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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 3 - November 2008

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New Digs, Living in the Hood, Corporate Concerns, Turkey Day in the Jungle

In mid November our hero and his roommate of one month decided it was best for all concerned to seek separate abodes.

Three things shaped the search that ensued:


  1. The Quepos/Manuel Antonio area is compact, stretching perhaps 6-8 kilometers from the North end of Quepos town proper to the South end of Manuel Antonio on the other side of the mountain that runs along the coast. The permanent population is reported to be in the neighborhood of 13,000. God knows how many transients there are in season. The compact size of the area lends itself to a quick search.

  2. The members of the morning meeting, the Pacific Group of Manuel Antonio, as a group and, at any moment in time, have a good working knowledge of nearly everything that is available in the rental market. Several possibilities were proposed in the first two days of the search. There would be no shortage of options. 

  3. Whatever option selected would have to fit our hero’s current lifestyle of a modest budget and no auto.

After a few quick looks, one thing became quite clear. I had been spoiled by the convenience of living in downtown Quepos. Easy walks to the bus station, shops, restaurants and various services had become an expected pattern.

Living in Manuel Antonio on the other hand, although beautiful jungle greenery flourishes in most places, did not offer such convenience to the vehicular-challenged. It would require a bus ride just to buy groceries (or a long walk, depending on where you lived). The mountain road is dangerous in many places and treacherous at night. Getting around, getting things and getting things done is decidedly more challenging in M.A.

The solution came from an unexpected source, one of my new contacts at the Sargento Garcia, that hotbed of American Expatriates posing as a sports bar. Charley suggested I take a look at his apartment complex (six units) located on the east side of town, where there was an opening. I did and liked it. Bright, clean and spacious for a studio, I came to learn it also was owned by an excellent young family of four, the Madrigals. The apartments are attached to their main house in one big complex and gated for security.

My first encounter was with Jose, a boy having about 8 or 9 anos. Charley introduced me and I was struck by the quick smile and enthusiasm Joey displayed. He loved to say “Hi” instead of Hola, which he did three times before running to get his older brother David. The older sibling turned out to be fifteen, also full of enthusiasm. He displayed an excellent capability in English, so much so that he was quickly established as the family interpreter.

Papa (Marvin) is a man in his early forties who runs a small business consisting of three taxis and the ambulance service to the hospital (who knows if and when that might be useful). Mama (Sigura) has a few small businesses of her own consisting of the apartments, some other properties and a fishing boat. She was quick to tell me that along with the rental comes one Mahi-Mahi gratis each week. The gods would not have me starve.

The free fish and the positive attitude of this family clinched the deal for me; I signed up. Oh yeah, and on the side Mama is running for Mayor of Quepos (that’s one step above community organizer). I feel connected. Davide reported some three days later that Mama won her primary and would be running for the top spot in 2010. The wheels of democracy grind slowly here.

It was during the search for new digs that I reached a new awareness of a fact hitherto hidden from me. Remember, there are no street names in Quepos. One lives 100 meters east of the Pali supermarket as I do now and that type of designation appears on utility bills and other official documents. Yet, I’ve come to learn there are neighborhood designations.

For example, I was living until now in the Boca Vieja region, which might be literally translated as “Old Mouth” but is better interpreted as “Old Harbor”. The harbor is 100 meters away. My new digs turn out to be in the “Los Angeles” region of Quepos. Now I’m living with the angels. I always wanted to say I lived in Los Angeles although I never really wanted to actually live there. Now I have the best of both worlds, I can say I have lived in L.A., but really haven’t. Yes.

Part of the agreement for the new apartment was the installation by the landlady of several items including dishware, a coffee pot and a two-burner gas stove (she offered a one burner but I suggested anything less than a two-burner would cramp my cooking style. Two days later a third son (Brian, tiene 20 anos and studying pharmacy at the Universidad) showed up to install said device, which now works perfectly. When I asked Sigura in my best pig Spanish if she had any more sons hiding in the wings she said, “Thank God, no!”

To complete the ensemble for the new digs, I needed a chair for my boudoir that could be used for reading, for watching Acha Bay O (HBO) or for pounding away at my computer. During my walks about the neighborhood, I had noticed a store two blocks from my apartment where an enterprising gentlemen hand crafted furniture from local woods. Several people in the Pacific Group confirmed that this gentlemen made quality product and I also noticed that the bank of 8-10 rockers lined up to watch football games at the Sargento Sports Bar were indeed of this man’s production.

I purchased a short-backed rocker with leather seat and back straps embossed with agricultural scenes of Costa Rica for $110. When I asked if he’d take a credit card, he said no because he might have a problem with “Uncle Ed”. I said “Do you mean Uncle Sam” and he smiled and nodded his head affirmatively. There would be no sales tax (13%) on this item. A quick trip to the ATM produced the required number of 20 dollar bills to satisfy the purchase, sin impuestras.

