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.

post office GC

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

Huipil-(Guatemala)-45317

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

steam-locomotive

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feet of Cement

cementazo

An earthquake of 6.5 shook the country recently.

We had had an early night as we had a crack of dawn start for a hosital appointment the next day but had hardly settled down before the dogs started yodelling. We thought they must have heard the coyotes who have been roaming the mountain behind us for a couple of weeks now but then they fell quiet as the house began to sway back and forth. It was like lying on a jelly.

It lasted a few minutes only and we had no damage. Friends have told us that the danger comes when the action is percussive and we did experience one of those in the original house down below…it was like a hammer drill doing its worst, but luckily, as the epicentre was only ten kilometres away, it was deep, at seventy five kilometres down, unlike the latest one whose epicentre was off the Pacific coast, and only ten kilometres down.

Still, it took the country’s mind off its problems for a moment.

Problems, you ask? In the land of Pura Vida where the people are amongst the happiest on earth according to some survey which is no doubt selling something?

I don’t know where they find these people as most of my friends are usually moaning….perhaps they  interview politicians.

Others interviewing politicians at the moment are the police. It is fairly normal for previous presidents to be investigated by the police, but only after a discreet passage of time when the proceeds have been salted away, so what has occurred to upset the applecart?

Cement…that is what.

No, not cement as in disposing of bodies while road building – the time it takes this country to get a road built the body would have disintegrated enough not to need burial anywhere – but cement as imported from China.

A happy duopoly controls cement sales in Costa Rica. It has no doubt paid well for its position over the years so was far from pleased when it looked as if the President was encouraging the import of cement from China with the aim of lowering prices.

Intolerable! Have his guts for garters!

So the duopoly set the hounds of the press on the job…or at least those parts of the press where it had influence….and finally they dredged up  one of the bosses of the Customs department who said that he had an e mail from the Deputy Finance Minister telling him that the ‘Big Chief’ – supposedly the President – wanted any shipments of Chinese cement to get through Customs without the usual old Spanish practices so that it would still be fit to use when released.

Shock horror!

Then the hounds went further. They discovered that one of the state banks had made a huge loan to the importer – with the cement as security –  the major part of which loan had ended up in his private coffers, while no cement ever arrived in Costa Rica.

And this is where things started to  go wrong.

Aiming at the President, the duopoly accidentally put one of their own in the frame.

The Chief Prosecutor.

This man, a stalwart of the old regime in Costa Rica, was an expert in delaying and burying unwanted dossiers and had been found with his fingers in the bank’s affairs, dividing the investigation into a myriad of mini investigations which would run into the sand, leaving those responsible at the bank to live a quiet life in the offices which had been refurbished recently at vast expense from the bank’s money…..i.e. public funds.

He was suspended and a young lady was appointed as interim Chief Prosecutor.

She seems to hold the view that prosecutors should prosecute and to that end has put the would be importer and the bank officials into preventive detention while she investigates.

Further, she has unearthed links between a magistrate, the Deputy Finance Minister and several politicians which she believes may give rise to prosecutions for the traffic of influence and has, with the consent of the courts, proceeded to seize their offices, computers and cars in search of evidence.

Mark you, this being Costa Rica, where the sublime usually descends to the gor blimey, the cars of the police seizing the gear of the Deputy Finance Minister were nicked for parking offences by the Municipal Police in San Jose.

She has also had a look at the mosaic of dossiers prepared by the Chief Prosecutor over the years in other sensitive matters, the upshot of which is that said Chief Prosecutor has decided to retire and a recent President is being summoned to explain how a mining company managed to get a permit to mine in a conservation area.

The country is reeling.

Action on corruption! Whatever next!

It does not come at a good moment for the politicians. Any of them. Because the Presidential elections are coming up in February and corruption is a major beef for the electorate.

Normally the level of enthusiasm of Costa Ricans for elections equals the energy of a crocodile in the early hours of a chilly morning, but this case has roused people to resemble crocodiles at midday, ready to wolf down anything in their path.

And what is in their path?

Politicians.

I can bet that the man who put up this poster is not going to vote for the PLN.

