Costa Rica

Dreaming of Johnee

Most of the time I think I have a handle on the stress of our legal situation. But, after today, it occurs to me there is an undercurrent I’m not always aware of. For instance, this morning I lay in bed just before dawn, dreaming.

In the dream Alan and I were in court, and our neighbor was on the stand testifying in this case of ours. The judge had asked him a question and Johnee was trying to answer.

“But… but…but…but…” He stuttered, unable to come up with an answer to the question.

Then I woke up and began to perceive, through the fog of sleep, the howler monkeys outside our bedroom window making their usual pre-dawn racket: Argh… argh… argh… argh.

I got up to get ready for the day. It was a few minutes before I realized the source of my dream. How agreeable of the monkeys to give me the soundtrack for my dream.

Learning to Ignore Lonely Planet~

Last Thursday we continued our trip around Costa Rica during Tropical Storm Alma. This is not our first adventure traveling in rough weather. The most memorable trip was in 1998. We left Portland, Oregon that fall, headed for the warmth of the Caribbean as we did every year at that time of year.

Our flight had gone well, although the weather was a bit rainy when we arrived in Dallas, Texas. From there we boarded an American Airlines flight listed as non-stop from Dallas to San José, Costa Rica.

The flight was bumpy and we really didn’t think much about it, but about an hour into it the flight attendant asked us to please fasten our safety belts as we would soon be landing in Guatemala City. She said there was quite a bit of rain and the landing might be a bit bumpy.

The last pass the flight attendants made down the aisles was more attentive to seat belts and trash than I’d ever experienced before. They clung to the seats backs to keep their balance as they struggled down the aisle and actually lifted blankets from people’s laps to check if the seat belt was buckled. Sheets of rain pummeled the sides of the airplane.

As we approached the airport in Guatemala City, the rain was so heavy it looked like thousands of bullets streaking past the windows. Out both sides of the plane I could see city buildings as we hurtled toward our fate. The plane bucked wildly as the pilot tried to put the plane down. It was too rough. He pulled up at the last moment just before the wheels touched and we lifted back into the sky, banking off and to the right.

The pilot came on the intercom and mumbled something in Spanish, which I could not understand. It sounded as though he was speaking into flannel blanket. I was white-knuckling my way through the experience while Alan sat peacefully by my side reading his book.

A Costa Rican sitting across the aisle finally translated the pilot’s comments for me.

With a reassuring grin, he said, “He says he is going to try to land again.”

The pilot continued to bank and buck until we were in position to make another attempt at landing. This time it was worse than the first. The same buildings flew past at supersonic speed, the rain streaked past, and we pulled up at the last minute again making the now familiar banking turn. Again, the muffled voice of the pilot.

“He’s going to try agian and if he can’t land then we’ll go on to San Salvador,” my personal translator informed me.

“Let’s just do that now,” I said

It took a total of three times before the pilot finally got the plane down onto the tarmac and we skidded and bumped up to the terminal. My armpits were soaked and fingers numb from clutching the seat arms. All I could think about was the take off, which, as it turned out, was much easier than the landing.

We arrived safely enough in Costa Rica later that night.

Over the next few days we discovered, from the papers and the TV news, we had just flown through Hurricane Mitch, a hurricane so violent it is remembered everywhere in Latin America as a benchmark for major disaster and loss of life.

So, Tropical Storm Alma, last Thursday, wasn’t too bad as we motored on toward the northern part of the country. Alan read today that it had sustained winds of 55 MPH, so it wasn’t really a cyclone.

The day’s travel took us up to the Nicaraguan border and through some beautiful cattle country with enormous pastures where white Brahman cattle grazed under Guanacaste trees, the national tree of Costa Rica.

From one of Costa Rica’s northern most towns, La Cruz, we took a secondary gravel road that was like driving down a riverbed. It took us through backcountry blanketed in citrus orchards and working subsistence farms. The road was rough and we could see where torrents of water had washed out the ditch banks along the way, but it was clear, and we made it to Upala in about three hours.

We arrived around five in the afternoon.

