Fair enough, I am European and therefore oriented towards how life is conducted in that continent especially when it comes to eating and the gathering of food. I have travelled the world and lived in numerous countries and cultures and then tonight I reflected on, for me, the weirdness of what I experienced today in terms of what had happened to get a meal.
I have a good friend called Nam. She originates from a small village a little to the south-east of Udon Thani called Nong Na Kham and it is important to note in Thailand that Nong indicates a place pertaining to the presence of water. How much so, at this point in time, I have no idea as to whether it is pond, lake, sprinkling or just accumulation of puddles. Anyway, I have been out to the village a few times already and seen what is referred to as a farm owned by Nam’s family. There is no electricity, just a couple of shacks on stilts where you could sleep if you so desired. The land of this particular farm seems to extend approximately 1000 meters laterally and then about 100 meters width-wise. I have seen buffalo on the land (not many), ducks, hens and quite a lot of bushes and plants that provide a range of edible items, without mentioning the staple of rice which is the dominant crop when the season for planting arrives and is purported to feed the entire family for a full year if successfully planted and cropped.
Anyway, I had noticed two or three pits with water in on my visits and it was today that I found out what they are all about. I had previously thought they looked rather messy and a good old developer could make a nice swimming pool out of them with some swift cement pouring. They stood kind of unloved and unlooked-after with ugly brown muddy water in the bottom.
My first inkling as to the power of the change of nature and the requirement of such to feed us all was that the amount of overnight rain had actually collected in such a quantity in the pits and lower rice field that I could easily extrapolate the presence of one heck of a lot water when the rain really gets going. You all know that loosely used term of “rainy season”. For goodness sakes I was brought up in Manchester where the people are reputedly born with webbed feet because of the amount of rainfall. Forget it! The amount of rainfall in Manchester would be considered to be a whimpish drought here! From my point of view a brief flurry of a downpour and suddenly it seemed to me we had fish cascading almost as if from the sky along with the rain. The pits were trawled with buckets and nets and all kinds of assorted fish were dredged up from the mud.
I was presented with a bucket full of fish and shown how to prepare the very small ones (no more than 3 cm in length) for the meal. You snap off the head and squeeze out the blood and innards and slowly but surely this accumulates into a pile of tasty protein – probably the heads and innards would be good protein too but the locals had this pile marked for the garbage, not a can that was emptied into a refuse truck, you understand, but tossed on the ground for the farm’s cats and dogs to consume. The topping and de-innarding was my job and certainly complicated by the many tiny shrimp (and I mean tiny) intermingled with the fish. Because I had been shown how, I continued to decapitate the shrimp and rip off their tails for good measure too and throw them into the pile in my enthusiasm to add to the festive spirit. I learned later that you don’t actually do that with the shrimp because they are so small to begin with that by the time I had whittled them down you could barely detect their presence. And, of course, festive spirit was only in my mind; this is all entirely routine here.
The next size up in fish, all of whom had a big green spot on their sides, I left for others to deal with because I had not been instructed. At the same time I noticed a couple of very large fish having sticks inserted their entire length in order to easily present them to the slow burning fire. We had protein, we had noodles bought on route to the farm and we had all kinds of green fare plucked from the farm to make up the full complement of a meal.
It was naturally delicious and very filling but here I am many hours later pondering in my European mind how weird the whole thing was. I mean a bloody mud hole where my friend’s parents wallowed with a bucket and a net to pick the fish from the mud. My European mind just could not get round the idea that these fish and their offspring are lurking the entire time in this far-from-the-ocean land space and surge forth with the rain to be deposited in all kinds of water holes and pits for people to consume at will.
Just like the 2004 tsunami in this part of the world the water ebbs and flows not just on the coastline but inland as well and the life supporting feature of fresh fish is transported with it! Unbelievable but only from my European perspective, of course!
The landlady in my excellent Barrio Martha Quezada lodgings in Managua said, “don’t go to the west go to the east”. So I chose to walk precisely down the line between east and west. I have never experienced so many people sitting around watching me with not very friendly faces. One hobo yelled at me to stop which I naturally ignored especially as a woman sitting in a rocking chair in the same property signalled behind his back that he was up to no good. Half way down what was rather a long road I just couldn’t take the looks any longer and asked three guys working at the road side what the heck was going on, “why was everybody watching me?” And by the way these three just as much as the others except they did appear to be actually doing something as they had shovels in their hands. “Oh, usually people like you get robbed around here and we are just watching that,” one of them answered. I naturally scampered right along on my way.
