Sunday 26 December 2010

The season of goodwill is with us.....

It has to be...the difficult neighbour has not...yet...cut off the water supply to the thirty households and businesses which use it.

He is a gentleman predictable in some ways - general bloody mindedness - while unpredictable in others - you know he's going to do something but when and what is another matter.

He was his father's favourite and in order to cut out the rest of his brothers and sisters from the inheritance the father sold him the main family finca of over two hundred hectares at an undervalue.
That was some twenty years ago and in that time he has managed to reduce the number of hectares from two hundred to eight and makes a living by transporting cattle from the local auction.
Still, to mark his status as a landowner he wears a hat...not the floppy sombrero of the worker, but the crisp white hat with curly brim worn by those buying and selling the cattle he can now only transport.

However, while of impeccable Costa Rican lineage, his attitude to property and money is closer to that of Papua New Guinea...where you might well agree to sell your property but when you have spent the money brought in by the transaction you want the property back.
After all, it was an exchange, was it for land? So when the money no longer exists you get the land back.
Simple when you think about it.

So he thinks of himself as the owner of the one hundred and ninety two hectares which have been sold off over the years to fuel a life of drinking in bars, entertaining ladies other than his wife and consequently being obliged by the courts to support his illegitimate children........ while those legitimately occupying the one hundred and ninety two hectares are, in his eyes, squatters.

Every so often the injustice of it all overcomes him...especially when his current lady friend has deprived him of her favours until his financial affairs which point he goes for the water supply.

This supply was originally put in by his father, who had a state licence to extract water from the spring high up on the mountain which dominates the three valleys below.
It originally served only his finca but, as land was sold off, each new proprietor had access to the system, through a series of tanks and pipes, carefully categorised by inch, half inch and quarter inch rights.

There are a number of users, as the original plots sold off have become split up in their turn as families expand and build houses for their children. A pig farm has been set up and one chap breeds tilapia.

By law, the owner of the licence cannot charge for the water supplied to others...water is a natural resource...and the neighbour became frustrated when even those unwary enough to have paid him once were put wise and refused further payments, so he decided not to pay the annual fee for the state licence...a sum so small as to be risible.

So, the current state of play is that no one has any proprietorial rights to the water...but his view is that the water, like the land, is his to do with as he pleases so when vexed with the injustices of life, when the contrast  between the status denoted by a crisp white hat with a curly brim and the reality of driving a lorry for a living gets too much he takes action.

If he is fuelled by drink, he just goes up to the top meadows and opens the taps in the field used for cattle...thus cutting off everyone below including himself.
If the dibs are not in tune and he cannot afford drink, then he goes right up to the source and blocks the main tank....same consequences as to water cut off, but this gives him the chance to work down the mountain from tank to tank, pushing wooden bungs into everyone's pipes so that when some of the men go up to clear the first blockage, all the others remain, with all the consequent problems of air in the pipes to be cleared before everyone is supplied again.

He is a perfect pest.

He has always reckoned to get away with this because in Costa Rica it is next to impossible to take regular court action unless he has been seen by someone..and he is always careful in this respect....but he has not reckoned with the domestic violence courts, set up to protect women, children and the elderly...courts set up to combat the machismo element in Costa Rican popular culture.
These are relatively had never entered his consciousness....and when one lady had had enough of not only the water problem but also of his shouting insults at her and took him to court, a whole box of troubles opened for him.

The insults, the threats, the O.K. Corral scenes with machetes and revolvers, the contamination of the water supply, the blockages....the baggage of years came tumbling out as one person after another joined in to support the first lady.
While a lot of it was not admissible in evidence, the lawyer representing all parties managed to get a lot in under the line.

The neighbour was beside himself.
How dare these inferior beings, wearers of sombreros, confront him, the wearer of the crisp white hat with a curly brim which, inevitably, he was wearing in court.

