Friday, October 9, 2009

La Chula: Impounded!

Mike wants his motorcycle back but can't get it back because he can't pay a ticket that someone else incurred while driving his motorcycle without a license, BECAUSE the transito system that registers tickets and is tied in with the national banks where you can pay the fines, as well as the judicial building in Filadelfia that issues a specific vehicle document key to reclaiming a vehicle, has been down since 23 September when the new transit law was supposed to go into effect but was delayed, AND it's a three day weekend here AND no one knows when the hell the system will be back up so that he can pay the fine incurred by someone else, get the key document from the Juzgado, give it back to the Juzgado, get the "get out of jail card" and return to Liberia to get his Chula back!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Los nicaragüenses

The Nicaraguan's. There's a commercial building being constructed nearby my restaurant where the vast majority of day laborers are poor Nicaraguans. Our proximity to the border with Nicaragua together with Nicaragua's grinding poverty (2nd poorest nation behind Haiti in the western hemisphere where 80% of the population survives on $3 or less a day) and job opportunities in construction here in Guanacaste, mean that my area has a substantial "Nica" population.

Ticos (and Gringos), in general, look down upon Nicaraguans. They're considered whores, thieves, and illiterates. Ticos refer to them as "paisas", or "paisitas". This word is derived from the word paisano, or peasant. It's not a nice term and is tantamount to being called "nigger" in English. Used amongst their fellows, it's OK. But if it comes from a Gringo or Tico, the gloves might come off.

A few of these day laborers on the site, Carlos Manuél, Luís, Gonzalo and Claudio, frequent my restaurant for beers in the evening - especially on pay day, which was yesterday. Carlos was drunk when he arrived: happy-drunk, but descending rapidly into melancholy drunk. Luís was in a better state. Carlos immediately ordered a round of Imperial's and included me in the round. He often buys me beers, which is atypical of either Nicas or Ticos in these parts. He desperately wants to learn English so he can more effectively communicate with and understand gringo foreman on construction projects. So I mix it up in Spanglish and we have a good time.

As Carlos skidded into melancholy-drunk, he requested I put on some romantic Latin music. So I went directly to Marco Antonio Solís and got two-thumbs up. Luís began to sing along, and was really quite good. Smiles around the table and Carlos ordered another round for us. But he began to hang his head in sadness. Something was on his mind.

After the second round, a third was ordered and Carlos asked if he could use my land line to call Nicaragua. He had a pre-paid calling card so I gave him the nod. Luís had to do the dialing. Carlos, at this point, was wobbly and needed the support of the wall shelving where the phone was located. After connecting, Luís returned to the table while Carlos talked on the phone.

I asked Luís what the problem was. At this point Claudio arrived to give some support and he also bought me a beer. It turned out that Carlos' daughter was in the hospital for an appendix operation. It sounded serious and Carlos could not be there for her and his wife. Luís didn't volunteer details and I didn't pry. But it was enough to explain Carlos' mood.

Here's a guy who is poor as poor gets, probably cannot read or write (based on the blank stare I get when I give him a menu and the fact he can't operate the keypad on a phone, drunk or not), is far from his wife and sick child at home, is working for 1500 colones/hour while living out of a hammock in a tin bodega on a construction site for two weeks at a time with 3 or 4 days off in between to travel back to Nicaragua on a bus to visit his family...

...And HE'S buying ME beers!

It really moved me. I don't think I'd be doing as well as Carlos if I were in his shoes and it was my daughter. I hope his daughter gets well soon. I really hope so.

¡Pura vida!


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Adios Bar/Rest. Vallejos!

The day finally came on September 9, 2009, for the Municipalidad de Carrillo to come with the backhoe an tear down the old family restaurant, Bar y Restaurante Vallejos. The Municipalidad ruled the structures were in the zona publica and, according to la Ley Marítima Terrestre, had to be demolished.

I posted pics on my Facebook page. Click here to view pics. Click here to see video. Adios y vaya con Dios!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Tourist and the Traveler

The Tourist and The Traveler

I've done my fair share of traveling over the years, including living abroad, as I am now, and have come to realize that there is a big difference between a "tourist" and a "traveler". In Costa Rica, tourism is king. But don't let the word fool you. Not all visitors are tourists...

The tourist stays at an all-inclusive resort, content to be physically present in a country without actually having to experience its culture - or, at best, experiencing it at a "safe" distance. The all-inclusive resort is his/her "nest" and provides him/her with bragging rights for having visited a foreign country without actually having experienced it.

The traveler never stays at an all-inclusive resort, and prefers to stay in small hotels, hostels, peoples' homes, or even camping out, immersing himself/herself in the culture and lives of the people he/she encounters, often making new friends for life.

The tourist wears colored, plastic bracelets that indicate his/her status at an all-inclusive resort, often making him/her the target of opportunists (a.k.a. thieves).

