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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 21-May 2010

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Alcalde de La Playa, What's-in-a-Word (lluvia), Technology Rampant, R.O.M.E.O. Corner (El Patio - San Jose)

Alcalde de La Playa (Mayor of the Beach)

It's always fun to watch the great palefaces from the north stretch out on the beach in Manuel Antonio without an umbrella and quickly become lobster-like. "Oh, its OK, man, I've got a 45 on", says our visitor from the land of snow and ice. I presume he's talking SPF but I usually look for a holster nonetheless. No amount of suggestion that they use more caution will sway them from their unknowing strategy - isn't that why they came here? The sun man, the sun.

Having lived in Florida for ten years, I understand how the power of the sun can be under estimated. Sarasota is 27 degrees above the equator; Allentown, PA, where I lived before moving to Sarasota is 40, Minneapolis 45. That latter reading, Minneapolis, is a couple of degrees higher than Toronto. Dudes, when you're here in Quepos, Costa Rica you're only 9 degrees above the equator. Even Florida sun pales in comparison to the tropics.


Peluca - Our Mayor of the Beach, Chair and Umbrella Supplier and Good Friend.



As I am a pensionado (the Spanish sounds so much better than "retiree") and lover of the beach, our hero spends a good deal of time on Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio (under an umbrella). Let's say we (the other ROMEOS and I are what I'm referring to of course) average three to four times a week for two to two and a half hours per session. With this kind of frequency,one comes to know the various vendors at the beach and they often become more than acquaintances, they become friends. Such it is with the gent to the left, Senor Peluca. Actually that's his first name and it's just dawned on me that I don't know his last name but who cares, we're all children of the pacific shore and Manuel Antonio beach.

The beach routine goes something like this. ROMEOS and any of our accompanying visitors exit the bus at the stop called Mar y Sombra ("Sea and Shade" for the Rio Lindans) and walk the thirty meters or so to the beach, first passing through the flea market and then stopping briefly for liquid refreshment. We pick up a bottle or two of water or soda from Berto, another beach buddy who runs a little beer,soda and snack store just off the beach. Berto is always good-humored and loves to banter with us in English whilst we stumble in Spanish.

This is Spanglish at its best, to and fro. Sometimes Peluca sees us exiting Berto's and, after the appropriate long distance exchange of greetings, we can hold up a number of fingers consistent with the number of chairs we will need. The chairs are often already in place as we step onto the sand and Peluca or one of his assistants will be busy plunging a spade into the sand to make a hole for the umbrella(s). In a few minutes we're all set up with chaise lounges, umbrellas and tables, fully prepared to rough it once more in wild Costa Rica.

Peluca is often assisted by two able "ayudantes". One is named Francisco, who refers to our hero as tio (uncle) Bobby. I, of course have to come back at him as my sobrino (nephew). The other assistant is Michael (actually I'm not sure whether it's really Michael or simply Miguel), a nice young man who never seems to tire. Ah youth, wherefore art thou, oh fleeting entity? (That last bit, of course, is why I never became a poet). These two gents are particularly useful when we happen to have been set up half way down the beach towards the water on an incoming tide, or the monthly full moon tide threatens our serenity. These guys can move us up towards the road and redig umbrella holes faster than an Iguana can spit.

The ROMEOS have become a little concerned about Peluca's deportment in recent weeks. It seems our friend has developed a relationship with a certain chiquita that lives in Parrita, up the coastal road about 24 kilometers from Quepos, . One day Senor showed up briefly on his day off with newly polished shoes and announced he was going to Parrita. When we pressed him he finally admitted he had a date. Ah, l'amour toujours, l'amour or whatever.

Chiquita from Parrita; sounds like the basis for a good salsa ditty to me.



Llover is the Spanish verb for rain and the noun is lluvia (the classic pronunciation of this calls for yoo-via but locally it's more like joo-via). With the approach of the rainy season, which lasts here a little more than half the year, it's little wonder that some of us are boning up on rain-related colloquialisms, things like:

  • Abril lluvioso, saca a mayo florida y hermoso (April showers bring May flowers)
  • Las desgracias nunca vienen solas (When it rains, it pours)
  • Baldazo (A heavy rain, literally a bucket full)
  • Le va a llover dinero (You will make a lot of money - literally, it's going to rain money)
  • Llover zapos y ranos (It's raining toads and frogs - we have as many of those here as cats and dogs)

There are many more sayings that use water in an analogous fashion to rain. There is plenty of room for creativity in this language, amigos.

Technology Rampant

Does anyone else feel that technology will ultimately do us all in?

I've always been quick to embrace the advantages of new technology. When I had my computer business, hardware vendors loved to call at my office because I was a sucker for buying the latest and best products they had. I boasted a "portable" computer in 1985 long before laptops and notebooks were even thought about. It was a Toshiba about 18" long, 15" wide and 5" thick with a 6" amber screen that nearly caused blindness if you used it more than three hours at a sitting. But with that machine, and a fairly new software product called Auto-Cad, I was able to do systems furniture layouts and estimates at the client's site, something no other firm was doing at the time. I cut the ordering process for these products down from a three week wait for blueprints to a three hour decision right in the customer's office. I stole quite a few sizeable orders from competitors this way until the recession of 1990 virtually made the office furniture business in my market disappear for a few years.