The first duty of the court is to seek reconciliation and when the judge turned to him to ask him if he were willing to participate in a reconciliation process he threw a fit, shouting insults and abuse...his lawyer was so worried that he would attack the judge that he physically held him down in his seat and told him if he did not control himself the lawyer would leave him to his fate.
His conduct made all the points needed for the judge to provide everyone concerned with protection orders, forbidding him to enter their property or to speak to them.

He will, of course, because he has no control of himself....but, for the moment, peace reigns upon the earth in our small corner of Costa Rica.

Thanks to the anti machismo courts.

Friday 24 December 2010

Reindeer in the tropics

Strolling reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in the ...Image via Wikipedia
I'm not decking the halls with boughs of holly since

a) this house doesn't have halls, unlike the house in France
b) there is no holly..apart from plastic, that is

However the consumption of mince pies has reached record proportions.

Neighbours, who have invited us to eat tamales and tres leches, have returned the compliment by coming back to ours...first by single spies to reconnoitre the land and then, when no one has died from the offerings of these foreigners, en masse.
And en masse means en masse. Four generations has not been unusual, multiplied by a high birth and survival thank you the Costa Rican National Health Service...the CAJA.
I feel quite embarrassed that we have only two friends to offer in return!

To be fair, this is not the first year we have spent Christmas and New Year here, so our offerings have become accepted and acceptable...other favourites have been Queen of Puddings, sausage rolls, mulled wine, Irish coffee and Christmas cake.
Oh, and Pavlova, which I have now learned to make in one person portions.

This year Ayak's cake recipe...rejoicing in the name of Turkish cake as I gave up trying to explain how I come to have a recipe from a British lady living in Turkey whom I have never met but regard as a good friend....has been a smash hit, so much so that I have used all the packets of preserved figs that have been lurking in the cupboard and will have to buy more!

I have a last minute trip to the capital, San Jose, today, to do odds and bods and to meet friends for coffee and after the last trip I am wondering whether a flak jacket would not be a good idea.

Not against gunshot wounds despite all the bad publicity about San Jose, but to counter reindeer attack.

I have mentioned previously that when walking in San Jose it behoves you to keep your eyes lowered..not from a nun like modesty but to avoid disappearing down a manhole whose cover has been nicked for scrap.
The street vendors...always numerous...are now, at Christmas, multitudinous so that cuts the pavement width by half and while you're busy making sure you don't step in the black plastic sheet displaying illegal DVDs and avoiding the festive sock vendors on one hand and the gentleman with a  pair of odd in the sense of mismatching second hand shoes on the other, while ducking round the armed security guard on the pawn shop - well, you can see which end of town I frequent - you don't need other hazards.

But other hazards there are.

Costa Rica takes Christmas seriously. Houses are illuminated, Father Christmases beam from every front door and swags of foliage and ribbons drape every window.

Shops are not left out...there are even special shops selling Christmas stuff for other shops which spring up in mid November, giving rise to a sharp intake of breath as you round a corner against the prevailing flow of shoppers and find yourself in the presence of about fifty giant inflatable Santas.

These Santas then make their appearance at the doors of shops...on the already overcrowded pavement.....and it was while carrying two shopping bags back to the bus station last week that I found myself executing a rather nifty soft shoe shuffle to avoid a man with a barrowload of pineapple dead ahead and a lady selling sweet peppers to starboard.
It wasn't quite as nifty as I had anticipated as I had reckoned without the family emerging from the butchers to larboard, and all sails aback to avoid this hazard to navigation I bumped into one of the inflatable Santas which was sufficiently inflated to bounce me forward again onto the horns of the fibre glass reindeer which was its companion.

They make them well, these reindeer.

Very solid.

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Saturday 18 December 2010

Perfect timing

Christmas always seems to creep up on me like a dog that has been rolling in next door's pig manure and is not totally sure of its welcome. It thinks it stands a better chance of avoiding the early bath if I don't notice its arrival.

