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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.

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.

“Franklin”

courtesy Flickr

Courtesy- Flickr

We have known him since he was small, maybe six or seven, I’d guess. If my husband and I were passing through Puerto Viejo, often as not we would find him on the side of the road with his oversized pants bunched up with a cord, his flip-flops coming apart, his thumb out.

The first time we met him, I rolled down the window of our Jeep pickup and asked his name. Let’s say he said it was Franklin (not his real name).

“Well, Franklin, don’t you think your mother would be worried about you getting a ride from strangers?” I asked.

“Uno no stranger, Uno live in Punta Uva, right?” he asked right back. Hard to argue with that.

“What do you want to go to Punta Uva for, anyway?”

“Not Punta Uva, Lady. I’s want to go to Cocles, see my cousins.”

I opened the door and pointed to the two bucket seats. “There’s no room in the cab, Franklin.”

“I jus’ ride out here on the back,” he says, jumping on the bumper, and hanging onto the truck topper for support.

This might sound dangerous, and I suppose it was in a way, but I grew up with parents who allowed their kids to ride on the fender of our old Reo truck. From the time I was five or six—Franklin’s age— I straddled an old headlight with one leg clamped tight by the motor bonnet as we rattled down the last few miles of gravel road to our Willamette Valley farm in Oregon.

I didn’t figure Franklin was going to get hurt; the roads on this Caribbean coast were so bad back then it was hard to go more than five miles an hour.

And so it was that we stopped for Franklin when we saw him, gave him a ride, and watched him grow. He was a smart kid, curious, and outgoing.

But as Franklin grew so did the area where we live. The roads got better, tourists came, and with them came all the things tourism brings: music, parties, and drugs. First it was ganja. Now it’s crack.

A couple of years ago we ran into Franklin again. Instead of the ragamuffin clothes of his youth, he was wearing a Tuanis- Pura Vida t-shirt, silky purple gym shorts, and name brand leather sandals. He was in his early 20’s, I imagine. He and his brother had started a band and were playing the bars.

My husband said, “You be careful, Franklin. That’s a rough life with lots of drugs.”

“Yah, yah. I knows it,” he said. “Uno come hear me play sometime.”

We never did because we are not night owls, but we saw the posters and figured he was doing okay.

He wasn’t.

Now he seems to be— how do they say it in the addiction business?— searching for his personal bottom. I see him on the outskirts of Puerto with the rest of the Usual Suspects, bumming tourists as they come out of the bank, offering to carry groceries, begging. Sometimes he has no shirt or shoes, sometimes he is so dirty you can tell he hasn’t bathed in a week or more.

One day he hit me up for money and I told him I wasn’t going to give him anything.

“You know me, though,” he says.

“I know you, Franklin, but what I’m looking at is the drugs, not you.”

“Come on, I jus’ want a little somethin’ to eat.”

“If you weren’t into drugs, you’d have enough money to eat. All I”d be doing is giving it to your dealer.”

“My daughter, she need to go to the doctor.”

“I’ll tell you something. I had a kid that was an addict, and I finally said No to him. You are not even in my family, so imagine how easy it is for me to say No to you. I am not giving you anything as long as you are out here on the street using. Go home to your family. Get clean.”

I haven’t spoken to him since. Sometimes he sings to me as I pass by. “I love you, Lady, yes I do….”

It hurts to write off a kid I’ve known since he was little, but as long as he’s working the long con there is no way I’m going to rise for the bait. Little good it will do, I suppose; the tourists come and go every week and there will always be someone who takes pity, thinking the kid is destitute, a mendigo. He’s not. He is an addict.

My family’s story ended well, everyone healthy and clean. I only hope Franklin survives long enough to get straight.