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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 8 - March 2009

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Transient Behavior; Tapas at Sunset; What's-in-a-Word; Socorista

Transient Behavior

People come and go; emotions tug.

One of the greatest things about living here, in our hero’s opinion, is the number and variety of people one encounters every day. They trudge the road of happy destiny, coming from all over the world to reconnoiter, to reaffirm their connection with nature and to reinvigorate their spirits by talking with monkeys, disturbing sloths and acting queasy around iguanas.

In the almost five months that GG has been here, he has met people from many countries including Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium, France, Holland (a bunch), Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Russia, Israel, Japan, China, the United States (many representatives, as expected) and Canada (not as many expected, but almost as many). For the U.S. alone, ambassadors from better than half the States have passed through here during this period, California and Florida being way out of proportion to the rest.

So let me see now, they don’t get enough sun in California and Florida already? Well, maybe they’re just more appreciative of good old sol than the gentry in the grey states. And, of course, there are fewer monkeys to look at in Florida, at least of the vine swinging variety.

I’m not exactly a stranger to the presence of tourists, having lived in Florida ten years. In my adopted home town of Sarasota, we always had a parade of visitors, “snow-birds” and a smattering of escapees from Canada and Europe. But the intensity with which transient behavior occurs here in Quepos/Manuel Antonio was a surprise to me. I attribute this to two things.

Firstly, the allure of Costa Rica is not simply Chamber of Commerce propaganda nor is it a myth. The country boasts over 70% of the known animals in the world. New insect and orchid species are frequently discovered. Natural beauty includes mountains reaching down to the sea; beaches where you can walk miles in either direction without encountering another humanoid; active volcanoes that glow in the dark; more flowering plants, shrubs and trees than the human mind can possible remember without a crib sheet and rainforests/jungles so lush and thick that walking into them more than a hundred meters without a guide can be perilous. The Spanish didn’t call this the Rich Coast for nuttin’, honey.

The second reason is the Friends of Bill meeting at the Mono Azul Hotel (Blue Monkey). The only English speaking meeting within 40 miles, people not only seem relieved but more like ecstatic when they find this meeting, which happens at 10 AM each morning. The meeting is set in a Tiki hut by a pool and is surrounded by the jungle. Monkeys often march by the hut or a sloth will take up residence in a high tree nearby. There also is a group mascot, a Jesus-Christ lizard, so named because of its ability to walk quickly across sizeable bodies of water. This reptile often shows up to sun itself by the pool and is the favorite pursuit of the hotel dog, Taco, who relishes chasing it but never seems to quite catch it.

The meeting also gives one a repetitive opportunity to meet and learn more about visitors, an exposure that a chance encounter with a tourist does not normally provide. It also establishes a focal point for new friends, well met, when they return in six months or one year. And I know they will be back, Mergatroid, because they’re hooked. Costa Rica has a higher recidivism rate than a rehab.

Quite a few of these transients come for one or two or maybe six months, giving an even greater opportunity to get to know people better. As someone once said, there are no strangers here, just friends you haven’t met yet. Ay, and there lies the rub McDuff. I have met quite a few new friends and made them fast. I know they will be back, but when they leave, I miss them

Regressa pronto, amigos! (Come back soon, friends).

Tapas at Sunset

I don’t plug hotels, restaurants or other commercial entities; the Chronicles are not meant to be a subtle advertisement or brochure. Occasionally, however, a place stands out so prominently, for one or more reasons, that it must be mentioned. Such is the Hotel Gaia (guy-ah). Never mind that it is reputed to be the only five-star hotel in the area and that rooms rent from $300 to $1,200 per night. The “rooms” at this hotel are more like apartments, each with their private pools and hot-tubs. I’ve stayed in such places in the U.S. and Europe at former employers’ expense and I’m no longer impressed by the trappings of the pampered rich. Or maybe I’m just jealous, I don’t know. But this is not why this place is worth mentioning.

The Gaia is notable for one reason above all: it has the most fantastic sunset view in the area.

