Tuesday 30 October 2012

A Day in the Life of....

I thought I'd give you relief from the psychodrama of the kitchen and The Neighbour and describe a fairly normal day....one involving a visit to government offices, a hospital appointment, lunch and a bit of shopping.
That should keep the blood pressure well under control.

Costa Rica's tax authorities have decreed that declarations will be made online.
Fine...except that their programme, endearingly called EDDI 7, uses Microsoft Office, which I do not have installed and am damned sure I'm not paying for.
There is an Microsoft access programme, just for use with the tax programme, which has disabled my computer on all three of the times I tried to download it, so there was not going to be a fourth.

Why couldn't they use an open access programme? Because that way no one would get a pay off somewhere.
Just as, while open access programmes are running well in two hospitals, the President has decided that some expensive programme has to be bought in for the Health Service as a whole.
Accustomed as we are to France, this is all too familiar.

The solution? Go to the tax office in San Jose and ask them to sort it out.

So, off on the bus, foolishly picking the sunny side for the hour's run, and into the office where, as usual in Costa Rica, the security guard acts as first filter. We need counter 12...on the left.

Counter 12 listens and sends us down the hall to 'the kiosk', which turns out to be a bank of computers with a charming man in charge who is simultaneously taking some six people through their online declarations.

While he moves from one to the other we hear alarming details of the tax situation of a bar owner....he has to make a monthly declaration of and pay tax on the supplies bought in...clearly no allowance for ullage here!

Nor the the sacred three percent breakages allowed to professional waiters...which is how I came to enjoy wines served at Buckingham Palace and the Mansion House by the waiters employed at functions who would set their three per cent aside before the evening commenced and flog it later at very attractive prices.
Nothing so vulgar as a label...just a white mark to show which way up the bottle had been lying in the cellar.

Form duly filled out online it is printed up and we take the bus into the centre to pay our asessment at a bank, as people working in government offices do not touch money. That is reserved for the people at the head of government offices.

We get on the wrong bus....a mainline one heading for its garage... and have to pay the full fare for the whole trip...or would have done had it not been for the provision by which pensioners pay nothing or very little for public transport.
It lands us near the head office of our bank where the queues in the main hall look formidable.

The young lady in charge of supervising clients in the use of the automatic ticketing machine...

Transactions under one million colones..
Transactions above one million colones...
More than one transaction...
Elderly, pregnant or disabled clients...

Leads us away into another section where we duly take a  ticket as outlined above and wait for our number to be called.
It is quite restful....people paying their taxes tend to be subdued...unlike the hurly burly of the main hall where little old ladies with ominous sheafs of papers queue jump with abandon and someone is always complaining that he was in the loo when his number was called so it is  unfair to ask him to take another number.
We cough up, get our receipt...and that's done.

Now for the shopping.

The butcher is not far from our house in San Jose...so not that far from the centre. It takes a walk down the pedestrianised central avenue for a few blocks, then crossing the main traffic artery, Avenida 2, and dodging behind the Ministry for Social Security to get to his little shop.
Except he isn't there any more.

The shop is...and a lady of a certain age explains the he was her manager and he has upped and away without notice. As the young lady on the till is also absent, I feel there may be an explanation somewhere....
It might also explain his extraordinary generosity in dishing out extra quarter kilos of meat and free smoked pork chops. It wasn't his money he was throwing away.

Still, the meat is the same high quality....

Having wrestled with the names for cuts of meat I now know that skirt is called cabeza de cecina and ask for some. It emerges from the cold room as a whole piece and the young man now doing the butchery work asks how much I want.
Two kilos.
The price is still the same...less than that of the central market butchers.

I see some butterfly cut steaks..and ask him if he has any better grade.
Yes, he has.
What he calls lomo - sirloin - but which is clearly lomito -fillet.
A kilo.
He cuts and butterflies beautifully, packs up my order and I pay.

Once home I weigh my purchases and discover that I have two and quarter kilos of skirt and one and a quarter kilos of fillet steak.
History repeats itself.
I must take a look at the new girl on the till next time...

