Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Making life a little brighter for all God's drivers

Since I frequently travel to Escazu, this trip usually entails taking the highway back to Ciudad Colon, complete with a set of hazards such as drivers in their SUVs in such a rush that they're willing to run you off the road (this happens more often than not), people running across the highway (and often getting hit in the process), bicyclists who really have no business riding on the highway in the first place, etc. (That is, unless I decide to take the back road, which entails another completely different set of hazards including bad drivers, narrow roads, one-lane bridges often used by cars going in both directions, dogs running after your car, etc. etc. etc.) Just past the Escazu on-ramp is a toll booth that is for traffic going in the western direction (though I think it would make more sense to have it going in the eastern direction toward San Jose instead, thereby perhaps encouraging fewer single-car drivers into the already overcrowded city -- oh, but my thoughts on our overcrowded streets are another matter entirely).

Anyway, in said toll both works a woman who never fails to smile and say "Que Dios le bendiga" (May God bless you) or "Que Dios le acompana" (May God accompany you). Despite working what must be a completely thankless job, despite standing on her feet for many hours a day. Whether it is in the early morning or during a late afternoon shift, she never, ever fails to smile and bless you with God's graces. If I see her cheerful head sticking out of the toll booth, I will purposely take her lane. Her joy is infectious and truly, I feel happy for the rest of the 20-minute or so ride home, often longer if my son is not throwing a fit by the time I get home. The most I can offer her in thanks for her spreading of goodwill is a cheerful "Gracias!" in return. Perhaps one of these days I'll bake her some cookies...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Through the trees they go

I saw this video about Costa Rica's canopy tours on National Geographic's website this morning. Personally, I can't stand this guy Hreinuk, who purportedly started Costa Rica's first zip line tours through the treetops and then wanted to get a patent on the idea -- the fact that biologists had been using ziplines for decades notwithstanding. I can't recall what the final outcome was there -- I think he got the patent, then had it revoked after he went around with police officers making smaller tour operators take their lines down. Typical foreigner thinking he knows what's best. I thought the Nat Geo "reporter" could have done a far better job on this piece; she certainly presents a one-sided view: Hreinuk's. She says things like, he was concerned about safety of people and the forests. Perhaps, but I'm sure that big fat commission he'd get from every other tour operator in the country using his "patent" had NOTHING to do with him trying to corner the market on canopy tours in the first place. Bleh. You couldn't pay me enough to take an "Original Canopy Tour." I'll stick to the smaller operators and put my tourist dollars in the hands of those who deserve them, thanks.

While I think their idea -- to see the effects of canopy tours on the environment -- is a good one (let's face it: any development has an effect on the environment), Hreinuk's comments smack of "I know the right way and it's better than what everyone else is doing, so let's make these government standards that are so expensive the little guys go out of business." Ok, I added that last part, but if one knows the history of this guy's back-and-forth with the patent office and other tour operators, it certainly seems plausible. Of course he's "concerned," he can afford to use all of these high-tech building materials and tools; most small Costa Rican tour operators, I would guess, cannot. So he puts these "standards" in place and drives other tour operators out of business. Hmmm, that seems so three years ago! Couldn't do it with the patent office, so let's try it with government standards! And yes, I actually do believe standards are important, I'm not saying they're not. But if the government is going to enact safety and environmental standards all zipline operators should follow, they should really do their own, independent study, not one done by the biggest canopy tour operator in the whole country! Give me a break. He has his own interests at heart; listening to the man speak makes me want to vomit.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A month of quilting, part II

I realized that I also need to make some Log Cabin blocks for the next guild meeting, so I've decided not to participate in the oriental lanterns swap after all. So little time, sew many quilts...

I did, however, finish the quilt block for the ex-president's quilt. When I told her about the quilt I was planning on entering in the quilt show, she said how much she liked Laurel Burch's artwork, so I made her this block from the book Kindred Creatures. "Anita" is so cute, don't you think? I'm really happy with the way she came out. Plus I got to use my new fabric markers! Woo-hoo!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The kids are alright

A child's birthday party in Costa Rica, like many other aspects of life in this small country, has some basic components that everyone seems to follow. I thought I'd list them for you, in case you are planning on either throwing a party or attending one, so that you may be properly schooled on the subject:

1. Everyone is invited. This means not only the child's friends, but also all of his relatives, parents' friends, classmates (all of them, not just a select few), and friends of friends are generally welcome to come.