Upala may be beautiful but it is not an epicurean’s destination vacation spot. We wandered around the zocolo, or Central Square, where we were the focal point of the entire town. I don’t think they’d seen any tourists there in some time. After a five-minute tour of the town we made for a hotel.

Lonely Planet recommended Cabinas Maleku, “The best place in town. Big, high-ceilinged rooms with colorful cartoon murals have folksy furniture, including cute Sarchi-styled rocking chairs in front of the rooms.”

Tour books are a bit like reading descriptions of real estate, I think. The words “cute” and “folksy” being the dead giveaways, here. Our room did have high ceilings, but it resembled more chicken coop in the pitch than the vaulted ceiling image the tour book brings to mind.

The cartoon mural of two horses was indeed there, hanging on a vast wall of institutional green in the only location where we could not see it, over our heads. Lying down on the bed we were able to stare straight up at the only light in the room, a 60-watt incandescent light bulb that created a hippy strobe effect when the fan below it was turned on.

There was one small table in the room, a rickety wooden affair with half the drawer bottom missing. The tour book also promised cable TV, hot water, and AC. Yup, they were there. Alan referred to the TV as The Highboy situated, as it was, about 6′ 4″ off the floor on a swivel platform so we could direct it at the opposing wall like a search light. I know it was that far off the ground, because Alan is 6′ 3″ and he could barely clear the thing on a pass by to the bathroom.

In the bathroom there was a cold-water sink, a functional toilet (if you jiggled the flush handle so the chain didn’t hang up in the outlet), and a shower, complete with the infamous Latin American suicide showerhead. This gizmo is essentially a ring of heating elements encased in an oversized round plastic showerhead, directly wired to 120V and the plumbing. There is a little on/off switch on the plastic housing of the showerhead, and another to adjust the temperature. Yahoo, cowgirl up!. Even though I would have used it, it was broken and we took cold showers the following morning.

Once settled in our cozy, cute cabina we set out to look for food.

Lonely Planet, again: “Right off the main plaza and far more atmospheric is this romantic restaurant with red tablecloths, mood lighting, and a nice bar. The specialty is steak, and chances are it was born, raised, and slaughtered right here in Upala.”

It took us awhile to find Rancho Don Horacio. Once there we entered a dungeon-like Quonset hut so dark I almost tripped over a break in the cement floor at the entrance. The tablecloths were there and they were red… sort of. In fact, I think they were the same red– now maroon– tablecloths mentioned in the Lonely Planet printed in 2006. There were no diners, only a few drunks dimly outlined at the bar at the far end of the place.

Once our eyes adjusted to the movie-house darkness, Alan suggested a table next to one of the two windows in the joint.

“Nice view,” he remarked pleasantly, after we were seated. I looked out through the bars and noted the cement block building across a narrow alleyway full of weeds.

“Definitely better than the other one,” Alan said. That one had a block building about two feet from the window. I was admiring the ceiling that someone had meticulously formed into an arcing chessboard of red and darker red squares above our heads when the waitress/bartender arrived with menus. We ordered a couple of Bavarias to give ourselves room to discuss our options.

My mother, who traveled the world in her day, had a hard and fast rule when eating out: If one person has a gut feeling about the place and decides to leave, the other will not argue but simply get up and leave. There is time to talk about it later.

We drank our beers and decided that the homegrown and slaughtered beef should remain at Rancho Don Horacio’s. We found a cheap but good plate of food close to the market and settled into our room for the evening. We carry our own reading light, so life was good.. or better.

The next morning the sun was shining, the storm having moved north to Nicaragua and Honduras. A few miles out of town we got a beautiful view of Volcan Arenal. It is rarely seen without a shawl of clouds around its shoulders, so this was a treat.

Camarones, Por Favor

We left San José on Wednesday morning, headed for Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. This area of Costa Rica was originally developed during the colonial period and for most of the 19th century, Puntarenas was the only means of exporting the country’s products. Coffee was brought down out of the Central Valley by ox cart and sent by ships around Cape Horn to towns all over Europe.

