We Do It Our Way

Tour de France riders, eat your heart out. Forget the water bottles and snacks handed out from the cars, do it the Costa Rican way…find a passing cow and help yourself! You need to know what you’re doing though, or you might risk a hefty hoof in your derailleurs which would leave you looking more jaundiced than your jersey – but at least you can be sure you’ll pass a dope test.

Not that Andrey Amador, the only Costa Rican riding in the Tour de France, will be looking for a handy cow.

A long serving Grand Tour ‘domestique’ he is riding for Team Ineos this year and Costa Rica will be keeping an eye on his prowess – something to keep minds off the blasted bug which has hit the country.

In which respect, the wheels have fallen off the campaign to contain it.

All went well in the early days. Existing hospitals were reorganised, a special hospital set up and the populace told to keep themselves to themselves to protect the vulnerable. Those presenting with symptoms were treated with the hydrochloriquine and zinc cocktail which produced excellent results save in the case of those with grave pre existing health problems. Then the WHO banned that treatment, so the hospitals turned to the use of dexametasone and steroids (anti inflamatories), oxygen therapy – including EMCO which is an extracorporean oxygenation machine – interleukin inhibitor and antibiotics -when the patient is reinfected by other pathogens. Not so effective…..but funding depends on WHO approval.

It also depends, it appears, on the numbers of cases reported.

Initially, when the cases began to spike, it was put down to the number of Nicaraguan ‘informal’ workers coming down for the fruit plantations’ picking and packing campaign. The Nicaraguan government deny there is a problem with the bug – even hold fiestas at which attendance is strongly recommended should you wish to keep in good odour with said government – and encourage their nationals to seek care in Costa Rica. Care which Costa Rica will provide nomatter the status of the person seeking it

No doubt the influx is a factor. Imagine a couple of infected people arriving and living in the squalid, hugger mugger conditions provided…or who go to visit family living in Costa Rica…

But the numbers have jumped…have high jumped….and anecdotal evidence is that when one person is tested positive, all those in their household are counted as positive also….inflate the numbers and increase the funding.

We had had confidence in our health service…and their management of the situation.

We still have confidence in the dedication of the medical staff – even if they cannot use the most effective tools.

We no longer have any confidence in the way in which government and the management of the health service are handling things.

Contracts for masks which are useless handed out to some tart running a communications business….numbers inflated to drum up funding…which ends up in whose pocket?

Good treatment banned, leaving staff to do their best with what they have….

Government ministers giving their statements all masked up…then being filmed mask free in close bikinied company on a yacht off the Pacific coast….or tucked up in de luxe hotels on the beach – mask free, of course.

Vehicle restrictions which all would accept in the cause of reducing infection, but which have turned into a money tree as traffic police impose fines for all and any infraction, hitting hardest, not the fly by nights, but the hard up guy who depends on his unlicensed motorbike to get to work to feed his family. Why it does not dawn on government that the high price of getting a licence, and for keeping a vehicle on the road hit the most needy hardest is beyond me…but Costa Rica prides itself on being eco friendly, so the poor continue to pay while the country flaunts its green credentials.

And now, having been so slow to close the borders, we are to allow tourists back in. To be fair, as a tourist, you stand little risk, unless you decide to visit the shanty towns around San Jose, the shacks housing the workers in the banana and pineapple plantations or the hospitals, but the risk to the local population of allowing tourists to enter with minimal restrictions is something else…just so that the largely foreign owned tourist trade can recoup its losses.

Tourism counts for only some eight per cent of GDP…but it has clout…and doubtless the transfer of funds from one pocket to another.

And in our little town, the reported case of one of the employees at the Walmart outlet has been made much of….whereas the absence from service of staff at the locally owned supermarket has been passed over in silence…

This virus has been presented as equivalent to the Black Death, which is nonsense. We have the means to combat it if not to utterly defeat it.

But perhaps the consequences mght be similar…..either people submit to the ukazes of their increasingly detached governments, or they strike out to free themselves of unjust restrictions in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

I fear that it will be the former…I would hope it would be the latter.

In my short time here I have seen the changes…worried about the future for my friends’ kids and grandchildren…it was an oligarchal society, but one which recognised that social justice reinforced its rule.

This virus has ripped up the underbelly of that society….but will people submit…or react?

Costa Rica was never a paradise…but it was socially stable….will our friends’ grandchildren find that they didn’t know what they had until it was gone?

And will this virus be the catalyst?

Sexteando in Guatemala City

avenida sexta GC

Guatemala City.…home from home for a Scot!

Porridge for breakfast and a bus system that lets you ride all day for one Quetzal…about 10p….as long as you don’t get off.

I should qualify the porridge, though, known as ‘mosh‘….it is made very thin to resemble a drink and is flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. The sort of Scot who takes his oatmeal standing and flavoured with salt would find it effete…but I liked it as a starter to the breakfasts we took each day in a caff we found while looking for one recommended in the ten year old guidebook which Higher Authority was using as a vade mecum on the grounds that

A….buildings could not be moved.

and

B…it was a false economy to buy an up to date guide when only visiting for a week.

