Saturday 29 January 2011

I'm off to Nicaragua in the morning....

Temptation, thy name is down ones...
We have just seen the most wonderful house in Costa Rica's capital, San Jose...and we are running away before we get out the cheque book and go for it.

Its roof looks distinctly permeable...the fact that the agent refrains from showing the interior in his publicity reinforces this suspicion....the wooden walls look as if only the paint is holding them together....we have no idea what lies behind it...and it is outrageously expensive!

As against that it is in the old centre of town, a quiet area of parks and museums and within walking distance of the markets and shops we like to frequent. We have often talked of having a house in San Jose, just to ring the changes from life in the countryside, and walk around likely areas, looking for 'For Sale' signs.

Well, walking past the Foreign Ministry, the Casa Amarillo, we saw two.
One was advertising a tiny house, some one hundred metres square, with beautiful original tiles and gilded woodwork....but no garden, not even an internal patio, so even as a pied a terre it was off the list of possibles.
Then, turning the corner past a wall of twigs which conceals the Cinco Hormigas Rojas B and B which advertises itself as the only rainforest B and B in San Jose - a claim unlikely to be in dispute - we saw the house.
Two storey, wooden construction, tin sheeted roof with gables and a recessed porch with pillars.
Dilapidated beyond belief.

If we had sold the house in France we would, I know, have been on to the agent as soon as we reached home.
But we haven't sold the house in France. There's been interest, but all from people trying to sell their own places endless chain that always breaks somewhere.
Perhaps it is as well, as we have been forced to pause for thought...not generally a factor in our house buying policy!

If we go ahead, it will take every spare penny we have just to buy the place, let alone to think of doing anything to it and leave us vulnerable to financial shocks...something we have determined never to be.
It will inevitably be subject to luxury house taxation, even before being renovated, just because of land prices in that area of town.
At our age, we must be off our trolleys to even to think about starting on a major renovation.....without knowing builders, electricians and plumbers, with having to hire a guard to prevent building materials from being stolen while the work progresses, with not living on site and having to travel in each day to control progress.

We know all this, but the temptation is severe. There is nothing like bringing a house and garden back to life, making space, light and colour work together, and when a building is not on the register of protected properties it is possible to do this without being tied down to detail.

I have not forgotten the experience of trying to convince an Architect de Batiments de France that we could put a glass roof over part of a ruin to make a vast green house.


Why not? There are glass roofs and skylights all over that part of town. Your predecessor put one on the roof of the chateau stables, one block away from our house. Furthermore, no one can see it, given the situation.

Somebody flying over in a helicopter might.

So the chance to get to work on a building that allows us to respect its style without being obsessed by it is a temptation indeed.

However, we have to be realistic. Every factor is negative.
The money would be a strain.
We are no longer young.
We're working in the unknown.

But, blast and damn it all, the worst is having to accept that we are past it!

So we're off to Nicaragua tomorrow on the early to  Matagalpa, the Pearl of the lick our wounds among friends.

To eat pork cooked over a charcoal brazier at one of the stands by the cathedral.
To visit the more of the petrogylph sites.
To drink Toña beer in a glass straight from the freezer.
To get away from temptation.

There is, after all,  no fool like an old fool, and in this case two fools' heads are no better than we're running away to Nicaragua to save ourselves from ourselves..

Thursday 20 January 2011

Alastair Cook and the Whore of Babylon

Well, I have to thank Ayak at Ayak's Turkish Delight for this 'Stylish Blogger' award.

The title really threw me as I became aware of the  award at  5.30 am......nattily attired in an ancient tee shirt  and an equally decrepit dressing gown.

In the style stakes, bag lady was beating Caroline Charles by a distance.....

I have a great deal for which to thank Ayak...not only does she write a great blog, ranging far and wide from her home in Turkey, but she has given me the confidence to take on the computer and, if I can't beat it into submission...three falls or a knockout to decide the least I now know that if I turn it off and on again there is a fair chance that it will see things my way.
It certainly beats my previous strategy of boiling my head and throwing heavy objects.

You'll see when you go to her blog that she encourages her readers to blog themselves...and she sets a fine example!
Thank you, Ayak!

I am...reading the small reveal seven things about myself and to pass on the award to other bloggers. work.