In the mid 19th century things changed for Puntarenas. The government decided to construct a railroad from the capital to the Caribbean coast and contracted the services of the North American entrepreneur, Minor Keith, in exchange for some 300,000 hectares of land in the Caribbean lowlands.

After building the railway, Keith brought banana plantations to Costa Rica and established what was to be the precursor of Standard Fruit Company. Because it was much closer to Europe and ships did not have to pass around the treacherous Cape Horn, Puerto Limón became the premier shipping port and Puntarenas’ heyday was over.

It is still a bustling port town, but now it is largely a fishing town although recently there have been efforts to raise the economic standing with (oh, the dreaded word) tourism. Several large cruise ships now dock regularly and the once quiet promenade becomes infested with cruise ship denizens with their pasty white skin, plaid Bermuda shorts, and running shoes all shopping for gewgaws and plastic mementoes.

We arrived in town about noon. It was raining heavily, which is not normal for the Pacific. We drove around the deserted town looking for a likely restaurant to have a few shrimp. The boulevard was dark as rain whipped against the shuttered bars and cafes. Most of the places we knew from other visits were closed, all the chairs upturned on the tables. We finally found a small restaurant down toward the center of town and made a dash for cover.

The menu was extensive. There was even something called Fletucini Especial de la Casa. I adore the misspellings and the skewed syntax of foreign menus translating into English. As much as I might have liked the “fletucini,” we weren’t in the mood for pasta; we had shrimp in mind. I asked the waiter if they were fresh.

“Si, si,” came the upbeat reply.

We weren’t at all sure and so ordered the shrimp ceviche, figuring the lemon juice would at least kill any bacteria from a less than fresh catch. It was a wise move. The shrimp had been cooked in the lemon juice for so long they were like little rubber bullets.

We also ordered the maricos, or seafood, soup, which turned out to be the right thing to do. It was delicious and we ate it gratefully as the rain poured down outside.

We left there and drove north toward Liberia and the cowboy part of Costa Rica. The rain continued to hammer the windshield as we moseyed along. We took the new bridge that crosses over to the Nicoya Peninsula, replacing an ancient ferry, and arrived in the town of Nicoya in the late afternoon.

Nicoya, according to the Lonely Planet, has the dubious distinction of being the hottest place in Costa Rica (and they are not talking about the sex lives of the residents there). The Pacific side of the country is hot; I mean it is brick-oven hot with summer temperatures often reaching into the hundreds, and there is very little rain on that side of the country. We kept thinking how fortunate we were with all this rain and cool temperatures.

We found a nice hotel and concocted ourselves a rum drink to relax before finding … more shrimp. Alan flipped on the TV and channel surfed until the local news came up.

“Costa Rica gets hit with first tropical storm of the year,” the announcer said. “Torrente Alma golpe el Pacifico muy fuerte.”

The storm path on the weather map stretched from Golfito in the south to Peñas Blancas in the north–the entire Pacific side of the country. We picked our vacation to coincide with a huge tropical cyclone.

Dinner was at a huge roadside restaurant. Lonely Planet says, “The best place for a drink and delicious bocas (appetizer) is the consistently packed Guaycan Real.” We decided to give it a go. We arrived about 6 PM and the place was dark, but the chairs were down–always a good sign. It looked open… barely. We inched forward into the parking lot and someone flipped on a light, presumably to encourage us to come in.

That night we were the only diners in a restaurant that would probably seat 50-60 people, and we ate some of the best shrimp I have eaten anywhere. They were large, they were plump and pink, they had their tails still on (the only way to properly eat shrimp), and they were smothered in garlicky butter. They rested on a lettuce leaf and were accompanied by a crisp salad of cucumber, lettuce, and tomato and a few French fries. After a bit all the things on the plate began to taste of garlic; you can’t go wrong there.

I picked up a single shrimp by its tail and placed it in my mouth. An explosion of sweet garlicky sauce covered my entire palette. One bite and the soft yet firm flesh of the shrimp revealed the savory taste of the ocean. When I finished the shrimp I sucked the buttery juices from the tailpiece and laid it carefully on the side of the plate. I repeated this seven slow times and was crestfallen when I reached the end. I can’t say it was better than good sex, but it was close.