PLN elections

He seems to have strong feelings on the subject.

Historically the PLN held a firm grip on the vote as they were the party of the President who abolished the army and set up the CAJA – the NHS of Costa Rica. People were grateful and remained so for years.

Further, under the same recent President who is now being summoned to explain the mining licence, the civil service was expanded beyond anything that was necessary in order to form a client vote of those who benefited from the excellent wages, perks and pensions  – and their extended families.

Occasionally the PUSC, sort of Christian Democrats, would get a look in to keep them sweet, but basically the PLN had it all their own way, including in  local government.

The last elections brought a change….the people elected an almost unknown candidate, a university professor, who stood on a platform of opportunity for all, not the few.

Thus the enmity of the cement duopoly who regard such views as heresy.

He has had a hard fight. No majority in the National Assembly, ministries stuffed with partisans of the outgoing party….but the ship is slowly turning round. People are discontented with the slow pace of change but with the cement case there is a chance that they will see that change is possible…if they will back those who work for it.

Locally, too, politics is in the news.

This town is built on ground that is unstable…underground water courses run all over the place, let alone fault lines,  so holes tend to appear in the roads without warning. Ideally the council would use a study done by the University of Costa Rica which showed how to channel  and drain the area, but, of course, that would cost money and the council never seems to have any of that for infrastructure problems despite having a dedicated budget for same.

So the holes tend to be there for a long time.

puris holes in road

 

Exasperated by the inaction of the council a group of businessmen got together, hired an engineer and the necessary equipment and did the job themselves in the course of one night when they could reckon to be undisturbed by council workers or police who tend not to venture out after dark.

The alcalde – mayor – outraged by this demonstration of citizen power announced that the work was shoddy and would collapse within a week. Furthermore it would all have to come up anyway as the council was about to start a programme of repairs!

Several weeks later the holes remain mended and the council has managed to repair one road…the one leading to the fiesta ground which has been done in time for the annual high jinks surrounding the celebration of the town’s patron saint’s day.

Clearly it is not for nothing that the alcalde is a member of the PUSC.

I have been a trifle unfair to the police here.

They have a new boss. He is a local lad who has worked in other areas for years before being drafted back to his home town.

He wishes to clean up the place, but is a realistic gentleman.

No point rounding up the drug dealers and the wild young men who make the roads dangerous by doing wheelies, etc on onlicensed motorbikes during the week, as the resident judge for criminal affairs has a great respect for the presumption of innocence and tends to release anyone  daft enough to be caught by the previous police chief.

No…save the effort for the weekends, when a duty judge comes down from San Jose and jugs the lot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holes in the road.

It’s a Hap Hap Happy Day

Always good to see people happy in their work…

It has been a happy day here too, even if we have not been tying anyone down.

We are feeding an orphan lamb…Oliver…who is a complete tyrant. He sleeps in Leo’s office and at five thirty a.m. on the dot he calls for milk….drinks three bottles. Sleeps.

Wakes again at six thirty..three more bottles. At this point Leo takes him out on a collar and lead to his pen…

Little does Oliver The Insatiable know that once that the nights are fine with the approach of the dry season he will be overnighting in his pen for a while before joining the other sheep …though milk will still be provided until he is independent.

The dogs are well and happy…chickens are laying even if the ducks are on strike…the garden is looking lovely… but it is a hap hap happy day as Leo has decided to give himself a goal to get on his feet properly after his accident.

We are off to Guatemala in December.

We should have visited Guatemala before, when the brother in law came over for a tour of Central America, but we only got as far as Honduras – a country which enchanted me. I am so glad we saw something of it before yet another U.S. inspired coup plunged it into insecurity once again.

BIL wanted to see the Mayan ruins at Copan, so we did that, but I have to admit that Mayan architecture does not do much for me. It might have done more had I not read Terry Pratchett’s ‘Eric’ just before the trip.

Copan-Honduras

Accordingly while BIL clambered about among the ruins all I could think of was a parrot shouting ‘Whotsit’ and The Luggage sprinting up the temple steps  annihilating all in its path..

Better still if we had visited the site ‘El Puente’ before going to Copan.

