a bit more confidence as I got into my pickup to start it. Whiinggginngiinggingg!!! The starter would not engage. It had the same problem it had when I brought the pickup into the taller. I was pissed!

I called the manager. He said he didn't know anything about a problem with the starter and, therefore, had not fixed it. But he had test driven the truck, hadn't he? Yes, but the starter had worked every time (it's an intermittent problem). But he had talked to the German taller hadn't he? No he hadn't. The German was in the hospital with dengue when he tried to contact him. He had never gotten instructions to fix the starter, as I had assumed he had.

I was able to rock the car until the starter engaged and the motor turned over (Rocking the car had some effect on the centrifugal force needed for the starter to engage). The chino-tico's map turned out to be way off; the directions too (surprise!). I stopped at a restaurant and received more directions. They were off too. Or maybe it was me. I stopped at a Texaco to diesel up and asked for directions there. That guy just plain gave me wrong directions in a malicious and sadistic attempt to get a laugh at my expense. He's probably still laughing.

I then did what I should have done from the beginning: I went on instinct. It wasn't long until I found my way to Alajuela.

The pickup was running great but for the starter issue. I stopped for a six-pack of Pilsen once past Alajuela, on my way up into the mountains to San Ramón. The truck traffic that snails its way through the mountains wasn't too bad. But as I wound down some of the hillsides, I noticed that my stick shift would pop out of 4th and into neutral by itself if I didn't keep my foot on the gas. The pickup wasn't doing this before I brought it into the taller. No biggie, I just kept my hand on the stick shift.

When a steer bounded out of nowhere to cross the highway, I hit the brakes. The car wasn't slowing down as fast as I anticipated. I applied more pressure. No effect. The car was slowing down, but barely. I put all my weight and muscle on the brake pedal and downshifted. Thankfully, the big bovine mutant made it to the other side of the road before I plowed into him. The brakes weren't doing this before I brought the pickup into the taller. This was a biggie!

I made it out of the mountains in into the province of Guanacaste as evening approched. At about Cañas, it was getting dark. I turned on my lights. But I noticed the road in front of me was still dark. I hit the brights. They worked. I switched back to my lowbeams. They didn't. This was also a biggie. I still had about 100 klicks to get back home at it would surely be pitch black in no time. This meant that I would have to drive with no lights on, or with my brights on.

I waited until I could wait no more and hit the brights and the gas pedal at the same time. Oncoming motorists were infuriated, honking horns, screaming, and hitting me with all of the halogen illumination they had. (NOTE: In Costa Rica, people drive with their brights on until you flash your brights at them to signal them to switch to low-beams - they don't switch as a courtesy. It is assumed that all motorists are comfortable driving with high-beams in their face, unless noted otherwise).

I wasn't sure which was worse: driving with no lights and not being able to see the road in front of me (or be seen by oncoming traffic), or driving with my brights on and being blinded by the high-beams and KC's of the angry, oncoming motorists.

At some point, I encountered an ambulance ahead of me. I was able to pull along side of him, get him to roll down his window and ask him to escort me to the next bomba (gas pump). He caught on quickly and hit his emergency lights. I switched to my low beams and followed close behind him to the bomba in Filadelfia.

Of course, it was now about 6:30 PM and there were no mechanics to help me out. I now had no choice: it was high-beams and pedal-to-the-metal until I arrived at home.

By the time I made it home, I was exhausted. I took my new cedula out of my wallet, looked at it and reminded myself that at least half of the day had gone well. I cracked a cold Pilsen. Not a bad day afterall!

¡Pura vida!

Residencia

Spanish for "Residency". I flew to S. Jose on Wednesday to meet with my immigration lawyer at the Departamento de Inmigración to obtain my cedula for residencia. I had a 10:15 AM appointment and my lawyer was on time. But, as I fully expected, Inmigración wasn't. All in all, the process went smoothly. I was called up once to confirm my information and present bank deposit receipts for the processing fees (which my lawyer had already obtained for me by transfering the money I had transferred to him, to the Immigration Department's account). I then went back to the waiting room to await being called up for my picture and fingerprints.

While in the waiting room talking to my lawyer, a commotion broke out next to us. I rubbernecked right to see the end of a bank of waiting room chairs tilted up in the air and about to fall on the heads of the row of people in front of it. A guy with lightning reflexes caught the leg of the upended bank of chairs before it came crashing down on women and children.

Apparently, an elderly and very portly gringo had sat down on the end seat with no one else sitting on the row of chairs as counter balance to his enormity. He took a roll onto the floor, face down, when the bank of chairs teetered up and wasn't moving when I went over to see if he was alright. Eventually he grumbled, "I'm OK", and 4 of us in waiting helped him back to his feet. He spent the rest of the time I was there waiting in a standing position. My lawyer whispered to me, "Only in Costa Rica".

