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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 6 - January 2009

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What's in a Brand Name, Health Update, Holidays in the Rain Forest, Adventures in Panama, Grand Tremblor


The Golden Gringo apologizes for the length of this report and admits it’s because he was resting on his laurels (butt) at the beach and slow to make the report. If any recipient prefers not to receive these stories, please send an email indicating such, but remember my cousin Vinnie Ciccarone is based in Sarasota and I know where you live.


What’s in a Brand Name

Out hero recently noticed a few copies of a sub-compact Toyota running around Quepos town that he had never seen in the States. The model name is “Alto” which, of course, in Spanish means “Stop” and is found on all road stop signs. You would think Toyota marketing would have done a little better job at sorting that one out before offering it to 250 million plus Spanish speakers in their home markets.

Reflecting on brand names always reminds me of the time when Esso changed its name to Exxon. The presidentcy of the chemical division of the company I worked for at the time came to be filled by the ex-Vice President for Research and Development for Exxon Europe. He liked to refer to his former employer as Double-Cross Oil, indicating that his career path there was blocked or stymied in some fashion not to his liking. He was not a fan of Exxon and commented that the oil giant had to cut back on its plan to change the name worldwide to that of making the change only in North America. Evidently, Exxon, or the pronunciation thereof means something quite nasty about your mother in Japanese. So to this day, it’s still Esso on all Exxon international operations, as it is in Costa Rica.

The top prize for interesting brand names goes this month to a Costa Rican company. This company produces and distributes bread products throughout Costa Rica. The name of the company is Bimbo. So, one can see truck loads of Bimbos making their daily delivery in Quepos and Manuel Antonio. I’ve also seen a few quite serious tee shirts touting the name. I guess they never intended to market in North America anyway, although they just might be a hit.

Health Update 

GG very much appreciates all the kind words and wisdom in recent weeks concerning his bout with bronchitis and later the attack of congestive heart failure. The CHF had me down rather badly as I couldn’t walk 20 feet without huffing and puffing. In addition serious water retention and swelling occurred first in my ankles and progressively up the legs and into the abdomen.  

On December 23rd, I finally connected, through the efforts of some local ex-pats, with a very capable doctor named Mojarro (Dr. Nicolas Mojarro Medina).  It happens that his clinic is two blocks from where I live. Jennifer at the Blue Monkey Hotel has used him for years and she set up an appointment for me within 30 minutes of my complaining I couldn’t breathe well at a meeting of the Pacifico Group. She also had one of the hotel staff write down my symptoms in Spanish. Dr. Mojarro saw me at 4:30 that afternoon.

I found Dr. Mojarro to be an excellent doctor, thorough, gentle and knowledgeable. He read the “note” I brought with me, asked me the usual questions about other medications (none) and conditions (none), examined me slowly and thoroughly with a stethoscope, then ran an EKG. After this he turned to Ron (a companion from the Pacifico Group who speaks Spanish) and me and said he wanted an X-ray of my Thoracic Region which can only be done at the main Quepos hospital (Immaculada), located near the airport. Ron said, “Maňana?”. The doc said, “No, ahora.”  That’s when I began to like the good Doctor’s methodology. So off we went to the Hospital where we quickly obtained the necessary film for 10,000 Colones (about $19) and returned to Quepos Centro to the doctor’s office, all in less than an hour.

Of course, having the film in my grubby little hands, I couldn’t resist examining it and making my own diagnosis. Many of you know that my record in personal diagnosis is abysmal but, once an engineer, always an engineer. The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t see my heart on the picture. The lungs appeared normal, although I suspect a really normal person would yield a lighter shade on his or her lung pic. Hearing my comments that my heart was missing (refrain from putting the thoughts you’re thinking to paper or conversation please), Ron went back into the hospital to make sure we got the whole picture. The tekkie assured him we had it all.

When Dr. Mojarro flipped the film onto his light-box back at his office, he called us over and described what he saw. The heart was indeed there but it was so large as to overwhelm the area below the lungs and the outline was barely visible, coming through as a large white area. Furthermore, the whole area was saturated and surrounded by congestive liquid. Le Voila, old Bobbo has an enlarged heart and was actively working on congestive heart failure. Finally, the problem was identified. Incidentally, this diagnosis had been suspected earlier by Beth, Gail and Ron E., the Golden Gringo’s stateside nursing team.

Dr. Mojarro quickly shifted to his treatment mode and proposed a two-prong strategy. “First, we must get the swelling down and reduce the congestive fluid. This means two different diuretics, one for the swelling in the ankles and legs and the other for the heart. And then we’ll need blood and heart rhythm regulators such as Coumadin and a product to put back the Potassium one regulator takes out. I expect the regimen will take about two weeks to stabilize you. After that I want you to see a cardiologist (San Jose) for an examination and analysis ‘mas profundo’.” Scripts for six medications were issued and all were filled within an hour but one – Coumadin.