One minute it's Guy Fawkes' Night and the next the Christmas decorations are going up...though here in Costa Rica there is no Guy Fawkes' Night, just the beginning of the summer round of fiestas each heralded by the detonation of what seems like two land mines to start the festivities every day.
The first time I heard this I thought one of the local volcanoes had gone up but I am now acclimatised and can tell by the direction of the explosions whether or not I will be able to see the associated fireworks in the evening.

I've seen some of these things...the land mines that is...and this is no 'light the blue touch paper and retire to Worthing' stuff.
They look like oversized hessian-packed lollypops on inadequate sticks and I would hesitate to approach one of them if running a slight temperature, let alone light the things.
Nerves of steel these Costa Ricans.

Our local fiesta is in full swing..a week of drumming bands, 'twirlers', horse parades, deep fried chunks of pork, beer and...high spot of the evenings, attempting to ride bulls.

For those, like me, who are new to this diversion, a little scene setting might be in order.
Like me, you might not approve of the uses to which animals are put, but if you want to know about local life, it does not behove you to stick your nose in the air and ignore these events. No one will make you go twice.

The whole thing takes place in a circular arena... I suppose inherited from Spain where they like to reduce the odds in favour of the bull in bullfighting and have thus settled on having no corners in which the bull might trap a matador.
The audience sits in the seats raised above the arena, drinking beer and eating...eating...eating....plantain crisps, yucca crisps, even potato crisps... waiting for events to start.

The bulls are not some beasts pulled at random from local farms....there is a whole industry supplying bull riding spectacles to local fiestas and one of its representatives will appear on command with a lorry load of bulls prepared for the arena and much is made if the bulls are from Guanacaste, the northern ranching province of Costa Rica.
Neither are these bulls cast in the image of the bulls of the Spanish arena..they are Brahmas...the ones with floppy ears and dowagers' humps.
There seem to be participants from far away, too, when the names and locations are read out, so I wouldn't be altogether sure that the suppliers of bulls are not also the suppliers of those to ride them...but I don't know enough yet to have any certainty.

It's certainly nothing like the bull running events where a bull is loosed into the arena and men run around him...until the he makes a run himself, at which point the men leg it for the safety barrier with a speed which depends not only on age and fitness but quantity of alcohol consumed.
These are usually local chaps, keen to show off...well, what, exactly?

Their stupidity.....

Their lack of respect for animals.....

Their ability to be a better qualified President of the United States than was Gerald Ford since they can not only walk but run AND eat plantain crisps at the same time....having previously drink taken.
Mark you, most of them have a better grasp of economics than most Presidents of the United States....

However, back to the bull riders.
They present themselves to the public, take lots for which bull will be assigned to them, then kneel, touch the dirt of the arena to their lips with their hand and cross themselves.
So would I cross myself if putting the dirt of that arena to my lips, I can tell you. Tetanus and goodness only knows what might be lurking.

They retire and bull number one...though all have led into the crush. He is adorned with a leather cummerbund linked to a crupper and for some reason a sort of taurine jockstrap is attached therefrom to his balls.
The rider mounts the rails alongside and drops onto the bull's back, grasping the cummerbund, at the moment that the organiser opens the gate and bull and man charge into the arena.

Well, they do if the rider has not misjudged matters and the bull is off without him.
The bull knows his part if the man doesn't.
He rears, bucks and sidesteps in a solo display until a pretty girl on a horse is sent in to lasso him and get him to come back and see if things could not be better co ordinated the next time.

The next rider times it better...he and bull emerge together.
Bull performs his part and the rider sees how long he can stick on.
Not long is the usual answer.....and that's just as well when you see what happens if he does.

These bulls have a sense of time.
They will cavort for no more than three if the man is still up there he looks a little foolish as the bull ceases activity and starts mooching round the arena looking for the exit to his cosy lorry compartment and a good feed.

You can tell the more experienced riders...they leave it until the last minute to fall off to avoid the embarrassment.

So, if you're running short of Christmas ideas, buy yourself one of these bulls at the end of his career, stable him near the kitchen window and let him loose just as the water boils for your breakfast egg.