The traveler never wears these things but wears whatever everyone else on the street is wearing and blends in - or, at least tries to blend in - with everyone else.

The tourist asks, "Is it safe?"

The traveler asks, "How do I get there?"

The tourist says, "Eewww, that's gross!"

The traveler says, "WOW! I've never seen that before!"

The tourist never reads-up in advance on their destination in a tour book.

The traveler has a well-read and ragged Lonely Planet on hand at all times.

The tourist rides in large, air-conditioned resort tour buses with large groups of fellow tourists who peer through sealed windows, wide-eyed, like fish through the glass of an aquarium.

The traveler rents his own ride, hitchhikes and/or takes public transportation, and peers through open windows taking in the sights and smells of everything around him/her.

The tourist knows nothing of the native language of the country he/she is visiting, could care less about it and/or won't risk making a fool of him/herself to make the effort to speak it.

The traveler has a basic working knowledge of the language of the country he/she is visiting upon arrival, and makes every effort to speak it, nevermind falling flat on his/her face. Ha, ha!!

The tourist takes him/herself too seriously.

The traveler doesn't.

The tourist is timid and apprehensive.

The traveler is self-confident and adventurous.

Travelers eat whatever is put in front of them.

Tourists don't, and frequently ask for a cheeseburger/veggie burger without mayonaise, lettuce or tomato.

The traveler knows the national drink.

The tourist does not.

Travelers know the currency exchange rate.

Tourists NEVER do!

The tourist whines.

The traveler opines.

The traveler negotiates.

The tourist goes with the fixed price.

The tourist looks at his destination through his/her own eyes.

The traveler looks at his destination through the eyes of those he/she encounters.

I could go on and on about the differences between "tourists" and "travelers", but I think I've made my point - at least to the travelers, because tourists could care less.

Be a traveler, not a tourist. It might take a little work - no one is perfect. Enrich your own life as well as the lives of others. Travelers leave footprints and make the world a better place. Tourists just redistribute a little of its fiscal wealth and evaporate. Which would you rather be?

Pura vida!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Esperanza

Esperanza, or a town called "Hope". A friend of mine has a big finca (farm) up in the cool mountains somewhere between Santa Cruz and Playa Garza. He invited us up to see the toros (bulls) in Esperanza, not far from his finca. Esperanza is a very small and rural place. The downtown consists of a couple of houses, a soccer field and a sala (large place for congregating - in this case, bar, restaurant and dance floor). I'd say the population is less than 50 people.

It was nice to get off the beach for awhile and escape the hustle and bustle for a visit to the Costa Rica of yesterday. I picked up a group of hitchhikers on their way to the event and they actually offered me money for the ride. At the beach, they would have begged me for money after the ride. Very different world where people are proud and independent, yet humble.

We stood on the bed of my pickup, drank beers, told stories and watched the toros. It was a great day with cool breezes, lots of sunshine, cold beer and no rain. Laila fell in love with the horses and a very kind caballero gave her a riding lesson. I gave him a beer in return. He bought me one later on after the event.

(Click the following links for some Quicktime phone video) The corral was constructed on a hillside with an amazing view of the surrounding valleys and mountains. Carla hung out with her cousins while Laila, glued to me for the day, and I watched the show and clowned around.

After the event we headed to the sala and had chicharones con ensalada de repollo (fried pig skins drenched in fresh lime juice, with cabbage salad) and beers. I climbed on to the canasta (roof rack) of my pickup, kicked back in the sun with a cold Pilsen, and took it all in. I even made a few phone calls to friends back home to rub it in. It was a great day. The real "pura vida".

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Costa Rica: "So dance or get off the floor."

I saw a posting on a friend's Facebook page - a guy I really like and respect - that really tweaked me the wrong way. It read as follows:

"I don't understand people who live here for more than a few months and are still in love with this place. Being in love with Costa Rica is like falling for a really dumb supermodel. The incredible physical beauty makes for fantastic scenery and ...fabulous adventures, but then you wake up one morning, after having been there and done that, and realize that it's been months since you've had an intelligent conversation."

I posted the following comment:

"I do love this place when I can kick back with my family and the pura vida lifestyle - simple and genuine with lots of laughs. The problem occurs when I have to balance the expectations of North Americans (i.e. my clients) with the reality of every day life down here. The cool ones get it and can ride the swells and troughs. The ones who don't get it make my life here miserable. This ain't New York or Toronto. Things take time and there are cultural protocols that need to play out. It's a dance, and stepping on toes counts against you. You can't just ream things through and threaten to sue everyone and their brother if things don't play out on your North American timeline. No one gives a f*ck about your timeline. So dance, or get off the floor."

Kinda harsh, but I think his posting was even more offensive. Especially from a guy who is working here, ILLEGALLY!! No one's keeping you here, so dance or get off the floor, bro!