A subsidiary city of Copan it has been far less explored…but had a superb museum. I was lucky enough to have been given a guided tour by the director of the site…one of the most handsome men I have ever encountered…who put the city into its historical and geographical context for me. Beats a guide book any day.

I preferred the old colonial towns…drowsing in the wake of their history, like Gracias a Dios…once the capital of Central America …now quiet under the walls of the fortress San Christobal

gracias a dios fort san christobal

Coming out of the hot lowlands I can just imagine how those men in their armour and hot garments would say ‘Thanks be to God ‘ on reaching the cool uplands….

We returned by a route which, while marked as a road on the map, proved to be a track…dusty trails, rickety bridges. close your eyes and hope for the best, you name it…but we survived and ended up in Comayagua.. another one time capital, this time of Honduras.

I had wanted to go there to see the oldest working clock in the Americas.

comayagua cathedral 2

It does not look very impressive at first sight, high up on the tower of the Comayagua cathedral, but it is a fascinating piece of machinery.

clock-comayagua

It is connected by wires to a two hundred year old bell – La Emigdio – which strikes the quarter hours and to a three hundred year old bell – La Conception – which rings the hours.

Popularly supposed to have first been installed in the Alhambra under the Moors, then given as a present to the bishop of Camayagua by Philip II of Spain in the sixteenth century, experts have suggested that it could have been made in that period in what was then the Spanish Netherlands….

Spoilsports.

With only a week to spare we shall not see much of Guatemala, but there seems to be plenty to do in Guatemala City, if we are not mugged or killed. Apparently casual crime is a problem to the extent that there are armed police on the city buses….

Our lawyer’s daugter was a missionary there a few years ago and was glad to get back to the safety of Costa Rica. I wonder if it was a coincidence that he asked us whether we wanted to revise our wills in any way before we leave…

Still, there are museums aplenty to keep us amused, a botanic garden to explore and squares to sit in while Leo rests. I expect we will survive.

A friend who visits Guatemala often in search of textiles bemoans the replacement of traditional dyes by modern, neon bright ones, but has given me a good address for finding the real stuff in Antigua, once – you have guessed it – capital of Central America until partially destroyed in an earthquake in the late eighteenth century.

As the real stuff will probably be at surreal prices I think I might confine my research to the museums. As one who used, in another life, to spin, dye and weave I am looking forward to  seeing how the Guatamaltecans go about it.

loom-weaving-fabric-art

We will try to go to Antigua, however. Now a UNESCO site, it is sanitised beyond belief, but still worth seeing for its architecture…

Antigua_Guatemala

Having thought that our travelling days were over I am delighted that Leo has determined that they are not.

Things have changed about the way in which we travel though…no more day long bus rides and no more hotels in the back of beyond with polyester sheets. The goal is to get Leo walking confdently again, rather than to slide off the bed and break a hip so we are letting the ‘plane take the strain and have found a comfortable hotel in the city centre in what appears to be a safe area.

Of course, we may be tempting fate by talking about it…Leo could have another attack, there could be another hurricane, I could drop dead…but if it comes off I shall be delighted to be travelling together once again, after all my solitary journeys.

To have someone to whom to say

‘Look at that!’

 

 

First World Problems

windows

My computer will not open the website I wish to consult.

It will not, in fact, open any website.

Investigation of the bowels of the thing reveals – eventually – that the Windows firewall will not allow anything to pass it.

Zilch.

I mess about with the tolerance levels of the Windows firewall. It appears that those levels resemble the attitude of the Rev. Ian Paisley to mention of the Pope.

And just like the Rev. Ian, the Windows firewall has no intention of changing its views.

Eventually I turn off the computer and take to strong waters.

The next day the computer will allow access. Clearly the Windows firewall has not the  staying power of the Rev. Ian.

Probably lacking the moral support of a piss and vinegar band accompanied by the lambeg.

Technology, in respect of the internet, is a wonderful thing. If only firms like Microsoft would not keep hiring people to bugger it up for those of us who buy a computer with the idea of being able to communicate….to learn…to switch the wretched thing on to access the world rather than to learn that Windows is configuring it – at length.