My friend and co-apartment dweller had earlier advised me that, if I asked, the furniture dude would deliver the item at no charge. So I asked: “Hacer entraga en mi casa?”, having first practiced the phrase with a Tico. When I showed him it was only two blocks away, he said: “No problema, Senor”. So off we go together after he locked the store for safety, me warbling grossly imperfect Spanish and him carrying my new rocker overhead.

When we arrived at the compound, he commented that he had sold a number of items to the Madrigals, another good sign of having connected well on both ends. He carried the rocker to the second floor and “installed” it in my bedroom. I love that kind of service and so does my back.

The cash-only experience with the furniture guy was the second of its type here for me. Certain things just happen better here when cash is used. Most stores and restaurants accept credit cards. Debit cards are virtually always processed as a credit transaction, the notable exception being ATM’s. ATM’s (Cajas Automaticas) deliver either Colones or Dollars, your choice. Restaurants and shops accept either currency also, usually returning Colones as change unless you specifically ask for dollars.

Cash money, either Colones or Dollars is often preferred over credit cards or Tarjetas de Credito. Dollars are always welcome because the exchange rate has always favored the dollar over time, so holding dollars gains colone value over time. So a merchant can give you a moderately fair exchange rate when you pay in dollars, knowing that if the dollars are kept in the bank awhile, they’re likely to be worth more in Colones later. When I started coming here about 5 years ago, there were 360 Colones to the dollar; the rate this week is 520.    

Landlords on the other hand are reluctant to accept an American check because of the long delay in clearing it. Although it might clear the American bank in 7-10 days, I’m told it might take 1-3 months for it to be credited to the Costa Rican bank. I first wrote a check against my U.S. checking account to the landlady for the first month but she came back two days later saying her bank said it would take a month to process it. My suspicion is that what really occurred was that her husband balked at the check. So, rent gets paid in cash dollars – how classic.

I was told by one bank (Banco de Costa Rica – BCR) that I needed a Societe Anonyma or S.A, the equivalent of a corporation, to open a checking account (the desire being to open only a personal checking account notwithstanding). This was true unless I had already established residency here (which, by the way, requires the formation of a corporation!) Virtually any other legal contract also appears to require a corporation – from owning a cell phone to getting insurance on a car. So, the next step appears to be the formation of an appropriate corporation and I will be checking with a local attorney shortly. Cost $250-500.

Wait, not so fast. Plan B has arisen. Dinner at the El Gran Escape with a few Americans resulted in an option to use one of their corporations and register my phone under it thereby not having to form the Corp. It was suggested that the real problem might be availability of cell phone numbers. My new friend will check this on Monday as well as what “chip” might be needed to satisfy the telecommunications state monopoly. Progress is slow but steady – do you native-soil types realize how easy it is to do these kinds of things in the good ol’ U. S. of A.? Be grateful.

Another cutie: there is a now a different prefix for a phone number in Costa Rica depending on whether it’s a cell or a land line. Por exjamplo, the local exchange code in Quepos is 777, so a cell could be 8777-5555 whereas the land version would be 2777-5555. Since the country dialing code is 011 and the area code is 506 (same throughout C.R.), dialing a cell from the U.S. might be this: 011-506-8777-5555. Cool, huh dude? So, what was that about Skype?

As November began I wondered what might happen with regards to Thanksgiving. Would American ex-pats here bother to celebrate this cherished tradition? As it turned out, I had little to fear. A goodly number of hotels and restaurants here are owned by or partnered by Americans. About the second week of November I began hearing about the offerings at various establishments.

Then the Pacifico Group announced they would be having a Thanksgiving Luncheon at the Mono Azul.

So after the regular 10 AM meeting on T-day, we were treated to an extensive buffet consisting of “Pavo” and all the trimmings ($10 – but “scholarships” were available to the financially challenged). Someone mentioned there is a turkey farm in Costa Rica, but I’m not so sure the bird we consumed wasn’t an oversized chicken. Nevertheless, it was very tasty. Where they got the cranberry sauce, I may never know.

Pies were supplied by the Mennonites (yes, Dorothy there is an active Mennonite community here also). There also was something that looked like mashed potatoes but I was advised retrospectively it was really a type of squash. The whole deal was basically a classic T-day dinner with a couple of Costa Rica twists thrown in. Absolutely delicious.

I suppose there is a list of endangered bird species in Costa Rica, and I can’t say I’ve investigated to know what’s on that list, but I’d like to nominate the chicken if it’s not listed. If we can have Kids Saving the Rainforest (Ninos Salvando El Bosque) why can’t we have Ninos Salvando El Pollo.

The bird has to be under great pressure to survive, just wander around Quepos and be amazed at the number of establishments offering fried chicken. There are no burger joints per se, no Long John Silver’s, no Subways (there are a couple of places making good sub-like sandwiches) but there must be at least a half dozen chicken joints.

My favorite is Chicken Bros. At first I interpreted the “Bros” as being pronounced like “gross” but then realized they really meant to keep it English and it was indeed the abbreviation for Brothers. When a Tico sets his mind to marketing, there are no bounds.

I’ll quit here as I’m chicken to ramble any further.   


Roberto de Quepos,
El Kahuna

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