Revelations conjures up notions of the exploits recorded by the hardy journalists of 'The News of the World' of my young day who were always most disappointingly making their excuses and leaving just as things hotted up...

Or Revelations as in the Biblical sense....which could outdo 'The News of the World' any day without any excuses being made whatsoever.

I can just imagine the NotW's journalists faced with the Whore of Babylon.... they'd get as far as the clothing, the jewels and the golden cup and then they would have made their excuses and left before getting to the abominations and filthiness of her fornication.
It is a great tribute to the insatiable curiosity of the British public that 'The News of the World' survived....its readers always hoping that ...just for once...its journalists would run out of excuses.
Mark you, the British public keeps on voting for political parties too....on the same grounds.

So, seven revelations....

A wonderful game made even better by the Test Match Special radio commentary on the BBC.  I'd love to be able to watch it too....if Alastair Cook had been around when I was a young woman I think I'd have been a groupie.
Except that when I was a young woman the possibility of being a groupie was not something that had crossed my horizon and by the time it had the group would have had to have been visually impaired.

The gamble of planting a seed....the care of the young plant....and all to feed the blasted leaf cutter ants as soon as I plant it out. It really must be the triumph of hope over experience....

Can't resist a dog...don't even try.

Can't resist a book either...unless it's Harry Potter, that meretricious, illiterate offering to the ignorance of our times.

The habit of preserving food dies hard....I'm sure that I'll be like my old neighbour, Gaston, who preserves the fruit from his trees every year despite being a widower with no children on the grounds that it is a sin to let it go to the time I left France the Kilner jars had broken free from the pantry and had taken over two of the downstairs rooms of his house.

I'll do it while I can....whether it's the bus to Nicaragua or the 'plane to Sri Lanka....I'm not turning down opportunities.

Thank goodness for modern communications...letters are fine, but there is something about hearing someone's voice which is special and the existence of Skype has made moving to the other side of the world far less traumatic than it would have been previously.
Written descriptions are fine, but nothing beats sharing a cackle over the 'phone.

Passing on the award is more of a problem as there are so many blogs I enjoy.
However, when it comes to stylish some blogs come automatically to mind, thus

Dash's French Sampler, which never fails to enchant and delight


David Mcgrievey's an illustrated life

which is equally infallible but in no other way resembles the pope.

If you don't already know them then I hope you will enjoy discovering what they have to offer.
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Thursday 13 January 2011

Down at the messy end of the garden....

Cashew nut tree in flower

Summer's here and the garden needs watering. The taps and hoses have been set up again and as soon as the sun is off the plants in the late afternoon I'm off on my rounds.

There's the front drive...too imposing a name really for the gravel road from the gates to the house, but it is beginning to look something now we are here all the time to make it worthwhile planting it up....there was  a huge cactus and papyrus and gingers to make a background screen for one side and on the other we're planting flowering climbers on the boundary wire and putting in avocados and ornamental trees.

Then there's the house garden....palms and flowering shrubs and the vegetables behind....

And then there's the messy end of the garden, down across the wooden bridge over the stream - a torrent in the rainy season - and out to the old tilapia ponds and the asparagus beds.
The latter are looking a bit battered after the rains, but are picking up now and giving the first spears of the season, but there are other things down there....things previously unknown to me.

How about these?

These are naranjillas...a member of the solanum family...and I first saw them in the gardens of CATIE, the tropical plant research station out at Turrialba. We have a plant with similar leaves but with ferocious spines and much smaller fruit growing wild on the slopes, but Danilo, who looks after the coffee, tells me it is poisonous and this coming from a man who uses everything to hand is good enough to persuade me not try it.
So we grew the non poisonous variety from fruit that the CATIE gardeners gave us.

Danilo brought some up to the house to make into a drink....into the blender and mix with sugar and water, but it was so acid that it left my mouth dry for some time afterwards and I thought no more about it until watering down in the messy end when I saw that the fruit was turning a soft gold in colour and thought to try it again.

Its acidity was now balanced by sweetness, but I think I'll make jam from it rather than drinks...if I can find out its level of pectin.
And that's something else...making jam at altitude.