This policy led to many architectural discoveries…from Spanish colonial to art deco

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via pure fantasy….while pounding the back streets in search of long vanished Argentinian steak houses.

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Returning to the caff, that too would delight a Scots heart…a full breakfast for one pound fifty….mosh, followed by a plate of refried beans, cheese, fried plantains, sour cream and a choice of eggs cooked several different ways or, if feeling like making a splash, a pork chop for thirty pence more, accompanied by coffee and bread such as I had not tasted since leaving the U.K. all those years ago…a crisp crust , feather light within…not a Glasgow morning roll, to be sure, but not far off!

There are twenty two zones in Guatemala City and I suspect that some of them bear out the reputation for dirt and danger which was proclaimed by the guidebook but the experience of the zones down the spine of the city was decidedly different. I have never in all my puff seen so many street cleaners to the square yard…..they wash down the pavements early in the morning and then spend their day picking up litter and sweeping away rubbish. The place is spotless.

As to danger, the city crawls with police of all sorts, from the ones who mind the zebra crossings who wear gaiters at one end and pith helmets at the other to those in black who pile out of pick up trucks in response to goodness only knows what and the paramilitary ones in green fatigues who patrol fully armed.

Many shops have their own security guards, armed to the teeth with pump action sawn off shotguns, while chemist shops, in particular, look like old fashioned zoo cages – you half expect Guy the gorilla to appear to take your order – so I imagine that security could be a problem if control were to be relaxed.

The original city bus services had had a bad reputation for crime, whether it was robbing passengers or shooting the drivers to extort protection money from the owners and in response the city has set up two systems which avoid the drivers carrying cash – the Transurbano which covers a great deal of the city and access to which is made by a card which can be topped up, rather like London Transport’s Oyster card, and the Transmetro which is accessed by paying a Quetzal into the slot machine at each station, guarded by a policeman, and is the one on which you can make a tour of the city just by changing lines at the junctions. The old red buses are still there though, belching fumes as they lurch round corners  with the young conductor hanging in the open doorway to hoist potential passengers aboard…

transmetro

There are two types of taxi… white ones with black chequerboarding and yellow ones. The first roam the city and charge by agreement, the second is summoned by telephone and charges by the meter. There is also Uber apparently, but as I have no wish to encourage the leeches who run it I don’t use it.

We met the first type when starting on the museum visits….we were staying in Zone 1, the historic centre of the city, as it is good for walking. The museums we wished to visit were in Zones 10 and 13…a long way down the spine and mostly set in parkland, way off the bus routes.

You have not lived until you have sat behind a Guate taxista who, in heavy traffic, is driving with a tablet in one hand to access a map and a mobile ‘phone in the other, over which a mate is giving him directions. And even then he took a wrong turning…..

church GC

I thought it might be a Russian Orthodox church…but it was certainly not the museum we were heading for. Still we made it eventually and were assured that the museum staff would call us a taxi for the return trip.

Indeed they did. A yellow one.

Given the traffic, exacerbated by repairs on one of the main roads through the city, the meter was mounting up alarmingly…so Higher Authority commanded a change of destination.

‘The nearest Transmetro station’.

Money ceased to hemorrhage and we were back at the hotel for a Quetzal.

I had never felt much attraction for the pre-Columbian cultures of Central America, but the exhibitions of the Popul Vuh museum changed my mind. The flowing movement of the painted ceramics, then the melancholy of the incense burners and  the funerary urns  recalling the canopic vases of ancient Egypt was that which, finally, gave me the human link which had previously eluded me.

museo-popol-vuh pot

 

Interest in the Maya thus kindled I was sorely tempted by reviews of a restaurant offering a fusion of modern and Maya cuisine, just round the corner from the hotel.

La Cocina de la Senora Pu.

The lady in charge is an anthropologist and her message is that Mayan culture survived the colonial period in its essentials…as demonstrated by the syncretism of religious practice and the perseverance of cooking styles.

Temptd by the blurb on her website I ventured out to take a look but was repulsed by the style of the place. The customer eats at a bar surrounding the cooker at which the owner exercises her arts and that is much too close for comfort for me. I like to have a table far from the maelstrom without interaction with other diners…let alone the chef… and the reaction of Higher Authority on learning that he was expected to sit on a stool at a bar to eat his dinner would certainly have ruptured any idea of social harmony and drawn unflattering comparisons with the conquistadors.

la-cocina-de-la-senora

Do I regret it? In a way, yes…I was curious….and in a way, looking at the photographs of the food supplied by the restaurant, no. The sauces would have to be jolly good to make me eat some of those veg.

la-cocina-de-la-senora dish

As a one time spinner, dyer and weaver I was keen to learn more about the traditional arts of the Maya women.

A friend had given me addresses in Antigua where I would find the real thing…natural dyes and natural fabrics… but as Higher Authority overdid the walking and was thus confined to the hotel for a day I had had to renounce a visit to that sanitised home of yoga mats and boutique hotels.

Instead I visited the Ixchel museum,  home of indigenous textiles…alongside the Popul Vuh.

