29 November 2007

The Bridge

We’ve been staying in Atenas at a bed & breakfast named Ana’s Place. This joint is in the most run down part of town down at the bottom of a hill; but, the entrance is tucked back up behind a bunch of plants. If you are not determined to find the place, you’ll see the unattractive buildings at the end of the road (a dead end) and you’ll quickly turn around, assuming that it couldn’t be down there.

But it is. Once you turn up Ana’s driveway, passing through the huge iron gates, you’ll round the bend and see an imposing, beautiful mansion of a place with perfectly manicured gardens and lawn. Opposing stone stairways curve gracefully towards each other, rising from the parking area up to the porticoed grand entry way.

The great front door was open and we walked into a reception area. A young lad welcomed us and began to escort us to our cabina out in the back, in the real gardens.

Eden. Unreal. Tropical birds were going off, butterflies were making out, gardenias were in riotous bloom and the air was tauntingly touched by that fragrance. And, there, reigning over all, was a gigantic red, yellow, blue & green parrot.

We were in the Jaguar Room which means we occupied ½ of a cabin about the size of a shotgun shack, nested in among the greens of this manicured jungle. The room was just “O.K.” with a suicide heater for the shower’s hot water and a prominent sign admonishing us in 4 languages not to put any toilet paper of any sort into the toilet. It is not toilet paper here. It is “papel higenico” and it belongs in the little waste basket. Eeeek.

Aside: I didn’t know what a suicide shower was either until Pat filled me in on this distinctly Tico bathroom accessory. Here’s how they got their name. Between the wall and the shower head sits a little cylindrical box, about half the size of an old time Quaker Oats box. That is what makes cold water into hot water as fast as it can flow through the device (allegedly.) Running out through a hole knocked in the wall are two 110 volt wires that disappear into the side of “the device.” In ages past, you’d get the water running into the device and out the shower head, and then reach over to a BARE KNIFE SWITCH (are you paying attention – you’re wet and standing in a shower!!) to power up this evil machine. Oh yeah. Let me. Get it? Suicide Shower?

O.K., they’re safer today because the knife switch has been replaced by a circuit breaker switch over far enough from the shower that you’d have to be Yao Ming to touch the switch and the water pipes at the same time. Oh, I almost forgot. To control how hot The Beast makes the water, you have to adjust the flow volume. A trickle of flow is too hot for comfort; a "reasonable" (Spartan) flow is about right; and, a healthy, drenching flow doesn’t quite make it all the way to “hot.” Can anyone guess what happens when you are enjoying a “perfect-temperature” shower and somebody flushes? Oh, buddy!

Pura Vida. I’m not going to let little things like simple electrocution and keeping a bucket of poopie paper in my room affect my attitude.

We got some pretty fine French Scotch (no kidding) and settled in under a big outdoor cabana, near the pool and sipped our way to nirvana. We also had a great time listening to some obviously well-to-do 30-somethings sit around the pool and sagely solve every world and family relationship problem that has ever burdened man’s soul. ‘Em were some REALLY smart folks, if they didn’t say so themselves.

And that would be a cool segue into a little blather about philosophy … but first I gotta tell you about The Bridge.

We’ve been corresponding with some folks in Atenas that write a little e-publication called “Atenas Online.” They have a section that cites neat things to see and do around Atenas, so we decided to look up some of some of these attractions.

  1. Nope, Rick’s Internet Café does NOT have a Steak Night or a special or steak anything on Thursday nights. Once again, a waiter looked at me like I was from Mars. (Maybe it was the huge Caballero hat and bright yellow size 3X tropical shirt parked above and below a wildly bearded head. Ya think?)
  2. There is a Railway Museum just east of the little village of Rio Grande and there is a breathtaking old riveted iron bridge spanning the biggest, deepest chasm around these parts. It is worth the walk of about 500 meters up the old rails. This bridge towers 345 feet above the raging Rio Grande. Vertigo is the order of the day as you look out over the unguarded stone ramparts. I wasn’t brave (crazy) enough to walk out on the “no–railing” deck of the bridge. I’ll bet that will get your head swirling. Go if you get a chance. The Railway Museum is only open on Sundays so we can’t give a report on what treasures it holds.

Just a quick backtrack -- overall, Ana’s Place is worth a visit. The ambiance is wonderful. The food is gourmet and, of course, the coffee is to die for.