¡Pura vida!

Visit my Facebook page at http://facebook.com/mike.poynton

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bahía Culebra Lounge

So now I'm in the bar/restaurant business with my wife, sister-in-law and father-in-law. The restaurant is located on the main street in Playa Hermosa, Gte., across from the fountain at Hermosa Heights - good location. My father-in-law gave his last tenant the boot for not paying rent. So we started kicking around the idea of a restaurant that serves quality tico and gringo food at a reasonable price, with each item having a unique sort of "twist". See the resulting menu on the left.

We started on a shoestring. No grand opening. We just opened the doors and started selling food and drinks. We have four tables, a TV and an iPod Boom Bucket. It's not the way a gringo would do it. But being that I'm the minority gringo and it's low season (not alot of gringos traveling right now) I'm going with the flow. You see, I'm a recovered perfectionist.

Ticos use this method for getting a business off the ground all the time. They start with nothing and slowly add improvements as the clients come and go. There's a certain wisdom to this as you minimize the risk in losing a large investment - if it doesn't work, you're not out much.

So we're waiting for the cervezería to hang the new illuminated Imperial sign with Bar y Rest. Bahía Culebra on it where the previous tennant's sign hangs. I'm having a sign made for the illuminated sign on the building with the name Bahía Culebra Lounge. Right now we have a vinyl sign tacked to the wooden picket screen around the front "porch" eating area that I've written on in permanent marker the name and menu items. We'll have a daily special blackboard hanging at the entrance, and a sandwich sign on the street. Poco a poco.

So far, we've gained a loyal following from the locals in Playa Hermosa, both tico and gringo. The gringos love the portobello mushroom taco and bratwurst w/ saurkraut. The ticos love the burgers and the fried chicken. I love them all. ¡Pura vida!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Verde

Spanish for "green". Things have greened up nicely over the past two weeks. This place has rapidly transformed into something completely different than what it was a fortnight ago. It's impossible to explain the contrast and how rapidly it transpires as soon as the rain comes. And it's impossible to explain the color "green". Playa Hermosa. ¡Pura vida!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

¡La Lluvia!

Spanish for, "The Rain!" It rained last night at our house for the first time in nearly 6 months. A sweet, steady downpour that beat down the dust, cooled things off and created that "first rain smell" that only nature is capable of creating - that smell of earth and spores mixed with parched leaves and tinder-dry fallen branches that have not been wet in half a year. ¡Que rico!

My daughter was 16 months old the last time it rained. She was noticeably distressed as we stood on our balcony watching and smelling the downpour, with relampago ("lightning", but not the lightning bolt kind) strobing the landscape around us and freezing drops still in the air as they fell. It suddenly dawned on me then that it was the first time she was seeing rain. She couldn't remember it! What fun!

Invierno, "Winter", has officially arrived here in our little corner of Guanacaste. Things should be lush in another two weeks. The landscape will turn from Tucson brown to Amazon green. The canopy will leaf out and cover the hillsides in coats woven of broccoli. The rainbows and sunsets will display like psychedelic peacocks in mating season. I love the change of seasons, even though we have only two.

¡Pura vida!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Conophis Lineatus; Road Guarder (Locally known as Ratonera)

Those who know me know I like snakes. I've been catching and keeping them since I was about 7 years old and without incident. That is, until last Friday, when I did something a bit stupid.

I was standing next to the family restaurant chatting with friends over beers at around 5PM when a young gentleman tapped me on the shoulder to point out a snake crawling between my legs. It was a snake I had caught many times around the house so I reached down and grabbed it by the tail to the amazement of the guy who tapped me on the shoulder.

But not far enough down his tail, as it would turn out. He turned and bit me on the heel of my hand. After about 30 seconds, he let go - they always do - and began to crawl through my fingers like we had been friend since birth. The friends I was chatting with were amazed and were taking pics. All of them proceeded to to tell stories about their encounters with snakes, alligators and other reptiles while I played with my new buddy.

Well, within a half hour my hand began to swell up a bit. Not uncommon after a bite, but this one burned too - that was new. I took the snake over to a big pile of fallen palm branches, away from anyone who could harm him and let him go. Then headed back for another beer.

3 hours later my hand looked like a latex glove that someone had exhaled into. My wife spotted my big hand, fingered me and I came out with the story. She was pissed - she hates snakes. She wanted me to go immediately to a private clinic to get treatment. I told her it would be fine in a day or so (probably). You see, I didn't know EXACTLY what kind of snake it was.

Long story short, I checked into the emergency room at the hospital in Liberia. Since I didn't know what kind of snake it was, and I didn't have the snake with me, I was given an I/V cocktail of antivenin to cover all bases. They started with a pain killer I/V. But I really wasn't in any pain. Then they started with the cocktail. The nurse told me I might have an allergic reaction to it. I told her I didn't have any allergies.