You switch off at night.

No…Windows is configuring….you have to sit up or trust the brute not to stall.

You switch on in the morning…

Would you believe it? Windows is still messing about with the computer’s innards like an incompetent surgeon in search of a missing swab.

So while you wait you think you will check Facebook on your mobile ‘phone.

Fat chance. The blasted thing wants to download an upgrade – echoes of the Grand Old Duke of York – but on having agreed to its request it will smugly tell you that you do not have enough space in what is laughingly called the memory and you must then abandon other sites such as Kindle in order to make space for it.

Not a chance, Facebook!

Between being able to read books I have chosen and a screenful of ads which bear no relation to my interests there is no contest.

How Facebook believes that I wish to know fifteen methods of cleaning my oven without using harmful chemicals is beyond me, but whoever devised that algorithm has his airse oot the windae.

Come to that I can live without those who post that they are feeling down, wait for fifteen concerned souls to respond in terms of increasing anxiety and then say that they will reply by pm.

First world problems, comes the smug, dismissive reply from the yoga mats…..

Quite right the yoga mats! It is indeed, which does not make it any less of a problem, indicative as it is of a society where companies believe and act as though those who buy their products are supplicants before their altars rather than the foundation of their fortunes.

Mark you, I am beginning to believe that companies produce items as a sort of front for their real activities, such as buying up their own shares to boost the price on the stock market which in turn increases the value of the options held by their directors who all appoint one another in a game of musical chairs in which chairs are added rather than removed and a golden parachute takes them from one set of chairs to another when their incompetence becomes notorious even in their own ranks.

Incompetence used to be regarded as a Third World problem…’If only they knew how to manage things better…’ but is fast becoming the mark of the First World.

To work out the price of a ticket from London to Milton Keynes requires an Enigma machine while the French railway company, SNCF, managed to advertise cheap  tickets to be sold ‘at dawn’ which, had they ever existed, had vanished long before Bright Phoebe rose above the horizon to the chagrin of all those who had set their alarm clocks in order to take advantage of the offer.

U.K. embassies no longer issue passports….banks can’t tell their arse from their elbow when it comes to security…websites go in loops…

I tell you

 

 

Ichabod….The glory will be departing from the markets of San Jose

borbon veg

When I was first blogging about Costa Rica and about its capital, San Jose, in particular, a blogging friend advised  me to make the most of that grubby, shambolic place while I could. Soon, she said, it would all be pavement cafes and carriage trips round the sights.

She was right. The carriage rides have not yet arrived – the horses would have to wear gas masks such is the level of pollution from buses and cars which have presumably passed the annual M.O.T. test  – but pavement cafes are beginning to be with us as are, of course, cycle paths. Two are planned but only one is as yet in use. In an exercise in fatuity it runs down the middle of a pedestrianised boulevard where the lycra clad unco’ guid can enjoy themselves by making those on foot hop out of the way…two wheels good, two feet bad.

We have gastronomic festivals, self conscious fusion cuisine…food trucks…and bars where black shirted men with buns perform solemn rites over coffee machines. I would not say that these high priests exact a tithe, but  couple of coffees can soon make a hole in the shopping money.

Art deco and art noveau buildings have been tarted up…a stunning new museum of jade has been opened….the streets are clean….the homeless have been shifted from the centre….but still the tourists do not come.

Not surprisingly…for years the guidebooks have been directing tourists to the beaches, the rain forests and the ruinously expensive eco lodges run by exploitative hippies…not to speak of yoga retreats ditto.

Visitors are advised to eschew San Jose…unless they are men in search of paid female company in which case they are directed to hotels which call themselves gentlemen’s clubs and to the casinos and bars of Gringo Gulch where practitioners of the art of wallet extraction lurk in search of their prey.

Otherwise the tourists visit San Jose only to get the first bus out to their destination…so something, it seems, must be done to keep some of their money for the capital.

