Costa Rica: A Land for The Indomitable Spirit

gotas_valeriana_35ml1I started asking for gotas de valeriana at the local farmacia about three weeks ago; the same pharmacy where I bought the bottle I was running low on. In fact, I started asking about a replacement when mine was only half empty because I was not born to Costa Rica yesterday.

When I asked the nice clerk at the farmacia, she looked in the glass case and then produced valerian capsules. No, thank you, I want the drops. The capsules make my head feel like its going to explode and I find I’m more wired than if I had taken nothing to get to sleep. So, no, those would not work. She then produced linden-flower drops, passion-flower drops, and chamomile drops, but no valerian drops.

“We could order them for you,” she offered.

“Thank you. That would be great.”

But apparently “could” was the operative word, because the following week when I asked for them I got exactly the same routine: the looking, the offering, the ordering from an entirely different clerk.

Yesterday, I was in town and they assured me the valerian drops would be in that afternoon. I did notice it was 2 p.m. when I left the store, but never mind. I asked them to guard a bottle for me. Not to worry, they said. There will be lots. I thanked them very much. Just as I was leaving I remembered and asked about the borax I also ordered. Ah, well, the proveedor brought baking soda instead of borax, so that should be here next week. We all laughed.

I was in town checking the post office, yet again, for a package my brother mailed three weeks ago from the States. Most often those packages take about ten days, but this one contains four credit cards tucked inside a book, plus a fountain pen and some inks. I am very anxious to get these items so, of course, they are taking forever to get here.

The cards have a special history. Our credit cards were hacked sometime back in December and we cancelled them. Replacement cards were sent to our accountant in the States who then mailed them to us. I waited and waited and began to worry that they’d been intercepted. Another care package from my brother was sent to me about a week after the cards and that package arrived in ten days flat. But not the cards. So, I cancelled the cards and had the bank issue new ones. A month and a half later the now cancelled cards arrived.

I had our accountant send the new cards to my brother—the expeditor extraordinaire. I also ordered some special paper from Amazon for my new fountain pen a week later. That arrived yesterday. I now have beautiful paper that does not bleed or feather the ink… but no fountain pen (the photo here is as close as I’ve come to owning it). No credit cards either, and, so far, no valerian drops.

I noticed last night I am just about out.images

To reiterate, this is the land for the stalwart personality; not just the intrepid, but also a spunky person of good humor. I have not always risen to the occasion, but I have learned to mask my frustration and anger because if you take out your frustrations on them, clerks and officials will simply look straight past you for the next in line. You will get nothing. Sometimes you get nothing anyway but at least they feel bad for you.

From Moldy Carrots to Bagels and Cream Cheese

Lowe's“I see we finally got a Lowe’s.”

This would be A. speaking to me a couple of years ago as we bounced along in our pickup over the moonscape road between our house and Puerto Viejo. He says things like this to me all the time. I’ll be daydreaming and suddenly I become aware of something he said that is completely out of context.

“What do you mean there’s a Lowe’s here?”

“Right over there by the pulpería. See it?”

Sure enough, across the road at the little grocery store where I do most of my shopping, I saw the delivery truck with LOWE’S written boldly across its side in stocky white letters on a blue background in the shape of a house. It even said: “Let’s build something together” right underneath, as well as the 800- number.

“Well, that will be nice,” I said. “I wonder when Home Depot will be here?”

We both laughed, knowing full well that neither Lowe’s nor Home Depot would be here in the foreseeable future.

As we drove by, one of the workers handed another a crate of vegetables from the back of the second-hand Lowe’s truck. He, in turn, slung it up onto his shoulder and headed into the store. I could see bright green celery and bronze leaf lettuce mounded over the edge of the crate.

“We have to stop there on our way home. That produce looks pretty good.” I said.

It hadn’t always been this easy to find food on this Caribbean coastline.

When we first moved to Punta Uva in the early ’90s, my Stateside son asked: What kind of place is it, anyway?

It’s the sort of place, I said, that when you want a chicken sandwich, you bake bread, you cook a chicken, then you make mayonnaise… and then, you make a chicken sandwich. There will be no lettuce on it.

There were a couple of options available to me back then. I could go to the Chino’s in Puerto Viejo or I could shop off the trucks.El-Chinos-Shop-Puerto-Viejo

The Chino’s was an old-style commissary run by Manuel Leon, a local businessman of Chinese descent. His place dated back to the days of United Fruit, when they owned most of the land and employed most of the people. The workers spent their hard-earned money at the commissary and chances are they never got ahead.