2. Everyone brings a gift. That goes without saying, I suppose. Don't come empty-handed.

3. Everyone goes home with a gift bag. These are requisite "thank-you"s to all children in attendance. And they're fun to put together. For our son's last birthday (2 years old), the gift bags we gave out contained mini coloring books, boxes of crayons, packages of either cheese crackers or peanut butter crackers, and packs of dried fruit. The ones we received yesterday contained plastic toys, candy, and bamboo whistles. Son has also received mini soccer balls, small toys, coloring books, etc. You are not likely to get a thank-you note (or even a phone call or e-mail, unless the party is thrown by Gringos) for the gift you bring to the child having a birthday, so I guess this is the Costa Rican version of said thank-you note. On the other hand, though, that lets you off the hook of having to write a thank-you note to all of those relatives, parents of child's classmates, etc.

4. Every child's party has a piñata. Since most kids have been practicing breaking the piñata since they were a few months old, the older kids are quite good at knocking the thing to shreads. Usually the small ones go first, then the older kids. The birthday child always gets to go first. Kids are not usually given a blindfold and turned in circles, unless they are quite a bit older. An adult holds the piñata's rope and swings the piñata out of the way, getting increasingly difficult proportional to the age of the child. Filling the piñata is fun, and can be a challenge in itself, especially if you want to avoid the candy as much as possible. Last year, I managed to find lots of sugar free candy, small plastic animals, packages of raisins and dried fruit, other little toys that wouldn't fall apart during the first use, and animal crackers. They seemed to be a hit, surprisingly! Most parties we have attended, however, have had the sugary-filled piñatas. We, therefore, try to keep son off to the side, and he hasn't learned the "grab everything in sight" trick yet, so he just takes a few things he wants and that's that. Whatever we have left over usually goes in the trash can a few days later (if esposo and I don't eat it first!), after son has forgotten about it. A side note on piñata etiquette: Many adults act like greedy pigs, grabbing more than the kids do and stuffing it into the kids' bags, leaving some children with not much at all. I find this practice highly annoying. Please, for all that is good, show some restraint. Don't be that parent. It's no wonder (and really I am talking about Costa Rican kids here, Gringo kids/parents do not usually act so greedy) the older children are so grabby; they get it from their parents! Sheesh...

5. Besides the cake, childrens' parties usually include copious amounts of foodstuffs: cold salads, appetizers, side dishes, entrees -- it's a veritable buffet! Even at a non-vegetarian party, I found PLENTY of vegan things to eat and was stuffed by the end of the day. Don't be cheap -- the spread is more for the adults than the kids and people will remember it!

6. There is usually an activity of some sort. Though I can't stomach clowns myself, every party we've been to for a Costa Rican child has had a freakin' clown. If you don't want to go the clown route, you could opt for swimming, some other type of entertainment, having the kids all make a craft, face painting, etc. We've been to several parties at Gymbo Fiestas, which is great fun for all the kids (though they're not cheap and the snacks are crap, so you really have to bring your own unless you don't mind potato chips and soft drinks for the preschool set). You can rent a bouncy house, you could hire a magician -- a recent party for an older girl (that we didn't attend but our friend told us about) took them all to a ceramics studio where they used leftover tiles to make coasters, mirrors and picture frames. Nice idea! Having a wading pool for little kids is a good idea. If the child's birthday is in July, you should probably start thinking about the party in January. The planned activity is crucial to the whole thing going off without a hitch.

7. Singing "Happy Birthday." At a mostly Costa Ricans party, you will sing in Spanish. At a Gringos-Ticos party, you'll probably sing both in English and Spanish, so brush up on those Spanish lyrics! They're not that difficult. In Costa Rica, they are a little different than in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world:

Cumpleaños feliz,
Te deseamos a ti.
Cumpleaños a [child's name here],
Que los cumpla feliz.