First bright idea…move the artisans’ market from its perfect spot under the National Museum in the centre of the city  to a concrete box several blocks away in an street which has nothing to attract any tourist whatsoever, unless they are admirers of the concrete brutalist style of architecture which inspired the building housing the offices of the CAJA – the national health service – which looms over the surrounding area.

caja

So far this has not worked as the President is firmly in favour of the market remaining where it is, instead of being replaced by further parking for a bloated ‘charitable foundation’ alongside. He does not have the law on his side…but he has prestige. However the mayor of San Jose can wait…the presidential elections are coming and the next incumbent may favour the bloated ‘foundation’.

So, in the meantime, attention has turned to the other markets…the Central…the Borbon and Coca Cola.

The Central has a bit of everything, from flowers to fish via meat, cheese, spices, medicinal herbs and caffs galore….

mercado centrsl

The Borbon has butchers and fishmongers, but its main role is selling wholesale and retail veg and fruit….

Mercado-Borbon-suelo-fertil_LNCIMA20170611_0022_1 borbon 8

Coca Cola specialises in hardware and electrical supplies…though, of course, having greengrocers and suchlike….. and it is one of the busiest bus stations in San Jose, whence the tourists fresh from the airport leg it to the beaches of the Pacific coast.

coca-cola-bus-station

While the Central is regarded with favour by all, the other two have a dubious reputation…pickpockets at every turn and babies barbecued to order.

Absolute nonsense, of course. I would not frequent either at night…but I could say the same of many other areas in many other cities.

The only time my purse was stolen was in a Chinese owned supermarket by the Central. It was returned to me by the ‘regulars’ who sell sunglasses, watches and TV remote controls on the benches nearby.

‘Sorry, senora…not one of ours…a bloody African! We saw him lift it and we stopped him. Not having these illegal immigrants giving us a bad name.

Did you report it to the police?

Are you joking! As if they could give a damn…too busy chasing poor buggers selling veg without a licence!

I just wonder if, with the new vision for the markets, these gentlemen will be driven off as have all but the most intrepid of the street traders …if so, a great part of the pleasure of shopping will have gone with them.

street traders

These are working markets….the idea of the Borbon offering organic veg and ‘gourmet’ items is enough to make the blood run cold.

And who will be paying for the ‘improvements’?

Guess.

What will happen to my hairdresser…

Mercado Borbón, San José, Costa Rica.

Who does me a cut for two thousand colones which equals that for which the Italian artist of Kensal Rise charges me thirty seven quid. She has been here for years, since the hotel which housed her salon closed down, as has the gentleman on the right, at whose stall I buy my ginger and garlic.

And what about our favourite caff?

IMG_20170517_120551

It will be struggle for them to keep going if their rent goes up.

Mercado de la Coca Cola, San José Costa Rica.

And what of Coca Cola?

The idea is to put a roof over the area between the bus station and the market, with smart caffs lining the area….to attract the tourists before they mess off to the coast.

Have they no idea?

How better to trap the fumes than by throwing a roof over the whole area….

And haven’t they noticed? The whole place is full of caffs…offering comida tipica – local food. Or isn’t that good enough for tourists…

Furthermore, the streets linking the markets are to be lined with trees.

Tree lined streets are one of the pleasures of the public and residential areas of San Jose…but the streets between the markets have such narrow pavements that the sellers of illicit DVDs hardly have room to set out their wares…

It isn’t gentrification…were it to be artists and ‘creatives’ would have been given space to spread themselves, as they have in barrios in the east of the city. Where they tread developers follow and the original inhabitants are driven out to the suburbs.

I do ask myself who subsidises these creative leeches on society…but that is another question for another day.

Why am I so upset by the proposed changes?

Because while the man who sells vinyl discs is lauded and will figure on the tourist trail  the men who run the goods between the lorries and the stalls, the stallholders themselves, risk being priced out of the place…

As a tourist I prefer to see the markets which local people use…as an example there is a tourist market in Masaya in Nicaragua…very sanitised and tranquil.

masaya old market

Also in Masaya is the local market just up the street…where you can find all you wish and more for half the price under its corrugated iron roofs.

In the former, if you want a hammock, you can choose one which they have for sale…in the latter, if you don’t see just what you want a runner will take you to the hammock makers’ street down by the lake.