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27 November 2007

The Bank

What a grand Tuesday we were having!

I was awakened by my lungs trying to suck my CPAP face mask up in through my nostrils. Then I became conscious enough to realize that I had finally popped my lips apart and inhaled vs., the usual explosion of air, accompanied by the most god-awful palate rattle ever emitted by a human-ish creature – the usual occurrence when parting my lips while hooked up to the infernal breathing machine.

“Hey, the machine quit. The power must be off,” I said, figuring that I might as well wake up Pat with the news, since I couldn’t awaken her with the vile sounds of my rattling palate. Just then …

“Pot!” came the voice of Vinicio at our bedroom door. “Johnny wants to talk to you.”
{ASIDE: I gotta tell you . In Spanish, Patricia’s everyday name, Pat, sounds exactly like somebody shouting for a cooking vessel. There is no end to the passive-aggressive fun I can have with this!}

Johnny is our really good Tico lawyer and we had set up an indefinite meeting with him for this week so that we could do all of the paperwork required to set up a bank account here, to be used for the pending house construction project. He was asking us to be at his office in ½ hour – no later – so that he could meet with us prior to a court appearance for some other client.

Race race race. No showers today. Can we do it. Pant pant pant.

The phone rings. It’s Johnny. The power is off at his place, too, so we might as well not come over since he can’t print out any of our documents.

A few minutes later the power came back on and we decided that it was now or never for Johnny.

We actually arrived just a few minutes after his imposed ½ hour deadline. He answered all of our questions, gave us all kinds of really official looking documents with purty-colored stamps and seals all over them (Ticos love colored stamps and seals – and some of their paper currency is considered the most beautifully colored in the world. No kidding.) We paid him and were off.

Had breakfast in a super little soda / panderia in town.

{ASIDE: For those of you unfortunate enough not to know what a “soda” is, they are very tiny “restaurants,” usually with 10 or fewer chairs or counter stools, and they serve a delicious, nutritious, balanced, typical Tico meal that will fill up an empty belly for less money than a burger & fries. For $3 to $5 you can eat and drink Coca-Cola with enough calories for a full day. Really amazing places. Do NOT rob yourself of this experience by going to McDonalds or Taco Bell when in Costa Rica.}

Since we had all of the official documents finished for our Costa Rican corporation, including all of the correct powers-of-attorney (not what they really call them here,) why not go get Vinicio and open up a commercial bank account.

Lesson 1: Know that doing ANYTHING important at a Tico bank will involve a lot of time. And, you DON’T have all of the proper papers, no matter what your attorney or anybody has told you. There shall be something that you’ll have to go elsewhere to get.

In our case, it was the fact that Vinicio (Corporate Treasurer) had brought the requisite utility bill that showed his post office box number, and not the verbal description of the physical location of his office. Now, lemme ask you … would you rather have, “Box 238,” at the Correo (Post Office,) as an address for service of documents or would you like to live with the Tico version of a street address: “100 meters north of Billie’s Pharmacy and 200 meters west of Our Lady of Something-or-Other Church”? Well, the bank wanted the “100 meter” thing.

{Aside: The government has announced that they will give all of the streets in Costa Rica a name over the next few years, so everyone will eventually get a “house number on a street,” address instead of the physical description based on landmarks, as they have used for centuries.}

But, the banker agreed to get started on the paperwork and we could go get a proper utility bill. Two and a half hours down and not finished.

And, oh yes, they were having trouble with the computer hookup to the national registry and couldn’t verify that we really were a corporation, even though they were holding a plethora of stamped, notarized, embossed, be-ribboned, signed in triplicate nationally official documents. Nah. But they hoped the computer would finally answer “in an hour or so.” Ya, right.

So we diddled away a delicious hour partaking of Tico BBQ ribs with all the trimmings. I’m in heaven.

We sauntered back to Vinicio’s and picked up a bill with a descriptive address on it.
Back to the bank; hippity hop inside; where is everyone?
Lunch, I guess. For a l-o-n-g time.

At 2:10pm, (no, I’m not kidding) our banker gal came back to see us. O.K., all the paperwork is there …. but she can’t find Pat’s business card that we’d given her earlier …. did we have another. Sure, everyone carries dozens of business cards with them on vacation. Hope she doesn’t need more than one more.