Within about 10 minutes my head and ears were throbbing. I broke out into a sweat. The palms of my hands, the soles of my feet and my armpits were itching like crazy.Try to scratch the palms of your hands! Sounds easy. Not. I had broken out in hives and my face was red. I went to the nurse and told her I didn't feel well. She took one look at me, saw the welts on my sweaty epidermis and put me on a gurney under an A/C unit.

This is when the voluminous flatulence started. And as it happened, my gaseous bottom was aimed at an open office door, that was closed abruptly after two rounds came a rumbling. My stomach now felt like it was trying to exit through my esophagus. It was painful. The nurse gave me an injection to ease the pain. In 15 seconds I was vomiting on her feet.

After mopping up my parting souvenir, I was wheeled to another area. I'm not sure where it was because I was too exhausted to open my eyes. My wife had been in the waiting room and had had no communication with me. She talked a security guard into letting her in to visit me and, man, was she a sight for sore eyes. Just seeing her made me feel better.

The hospital would not discharge me until the 3ntire I/V cocktail had been administered. So I spent the night on the gurney with the nurses putting me in and out of allergic reactions all night. Amazingly, I was able to sleep.

By 11 AM the next day, I was finished with the cocktail and was getting a bit antsy to be discharged. The doctor said he was still awaiting my blood test results and I would have to wait. They had taken a blood smaple the night before and I was pretty sure the results were available, but no one was really hunting them down. So I told the doctor that if he didn't make a move to obtain the results in the next 5 minutes, I would take my clothes off and run through the hospital naked. I reached for my belt. He motioned me to hold off. The results were in his hands in about 3 minutes. The venom was not hazardous to my kidneys and there was no risk of renal failure. I was out!

As I was being discharged, my brother-in-law was checking in. He had lost the tip of his middle finger when trying to remove a hook from a fish he had caught. The line got wrapped around his finger and when the fish flipped, the line tightened like a noose around his finger in an instant, thus severing it like a cocktail weenie. I'll take the snake bite.

Pura vida!

P.S. Thanks to Robert Meidinger at The World of Snakes here in Costa Rica for identifying the snake that bit me as Conophis Lineatus, a rearfanged snake known for painful bites, but whose venom will not cause any more troubles than the pain and swelling. English name "Road Guarder"; Local name “Guardacamino”. Costa Rica is home to over 130 species of snakes and only 17 species are venomous.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"...when death is on the line. Ahh, hah, hah...!"

In one of my previous posts, ¡Estupido!, I tell the story of the two guys who screwed up my roof and fascia while trying to fell a tree next to my house that was over a half meter in diameter. I finished with, "It's better to give it to a gringo "...when death is on the line. Ahh, hah, hah...!"

Well, maybe not. The gringo I hired to fell the tree was equally as confident as Cascarita was. And he got a helluva lot farther than Cascarita did. But in the end, the tree ended up on my house. The pictures tell the story.

The the gringo's credit, he dealt with a bad situation magnificently. One of his workers spent most of yesterday morning on my roof cutting the precariously positioned tree into smaller pieces so that we could get a backhoe in to lift the trees off the house. I'm not sure what kind of tree it was, but the wood weighed as much as iron. The guy was an artist with the chainsaw and rope, cutting short pieces with the saw while keeping them from landing on the roof by securing them with the rope.

But the star of the show was the backhoe operator who followed on after the trimming was done. The guy maneuvered his machine to straddle over my septic tank cover AND my landscaping. Then he proceeded with surgical precision to remove the two trunks that had crashed through the roof and were resting on the top of my concrete wall. It was pretty exciting - and nerve wracking - to watch. And when the big trunk was finally laid to rest on the ground, there were high-five's all around.

Semana Santa (Easter Week) is on week away. It's tough to find anyone who wants to work right now, and next week will be impossible. To boot, the arrival of the winter rains is not far off. This was not lost on the gringo who wanted to make things right. I have alot of real estate clients who need grass cut and trees trimmed, and he didn't want a tarnished reputation.

There's a guy repairing my roof and soffits as I'm typing this. I gotta give it up to the gringo "...when death is on the line. Ahh, hah, hah...!". ¡Pura vida!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Brakes & Breaks

I have RTV (Revisión Técnica de Vehículos), or vehicle inspection, due this month for both my pickup and motorcycle. There were a couple of things I needed to fix, or have fixed, on both vehicles.

The big deal on the pickup was that I needed new tires. So I headed to Super Servicio early in the morning on Monday to have all four replaced. I found a decent set of Firestone's for about $120/each. I was second in line - a break. They told me the car would be done after lunch.

