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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 14 - August 2009

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Los Conductors, Hanging Ten in Jaco, Dubious Quotes Dept, Sargento No Mas

Rafting in CR

 Rafting in the Rica – What’s the flotsam to the left all about? – Looks like a dude with his head in the water, ostrich style!


Los Conductors

When our hero moved to Costa Rica in October of last year, he promised himself he would not consider buying a car for at least three months. This was no small commitment on the part of GG, who had owned a car, without any break, for the previous 50 years. If I gave you the additional information that I grew up in Massachusetts where the licensing age was 16, I bet even those of you from Rio Linda could figure out how old I am.

Now, ten months later, GG still does not have the urge to get a car. How ‘bout that; one addiction in abeyance! I’ve had time to try and understand why I really need a car and I can’t come up with any good reasons. There are a couple of good reasons not to buy one, though.

One reason is that it’s expensive to buy, insure and maintain a car in Costa Rica. CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement that was to eliminate tariffs between C.A. Countries and the U.S., was signed by the U.S. and Central American countries several years ago. It was approved by the Costa Rican Assembly not long thereafter but, from what I understand, has never been implemented on the Costa Rican side of the ledger. Car prices, new and used are artificially (no, that’s not the best term; let’s say unreasonably) inflated by import tariffs that can add 50-70% of the foreign book value to the price of the vehicle. And, since no car is produced in Costa Rica, all cars here are much more expensive as a result of the tax. Implementation of the trade agreement could substantially reduce the price of cars in Costa Rica. (And, I suppose, cause a temporary drop in government revenues)

In addition to the high cost of personal transportation, living here in Quepos is a simply a walking proposition. One can walk from the southeast corner of the town (near where I live, in Barrio Los Angeles) to the northwest corner (near the new marina) in about 10 minutes. If you live up on the hill in Manuel Antonio it’s more convenient to have a car but still not necessary because the bus service is so good. Of course, if you own a business or actually have a job here like some poor souls I know, it probably makes sense to own a car.

Sailfish Happy
Even the Sailfish Looks Happy!
  Another reason for not needing a car is the bus system, which is cheap and convenient, if not always comfortable. The run from Quepos Centro to the National Park is a distance of about 5-6 kilometers and costs 200 Colones or $0.35. The fare to Jaco, about 70 kilometers north of Quepos, is 1,700 Colones and to San José is 2,900 and change, or about $5.20 for a distance of approximately 100 miles. The average of these cost/distance relationships is about 20 Colones per kilometer or about 5 or 6 U.S. cents per mile. If gas costs $2.50 a gallon and the bus was able to get 20 miles per gallon (what color was Judy’s dress – oh stop it GG!), gas alone would cost 12-13 U.S. cents per mile. And 20 miles per gallon is a high figure for a bus. It’s obvious that a very large subsidy coming from somewhere (gas taxes, federal government general coffers) keeps this system afloat.

GG apologizes to the Chronicles reader again for the above excursion into arithmetic problem solving; I let my engineering roots get the better of me once more. It’s the once a priest, always an engineer thing.

GG takes a bus 1-3 times on an average day, depending on whether the itinerary includes the beach or not. With this kind of frequency, one ends up getting on familiar, even personal terms with the bus drivers. Naming and characterizing them soon follows. There is Pelón, a name given him by locals and which roughly translated means “Baldy” (which he is).  His real name is Bolivar. Pelón always greets me with a smile, a handshake and one of the typical Tico pleasantries such as “Como estas, amigo?” or “Todo Bien?” Beyond this courtesy, he drives more sensibly than the others and less rapido, which I appreciate. If you happen to be standing in the aisle because the bus is full it’s possible, with some drivers that you can be tossed 10 meters out the window when the bus screams around a curve. My judgment is that Pelón is the best overall driver in the local system.

Tourist Out of Control
Out of Control Tourist
  Then there are the others, named by me: Manny Misstop, who always manages to pull up to a bus stop in such a way that boarding passengers have to walk 3-5 meters to get to the front door. Sometimes he overshoots them, sometimes comes up short, but never on the money. There’s Grubby, who is a fairly new driver and who appeared the first time I saw him in worn, dirty jeans, a shirt with two tears in it and several days growth of beard. I think maybe the Office got the message to him recently as he’s cleaned up his act a bit. Then there’s Speedy, who is the fellow I was thinking of when I mentioned above about being tossed out of the bus. He’s the only one so far that has actually managed to make the bus tires squeal by rounding one of the many curves on Manuel Antonio road too fast. My guess is that he was a starter at La Mans before taking this job.

Of course there are the always-present taxis, both registered and pirate, that are available as an alternative to the buses. But the taxis are considerably more expensive and that
story is for another Chronicle.

