Sunday, 15 August 2010

Costa Rica Musings - Living with Leafcutter Ants

Around 11am I spotted a very fine thing . . . a trail of leaf cutters decimating a weed patch for the first time ever . . . dandelions, clovers and such were literally racing back to a new leaf cutter colony 20 meters away . . . I noted: "What an unusually nice change in behavior. Come look at this!"

I also observed the trait seen in previous leaf cutter colonies that, in order to protect the bigger colony from inadvertent mass destruction, they usually only bring one type of plant material down each hole in the colony. Mangos go down that hole, the herb garden goes down another hole and so on and then if they make a mistake with some poisonous tree only a small part of the colony gets killed.

Oh happiness! This lot had discovered weeds! For newbies, it should be noted there are very few weeds in Costa Rica and even the weeds sometimes have very nice pink flowers, so it's hard to be selective.

But nonetheless, it would be every gardeners joy to find an aberrant leaf cutter strain with a penchant for weeds.

2 hours later, not REALLY believing my luck I go back and check on them. Huh! They had diversified on their way back from the weed patch and now were decimating a lovely ginger plant (the greenery not the ginger) and were making inroads on a host of NEW stuff on their way back to ground zero.

I am reassured that all optimism with regards to leaf cutters is entirely misplaced (well I suppose they were here first).

Costa Rica Musings - Statistically Speaking

Until last week I was pretty certain that there were only 4 or 5 animals called Zorros in Costa Rica. A knowledgeable local however last week assured me here were 8 such animals. When questioned closely on the subject as to what they were exactly he calmly said "Zorros".

Our local online newspaper last year reported that the 200th volcano had just been discovered in Costa Rica.  This led me to many humorous conversations with guests about "how did they miss it all that time" and such.  Then a local guide we work with was telling a guest there were only 162.  When I argued the fact that a gringo paper couldn't be wrong about something so absolute as 40 or so missing volcanoes, he assured me this was from his geologist professor and he could NOT be wrong about such matters but he would check.  Sure enough the number 162 came back.  If you look on Google you'll find any number of numbers . . . one of my faves' is this Polish web site (an expert on Costa Rica): Kosta Ryka (from a Polish perspective)

He claims the number is 112.

There are 47 San Rafaels in Costa Rica.
I was going to start a list but . . .
San Rafael
San Rafael
San Rafael . . .


From the Guardian (an apology):
"In our profile of Daniel Dennett (pages 20 to 23, Review, April 17), we said he was born in Beirut. In fact, he was born in Boston. His father died in 1947, not 1948. He married in 1962, not 1963. The seminar at which Stephen Jay Gould was rigorously questioned by Dennett's students was Dennett's seminar at Tufts, not Gould's at Harvard. Dennett wrote Darwin's Dangerous Idea before, not after, Gould called him a "Darwinian fundamentalist".  Only one chapter in the book, not four, is devoted to taking issue with Gould.  The list of Dennett's books omitted Elbow Room, 1984, and The Intentional Stance, 1987. The marble sculpture, recollected by a friend, that Dennett was working on in 1963 was not a mother and child. It was a man reading a book."

COSTA RICAN MUSINGS - Right up there

RIGHT UP THERE and among my favorite headlines from our on-line newspaper AM Costa Rica:

"San José-Limón highway will not be closed this morning"



Our first big leak.

The rainy season, or as it is called locally "the temporada baja"  or if you are feeling grumpy today just the "temporada", starts in April and goes through mid November. It rains a lot in May and early June (a few hours every day) and again in September and October. July and August can be a mini high season with just a little rain in the afternoons.

In Costa Rica nearly everything leaks.

When we first got here a guest with a nice sense of humor came up to the Casa. We had a few hours earlier let them in and showed them to their Casita at the bottom of our garden - the Mariposa. A torrential rainstorm had hit for the last hour and had just stopped.

He was grinning from ear to ear and asking for some help with mops. "The water came through the front door," he said.

"Oh dear, we'll be right down."

"Well that's the bad news, the good news is it came in the front door and went right out the back like a river."

Since then we have remodeled the Mariposa and the garden in front of it so this no longer happens. As extra security we moved the front door to the side :-)


"Don't leave the remote there."
"Why not?"
"That's where it leaked yesterday."
"That's why I put it there."
"We fixed the roof again today."
"How do you know it won't leak there exactly?"
"It always leaks somewhere else when we do that."
"Not necessarily."
"You wait."

post script: the really big leak is now two smaller leaks either side of the remote control

Pondering plumbing from an entirely new perspective and the continued tales from the Temporada Baja:

I ask, "Freddy what ya doin?"

(ASIDE: Freddy is the new electrician and related to 2 of our staff and hence a protected species and tasked with sealing the rather wet junction boxes in the garden)

He says, "Fixing the garden lights."
"It's taking a long time." I note.
"Yes, the electrical conduit is full of water."
"Is that bad?"

Freddy shrugs.
"What will you do next?"
"I'll seal the box onto the conduit since you don't want me digging up more of the garden."
"Is that OK?"
Freddy shrugs and continues noodling 7 inches underground.
"OK. Hmmmm."
And I head up the hill pondering a new enlightenment.

Today I realize . . .the only thing that does not leak in our house is the electrical conduit.

Later that day. I walk back down the garden.