I finally got to an area of open ground and away from all those prying eyes and then things began to start looking up. I think it was the haircut I got which made the difference, making me look oh-so-like one of the young locals. There was what seemed like a shed for battery hens except they had chairs in a row for customers to sit down and be de-feathered. The very young man attending me had extremely spikey hair which made me hesitate until I heard the irresistible price quoted as slightly under $2 (40 cordobas in local currency). I certainly got my money’s worth considering all the hair he shaved, chopped and cut off. I finished with my own very spikey affair, which seemed to be a kind of sculpted self-portrait, from my $2 stylist and made me immediately blend right in with all the young guys sitting around having their haircut. This sensation extended itself usefully beyond the chicken shed to the great outside because I never got so much as a peep or a strange look from anybody the rest of the day – almost. It was, as befits daytime in the subtropics any time of the year very hot so to test out my new disguise I headed for the noisiest sleaziest bar around, actually there was only one but it was noisy and sleazey. Things immediately got off on the right foot because the beer was oh so cold, so very cold. I had found the temperature of the beer disappointingly variable in Central America in spite of the obvious benefit it would offer when it is so very hot. On reflection it was one of the few things that I reflected on that Dominicans could actually be constant about. Cold beer. Remarkable especially when you consider how they are so plagued by electricity power cuts. Makes you further reflect on priorities in the process of prioritization.
Anyway back to the bar. This was a first in many ways. I sat plumb in the center of the bar with young (not all but some spikey haired) guys drinking and carousing all around me. Within a very short time I felt extraordinarily comfortable. The sweat was no longer pouring down my shirt, the beer was pouring down my throat and the very loud salsa music was pouring into my ears. Not a single person shouted at me with or without spikey hair. The disguise was now tried and tested. Afterwards I wondered if they even looked at me – was the disguise so good I had become invisible?
With my success with my new haircut and a little bit of beer now nurturing me along I walked back to the hotel but very much in a roundabout direction to the way I set off, clearly not wanting to really test my invisible theory in “irksome alley”. Down one particular road people greeted me and beckoned me over to join them for a drink as they rocked away in their chairs on the sidewalks. I couldn’t resist one particular group who indulged me in a friendly but also heavily politicized discussion. It was very obvious that they did not like the incumbent Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega, one of the members who seemed to be the only one drinking alcohol gave him the ultimate epithet of “Gran Puta”. I did get out of one of the less acerbic members of the group that Daniel’s current popularity was running at about 38% and that would mean that probably the opposition leader of Eduardo Montealegre would probably get in next time next year.
I bid them adios and was thinking about how good it is to have a haircut in foreign territory because when people meet you they do not see or comment on the great change in your appearance and in this case my spikey hair do was definitely a great change. Just to put the nail in that silly idea too, as I approached my hotel the very same taxi driver, that had brought me there the day before was delivering another customer, and so that everyone within earshot that previously didn’t know I had just had a haircut immediately found out, “what on earth have you done to your hair?” she yelled.
My taxi driver but immediately behind her is the Martha Quezada east-west divide road
They say you can never say never. I have one serious exception: never, ever put anything that you own of value on the luggage rack in a Costa Rican bus especially between San Jose and La Fortuna (the usual journey to see the Arenal volcano).
At the time I was travelling with Pete the Viking Swede and we had noted on page 580 of the invaluable Lonely Planet guide to Central America on a Shoe String there is a prominently placed boxed text item specifically warning against this. Peter and I were sitting on the rear most seats of the bus, conveniently just beside the rear exit door. Suddenly there was a lurch of the bus and money dropped down between my legs seemingly from an old guy standing in front of me, I thought he was waiting to get off and I was not wrong. He was actually very very eager to get off the bus. I naturally stooped down to pick it up when I looked up the man was gone quicker than you can say 6 colones, the precise value of the coins he had relinquished (total value about one US cent). In the second I was grappling to recover his money the kind old forgetful gentleman had helped himself to a bag immediately above our heads. It wasn’t my bag nor was it Peter’s but that of another unsuspecting young Costa Rican passenger who after about 20 minutes discovered his loss when he was about to disembark from the bus. It transpired that the old thief had escaped with five new pairs of shoes which the young fellow mourned in particular because they actually belonged to other people. Unknown to me during the incident it seems that Vikings can be very untrusting especially of others marauding in their own territory (presumably something that was self-taught) and Peter, sitting on the window-side of the bus, had been eagley watching my back in case the thief dipped his hands into my pockets but not noticing what he was doing with them on the luggage rack.
