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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 9 - April 2009

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Infrastructure Improvements, What's-in-a-Word, San Andres, Fishing Forecast

Infrastructure Improvements

The current President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sanchez, is known for championing a greatly improved infrastructure for Costa Rica.

One-lane bridges here are disappearing faster than free empanadas at a futbol game. Some of these bridges have worn their way into my heart. I personally will miss the trusty, rusty bridge at Parrita, a town about 20 km north of Quepos on the road to Jaco and San Jose. This structure will soon give way to a modern, two-lane reinforced concrete span being built parallel to the old bridge.

It’s a nostalgia thing. You need to follow a large Mack truck loaded with stone and gravel across the old truss bridge, like GG has done many times, to understand the feeling of loss that’s building inside me. The swaying left and right and to and fro that was reminiscent of a good Salsa; gone. The ability to peer through the bent metal grating that served as a bridge floor to check for the presence of crocodiles in the river below; no more. The creaking of metal as the bridge mounting joints rubbed against pylons (so superior to the slap, slap, slap of tires on the seams of a modern bridge’s roadway); to be heard nevermore. The experience was better than a ride at Disneyworld and more thrilling.

Recently, I heard an interesting, but, as yet, unverified story about the new bridge. The center section of this bridge was not completed until much later than the approach sections on either side. The story goes that the center section was originally incorrectly designed and when it arrived to be installed, it wouldn’t fit. This necessitated a redesign and rebuilding of the concrete beams, which evidently was done mucho rapido for more than one reason. Apparently there is a new power plant also nearing completion just south of Parrita (we need it badly in this valley as power outages are too common) and the only way they can get the new generators to the new plant is over the new bridge. A new illustration of Senor Murphy ’s Law, eh.  

Quepos is not to be left out of the infrastructure explosion. We have a new 300-slip Marina going in that includes a shopping area (nay, let’s call it a mall) that will dramatically change the Quepos waterfront. (By the way, the drawing in the window of the construction office downtown shows considerably fewer than 300 slips, but who’s counting) Some of these slips look big enough to berth large yachts like Segall’s (see Issue 7). Of course, some see this as progress and others as development gone wild but, I suspect, that same argument also raged when Adam opened the first fruit stand over Eve’s objections.

But the biggest and most valuable infrastructure improvement occurred last month at Quepos’ central (OK, Quepos’ only) bus station. Two of the docking islands previously described (Issue 7 also) were modified to provide ramps with railings from the station level to the street level. No longer do 80 year old women have to leap down half a meter or more to reach street level or to get to the front end of a bus that was backed into the docking station. God knows why these drivers back into these stations at all, except I suspect, just to show they’re in charge.

That little modification, two walking ramps, was to Quepos, tantamount to the Big Dig in Boston.  

What’s-in-a-Word Department

Have you ever asked people how they chose their email handle? Sometimes the response is interesting. My primary email handle is “fiducry” which harks back to my days in banking. When selling investment products, we were required to fill in one field on the computer screen as confirming we were a fiduciary to the transaction. In the inimitable wisdom of the Information Services department however, and, I guess, to achieve a certain economy of letter usage, the field would not accommodate the whole word so it got shortened to “fiducry”. When choosing an email name in the early days of the internet (like 1995) I picked “fiducry”. Clever, these bankers, eh?

(The astute reader will note the recent and almost instinctive use of the article “eh” at the end of sentences in the Chronicles. This is the direct result of GG hanging out with too many Canadians in the last few months)

The most interesting email handle I came across recently is from one of the Chronicles readers, a friend, even though he’s not Canadian. His handle is “dankyiddies”. Here’s how he explains it in his own words (first, let me assure the reader that the practices described below are long in the past [I hope] and not current practices):

“…yiddies comes from my friend Alex (who) stole the Chancellor of Amherst College’s cat named kitties. We relocated it next to the Yiddish book center in east Amherst where it got its leg run over. So instead of bringing it to the vets, my friend David blew hits of Mary Jane in its ear and used hockey tape to strap a popsicle stick to its leg. He finally returned yiddies to its rightful owner. And dank is slang for good weed, hence dankyiddies” 

And I thought I was clever.