"Freddy, you know about that thing in the gulf where everything including the ocean floor leaks and people say that is normal?"
"Well they are drilling a hole a mile deep into a pipe a few inches wide."
"I wonder about such precision with all the engineering needed to cause a trillion gallons of oil to leak out, cracks in the floor and how do you do that and such. I wonder about such things."
"Well we have an electrical conduit full of water, you see."
"Yes, I know, I just sealed it."
"What if we took a tip from the experts and we dug a hole down the hill a bit, find the conduit and make a new leak?"

COSTA RICAN MUSINGS - Addresses, Mail or lack of

A person considering doing business in Costa Rica wondered about using the local mail to ship stuff.  This is a subject of much debate as Costa Rica has few street names, very few street signs and no real addresses. 

If you ask a Tico when was the last  time they sent a letter, the odds on answer is "never".
Yes we do have a post office in big towns like Alajuela and they even have commemorative stamps though, who these get sent to, is a mystery.  The postal service here must have been modeled on one from a country that has actual addresses however it requires very few personnel and in a town like ours of many thousands (perhaps 70,000 - nobody really knows) we have just 2 people doing deliveries.

So many folks reaction to that is either disbelief or plain ole dumbfoundedness. 
"You mean you have no junk mail!?"
What happens if you forget to pay your phone bill?"
"Um, well, it's one of the commonest reasons you don't get a phone answered here."
"You forgot to go down to the phone company (we only have one) and pay the bill."
"Then what?"
"The phone starts working again."
"Wouldn't it be easier for them to mail you a bill?"
"Heck no, where would they mail it to?"

This is why about one day a month you will find us scurrying around our town of Alajuela  - to ICE to pay the phone bill, the the municipality to pay the utilities and taxes, to the CAJA (health service) to pay the workers comp and insurance and to the bank to pay the rest.

Yes we do have a PO Box but most people in our town do not.  Yes occasionally someone will mail something (about the only thing now is my newsletter from PAII, the Professional Association of Innkeepers) to the hotel in Alajuela.  I will find it a day or two later among front entrance jungle, marvel at the process that got it here and scurry off to read about Innkeepers in the real world we left.
One local thought or thinks their mail they get from the US is opened from time to time.

Which reminded me of a favorite bit in a book:

"Sharing the hospital room with Yossarian are numerous others, including his friend Captain Dunbar, who has also fabricated an illness, and a man wrapped entirely in gauze and plaster. The patients, all of whom are officers and most of whom it seems are not truly ill, spend their time censoring the letters of enlisted men. Yossarian takes particular pleasure in censoring the letters in bizarre and creative ways; in one instance, he eliminates all words except "a", "an", and "the," producing what he terms "a message far more universal." Because all officers are required to sign their names at the bottom of the letters they censor, Yossarian signs his "Washington Irving."

At this point the reader is first introduced to the term "Catch-22." Yossarian uses the phrase to describe the requirement that officers sign their names at the bottom of each letter. The author doesn't explain what Catch-22 means exactly; but he does hint that it reflects a bizarre or seemingly contradictory situation.

The only person left in the ward is an under-cover C.I.D. man sent to investigate the mysterious "Washington Irving." He has caught cold and is actually sick. "

Now what's really stupid is that I borrowed this synopsis of a favorite book from "jiffynotes" designed for people who don't want to read (books).
You see how this all comes around to our beloved post office? They recently made little slogan stickers for each of the empty booths at the Alajuela post office about their excellent service. Pause for some retrospection.

When there are two guys in the office, they usually inhabit the same booth . . . I wonder about such things but say nothing. Overall, if I am not using their services, I rate them #1. And am a big fan of the commemorative stamps.

Every day the employees wake up thankful we have no army or they'd be required to deal with actual addresses. Um what else did you need to know about the postal system?
Here's a bit of trivia in a conversation the US Postal Service might have had a couple of years back when  they were looking for ways to save money (reader note: M-Bags were a fabulous system used to distribute books from countries with too many of them to countries like Costa Rica with almost none):

"We just got a call from the head of the Costa Rican Postal Service."
"About what?  I didn't know they had one?"
"The size of the M-Bags."
"What about them?"
"They complained they're too big."
"Everyone else takes em, even Lichtenstein and Kirjikstanabad!"
"Well they use scooters in CR."
"They do?"
"Ya one guy drives and the other hangs on the back holding the M-Bag."
"OK we'll just abolish the M-Bag."
"Ya, that'll work."

p.s. My Mother Once Sent me some Mail, I promptly asked her to Stop Doing That.

Costa Rican Musings - Crime Rate Plummets and Residency Renewal

From time to time we observe that things just work a little differently here.  This blog post is for those with an interest in some such diferences.
When interviewed from his hammock at the northern Alajuela Fuerza Publica outpost, the captain blamed it on "the world cup".

Noting dozily for the record and translated badly by google, "I hear the phenom is hitting police stations throughout centro america." "Wake me up when it's over."
Our local Costa Rican message board has many cases of inadvertent humor.  This wonderful web page covers the drivers license renewal process here in lovely detail and pictures . . . the web page is in English and "Japonese" for the 3 Japanese residents of CR. "Drivers License Renewal for Japonse Residents"

The Tanaka family also has fun with their residency renewal process here:  "Renewing a Cedula of Residence".  This process was not for the faint of heart and starts ""Yo era el No. 201.  Era un dia terrible."