He'll have a happy retirement and you'll have the perfectly boiled egg.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Coming to Costa Rica..or getting away from France?

checkbox, check box, tickbox, tick boxImage via Wikipedia
Well, both, isn't it obvious?

Not, so it seems, to Madame X, translator to beat all translators, and, in her new manifestation, the English expat version of Madame Recamier in the commune of Ste. Mere Maquerelle in darkest France.

A friend has 'phoned me - thank you Skype - to bring me up to date on the news...local doctor breathalysed by the gendarmes.....surprising reappearance of an expat family who had left France last year for loudly proclaimed better things in Dubai.....dubious quality forecast for this year's local wine....maire found to have fiddled the tenders for local projects (and been prosecuted, which was indeed a wonder, but then his protector lost his seat in the last elections).....Monsieur Soixanteneuf in court for his naughty habits (same protector)....just the normal run of the mill stuff which keeps me in touch with an area where I lived for some years before moving on to another department.

Given the bad weather, attendance was down at Madame X's salon...where she hopes to assist English speaking newcomers to France to adjust to their new culture at a cost of a 20 Euro 'participation'.... but Britain's hardy sons from the same commune had made it and Madame X was apparently very eloquent on the subject of the importance of integration...using me as an object lesson.

Well, I was safely the other side of the Atlantic, wasn't I, so she was safe.

Friend informs me that I am held to have run away from France, unable to cope, because I was unwilling to integrate.
I tried to ignore French society, culture and language(!)  and go my own way.
Worse....hushed tones as mention was made of something sacred....I went where the living was more important to me than the quality of life in France which, as future attendance at the 20 euros a pop... ..would reveal, was beyond price.

What an epitaph for my time in France...used as an advertising tool for Madame X's salon!

So, did  I come to Costa Rica as a positive choice..or was it a bolt hole having not been able to integrate in France?

Well, it was a positive choice...but one that crept up on me.

Some years ago the winter was so vile that we had had enough...other years we had messed off to Turkey or to Egypt, but only for a couple of weeks at a time...but that year it was so cold for so long that we looked for somewhere to forget the French winter..for at least six weeks,which made a long haul flight worthwhile.

There was another motive too.

Climate change, whether man made or part of a natural cycle, was certainly affecting our area.
Colder winters and summers ranging from the very rainy to the extremely hot made life a lot less comfortable than in the earlier years in France, so we were thinking quite seriously about having a holiday home in order to escape the vile winters and thus using this proposed break as a scouting exercise.

But where to look?
It seemed that the best chance of avoiding radical change was to look at the tropics at there were a lot of destinations in the mix.....but climate would not, could not, be the only determinate.
A language we could cope with, a culture which was recognisable, good health provision and the ability to own property directly were important elements which reduced the mix considerably and, although we were initially looking for a bolthole to escape the vile winters, we took into account residency requirements too....which reduced the mix yet again.

Needless to say, Scots blood told, and when looking at the shortlist a cut price flight threw its weight on the side of Costa Rica and when, having collapsed with shock at the hotel rates on offer, we found a local tourist initiative on the net, a log cabin with all the amenities of a hotel room at half the price, the matter was settled.

We could not have been more lucky.

Our hosts, while having absolutely no clue as to the needs of self catering guests...we were their first and the learning curve was steep with plenty of laughs on both sides .....certainly knew how to make us feel welcome and were the best possible ambassadors for their country.

They showed us how to see the sights by public transport at a  fraction of the cost of the tourist sites on the net.

They included us in their family for meals and local events.

We exchanged five o' clock our host would descend with his Spanish-English and Spanish-French dictionaries and we would exchange information over glasses of Castro...Irish coffee with rum.

He didn't give us the tourist guff.

He told us about and showed us the local wildlife and plants...of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge, but, more importantly, he told us about life in general....all the ordinary work, pay, conditions, shopping, housing, transport, taxes, social security, family life, weather,....and politics.

