Monthly Archives: March 2013

Semana Santa, Crime Sprees, US Embassy Warnings, and a Grateful Expat

beach lifeYes, it that time again; Semana Santa, Holy Week, in which seemingly all the Central Valley descends on the two coasts of the country. The hotels are full, bars and restaurants are over flowing with customers, and we are staying in for the week. Yesterday there was a steady stream of traffic in front of our house. Where years ago a car might pass once a day, now there is a four-wheeled river.

If you pave it, they will come. I ventured out for some supplies this morning but made sure I did it before seven in the morning, long before the revelers got up to ease their aching heads from the night before.

Narcoboat_newsfull_hOf course all this is a boon for business, and it is happening in spite of a US Embassy warning issued just last week advising North Americans to avoid the Caribbean due to recent crime spree. There have been a string of violent hotel invasions over the past several months as well as a drug bust in Manzanillo on March 12.

In that incident a high-speed panga with four (FOUR) 300 horse motors—that’s 1200 horsepower, folks, and a whole lot of speed—carrying about two tons of cocaine was run aground in Manzanillo by the Coast Guard. Four men fled into the jungle and faded into the local population. The white stuff was captured but not the men. But all that said, the Pacific side of the country fares no better; there were several similar drug busts on the Pacific in the past few months. All in all Costa Rica has captured about 20 tons of cocaine this year alone… on both coasts, all headed north to a guaranteed market.

It has always been the assumption of the people on the Caribe that Pacific investors and hotel cartels put out bad publicity about the Caribbean around the holidays. That might have been true in the past, but this time the Caribe has things it needs to address. And I see the government and the police have formulated a plan to fight crime. The idea is to allow people a toll free number (1176) to call and anonymously report crime or suspicious activities. I hope it works.

The only issue I see is that people here are afraid to report because they do not trust their police or the government and they fear retaliation from the criminals themselves. Healthy concerns.

For now, though, it’s nice to see the cars full of people from San Jose coming to the Caribbean to celebrate Easter, and I hope they have a good time. (And as always I hope they clean up their trash when they go.) The small inconvenience to me is slight in comparison to the success of businesses here. May they prosper and give legitimate employment to all the young people who need work to live a life without crime.

Happy Easter. Feliz Santo Domingo. Have a good time, everyone. Play safely and even if it means my house shakes with the bass beat of a local bar, so be it.

On a side note: I still do not understand fireworks on Good Friday, the day it is believed that Christ was crucified, but I’m Buddhist not a Catholic. Just saying.

Film Reel Rolling Backward

A celluloid life

is easier

Splice and mend

cut out the mistakes

Erase the grief

 

The year I spent fucking my way across Europe

Sam & Dave spilled out over pirate airwaves

off the Isle of Man

 

Possibly that

could be discarded

Culls for the cutting room floor.

 

I was Mustang Sally

doing desperado sex,

on-the-run-no-questions-asked sex.

unprotected sex

In a time of free love

 

What I needed

most

was comfort

Relief from the pain

 

Cut and splice

his death

so shattering it could have been my own

So young

 

But we cannot roll back the film

We go on

All those mistakes

make us who we are

 

[Scintilla Project prompt, day 10: 1. Sometimes we wish we could hit the rewind button. Talk about an experience that you would do over if you could. If you would like to sign up for this storytelling fortnight, click here, or on the icon in the right menu. It’s Scintilla. It pushes your boundaries.]

Lost Without Translation

Costa Rica News – ”Stop the car!” I yelled at my husband. “Maybe that guy knows where the place is.”This is an all too familiar cry when we are driving anywhere in the Central Valley. We are both excellent drivers, but the bulk of the driving has fallen to him. I invariably ride shotgun, acting as navigator, and that involves asking for directions more often than not.
giving directions in costa rica
The man I spotted had what I look for when making inquiries. He was older, trimming a big red bougainvillea that overflowed from his yard into the street, so I assumed he lived there. And he appeared to own a car. One was parked in his drive, anyway. This last item is almost essential, because, with luck, the directions he gives will be for a driver and not a pedestrian. I’ve gotten those, and we’ve run into one-way streets, alleys, and dead ends. I have used taxi drivers parked by the side of the road. They are great. And on more than one occasion I’ve actually taken the taxi and had my husband follow in the car to find the correct address.