I walked into Liberia to get my haircut. I was first in line - a major break! After that I headed to Las Tinajas for a cold beer and to wait for the arrival of my wife and daughter. They had taken the bus in to visit the Registro Civil to get copies of my daughter's birth certificate for her upcoming baptism on Saturday before Easter. They arrived promptly at 12PM with two copies of the certificates. Laila was not a problem on the bus - another major break!

We had a nice lunch and, as I was taking my last sip of beer before paying the bill, my phone rang. The car was ready to go. Incredible! We were on a roll! I couldn't remember the last time I had so many consecutive breaks.

It was hot now - about 96 degrees - and we were walking back to Super Servicio when one of my agents honked his horn at me as I crossed the intersection in front of him. Yes!! I left Carla and Laila at a clothing store and hitched a ride with him to Super Servicio - the breaks just kept coming! I picked up the car and returned to pick up the wife and kid. The car was riding magnificently. I was on top of the world.

We loaded up and headed back to Playa Hermosa. Just outside of Liberia, I heard a wicked noise and something bounced under the right side of the truck. I looked in my side view mirror to see my wheel cover spinning down the highway and losing speed behind me. Superduper Sevicio hadn't fastened it to the rim correctly and it flew off rolling, eventually coming to rest against a tree - not a break. I doubled back, found it and remounted it with zip ties (see Costa Rica Survival Kit).

About half way back to the house I noticed my brakes felt different. I didn't think much about it at the time as the tires had just been changed and maybe this had somehow changed the way the brakes felt. We arrived in Hermosa and I dropped Carla and Laila off at the house, then headed back to my office in Coco. The brakes felt VERY different now - not a break.

By the time I pulled up to the office, I barely had brakes. I almost drove through my front door - definitely would not have been a break. I then entered my office and realized that I had stupidly forgotten my computer at my house - not a break. I then got a call from another agent who wanted to show two of my exclusive listings the next day - a break offset by the fact that I had a RTV appointment scheduled for the pickup the next day at the same time he wanted to show my properties. So I called RTV and cancelled the appointment. I mean, I had to have my brakes looked at anyway, and the sale of a $500k condo superseded both put together.

Just then, two clients (sellers) of mine and their friend came into the office. They were from Chicago and were here on their last day of vacation before heading back the next day. I had forgotten that we were supposed to get together for beers after their ATV tour. They were a welcome sight and beers really sounded good at that point - a break! So I headed out for happy hour at Coconutz and I kinda forgot about the brakes.

After 8 vodka sodas I realized the time was getting late and that I had to get back to the house and relieve Carla of "Laila duty". I said my good-byes, hopped in my pickup and started the engine. It was after backing into the middle of the road and not being able to stop, narrowly avoiding completely crumpling the grille of the Landcruiser behind me, that I realized I had no brakes at all - this definitely was not, and would not have been, a break! I was now REALLY pissed off! And so it was that, I, in my impaired state of judgment and agitated emotional state, decided to drive home with no brakes.

It was normally only a 10 minute car ride, and I did it in 20 minutes with my hazards flashing. Not too bad, and the manual transmission made it easier on the downhill descents. I arrived at home in one piece only to realize that I had forgotten keys to the properties I was to show the next day. I was now, VERY pissed off!! NOT A BREAK!!

The next day (yesterday) came and I couldn't drive my pickup. So I decided to hop on my dependable motorcycle, La Chula, and ride to the office to get the keys in advance of my appointments (one was to take photos of a vacation rental, the the other to show my exclusives with the other agent). When I mounted her, I saw that the front tire on La Chula was flat - not a break! I couldn't believe it!

I don't know how, but I remembered that the ferreteria (hardware store) around the corner had a compressor for cleaning air filters, and I banked on a hunch that they could fill the tire with air and I would have enough time to get to my office to get the keys and back without the tire deflating. I crept the 400 meters to the hardware store on La Chula and my hunch proved right - a break! I had a guy over inflate the tire with the compressor, then took off like a young Steve McQueen up to my office. I got the keys and returned home, picked up my camera and headed to the vacation rental to take pictures. The leak was a slow one - a break. I then met the other agent and showed him and his client my listings. It went very well - another break.

I was now on a roll and decided to have the tire leak fixed before my RTV appointment the next day (today). So I headed to the bomba (gas station/pump) in Sardinal where I arrived about 1 second too late. Friends of mine had arrived just in front of me and were having their tires rotated - not a break. So I grabbed a Cuba Libre at the minisuper and killed some time. One Cuba Libre turned into two - a break, or not a break, depending on how you look at it.

After the second Cuba Libre the llantero (tire mechanic), removed my front wheel, peeled the tire off, put the tube under water, found the leak, patched it and reassembled everything for me good as new. I paid him 1500 colones (about $2.75) and almost did a wheelie as I screamed out of there. I was now prepared for the next day, having replaced the interruptor for the rear brake light on Sunday over the previous weekend.