Evidently, there’s something going on in Costa Rica regarding Coumadin and it’s not available, at present, from a drugstore. It can only be obtained at a hospital. To tell you what kind of a doctor Senor Mojarro is, he made an appointment with me for the next day (Christmas Eve) to deliver some Coumadin from the hospital so I would have it as soon as possible. He was there on schedule. What a guy, what a doctor.

Now its two weeks later and I went for the pre-appointed check up with the good doctor. I was happy to report that the breathing problem went away within three days and all the swelling went down within 10 days. I’m normal again (refrain once more). I was pleased, he was pleased. He sat at his computer terminal and wrote a letter to be given to the cardiologist in San Jose detailing what he found and how he treated it. I will attempt to visit the San Jose dude as soon as practicable. In the meantime, I’m to continue taking the same medicines.

In the last three days I’ve developed a cold (“grippe” here). Am I allergic to Costa Rica? More will be revealed.  

Year-End Holidays in the Rain Forest

The Golden Gringo spent his first Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in the rain forest. Yes, the ex-pats here do celebrate Thanksgiving. Several restaurants were offering full T-day fare. We at the Pacific Group had a great luncheon after the 10 AM meeting, complete with roast turkey (not a common bird here) and all he trimmings including cranberry sauce. For GG, the day marked my full qualification into Medicare, although I’m not sure I’ll ever use it. I preferred to think of it as the 16th anniversary of my 49th birthday.

Christmas here is much lower key than in the Estado Unidos, and more oriented toward the religious observance. There were some decorations in most stores but nothing elaborate even by C.R. standards. The Pacific Group had another post-meeting luncheon, almost a repeat of the Thanksgiving affair except GG managed to prepare a Costa Rica version of an old family recipe for stuffing called Farci Trebizonde (we were a  French family – or at least Canuck). It’s a sausage and rice stuffing containing currants, apricots, hazel or pine nuts, celery, onion…etc. Guess everybody else liked it as the pan of stuffing disappeared.

New Year’s was much more celebratory for Ticos. There was a major party with live bands and dancing down at the waterfront. The fireworks display was quite impressive considering the size of the town (13,000 strong) and the probable limited funds available to the “pueblo”. One fellow commented in the middle of the rockets red glare that: “There goes the budget for 2009”.

Adventures in Panama

Around the 4th of January, I had the opportunity to join three other fellows, two Americans and a Canadian, on a three day trip to Panama for the purpose of “refreshing” our 90 day visas. This process is required every ninety days from the date of last entry until one obtains residency (e.g., “Pensianado”) status. My visa wasn’t up until January 21 but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to tag along with someone who was experienced in the process.

So we motored out in an old but trusty Mitsubishi SUV covering the 26 mile gravel road between Quepos and the next town down the coast, Dominical. It took about an hour, a great speed for this “highway”, which is peppered all the way with road signs proclaiming “Esta caraterra es en mal estado”, this road is in bad shape. The road would test the durability of any vehicle out there. The first time I took it I was in a rented Nissan sedan. By the time I got half way down to Dominical, I turned back because I thought surely the vehicle would come apart.

At Dominical, the road turns into a two-lane paved highway with few rough patches and it continues on down past the towns of Uvita and Golfito and finally arrives at the border or “Frontera”. My guess is that Quepos to Frontera is between 75 and 100 miles. Our friend with the Mitsubishi dropped his vehicle off there with a trusted repairman he’d used before and we proceeded on foot through border controls, which consisted of processing out of Costa Rica and then processing into Panama.

Much bureaucracy and form stamping and even hand-written visas on the Panamanian side. In addition, we enriched the pockets of an expediter whose main function seems to be to walk documents up to the front of the line and place them in front of the clerk, I suspect with a few dollars folded into the documents. The U.S. Dollar is the official currency in Panama, so it was easy getting back to greenbacks. It took about an hour, even with the expediter, and approximately $60 for the four of us to accomplish the process.

Once cleared, we simple walked to the line of buses and identified the one for David (“Daveeed”).  It was then that one began to notice the differences between Panama and Costa Rica. The Panamanian buses are all about half the size of Costa Rican buses and every bus we took on this trip (4 in all) was air conditioned. Another difference was that one paid for the trip as one entered the bus in Costa Rica, whereas in Panama, one paid at the end of the trip as you exited the vehicle.

The next notable difference was the highway. I mean it was a shocker, especially after negotiating the road from Quepos to Dominical, to realize it actually was a U.S.-like highway. Four lanes, well paved and with extra turn lanes to exit or reverse direction and extra lanes at bus stops to accommodate loading and unloading. The trip to David took about an hour with many stops. The distance appeared to be only 30-40 miles south of the frontera.

