Archive for March, 2011

¡Pura Vida!

6 March 2011

I love the Ticos as much as I love the Mexicans. (Tico is the Central American name for Costa Ricans and Tica is the word for the cuter ones.) We have been welcomed a few times by different individuals on the street, a thing that only also happened to us in Belize.

Pura Vida Choloepus hoffmanni

¡Pura Vida! is the national slogan, which in theory means “Pure life” but is in effect completely untranslatable. Yukoners will recognize part of as what we call “on Yukon time” a relaxed attitude to life where being a little late is nothing to get excited about. They are also into what we call “Lifestyle” in the Yukon, which is our excuse for going hunting or fishing or berry picking instead of working and finishing something on time. Costa Ricans can entirely relate to that. Are Ticos lazy? Well, not really, no more than Yukoners anyway. But I do have to admit they are not quite as hard-working as Mexicans or Torontonians.

When a taxi driver saw an older couple necking in another car (we’re talking not that old, like in their late 50s early 60s), he said ¡Pura Vida! When someone asks how you are, the response is not “Bien, gracias.” but “¡Pura Vida!” Pura Vida is when anything typically Costa Rican happens.

Ticos can afford to indulge in Pura Vida. We did not see the grinding poverty evident in their northern neighbours. Costa Rica is actually a country where other Central Americans emigrate to have a better life. While there is some rural poverty, it is nowhere as extensive or obvious as what we saw in Nicaragua, Honduras, or Guatemala. Costa Ricans seem to live in trim nice little houses with TV dishes and electricity: hardly any wood and tin shacks are to be seen. The buses are newer and in better shape, very few old US school buses, and those tend to be used for student rather than public transportation.

They also got rid of their army in 1947, so did not have to suffer through the coups d’état and the human rights abuses that their neighbours had (or continue to have in the case of Honduras).

And Costa Rica has a decent social security system, including free medical care for everyone (although private care is available). Costa Rica, along with the other two countries with a socialized health care system – Canada and Cuba – is one of the three American countries with higher life expectancies and generally healthier populations than the much richer United States.

But Costa Rica is not a paradise. First, the roads are one place where Pura Vida does not apply; behind the wheel, Ticos are small-dicked arseholes no different than their other Central American neighbours. I am convinced that their life expectancy would rise above Canada’s if they started driving in a civilized fashion. And don’t tell me it’s a Latin thing: Mexican and Spaniards are decent drivers, and even the anarchic Italians have changed their habits when they were seriously faced with a fate worse than castration – the loss of their driver’s license.

The government is corrupt in Costs Rica in the same way the Canadian Government is corrupt. It is not the low level civil servants who take bribes (although the cops are not averse to a receiving gifts), but the higher level mainly (but not always) right-wing politicians.

We heard a great story about an American entrepreneur who bribed local politicians in Dominical so he could build new condos on the beach. He got the permits in violation of all the environmental laws and regulations and then spent a few millions. He did not count on the local administration changing – Costa Rica is after all democratic and has the longest tradition of democratic governments in Latin America (Chile had it until the 1970 murderous coup by Nixon, Kissinger & Pinochet). The next election, a new, more environmentally conscious municipal administration was elected and revoked the illegally-obtained permits. Yeah for the Ticos!

Nevertheless, despite its wealth relative to its neighbours, Costa Rica is still a poor country, certainly poorer than Mexico although much more egalitarian. What particularly bugs me however, is the high prices for many things, same as in Canada. I would not mind if Ticos earned the same as Canadians, but there is something wrong there. In particular, land and real estate prices are very close to Canadian prices (OK, maybe you can’t get tropical beachfront property in Canada, but still $250,000 for a 1,500 square foot house in the mountains is well within Canadian range.). This is because so many foreigners have bought properties. This is very good for those who sold the properties, but not so good for young Ticos who need housing or might want to buy a house. But now the government can’t do anything to prevent foreigners from buying land because of the CAFTA free trade agreement.