I was intrigued by the clay figures of Mayan women of the classic period with their geometric hairstyles…the Mary Quants of their time….. but less intrigued by the failure of the museum to demonstrate more clearly the  techniques of dying and weaving, particularly the use of the backstrap loom

backstrap loom

though the exhibits did show the colours and patterns typical of each area when producing the huipil, a rectangular garment with a hole for the head

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and the cortes, a wrap wround skirt secured by a sash.

cortes

 

Dress changed in the colonial period…to be assimilated, men wore more European style clothes…but traditional  dress was preserved in the ‘cofradias’ the groups of people who held themselves responsible for the upkeep of venerated statues and the like….again, something more marked among women than among men.

The museum was good at showing how weavers now use ready dyed artifical thread…and a lot of sparkly stuff…to produce their wares, while still keeping a link to the traditional colours and designs of their area which went a long way to explain the forty shades of bling encountered on the streets where the vast majority of the women wore Mayan costume.

And there was, of course, the railway museum.

museo-del-ferrocarril

Not only could I wallow in photographs of steam trains crossing spidery viaducts

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but I also learned that the Guatemala and El Salvador rail systems had a unique gauge, that a bankrupt government handed the Guatemalan railways over to the United Fruit Company whose hold was so complete that Guatemalans had to pay to use the port they built on the Caribbean coast and that it was to break that monopoly that a later president built the road to the coast which in turn broke the railway.

A long conversation with the staff about the role of the unions in advancing social welfare, a joint rant about neo liberalism…and my day was made!

Staying in the old city centre I was well placed to see the procession which brought the Immaculate Conception from the church of San Francisco to the Metropolitan Cathedral….complete with petards, men selling balloons and a band playing lively pasadobles which incited those pushing the attendant saints  on brown wheelie bins to pass at a fair lick.

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Two gallant gentlemen had hoisted me up on the wall of the park to enable me to take photographs while below us an elderly lady was  informing her neighbours that this, for example, was Saint Theresa. Presumably the Avila one rather than the Lisieux one.

‘No’ said a gentleman with the lapel badge of one of the cofradas ‘That is Saint Clare’

Then she spotted Saint Francis….no it wasn’t, it was Santo Domingo…and so it went on while the float bearing the Immaculate Conception made its solemn way to the cathedral steps. Just as well that the eighty odd men bearing it were able to ignore the band as trying to leg it to a pasadoble would have led to instant disaster and possibly thirty years more in Purgatory.

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Assisted to the ground by the two same gallant gentlemen I made my way back to the hotel, passing the bar where Che Guevara downed a few beers in his time, in a gallery off the main square.

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I would return to the cathedral to take a closer look….

cathedral GC

You see the pillars in front? They form a monument to those who ‘disappeared’ during the bitter civil war in Guatemala, where villages were razed to the ground on suspicion of aiding guerrilla bands trade unionists and activists were snatched on the street, never to be seen again.

cathedral pillars

Twelve pillars….but there could be twenty and still names would be missing.

Ordinary people, a baker, like the chaps who made my breakfast rolls, snatched and never seen again. His wife sought information for years…and found it when a building housing police archives collapsed. She learnt that he had indeed been snatched…and, amazingly, that he had been under surveillance for seventeen years previously.

Just take a moment to think…seventeen years in an age of pen and paper and police informers… in our era of camera surveillance and interception of electronic communication any government fearing dissent could act in an instant.

We too have our secret…and not so secret…police.

But across from those grim memorials a Christmas Fair was taking place in the square….music, fast food, loos whose posters announced ‘Two Quetzals to get in, exit free’…and an ice skating rink where a hard hat was issued with your ticket.

I soon saw why…clearly the locals are not adept at the art of skating. Crowds shuffled along the sides, holding on for grim death and wailing in unison when some bold soul headed out for the middle, only to fall in a heap to be picked up by the attendants.

I left Higher Authority sitting on a wall while I went to fetch him a hot coffee and was impressed to see that the patrolling police homed in on him at once…an elderly man on his own in a venue meant for families with kids..

It was all very discreetly done, but they had no intention of having any risk of unsavoury behaviour so we were all relieved when I turned up with the coffee and the subject turned to policing in Europe!

The hotel was nearby…the Pan American…an art deco institution in the city.

hotel-pan-american

We did not have one of the rooms with balconies overlooking the streets below but were perfectly comfortable…the water was hot, the shower pressure was great and the bed was comfortable. I could not have wished for more amiable staff…we needed the lift to travel up and down to the reception area and one call to reception had it at our disposal…and what a lift! A hand operated Otis, all gilt and mirrors, run by one or other of the two young men who did all the running, fetching and carrying around the hotel. It was a privilege to travel in it!

Further, the hotel was situated alongside Avenida Sexta  – 6th avenue – once called the Calle Real and for years the shopping centre of the city before the glitzy malls took over. Despite the prevalence of fast food franchises it still attracted people…en masse before Christmas…and so we did what those before us had done and went window shopping on Avenida Sexta….

Sexteando.