At a Ticos-only party, ya ain't likely to sing in English at all.

8. Costa Rican birthday parties, like most other Costa Rican parties, can last for hours on end. Expect to dedicate half a day, at least, to attending the party. If preparing for one, expect to spend several days in advance. Don't worry too much about arriving late; that's the Costa Rican way. Remember, you're on Tico Time! We get to be late for everything now. It is expected. If the party you are attending "starts" at 1:00, you can get there around 2:00. If you want a party you are throwing to start at 1:00, tell people to get there by noon. Actually, tell the Gringos to get there at 1:00 (unless they've lived here for many years and are on Tico Time!); tell the Costa Ricans to get there at noon.

I hope this helps your Costa Rican birthday experience go much more smoothly! Just remember: If you get really bored, you can always bow out early, using that Costa Rican standby excuse: "I have another appointment/meeting/previous engagement that I have to get to!"

Friday, March 09, 2007

A month of quilting

March 2007 will go down in my personal history as the month I quilted by brains out (fingers off?). So far, I've made these blocks for a block swap:

The blocks go together very quickly, so if you're new to quilting and would like to have a go, this is a great pattern to try. Plus you can donate some blocks to help a child in need get a nice, new quilt all for himself/herself.

Then, I actually won something at the Quilt-Ticas Quilt Guild meeting on Tuesday, which means I needed to make a raffle prize for the next meeting. I saw this very cute pattern for a pillow using UFOs (unfinished objects in quilting lingo), and used four blocks that didn't quite size up right from the swap blocks to make this pillow:

The pattern, again, is very simple and I'd bet just about anyone could whip one up in a few hours. In fact, you can make it even easier by cutting out a single piece of fabric to the size you'd like the pillow front to be, and then following the rest of the directions for the backing. Anyway, I hope whoever wins it likes it, because my son is quite reluctant to part with it. So much so that I'll probably make one just for him.

The Quilt-Ticas' president's term is up this month, so everyone in the guild is making a 9-1/2 x 9-1/2" square for a quilt for her as a gift. I've started on that one (lucky thing we don't need to actually quilt it, which will make it go much faster, though of course I chose a pattern with a lot of embellishment). And I need to finish my quilt for the quilt show in May, and I have to bind two more edges of baby Leo's quilt (I'll load pics when those are finished). And I am considering joining another swap, because I have TONS of the fabric they're using and I never could figure out what to do with it, so at least this way I could use it up and get some great blocks in return. But, I want to make a block or two first, see how fast they go, and see if I'll have time. Whew.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Are you afraid of the Big, Bad Costa Rica?

You may (or may not) recall the story about the old geezer (reportedly a Green Beret in Vietnam) who, while taking a shore trip during a port stop on a Carnival cruise to Costa Rica, put a choke hold on a guy in Limon trying to rob their tour bus, killing said thief from Limon in the process. This has apparently made some people wary of visiting the country; however, others say not to fear. Personally, I take the middle ground and say to keep yourself safe by being aware of your surroundings, not carrying flashy objects on you (thereby making yourself a target of thieves), and not leaving objects of value in your car (I don't, and I would sure hope tourists don't either). Still, things happen. Tim Leffel asks, would you feel safer in West Virginia, Kentucky or Costa Rica? (And answers his own question: Costa Rica.) Personally, I'm not sure. Since I first started visiting esposo here back in 1998, things have really changed and not for the better. There are more Gringos than ever, more development, more drug addicts (witness how the once-lovely beach town of Tamarindo has turned into a crack junkies' paradise), and certainly more theft. Though when I see the uber-rich driving around in their Hummers, it makes me sick to my stomach. How many poor people could they feed, give an education to, help get a job with that money? What is the point of such ostentatiousness? Perhaps the rise in crime is proportional to the rise in the filthy rich taking advantage of this small country and its people. I think Costa Rica is primed for a showdown with itself -- when we begin to lose the almighty tourist dollar because people are afraid (often rightly so) to come here and choose safer destinations instead, something may be done about the situation. I, for one, am sick to death of living behind bars. They do nothing to make me feel safe; in fact, it is just the opposite. I feel like if there was a fire in my house, I might be unable to get myself and my son out in time, and we certainly couldn't climb through a window covered in iron bars, now could we? Bars are not going to stop anyone from breaking into my house if that's what they really want to do. There are not enough police officers to go around (a friend told me last night there is ONE police officer for all of La Carpio, arguably one of the most notorious gang-infested neighborhoods in all of San Jose), and there are not enough opportunities for young people and families to envision a better life for themselves. How are children to escape the circle of poverty when it surrounds them every day, when no one takes them seriously, when the "education" they receive is so badly lacking in so many, many ways? Here's a glimpse into the lives of the poor, as reported in yesterday's La Nacion: 37% of Costa Rican families say they do not have enough money to cover basic household expenses. That's serious poverty, my friends. They cannot make enough to feed and clothe their children, let alone do things many of the rest of us take for granted (go see a movie once in a while, have dinner out once in a while). Yet there are those who just don't give a shit, driving around in their Hummers, polluting and wasting money that could be put to better use (and please don't even attempt to argue with me on this one; NO ONE needs a Hummer!). We are at a crossroads, and I will be very interested to see where we land in the next ten years.