Leon had the only grocery in town, and, according to A., everyone who couldn’t get to Limón was pretty much subjected to whatever Leon felt the market would bear. He also owned the only telephone line in the town.

ElChino.JPG0001The place still sits right on the beach, the surf breaking idly out front, palm trees swaying in the breeze. But the first time I saw the place was in the fall of 1994.

Climbing a set of very high and steep steps, we entered a big rectangular room painted institutional lima green. The room had a counter around three sides. Spongy wooden floorboards covered with sand bagged under our footsteps. Surfer types waited idly on the front porch for the phone. Behind the counter were twelve-foot high shelves. flat,550x550,075,f

There were cooking pots and pans, pressure cookers, plastic food containers, electric rice cookers, as well as some unrecognizable forms covered with dust on the upper shelves. Canned goods were on the midlevel shelves. Some of the labels were so old and sun bleached it was apparent I would have to take the Chino’s word for what was inside. Further down there were a couple of bins with some dismal looking vegetables: rubbery carrots with black spots, fruit fly covered onions, a couple of heads of cabbage and some potatoes with visible holes weeping snot-like slime. Liquor, cigarettes, and medicines… he kept those items right behind where he stood guard over his establishment.

There was no way to get to any of the items. It became clear to me that I would have to ask for what I wanted and I had no Spanish to make myself understood. Pointing seemed to be the way, and I was sure he would give me the oldest stuff first.

I was just about to do it, too, when A. said, “Don’t buy any vegetables. We can get those off the trucks. Just buy the dried stuff you need.”

I pointed at a bag of black beans, some rice, and a few other staples and Manuel policed them until we paid. He calculated the bill using an abacus and for me, because I was a Gringa, double-checked it with a calculator.

I never bought from him unless I had no choice and I haven’t been in there in years, but he is still there and last I heard he has the same attitude, charging people the credit card commission when they use one. He’s a cash-only kind a guy.

I bought vegetables from the trucks for years and, compared to the Chino’s produce, it was luxurious. Once a week the “verduras” or vegetable trucks would come down from the Central Valley. Now they look like this one, but before you had to recognize them by the exterior paneling. And they were big. 6709485-Fruit-and-Vegetable-Truck-0

There were two that ran the route for years. One had the logo “Ivan Smith Furniture” on the side, presumably from its former job somewhere in the USA, and the other a big truck with a green tarpaulin high up over the back.

We spent a lot of our life waiting for them. We knew what day they came, but what time was another matter. If we were out and about with the car and happened to see them on the road, we stopped and bought right there. Other times people passing by would tell us where they had last seen it, so we had an idea of the wait time.

The first Spanish words I learned were vegetable names.

The drivers were patient and showed me what they had, repeating the names for me. As a matter of survival I learned quickly. The produce they pulled out of the boxes bore no resemblance to the sad specimens at the Chino’s. Boxes overflowed with enormous crisp and juicy carrots, wonderful avocados that I had never seen before. They were smooth-skinned, a wonderful pale shade of green, the meat rich and buttery. Cabbage and beets, “repollo” and “ramalachas”, which I always mixed up. Sometimes I’d end up with one when I wanted the other. Lettuce was not to be found until many years later.

Now there are fresh vegetables of all sorts. They come in three times a week to multiple pulperías, and organic vendors come to the Saturday market every weekend. We have bakeries with fresh bread, a Israeli who makes a mean pita, and because there are so many foreigners living along this coast the markets now carry items like miso paste, tahini, and lots of vegetarian options. I’ve seen an entire rack of soy, rice and almond milk in various flavors. We have imported cheeses, artisan cheeses, and fresh milk. A couple of Spaniards sell hand-crafted sausage and salami at the farmer’s market every Saturday.

breakfast

What was once a little bare-bones, dirt-street Caribbean town is now a foodie’s delight. Here is a photo of the breakfast we had this morning at the sublime Restaurante Bread and Chocolate.

My, how things change.

 

Fall Along the Caribbean

IMG_9810Along the beach road, my path was filled with fallen almond leaves this morning. They resemble oblong leather scraps, colored saffron, crimson, maroon, and sable. As I walked along, the leaves, scruffling and cruffling under foot, I kicked up puffs of their acrid tannin scent. Cicadas thrilled a tinny sound or were my ears ringing? The sea is calm today, thunderheads in the distance; it will be another hot fall day.