At the bakery next door I see wholemeal loaves for sale..not, as usual, in a torpedo shape, but square and decide to buy there rather than take the trek up to the other side of the city where I usually buy bread so buy three.
If they're O.K. that's fine..if not we'll be eating pancakes and potato scones for breakfast until my next trip.

Back into the centre to our new lunch venue.
We had found it a couple of weeks earlier after a 6.30 am hospital appointment for a blood test to be taken on an empty stomach.
Needless to say, Mr. Fly was starving afterwards and we went in search of breakfast but all our usual haunts were just opening their shutters or could offer only a sandwich.

Desperate for hot food he had a stroke of genius. There is a sort of wholesale area behind the central market ...people would be working there in the early hours...the same people would be needing hot food...

Indeed they did. One of the caffs was open...the sort where you sit on stools at the counter...and the smell was inviting.
Hot food...no trouble at all. He was soon presented with a plate of fried fish fillet and 'sweated' potatoes... cooked in stock and then finished in a little chili and tomato for a derisory price.
So we were going there for an early lunch.

A good job we went early...it was packed out a few minutes' later and the takeaway trade was going like a train. We chose our meals, and while they were cooking a little bowl of consomme with finely chopped veg was put in front of us. I  like soup...and I could cheerfully make a big bowl of that my lunch without any complaint!
Newcomers, we had to be inspected by the resident wit among the regulars and teased along with the staff who moved like greased lightning among their pots and pans.
Super food and super ambience...but it will never get a Michelin star...no starched linen.

Time to finish the shopping on our way to the hospital.
Christmas is coming. The first fibreglass reindeer are appearing and shop displays are largely in green, red and gold, while notices everywhere offer goods on part payment.

Even without the shop displays you would know Christmas is coming. The price of tomatoes.... used in the tamales which are traditional for the season....is doubling and the profiteering will soon hit all fresh goods.
Next time out with the car we'll stock up on potatoes and onions in the Plaza Viquez feria.

Shopping bags full, we arrive at San Juan de Dios hospital, where patients are forbidden to enter with shopping bags - whether because of the crush within or the fear of what might be  taken out in them I don't know.
Mr. Fly explains to the security guard that we live in the country and that, with an afternoon appointment he can't be sure to be able to shop afterwards before  taking the bus home.
We are nodded through.

San Juan de Dios is a hospital of many parts, from nineteenth century cloisters and tile, to tip top modern via a bit of art deco and some concrete brutalism. Offices are dotted all over the place, not always geographically related to the departments they serve.
Luckily today we do not have to go to the neurology secretariat, situated as it is next to the morgue, but go directly to the consultation area in a ground floor annexe where the sun never shines as there are no windows.

The routine is as follows.
You have a dossier which contains all the notes of your consultations at the hospital, together with copies of notes from consultations at other hospitals. It is kept in the central archives of the hospital.
Every day, the dossiers needed for the scheduled appointments are brought out and distributed to the consulting areas, where they sit in the reception area.

You arrive at reception and show proof of your identity (your cedula), your affiliation to the national health service (the CAJA) marked on a folding cardboard carnet issued by your local health centre and proof that you are up to date with payments into the CAJA.
You then pass over the carnet which is issued by this particular hospital, noting all your appointments. When they run out of lines they paste paper slips over the pages until...with a busy schedule...the carnet bulges like a politician's wallet.

This carnet is attached to your dossier and, in due course, the nurses working your consultation area will come and collect the completed dossiers, then start calling patients to be weighed and to check their blood pressure....something done as a routine at every medical appointment.

We sit down - every patient must be accompanied - and wait. A whole draft of people are called for the weigh in...but not Mr. Fly.
Another draft goes up...not Mr. Fly.

The matriarch beside him tells him to go and check with the nurse.
He does so.
No dossier in his name in the nurses' office.

The matriarch begins to wind up another matriarch....

'Typical! What do they call this...a system? He's been here an hour....it doesn't take an hour to get a dossier down the corridor...'

The matriarchs send Mr. Fly to the reception area. He returns, to say that they can't find his dossier, have lost his carnet and that he has to see the doctor to get a new appointment.

Fury of the matriarchs who assail the nurses' office.

General muttering.