Friday, March 02, 2007

What money can't buy

Since we moved into this house, I've noticed a dog running around the neighborhood who looks exactly like Numi, only a bit smaller. Yesterday I finally asked the guard whose dog it was and what was the story there. He told me that she belongs to the family down the street, who had her mother, but then had to "perderla" (which literally means "lose her," but in this sense in means "dump her") downtown because she was so crazy (so that's the source of all my problems with Numi!) about two years ago. We got Numi a little over a year ago, which would make her the dumped dog's daughter. The morons decided to keep one of the dogs, thus the one I see running all over the neighborhood, who has also just had a litter of puppies.

I'm not sure where to start on this one. How asinine it was to dump the poor dog off in the first place rather than take her to one of the several shelters in the country? The fact that Costa Ricans use the word "lose" makes it sound so much nicer, as though they had no hand in the animals' disappearance. It's sort of like, to me, saying you had to "put a dog to sleep" instead of "euthanize a dog." Let's call a spade a spade, people. To dump an animal and expect them to somehow take care of themselves is a shitty, immoral thing to do. I have such a low opinion of these people now, compounded by the fact that they not only dumped their dog's mother, but that they are too stupid/ignorant/cheap to get the other one spayed and stop this cycle of overpopulation. Look, we live in what is considered here in CR an "upscale" neighborhood, a gated community in the hills of Ciudad Colon. Not too many people can afford to live here. Our neighbors own about 25 acres, all walled in, and come and go via helicopter (there is much speculation on who owns the property -- two celebrities from the U.S. are popular possibilities). Our next-door neighbors are selling their house for US1.5 million. I'm not saying this to brag (far from it, we can barely afford to live here and have, in fact, just signed a contact on a new house downtown for a lot less). I'm saying this to make a point that money buys neither compassion nor brains.

I have joined the education committee for a local animal welfare group in the hopes that I can make a difference in these animals' lives. Esposo has said that I should stop complaining and do something, so that is exactly what I intend to do. I think there is limited possibility to change an adult's mind about the abuse they have been perpetuating all of their lives on innocent creatures (especially since this is a Catholic country, and Catholisim preaches that animals neither go to heaven, nor have souls, the fact that humans are animals notwithstanding). But children are a different matter. The other day I was talking to a 7-year-old girl about why I'm a vegan (she asked, I don't go around preaching to everyone I meet, but she wanted to know, so I told her the truth). A few days later, I saw her again, and she told me that she wanted to stop eating meat. I asked her why, and she said that she loved animals and didn't think it was right to eat them. It's such a simple matter to a kid: it hurts when you throw rocks at a dog, so let's not do it. It's wrong to "lose" a dog; dogs do have feelings and there are ways to take care of them and ways to hurt them. Anyway, I am excited about being on the education committee, getting information about pets to children and starting to change things around here. It all starts with the kids.