So today I get to RTV at 10:00am before my 10:15 appointment, get my paperwork and pay the $12 for inspection. I only had to wait a half-an-hour past my scheduled appointment when a technician began his inspection of La Chula - in Costa Rica, a half-hour late is "on time", and that's definitely a break! The technician inspected the VIN, signals, lights, horn and then did an emissions test. "Perfecto!!", he said, in a congratulatory manner. He then waived me through to the front parking lot. "Wait...", I said to myself, "...they hadn't tested the brakes."

So, sure enough, the piece of paper with the little tear-off that you stick in reverse on the sticker they give you with the clear window on it that allows the tear-off to show through it that you stick to your motorcycle, had the word "GRAVE" on it. I asked the technician how my brakes could have failed if they hadn't even tested them. He said that that was the point. Apparently, RTV's frenometro (brake tester) was broken. They couldn't test my motorcycle brakes!! He wrote a number down for me to call to find out when the frenometro would be fixed and, thus, when I could return to have my brakes tested and get the piece of paper with the little tear-off that you stick in reverse on the sticker they give you.... Definitely, NOT A BREAK!!

Those are the breaks, and those are the brakes.

Pura vida!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

¡Estupido!

Spanish for "stupid". That's what I was day before yesterday when I decided to give an ex-caballero named Edgar, a.k.a. Cascarita (Little Eggshell) the task of felling a tree encroaching on my house that would have reduced it to toothpicks and dust had it fallen on it. Cascarita got his nickname after being involved in a drunken car accident that shattered his wrist like an eggshell - no mas toros, caballero. Now he's the cook at my sister-in-law's restaurant.

I stupidly decided to give Cascarita a shot at felling the tree. I mean, he used to ride bulls, for God's sake! I made it clear that I didn't want any problems with the telephone line and/or roof underneath the tree. "Fine!", he said, with total confidence.

Of course, he didn't show up at 6AM yesterday like he said he would (normal), and still wasn't there by 9AM when I left for the office. When he did show up, he came with a amiable, toothless guy named Primo (Cousin), who, when not drunk, worked like an army ant and could scale a greased brass pole barefooted like a howler monkey climbing a mango tree. He also brought two machetes and a rope.

I got a call from my wife at about 5:30PM saying there was a "poco disastre" ("little disaster") at the house. She was pisssed. A branch had fallen and had hit the roof, cracked the fascia and downed my telephone line. It dawned on me that the confidence exuded by Cascarita was simply the usual words, a lie.

Cascarita's explanation for the poco disastre infuriated me - "...you need a cherry picker to take that tree down!", he shreiked, arms waving in the air pointing at the tree. I replied, "Well if I neededed a cherry picker to do the job, why did you guys even start it? I mean, there's a big difference between a cherry picker and two misfits with machetes and a rope. When did THAT dawn on you?" It didn't register with him. He was the victim. I hadn't provided him with the right tools. It was my fault. I paid them 15,000 colones to go away.

So now I have the guy I should have called in the first place coming by this afternoon to see if he can finish the job. He's a gringo. It's better to give it to a gringo "...when death is on the line. Ahh, hah, hah...!"

Pura mierda!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pasaportes

After being emboldened by my luck procuring a visa for my wife and daughter, I decided to apply for a U.S. passport for my daughter too. Why not? She's eligible. And in this world, two passports are better than one.

The passport application process is quite different than that for visas. There are forms to be filled out, but you also have to submit special documents like a birth certificate on "papel sellado" (sealed paper) from the registro in San Jose (which, happily, we were able to obtain on our visa trip) and, in my case, submit certified divorce papers. Luckily, I had these leftover from my residencia process and they were certified by the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago AND the Costa Rican Consul in Chicago - bulletproof.

If your child was born in a private hospital, you have to have a letter from the doctor who delivered her, along with details of the birth. In Laila's case, she was born in one of the Social Security hospitals in Costa Rica, so a letter from the director of the hospital was sufficient. But it's still a trip to the hospital and a dice-roll on getting an appointment.

On top of this, you have to fill out a form documenting all of the places you've lived your entire life (many, for me) and a special form for a child born outside of the U.S.

But the most difficult requirement that must be met is substantiating that the parent holding U.S. citizenship (me) lived in the U.S. for a minimum of 5 years before the child's birth. The U.S. embassy's website gives some suggestions for this: college transcripts, military service records, old passports. Well, I've never served in the military and God knows where my old passports are in the Public Storage room I have in Chicago.

So I got my college transcripts from Notre Dame and hunted down all of the rest of the documentation, then DHL'ed it all to the embassy. You don't have to show up in person to submit the documentation, which is a big timesaver. Upon receipt of the documentation, the embassy reviews it all and then calls you to set up an appointment.