I know which market I prefer and it is not one where the only traders to be found are the ones who can afford the organic produce certification process.

I prefer one where the man at the veg stall tells you that you can see he doesn’t use chemicals by the bugs in his lettuces.

 

 

 

 

 

The Wanderer`s Return

Princes

I don`t know if you grew up with those illustrated books featuring Victorian images of historical events – you know the sort of thing, the  two princes looking angelic in black velvet before being bumped off in the Tower, Richard Coeur de Lion languishing in his prison while Blondel sings beyond the walls, Boadicea and her daughters being whipped by a Roman tax collector – but if you did then you might be able to help me.

What was the name of the man who walked through London stark naked with a dish of flaming coals on his head and was he foretelling the Great Plague or the Great Fire? Or could it have been the Popish Plot?

The illustration is as clear to me now as when I first turned the page as a child…..but my memory has failed to dredge up either his name or the event he was foretelling, which  is infuriating for one who has always rejoiced in having the memory of an elephant when it comes to trivia while admitting to haziness on more immediately relevent phenomena.

I would like to be reminded because I was thinking of following  his example when visiting my bank in London…apart from the naked bit.

There are limits.

The bank, it appears, wishes to know its customers, or so it says.

Having been a customer of said bank for twenty seven years I feel that if it doesn`t know me by now then it has missed the boat.

It knows that it gets regular payments; it knows I don`t take up its offers of loans to go on holiday, to buy a car or to undertake plastic surgery, let alone buy a house; it knows it is a waste of time to try to sell me insurance; it knows that it has never had the pleasure of charging me for an overdraft and it knows that I am displeased when it makes a mess of a simple transaction because its systems are designed by overpaid cretins who probably do borrow money for holidays, cars and plastic surgery and pay for everything on a credit card so do not understand that I would like to make a transfer without having to find and turn on a mobile `phone in order to receive a code which will be outdated by the time that I have found the right glasses to read it, pressed the wrong button which promptly effaces it, try it again and finally change glasses to read the computer screen.

That is if the whole process hasn`t alerted some Dr. Strangelove security system at the bank which promptly freezes my account.

It is not alone in its lunacy, I know. Leo`s broker in South Africa refuses to deal with his bank as it claims that said bank is money laundering on the basis of regular payments of twenty to thirty quid to Better World Books UK.

What could be more suspect than buying books, after all?

Same broker rashly forwarded internal e mails about the problem which were written in Afrikaans. As Leo has an old fashioned form of Flemish he found the e mails totally clear – if unflattering – and expressed himself accordingly. In Flemish.

So, as Leo`s specialist decided that an op would not be necessary on his broken leg and as mother`s birthday was looming, I took a bolt to the metropolis to allow my bank to renew its acquaintance with me, leaving him in the charge of Danilo and Maria, a Nicaraguan lady we have known for years, to give twenty four hour cover in my absence.

Breaking the habits of a lifetime, I coughed up for a direct flight with British Airways which spared me the hassle of changing `planes in odd corners of the world and suffering the current whims of the bored people manning the security lines.

None of them seem to like the packets of coffee in my carry on bag. Madrid doesn`t like them because they are all regularly square….Toronto thinks that as coffee is organic matter, it could be used in a terrorist attempt….while Amsterdam wants to know why I don`t just buy my coffee in Holland.

All went swimmingly, as I had two empty seats next to me and could thus avoid the nuisance of the man in front of my original seat who, not content with reclining it to its fullest extent imediately after take off, jumped about in it excitedly while watching cartoons on the IFE. He did not even return the seat to its upright position in order to eat…had I been forced to suffer his antics for ten hours he might have received the contents of a container of chicken curry on his cranium. Hot.

Needless to say, an evening spent in the company of an old friend over several tissue restorers removed all wish to emulate he of the flaming coals…just as well, as London was suffering from a deluge which would have doused the fires of hell on the day I set out for the bank.

My regular bus had changed its route as the Mayor of London – whose name and portrait seem to appear all over the place like Big Brother – had decided that too many bus routes served Oxford Street and had had some of them shifted. Thus instead of a two minute stroll I had to leg it for some distance, arriving like the proverbial drowned rat.