After 15 minutes or so, I was called back for my picture and fingerprints to be taken electronically. After that I waited another 15 minutes until my cedula card was handed to me. I am now VERY PROUD to say that I am a "Residente Permanente" ("Permanent Resident") of the Republica de Costa Rica!

¡Pura vida!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Terneros

Spanish for "calves" - baby cows!! My father-in-law somehow got the bright idea to purchase them and board them on the family fincacita (small farm) where we live. They're holed up in the unfinished house of my brother-in-law, a living ruin that the jungle reclaims a small piece of every day. It's now the barn. These things stink to high heaven. And one of them, who apparently was used to the company of people, moos all day and night out of lonliness. I really don't mind the noise, but the neighbors have made a few comments about not being able to sleep.

I'll be honest: I get hungry every time I pass them. My dog, Garcia, gets the same craving. The difference between us is that he's willing to act on his craving, while I supress mine. The other night I received a frantic call from my wife telling me that Garcia was attacking one of the little bovine mutants. I grabbed my flashlight and took a leisurely stroll out to the house/barn, secretly hoping that he had killed one and we'd be eating veal for the next month. When I arrived, the little Holstein's head was covered with blood. Garcia had gone for the ear!!!

This didn't really surprise me as he was raised on "chucharitas" - the dried pig's ears pet shops sell as jerky chew toys for dogs here. Apparently, even though it belonged to a living cow - mutant domestic cousin of the swine - and was still attached to it's head, the veal chucharita was just too irresistable and thus, fair game.

The damage wasn't severe and the bovine mutant no worse for the wear and tear. So Garcia got a scolding and a feined spanking as I winked, "Nice work!" at him. ¡Pura vida! ¡Puro sabór!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Sangrando

Spanish for "Bleeding". I'm bleeding money right now. Just got the call from the Mahindra agency in S. Jose and the "dolarosa" is $1600 for a new turbo plus mano de obra (labor)! They're charging me for oil and filters that were replaced by the German before the pickup was sent to S. Jose - they've never been used!!!!! To boot, they don't know when they can send the pickup back on a grua. Could be Saturday or Monday, or not.

This wouldn't be a big issue if not for the fact that I have to be in S. Jose at the Dept. of Immigration on Wednesday the 12th to obtain my cedula for residencia at 10:15 AM - and pay my lawyers (more bleeding). There's a chance that the car may not be back in time for me to drive it there. So I'm now in the process of getting a flight to S. Jose (more bleeding) so that I can appear at Immigration and then collect my car at the agency to drive back to Guanacaste. It's the safest bet. If I miss the appointment at Immigration, God knows what will, or will not, transpire afterward.

In Costa Rica, Murphy's Law is the only law that is enforced. There is no other option than to abide by it. ¡Pura vida!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

La Frijolita

Spanish for "The Little Bean". We nicknamed Laila Davina "La Frijolita" (pronounced free-ho-LEE-ta) while Carla was pregnant, and the name stuck. The little bean gets more and more cute every day. Reminds one of the important things in life.

I shot off a round of pics this AM after her bath. Breaks my heart leaving for my office every day. I'm now an owner of Better Homes Real Estate in Playas del Coco, Gte., Costa Rica. Aside from having to pry myself away from my wife and daughter every day, I'm loving life. ¡Pura vida!

Carros

Spanish for 'Cars'. Cars are luxury items here in Costa Rica due to their high cost - and the high cost of gasoline, though diesel is much less expensive. Cars cost more here because every single one is imported and the import duties can run very high. A $50,000 car in the US can cost as much as $80,000 here. Needless to say, there are a lot of beaters around. You drive your car into the ground - sometimes literally - as happened with two of my brother-in-laws the other night.

They were on a reconnaissance mission to recover my father-in-law who was out on one of his multi-day "fiestas". He was intoxicated and was having car problems himself. He called my brother-in-law to come get him. My brother-in-law, in turn, called his brother and the two left on their mission together. My sister-in-law told the second to bring his cell phone just in case. He opted not to. Within 15 minutes of their departure, my father-in-law called my sister-in-law after trying my brother-in-law, sans cellular, to tell him that the car was OK and he didn't need a ride. With no way for my sister-in-law to contact my brothers-in-law, they were on their own.

About 3/4 of the way to their destination, the rear wheel of the 1994 Toyota 4-Runner came clean off the wheel hub. They narrowly missed colliding with oncoming traffic and finally came to rest a few inches from a large tree on the side of the road. No one was hurt, thankfully. They, and the other motorists, were very lucky. The big tree couldn't have cared less. Trees always win in challenges between themselves and cars.