Ticos are also polite, and supposedly not inclined to stealing, cheating or lying. Crime in Costa Rica is obviously almost entirely the work of outsiders: Nicaraguans and Colombians for the regular street crime or Panamanians for the more sophisticated financial scams. We saw a wonderful satire published in Guanacaste where a restaurant was not making any money. First they blamed it on then Nicaraguan staff, then after they fired the Nicas and hired more Ticos, it was the monkeys who took the money before the waiters got a chance to get to it. But it could not have been the Ticos stealing.

If I would have to live anywhere other than Canada of all the countries I visited so far, it would be Costa Rica. You can drink the water and it has good pressure. The cops don’t always carry guns and, unlike the rest of Cental America, no sawed-off shotguns to be seen. As a matter of fact, the only armed security guards we noticed so far were in a gated community in Manuel Antonio, no doubt catering to the USian belief that, to paraphrase Mao Tse-tung, security grows out of the barrel of a gun.


Blessed are they who go round in circles for they shall be known as big wheels

6 March 2011

After getting kicked out of Panama, we drove in a big circle around Costa Rica.

The first night, we stayed in the first decent hotel we found just before Ciudad Neily. The next day, we drove to San Isidro del General (there seems to be a zillion San Isidros in Costa Rica) where we met Roberto Hernandez (more on him and Mary later), where we stayed for a few days; then to San José, the capital, to visit my friend Lars who is now living here; then to the lowland rain forest Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí where we stayed at the Selva Verde Lodge with flocks of birders; then to the mountains in La Fortuna near Arenal Volcano, where I did a bunch of work and we met some neat people at the neat little hotel we stayed in (Lavas del Arenal); then to Liberia in hot and dry Guanacaste province for a few days while I finished yet another project; and then back to San Isidro to meet up with Roberto and recuperate while enjoying the mountains and agricultural sights and beaches of central Costa Rica. Next is either going to Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula or to Providencia where Ying and Eric Allen of Wild Things in the Yukon have a place and help run a school.

Here are a few pics to whet your appetite for forthcoming postings.

In memoriam

1 March 2011

Todd and I testing out the then new to me pick-up truck on Haeckel Hill near Whitehorse, Summer 1996.

Seven months ago, on July 28, my best friend Todd Hardy died at the age of 54 after a long battle with leukemia.

Last March, I described how my friend Rómulo, the musician I met in Panajachel, Guatemala, got me to donate money to build tables for a school for special-needs children. We eventually found a carpenter by the name of Ricardo who agreed to make the tables and chairs for the school for the amount I had agreed to donate. Well if you go back to that blog entry, you will find that Ricardo turned out to be a drunk. (A drunk is just someone who is too poor to be an alcoholic.)  Nevertheless, he was apparently a very good carpenter.  He was supposed to have the tables done within a couple of weeks. They were nice children sized tables and he said he would also make chairs. He started on the work but eventually gave up.

When I got back to Whitehorse in May, I wrote to Marvin, the president of the society – and also the husband of the teacher – asking for pictures of the tables which were supposed to have been done by then. He told me they were having considerable trouble with Ricardo, who had not finished the work and who wanted more money. He wrote that they were looking for somebody else to finish the work and that it had been a big mistake on Rómulo’s part to give him the work. In any case Ricardo eventually built the tables and here are the pictures.

I had asked Marvin, actually I gave him a piece of paper with a dedication stating that the tables should be built in honour of my friend Todd Hardy who at the time was dying of leukemia. The dedication should have read: “In honour of Todd Hardy carpenter, union activist, member of the legislative assembly of the Yukon, and founder Habitat for Humanity Yukon.” In Spanish “En honor de Todd Hardy, caprintero, sindacalista, diputado y fundador de «Habitat for Humanity» en Yukon, Canadá”. Marvin emailed me that he had lost the paper and asked me to write dedication again. In the meantime Todd died. So here are the pictures Marvin sent me of the tables and of the dedication which is now in memory of Todd rather than in his honour.

Praying for world revolution? or a new Lee Valley Toys handplane?

The tables are made out of pine and the top is covered by white Arborite (Formica or high pressure laminate to all you non-Canadians) so the kids can write on it. Part of the chairs is also visible. They are quite simple and also made out of pine. But I hope they will work well and I think they are a fitting memorial to my friend, who was first and foremost a carpenter. Our socialist politics might have brought us together, but the love of wood and of woodworking glued up our friendship.