A reader pointed out two misuses of the good Spanish language by GG in my last Chronicle (brace yourself, Spanish speakers, it won’t be the last): (1) “Todas las dias” (every day) should really be “Todos los dias”. The word dia, even though it ends in “a” is from the Greek and my astute friend pointed out (as did my Spanish teacher weeks ago, but I forgot) that such words always take the masculine form, and (2) the last of the three names usually given to a Costa Rican is normally truncated to the initial, for example Oscar Arias Sanchez becomes Oscar Arias S.  The second name in the trio is the important and legal one and is the father’s family name. In practice, it appears that the last name is usually dropped altogether, except for formal documents, business cards, etc.
Muchas gracias, amiga, para has encuentrando estas errors. (I’m not at all sure I got that right, but I’ll keep trying).

San Andres Island

In Issue 6, I reported on a trip to Panama that was taken for the purpose of renewing my visa. Until permanent residency is obtained, one is required to exit the country every 90 days, for a minimum of 72 hours. Returning to Costa Rica after that, and getting the passport stamped on the way in, is the method by which the visa is renewed. 

Early April saw GG needing to execute this process a second time. Wow, says he to himself, it’s been almost six months since I first landed on the Rich Coast with intentions of permanency. Time and tide (especially at Playa Espadilla) stop for no man. 

The Caribbean Water at San Andres Island, Colombia

I had heard about an island off Nicaragua that not only could be used for this purpose but for which 4-day packages could be purchased. So I marched down to Lynch Travel, one of the better known travel bureaus in Quepos, for details. I’m not sure who Mr. or Ms. Lynch is or was (the staff was all Tico), but finding a stranded Irishman in Quepos would be no surprise considering the local enthusiasm for lubricating past troubles. (Just a comment, my Hibernian friends, not a critique)

Lynch offered a 4-day, 3-night package that included airfare from San Jose, airport/hotel transfers, three nights in a three star hotel and three meals a day for $400 per person, assuming double occupancy in the room. For single occupancy it was $600. So I tried for a week and a half to find a traveling companion but to no avail. In retrospect, I should have started the arrangements earlier; at least that’s my rationalization. Really people, I’m not that bad a travel partner. So, two days before departure, I resigned myself to going alone and went to Lynch to sign up, only to find out there were no rooms available at the hotel. I had overlooked the fact that the time period in which I wanted to go led up to Palm Sunday and Semana Santa (Holy Week), a very popular time for Latin Americans of all stripes to take vacations. Lynch put me on the waiting list and emailed the hotel directly to notify us of a cancellation and a room becoming available. Fortunately one occurred the next morning, one day before departure, and I booked it immediately.

So on Thursday, April 2, I took the 6 AM San Jose Directo bus out of Quepos arriving at Juan Santamaria Airport by 9:30 in plenty of time to make the 11:00 TACA flight to San Andres. I had been told to report to the Decameron desk after paying my departure tax ($26), which I did dutifully. I was presented with tickets for both flights and a voucher for the hotel. It turns out that Decameron is a large, Cartagena based hotel chain that specializes in the kind of package I bought. I found out later that they have six hotels on San Andres alone and this explained why they were able to offer meals at no extra charge at hotels other than the one I stayed in. I didn’t take advantage of this feature though, as I was more than amply satiated eating at my hotel.

I reported to Gate 10 as instructed after going through security and taking off everything but my shorts. I waited until boarding and listened (Spanish only – unusual) for my seating section but heard “Panama” a couple of times. This prompted me to ask the gate attendant if I had the right flight. “Oh, no Senor, your gate is downstairs, this flight is for Panama”. Sure enough, after descending the nearest staircase, I found another Gate 10, the one where buses leave to ferry you out to planes parked in the middle of the field. So, be advised SJO Airport users, if you are assigned Gate 10 you may need to ask if it is Gate 10 Upstairs or Gate 10 Downstairs. Would it be too much to ask that Gate 10 Downstairs be re-labeled Gate 11?

The TACA Airbus 319 took off right on schedule, flew North/Northeast and descended less than an hour later onto the runway at San Andres. I was impressed by the fact that TACA flight attendants even managed to serve a snack (an interesting mix of nuts, raisins, micro breadstix and dried plantains) and beverages on a 45 minute flight. It was like the old days in the U.S. with no extra charge of course; one didn’t need to buy either a soft drink, glass of wine or a beer. Nostalgia, baby.