 Hanging 10 in Jaco

The ISA-Sanctioned World Surfing Games were held at Playa Hermosa a few miles south of Jacó from August 1 to August 8. As the name of the event implies, teams from all over the world competed to determine the champions on short boards, long boards, women, men and team totals. Not to be left out of this event, GG, a Tico buddy and another visiting buddy from the U.S. formed our own team and took the bus to Jacó.

The distance from Quepos to Playa Hermosa is only about 35 miles but it took us an hour and forty five minutes because we took the ”collectivo” bus. Collectivos stop at what seems to be every mailbox and actually turn off the main road to go through small towns and pick up yet more passengers. By the time we got to the Playa, the bus was stuffed with humanity. Most of them got off with us. We heard later that coming from the other direction it was even worse, taking 1½ hours to traverse the 10 kilometers or so from Jacó to Playa Hermosa.

The Quepos team’s (us) intention was not necessarily to compete with the best, as the world is not ready for the likes of GG being discombobulated by a 15 foot wave. We did not necessarily go to watch the surfers, either. But we did have a definite interest in ogling at the bikinis, of which there was an over abundance on this final day of competition. We formed a petrulla de bikinis, a bikini patrol, and while the announcer was grading the surfers ‘running the tube” and on their reverses and style, we were grading the crowd. There was so much bare flesh being paraded about the playa that for the first time I began to understand what it must have been like living in Babylon in biblical times. One of my buddies said he expected to have sore eyes by the end of the day.

Costa Rica Surfer Coutney the Champion Jeremy the Champ  
The crowd was overwhelming. I’ve never seen so many people gathered in one spot in Costa Rica. The trio made a considered joint estimate that there were between 50,000 and 100,000 surfer enthusiasts on the beach and in the grand alleys leading to it.
Costa Rica Surfer Ariel Gutierrez Roque
World Women's Champ Courtney Conlogue
Antoine Delpero (France) –  Formidablé, Tony!

The alleys leading to the beach housed mucho, mucho vendadores plying their wares as well as the inevitable banks of porta-potties (las portopotias in español. There were places serving great looking plates of food, lots of trinket tables with stuff that appeals to surfer dudes and dudettes and even one fellow playing a didgeridoo.

Australia, an oft-times winner of these things, was well represented, outfitted in gold and green costumes with the typical Aussie cowboy hat. Unfortunately they were unable to bring home the gold in anything but their shorts for this round. Cheer up love, she’ll be right, mate! These are the kind of competitors that can come back next year and sweep the field.

US Team Surfing
Team U.S. Takes the Gold for Overall Points

Antione Delpero of France took the men’s champion spot. This fella was pure acrobatics on water. It kind of made me wonder where a Frenchman at first gets interested, and then so good at surfing. The Atlantic coast of France perhaps? I’m sure it wasn’t the Mediterranean or the Seine river running through Paris. He must have been a good traveler to find the good waves at an early age.

The highlight of the day was a young lady, from Santa Ana, CA named Courtney Conlogue. At the ripe old age of 16, Courtney became the Women’s World Surfing Champion. Way to go, babe! And Courtney’s performance went a long way towards helping the U.S. score the most points as a team. 

So the Frogs and Gringos came out smelling like a piece of fresh seaweed, while the Aussie Blokes, to their chagrin, didn’t knock off any of the top spots. As we exited the beach with the other 50,000 people after the awards ceremony my mind went right to the extreme (in that vacuous space between my ears the wheel turns fast, but the hamster is dead). My thinking went like this: We’ll never get a bus with this crowd; we’ll be camping out overnight; we’ll be attacked by drunk, angry Aussies etc., etc. You know, seriously, sometimes it’s a chore to carry this cranium around.

It was just at that point that my amigo spotted a van moving slowly south that belongs to one of the hotels on Manuel Antonio. He quickly ran to it and was happy to find a driver he knew well (everybody knows everybody in Quepos/Manuel Antonio). The three of us quickly hopped into the van and were transported home in air conditioned comfort while the other 49,997 vied for oxygen. We heard later that cars traveling the 9 kilometers or so from Playa Hermosa to Jacó after the event were taking 4-5 hours. Carumba! Did we luck out or what? (They don’t call me “Golden” for nothing, baby)

So there you have it, complete coverage of the Billabong World Surfing Championships. You may not get it from Reuters, but you will get it from the Chronicles! Stay tuned.

 Dubious Quotes Department

Did you ever feel like you missed out; that you should have been able to predict the next Microsoft? You’re not alone my friend; technology can be a mystery even to the supposedly astute. How wrong can you be?  Evidently, quite a bit. Here are three famous but dubious quotes from former bastions of industry:

Intel Plant, Heredia, Costa Rica

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." (Western Union memorandum, 1876)

"There is no reason why anyone would want to have a computer in their home." (Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977)

Amazing, the same short-sightedness, 100 years apart. But then, who would have believed the astonishing success Microsoft has had (other than Bill Gate’s original secretary), which began about the time Kenny O. was  by-passing the personal computer. And here’s one more, perhaps one of the greatest of all time:

"I think there's a world market for maybe five computers." (Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943). When you hear IBM, do you think computers? I don’t, I think Selectric Typewriters. Apparently so did Tommy.