It might not have improved my temper, but it is impossible to be angry with the recepionist who does the triage of clients, or with the girls of the counter staff.

They know their bank is not universally beloved of its customers thus it is unfair to ask them to keep smiling while you foam at the mouth and gnaw the carpets….so I asked what more the bank wanted to know about me.

It appeared that it wanted a photocopy of my current passport.

But I could have sent you a certified copy!

No, I could not. That would not do.

It used to do when I lived in France.

Probably trained to observe when a customer was about to brake frith and cracke heads I was directed to a supervisor in an office out of earshot.

Ah! They had noted that my old passport had expired.

And?

They needed my new one, for their records.

Why?

Because they had to know their customers.

It was then that I realised that knowing your customer had nothing whatsoever to do with my banking habits but everything to do with ticking a box. The system could not give two penn`orth of cold gin whether I was likely to run amok with a credit card and blow the entire assets of the bank on botox….it just needed a photocopy.

So why could I not send you a certified copy?

You could…from the U.K. They do it at the Post Office.

Why not from Costa Rica?

Oh, that`s regarded as a dodgy country…a lawyer could be pretending to be you and siphoning off your pension.

Thinking that the average Costa Rican lawyer would regard my state pension as not worth bothering to  pick up if dropped in the street I produced my passport. The photograph  of a wild eyed woman with her hair on end would be enough to convince any bank official that this was not a customer to be encouraged but the box ticker showed no reaction and made her photocopy.

That was it. The bank now, once again, knew its customer.

The rest of the trip passed peacefully: I took Mother to see the film  `Dunkirk` to celebrate her birthday. Made a change from cake and flowers, though her friends had organised that too.

The cinema boasted all round sound and it lived up to its promise. Mines exploded under your seat, bombs unleashed themselves at your head while waves lapped incessantly around you. Mother said that while all the actors were remarkably clean for men who had been retreating for days the film was accurate in reproducing the distinctive sounds of the different aircraft. She had been straffed by a Heinkel when walking home from the sanatorium in Belmont and she remembered it well.

Of course, I had news from the home front in the daily telephone call:

Maria has brought her daughter, Stephanie, with her. (Aged about seven) She has used up all your printing  paper for drawing. (Give her all those old envelopes you hoard…)

Stephanie is using at least one loo roll per day. Is this normal? What does she do with it? (No idea, but stand by to unblock the septic tank…)

She is playing on my computer. I`ve had to use yours. (Aargh!)

I was fed up with rice and beans so I asked Maria to cook me a spaghetti carbonara. (And?) She garnished it with red peppers and coriander…

I don`t need help any more. I`ve sacked Maria. (I know she called me and told me. What you don`t know is that she has arranged for Luzmilla (cleaning woman) to deputise…)

Luz is here and she refuses to go away! (Good luck with that!)

My return trip was uneventful except for the ritual disembowelling of my suitcase at San Jose airport as, once again, I drew the elderly customs officer who regards it as his mission to preserve Costa Rica from outside influences.

Whats`s this?

Chorizo. Spanish.

But you came off the `plane from London.

They sell it in London. Look at the label.

Oh yes…it`s in Spanish. What are these?

Kippers.

Spanish?

No.

Could you open the bag?

On your own head be it.

Jesus Maria, close it up!

So home, to find the house sparkling clean, the dogs pleased to see me and Leo able to walk a short distance with a walking frame that Danilo had made him.

All is well…though I am still looking for either of my two rolling pins……

Where would you put a rolling pin….? Any ideas?

 

The man with live coals on his head….I remember now…he was called Solomon Eagle and it was the Plague.

solomon-eagle-or-eccles-1618-1683-a-quaker-a-pan-of-live-charcoal-D9CXRT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emperors clothes lost in translation

macron pilote

Presiedent Macron of France visits his decidedly unimpressed troops.

As usual he has dressed up for the occasion, this time taking from the toy box a uniform with insignia showing him to be a pilot….

Previously he had had  himself lowered from a helicopter to visit a nuclear submarine…wearing naval uniform….