San Andres is part of Columbia, a fact which pisses off Nicaragua as the Nicaraguans think it should be their island since it’s much closer to Nicaragua than to Columbia. The parent country keeps a military outpost on the island which, I suspect, discourages the locals or Nicos from getting too frisky.

Now I know what it’s like to be in a third-world country. Costa Rica does not qualify as a third-world country; the systems here are modern, the water is drinkable, the ATM’s dispense dollars as well as Colones at your choice, you can pay by debit or credit card for just about everything (you’ll know why this is significant by reading on). Oh yeah, we bitch about dealing with the telecommunications monopoly (ICE – eesay), and the water and power outages are still too frequent, but most things are improving steadily, like the road infrastructure mentioned above.     

People were processed at the San Andres airport, very slowly, by Columbian government agents. The first encounter was with passport control or, that is, the first passport control. Their process involved reviewing, taking a photo of and stamping passports There were five agents behind their computers trying to process somewhere between 250 and 300 arrivals. A second flight had come in just before us so we were in back of the line. It took almost an hour to negotiate this process. (I made a mental note as we returned to C.R. that there had been just about the same number of people in the SJO passport control line, but it took only 15 minutes for us to go through their 12 stations) After descending to the baggage claim area, we encountered a second desk check point with four additional staff. At first I thought this was a customs line but they manhandled our passports and didn’t take the customs declaration. After about fifteen minutes we were allowed into the baggage claim area where, finally, they did take the customs form.

After a quick stop at the Decameron desk, we were whisked off in a taxi van to our respective hotels. A main beach road rings the 27 km by 18 km island (this breadth is only at its widest point – the island narrows as you go south from the airport which is situated at the northern tip). My hotel was about 2/3 of the way down the coast on the east side. The first impression I got of this island was that it is more Caribbean than Spanish. Modern hotels dotted the beach road on the water side and sometimes on the far side. Beyond that, everything had that genteel poverty, Caribbean look. It became obvious in a short time that the preferred mode of transportation among the locals is the motorbike. The taxis were adept at weaving in and out of them.

The Hotel San Luis is located directly across the road from a beach bearing the same name. It is a sprawling complex of about 100 rooms, maybe more, organized into chalet-like buildings of four to eight units each. The desk clerk accepted my voucher and affixed a blue plastic band to my wrist much like the kind one gets in a hospital. This allowed access to restaurants and the evening shows in the outdoor theatre without any need to identify oneself. Having only a backpack, I declined a porter and proceeded directly to the room, which I found to be modern, clean and equipped with a TV. I noted on the initial inspection of the bathroom that there were hot and cold water controls in the shower; no suicide shower here. I unpacked my backpack and proceeded to the main restaurant for lunch as suggested by the desk clerk.

The hotel has three restaurants, a large one called the International, a smaller Japanese restaurant and a third smaller restaurant whose name escapes me (Alzheimer’s again). The two smaller ones require reservations and are open only for dinner. I walked into the International room and encountered five large circular tables covered with an endless variety of foods, all carefully and personally selected just for me so as to minimize my carbohydrate and sugar intake (if you fall for this line, I have a bridge 13 miles north of here which is coming available that I’d like to talk to you about). If you don’t tell my cardiologist, I won’t.

Actually, I was much better behaved in this situation than I have been in the past when faced with a plethora of foodstuffs and no physical restraints. Better, not perfect. My hunger assuaged, I couldn’t help but think that this trip promised to be a quiet, relaxing experience.

Then the third-world stuff set in.

I returned to the room after lunch and decided to take a shower. After all, it had been 9 hours since I had showered at home. I just wanted to shake off the travel dust. Stepping into the stall, I turned on the hot and cold controls simultaneously and was impacted, stunned, whacked in the chest with a stream of water about ¾ of an inch in diameter so powerful it literally pushed me back against the wall. My long-term damaged brain quickly leapt to the conclusion that the local water company had secreted a 4,000 horsepower turbine water pump onto the island. Perhaps they need this kind of pressure to peel paint off their fishing boats before repainting them.