At higher altitudes, atrmospheric pressure is less so water boils at lower temperatures...which has altered my tea making techniques already as far as brewing is concerned.
So when you're making jam, the water evaporates more quickly and the fruit and sugar syrup reaches jelling point at a slightly lower if I boil it to 105 C, then it turns out sticky rather than set...I have to boil it until only 101C at my altitude, some 900 metres above sea level.
Sounds like pedantry, which is what I thought it was until my first jam turned out sticky rather than set...

And what about these whoppers in the photograph above? I have no idea what they are called as I had the originals from a neighbour last year and accordingly used the tuber in stews..where it gave texture rather than taste...and cut off the top of it to replant.
I think they're some sort of yam, but I'll have to ask her for the name when she next comes round for coffee.

Now this is not a good photograph, but can you see a white flower on top of the spiky leaves? It's called Flor d'Itabo...but to me it's a yucca flower. You cut down the flower spike, take the flowers from the stems and nip out the bitter stamens. You blanch the flowers, then add them to an omelette or cook them with cooked boiled potato, egg and onion as a side dish. I've seen a quiche recipe but have not yet tried it.

The cashew tree in the photograph at the top of this post overlooks the messy end. 
Later this year we will have the fruit and the nut to use. 
I find the fruit too astringent, but having seen cashew wine for sale on the Caribbean side of the country it's back to home wine making...I have the airlocks, so I'll be looking for carboys or anything else suitable for the fermenting brew.

The nut contains a powerful acid...friends have shown me how to heat the nut over the flame to break the casing, but I'm a butterfingers and the whole thing ends with a charred mess. 
Another technique to learn.

And then there's banana vinegar...

We've made so many gardens in our time.

I do wonder, as I stand with the hose pipe in the soft evening light, whether this will be the last one.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Shark Attack

NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins.Image via Wikipedia
Costa Rica sells itself as a tourist destination on its respect for is one the top ten destinations listed by the Ethical Traveller organsation for 2011(here) , after all.

Well, the Ethical Traveller organisation had better revise its opinions sharpish and revise its methods while it is about it.

No country that turns a blind eye to the practice of cutting the fins from live sharks and throwing them back in the sea to die in agony, unable to swim, can claim any ethical status....and this is what is happening in Costa Rican waters.

It is not a new has been documented by Rob Stewart, filming illegal shark finning off Coco Island in 2002...and it centres on the Pacific coast port of Puntarenas whence the fins are exported.
I had always thought of shark fin soup as something rare and expensive, but with these new methods of obtaining fins it has become something cheap and widely available in Asia....thus the importance of the market.

The Costa Rican government responded to internal and external pressure to ban the finning by passing a law in 2008 which permitted the fins to be detached only if the shark were killed...and to decree that any fins landed must be attached to a shark and the boat concerned must tie up to a public dock.

End of problem?

Not at all.

Passing a law is one thing...enforcing it another.

Costa Rica has no a Central American version of the Cod Wars with Iceland is out of the question...

Costa Rica has a coastguard...but it is not well funded and can't be everywhere....its main priority seems to be tracking drugs being carried in its territorial waters.

Costa Rica has police forces....many and various police forces all with differing functions....but the government can hardly issue them with water wings and get them to swim out to suspected vessels.

Costa Rica turns a blind eye to this appalling practice for two reasons......

The first - the government has limited funds at its disposal and all too many responsibilities. The responsibilities which affect people who can affect the government get first priority.

The second - the government seems at a loss to know how to deal with any law breaking which involves anything more complicated than simple theft conducted in front of witnesses.

Is there a solution?

Nothing direct, I think, but there are things which could be done.

Tourism is very important to the Costa Rican economy and certain sectors of it...the luxury resorts....can certainly affect the government.
What a gesture it would be if they were to offer to help fund the coastguard to preserve the image of Costa Rica which they sell to their clients!

The virtuous circle in action.

But, as they are very unlikely to do anything of the sort, being dedicated to screwing the last penny out of their environment and giving nothing back, what about a ring fenced tax on their activities to provide funding?

Not very likely.....the government would not like to affect the revenues of those who have polluted the waters, ruined the mangrove swamps and excluded Costa Ricans from the beaches of their own country while the tourists live in the never never land behind the guarded walls.

So it's down to the tourists themselves.....

Costa Rica is a lovely country.....but until it gets its act together...

Take your holiday somewhere else.

And tell the Costa Rica Tourist Board why.

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