The nurses pass the buck to the doctor.
Mr. Fly is to stand by the consulting room door and shoot in as soon as it opens....but he begins to tire quickly, so young man is uprooted from his seat by the door by a gentleman who is accompanying his wife and her mother and Mr. Fly sits down.

The door opens. Mr, Fly is propelled to his feet and through the door by the gentleman who steps in front of the next patient in the line in a move worthy of the rugby field.

The door closes.
It opens sharply again and Mr. Fly and his doctor move at speed down the corridor to the reception area.

General murmurs of delight and expressions of appreciation...
'That's Doctor Kenneth for you...patients come first...now we'll see some fun....'

The two men return, Mr. Fly resumes his seat by the door and the consultant sees his next patient.
The matriarchs encourage Mr. Fly that all will now be sorted out.

The tapping of heels announces the arrival of a secretary from reception bearing the dossier and carnet. She enters the nurses' office to a general murmur of
'That's Doctor Kenneth for you..he'll shift them off the their backsides...'
And she taps off again.

The door to the consultation room opens again and Mr. Fly is called.

'That's Doctor Kenneth for you....he knows the man's been waiting....'

With the two shopping bags, I leg it to the reception area to join the queue to make the next appointment..a queue which can take longer than the consultation...and in twenty minutes I am joined by Mr. Fly.

Good news:  all is stable, his appointments have been pushed from three monthly to six monthly intervals and once the oncology department give them the all clear in a year's time they can think about a new form of treatment.

New appointment in the carnet, off we go to get the bus, three blocks from the hospital.

Half way home it pulls into the bus garage which serves the intermediate town. Men rush out with a sheet of cardboard and investigations are made under the bus.
Followed by the hiss of hosepipes on hot metal.
Followed by a bus inspector fiddling with the controls.
Followed by return of the bus driver and a journey home in which the back doors must not be opened.

But we make it.


Saturday 27 October 2012

Expat Blog Awards 2012

I've been nominated for Costa Rica...as yet the only nomination for here but I'm sure more will follow!

I've copied and pasted (thank you Ayak, I can remember you teaching me this) the details below:

The Expat Blog Awards 2012 which will be decided late December, where a Gold, Silver and Bronze award will be given for each country.
One judging criteria will be based on reviews left on your listing, and so it's a good idea to get some of your regular readers to leave a quick note for you.
Of course, this isn't the only judging method, but it does show you have some loyal readers and let's us hear their feedback.

So if you wish to take a look, here's the link:


There are some super blogs on their list, which is arranged by country, so you might well find further blogging material to occupy the time you should be using for ironing, pretending to work or digging the garden.

I'll be putting up the Expats Blog link on my blogroll as soon as I can work out how to do it!

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Coming to You from Fortress Balcony

The long promised kitchen renovation has begun......at last.

The new kitchen units are in the dining room, blocking all access to the book shelves. The oven has been dismounted from its 'temporary' position on a table in the kitchen and is also in the dining room, blocking the door to the kitchen.

The 'temporary' rack has been moved to the balcony.....all unopened goods now live in the office where it dos not behove you to make too quick a move if you don't want an avalanche of tins of tomato with chili around your feet.
Not to speak of a pack of refried beans braining you from above.

A remarkable number of small tables, stools and chairs have also moved to the balcony from kitchen and bathroom, together with the table which once held the oven and a sprawling box of old cloths for cleaning which the dogs have taken as their own and managed to spread over three times its original size.

Inside the kitchen the two and a half burner monstrosity on a half sized  table has been moved centre stage....The Men do not intend to go hungry.
It was supposed to come out onto the balcony but there was no room.

I have arranged menus involving as little use of pots and pans as possible.
Man A demanded mashed potato and cabbage to accompany his one pot stew.
Amazingly he is still here...on the grounds that he was to control progress.
He wants a souffle tomorrow....one squawk for potatoes and cabbage and he'll be in it...face first.

The plan was to remove the huge traditional sink from the area between the kitchen and bathroom to the outhouse which already shelters the smoker, and run water to that so that basic washing up and what not could continue.
The Men had been thwarted in their first plan to use the handbasin in the bathroom as it was too small.

