Tag Archive for Puerto Viejo

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.

 

Total Destruction to Tourist Mecca: Limón

Rio Estrella

Rio Estrella

On April 22, 1991, at about 3PM—three years before my first trip to Grape Point*— a 7.7 magnitude quake that killed 65 people and injured hundreds of others, tore through Limón province. 22 seconds of shaking knocked out bridges, buckled steel girders like toothpicks, destroyed roads, split pavement open like melons, and twisted railroad tracks into spaghetti. It razed thousands of houses and businesses alike. It would take Limón province years to recover.

Years later my friend Miss Olga told me about that grim day. She said she crawled out of her house on hands and knees for safety. Instead, the earth opened up like a gaping maw and then closed again right in front of her. She escaped injury, but a neighbor lady broke her arm and had to be medevacked. She was transported to the Rio Banano, lifted over the river by crane, and then air-lifted to Limón.

Any tourists on the southern Caribbean coast were cut off. Eventually they were evacuated by small air transport, and food drops were instituted for those who stayed behind.

International Rescue Corps Workers

International Rescue Corps Workers

By the time I arrived in ’94, temporary bridges had been erected but the roads were still in total disarray. The train tracks, once Limón’s only connection with the Central Valley, lay wasted and made rail travel impossible. It has yet to be rebuilt.

It was dark by the time we left Limón. I thought we would be another half hour to our destination. That is what the distance indicated, anyway—55 kilometers, or about 35 miles and how long could that possibly take?

We began running into cavernous holes in the road, so many potholes it was hard to know where the pavement ended and the chuckholes began. They were deep and oncoming cars simply disappeared into them. Their lights vanished only to re-emerge on our side of the road. everyone picked their way through the gaping craters. Whenever we met other cars, we stayed our course rather than move over. Sometimes there would be three cars abreast as we navigated the obstacle course. But you could not drive any faster than about five miles an hour. No one was going to get in a wreck. The road was the wreck!

We struggled on through the night. Over four hours later we came to a little town of Old Harbour, or Puerto Viejo. I couldn’t see anything but little white lights twinkling like jewelry in the jungle night. After we passed through town, headed for Grape Point, we slowed as the road got worse, though I hadn’t thought that possible.

typical bridge of the day

Typical bridge of the day

The one-lane mud track was as red and slick as potting clay, and the truck sashayed back and forth as we crept forward. We stopped for any oncoming traffic, moving off the road to allow them to pass, but careful not to get too far out of the ruts and end up mired in the ooze. The bridges we crossed that night were nothing more than planks laid down over enormous logs. At one point A. got out and replaced the dislodged decking before we could cross.

Out the truck windows dense green foliage crowded the road on either side; occasionally a branch would slap the side of the truck. I heard insect sounds: cheeps, shrill police whistles, clicks, and a bug so alien I knew I’d landed in a truly foreign world. It was a high-pitched metallic and penetrating sound that punctured the night like a submarine’s sonic echo. PING! It left a faint echo in its wake. PING!

Those bugs still catch my ear at night, but so much has changed since that first trip.

It took Limón and Talamanca years to recover from that earthquake. In the late ‘90s an Italian firm contracted with Costa Rica to replace all of Limón’s sewer system, sidewalks, and gutters. They also created a new esplanade in the center of town where these days tourists, debarked from the frequent cruise ships, meander and shop for curiosities.

The many bridges between Limón and Puerto Viejo were slowly replaced or repaired, and the road was eventually repaved, although the area around the Bananito River took them years to control. For a long time that train bridgesection of road was often washed out–closed–causing a long detour through the banana plantation country, over railroad bridges, and fording small streams.

Now a trip from our house to Limón takes about an hour, and to Old Harbour, fifteen minutes- tops. The slippery clay road from Port to Manzanillo was paved in 2001.

There are more tourists here now, more expats living along these shores, more drugs, more crime, and yet…. there are conveniences that come with progress. Our old Jeep would certainly be dead by now had the roads not been improved, and fresh veggies arrive from the Central Valley three times a week. But… I’ll write more about food next time.

 

Here is a YouTube video showing the extensive damage of the Limón Earthquake.

And, if you have about 25 minutes and want to know what it was like to ride the train from Limón to San José, you can watch this YouTube video.

* A. Had been coming to Costa Rica since the late 80s, but my first trip to Grape Point was in 1994.

“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.

Another Carlsberg Perhaps?~

(Back, by popular demand- I deleted this post but have posted it again…. for those looking for it, here it is.)