On this particular day we were trying to locate a wrecking yard in San José, Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. The address on their website said—no kidding: in San José, La Uruca, Barrio Corazon de Jesus, 800 meters north (road to Heredia) at the intersection of Pozuelo.

This is not an anomaly; this *is* the approved address system of Costa Rica. If you are a local, you probably know right where these places are, but if you are an expat or a visitor, good luck. It’s a bit like directions the old farmer gives when you’re lost in rural America. “Go up this road until you come to the Burns’ place, turn north, and continue on… oh, maybe a mile or two until you get to the corner where that old oak was hit by lightening back in ’96.”

It’s hopeless. Even if you do follow the directions to a T, you often discover the hypothetical tree is no longer there. For instance, there are addresses that mention the Coca-Cola Building in downtown San José. Coca-Cola moved to another location—across town—years ago, and the building is now a flea market, but many businesses close by still refer to it in their address (From the Coca-Cola building 50 m north and 25 m east, between avenida…). That sort of thing. And the 50 meters north or 25 meters east address makes having a compass in the car indispensable.

We were familiar with Uruca, a section of town known for its traffic jams and the Office of Immigration. I had no idea where Barrio Corozon de Jesus was. I searched desperately on our old, and not very detailed, roadmap as we inched along in traffic.”Road to Heredia,” it said. Okay, I found Heredia on the map. Dot to dot. It must be the road we’d seen at the bottom of Uruca, at the huge intersection that was often a free-for-all of cars and trucks. We needed to turn right at that point, but what in hell was “Pozuelo?” I beavered through my trusty Spanish-English dictionary. No entries.

“We are going to have to turn right pretty soon,” I said. “You need to get over in the far lane.” Easier said than done. Costa Ricans, like the rest of us, are polite face to face but can be rude and pushy behind the wheel. As we edged across two lanes of traffic and a chorus of horns, I became vaguely aware of the smell of sugar baking, something buttery.

I was checking our map when we drove straight past the turnoff. A couple of blocks later we looked for a place to turn around. That is when I saw the man trimming his bougainvillea and yelled at my husband to stop.

I showed this portly stranger the address, and he pointed to where we had come from. He said we needed to turn left for Heredia. “But what is this?” I pointed at the word Pozuelo. He gave a me quizzical look and pointed up and across the intersection. I looked up and saw the huge billboard-sized sign: POZUELO. Of course, Pozuelo, the bakery, the one that makes all those sugary cookies. I thanked him, feeling rightfully foolish, and said I was lucky it wasn’t a snake.

We took another stab at it, made the left turn and headed toward Heredia. 800 meters later, not counting overshoots, turnarounds, and the need for more directions, we found Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. They did not have the auto part we needed, but suggested another wrecking yard that might, Repuestos Pana: in San José, North Granadilla, Curridabat, University Latina, 4 kilometers east.

 

Mentors: Looking Through the Interstices

CalligraphyAll during high school, or until I was old enough to drive myself, my mother faithfully dropped me off at the front door of the art museum in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. Evenings, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I entered the deserted museum–– uniformed guard in the front foyer–– and made my way past whatever current exhibit was on display, then down the marble hallway to the stairway at the back of the building. For three years of my life I took a two-and-a-half-hour class led by Lloyd J. Reynolds, master calligrapher and iconoclast professor from Reed College.

The art museum allotted him a long narrow space just wide enough to fit twelve or fifteen desks with slanted tops. Narrow windows at the top of the room were covered with wire mesh for security; fluorescent tubes our only real source of light.  The room was often empty when I arrived. Over the next half hour others drifted in and settled themselves unpacking canvas art bags. We took up our pens in silence and retrieved our papers from our large black art folders. There was no need to be told, we were there to work.

Calligraphy is the art of making letters. That is the simple definition. It is not a skill like print lettering or stenciling, but a covenant between the artist and the paper. I was to find later that at its pinnacle it is a dance––a kind of performance––in which the artist is able to express himself with a spontaneous, yet disciplined, outburst on paper. A master calligrapher stamps his work with so much personality it becomes instantly recognizable as his own, as does any Cezanne or Picasso. Like any art form, it starts with singular focus, constant practice, and the application of will.

Reynolds usually arrived on time or slightly after the hour. He kept his white shoulder-length hair slicked back, and his thick, black-framed glasses seemed to accentuate his usual scowl.  He marched down the aisle between the desks, toting his enormous briefcase and puffing on his ever-present pipe. Once at the head of the class he would take off his coat to reveal a disheveled black suit, white shirt, and a narrow black tie. Next, he would unpack his briefcase and organize himself for class.