Typity type type. Our banker is burning up the keyboard on her PC. Typity type. I guess I’ll go over to stand in line to change some dollars into colones since the exchange rate is going the wrong direction and is expected to tank over the next few days or weeks.

That took a half hour. Not bad!

Typity type type. Wow, they’re really into paperwork at this bank.

Well, since we already have the new account number, maybe Vinicio should go over, get in line and make our first deposit.

Another 40 minutes. Things are really flying along around here!

Typity type type. Now banker-girl is on the phone ripping off a bunch of technical stuff in Spanish, and, Oh, god, Pat is rolling her eyes.

“What?” I want to know.

“Well it sounds like their system took all of your information but it refuses to take mine. She’s entered everything 3 times and now the home office is working with her over the phone trying to get it in,” says my bride.

By this time, we’re worried about getting out of the bank in time to pick people up after work, etc. So, Vinicio and Pat both work on our banking pal and she agrees, finally, to give us all of our paperwork, bundle up her copies, send them to the home office, “and let them figure this out.”

She got my vote.

Lesson 2: Ya better not have “Houston” as your city of residence because the computer system at the bank refuses to recognize it. Put in some other town name & BANG – it goes right through. Just not Houston. So there.

We cruised outa there by 4pm, the proud owners of a new corporate checking account.

We be ready to roll!

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26 November 2007

Finding Minor

Much of the purpose of this trip to Costa Rica was designed to get everything squared away so that construction of our little garage/apartment can begin on our property in Atenas.

We just couldn’t stay away from Atenas, so the first spare moment we had we drove over from Alajeula and walked all over our weeds (the only thing on our little lot.)

A meeting had been set up with our Architect/Civil Engineer/Construction Manager, Minor. In really good English, he had told me earlier that we should be at his office in the City of Grecia between 2:30 & 3:00 pm. Easy.

We had a great meal at a soda in Atenas and decided to strike out for Minor’s office in Grecia, a reported 10km away, about 1:30. Sure, we’d get there early but we could kill some time playing tourist around that mountain town.

“I think it’s up this way,” said Pat. Off I drove. And drove. “Maybe we should ask that guy.”

We pulled over and asked somebody at another soda and found out that we’d gone 4km past our turn-off. Back we buzzed and at exactly 3.9km, there was the described yellow flashing light. Drive drive drive.

“I don’t think this feels right,” quothe Pat. We stopped next to an old woman. We asked (in Pat’s perfect Spanish) if this was the way to Grecia and she looked absolutely baffled by such an impertinent question. Then she sucked it up and said, “Yes, this way will get you there.”

Lesson 1: “Get you there,” as a direction, contains no mention of “how long” it will take to get “there.” Don’t ever take a route that is described as “get you there.”

Pretty soon the road turned into something akin to the surface of the desert after the Battle of El Alemain. Progress was dropping from 50kph to 40, to 30, to …
“A bus!” I shouted with joy. And it was stopping to let people off out here in the wilderness.

We pulled up next to the stopped bus and asked him how to get to Grecia.
“Well, this will get you there but there are a lot of curves,” he said, tracing a great number of spiraling circles in the air. “But the main road is just back there with the sign to Palmeras.” We turned around. The clock is running, in case you haven’t guessed.

{Aside: Really regular-intelligence people usually remember to bring road maps with them when traveling around unknown roads in a strange country. It takes real brains to bring THREE maps in our luggage and leave them all back in the room.}

The “correct” turn-off was one of those roads that we had seen and wondered if we were supposed to go this way or that. Dropping down down down and then climbing virtually straight up (ox carts used to do this?!?) proved that some real engineering had gone into our Daihatsu engine. It never blew up once, even though any sane person would never put any engine through that kind of test. Up and down. Up and down. Potholes as big as a 500 lb bomb crater. “This road will get you there.” Tick tock. The clock is running. Maybe we should try to call Minor to tell him we’d be there at sundown.

Zoom zoom.

“This doesn’t seem right,” she said, again. Oh god.