Our lawyer, PMT, who also happens to be the local municipality’s lawyer, was in Limon talking with the DA on our behalf (another story altogether). While there, she got a phone call from E. Cyrus, the local head of MINAE, the Costa Rican Parks Department. “I’m here in Punta Uva and have a small problem. Well… actually it’s a big problem. There is a group of people here making a Carlsberg beer commercial…. When I gave them the okay, I didn’t realize it would be this big.”

“This big” included three good sized generators, three helicopters, and an ocean freighter with containers on deck stacked like sky scrappers. These held all the equipment needed for the 200 (TWO HUNDRED!!!) staff members working on the commercial. Also, the Carlsberg people had cordoned off a kilometer of public beach using police tape (a Big No No) to keep people out. This is why Alan and I were refused our morning walk that I blogged about a couple of days ago.

Apparently Cyrus signed a permit so Carlsberg could use the beach without consulting of the Municipality. The permit simply said “en la playa,” on the beach, not delineating exactly how much beach would be used. And what kind of park steward okays a noise making project like this with three helicopters low-flying overhead 12 hours a day for three days as the monkeys run through the jungle in the opposite direction? (That was a rhetorical question.)

Later that day the Muni, the police, and PMT all went to Punta Uva to confront the beer company. There were words.

Testy Columbian in charge of the project to the gathered officials: “You can’t stop us. You have no right to do that.”

“Oh… no?” said the municipal official, motioning the police to begin to seize the equipment. They loaded up one of the generators and were working on the next when the Columbian relented and suggested that perhaps they should adjourn to the municipality office in Bribri for a discussion.

At the municipal office, the Columbian boss glibly flipped a piece of paper across the conference table toward the president of the Muni, Roly. “Here! We have a signed permit from MINAE.”

Roly, a linebacker-sized black man replete with gold chains and rings on every finger picked up the paper between thumb and index finger, as though it were contaminated, stared at it for a second, then flipped it back toward the film director.

“And?”

It’s bad when you come to a foreign country and think you have a handle on how to move and shake your way around. There are many things you don’t understand when you do that. I am sure they felt, like Donny Rumsfeld and George Bush, that they would come to this stretch of Costa Rica and be welcomed like conquering heroes, the locals showering them with adoration– if not flowers. Those silly locals would at least stand in awe of such a miraculous event taking place right here in their backyard.

Instead, the Carlsberg people entered a place called paradise by some visitors, but Green Hell by many others of us who actually live here. A place where rancor has become a district-wide pastime, and almost anyone you talk to has some pending legal action against their neighbor.

But there was more they failed to take into account before deciding on this strip of beach to film their beer commercial.

There has been a mud wrestle fight here for the past 20 years about just who would have jurisdiction over this part of the country. The municipality has always maintained they have the right, as they do in the rest of the country, to collect taxes, provide services, issue permits, and generally act like a municipal government. The parks department, MINAE, has argued that they are the best stewards of the land because this is a National Park with “mixed use” designation. I won’t even go into that discussion for the moment because this blog does not have enough megabyte storage space for it. The battle has raged and burned like a peat fire all the way to the Supreme Court.

This year the Municipality of Talamanca finally won.

The formal agreement was signed by Cyrus last week– yes, the same Cyrus who gave the Carlsberg people unilateral rights to close the beach.

So, the Columbian filmmaker probably paid someone (or sometwo) a handy sum to slide this thing through and now faced the municipality and a fine for failing to get the proper permits. Once they realized they had no choice, an agreement was struck. Roly told them that they could pay the multa, fine, and make their little film, but they could not close the beach to the public.

“But this commercial is about a deserted island and there cannot be any footprints.”

“Well, you can see that it is NOT deserted and it is NOT an island. Pay the fine or leave.”

Roly then got up from the table, tucked his paperwork under his arm, and ambled out of the meeting leaving the Carlsberg people speechless.

The secretary for the municipality who is Spanish, petit, and normally quite charming, but who has worked side by side with Roly and has picked up some of his language, said to the filmmakers, “Paga los focking impuestos o no hace su focking pelicula.”

Pretty clear.

I’ m sure the Columbians felt that their own country might have been a safer bet to make their commercial right about then. They might even have found a deserted island where they would be left in peace.

I have not heard the helicopters today except from afar. I am sure the monkeys, if they are still around, are as happy as I am.

(Nope, I take it back. I was just about to post this when whoop-whoop-whoop, the focking hueys are back.)