As if to finally cement the “never” idea not too many days later we bumped into another very experienced traveller from Poland who had been denuded of his camera, money and other personal belongings. “It was just seconds that I had my stuff there,” he defensively opined. Where did he have the stuff… you bet on the luggage rack!
It does not take long to realize that there is something seriously wrong, apart from failure to put up street signs, with the authorities in Costa Rica that something that is advertised worldly wide such as in a Lonely Planet publication after so long (at least 2 years since publication of the edition I had) that they cannot do something to hinder this. I naturally indicated quite volubly my disgust to the rest of the bus who in predictable fashion shrugged their shoulders and pointed to yet another authority problem; “they don’t do anything with them even when they catch them,” the passenger on the other side lamely claimed.
So the two safety tips I have for Central America is NEVER put anything on a luggage rack in a bus in Costa Rica and always be very very careful about which kind of vehicle you hop into even if you think it is a taxi near Tipitapa in Nicaragua.
I have now discovered that Lonely Planet guides are so plentiful the company should consider removing or at least changing the word “Lonely”. However the hold that words have over us and the already established market position the company has would prevent a change to a more accurate naming such as “Ubiquitous Planet Guide”. I am sure I am now in ubiquitous thought territory because not only do Lonely Planet provide very good guides from the compactness and accuracy perspective for the budget traveller but in Central America they go one step further. In their current Central America edition you get a full seven countries worth. To be exact six and the two southernmost provinces of Mexico. This means that virtually wherever you go in this part of the world you have it covered with the latest green-fronted tome “Central America on a shoestring” appropriately titled “Big Trips on Small Budgets” in its sixth edition published in November 2007 and if my hunch about Lonely Planet is correct probably imminently to appear a seventh edition.
Perhaps the only downsides to the book are that it is 788 pages and if you like to be different from the crowd, forget it, because there are not many budget hotel breakfast tables where it cannot be seen. However on the huge upside the book is stuffed with… well, exactly the information you would like to have at your fingertips.
My own copy came to me in a round about way. As you may recall I found myself in San Jose, Costa Rica almost by chance and in the same way, by chance, I was walking down Calle 5 on the north side of town when I spotted a second-hand bookstore. I wondered, as chance is recognised to work in threes, if by chance they had any second-hand travel books? The very helpful attendant, Felicia, pointed without hesitation, but also without any mockery regarding my obvious doubts, straight away to the shelf behind me. They could not have fitted any more second-hand travel books on the groaning shelves! Not just Lonely Planet and not just Costa Rica. I could have travelled the world with what they had on offer and yes for $12 plus a friendly $1 discount I became the owner of the ubiquitous green-backed central America on a shoestring.
PS Laptop Owners Travel Tip
If you are not travelling so extensively you can buy limited select chapters for a reduced fee by downloading them in pdf file format from the internet. For example 46-pages on San Jose for less than $4 and you wouldn’t notice any additional weight – unless you print it out.
Mora Books – Calle 5, San Jose – great for second-hand travel books
Inside Mora Books with shelves groaning under all those second-hand travel books
The horse parade that tops all Costa Rican horse parades
Just a month after the ox-cart parade downtown San Jose presents another testament to Costa Rican transport through the ages. This time it is all about the horse. Once again the parade, conveniently for me, passed right through barrio Lujan adajcent to Hostel 1110.
The event dates back to colonial times when it was of course the only form of relatively speedy transport and marked the inauguration of the San Juan festivities while determining which were the fastest riders and best horses of the day.
Reportedly it is the largest people-watching event of the Costa Rican calendar and the extent of its popularity can be seen here in some of the photos I took of last year’s activities. If you look closely you will see at least a couple of famous people. President Laura Chinchilla would be one.
And as a little travel trip if you stand around barrio Lujan next month, on the 26th to be precise, you will be able to see the great event all over again.
Due to it’s simple abundance at any time of the year waltzing around central America could make you think that the banana ranks low in the esteem ratings. They are everywhere, any time you want and the price – well they are a real steal but that is not to take away from the lifelong value with which I have always revered them.
