Costa Rica

Cédula Renewal Wars

Do-not-get-frustrated-in-direct-sales

Last week my husband and I endeavored to renew our Costa Rican cédulas de residencia, the national ID card.

I called the Banco BCR hotline, BCRCITA (900-003-4639), for an appointment. Aside from the call costing 300 colones a minute, and being immediately put on hold because, “dear customer, all available operators are busy, please be waiting on the line,” the appointment maker was friendly and efficient.

Two years ago, we were in and out in fifteen minutes. This year, the appointment has been the only easy part.

We arrived in Limón 20 minutes early, a good thing because I did not know the Limón Banco BCR had moved. We found the new location, took a seat among the hordes, and listened to the overhead mechanical voice announce ficha numbers and to which booth the holder should report: Ah, setenta tres, posición cinco…. We did not need a ficha, and after about ten minutes a clerk called our name. She asked for our documents.

I have a rule of thumb in this country, known for its obscurantism. When dealing with bureaucrats, I never pull out all my documents at once. If I do, I find they will ask for the one I do not have. Best to present them one at a time hoping my papers exhaust their time, interest, or (insert your own word here).

I gave the clerk our old cédulas and our passports. She asked for proof of payment to CCSS (the Caja), the mandatory government health insurance company. I gave her a payment stub from June. She asked for the actual CCSS carnet, or voucher, which I handed over. I thought I saw her trying to peer over my file folder to see what cards I still held in this poker game, but it might have been my imagination. Then she asked for a letter from the bank ensuring we spend the requisite amount of money each month to qualify us as residents in good standing. I handed over the letter. She read thoughtfully. Then she looked up.

“Entonces, Señora, this letter shows your bank account is linked to your passport number and not your cédula.” There it was, the stickler. I argued my point. The account belongs to my husband and me. Anyone can clearly see that, passport or cédula, we are the same people. I was sent to another booth for consultation. It was there I was informed that a cédula is now required by the good people at immigration.

Our new clerk said we had to return to our bank in Puerto Viejo and a) have the account changed from our passport numbers to our cédulas and b) have our account verified as to our correct information. “The last time you did this was in 2008,” he said. I was aware of that regulation. Back in 2008 the Costa Rican Financial Regulatory Agency – SUGEF – demanded all banks under its supervision update their client account information to bring the accounts into compliance with anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism acts. We had complied, but I was unaware that it had to be updated every two years. I asked if he could do this while we waited.

This is when I discovered that Banco BCR branches have information only about their particular branch on their computers; the Limón branch cannot access accounts from Puerto Viejo, ni vice versa.

So it was back to Puerto Viejo for a chat with the clerk there. Indeed, she said I needed to verify our account and she could do that when we brought a receipt for the electricity, or the phone, with our physical address. Catch-22. In my quest for efficiency, I pay all our bills online and the receipts go to our apartado, post office box. “Well,” she said, “you can use the receipt for the property taxes from the municipality.” Later, at home, I checked. The address the municipality used is referenced by Hotel Suerre, which was torn down by the government several years ago.
I took the receipt into the bank the next day and waited for the same teller to be freed up (another rule of mine: always get the same clerk, otherwise who knows what other requirements may pop up). Our clerk was unfazed by the non-reference point in our address. “But your house is close by this, yes?” Yes. “Okay, then we will just use this and make a note of your actual address.” We could have done this any number of other ways, like me just stating our address, but, hey, she took it.

Then it was on to changing our account from the passport to the cédula number. Do not even ask, because there is no option for simply adding another piece of ID; it’s all or nothing. It would have been faster to close out the account and open a new one and it certainly would have saved trees. After a ream of paperwork and fourteen signatures, we were set. Only problem, they had to annul our credit card and close my online banking account (with saved information on at least ten accounts I regularly pay into). Just a month ago I laboriously matriculated to all those accounts, complete with special codes emailed to me by the bank (again, new regulations). Now all evaporated into thin air.

She promised to have our new credit card by the end of the week. At that point I will be able to start a new online banking account. I have made a new appointment with BCRCITA for our cédula renewal in Limón.

When I told our lawyer that we finally complied with all the requirements of the bank and immigration, she said, “Para hoy, Sarita, para hoy.” For today. For today. I take some comfort in that. It is good to remember it is not just expats who are inconvenienced and frustrated by these rule changes and regulations; Costa Ricans suffer the same fate. We are all in this labyrinthine system together.