“There’s a truck!” It was a farmer unloading grain or manure or whatever it is that you need a bunch of in the middle of nowhere and comes in huge burlap sacks in Costa Rica. We pulled up and Pat did her usual heroics with the Spanish language. Our farmer guy knew that we should go exactly 2km back and turn left. Unbelievable.
We went back and right where predicted – there was a road that we’d missed seeing the first pass by. We went up and down; up and down; up and down. The little engine really had a tough time cresting a couple of the hill tops. Through one little village after another.

Finally … Grecia. Our destination.

Earlier in the day, Minor had given me really clear directions on how to find his office: “We’re 1 block south of the Bank of Costa Rica which is on the northwest corner of the city park in front of the big church. Easy. (Not the real directions but close enough to convey the simplicity I was planning on.)

There’s the bank – the sun is over there so that’s west – let’s drive over there, uh, no – then it must be up there – uh, no – call Minor.

Minor and Pat talked on the phone and I made turns. Pat called out landmarks and pretty soon we’d seen every square inch of Grecia. We turned a final corner, headed back for the town square and Pat said, in English, “Oh, I see it!” Huh? Where?
We parked and walked to a corner where a hair salon and travel agency resided. I still don’t know what the heck she saw, but there was Minor to greet us. I looked up the street and there was the Bank. South? This is south? The sun is setting in the north today? Arrrrghh!

Lesson 2: Carry a compass. You never know when the Earth’s axis is going to flop over or the magnetic north pole is going to become the magnetic south pole so you’ll want to be the first to see evidence of this stupendous event.

We’d traveled probably a total of 50km to get here. On the way out of town, we spotted a sign, “Atenas – 10km”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. How’d we take half the afternoon to make the trip?” I wimpered.

We took the turn, hopped up and down a few little hills, bounced over a river, past the site of the horrible land slide that took 14 lives last month (an awful & awesome sight, still today), up one last incredible grade and we were … 1 block from the corner of our little street in Atenas. Sheesh.

Lesson 3: Since there are no street names and VERY few road signs once you get off the Autopista (Pan American Highway) take somebody with you that knows the way, the first time you go somewhere, “just down the road.”

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25 November 2007

Making a "new" car a "used" car

Yep. Another wonderful trip to Costa Rica. But this one had some twists.

We left Houston on a drearily dark day with storms raging around the greater metropolitan area. Fortunately, at the international airport, the rain was light and the expected Thanksgiving crowds were strangely absent. We breezed right into parking; straight through bag check-in; and, went through security with zero waiting – we were the only people in line.

The plane was lightly filled so we were lucky enough to have the center seat empty between us. Minutes after takeoff, the plane burst through the grey and into the bright sunshine. Here we come … Vacation!

As we got off the plane, we were surprised to be met at the gate by Manrique, Pat’s cousin, who is in the travel business and knew how to get us through Customs and the airport in record time.

Manrique drove us to the off-airport Toyota Auto Rental office where our reserved rental car was ready for us. A brand new little 4x4 with 10km on the odometer. Simple paperwork and walk-around got us on the road, following Manrique to La Casa de Vinicio, his father’s house.

The greeting at curbside when we arrived at Vinicio’s was that especially warm Tico welcome that is one of the nicest things one can experience. Vinicio parked our rental car up tightly between a tree and the house so that, “They’ll have to steal that tree to steal the car.”

A grand evening with family and friends followed and then we retired early.

Sunday morning, more family visits started again at 7am. By 9am, many people had come in and out, passing the rental car. Maritza, Vinicio’s wife and Pat’s dear friend, served us all a typical (huge) Tico breakfast up above the house in the “Ranchito.” (A little retreat area up at the top of their property where the breezes blow and the view is breathtaking.)

We had finished breakfast and were relaxing in the early summer breeze when Vinicio’s phone rang. A friend was driving past the house and was calling to say that “the car in front of your house has been broken into!” We all ran to the front street.

Sure enough. The brand new rental car sat there amid a pile of broken glass “popcorn.” I think that it was now classifiable as “used.” Broad daylight. Sunday morning. In a quiet neighborhood. Sheesh! There was “popcorn” all over the interior, accompanied by a large rock, sitting on the floor, beneath the broken window. Missing from the inside of the car was only one thing: the faceplate off the radio. Nothing else. They broke in for nothing. But what an inconvenience THIS would become.