My car stories have not been quite as dramatic, but close (see ¡Pura Mierda! posting in August). My pickup is still at the taller in S. Jose. The German here in Sardinal couldn't fix the smoking/oil leak problem after changing every filter and gasket the pickup possessed. He had to put it on a grua (flatbed) and send it to the Mahindra agency in S. Jose. Total cost for everything was about $320 and I still had the problem.

The agency worked on the pickup for another week before they called the German, thinking he was the pickup's owner, to give a synopsis. The German's wife called me to tell me to call the agency. Of course, I called at lunch time when no one was available. But after lunch I was able to talk to the manager. The good news was that the engine was fine. The bad news was that they had narrowed the problem down to the turbo. They would need more time to disassemble it to determine if they could fix it. 4 days later I received a call from the agency. The bearings were shot. I needed a new turbo.

Now, in Costa Rica, raiding cars for parts is common practice. Frequently, a taller (repair shop) will take your car's newer parts and replace them with older or refurbished parts. Car batteries are favorite targets. Alternators and compressors are also highly sought after. My paranoia was elevated and I began to question the agency's motives in my mind. I mulled over a few possible outcomes:

a. The turbo could be sent to an independent turbo lab, disassembled, and repaired. This might save considerable cost. But it also involved getting the turbo out of the pickup and from the agency to the lab, then back to the agency and into the pickup - a logistical nightmare here in CR. Then there were issues with warrantees (which are a joke here anyway insofar as trying to get anyone to adhere to them).

b. The agency could be lying to me. They could be telling me that they were putting in a new turbo, but might be putting in a refurbished one (maybe even my own refurbished turbo) and selling it back to me as new.

c. The agency could be telling me the truth and might actually replace my old turbo with a new one and honor some type of warranty.

I told the agency to wait until I called them back to begin any work. I had my secretary call labs to see what could be done to salvage the old turbo. In the end, taking into account logistics and unknowns, as well as the fact that my car was in S. Jose and I was here in Guancaste and could not look over anyone's shoulder, I opted to go with the new turbo. That'll run me another $1200, plus mano de obra (labor) at $100, and a trip for the pickup back to Liberia on a grua at $60 (which is less than 2/3 of what it would normally cost - the only number I was happy at hearing). So I'm looking at about $1700 total! AND I haven't had my pickup for nearly 3 weeks now!

But that's another story... My business partner graciously leant me his 1998 Hyudai Galloper in the mean time. It has no A/C, which isn't a big deal for me. I barely run it, preferring to drive with the windows down. But my partner had just put a brand new engine in it and I couldn't drive it over 2500 rpm's. Not too big a deal, but I was nervous and kept checking the oil, which would need to be changed after 1000 kms. on the new engine, which already had 400 kms. on it. Details! The bottom line was that it meant that I would not have to spend more money renting a car in the mean time. Cool!

After driving the Galloper for 2 days, the power steering began to go. It was almost time for the oil change anyway so I figured I'd bring it back to the German and he could fix everything in a day. I called the German. He had contracted dengue fever (a mosquito-borne disease that is epidemic here in Guanacaste right now) and was in the hospital. I would have to wait. You may ask, "Why not bring it to another taller?" Good question, but if I did, it would nullify the German's warranty. And my partner wanted him to fix the power steering at no charge because he felt the belt was loose because the German either didn't put the right one on or didn't tighten it enough when he put in the new engine.

I've been driving the car for another 5 days now. The German is in S. Jose having blood workup done. The power steering is now completely gone. My biceps are bulging. I decided to stop by his place this morning anyway to see if one of his mechanics could fix the problems without the German being there. I left my baby's Graco car seat strapped in the back seat as a clever ploy for sympathy. It worked!!! It was the first thing the mechanic noticed and the candle flickered and burned above his head. He had an infant of his own and would have the work done this afternoon (which translates to tomorrow afternoon). Pura vida! Good enough! I can ride my motorcycle for a day - if it doesn't rain (yeah, right).

So here I sit, waiting to hear from the Mahindra agency in S. Jose on the final damage (cost). They call it "la dolorosa" here, Spanish for "the painful" - quite accurate. What's also painful is that these taller's don't accept credit cards. So I have to make a special trip to the bank and transfer funds from my account to their account, then send confirmation of the transfer to the taller via fax. Once the funds hit their account, they put my sorry-ass pickup on a grua and send it back to me.

I really need to sell a large property right now for a fat commission. Please visit my website at http://www.betterhomescostarica.com/ and contact me directly as soon as you can!