To remove the sink the wall between it and the kitchen had to come out, so furniture, etc, is covered  in old sheets and the fun begins.....lumps of breeze block fly through the air and the dogs and I take refuge in Fortress Balcony as dust billows through the doors.

It takes all day, thanks to the Man A changing his mind about total removal and deciding to make an arch.
Arch still not made as Man B has never made one before and is showing the whites of his eyes....so the plan to get all the dust making jobs out of the way on day one falls to the ground.

The sink, however, is removed, by dint of Man B calling his son and the two of them heaving it out on rollers.....the chorus of the Hebrew Slaves runs through my mind.
Goodness only knows how, but they get it up on its new stand....and The Men return to the fray, chipping off concrete that is proud of the walls and making ready for a start on a new wall at right angles to the original one.
Measurements are made and holes drilled in the floor to take the iron bars.

All swept up.....and a new day dawns.
Man A has by now decided that the new wall only needs to be at half height so a discussion ensues as to whether it would not be best to take out all the bars and cut only what was needed, or just to chop across the lot in situ.
Out they all come and are cut to size. The one that is saved is reverently placed in the outhouse. It will come in handy.

Emphasis moves to concreting the walls, and I retreat to Fortress Balcony again.
When I emerge at coffee time it is to find the existing sink unit standing proudly alongside the hob.....and the tap disconnected.
The water supply to the old sink has been forgotten in the discussion about the new wall.

Further, to get to the only working tap apart from that in the bathroom I have to go through the dining room, doing three rounds with the cooker and units, to escape by the front door as Man B has parked his barrow full of cement just inside the back door.
On return I find that the hob has been placed  in front of the tea and coffee packs.
Problem solved by using the tongs from the barbecue to reach what is required....after a trek to the outhouse to retrieve same.

Man B fetches a bucket of water for washing up the cups. Thank goodness Costa Rica has products for washing up in cold water....huge tubs of what looks like the dentifrice paste I used as a child.
I remember in time not to pour water down the sink.
Retire to Fortress Balcony.

A stir fry has been planned, and the ingredients are prepared on the balcony.
All morning, the only sound has been the swish of trowel on wet concrete, but as I light the burner for the stir fry I am blasted with debris and covered  in dust as Man B cuts through a breeze block with an electric saw.
I suggest he returns to his concrete.

Lunch is served on the balcony followed by acrimonious discussion with Man A about exactly what control was he exercising in forgetting to get water to the old sink.

No agreement having been reached I wash up.
This entails piling everything into two buckets, taking the dentifrice and moving outside to the above ground fish tanks which are served by a continuous water supply.
Deft work with the hoses and articles are rinsed, washed and rinsed again.
It starts to rain.
As I pour away the surplus water into the drainage ditch behind the tanks an anxious voice cries from the interior

Don't let any of that water get into the fish tanks....

It rains harder.

Over afternoon coffee our local version of the International Labour Organisation hammers out a deal.

The water will be connected to the old sink tomorrow.

The arch will be made immediately afterwards.

All those interesting little lumps of concrete will be removed from the floor.

On pain of death...theirs....will the new units be put in place before the walls and ceilings are painted.

In recognition of which I agree to stop singing 'Right Said Fred'.


Monday 15 October 2012

Getting to Know You...

Ir used to be Columbus Day...commemorating that hopeful mariner's arrival in the West Indies.
Given the consequences.....illness, slavery and death....Central American states now prefer to celebrate a Dia de Culturas...celebrating native and incoming cultures.

Thus the picture on the right...a troupe of Chilean dancers taking part in the celebrations in the parks of San Jose.

It's a great way of appreciating just how many different peoples have come to make their lives in Costa Rica as government agencies and schools set up events over the weekend....you could sample food from Russia, Italy, Chile,China, Nicaragua and the West Indies in booths set up at the Migracion offices...normally resembling a Cecil B. de Mille crowd scene but decorated by the staff to be attractive and welcoming.....

You could watch demonstrations of crafts from Guatemala and Peru...

Or you could just enjoy the dancers.....

Sunday 14 October 2012

Compare and Contrast...the Dengue Carrying Mosquito and Politicians

Remember those old exam questions...compare and contrast?