He encouraged us to go off on our own and explore...and gave us his mobile 'phone to call him in case we had problems.
This after the day we went by bus to the Pacific Coast.

The road from town was paved for the first half hour, but for the next three and a a half the bus travelled over a stony track up one side of the hills and down the other...through forest and grazing land, with the bizarre appearance of gated community sites in the middle of nowhere, the lots mostly unbuilt behind the imposing security barriers, until hitting the lowlands and the palm oil plantations.

The coast was too sticky for after lunch we took the next bus back.
Same bus, same driver, who had started at five o'clock that morning and would finish at eight o'clock that night.

Now, the road had been a little skiddy on the way up...everyone in the back on hills to obtain traction....and it had rained in the meantime, which made things just a little hairier on the way back.
The bus had been hailed by passing trucks several times, passing on news of the state of the road ahead, and then the driver commanded his crew into the back again and revved like a teenager with his first car.
The aged American school bus lurched forward...throwing us all over the place....and came to a sudden halt.

'Everybody out!'

The doors opened and from the rear exit we looked down at a drop of about two hundred metres as we followed the rest to the front where all became clear.
The road had opened up and the bus had dropped into the hole.

It was the middle of nowhere....just a farrier's house up the road where two horses were being attended to.
The mobile 'phones could not get a signal to ask for help.

How were we to get back?

No one seemed very worried.
A lad on a motorbike appeared on the other side of the hole and took one of the lady passengers pillion to raise the alarm on the other side once they could find a landline in use.

Kids began to appear, and then men armed with shovels...shovels for themselves and shovels for the male passengers, and all set down to filling in the hole.
The shovelling was still going on when a cattle truck appeared on the road behind the bus and the driver descended.
He listened to the bus driver, inspected the state of shovelling and announced that he would see to things.

He did. He fixed a chain to the rear of the bus and pulled it out backwards.

More shovelling.

'Everybody on the bus!'

All huddled in the back again, clinging on to the seats while being sure not to wake the drunk who had snored through the whole thing.
The engine revved again and we were off....and this time we made it as the bus jumped the chasm now made less dramatic by the shovelling work.

We only just made the last bus home and our host was waiting at the stop in his car.
If we hadn't made it on that bus, he had been coming to look for us...all the way to the coast.

Anecdote, but it made us think.

Faced with a problem, people did not flap like headless chickens. They did something practical.
They didn't worry about what could not be helped...being late...just got on with not being later than they could help.
Our host took his responsibilities seriously. We were his guests and it was his duty to look after us.

It left us a with a good feeling for that area of Costa Rica.

We bought a house before we left and, our good feelings reinforced by our winter holidays over the years, eventually decided that our life in Costa Rica was so much better than our life in France that we shifted ourselves accordingly.

So what was wrong with France?

Is Madame X right that I failed to integrate?

I had many happy years in France and made a number of friends.....but, as they say, birds of a feather fly together and my friends were like me....of an independent nature.

It was they who opened my eyes to the realities of life in France...far from the popular images of  shabby men in berets and smart tarts in frocks.

To the inequalities built into the the the realities of the famous the shabby behind the scenes the corruption.

To the terrible jealousy that corrodes life.

Against all that they showed me the good side of life in France....acceptance into a social circle in the countryside which offered everything from intellectual enquiry to picking grapes with the neighbours.

I have an uncomfortable feeling that I integrated all too well.

It was a good life if you could ignore what lay behind it but coming from a background where the experiences of the Second World War had freed people from 'knowing their place' to find a semi feudal society still in operation was disquieting.

I suppose if the winters had been just a little warmer, the decision to move might have been postponed.....but it would still have been taken.

Madeleine described life in France as being encompassed by the squared paper of its school books....if there is a box, it has to be filled....if there is not a box then the question of what there should be in its place does not arise.

Costa Rica, a small 'c' conservative society, is no paradise...but, apart from its misleading tourist literature, it doesn't pretend to be.
It will has changed under my eyes while we have been holidaying there....but I'll enjoy the lack of boxes while I can.
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