As President, he is head of the armed forces which entitles him to wear appropriate uniforms, but in a man who had not undergone military service – normal for someone of his age when there was no compulsory conscription – it is a bit rich to assume a qualification – as pilot – which was certainly not awarded during his stint at the Ecole Nationale d`Administration.

No doubt some devotee of the ancient art of Arslikhan issued him with said uniform…but as head of the armed forces he should have recognised and declined the pilots`badge: the armed forces are notoriously chary of those who flaunt what they have not earned.

In the wake of a row with the chief of the general staff  over fiddles in the defence budget to make Peter pay Paul, Macron had proclaimed to a gathering of senior officers that he was the head of the armed forces and that any question as to his care for their interests was out of order.

Tell that to the poor buggers sent to fight in Mali in obsolete personnel carriers…

Needless to say, Macron`s uniform fetishism has formed the subject of exchanges with French friends…none of whom had or would have voted for him even against Le Pen.

For all of us he is the product of a media campaign supported by the proprietors whom he helped into their positions when a minister in Hollande`s government…a creature of the banks and big business.

So, as always, the consolation of the downtrodden is to extract the urine.

We imagined all the situations in which Macron could dress up…..

He could visit a creche wearing a nappy…

He could visit the Pope dressed as a choirboy…fine for this Pope but with his predeccessors better to go dressed as a nun…

He could make a state visit to Russia stripped to the waist and mounted on a horse a la Putin…

Or what about his arrival to salute the winner of the Tour de France…clad in head to toe lycra? No, forget that…the winner was not French.

Having taken President Trump for a meal  in a restaurant  in the Eiffel Tower perhaps he would follow that up by inviting another head of state to the Crazy Horse…clad in a G string with feathers sprouting from his posterior…

And just imagine his costume to receive the organisers of the Gay Pride March!

Come to that, what would Madame Macron, who would have been a worthy winner of a Butlins Knobbly Knees competition in her time,  be wearing?

brigitte macron

Given what she has been wearing to date, the mind boggles….and surmises…but French gallantry negates further speculation.

But then it occurred to me…we were laughing at Macron in a particular context…the context of French history and culture: we were comparing Macron with de Gaulle, with Giscard d`Estaing…we were laughing at a reference from one of Audiard`s films…Un Taxi pour Tobrouk… where one of the protagonists whose father worked for the Vichy government proclaimed that his father respected the law so much that if the Chinese took power he would become a mandarin and that if the Africans took over he would put a  bone in hs nose – while best not to contemplate what he would have to do if the Greeks took over..

How the blazes do you translate the sense of all that?

I know that I cannot…and have every respect for professional translators who manage to convey not only the sense but the nuances of the message of the speaker.

No nuances necessary, though, for Macron`s  speech at the Vel d`Hiv on the 75th anniversary of the round up of 13,000 Jews, including some 4,000 children, by the French police. They were crammed into the stadium for days without food or water before being shipped out to concentration camps whence but few returned.

He proclaimed that France was responsible for this atrocity…echoing Chirac, the first French President to acknowledge state responsibility: he criticised earlier Presidents…Mitterand, de Gaulle, for their refusal to do likewise.

For Macron, Vichy France was France: while one can understand the reticence of Mitterand given his associations with Vichy one can also understand the refusal of de Gaulle to accept that the Vichy regime was a legitimate government given his position as leader of those who opposed it tooth and nail.

Either Macron has no sense of history, or wrongly believes that the scars of the defeat of 1940 and its consequences are healed: in any case, he took the opportunity to condemn anti semitism in round terms in the presence of his guest, Netenyahu, President of Israel, and to agree with the latter that anti-Zionism was but another manifestation of anti semitism.

Which is where another serpent raised its head.

You can be Jewish without being a supporter of Zionism and to conflate the two is either a remarkable feat of ignorance…or a sop to his guest before calling on him to soften his policy towards the displaced Palestinians.

While those who are in fact anti semitic will take the opportunity to call Macron the Rochschild candidate once more those who are not will have further doubts about his ability to master any part of his role other than that of issuing soundbites……and wearing uniforms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solis swallowing wasp