After cleaning up the mess, Vinicio called the Toyota Rental people and they said to just bring the car back to them. With the wind pounding through the gaping hole, Pat and I drove back to Toyota. When I took the lead, speaking in English to the Rental Agents, it seemed like they didn’t know what I was talking about or perhaps they just didn’t know much at all. A slightly more “in charge” type finally walked from behind the counter, took the keys from me and walked out to the car. He got in, looked around and asked in perfect English, “So what’s wrong with this?” Also in English, Pat burst out, “Well the window is gone – they broke into the car and stole the face off the radio!”


We went back inside and there were many minutes of frantic phone calls, in Spanish, all of which Pat (clandestinely) understood. The “responsible guy” started in about a police report. We had to have a police report. They couldn’t do anything without one.

Pat exploded in Spanish and the startled look on the Agent’s faces was “precioso.”
(In Spanish) “So we have to take the car all the way back to Vinicio’s, wait for a police report, bring the car back here and then exchange it?!?”

“Well that is only if we have a car to replace it,” said the Agent.

I couldn’t translate what Pat said next, but after the Agent got his heart restarted, we suddenly were told that the replacement car would be clean and ready for us, brought over from the “downtown location” and available within 3 hours. All we had to do was get a police report.

We left with the car and went back to Vinicio’s.

When we arrived, the police were called.

“Well, the futbol game (soccer) is on TV. We can’t come for a half hour. You better call us back to remind us.”

Lesson one: They’re watching a soccer game. They’re busy, thank you. Don’t bother me now.

My first experience with the unique functionings of Tico government. Wow.

We didn’t have to remind them. About a half hour later, two officers showed up on Policia (Ministerio de Seguridad Publica Delegación Cantonal Fuerza Publica Alajuela) dirt bikes and were standing, staring at the broken window when we got outside. Both Pat and Vinicio launched into a big explanation.

The “boss officer” asked for a piece of paper. Vinicio went into the house and got a sheet of blank, ruled notebook paper and a large book. The officer took these. Using Vinicio’s book as his “desk” he wrote down all the details that he needed (on the blank paper!) folded it up and put it in his pocket.

“I’ll go back to my barracks now and fill out a report, get the stamp on it and bring it right back.” “I’m almost back,” he wisecracked as he rode off with is amigo cop.

Lesson two: Bring your own paper and writing surface. The police carry neither forms nor clip boards.

Our Seguridad gentleman was “almost back” 55 minutes later. I guess that is really fast around here.

Nonetheless, the required paperwork was a pleasant surprise. The Official Form was a piece of letterhead, with a Xeroxed header giving the date, time, officer’s names and approximate location, followed by a dozen ruled lines. At the bottom is a place for a rubber-stamped official seal and everybody’s signature. In the header boxes and in the ruled lines, was a hand-written rough description of what the officers observed. Nothing more. No shutting down the highway for 8 hours while CSI does a full investigation with lasers, GPS, measuring wheels, AutoCAD drawings of the site, video, 10.2 megapixel photographs of several hundred different views of the crime scene, DNA swabs, special sprays to detect blood and absolutely not a single news helicopter in the sky. What’s the matter with this country? ¡Pura Vida!

Wait wait wait. Wait until the appointed hour when the Toyota people promised our replacement car. Eventually, we called, at the beginning of the quoted time span and were told that it would be ready in 15 minutes. It would take longer than that to drive to the rental office.

Away we went. On arrival, we bounded into the office, ready to get the new car and we were met by a fresh face that we hadn’t seen before – and nobody else.

“We brought back the damaged car and we’re here to pick up its replacement,” I started.

“Huh?” said the clerk. “I just got here and nobody told me anything.”

Oh, cripes.

After much explanation by Pat, in Spanish, and plenty more time on the phone the new guy told us that the car would be there in 15 minutes. (15 minutes must be the Tico version of “Real soon now.”)

But soon, around the corner came the car. They closed out the old contract (only now, at this point, because, well, you know, they were REALLY busy all day with all of those other 2 customers they had,) and wrote up our new one, did the walk around with us on the replacement car – and we were off. {Note: This replacement car was the identical make and model, but was far from new. Maybe they didn’t want to risk getting another new vehicle “inaugurated”?}

Lesson three: Always buy ALL of the insurance from the rental guys in CR. I can’t imagine what we would have gone through if they had needed payment for this broken window and the missing radio faceplate. We’d probably be writing this from the Grey-Bar Motel.

More later.

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