Sargento No More

I have mentioned several times before that Chronicles policy is not to mention specific hotels, restaurants or tourist attractions. We are not commercial (GG opts to use the Royal “we” here) and we do not receive a spif from anyone (of course, no one’s made an offer yet either). There are two exceptions to this rule: (1) a truly unique experience such as the report about Tapas at Sunset at the Hotel Gaia (Issue 8) and (2) the demise of a business that holds some interest among locals, particularly me. The latter is such a case with Sargento’s a local tavern that closed its doors around the first of the month.

The full name of the place was Sargento Garcia’s but it was more often referred to as Sargento’s or the Sargento.  It was a small tavern with a comfortable seating capacity of about 20, located in the heart of Quepos on the same block with another famous Quepoan hangout, Dos Locos bar & restaurant. I’m told Sargento’s opened in 2006 or a little over three years ago. Three years is not a long run for any business but the place quickly became a favorite hangout for Gringos and Europeans of many stripes, some of dubious background. One might say it was frequented by characters of colorful experience.

Our hero wandered into the place during the first month of his residency here at the suggestion of a gringo friend. I quickly made acquaintances of a number of Estadounidenses, Canadienses and other local and world travelers, including a smattering of Europeans. Oh sure, I know that this is not the way to learn Spanish but it is the way to get a lot of good tips quickly. Most of these people have years in Costa Rica and they were invaluable to me in my early months (notice how GG, having completed his tenth month here, now considers himself a veteran). One person even offered to let me get a telephone line under her corporation. This allowed me to avoid the considerable expense of getting my own corporation (yeah, as a furrerner you need a corp or a cédula to get a telephone here – don’t ask).

Sargento’s was sort of a Quepoan equivalent of a sports bar. There were 5 TV screens of, one would have to say, modest size in today’s age of gigantic flat screens. One of them was equipped with a satellite system that produced sports games from all over the world – U.S football to Italian soccer. There was a bank of about 6 or 7 rocking chairs (the local wood and leather Sarchi variety - the same brand and model I have in my apartment). The rockers were set up in a single line to watch the boob tubes. It was rather like the old cracker barrel stores prevalent in the U.S. in the old days, without the fireplace. 

The restaurant part (and that’s all it was, a corner in the tavern) was called Papa’s and Mama’s after the owners, a jovial gent of about my age hailing from Philadelphia and his wife, a pert little Tica considerably younger than Papa (Papa you devil, you). The Papa and Mama monikers were affectionately used for these good people by patrons. Papa had been a food & beverage manager for some rather big chain hotels and resorts. And he knew how to make a real Philly cheese steak. Many U.S. restaurants claim this knowledge but very, very few know the truth. You would have had to have been at customer at Pat’s or Geno’s or a couple of other cheese steak places in the City of Brotherly Love (yeah, right) to really know this particular foodstuff creation. Papa did. I acquired the taste for cheese steaks as a student at Villanova and later as a resident of Allentown, only 50 miles above Philly.   

Besides the homeland camaraderie and the cheese steaks, I’ll miss the other lunch fare; burgers, nachos, a real chef salad and the best onion rings in town. The lunch crowd was considerably different than the evening group. There were more Gringos at lunch, less alcohol drinking, more eating. At night the serious drinkers came out, so I rarely went there after dark. But there were things that went on in Sargento’s at night that were fun also. Metropolitan Quepos will be worse off without the Wednesday night free salsa lessons and the Thursday night trivia competition. I rarely went to these sessions but when I did I found a lot of people having a lot of fun.

So I was greatly surprised when I walked into Sargento’s one noontime recently only to see Papa and Mama, and their main bartenders, Gallo (yeah, Rooster) and Tina, a young lady who happens to be the owners niece, all sitting in the rockers in a circle in the middle of the floor. The place was physically in shambles and when I asked what was going on, Papa quipped there had been a bomb plot but they had found the device and disarmed it. (Papa should have been a Philadelphia lawyer ‘cause he sure can shoot the bull like one). Then he fessed up that he really didn’t want to go through another slow season. I suspect also that the recent health problems with a bad knee contributed to the decision.

So, there we have it, another nostalgic tragedy interrupts GG’s world. My favorite bridges are disappearing, the one-laners that rattled and rolled when you slowly bounced across them; the national policia are running all my vendor friends off the beach leaving the playa a mere pastel of it’s original color; and now Sargento’s closes. I’m here 10 months and pining for the “old ways” already.

Sentimental old fool with unrealistic expectations for things to stay the way they are, forever?

Yeah, probably.

Don Roberto de Quepos,
El Gringo Dorado

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