No amount of fiddling with the shower head would produce a broader or gentler stream. I finished the shower by directing the blast onto the back wall, redirecting it to myself only briefly between soapings. Of course the spray from the blast on the back wall managed to wet down half the bathroom and may have dug out some of the grouting between the tiles. When I exited the shower I noticed in the mirror that I had a pink bruise on my chest. I had completed my first power shower. Not to be dissuaded by this personal pressure cleaning experience, I decided to start the afternoon over again, got dressed and, while dressing, noticed a blue plaque over the bathroom sink which advised in three languages that the water was non-potable.

Then I noticed a large clear plastic bag of water sitting on top of the smallest refrigerator I’ve ever seen. OK, so we drink potable water out of portable containers. I grabbed the bag, unscrewed the cap and tried to pour some water into the tiny glasses provided (in the old days, we used this kind of glass for whiskey triples). No way, Jose. There was an aluminum safety seal on the mouth of the spout and it did not have a tab for easy removal. I could not think of any tool in my personal effects that I could use to puncture the seal (I had needed to borrow a pen from a fellow traveler to do my forms on the airplane), so I elected to use the most common option available for troublesome plastic packaging these days; I went down on the spout with my mouth.

Having resigned myself to performing a certain type of water-bag fellatio on this damn spout, I gnawed and chewed at it with my teeth but to no avail. I could not get a toothy grip on the .0007 inch edge of aluminum foil that overlapped the spout. Then I remembered that one of the keys to my apartment was three or four inches long and quite narrow. I produced the key and, without hesitation, grasped the water bag under my left arm and plunged the key through the aluminum foil. Of course, there are times when one should hesitate, but at that moment I was a man on a mission. When I punctured the seal, the pressure caused by me holding the bag under my arm resulted in a stream of water shooting out about eight feet and landing on the bed. This night would be a damp repose.

After regaining proper control of the water bag and having a couple of mini drinks of fresh, warm agua in the glass provided, I thought it would be a good idea to put the screw cap back onto the spout and put the bag into the refrigerator to provide refreshing chilled water when I wanted it. Bad idea. This refrigerator was so small it would not permit the water bag to be stored in any position inside the unit and still be able to close the door. Then I noticed a plastic pitcher with a top had also been provided. There’s more than one way to skin an Iguana, thought our hero. I filled the pitcher and placed it in the fridge only to find that this unit’s depth wouldn’t even accommodate the width of a standard juice-sized plastic pitcher. I gave in and filled a narrow, half liter water bottle I had purchased earlier in the day. It did fit in the fridge. The process of having chilled water during the weekend would involve pouring the water first into the pitcher and then into this narrow bottle.

I’m a bit perplexed as to what purpose the refrigeration unit was to be put. The unit seems to be a box primarily designed to house a compressor with the cooling space being an inconvenient afterthought. I estimated the effective “storage” area at about 4” deep, 15” wide and 12” high (note here that GG, when frustrated, reverts to English units, abandoning his commitment to go metric). Why? (Like a priest, once an engineer, always an engineer)

After “settling in” and taking a nap, I decided to have an early dinner of soup, salads, fish, meats, pasta and numerous deserts in the low-carbohydrate International restaurant then watch a little television. This was another struggle, as the remote required pushing four buttons in a certain sequence to activate the cable – I eventually gave up and had to have a desk clerk show me the secret. I retired early, going prone between the damp sheets. I passed on the show at the outside theatre, which was a mistake as the shows the following two nights were outstanding. There was a native Columbian dance troupe with Aztec-like costumes the second night and a local Calypso/Reggae band the third night, both done with much talent, energy and fun.

I awoke the next morning refreshed and, after sorting through five tables of breakfast goodies, I decided to take a taxi into town to buy some Columbian Pesos. There hadn’t been an opportunity to do so at the airport. Hotel San Luis did not offer currency exchange, availability of an ATM or even a credit advance, which, it turned out, was a good thing as they posted an exchange rate of 1,800 Pesos to the dollar at their reception, whereas I would later see a bank rate of 2,205.

(Be patient, Chronicle reader, I don’t intend to take you through every minute of the weekend, just the salient occurrences.)

Whenever I’ve traveled internationally, I’ve tried to deal in the local currency. I guess this is a fallback to reading “The Ugly American” in the seventies. When I lived in Brussels, I kept a shoe box full of envelopes containing Deutschmarks, French Francs, Pounds, Guilders, Lira and Pesetas. These were the remnants of business rips to these countries and they saved me much time in avoiding currency exchanges on the way out. Well, I guess the Euro has changed all that, but where’s the fun in a common currency? It’s another nostalgia thing, like the bridge at Parrita.