I got a call only a week later from a very nice woman at the embassy. She said that I needed more documentation on Laila's birth (pre-natal exam records, ultrasounds) and more documentation to prove that I lived in the U.S. a miniumum of 5 years before Laila's birth. We had all of Laila's pre-natal documentation, so I crossed that off the list. But I spent the next four weeks getting letters from employers, my high school transcripts, and my social security statements. I then set up an appointment via email, which was for for 1PM on Tuesday of this week.

We arrived at 12:30PM after a grueling drive through the mountains with heavy truck traffic. On the upside, the weather was nice, a bit windy. We entered the embassy and went through the security check. They had to open the envelope with my high school transcripts in it. I told them it wasn't official if it was opened and the guard told me not to worry, they do it all the time. We then had photos taken of Laila and proceeded to the interview area.

In contrast to the day we had our visa interview, the place was empty. There were no more than 20 people present and no one seated the outdoor holding room, about the size of a small church. I found out later that the embassy rotates days on visas and passport applicants. There are less people on passport days. After about 30 minutes, we were called by name to the interview window. The young gentlemen asked us what we had for him.

I handed him Laila's prenatal docs and vaccination book, and my high school transcripts and the other additional documentation. He examined Laila's documents and the transcripts only, and gave the rest back to me. He then made us swear an oath with right hands raised and proceeded to ask us some basic questions. When he paper-clipped Laila's photo to one of the forms, I knew we had the green light.

Her new U.S. passport should arrive via DHL in a couple of weeks. My daughter, Laila, is now, officially, a Tica-Gringa!!

¡Pura vida!

Visas

I had heard many nightmare stories about getting U.S. travel visas for Costa Rican citizens and was putting it off for Carla and Laila for a long time because of it. I couldn't bear the humiliation if they were to be denied. But in October or November of last year, I decided to bite the bullet and begin the process.

The rules for Latin Americans are different than those for, say, Italians or Irish, who can enter the country on their passport alone. All people are not created equal in the eyes of the U.S. government. That infuriates me!!

The U.S. embassy's website in S. Jose states, "Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the officer, at the time of the application for a visa... that he is entitled to nonimmigrant status..." It should be followed by an asterisk *Except for Europeans and people from other rich countries.

It goes on further to say, "Under this standard, each applicant must demonstrate that he or she has a permanent residence outside of the U.S. that he or she does not intend to abandon. The burden of proof is on the applicant to show that he or she qualifies for the visa. Proof may come in many forms, but when considered together, it must be strong enough for the interviewing officer to conclude that the applicant’s ties to Costa Rica (or other country of residence) will compel him or her to return at the end of a temporary stay in the United States."

The visa application process is a bit complex. You have to call the embassy using a credit card, and make an appointment for an interview. You also have to pay for the application process in advance at Banco de Costa Rica and bring the receipts to the interview. You then have to fill out several forms, some online, obtain certified birth and marriage certificates from the registro civil, get divorce papers certified, and painstakingly document reasons that would compel you to return to your homeland. That means gathering documents to show that you have enough money in the bank, a job, a car, a house and family ties. Since I am the sole supporter of my wife and child, I had to demonstrate the compelling reason.

After a few of weeks of getting together forms and documentation that gave me a good enough comfort level, I set up an interview for my daughter, who was less than a year-and-a-half in age. I then piggybacked my wife's interview on top of that one - kinda difficult to interview a toddler.

We had a 9AM appointment so we left for S. Jose the day before and spent the night at, Casa Roland, a B&B nearby the embassy (great place!). Upon arrival at the embassy, we had photos taken of Carla and Laila, then proceeded to the interview area. The place was packed with people, but because of Laila's age, we went to the front of the line.

My heart was pounding and my palms sweating as we were immediately directed to the first window. The guy behind it put me immediately at ease by cracking a joke about the amount of paperwork I had brought with me. He then had me sign a couple of documents I had left blank because I was unsure of who had to sign, and directed us to another window where the same thing occurred and all of the fundamental paperwork was deemed in order. I couldn't believe it: This was, so far, a PLEASANT experience! I was actually having FUN!

We then waited at the head of another line for the interview. Within about 5 minutes the shutter on the window went up and a pony-tailed young man appeared. He waved us to come forward and began the interview. He asked for Laila's birth certificate. I handed it to him. He reviewed it and then asked if it was OK to switch to English. I said my wife didn't understand much English. He just brushed it off. Now I was scared. He was interviewing me. My palms began sweating again and I had cottonmouth.