This, Our Year of Renewal

Los funcionarios del Registro Civil no tendrían tantas carreras en una eventual segunda ronda pues no votarían quienes cumplan 18 años después del 3 de febrero.Allowing official documents to lapse in Costa Rica is a nightmare, which is why I keep close tabs on them. When I saw four items pop up on my computer’s calendar this past January, I groaned. My poor husband asked what was wrong. When I explained, he wasn’t very sympathetic but he never deals with this sort of stuff.

What sort of stuff, you ask. Well, our Costa Rican cedulas de residencia (national ID cards) must be renewed by July and our US passports updated by November. My Washington State and both our Costa Rican driver’s licenses were also due to expire in June… or so I thought.

I traveled to the states in April and renewed the Washington driver’s license. It took two trips to their DMV, because, silly me, I failed to notice on their website that driver’s licensing is closed on Mondays (all other licensing services remain open, however).

It seemed oddly familiar.

I’ve talked about it before, but I will repeat, Adam Gopnik got it straight when he compared French bureaucracies to weight lifting equipment. “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.” His point being that the French rarely go to a gym to lift weights or run on StairMasters in fellowship with kindred spirits the way Americans do. Rather, they treat getting things done in any office of the government as an aerobic workout in itself. The same camaraderie Americans enjoy with fellow exercisers, the French get with fellow misérables in the queues. This applies to Costa Rican bureaucracies, as well, although friends who have lived in both places assure me that France takes the prize.

I approached the Costa Rican driver’s licence renewal with some trepidation. My concern: the cards had expired. This happened because of the due dates. I had tracked my US driver’s license, due 06-03-2012, and our Costa Rican licenses, due 06-02-2013, forgetting that the day and month are reversed in the two countries. So, when I set about renewing the Costa Rican license in late May (with plenty of time to spare) I suddenly had that panicky feeling you get when you realize your pocket’s been picked or you’ve misplaced your keys. It was not due in June but due last February!

I’d also read that MOPT/ COSEVI passed new rules for driver’s licenses last year. It used to be they would honor a current license from any other country. All you had to do was get a medical checkup, trot down to the San José office with some money (of course), and they’d issue a license. Not any more. Now you have to be a citizen or a resident with a current cedula (applicants need not apply). Our resident cedulas were up to date, but as I recalled our licenses were pinned to our US passports.

The first trip to COSEVI was strictly recon. I presented our licenses, passports, and cedulas. The portly guy behind the desk never batted an eye. He adjusted his belly, leaned forward, and flipped through our documents, then tossed them back on the counter in front of me. Bring your immigration paperwork showing you were issued cedulas, copies of your cedulas, the dictamen medico (medical checkup), and bank deposit slips for five thousand colones each. He never mentioned the expired license. Neither did I.

It took two weeks and two visits to the office in Limón. I was sure it would be three, the usual number of stabs it seems to take to kill any task here. The rest of that time we spent getting the medical paperwork and finding time when the bank wasn’t jammed with tourists.

The second trip to COSEVI was nip and tuck. We got through two sets of paper shufflers and were waiting in queue when the machine that prints out the plastic cards broke down. Employees bent over the device and probed its insides. Minutes ticked by. Other employees were summoned from paper shuffling to confer.The clock moved closer to noon. Finally, they called over the woman who’d processed our paperwork. She flipped up covers, un-battened hatches, and reached deep into the organs of the beast to retrieve a jammed card. More levers flipped, shutters clattered shut, and—bing!—it was online again.

We have an appointment in June to renew our residency cedulas, and then it’s on to the US Embassy.

Two down, two to go.

By November I’ll be buffed up like a veteran weight lifter.

[This essay originally appeared in The Costa Rican Times, May 29, 2013.]

Ants, and A Mild Case of Insanity

Ant

If I can get rid of ants, anyone can.

As those of you who read this blog know, we live in the jungle. I’ve often said our kitchen is one inch from nature; one inch is the thickness of our single-wall constructed house and our native hardwood flooring.

The One Inch precept has made me a fastidious housekeeper. Leave one blob of mayonnaise on the counter, and bugs will arrive to scarf it up. Leave the dishes unwashed overnight in the sink, in the morning they will be crawling with little crawly creepy things like cockroaches, or worse, ants.

I hate ants. I’ve examined my aversion to them, because I don’t hate nature in general; in fact, I am the one who will capture a bug in a glass jar and remove it to the out-of-doors rather than kill it. I have no animosity toward spiders, scorpions, or even wasps. But show me an ant, and I start obsessing about how to exterminate it. I think it is their unremitting self-determination I find so daunting. Frightening, really. That, and their violent relationship with other ants, which reminds me of us. Humans.