I guess I had built an image in my mind that David was another sleepy town like Quepos. I was greatly surprised. It is a largely modern town of about 150,000, the downtown area having its share of open markets but also sporting many modern buildings. The average auto I saw was bigger, more expensive and a later model than seen in Costa Rica. This may be because, as we were to learn later, there is no import tariff on autos in Panama whereas in C.R. in may run 70-100% of book value. An ex-patriot may import a new car, tariff free, into Panama every three years. So let’s see now, if you bring in a $20,000 auto into Costa Rica, its value may end up as much as $40,000 because of taxes, whereas in Panama it would still have a value of $20,000. It doesn’t take a guru in macro economics to see how this would result in a better, more prosperous market in the tax-free zone.

We stayed three nights in David to accomplish our 72 hour exit requirement and we enjoyed three great dinners while we were there, Italian, Chinese and Panamanian on the last night. Just as an example, the last night’s dinner for me consisted of a smoothie (not the ice cream type prevalent in the U.S. but a concoction of fresh fruit, ice and water whizzed together at high speed in a blender [GG vows to learn this art in the coming months]), followed by a sizeable filet of beef and an ice cream dish at the end. Total bill for me: $15.95. Viva los beunos precios!

I had an experience in Panama I won’t soon forget. On the first night, we took a taxi back to the hotel from the Italian restaurant. I sat in front and paid the taxi driver a whole $2.25 for the trip. I tipped the young driver $1.00, with which he was very happy. We went back to the hotel and retired (older gentlemen of international travel don’t go to bed, they retire) at about 10:30 . At 11:30 the room phone rang and my roommate handed it to me. I was groggy, so after repeating the message two times, I got the gist of it. It was the taxi driver saying I had left my Passport in his cab. It must have slipped out of my pocket when I retrieved my wallet to pay him. He arrived at the hotel 10 minutes later and gave me the passport. I tipped him $20 this time, all the while thinking of the hassle that would have ensued had he not returned it.

In retrospect Panama has certain rather dramatic advantages to a gringo ex-pat which seem to revolve around the American influence caused by the Canal: better infrastructure, ease of using dollars, wider selection of goods and lower prices. The incomplete, unscientific sampling we made over those four days would indicate an overall price composite for Panama might be as much as half that in Costa Rica. In not a few cases, we saw (American) goods that were cheaper than in the U.S. We also saw a supermarket called “Rey” that would hold its own against the vast majority of U.S. supermarkets, even those like the Paradise Publix in Sarasota.

It’s not all in favor of Panama though. The climate there is hotter and the topography is less green – there’s nothing like the lushness of the Costa Rican rainforest. And I was unable to get anyone to tell me where there is a swimmable beach like Manuel Antonio in northern Panama. It takes 5-6 hours by car or bus to reach Panama City in the south from David. There may very well be good beaches somewhere along the coast as Panama is very long and thin and has beaches on both sides like Costa Rica. But no one I spoke to could identify a safe water beach on the Pacific side. Even Boca del Toros, a popular island on the Caribbean side, was described as having no immediate beaches, one needs to go by water taxi to outlying islands to get to beaches. The Golden Gringo must reside close to a useable beach or he would turn into a coconut.     

There was one other apparent difference. I may have been spoiled by the openness and friendliness I find in Costa Rican culture. The Panamanian people I encountered, in general, did not seem to react in as friendly a way as Costa Ricans do. They were not hostile, confrontational or even rude. It was more a matter of indifference, more difficult to get them to smile and laugh a little bit. For example, one of my travel companions noticed, when we were on a side trip to Boquete, a town about 30 miles east of David which is perched on the side of a volcano, that he had to ask three different Indian families if he could take there picture before getting permission to do so from just one. Maybe they were camera shy or maybe there is some unknown Indian hex on electronic images, but Costa Ricans would have jumped at the opportunity, perhaps even worked up a dance.

It will take more experience in the country to support or adjust these conclusions but, for now, GG is not moved to move to Panama.

Grande Tremblor

Several of you have inquired if we had difficulty here in Quepos when the 6.3 Richter earthquake hit Costa Rica on January 9. GG thanks you for your concern.

The quake epicenter was in a mountainous area 22 miles northeast of San Jose. The epicenter was closer to Alejuela, the second largest city in Costa Rica and about 15 miles west of San Jose. The San Jose International Airport is actually located in Alejuela, not San Jose and was closed for a few hours until it was determined it was safe for operations. As for Quepos, some here reported they felt a small tremor but, I didn’t. I have felt three tremors in Quepos since arriving here on October 21. The strongest and longest one lasted about 15 seconds and moved the bed as well as made the built-in closet in my bedroom creak strangely. We later learned it was a 6.3 centered south of us off the Panamanian coast.

The news today updated the body count to 32. These were largely poor people living in the hills and mountains surrounding the central plain and who became victims of landslides. Please pray for the families.

We largely have a continuum of good beach weather here, even in the rainy season. I think living on top of the Pacific Rim is God’s way of keeping us humble.


Roberto de Quepos,
El Gringo de Oro

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