Confusion Abounds

Hamster in a wheel

What is it about this period of my life, anyway? Is Mercury in retrograde yet again? Do I have pre-Alzheimer’s? Or regular Alzheimer’s? I don’t seem to be able to get organized, concentrate, much less follow through on anything lately. I’ve made resolve after resolve and find myself spinning my wheels again by midweek. I know some of my mental discombobulation has to do with this legal case; it does play out like a hamster-wheel in my head, but really… get a grip, Sarah.

Obviously, my great plan to create and post the envisioned “Then and Now” series for the blog failed miserably. Then I decided, okay, just ditch the blog then. I am a bit tired of writing about Costa Rica anyway. I’ve had this blog a long time; it is just six months short of my first blog post ten years ago. Ten years is a long time to do anything.

I thought I’d move The Gringuita and all her Costa Rica information over to WordPress.com, which is free and she could reside there for posterity. If anyone wanted to know about Costa Rica from my perspective they could find it there. And I did. I even wrote a blog post the other day saying the Gringuita could no longer be found here.

But something kept me from posting that. The next day I thought, no, I don’t want to do that. So here I am with not one but two blogs on my hands… for the moment.

I will stay and I will write, but I will also give myself latitude to recover from whatever it is that ails me right now.

Suspended Disbelief

According to La Nacion this morning, there are four major routes in need of urgent repairs or upgrades. Please tell me this bridge is one of them. I’m no engineer, but I believe this is a unique design among suspension bridges. I know I have never seen one like it before….
JEANNINE-CORDERO-CARLOS-HERNANDEZ-SEGURA_LNCIMA20140901_0057_10

 

Total Destruction to Tourist Mecca: Limón

Rio Estrella

Rio Estrella

On April 22, 1991, at about 3PM—three years before my first trip to Grape Point*— a 7.7 magnitude quake that killed 65 people and injured hundreds of others, tore through Limón province. 22 seconds of shaking knocked out bridges, buckled steel girders like toothpicks, destroyed roads, split pavement open like melons, and twisted railroad tracks into spaghetti. It razed thousands of houses and businesses alike. It would take Limón province years to recover.

Years later my friend Miss Olga told me about that grim day. She said she crawled out of her house on hands and knees for safety. Instead, the earth opened up like a gaping maw and then closed again right in front of her. She escaped injury, but a neighbor lady broke her arm and had to be medevacked. She was transported to the Rio Banano, lifted over the river by crane, and then air-lifted to Limón.

Any tourists on the southern Caribbean coast were cut off. Eventually they were evacuated by small air transport, and food drops were instituted for those who stayed behind.

International Rescue Corps Workers

International Rescue Corps Workers

By the time I arrived in ’94, temporary bridges had been erected but the roads were still in total disarray. The train tracks, once Limón’s only connection with the Central Valley, lay wasted and made rail travel impossible. It has yet to be rebuilt.

It was dark by the time we left Limón. I thought we would be another half hour to our destination. That is what the distance indicated, anyway—55 kilometers, or about 35 miles and how long could that possibly take?

We began running into cavernous holes in the road, so many potholes it was hard to know where the pavement ended and the chuckholes began. They were deep and oncoming cars simply disappeared into them. Their lights vanished only to re-emerge on our side of the road. everyone picked their way through the gaping craters. Whenever we met other cars, we stayed our course rather than move over. Sometimes there would be three cars abreast as we navigated the obstacle course. But you could not drive any faster than about five miles an hour. No one was going to get in a wreck. The road was the wreck!

We struggled on through the night. Over four hours later we came to a little town of Old Harbour, or Puerto Viejo. I couldn’t see anything but little white lights twinkling like jewelry in the jungle night. After we passed through town, headed for Grape Point, we slowed as the road got worse, though I hadn’t thought that possible.

typical bridge of the day

Typical bridge of the day

The one-lane mud track was as red and slick as potting clay, and the truck sashayed back and forth as we crept forward. We stopped for any oncoming traffic, moving off the road to allow them to pass, but careful not to get too far out of the ruts and end up mired in the ooze. The bridges we crossed that night were nothing more than planks laid down over enormous logs. At one point A. got out and replaced the dislodged decking before we could cross.

Out the truck windows dense green foliage crowded the road on either side; occasionally a branch would slap the side of the truck. I heard insect sounds: cheeps, shrill police whistles, clicks, and a bug so alien I knew I’d landed in a truly foreign world. It was a high-pitched metallic and penetrating sound that punctured the night like a submarine’s sonic echo. PING! It left a faint echo in its wake. PING!