I recently heard about a scientist researching cancer, how he based his treatment to target it. Because cancer cells divide rapidly, and tend to hide within the normally dividing human cells, he focused on organisms that use swarm intelligence, and specifically  ones that never give up. Ant colonies. Place anything in their path and they will find an alternate route. They are the squirrels of the insect word.

Last year we had an ant outbreak that just about drove me insane. I scrubbed the counters within an inch of their lives, sprayed them with ammonia or Clean Green. All of which had the effectiveness of water. Ants scattered out over the my counter tops casually bumping noses and sending messages, no doubt about some delectable food find.  Every morning, when all I wanted was a peaceful cup of coffee, I did battle them for fifteen minutes or more. I eliminated bacon from our diet—not a bad thing, I suppose—because the grease attracted them in throngs. Bacon has also become outrageously expensive in Costa Rica, but that is for another post. Or, read my friend’s blog on the subject of increasing taxes on food and other items.

I moved the small compost container (with snap-on, air-tight lid) from the counter to the kitchen table. I quit using the countertop by the stove to prepare any food. And still ants ran roughshod over those work surfaces. I’d find them coming up the side of the counter. I sprayed. I applied poisons— I know, I know—between the counter and the wall. A few days would pass and there they were again like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I’m baaack! Heeeer’s Johnny! [Note: this has been edited due to mass cultural confusion, mixing up Poltergeist’s, They’re Baaack!–my original post– with Nicholson’s cry from The Shining. Just trying to be accurate here] Anyway…a thick stream of them coming up the side of the stove, panning out like river deltas, covering my counter. When I began thinking of things like flame throwers to kill them, I knew I needed a permanent fix.

I went to my trusty Macbook and googled ants + eradicate + traps. Countless sites (herehere, and if you prefer video, here) referred to a mixture of boric acid and sugar. It was purported to work, but I was despondent because I’d tried that a couple of years before and it didn’t work for me. However, I realized, I had made a liquid mixture, as recommended. Hmmmm, maybe if the mixture is dry the ants will track the boric acid to their nest and infect the whole mess of them.

What the hell, I thought, I’ll try it. So I mixed the boric acid and powdered sugar in a 50/50 dry mix and made cocaine-like lines along the back splash of my countertop. It took a day, but I noticed the ants began to focus on the bait. In fact, within two days they attacked it like addicts, snorting up my little lines of white powder. They ate so ravenously I had to replace the thin lines almost every day. I said to my husband, “Well, if this is a far as we get, I’m happy to have them away from my space.” I was able to prepare food on the same countertop; the ants stayed with the bait at the back of the counter, eating and tromping around in the mix. They trailed back up the back splash, through a crack, and disappeared behind the counter.

I left them alone.

The method is not fast, but it has been impressively effective. Within two months I had little to no ants. And because the mixture was up on the countertop, I did not have to worry about the dogs getting into it. This is something to remember: boric acid is poisonous to children and pets, so if you use it, keep it away from them. You can do that by putting the mix in a jar and punching holes in the lid, but my outbreak (and mental wellbeing) required the ants find the bait post-haste. It would have taken too long for them to find it inside a jar.

How does it work? According to Debbie Hadley in her About.com article, How to Make and Use Homemade Ant Baits,

 “Boric acid works primarily as a stomach toxin on ants. The worker ants will carry the bait food, loaded with boric acid, back to the nest. There, the ants in the colony will ingest it and die. The boric acid seems to interfere with their metabolism, although scientists aren’t exactly sure how it does so. Sodium borate salts affect an insect’s exoskeleton, causing the insect to desiccate.”

I don’t know about that, but I know it works. Hadley and others recommend the liquid mixture, but, as I said,  it did not work for me. The dry mix is easy to control, and, once the ants focused on it, I increased the amount of boric acid in the mix. Eventually it was a 3:1 mix, more or less (this is not rocket science), and the ants never stopped going for it. They loved it. I removed the bait when they appeared to be gone. When I saw another small outbreak–probably a new hatch– I replaced the bait. Four months later, none. Zero. Zip.

Hoo-ah!

We haven’t had an ant problem now for about a year, but I can never get lax in my housekeeping. The other day I left some chicken scraps on the counter after making a chicken sandwich with mayonnaise (always a magnet). When I came back after lunch there were about ten ants orbiting the countertop. I squished them with my thumb and then sprayed the counter and the back splash with vinegar, which also works; I’ve written about its excellent properties before.

No more ants…. for now. But I am always aware that they lurk a mere inch from my kitchen.

 

More resources:

13 natural remedies for the ant invasion  by Kimi Harris

How to Stop an Ant Invasion WikiHow

Getting Rid of Ants  The Frugal Life

 

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.

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.