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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 16 - November 2009

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Of Cookies and Dead Birds, Mercado Feria, On Overpriced Lamb Legs, What-s-In-a-Name, Breaking News

Malinche Trees Manuel Antonio
Malinche Trees in Bloom On Manuel Antonio Hill – Punta Catedral (Cathedral Point) in Background

It wasn’t intended that way but this issue has more to do with food-related experiences than anything else. I am constantly amazed at the incredible bounty this Globe provides and the amazing gastronomical diversity offered by various cultures. Costa Rico is certainly no exception. Ah amigos, so many tastes to sample and so little time.  gg

Of Cookies and Dead Birds

Sometimes Ticos can be a bit too generous. Take the case of a Gringo friend of Our Hero who was milling about the bus station some time ago when he encountered an old Tico gentleman. My friend, being the generous dude that he is, offered the man one of his cookies he had just purchased from the Mennonite table at the open air market, also known as the Mercado Feria. (We have a Mennonite community here whose first language is Spanish, but who nevertheless excel in things Mennonite, like dy-no-mite oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies, pies and other baked goods. You haven’t really experienced granola until you’ve had our Mennonites’ roasted version)

The man took the cookie and well… but let’s read how my friend relates it in his own words:

Yum, Yum, Yum
“I first saw the man sitting on the bus station bench salivating at the Mennonite cookies that I had just opened. His eyes told me that he wanted one but his pride kept him from asking. I placed one in his hand and the joy in his eyes was testimony that my gift was appreciated. After eating he proceeded to walk about the bus station, only to return a short time later cupping a beautiful bird in his worn hands. He smiled at me and placed the bird in my hands and walked off contented. As he walked away I realized that the bird was dead. After some reflection I wondered if this was some kind of local custom; I actually felt special. Slipping away to dispose of the bird so as not to offend anyone I could not help but wonder how many cookies it would have taken to receive a live bird.”


A beautiful bird it was, but nevertheless there was no question it was dead. My amigo’s recounting of this story had my thoughts immediately running to the famous episode with John Clees on Monte Python where the irate customer tried to return a dead bird and the shopkeeper kept saying “He’s not dead, he’s just pining!”. I still find myself laughing at that episode.
But the real meaning of what happened in the above story lies in the definition of generosity as displayed by both parties; both were givers and gracious receivers.

Mercado Feria

As mentioned above we have a weekly open air market in Quepos that is primarily fruits and vegetables but also offers a smattering of other products such as plants, cut flowers, cheese, yogurt and chicken parts. (As related many times in these chronicles, chicken is omnipresent in Costa Rica – methinks it’s the national bird!) This market is called the Mercado Feria or simply the Feria which translates best into “fair” or “market”. The arrangement is nothing more that a series of temporary stalls and tables chock full of some of the best produce known to mankind.

Mercado Vegetables





Mercado (Feria) Vegetables
There is also the inevitable table manned (and womaned) by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was asked once by a JW what my relationship with Jesus Christ was. I responded that it was not too strong with Jesus but that I was in pretty good stead with his Dad. The young man walked away a bit perplexed and also a bit dismayed that I would not subscribe to The Watchtower.

The Mercado Feria opens Friday afternoon and closes early Saturday afternoon. The busy shopping times are Friday evening and Saturday morning. I’m told that after 11 AM on Saturday bargains abound, but I’ve never been good at that kind of thing and so I usually suffer the pains of full pricing in exchange for shopping at the times that are most convenient to me and when the variety is at a maximum.

The location of the Feria has recently changed. Up until about two months ago, it had been located on a gravelly lot behind the bus station, which could be rather muddy after a good rainforest rain. It was dead center in the heart of Quepos. Now, the market has been moved to the water front as urban development trumps simplicity these days. The old lot is being turned into a park and pay-as-you-go parking area. One could say that this action is a part of the greening of Quepos but in my view this kind of thing flies in the face of local color and nostalgia. First thing you know they’ll be building an edifice to house the Feria and the thing will look like the back end of a Wal-Mart. Did I ever say how much I don’t like change? – let it go GG!

Actually, the new location for the market has its advantages. It now resides on the south end of the elevated road that runs atop the original dyke built to protect Quepos from the ocean. Some call this High Road, I call it Bahia Vista Boulevard but, officially, the street has no name in conformance with Quepos City Ordinance #0001: “There shall be no named streets in Metropolitan Quepos”.

The great advantage of the new location in my mind is that it allows us to view, on Friday evenings around 5:30, the incredible sunsets that occur off our near-equatorial coast. So the new routine for the R.O.M.E.O.s (see What’s-in-a-Word Department below) is to walk to Bahia Vista Boulevard at around 5:30 on Fridays, catch the burning ball as it sizzles its way into the Pacific drink, stock up on limone mandarinas, oranges, pineapple, the fruta de dia, vegetables and a selection of Mennonite goodies and trudge back to the our apartamentos, stopping at some emporium for an early repast. Keeps us out of the bars on Friday nights and there’s no hangover on Saturday morning.