It all began as a child when we heard with childhood boredom time and again from our father that there used to be a man with a barrow standing outside Her Majesty’s Devonport Naval Dockyard in Plymouth on a Friday just at clocking off time where my father’s father worked and received his weekly pay packet. This, apparently, was always his first easy consumer decision of the new spending week. Six pence bought a bunch of seven and probably could not have been money better spent for the family. As there was a family of four I now wonder how they arranged the seven to be divided each week. Funny how so many years later the boredom turns to interest and curiosity. So cemented in my childhood learnings and such a genuine fixture in the family memory archives that it is hard to imagine that the man and his barrow are still not there.
In Costa Rica, at least, the banana retains its position of importance, enough even to halt the traffic!
Travelling along on a typical semi-tropical Costa Rican road our bus was brought to a casual but seemingly natural stop of near homage as we witnessed the bananas rush from one side of the road to the other.
Tortuguero and Cabinas Miss Miriam #2 by motor boat
The Costa Rican Atlantic coast is certainly less visited than that of the Pacific probably for all sorts of reasons but beginning with the geographic fact that it is somewhat less accessible. I soon found it more to my own liking and that is probably because of the very starting point of it indeed being less visited.
We set off to travel the length of that Atlantic coast (well almost the length, Barra del Colorado is actually even more inaccessibly to the north just before the Nicaraguan border) heading for our first port of call in Tortuguero. Our entry to this part of the world had an initial very favourable impact due to the unconventionality of another form of Costa Rican transport: motor boat along the river from Cariari.
Tortuguero is a little gem in the ecological cornucopia that is Costa Rica and endeared itself to me precisely because of its inaccessibility by car or bus. For good old fashioned urbanites the entrance to the enclave is entertaining and exciting. The motorised launch shoots you right into the centre of the community. Tortuguero most certainly qualifies as a vacation idyll that allows you to get away from it all. Sure there are tourists but at times I felt almost as if I wasn’t one which is quite an exceptional knack for a place, which clearly relies heavily on tourism, to engender.
We can thoroughly recommend a stay at Cabinas Miss Miriam number 2 (the number 2 seemed to be important although we never actually saw a number 1) where the owners personified the kindly laidbackness of the community and the following video provides a little visual taster.
Ox-carts used to rule the Puntarenas highway and Costa Rican drivers had a more relaxed attitude to the meaning of life
After a very enjoyable time journeying all around the rural central highlands and Pacific coast side of Costa Rica in our minimalistically budget rent-a-car we drove back to the centre of San Jose and the Dollar rental car company on Paseo Colon only to find the way barred by a reminder of bygone transport times in Costa Rica.
The festival of the ox-cart parade is almost exclusively homage to a very ecological transportation method of yesteryear. In observance of the importance of agriculture to the country and hopefully also at least as a passing salute to the ecological urges of today, Costa Rica reveres its oh so sublime method of transporting goods in the past. In the 19th century yoked oxen pulling a cart loaded with coffee bound for export to the wealthier markets of Europe and north America was the means by which the Costa Rican farmer got his produce out of the Central Valley to the main Pacific coast export outlet of Puntarenas.
These ox-carts were first introduced in the 1840s, taking over from the presumably less yokable mule, and lasted through to the middle of the 20th century although coffee was increasingly transported via the Atlantic-bound railway towards the turn of the century. The railway offered the coffee industry a huge double gain. Not only was the previous 10-15 day ox-cart journey reduced to one but incredibly the Atlantic outlet at the port of Limon circumvented the need to take coffee all around the Cape of Good Hope to markets in the northern hemisphere.
The colourful pageantry of the festival of the ox-cart parade follows along the central Paseo Colon from Sabana park of San Jose every November 29th.
“There is a quirky rickety little single railway track with a quirky two carriage train that slowly passes very near-by continually sounding its horn and quaintly tingling its bell in warning because there are no level crossings and I suppose also because it does run right in the middle of the street “.
When I first arrived in San José I thought it was ever so atmospheric to hear that train jangling its bell repeatedly as it passed through barrio(district) Lujan, just a stone’s throw from Hostel 1110. While walking and jogging over and around the simple single track I often pondered as to the meaning of ‘its’ life. The track seemed very old and I observed two types of train: either rather dilapidated looking haulage engines or extremely modern passenger trains that, oddly, never appeared to have any passengers. Whichever way I looked at it it left me with a sense of sadness. Something really wasn’t right? How could they possibly run a two-way service on a single track? They certainly wouldn’t be able to keep this train running economically with the passenger numbers I saw. I could only conclude that it would eventually degenerate to a standstill and San José would be left without any railway service, not even have the minuscule service that it appeared to have.