Alan, who is forever more practical than I am, simply ordered another platter and ate them too. We slept like stones that night.

It was still raining in the morning, Thursday, as we headed north toward Liberia and points unknown.

MOPT II- The Second Half of the Story~

Undeterred by our previous failure to obtain our licenses in a single visit, and truthfully I can’t think of anything is this country that we’ve ever accomplished in one visit if it has to do with an agency of the Costa Rican government, Alan and I forged on.

Last week it was necessary to go to San José, partly to buy some things we needed for the house, and partly to retain our sanity in the face of this ongoing lawsuit with the neighbors.

We decided–or rather I decided–, as it was on our way, we’d give the old licenses a try again. Approaching the MOPT/COVESI offices, I had the resolve of a conditioned marathon runner. I would prevail despite all the odds against me. And, after all, we had our receipts from the bank.

I have come to agree with Adam Gopnik, who, in his wonderful book, Paris to the Moon, describes the average Parisian’s encounter with the never-ending bureaucracies, which invade daily life. He says, “Each Ministry is a bit like a Nautilus machine, designed to give maximum resistance to your efforts, only to give way just at the moment of total mental failure.”

Battling with the bureaucracies provide a common ritual enjoyed by enthusiasts of modern health spas. About once a month or so one of us is forced to engage in an activity that is mildly stressful, forces us in close proximity with total strangers engaged in the same act, and ends with a sense of exhilaration if the goals are met, or a realization that we must work harder to accomplish our goals should we fail. A workout.

We arrived at the MOPT offices in Limón at 8 A.M. sharp. That’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years: either be the first in line or manage to get yourself inside the doors (so they can’t shut them in front of you) within a half-hour of lunch or quitting time and you are bound get service quite quickly. We were first in line.

This time it was a jovial black woman who spoke the Caribbean singsong English I so love to hear, “Is what I tellin’ ya, da’ling. You’s got to go to the doctor and get a physical. But make sure you tell dem is far a driver’s license only, you hear?” her lilting voice was matched by a smiling face. Where to get the physical, I wondered.

“You know de Methodis’ charch in Limón?” I did, so that was fortunate.

“Go on up thar pas’ that, and… oh, cien meters farther is a carner. You know it?” I said I did. What is the point in questioning her? I felt as though someone had added another ten-pound weight on the Nautilus machine, but I was determined. I would simply scour the entire area or ask someone when we got closer to the scene.

“Okay, turn thar and go on up maybe 25 meters. You find him thar. Name is Coto; Dr. Coto.” This is where Costa Rican directions get tricky. It’s the “turn there” and the “on up” that defy actual directions, but never mind. I felt I could find it.

“So, I guess we’ll do that when we get back from San José,” Alan said casually as we got in the truck.

“No. I can feel it. We can get this done. We’re not in any hurry are we? Hell, we can spend the night here if we want.” Alan knows better than to argue with me when I’m this focused.

We drove the five miles back to Limón and found he Methodist church and the corner and the office. I went in to ask if they could take us right away while Alan parked the truck.

“Por supuesto,” said the friendly clerk. “The doctor is on his way in and he’ll take you first.” Of course he would take us first. What a racket. It cost us the equivalent of $50 dollars for a blood pressure check, height, weight, and one line on the eye chart (somewhere between two or three lines of normal). Oh, and he asked in passing if I could hear him all right. That was the hearing test. I paid and we were set to leave.

“You see these two boxes, here?” The receptionist asked, pointing at two empty squares on the medical exam form. “You need to go to the bookstore (one block up) and buy the stamps for this, otherwise it’s no good.” Another five pounds of resistance was stacked on the machine.

The bookstore she referred to had closed a year ago, according to the black man standing in front of it, “But you can buy the stamps from a lady what sell them up by the bank. Not in the bank, in front.” Another 1000 Colones.

Back to MOPT, and still there was no line at the window. The jovial black woman was still there. I handed all documents through the window and she nodded approvingly as she punched our information into the computer.

“Go wait over there,” she said pointing to a row of chairs filled with other lost souls. Alan and I went over and leaned against the wall like sweaty athletes toward the end of a long workout.