Those bugs still catch my ear at night, but so much has changed since that first trip.

It took Limón and Talamanca years to recover from that earthquake. In the late ‘90s an Italian firm contracted with Costa Rica to replace all of Limón’s sewer system, sidewalks, and gutters. They also created a new esplanade in the center of town where these days tourists, debarked from the frequent cruise ships, meander and shop for curiosities.

The many bridges between Limón and Puerto Viejo were slowly replaced or repaired, and the road was eventually repaved, although the area around the Bananito River took them years to control. For a long time that train bridgesection of road was often washed out–closed–causing a long detour through the banana plantation country, over railroad bridges, and fording small streams.

Now a trip from our house to Limón takes about an hour, and to Old Harbour, fifteen minutes- tops. The slippery clay road from Port to Manzanillo was paved in 2001.

There are more tourists here now, more expats living along these shores, more drugs, more crime, and yet…. there are conveniences that come with progress. Our old Jeep would certainly be dead by now had the roads not been improved, and fresh veggies arrive from the Central Valley three times a week. But… I’ll write more about food next time.

 

Here is a YouTube video showing the extensive damage of the Limón Earthquake.

And, if you have about 25 minutes and want to know what it was like to ride the train from Limón to San José, you can watch this YouTube video.

* A. Had been coming to Costa Rica since the late 80s, but my first trip to Grape Point was in 1994.

Talamanca, Maps, and Why Everything Here Has at Least Two Names

Courtesy Moon Travel

Courtesy Moon Travel

As long ago as the 1700s, fisherman plied the southern Caribbean waters because of the abundance of turtles that came every year to lay their eggs. These fisherman took the meat and sold the valuable shells. These would later be transformed into European hair brushes, combs, spectacle frames, guitar picks, and countless other items made from what we called “tortoiseshell.” tortoise shell

Sea turtles were hunted until near extinction, but, happily, they are making a slow comeback due to conservation and volunteer efforts. My old friend, John John, was a “turtle striker” in his youth, and he told me in order to land the monsters, he had to swamp his boat, lowering the gunnels into the sea, float the turtle inside, then bail the boat to raise it once again.

turtle conserveMany of those fishermen originated from the Bocas del Toro region of Panama, but paddled as far north as Bluefields, Nicaragua, when the turtle season was on— March through September.

They were Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous men , and they built provisional camps along this southern Caribbean coast line; they planted coconuts, yucca, yam, and other crops that would help them survive during the season.

Then, in 1828 one of these seasonal fishermen decided to settle permanently. William Smith, along with his family, settled at one of the camps located just north of the current town of Cahuita. I don’t imagine they had much when they first came. Perhaps their rudimentary huts looked something like this. leaf hut

Other settlers followed: the Hudsons, who settled just north of William Smith; The Dixon family, who settled south of Cahuita; the Sheperds, in Puerto Vargas; Ezequiel Hudson and Celvinas Caldwell, both of whom chose to live at Monkey Point; Horacio MacNish, north of Old Harbour, and Peter Hansel, in Manzanillo. Many came with families, but others formed connections with indigenous people of Talamanca. Thus began an interracial population that is characteristic of this region. In fact, it’s fair to say that this coastline has the most diverse population of any part of Costa Rica.

Beach Grape

These original settlers often settled next to small streams and creeks and those landmarks still bear their names. These pioneers also christened areas along the coastline with names like Little Bay; Hone Creek, whose name comes for the plentiful palm of the same name; Grape Point, where beach grape is plentiful; Manchineel, named after a huge tree of the same name that died back in the 1940s. Some of the names originate from the indigenous people. For example, Cahuita ( “where the Sangrillos grow”) ,and some are leftovers from another time: Old Harbour, from the pirate days and the likes of Horatio Nelson and John Davis.

Tourists who come to this area today are often confused because there are two and sometimes three names for locations along this coastline: Spanish, English, and the indigenous names given by the various ethnic groups in the area.

The original settlers were native English speakers, and in the map you can see the names of the landmarks as I knew them when my husband and I arrived in the late 1980s. As the area has gained notoriety, and Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans from the Central Valley have begun moving to the area, the names have changed to Spanish. But I like the old names, the Afro-Caribbean names.The REAL names.

And here is a recent tourist map. ¡Que diferencia!

