Tag Archive for costa rica

Of Quipus and Libraries

I read a fascinating article the other day in my local English newspaper, The Tico Times. According to the story, for the past five years writer José León Sánchez, and philologist Ahiza Vega have been studying the regional written and spoken languages of several native tribes in Costa Rica during the colonial period. It was tough going. Then they stumbled upon the ‘Rosetta Stone,’ as Vega has called it.

Hidden away, deep in the archives of the US Library of Congress, is a book, ignored (we can only surmise) since the nineteenth century. On Indian Tribes and Languages of Costa Rica, written by U.S. researcher William Gabb in 1875, is not only a treatise on the tribes of Talamanca, but it may be the key to unlocking a mystery, because Gabb apparently asked a friend from Talamanca to translate his book––complete with a glossary––using a quipu.

Quipus (shown in the picture above, courtesy of The Tico Times), sometimes called talking knots, are recording devices the Inca and Aztec Indians used. They were made of spun Alpaca, llama, or cotton threads, and knots. The elaborate knots have been thought to be physical representations of numbers or history, no one knows for sure, because no one has been able to translate them before. According to the Tico Times article, “[quipus] require significant craftsmanship and skill, because each knot represents an idea. With many knots – or ideas – strung together, the resulting quipus were used to provide Inca emperors and other tribal leaders with vital information about the local population, water issues and military affairs.”

History shows that the Spanish destroyed the majority of Incan quipus because tribes used them to communicate with each other behind the conquistador’s backs. Now there are only a few left. Today only about 600 Inca quipus survive. Of those, only 15 or 20 were ever transcribed as Spanish documents, but no correlation has been found between a surviving quipu and a transcribed one.

Until now.

The hope is that with Gabb’s book, the translated quipu, and the glossary, now researchers might have a chance to crack the code and that the other 600 might be translated. What history will we discover? It will be interesting to see if they can do it, and, it will be interesting to see what the Incas had on their minds way back then.


Banking on an Answer

Unless everyone agrees on an established filing system, there will be chaos. In my filing system, for instance, the car insurance bill belongs in the general file under Insurance with a subfile Car. But someone else might feel that the bill is about the car, and all things Car should be stored under the general category Car with a subfile Insurance.

But what about banks and their filing systems?  My bank in the US allows me to look up canceled checks online and view both sides so I can see who endorsed it. When it comes to retrieving canceled checks from my bank here, it is another issue. Banco de Costa Rica does not appear to be able to locate a check even if they are given the check number in question and the cancellation date of the check. I’m on my fifth week trying to get it. Here’s a rundown.

Week one I asked for the check and a male clerk wrote down the number and told me to return in a week. Big smile.

Week two he was not there, so I asked the little dark haired woman who took his place about the check. “You have to speak with him,” was her response. I said, No, I needed the check and could she please inquire as to what was happening with it. She made some calls, told me they were ‘really busy,’ and suggested I return the following week.

Week three I got the same dark haired woman. She made several calls to something called Office of Retrievals (OR?). I could imagine these bureaucrats— like something out of the movie Brazil— wearing green visors and suspenders as they sat in tiny cubicles tediously fulfilling their duties of being present from 8-5 every day. The little bank clerk , who was not wearing a green visor, interrupted my thoughts and asked me the date the check was canceled. I took a deep breath and tried to sound pleasant. “I wrote the check to someone else. I need to know the date he cashed it. That, in fact, is why I am looking for it.” She shrugged and said they were unable to find it. “This is important. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here asking for it.” She told me to come back in a week.

Week four the little dark haired clerk was busy when my number was finally called. Instead, I spoke with a young black woman who spoke English. She started to tell me I needed to speak with the other clerk, but I interrupted. “Can you please access my account activity for the month I wrote the check and tell me if this check was, in fact, cashed. I would do it on my computer, but the online system doesn’t allow me search that far back.” She started to tell me how to sign up for online banking, but I deflected her instructions, and we got back to the issue. She tried and failed. Then she called the Central Office. I watched as her fingers flew over the keyboard and then…Bingo! She found the check number and the date is was cashed. She said she would email the Retrieval office and tell them the date so they could find the physical check. Come back next week.

So, apparently ALL checks canceled on a certain date are filed together. What kind of insane filing system is that? They obviously need Mac’s Spotlight feature where you can find a file no matter where you thrown the thing.

Week five— this week and the final week before Christmas holidays start— I went back. After a 45-minute wait I spoke to her again. She went into the back office and returned. “The Retrieval office says the check is not there.” I could see two men who’d been sent to a room (warehouse?) to find my check. They sat atop a mountain of checks from all over Costa Rica. Like Florida election officials looking for hanging chads, they picked them up one by one they examined them and then pitched them over their shoulders creating another pile behind them. The following shift probably started looking in the refuse pile of the first team.

Before I left, I gave her a zip-lock bag full of cookies and candies and a Christmas greeting from us thanking her and wishing her well for the New Year. I said I appreciated all her efforts to help me. Maybe that will work.

I am to return next week.