The taxi driver greeted me enthusiastically and we were off to the town center. He was a bit more tenuous when I announced I would have to get money out of the Cajero Automatico in order to pay him. He took me to the BanColumbia where I attempted four times to make my debit card work but to no avail. I then started to think that I may have really screwed things up by failing four times at the machine - would my home bank put a block on my account? A sinking feeling set in. The taxi driver then took me to the Banco de Bogota. They simply looked at my card, smiled and declined to do business. We went back to the BanColumbia and tried to process the card as a credit advance. This required a passport, not a copy of my passport which is all I brought with me. Why would I need the original passport if all I wanted to do was use the ATM, GG had strategized?

So, we went back to the Hotel, I got my passport and we went to town again. The driver was beginning to give me that “Oh-oh, another Gringo Loco” look. After standing for 45 minutes in two wrong lines of at least 50 people each, I was directed by other customers who must have seen me fingering my card, towards en express line for credit cards. Muchas gracias amigos, I was second in line there. More smiles of disbelief from the locales. After only three signatures on various forms (I could have been signing up for three years in the Columbian Army for all I know) and four rubber stamps, I received five crisp US$20 bills. I had decided on dollars as they would work in both San Andres and Costa Rica; so much for dealing in the local currency.    

I was pleased that I could at least use the card as a credit card if not a debit card. On returning to San Jose later, I tried the card in a Cajero Automatico at SJO and it produced cash (Colones) immediately. Then I remembered that the icons on the ATM in San Andres did not include one for a standard Visa only Visa-Electron, whatever that is. So, you can’t use a standard Visa in San Andres, eh? (Forgive me; it’ll take time to shake the “Eh?” thing) There was a MasterCard Icon on that machine and I made a mental note to contact MasterCard and suggest a new advertising campaign: “When you’re in San Andres, bring your MasterCard, because they don’t take Visa here!” I wonder if that theme has been used anywhere?

We returned to the hotel and I finally paid off the cabby including a generous tip for his having spent most of the morning with me. I decided to spend the rest of the day on the beach. Oy vey, never have I seen such clear water in all my life! And the shades of blue and turquoise are to be experienced, not described. There are white sand beaches (although not quite as white or fine as Sarasota) and a water temperature that is perfect to me: around 78-80°F or about 5-8 degrees less than Costa Rica at this time of year. Later that day, turned slightly crisp from the Caribbean sun, I signed up for the Johnny Cay tour for the next day. It just sounded “too-a-nice” to miss.

Johnny Cay is a small island to the Northeast of San Andres approachable by speedboat, which is about a 10 minute trip from the main harbor. The story goes that Johnny, in 1960, was a pig farmer who populated this paradise with porcine tenants and sold his product to the main island as well as any pirate who happened by. The Columbian military chased Johnny off the island so they could make the regional park that is now there. After a few hours of beaching on Johnny Cay, we got back into the speedboat and went to another, smaller island, Heinz Cay, where we had lunch. The natives pronounce this name as “Hanezt” even though the man the island was named after was German. They say the military also chased Senor/Heir Heinz off this island even though he offered to buy it. No way, says the Columbian government. The moral here is: don’t mess with the Columbian military.

Despite the adventures noted above, I can highly recommend San Andres to anyone who loves beautiful beaches, incredibly clear water and the Caribbean island atmosphere. Just remember to bring your MasterCard.   

Fishing Forecast

I know some of you are anglers. What follows is a verbatim quote of the “Fishing Report” reproduced without permission from the April Quepolandia, the local English language magazine:

“…The last couple of months have been some of the best fishing Quepos has ever offered. Marlin (Blacks, Blues and Stripes) are being caught and released daily. Sailfish are still very plentiful with double digit catch and releases being reported. Mahi-Mahi and some Yellow fin Tuna are also being boated. Ojaran III had a Yellow fin in the 300# range this past week. Rooster fish action is excellent, with three to five fish being released on our half day charters. Several have been in the 45# to 50# range. A few larger Snook have been caught in the past few days showing signs the Snook are beginning to bite…”

So let me know amigo and I’ll have the bait waiting for you when you arrive.


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

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