Puerto-Viejo-to-Manzanillo-Map

 

 

 

Finding Ideas in the Time Suck Called Facebook

It’s been so long since I last posted to my blog, I feel as though I need one of those WordPress introductions—Hello World!—that appear on your brand spanking new blog.Hello-World2-300x241

This year I’ve been out of ideas, out of practice, and out of sorts for a good long spell. Some is self-inflicted (blocks, procrastination, self-criticism) and some rooted in external pressures—translation: the ennui felt when you are waiting for a lawsuit to resolve. A lawsuit that has dragged on now for just over eight years. It is still ongoing so I am not elaborating here, only justifying myself, I guess. But the real issue is: I need to write. I need to keep my hand fluid and my mind flexed so I don’t rust like Dorothy’s Tin Man or my brain turn to straw like that other guy.

Facebook has not helped.

Facebook is a ginormous time suck. Not sure, but the slang term “time suck” might have actually originated from hanging out on Facebook. Nevertheless, the other day I was looking at people’s Throwback Thursday photos and silently bemoaning the fact that I could not waste even more time rifling through old photos to share with virtual strangers. All my photos—there aren’t many, anyway—are in a Portland, Oregon, storage unit. Why? Because things mold here and I do not want to lose them.

Then I had a #TBT thought.

I am uniquely qualified to share our “before and after” experiences from this southern Caribbean coastline. A. and I moved here long before it is what it is now, long before there were even many expats living here. And there are many old photos online.

So starting this week, I am making a new run at the blog: Before and After along the Caribe Sur; historical research for my brain, writing for my hand (and head).

In the meantime, A. and I pray for the legal situation to resolve in our favor. I try for specific rather than Delphic prayers. OracleofDelphiSome say Pythia’s predictions were ambiguously phrased to show her in a good light regardless of the outcome. And because the prediction was oral, not written, there was no way of knowing where essential punctuation was placed in something like: “Go. Return. Not die in war.” or was it: “Go. Return not; die in war.”

Yah, I want our supplications finite.

Book Review on Writing Memoir

41tTA+-1A-L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_“There are thousands of books on the subject of writing, and many of those are about memoir. In my mind, only a few stand shoulders above the rest. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart is one of these and a fine addition to any aspiring memoirist’s reference library.”

I’ve written about memoir writing before (here) and I think Handling the Truth covers many of the issues I spoke about in that post. It is one of the best books on the subject of writing in this form that I’ve read. Well worth your read.  For more of the review click here

 

 

 

 

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

“Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without.”

downloadThis morning A and I were at the local ferretería buying silicone, an inner tube, and some other hardware odds and ends. I was standing at the counter waiting for our vendador, disappeared momentarily into the stacks for one of our items, when my attention was drawn to the man standing next to me.

He was a stocky little man in dirty work clothes, his hair a rooster tail of disorder. He looked and smelled as though he’d been hard at work in some cramped space. He was in a deep and earnest conversation with another sales clerk. In between them on the glass counter was a kitchen spigot that had seen better days. In fact, even when new, I doubt that faucet had been much to look at, but now the escutcheon plate—you know, the chrome protection bar that holds the faucets and spigot and covers the sink—(that thing) was bent, slightly corroded, and, well… beyond used. No wonder his hair was in disarray. I can only imagine the work it must have taken to get that thing out. I instantly forgave him his odor.

Both men hunkered over a box of mixers, that secret and hidden gismo that turns the water on and off when you turn the tap. There must have been fifteen or twenty different varieties in that box. Sr. Rooster Hair and the clerk were going over each, trying and find a match, comparing them, arguing whether one would work or not. Watching this, I was reminded how often I can find a part for some item that in the States would be considered a throw-away, a desechable.

Costa Ricans are true MacGyvers; they make things do, they wear them out. What North Americans consider junk, Costa Ricans save, find spare parts, and revamp until the item is totally irreparable. Or the item is too old to have spare parts anymore.

I left the man and his problem.  A and I paid out. But as we were leaving, I looked over and saw that Sr. Rooster Hair had bought a new spigot. I was sorry to see this. I bet if he’d gone to Limón or San José he would have found the mixers for that beat up old faucet. I’ve found all manner of stuff a Condominio Las Americas* in San José. But I also bet his wife was waiting at home with a sink full of dirty dishes.

He probably weighed the situation and declared it time to buy, or else end up with more than rooster tail hair.

 

*Condominio las Americas is on Calle 6, San Jose, Costa Rica, and chances are, if you take the part with you, they will have it.