A casual inquiry of Rodrigo, the main man in charge back at Hostel 1110, soon revealed that there was far more to this than met the eye. Juan, one of Rodrigo’s partners had been very much engaged in the city’s urban transport planning and he explained to me that the introduction of an urban train network was part of a green plan for a “Liveable City” (Una Ciudad Habitable) for San José. What I had been observing was merely part of a kind of pilot plan.
This put a wholly different complexion on my sad quirky rickety confused train and its track. It immediately dispelled the sadness and engendered a new sense of well-being with the culmination of all good things coming together in a bright new future: modernization, reduced traffic congestion and numerous ecological benefits; not least less pollution. The in-depth coverage of the full plans on the TREM (Tren Eléctrico Metropolitano) web site backed up the seriousness of the initiative and heightened my own enthusiasm. “So when is this all going to happen, Juan?” I asked. “Well”, and those dirtily arresting words were uttered, “it is all so political”.
The project has been on the table for many years and has been subject to numerous stops and gos usually for political reasons and even now, although a timetable was set up up last year for full implementation to begin between this year and next, the latest Costa Rica administration under President Laura Chinchilla is currently in contemplation of another grand metropolitan transport plan which could result in well… presumably a bit of a delay at the very least. The announcement of those particular plans has rather inconveniently not been given a date yet either.
That is the story seen principally from barrio Lujan in downtown San José but to be more San José-encompassing there has at least been greater movement on plans along the principal stretch of the urban network between central San José and Heredia. The inauguration finally came about in August last year, overseen by the then President Oscar Arias Sanchez, but it has a limited service running in the rush hour on weekdays only. The global San José urban transport plan is now waiting for Laura Chinchilla and her government for the launch of that Liveable City initiative.
Potholes, recklessness, falling trees and earthquakes – have a safe trip!
Now that the 2010 World Cup that Costa Rica could have won is over (don’t forget Costa Rica only very narrowly lost to the team that narrowly lost to the triumphant Spanish) the country can get back to planning and not just for the Brazil World Cup in 2014.
Some serious attention to transportation control and transport infrastructure planning would certainly not go amiss.
I have in previous blog posts passed comment on different aspects of San José’s transport situation and by way of an easily identifiable example I highlighted in some detail the very surprising lack of street signposting in San Jose causing considerable difficulty for the directionally challenged. I surmised from what locals said that the old bureaucratic evil of corruption was the villain behind this. Ticos were again willing to offer this as the ready reason for the deplorable state of some of the roads outside the capital.
We journeyed by car the length and breadth of the country and observed that virtually anywhere away from the notably “developed” Guanacaste region on the Pacific north side there was a serious problem with potholed roads. I came across this highly illustrative cartoon from a national newspaper noting that the problem has hardly gone unnoticed in Costa Rica.
The translation of the Spanish would go something like: “Look, excellent!… they’ve put down some road markings!”
We observed apart from the fact that potholes were a common occurrence the true danger lay in their sporadicness and occasional dramatic size. In simple terms, just as you may be relaxing your attention on a relatively long uninterrupted section of smooth asphalt a single huge hole can suddenly appear that can swallow a large part of your car momentarily with underside damage being the least you are likely to get away with. I often cringed imagining what the perils must be like for motorcyclists and at night… dios mio!
Unfortunately driving dangers were not restricted to this but added to by commonly observable reckless driving habits. Some while ago I recounted my views of the narrow margins of safety afforded the pedestrian in San Jose by the car driver. Well, the San Jose car driving mentality is given space to fully blossom out in the provinces where speeding circuit takes on a more sinister meaning. Our observation was that the going rule for Tico drivers is that completely regardless of whatever else is happening you really must overtake. Very regrettably there were few days that passed without us seeing multiple remnants of accidents on the road side including numerous upturned cars. One could only conclude that many of these other drivers failed to see any correlation between the overturned vehicles at the roadside and their own overtaking recklessness.
Nature also plays its hand occasionally. Tropical rain quite easily loosens the soil and before you can say “timber” you might have to stop for a fallen tree or two. Here you can see -during our only night-time journey- the simple technique of removal. This particular tree blocked our way on the very scenic lakeside road that hugs the shores of Laguna Arenal.