Well, I can do no more than suggest you go to the super blog of


link here


And see what she has to say in her own inimitable style.


Thursday 11 October 2012


Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, should be wearing a hazard suit as she surfs a wave of polluted water in the latter half of her term of office.
Declaring herself as 'firm and honest'  in her election campaign was tempting fate...and fate never resists temptation.
So we have had scandal after scandal.....finance ministers who 'forget' to comply with tax laws....the whistleblowers threatened with legal proceedings...wives of ministers running lucrative consultancies which mysteriously always win the contracts awarded by...ministers....(so far just like Europe, but people make a fuss  about it here)....but most of all the stench arising from the building of the new road along the Rio San Juan which forms the border with Nicaragua.
Two committees overseeing it..one official, the other, run by her totally unqualified brother, with more power than the first......Transport Ministry officials living suddenly high on the hog....contractors who think it's a good idea to fill low lying parts with container bodies covered with logs which promptly collapse once wieght is applied....and enormous environmental damage. 
Proclaimed as a means of securing the borders...and bringing electricity and communication to remote settlements....a cynical section of the population wonder if it was not rather to use public money to open up estates bought by politicians who think there's a fair bet that Nicaragua will succeed in building a transocean canal there.
So with all this going on, you wouldn't imagine that a little photocopying would bring more problems around her head.
No,she has not been photocopying parts best left private.....but she has exercised her veto on a law protecting intellectual property....with the exception made for copying material for educational purposes.
The firm and honest Presidenta will make no exception. No photocopying. None.
Coming from rural France where if a document had to be supplied in triplicate you were getting off lightly, I was not surprised to see so many general shops and specialists offering photocopying.
I was surprised at how cheap it was, though!
And then I noticed how many schoolchildren, students and teachers were in the queue.
Administrative demands for copies are few....their offices have photocopiers.
Educational need for photocopying is vast.
Forms, worksheets....and textbooks.
This was the subject of the exception...to allow photocopying for educational purposes, recognizing that schools...and universities...just don't have adequate supplies, and that the cost of books is prohibitive for all but the offspring of well off families.
The exception that the Presidenta vetoed.
And the students protested...as per photograph up top.
Unfortunately a peaceful protest was hijacked by those with other agendas, resulting in policemen being injured and one politician soaked when a bag of urine was thrown at him, but, luckily, everyone seems to realise that this was not the intention of the protest organisers and the debate is on.
A textbook author has worked hard to produce his tome.
His publisher has put money into printing, publicity and distribution.
Is it fair that students can profit from their efforts simply by copying it?
Will not authors and publishing houses just fold their tents if there is not an adequate reward?
But what of the students?
Even in my day, when university libraries were funded to the hilt, there would not be enough of certain texts to go round...so if you had not bought your own you were jostling for a sight of it.
Students were even  known to get to the library as it opened as essay time approached!
But we either had money from parents or grants...or both... and I found it was perfectly possible to buy all the textbooks on the reading lists and a fair few others without breaking the bank or reducing the incidence of visits to the Student Union bar. 
I'm not sure what I would do now when the fees are high and the prospect of a student loan threatens to blight the rest of your relative youth., but I suspect I would do what I always used to do - something which appears to be a dying art among students.
Take notes.
Taking a note, reading it back and checking that you have all the elements is good training when using the information in essays and for having revision material for examinations.
It's not bad training for most things in your working life, either....but less and less students seem to be able to do it.
Instead they seem to cling to the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text, feeling that wholesale regurgitation is better regarded than a summary of the points.
From what I saw of education in France they might be right...I suspect it is similar here but don't know enough yet to say.
But even taking notes is not a solution if your library doesn't have copies.....and you don't know anyone with a book you can borrow.
I don't have a solution fair to both parties...though I think perhaps publishers could licence a reasonable amount of copies per year to educational establishments....so if I have to plump for sides then I suppose I'd go with the students....
Or to suggest to the firm and honest President that it might be an idea to fund education properly...and transparently.
Though I could make that suggestion to leaders of countries far better off than Costa Rica, too, where it seems that feeding the faces of the your cronies is more important than feeding the minds of the young.