Perched atop one of the highest points in Manuel Antonio, the lounge/restaurant area opens up (literally – it’s open-air on the west side) to a panorama of the Pacific Ocean and the Coast north and south of Quepos. Arrive at 5:00-5:15 PM, get whisked to the top of the mountain in a golf cart  and you will be in great shape to view the sunset, which is virtually the same time every day of the year, about 5:30 to 5:45. I guess the constancy of it all results from being near the Equator.

Once you’re at the top of the mountain you still have to take an elevator to the second floor to reach the lounge. Here’s a tip: punch the third floor button instead of the second and arrive at an observation deck above the restaurant. Here you’ll find a 360 degree panorama of mountains in the east and shoreline below and to the west. Try and absorb the beauty if you can, try and capture the effect with a camera or just simply wallow in the experience. Once you’ve soaked it in and regained your breadth, take the elevator or steps back down to the restaurant level.

In the lounge, order one or more individual Tapas and enjoy items like Thai Chicken Sateh with a mild peanut sauce, peppered Tuna Sushi with an unrecognizable but none-the-less, incredible sauce, Ceviche samplers and several other equally attractive tidbits. The good news is that one can enjoy two Tapas and a soft drink and get out of there for about $10 which, these days, is a rare experience in Manuel Antonio for this kind of quality.

Settle in for a truly breath-taking experience while you’re munching the goodies. The sun sets dead center to the orientation of the lounge. You need not move from the soft chairs provided. Soft seating in restaurants in Costa Rica is very hard to find, hard wooden seats being the norm. Take it from a dude who has two bad discs that finding soft chairs in C.R. can be a spiritual experience. But, if you’re like me, as sunset nears, you’ll abandon the comfort of the Gaia’s soft chairs and belly up to the rail (reliance on old expressions dies hard, doesn’t it?) in a futile attempt to reach out and touch the truly awesome beauty enfolding just as that huge ball of fire sinks into the Pacific.       

I am a devotee of good sunsets, having seen and appreciated them in mountain and vale and several west coasts including Belgium, California and Florida. The sunsets at Sarasota’s Siesta Key Beach are truly beautiful with their backdrop of white sugar sand and turquoise water in the Gulf of Mexico. It was pointed out to me by a more astute observer, however, that Costa Rican sunsets are different for two reasons.

Firstly, the sun appears larger than elsewhere. Perhaps it’s the effect of being closer to the equator. Yeah, I know, the fireball is nominally 93 million miles away, but the damn thing does appear larger. Or maybe it’s the overall beauty of the moment that reigns and causes pleasant distortions in my mental processes. I have to remember that all my synapses aren’t connected anymore.

Secondly, the sunset appears faster. Maybe this is another equatorial distortion but, whatever; the ball seems to virtually drop into the ocean once it declines to a position five to ten degrees above the horizon. More mental distortions? I don’t know friend; I report, you decide.

And then, after the top of the ball sinks into the Pacific, for a half hour or so, color plays on the bottom of clouds out to sea. The best sunset here is not cloud-free. The experience is greatly enhanced by high clouds drifting above the horizon but close enough to it to reflect an incredible palette in shades of red, pink, orange and yellow caused by the over-the-horizon distortion of the sun’s rays. It has to be the reason behind so much painted art in the area employing these vivid colors.  

This is not the worst way to end another boringly consistent and beautifully average day in the rainforest, says GG, tongue-in-cheek.

What’s-in-a-Word Department

I find languages fascinating not only in the richness of their daily use but also in understanding where words come from. I give you these examples:

GRINGO. This is a term normally used for Norteamericanos (U.S. and Canadians) but sometimes it’s used in Costa Rica for other foreigners, such as Europeans. The story goes that this name came from Mexico during the wars with the States in the 1800’s over California and the Southwest territories. The U.S. Army wore green uniforms and the Mexicans, employing their best Spanglish would yell: “Green – go!”.  Again, I just report. Maybe a reader has another origin for this well used term and will enlighten the Chronicle readers and myself for the next edition? I suspect there are as many versions of the origin of this word as there are for the “F” word. I won’t go there, or at least I’ll save it for another issue.