EXEC-06-1.400x400

Michael Ziegler Photography: Lloyd J. Reynolds, calligrapher

I always remember him arriving in a foul mood, or perhaps he was distracted or tired or something else a 16-year-old would not understand. Most of us knew not to press him until he was well into the second half of the class. He took his time getting situated and, once organized, proceeded up the aisle to see what we were working on. And we better be working on something, otherwise we would be admonished, yet again, that we could just as easily be doing nothing at home. When the occasional uninitiated joined the class, with thoughts of a new hobby, they didn’t last long.

“You must hold the pen just so,” he said, as he demonstrated with an enormous calligraphy pen that made two-inch wide strokes. The letters floated effortlessly off his hand and onto the art tablet he set up on an easel at the head of the class; six strokes and a perfect capital M stood anchored to the ground, its solid and yet flourished edges standing tall. A collective groan rose from all of us.

“Why do you even bother if you aren’t willing to do your best?” He would ask, relighting his pipe or taking a few puffs.  Lost in thought for a moment, Reynolds seemed to contemplate his own words, and we could sense him mellowing. And I realize now, forty years later, that we were doing our best, but he pushed us for all we could give.

One of his former students, calligrapher Clyde Van Cleve, once said this about Lloyd Reynolds: “He had little patience with uninformed intuition. He celebrated the beauty of a circling kite and knew the importance of the string.”

The string––practice––was the key to everything, he told us repeatedly. To make a flourish look spontaneous and light on the page there must be true artistic discipline behind it. Only a master can make it look easy. As we bent over our letters endeavoring to meet this goal, slowly his attitude would begin to shift from ill-humor to a call for understanding the pattern of things––all things.

Once warmed up, he would segue into his lecture for the night. It might be about a script he was particularly interested in at the moment, Carolingian or Gothic, but it Golden rectanglewould soon became a lecture about Charlemagne and European history in the eighth century, and then on to how print presses changed not only lettering but writing as a whole, showing us the links between what we write today and the same letters written long before us. Or he would start out by talking about the Golden Rectangle and by the end of the lecture he would encompass Euclid, Pacioli, and Da Vinci. We could feel his enthusiasm rise as the lecture progressed. He took us with him on his journey into art, and history. At fifteen or sixteen I didn’t know who Pacioli was, but he made me want to.

By the end of any given class he was alive and energetic, a champion of our work. Renewed by his own enthusiasm, he would always tell us before we left for the night, “Now, go home, and make beautiful letters.”

Taking a class from Reynolds was an apprenticeship in life. Through him, I began to discover that even the mundane held meaning. It could be true of cooking or any other creative outlet. Anything I attempted could simply be routine but I could, if I wished, turn it into art. It was up to me.

 

[Storytelling prompts provided by The Scintilla Project. Click here to find out more or click on the icon in the right hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla ’13]

 

No Turning Back

Scintilla #7– What have been the event horizons of your life – the moments from which there is no turning back?

no turn backThere are times in our life when we stand at an intersection and more often than not it requires hindsight to know we were even there. Yogi Bera once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” and perhaps that is the best possible advice. Either way, whatever decision we make will irrevocably affect our lives going forward.

And that hot day in June when my husband said to our lawyer, “Yes. Close his easement,”  it unleashed a series of events that would irrevocably change my life.

It might have been the air conditioner blowing a chilly wind that made me shudder, but it might have been that second sense I developed after years of working the emergency room, that second sense that tells us we ought to proceed with caution.

Whatever else I have learned from what followed, one thing is certain. The next time I am tempted to aggressively engage others in any grand design to make things better or to avoid loss and destruction, I will remember that pivotal moment in the lawyer’s office. Because to win sometimes we lose more than we gain.

What made us think, expatriates in another country, we knew enough or understood enough, to enter into a legal battle over an easement?

I do not know the answer to that. but my husband was convinced he would rather fight than give in to neighbors traipsing across our land.

[This is an excerpt from a memoir. Thanks to the fine people over at The Scintilla Project, I edited this little passage, the moment where there was no turning back.]

If you’d like to take part, follow this link or click on their icon in the right-hand menu.  It’s fun. It’s Scintilla- a fortnight of storytelling.