About five minutes later a very nice lady who spoke only Spanish ushered us into her office ahead of all the others. I asked, tentatively if we were cutting in line.

“Oh, no. There are all waiting to take their driver’s tests.” Well thank the motor vehicle gods for that small favor. She also told us in passing that people from San José often come here to get their licenses renewed because it is so quick here.

She sat us down, took our pictures, and created brand new shiny driver’s licenses that will expire February 07, 2013– just long enough for me to forget how to go about the renewal process.

MOPT- Half of the Story~

“Yes, this is the right office, but you must go to the Banco Nacional and pay 10,000 colones each before I can renew these driver’s licenses,” said the nice man behind the glass partition separating us. “And anyway, our system is down right now. I won’t be able to do anything for you today.”

This was something new; not the fact that the system was down, that was common enough. It was the fact that he told me about it so I didn’t make a second trip after paying at the bank that was so remarkable. This, in my estimation, is real progress and I told him so.

“Thank you so much for telling me.”

“Con mucho gusto,” he replied as we left the MOPT office.

Alan and I had been eyeing at our driver’s licenses for the past month, aware that they would need to be renewed this month, with the same anticipation as an upcoming colonoscopy.

It was our first trip to the MOPT (the equivalent of the DMV) office outside Limon. Finding it had been no simple task. We asked in town and were directed out past the prison, and further out beyond the truck yards, where containers were stacked like oversized Legos, and finally behind the bus yards for TRACASA, through a chain link gate with the rusted and barely visible sign reading MOPT, to ultimately find the transportation department offices.

We bounced our way over the rough gravel entrance and finally arrived at a group of rundown buildings that used to be blue. Out back was a chain link fence surrounding the impounded vehicles like some vehicular gulag. We parked and walked to the building entrance where we found the familiar socialistic line of people standing idly, leaning against anything vertical for support, most of them twiddling their cellular phones.

“Is this the line?” I asked the woman in the tight black lyrca pants at the end, to which I received a jutted jaw as she pointed with her lips toward the inside of the building. We entered the grubby office and found two windows, both without any line in front of them. Surely it couldn’t be this easy.

It wasn’t.

The man in the first cubicle informed me that I needed to speak to the gentleman behind the second window, who was idle as well. It was this man who told me about the failed system and the bank.

In the old days–a mere ten years ago– they would never have given us the secondary information. It was as though they got some morbid glee out of making a person make multiple trips to get anything done. I believe Franz Kafka took his training in places like this.

We left and drove the five miles back to Limon to pay the fee at the bank. The line stretched down the block as people waited for the bank to open. I realized it was not only a Monday, but also the first of the month and we were going to be hours waiting for people to get their pensions, make their weekly deposits and whatever other business they felt the need to conduct.

Ah, another dead-end in one of the many labyrinthine routes to a fairly innocuous chore. I left and we went about getting other chores done. It then occurred to me that perhaps our own bank, the Banco de Costa Rica, might have an account with MOPT and we went to that bank. Same deal, but I persevered and entered. I went to one of the ubiquitous armed guards that are in every bank and increasingly in every business that handles cash.

“Hi. Can you tell me if the bank has an account with MOPT. I need to pay for my license renewal.” I said, giving him my best smile.

“Let me see your license.” I handed him my driver’s license.

“You can’t renew this now. It’s not expired yet. See, the expiration date is on the 13th. Come back on the 14th.”

“Sir, the license will be expired by then and the police will give us a ticket. I just need to know if the bank has an account with MOPT” I could feel my jaw getting tight. Try to smile, I reminded myself.

“Here is the telephone number, you have to make an appointment.” Defeated I left with the phone number.

On the way home I called the number he had given me using my cell phone. No, I did not need an appointment; I could go directly to the MOPT office. Yes, I could pay at the bank.

We went home stopping off at our local branch office and paid for our renewal. It was during this transaction that I learned I could have done this online myself and the name of the agency was COSEVI not MOPT. Oh, well.

We were half way to being renewed: We had receipts showing we had paid, but still had expired licenses.

(to be continued)