I have always been adamant that technology should serve the user, not the other way around. Today, however, so much technology pervades our lives and changes so often that I sometimes feel I'm loosing the battle. Combine this with the laissez-faire business attitude in Costa Rica and life can sometimes get more than interesting. Take GG's latest adventure with cell phones for example.

I was in San Jose in mid-April and all of a sudden my cell phone went dead. The phone in question was an old standard Nokia that was the cheapest and simplest I could find when I bought it here in January of 2009. When it went dead, my first thought was that maybe I had failed to pay the bill. At the time, the only way I got notices to pay the bill was a text message on the phone from the telephone company. Once the message was received, I would trudge down to the local pharmacy or Red Cross office to pay the bill (don't ask why we go there or to the pharmacy to pay the telephone bill). Or maybe I had forgotten to power charge it. After reviewing these possibilities in my mind, I dismissed them both as reasons for the phone failure. Then I heard about the ICE thing.

ICE (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad - pronounced ee-say) is the national government monopoly currently charged with the responsibility for telecommunications as well as production and distribution of electricity. I said currently because there are moves afoot to deregulate the telecommunications part of their responsibility and allow competition in. That would be competition like Mr. Slim and company of Mexico; you know, the guy who is currently listed as the richest man in the world, even above Gates and Buffet. I'm told he did it basically on cell phone marketing. Bring it on senor dude! Cuando, amigo, cuando?

Here's what a local daily newsletter had to say about our friends at ICE:

"The manner which the Instituto Costarricence de Electricidad has handled the changeover from old to newer technologies has provided a test run for the regulating authorities to consider the consumer’s rights to service. In March the government ombudsman agency, the Defensoría de los Habitantes, accused the company known as ICE of refusing to reconnect TDMA (that's my old phone - ed.) customers who had lost or had their phones stolen or been disconnected for non-payment. The agency suggested that ICE has no legal grounds to unilaterally cancel a contract.

The TDMA system is only around so long after its obsolescence because of the quirks of ICE’s monopoly on phone services. For a number of years there have been no new TDMA phones available (really? - I got sold one last year - ed.), with a small industry reconditioning decrepit handsets. The service still is in operation because ICE wished to extract maximum rent from equipment while it failed to make better lines available. Even when superior GSM systems became available, there were never enough lines to meet demand, so the older phones stayed in use.

Those who were early adapters stayed with the old system, instead of remaining on the cutting edge, largely because ICE arranged it that way. It did this by refusing to transfer older customers’ phone numbers to new accounts, even though it had the ability to do so. Many professionals would suffer potential losses from phone number changes. Even now the company avoids transferring numbers to new GSM lines, trying to steer business to the more expensive Kölbi 3G service.

Nonetheless ICE plans to keep the system (TDMA )functioning until the end of the year. The Defensoria’s take on ICE’s freedom to close an individual’s account suggests it might also defend the rights of users against the total shutdown of the system." (Hope so - ed.)

So ICE decided to "upgrade" their technology and as a result, the old phones (the dirty word is "TDMA" type) no longer work everywhere and will work nowhere by the end of the year. Tough titty all you TDMA owners, go get yourself a new phone. ICE will be happy to sell you one if you'd like. There will be no recourse amigos; so let it be written, so let it be done saith the Pharaoh of ICE. Before I read the above, I heard a lot of stories about the old phones coming back on in a few days but that they would be finally phased out by December anyway. After a week and a half of waiting for my phone to re-light, I gave up and decided to pursue a new phone.

Remember These? - Circa 1950
Our Hero at His First Exciting Corporate Job Complete with Telecomunication Device
The "Antique" TDMA Phone Disemboweled by ICE
GG's New "Third Generation" Phone

I then remembered that I had brought with me two phones from the states. One was a Samsung slide style which, upon trying to light it up by sliding the front up, kept ejecting the back cover that protects the battery and internals. No amount of fidgeting or gerry-rigging would secure the cover; it may have been damaged in transit. I finally gave up and threw the phone back into the old packing box (I have a packrat mentality).

The second phone is a Blackberry that I had purchased as a requirement for joining a business consulting firm in Orlando in mid-2008. I never liked it, preferring the I-Phone which I never got, but the Blackberry was functioning when I left Sarasota in late 2008 and the back cover is not yet falling off. New problem - the battery was dead. I applied the charger for 2 hours with no result. I marched down to our local cellular phone store (J&J Cellulares). The people there are always helpful but sometimes also befuddled by the vagaries of technology. The head dude at J&J insisted on trying his charger for two hours; so I went to lunch. On returning, I was informed the battery was kaput (German for forget it dude). I bought a new battery for 18,000 colones (about $35 in Rio Linda).