TICO. (Teeco) For those of you that don’t know, this is an acceptable, even endearing, slang word for someone who is native to Costa Rica. My Spanish teacher (a German; yeah, I know, but he’s lived here 28 years and should have picked up something) tells me the term comes from its use locally to express a superlative diminutive (this is my choice of terms here, probably wrong and certainly too complicated but I don’t know another way of saying it). Par ejemplo, a little of something is “poco”, even fewer of the same is “poquito” and even fewer, in C.R., is “pocotico”. I’m told that use of the tico suffix is peculiar to Costa Rica, not being in use anywhere else in Central or South America and that it gave rise to the locals being called “Ticos”.

TUANIS. (too-ah-niece) Standard responses in C.R. to “Beunos Dias – Como esta usted?” are “Bien”, “Muy Bien”, “Toda Bien”, “Pura Vida!” and “Solo Bueno!”. A not-so-standard response, but well recognized by Ticos is “Tuanis”, which is the equivalent of saying “Koool” in English, at least in American English. Again relying on my Spanish teacher, he says the origin of this word is from the Caribbean side of the country, where the culture is more island-like (“Hey, Mon!”). A kool dude (think Rastafarian) would walk into the market and point to some fruit and say: “Hey, Mon, daht melon is too-a-nice, I take it!”. “Too-a-nice” became Tuanis. Anyway, you gotta admit, it makes a good story.

CORRECTION. In the last issue I reported the pronunciation of that peculiar little fruit with the tart juice known as a Limone, as “Lih-mo-knee”. A Tico pointed out to me recently that the “e” at the end is silent. It should be pronounced “Lee-moan”. Muchas gracias a mi amigo Tico, David. This is the stuff good use of language is enriched by, as are many refreshing drinks and foods here by Limones. Hint: Limones are not available at Publix Supermarkets; you have to come here to get one.


Socorista (so-ko-reese-tah) is Spanish for lifeguard. To my surprise, one appeared recently on the main beach in Manuel Antonio, complete with red life preserver and whistle. His name is Fabio.   Now, a couple of my friends who live here or visit frequently, claim this gentleman has been here in previous years but I have no recall of him. Of course, I do have the aforementioned synapse problem.

Having identified our socorista as not just another bronze bod trying to impress las chicas, I quickly introduced myself.  Nice fellow. He works for the Canton (county) of Aguirre of which Quepos and Manuel Antonio (the non-park area) are a part. He is faced with the challenge of guarding the entire main beach known as Playa Espadilla, an expanse more than a mile long and where at least a half mile is densely populated by beach goers. 

Fabio taught me how to identify rip currents (corrientes peligrosos). When waves crash, the water must recede somewhere (see what advanced education does for you). Normally the spent wave just slows down the next incoming wave. Sometimes, however, particularly when the waves are big, parts of a wave separated by five or more meters come together from opposite directions creating a larger backwash. This process is enhanced by the beach surface which is not completely flat but slightly wavy, aiding the waves in coming together from opposite directions.

The backwash slips under the incoming waves and, if the process is repeated by subsequent waves, the backwash gets stronger and slips under the incoming waves causing an outbound, sub-surface current. The rip current is easily identified because, as it slips along the bottom, it picks up brown sand, which gives a different color to the current than the water surrounding it. Also, the corriente peligroso is turbulent at its head or tip. Sometimes, the current will go out several hundred meters or more before it dissipates. These currents are strong enough to carry even an experienced swimmer quickly out to sea and the remedy is the same as anywhere: swim sideways until you get out of the current, then back to shore.  

Our socorista buddy Fabio spends most of his time blowing his whistle (he loves it) and chasing unsuspecting tourists out of the rip currents. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as there may be four different languages floating out there at any one time and the rippee often looks at the whistle blower with curiosity but little understanding of what all the Spanish is about. Every now and then our beach buddy must jump into the middle of the turbulent current with his life preserver to swim out and rescue a wayward rippee.

So there you have it; an anatomy of a rip current.

And some people say I don’t have enough to do down here.



Pura Vida! y Solo Bueno!
Roberto de Quepos, El Gringo de Oro

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