He asked me where we lived, what business I was in, how the real estate market was and why I wanted to bring my family to the U.S. I said, Playa Hermosa, real estate, tough market, and that I wanted my daughter to be able to visit her grandparents and to take my family to a White Sox Baseball game. He hesitated, looked up at me confused, and asked me WHEN I was going to the U.S. (Keep in mind that this is Decebmber and baseball season doesn't start 'til April)? I said in June or July. He then asked me why I was applying for visas NOW? I told him that if a good airfare came along, I wanted to take advantage of it and leave. He nodded his head, "Ahhh...", and remarked, "Why don't we get more people like you in here?"

The interview topic then abruptly shifted to White Sox baseball - the "...team of our new President" - then to Notre Dame football - "...when are they going to have a team?". After a few minutes of bullshitting, he said that the visas had been approved and that they would be sent to us via DHL. I was dumbfounded. I froze and didn't know what to say. Had I heard him correctly? APPROVED!!!! YESSSS!!!

I whisked Carla and Laila outside to the DHL counter before he could change his mind. The visas arrived in Liberia 5 days later (10 year for Carla, 5 year for Laila). We can now travel freely back and forth to the U.S. as a family.

When I look back at all of the horror stories I had heard and the resulting stress I put myself through, I can't help but wonder whether the visa process is just a crap shoot, a gamble. I have friends with more money, stuff, etc. than I, who have been shot down 3 times. I was in and out of there in half an hour.

Sometimes, you get a break. But I like to think I just did a good job of doing my homework and that I arrived prepared. Or maybe it's the family ties that outweigh all else.

Whatever it was... Pura vida!!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

La Laila, La Chula y El Rebelde

So my mechanic was actually able to make the situation with my pickup, El Rebelde, WORSE than it was before I brought it in. He had just replaced the fan clutch and the roller for the A/C. When I got the car back last week the temperature guage was swinging to and fro like a pendulum, AND I couldn't turn off my A/C!!

So I brought it back on Monday so he could check things out. I went across the street for lunch. When I returned my mechanic told me that I needed a new thermostat. Duh! And nevermind that he drove the damn thing from his shop in Guardia to my house and didn't notice the wildly fluctuating temperature of the engine!

Then he tells me he's checked the problem with the A/C out but it's over his head. He'll need to get an A/C specialist in to check out the roller. He then says that he's removed the thermostat, and that, even though the motor will run colder, it will be fine to drive. Same for the A/C being "ON".

So we shake hands and I start the engine. There's a noise. I open the hood. The roller is smoking. I call my mechanic over. He forgot to put a nut on the roller and it fragged.

So now I'm waiting for a new, new part and am riding my motorcyle, nick-named, La Chula (Spanish for "flirt" or "coquette"). It's been 3 days. She's always reliable.

Laila's now at the age where she likes anything "vrrroooooom!". So she really likes riding on La Chula. Carla and I sandwich her between us and ride between the beach and our house. Laila loves it. When I arrive at the beach restaurant in the evening, she can't wait to sit on La Chula and play with the key, signals and horn.

"Vrrrroooooom!" Pura vida!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Beach Club

So I belong to the Pacifico Beach Club in Playas del Coco - one of the amenities that came with the purchase of my lot there that was supposed to make me a ton of money but hasn't due to the fact that the world economy has crashed and no one has any money in their pockets. ¡Pura mierda!

I don't use the club too often as it is overpriced and I'm cheap, or "tacaño" (tah-CAH-nyo), in Costa Rican Spanish. But I decided to take my family and some of my wife's family there just after the New Year. The service was horrible. We had to wait 45 minutes for towels, our orders were forgotten and I had to go into the freezing A/C of the restaurant soaking wet each time I wanted a beer or overpriced appetizer. The place was packed poolside and I could see clearly that they were short staffed.

Anyway, I wrote the manager about my experience - not a nasty email, but I wanted him to know that for the prices we were paying the service was not on par. He replied with an invitation for my family to have dinner on the house at the Beach Club restaurant. So I took him up on it.

We arrived last Saturday night at the tail end of Happy Hour to watch the sunset and enjoy margaritas at a 2 for 1 price. The service was excellent and every waiter now knew my name. The dinner was delicious: I had lobster bisque and rack of lamb and my wife had French onion soup and the New York steak. It was a fantastic evening. But the best part was that it didn't cost us a colón - not even the drinks consumed at Happy Hour!

My faith restored, we decided to make another visit the next day and take Laila along because she loves the pool and we needed some downtime ourselves - and it doesn't cost anything to use the pool (say it: "tacaño"). We've both been stressed: Carla with Laila all day and me with work. Sitting in our shaded cabaña on Rob & Stucky patio furniture, swimming in the the pool and hunting for shells on the beach with Laila, and eating fallen tamarindos from the tree just beyond the pool turned out to be the perfect tonic.

I snapped "the best phone pic ever" as a Windjammer cruise ship was setting sail from Coco. It speaks for itself. And after the phone call I received from a friend of mine in 16-below-zero-Chicago today, I thought I'd share it with you. ¡Pura vida!