The next day I took the Blackberry down to the local ICE office and, after picking a number and waiting the necessary hour or so, a very nice, polite gentleman opened the back of the Blackberry and quickly informed me that this model would not work in Costa Rica. I gave up once more and decided to return to J&J to purchase a new phone. I asked the ICE man if I had to bring the new phone back to him. "No, amigo, I'll give you a chip that you can have J&J install". Beautiful. He produced a piece of plastic that looked like a credit card but which had a small punch out that was actually the chip to be used in the new phone. He recorded the chip number on my ICE computer record, punched the chip out and put the card and the chip in a little plastic baggie. I strolled back to J&J holding my plastic baggie. I was re-energized (yes, I know, a bad pun).

When I arrived at J&J, the chip had disappeared. I returned to ICE and went through another cycle getting a second card and chip. The clerk gave me that "another crazy gringo" look but was very polite. I strolled once more back to J&J carefully guarding the plastic bag and checking that the chip was still there and hadn't mysteriously disappeared like the first one. "Give me the cheapest 3G phone you have please" says I to the J&J man who also was beginning to look at me in the same way as the ICE guy. The phone recommended was the new Nokia pictured to the right above. Only 100,000 colones (in Rio Linda this would be about $190). I bought it, the J&J dude put the chip in it and I was back in business. I was out a total of 118,000 colones but no longer incommunicado. Enough is enough, right? Not really.

A Tico acquaintance called a few days later and said he had heard I had a Blackberry and would I sell it to him? Sure says I, but let's meet at J&J because ICE tells me that phone won't work here. The J&J guy now says "Oh yes senor, it will work because we send it to a place in San Jose and they make it work - for only 30,000 colones". (So why didn't you tell me that before I bought your 100k phone amigo!). My friend and I left J&J and he said he had his own contact in San Jose who would fix the phone for less money. I made him a price of 50,000 colones for the surplused BB, we went to his mom's house and she parceled out five crisp 10,000 colone notes and I gave him the phone and charger in exchange. Now, done, finally and feeling pretty good about getting some of my money back I returned home; this gringo needed a siesta after all that. End of story, right? Nooooooooot really.

A few days later, the Tico acquaintance calls me and says ICE was right, that model of Blackberry will not work in Costa Rica, there is no place in the back to insert that special little ICE chip. He asked if I would refund the money and, of course I said yes. We met once more at J&J and the man was again very nice, even to the point of taking back the new battery I had purcahsed for the Blackberry and refunding my 18,000 colones. I added 32k to that and paid off my friend.

So now, the dresser in my bedroom is a bone yard for an assortment of discombobulated electronic telephone stuff.

Maybe I should open a parts store.


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

Restaurant El Patio (San Jose)

This restaurant has neither elegance nor any kind of peculiarly local charm. Instead think modern, warm and friendly. One enters on the ground floor directly from Avenida Central, S.J.'s best known walking street. If you're lucky, you can get a table at the open-air window and have an interesting people watching experience as busy Josefinos and assorted tourists from many countries pass by.

Some may be put off by the frequent number of vendors plying their wares directly to the tables at the windows but this ROMEO finds it part of the charm of the place. Where else can you be offered a romantic tune by a guitar player or a Rolex knock-off or an excellent and authentic (sic) Cuban cigar all in the space of ten minutes. If this kind of thing bothers you, sit in the back or upstairs.

El Patio from Inside Balcony - Windows Front on Avenida Central

The fare at El Patio is Tico Eclectic. You can get the standard casado type plates and arroz con pollo without which Costa Rica would not function properly. But also there are the sandwiches and salads of fresh ingredients and ample proportions, including a burger or two that can make gringos feel at home. And they always seem to have a special or two that can surprise you. For example, recently I had pork tenderloins (what the French would call "noisettes des porc") in a tamarindo sauce that were richisimo.

There also is a poorly kept secret at this restaurant; it has a separate little cafe for deserts and coffee. If you have a wanting for a good pastry from a fairly good selection, you can wander into this place at any time of day, sit in this section, and break your diet vows with ease and grace. The desert bar is located in the far left corner of the restaurant as you enter from the street level.

The only negative that comes to mind about this restaurant is the popular bar on the mezzanine level which occasionally, not always, has a loud band playing. I'm sure with enough liquid lubrication the Mexican hat dance sounds a lot better, but for me I'd rather have piano music with my casado. I haven't been the same since Frank died (if you don't know who I'm talking about Rio Lindans, there is no hope for you)

El Patio is the kind of restaurant you always keep in mind as a backup when you haven't any bright ideas on where to eat lunch or dinner. It deserves four sloths.

Avenida Central Clock (Near Plaza Culturas)

How to get there:

El Patio is attached to the Hotel Balmoral in the heart of San Jose on the Avenida Central. Check out the photo to the left. If you're on the Avenida Central (walking street) facing east and facing the clock (note: the Carrion Department Store is on your left and the Plaza de las Culturas and Teatro Nacional are on your right just beyond the clock): walk straight for two blocks; El Patio will be on your left side.

Or show the taxi driver this address: Av. Central entre las calles 7 y 9. San Jose. (It's hard to believe a taxi driver would not know where the Balmoral is, unless he's newly arrived from Morocco, Calcutta or Quepos)


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

Don Roberto de Quepos,
El Gringo Dorado
Pura Vida!