One of the most intriguing things about Costa Rica for me is that I discover a new locally-grown fruit almost every week, usually at the Feria. They come in an amazing variety of colors, shapes, sizes, textures and flavors. Sure, everybody knows about the incredibly delicious mangos, papaya and pineapple here in Costa Rica but what about the Camarón (lichees – probably originally brought in by the Chinese railroad builders), the water apple (I’ve forgotten the local name), the Guanabana, a large green speckled and spiked fruit that looks like one of those pods the aliens planted in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (MGM, 1978, a cast that included Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy) and the Mangosteen which looks like a small purple plum with an apple like stem and which also probably originated with Chinese immigrants. The Mangosteen, opened with the bare fingers, reveals a center of flesh like the lichee nut but in this case it is constructed in sections around the nut like an orange. It is somewhat sweeter than the lichee.

Recently, a few of us went to San Isidro, a city five or six times the size of Quepos and which is located about one hour’s drive southeast of Quepos in the middle of some of the most breathtaking mountains I’ve ever seen (and I’ve driven through the Swiss Alps, the Austrian Tyrol and the Rockies). Eventually, we wandered upon the local “Feria” in the middle of town. There, GG and a couple of Gringo friends were introduced to two more interesting fruits by our Tico host. The first fruit was reported by our Tico driver to be called a Yublón. It is a plum sized fruit, more ovular in shape than a plum and has a yellow skin with black blotches. It almost looked as if the fruit was rotten, but upon carving a chunk of it out with a knife it revealed a bright yellow flesh not quite as sweet as a mango but firmer and simply delicious.







The second fruit was called Granadilla (the locals pronounce that gra-na-dee-ja). It is almost perfectly round, about 10-12 cm in diameter, yellow but with an orange tinge and having a long stem out the top.  The thing that grabs you when you pick up this fruit is how light it is, probably a third the weight of a similar sized apple. It seems similar to a World War I German hand grenade (no, amigos, I don’t actually remember WWI, it’s just the movies I’ve seen. You attack a granadilla by cutting it horizontally about the center and cracking it open with your fingers like you were separating an egg. The bottom half of the fruit will then have something that is startling to the novice Granadilla eater. There is a sack in the middle with a few compartments that contain what look liked to me, fish eggs.

Now, I’m not like the gent on TV who runs around the world eating every conceivable foodstuff that has been consumed by some tribe of humanity. That guy once sat down to a meal of boiled goat penis in Bolivia and reduced his viewership by one – me. I rarely hesitate to try something new. Nevertheless, a cracked-open Granadilla gave me pause. But the enthusiasm with which our Tico host slurped and sucked down those egg sacks eventually broke down my resistance and I quickly joined the Granadilla-sucking society. Wow! Sweet! Yummy! Don’t talk to me of Granny Smith apples (of which we have good ones here, probably imported), give me a granadilla!

On Overpriced Lamb Legs

So there I was again, sampling some concoction for lunch at a restaurant in Quepos when someone mentioned lamb. I’ve always been a lover of lamb whether it’s a rare chop or a cutting from a slow-roasted leg or delivered in an interesting way, such as in a Greek Moussaka. It occurred to me that I haven’t had a good piece of lamb in maybe two years. I have never seen this type of carne offered in Quepos. Perhaps I can find it in San Jose sometime, pleeease. The next thought I got was I couldn’t resist relating my favorite lamb story to my friend.

When I lived in Brussels in the seventies, we often shopped at a store called Rob, which is basically what they did to you when you shopped there. This store had only the finest of fruits, vegetables and meats imported from all over the world and readily available at ridiculously high prices. Brussels at the time was the seat of the Common Market, NATO, the capital of Belgium and the European headquarters of many large foreign firms, such as the one I worked for. There were literally thousands of diplomats on expense accounts in the town who were “living large” as they say. Rob was a favorite of diplomat staffs who never had to worry about a budget – they had no qualms about spending hundreds of dollars of their home countries money on one meal.

