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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 19-March 2010

Click here for GGC Archived Episodes

Editorial Note: It wasn't intended this way but this issue has a lot to do with women in Costa Rica. First we learn about an entrepreneurial lady in Quepos who has the coolest business in town and then we highlight and congratulate Laura Chinchilla for becoming the first woman president of Costa Rica. Move over guys, the ladies are upon us!     gg



Breaking News, The Ice Lady Cometh, Festival Time, R.O.M.E.O. Corner

On almost any day in Quepos/Manuel Antonio you will see an ATV coursing the streets and nearby roads with a huge box or chest mounted on a platform behind the driver’s seat. The chest is filled with bags of ice for local merchants and other users that are unwilling or unable to make their own “hielo”. The ATV is busily driven by a true entrepreneur, a Tica by the name of Senora Leda Novoa. Senora Novoa is noted for dressing "to the nines", as we used to say, while delivering her frozen product to various businesses and institutions in the area. GGC caught up with Sra. Novoa recently and asked her about her chosen business.

She related to us that the business currently has three employees besides Leda and her son Pedro. I committed the faux pas of including she and her son Pedro as empleados but was quickly told that Pedro was not an employee. In the Norteamericano countries (that's the U.S. and Canada for those of you from Rio Linda) we think of the corporation, even small closely held corporations, as employing everyone whilst it appears that here the managing family is not to be regarded as employees. It's the management/labor, we/they thing, latin style. So let's just say that there is a body count of five behind all the ice cubes.

Leda told told us that she started the business in 1989 but was rather vague as to why she had done so (I would normally blame this imprecision in understanding on my poor Spanglish interviewing techniques but this time I had my Spanish teacher along for help).

Nevertheless, as an old business consultant, I find it hard to believe that an entrepreneur such as Leda doesn't remember how she got into the business; perhaps some one just asked her to get some ice for a party and the whole thing just got carried away,

In the first days of her business she barely averaged sales of 3 bags per day. Later in the conversation she stated that in the beginning she sold about 3 bags per day but sales now average from 800-1,000 bags per day. "I had no idea that it would grow to be so large."

Senora Leda Novoa, Grandson and Heir, Chronicles Reporter
and Unidentified Spotted Mutt at the Ice Plant*

Cool product, cool business, cool lady.

Breaking News

Laura Chinchilla - La Presidenta

(Besides all of the stuff to the right, she's the best looking President I've ever seen - forget all the politics mi amor, let's do lunch!)

Laura Wins!

As expected, Laura Chinchilla won the national election on February 7 (Super Bowl Sunday). She came away with 47% of the vote and, under the Costa Rican constitution, no runoff is necessary unless one receives less than 40% of the vote. She beat her nearest opponent, Otton Solis, by more than 20 points. Senora Chinchilla's party, the PLN (Partido Liberacion National), also won the most seats in La Assemblea but came up a few short of the required 29 to have an absolute majority. Alliances will be required, probably with Senor Solis' party.

Here's a biography on Sra. Chinchilla (actually I think she's single) from Wikipedia: "Chinchilla graduated from the University of Costa Rica, and received her Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Georgetown University. Prior to entering politics, Chinchilla worked as a consultant in Latin America and Africa, specializing in judicial reform and public security issues. She went on to serve in the José María Figueres Olsen administration as vice-minister for public security (1994–1996) and minister of public security (1996–1998). From 2002 to 2006, she served in the National Assembly as a deputy for the Province of San José. (like Los Angeles and New York, the lead city here is also a province or state - Ed.)"

Chinchilla was one of two vice-presidents elected under the second Arias administration (2006–2010). She resigned the vice-presidency in 2008 in order to prepare her run for the presidency in 2010. On 7 June 2009 she won the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN) primary with a 15% margin over her nearest rival, and was thus endorsed as the party's presidential candidate.

Sra. Chinchilla has promised to tackle violent crime, a growing issue in Costa Rica. "The biggest challenge we face is criminality, violence and drug-trafficking", Ms Chinchilla, 50, told her supporters. Let's hope she lives up to her campaign slogan: "Firme y Honesta"

Festival Time

As it would happen, the boroughs of Quepos and Parrita decided to have their annual festivals at the same time, causing an equivocation in loyalties among the ROMEOS. Quepos, our home town however, won. The Quepos festival is held in a "suburb" of Quepos just north of the city called Paquita (not to be confused with Parrita)

A contingent of gringos, including 2 of the 3 founding eaters of the ROMEO Club, decided to take in the festivities. We proceeded up the highway via a crammed full bus (el boos). From Quepos, one needs to take the Parrita bus, paying a few hundred colones, or full fare, to go only about half way to Parrita and arriving in the Quepos suburb (yeah,right) of Paquita. Who's on first, Lou?

The Festival de Quepos takes place mostly at the town's Paquita fair grounds about 10 kilometers north of the town's center. There one finds some permanent facilities including a bull ring and large dance/night club building. The rest of the land is open space suitable for the inevitable carnival rides and numerous food stands one finds at these things. Our contingent was happy to see the food purveyors as we arrived at 6:30 PM famished enough to eat an iguana raw. After satiating our hunger on plates of meat chunks stir fried with fresh vegetables and on other goodies (Pizza Hut was there), we made the grand tour and review of all the other fair offerings, the first major stop being the boxing ring.

Boxing is a favorite sport in Costa Rica. I find this interesting and a bit strange as the people are more gentle and non-aggresive than any I've previously encountered or lived with. Yet, they love their boxing and have both male and female competitors. We saw both in Paquita at the festival.