Once, my ex-spouse (the prefix did not apply at that time) fell in love with one perfectly proportioned bunch of grapes at Rob and had them wrapped before she realized the price was over $10. Those were 1975 dollars. Consequently, we only shopped there if we were having guests for dinner and we only bought a few things for the main course. We knew the meat would always be superb with no waste, either in fat or bone. (It’s an American myth that good beef has to be marbled with fat to be tender and juicy – good meat is a product of proper feeding and raising of the animal, good butchering and precise aging. In Brussels we experienced well-marbled beef that was tough and completely lean beef that was fork tender)

Lamg Leg So once upon a time we were having some guests for dinner and I thought a stuffed leg of lamb might be nice. I asked the wife if she could stop by Rob and order a Gigot d’Agneau early one week and I would pick it up at the weekend. I was particularly careful to tell her she should order it des-ossé, or boned, so I could save myself having to do that process. On Saturday morning I motored up the Chauseé de Waterloo into Brussels proper to retrieve the lamb. It was ready and waiting but, as I walked to the checkout, the bag the butcher gave me seemed quite heavy for a leg of lamb. So did the price at the checkout, $60! Making a mental note that that would be the last time we bought lamb at Rob, I motored back down the Chauseé towards our home in Waterloo, not paying much attention to what was going on around me.

At the house I discovered the reason for the heavy weight; there were two legs of lamb, carefully deboned and with each bone separately wrapped. I asked the wife wazzup? She said, “I don’t know, I just asked for Gigot d’Agneau, deux aussi”. “Deux aussi?” Says I, you were to say “des-ossé”; deux aussi means “two also”. So that explained the two legs as well as the inflated price. We laughed about it and quickly stuck one leg into the freezer for future use. Such is the risk of dealing with merchants in a foreign language. We had the dinner and the meat was as expected – beyond critique.

Two weeks later in the mail came an oversized envelope from the local constabulary. It was a three page document with a picture of the back of my car, a second picture of a speed clock with the needle stuck on 120 k/hr and the usual three or four very flowery European signatures at the bottom to make it look official. Belgium had this kind of system long before the States. The citation testified that I had been speeding south on the Chauseé de Waterloo that Saturday morning when I was returning from Rob. The fine would be 4,000 Belgian Francs, the equivalent of $100. Sacré bleu!
So the lamb for that dinner ended up costing a total of $160, $80 per leg. I’ve not had more expensive (or better) lamb since.

What’s-in-a-Name Department

Our Hero celebrated one year in Costa Rica on October 21. Since the beginning of this saga, GG has used the sub-moniker El Gringo de Oro. The intention was to connote a meaning of “golden” which can mean in (American) English someone who is lucky or fortunate. Unfortunatelty, the connotation does not translate well into Spanish. El Gringo de Oro has a meaning closer to a Gringo of gold or a rich gringo. Since that is certainly not the case currently and is unlikely to be the case in the foreseeable future, GG decided to change his nom de plume (this excites me, I don’t get a chance to use my meager French often like I have in this Chronicle) to El Gringo Dorado. Dorado, I’m told, does not really have the same “lucky” or “fortunate” connotation that I was looking for (it seems nothing in Spanish does), but it’s closer than de Oro. Dorado means instead, “shining” or “brilliant” (in the reflecting sense not the intellectual – hold the comments amigos). So there it shall be henceforward: El Gringo Dorado.

☺ What do retired gents do for entertainment? Whatever they want to! Ha! One gringo amigo noted that we spend a lot of time in eating emporiums wherever we go. He coined a term for it: R.O.M.E.O. (Retired Old Men Eating Out). So, three of us have formed a club with the three of us as co-founders. We are designing a sticker that good eating establishments can paste in their windows to let potential diners know that the restaurant is “R.O.M.E.O. Approved” We already have two restaurants, one in Quepos and One in Tampa, FL requesting a sticker. Of course we will have to evaluate any establishment carefully before they receive our approval. They will also receive a specific rating like the Michelin Guide. In our system that means from one to five sloths; the specifications for each sloth level are still under development. 


Breaking News Department

Bus fares Jump! Without warning, the local public transportation company that services Quepos and Manuel Antonio has hiked the local bus fare 17.5% from 200 colones to 235 colones. It now costs 42 cents U.S. to go the 6-7 kilometers from central station in Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park. In a separate action, pirate taxis (known locally as las paratas) recently staged a lengthy “parade” of their vehicles up Manuel Antonio hill causing a traffic jam and irritating many resentful drivers. The action was taken, say these drivers, to protest the reluctance of the Canton to issue permits to legitimize the pirates. (Yeah right, just what we need, more empty taxis lined up for two blocks west of the bus station – Ed.).

GG has been “In Trámite” for some time now. This means that my residency permit is “in process”. I recently got news from my San Jose attorney that we have an appointment at the federal Immigracion department in San Jose on Decenber 7, hopefully to pick up my cédula. With this I need not leave the country every 90 days to renew my visa and I should be able to pay into the Caja health system and get somewhat reduced medicine costs. Es una cosa hermosa, amigos!

Roberto de Quepos,
El Gringo Dorado

Pura Vida!

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