Costa Rica's Catalina O’Connell (red)
against El Salvador’s Carmen
(las chicas!)

Then there are the bulls. Big bulls. Big, big bulls. The bull "fight" is called the Corrida de Quepos but, unlike in Spain and other latin countries, the law here prevents killing the bull. So Costa Ricans just taunt it to death. Well, maybe not death, but I would think after these experiences, the bulls need psychological counseling.

A few vaqueros ride the bulls into the arena and, after a short period of being vigorously jostled to and fro and then usually thrown, are replaced by fans. Yeah, baby, this is better than karaoke any day. Some of the more adventurous (read young and drunk) fans literally climb over the fence and run as close to the bull as they can. One dude even pulled a bull's tail. Another dude, an obvious gringo entered the ring and our contingent began cheering for while we also questioned him: "Where are you from?" "U.S." "How many beers have you had?" "Four" "Done this before?" "No, and my wife is over there going nuts." "Good luck!" " Thanks".

Corrida de Toros - Getting to the Gore of Things

So, for 10-15 minutes the bull runs back and forth and across the ring chasing muchachos who scurry up the fence when attacked and just miss being widened for easy suppository deposit. Eventually, a couple of vaqueros, mounted on beautiful, well-groomed horses, do the lariat thing and coax the bull back into the pen, often reluctantly as senor bull is highly pissed by that time.

One bull was decidedly against retreat and kept dropping to his knees and laying on his stomach to avoid being let into the pen. The bull following him, a more intelligent variety, when led to the pen, walked right through without any resistance. He had had enough of the amateur rodeo dudes.

Our group hired an impromptu taxi to take us back to Quepos proper and the safety of urban life.

               Oh no, not again this year!

At the same time the Quepos festival was underway, the annual Festival de Mulas was in full swing in Parrita.

Parrita is a Central Pacific Coast town about the size of Quepos (without Manuel Antonio). It's located about 22 kilometers north of Quepos on the road to Jaco and San Jose.

Ahead by Two Lengths, it's Big Banana!

If you're as unknowledgeable in these things as I am, you need to remember that mules are a cross between a mare and a donkey. They get their strength from the former and their durability (stubbornness) from the latter, making them a favorite hard-working helper to the farmer. Mules have been a work animal in Costa Rica for centuries. Before trucks, it was the way to get products such as bananas and coffee to market or port. They were also used to carry the palm oil nut clusters to the rendering plant and every now and then you can still see one or more employed in this practice.

Many years ago a few farmers from Parrita began the practice of mule races on nearby Esterillos Beach. The hobby that started out as a way of having fun has become one of Parrita’s most popular traditions. Now Parrita has its own fair grounds with a track to conduct the races in a more professional manner.

Bulls, mules and good food. What else do ROMEOS need?

R.O.M.E.O. Corner (Retired Old Men Eating Out)

Restaurant ACAI (Quepos)  (N.B. this restaurant has been CLOSED since this review)

The name ACAI is pronounced ah-say-ee because the "C" has one of those squiggly dudes below it which makes it Portuguese and soft. The word evidently comes from the name of a fruit in Brazil. The ACAI restaurant opened less than two months ago and is situated on the second floor above the Super Mas supermarket across from the central bus station right in the heart of Quepos. The place is owned by a Tico named Ernesto but the ROMEOS have had the most contact with Miguel, the head waiter dude and sometime cook. Miguel is the (almost imperceptible) guy with the yellow shirt on the balcony in the picture below.

ACAI Restaurant (Above Super Mas)*

First let's just say this place is a breadth of fresh air, literally. Perched atop Super Mas, there is a porch running the width of the restaurant which can seat about 10 people at a counter which overlooks the city and busy bus station. This is a great people-watching place where it is a poor lunch when only three people you know pass below.

In a more figurative sense, ACAI is also a breadth of fresh air for the lunch trade. With the closing of Sargento's (see Episode 14 in the Archives), choices for sandwiches and light lunch fare had been limited to two bars catering to gringo barachos (er, excuse me, patrons). Yes, there are many local restaurants that offer the proverbial Tico sandwich usually consisting of lettuce, tomato, cheese and either shredded beef or ham - sort of a light grinder or hero. They are tasty but unfortunately there is little variation in sandwich offerings within or among the places that serve them.

ACAI on the other hand offers a rather extensive list of tasty sandwiches and salads. For example, in the salad arena how about the Ensalada Pacifica consisting of shrimp, mango, avocado, lettuce, carrot and 1,000 island dressing. Or how about the Ensalada Caribbean with chicken, pineapple, carrot, celery, onions, sweet red pepper and macadamia nuts served with a passion fruit dressing. Yummers.

Sloth Rating (4)
(4 out of possible 5 )

How about, as well, some great combinations for smoothies, those drinks particular to the region consisting of fresh fruit whipped together in a blender with either water or milk. The smoothies at ACAI are among the best offered locally, thick as a shake and rich tasting (rico, baby, rico). The selection of fruit combinations is extensive and interesting; I'm partial to the blend of peach and mango.

The only thing about ACAI that prevents it from getting an automatic five sloth ROMEO rating is the seating, particularly on the porch. The stool-type seats are rickety and very uncomfortable. I suspect they'll fall apart soon and require replacement with something more substantial. Good.

There is more good news about ACAI; Miguel tells us they will add breakfast and dinner menus soon.

This ROMEO can't wait.

Don Roberto de Quepos,
El Gringo Dorado
Pura Vida!

* Photo courtesy of ROMEO Brian M.