The Chinese export drive is going well in Costa Rica: even.our little town has two outlets for oyster sauce, soaps whose artificial scent hits you from the length of a cricket pitch and plastic kitsch which flies off the shelves.
Once someone tells the Chinese about the selling power of ‘bondieuserie’ they will be the economic masters of the Catholic world….container loads of creche figures will wend their way across the oceans, lustrous Sacred Hearts will leer from every wall and saints of all varieties will display their attributes – though St.Ursula’s eleven thousand virgins might pose a problem in the smaller dwelling.
Still, they are not doing too badly as it is… our local post office has been overwhelmed by stacks of packages containing flashy watches costing less than a quid – to be sold on by optimistic gentlemen for considerably more than a quid to other gentlemen who are not – so far – aware that all that glisters is not gold.
As Danilo is continually losing watches while cutting cane, my husband has laid by a stock of Chinese watches with which to replace them…and, having acquired the bug, has explored other areas of the Chinese ‘Ali Baba’ website.
As a gardening addict he has become enthralled by the offers of ‘violet bamboo’, ‘pink laburnum’ and other such delights.
As has our postmistress, whose office resembles Kew Gardens on speed as it is. You just hope it is an employee of the post office who emerges from the shrubbery behind the counter when you go to pick up your post.
Unfortunately, what is described online is rarely what pops up in the seed trays: something claimed to be jackfruit has the unmistakable air of a marrow while the foot long beans look for all the world like tomatoes…
To be fair, the supplier has agreed to replace anything found to be unsatisfactory…but, one asks oneself, with what? Radishes?
Small stuff passes customs without problems – the staff can’t read Chinese characters – but tools are another matter. They weigh distinctly more so customs will seize them on the grounds that they must be worth something in import tax and, having seized them send you a little note to say so, together with a demand that if it is something bought online you produce a receipt….
Clearly customs officers buy nothing online…you try working out what it is you bought from a plethora of orders and then matching it up with the inscrutable Chinese markings on the package.
In practice this demand is waived….unless you upset one of the officers….but it is wise to print up an invoice – any invoice – just in case you meet with a jobsworth.
Then off you go to collect your goodies.
First, the bus to San Jose. One hour on the bus, or an hour and a half if you are mad enough to travel on a Monday when the Gadarene swine are returning from the beaches.
A trek from the bus station down to the CAJA (Social Security) offices in the centre where you interrogate the drivers of buses proclaiming their destination as Zapote as to whether they pass the office you need.
Costa Rican bus drivers being obliging souls they are kind enough to tell you and to offer to tell you when to alight.
After a drive across the ring road and passing the official Presidential residence you are put off the bus outside the blood donor centre – neatly placed alongside a couple of butchers’ shops – and trek round the corner to the Post Office Central Sorting Office, where your parcel awaits.
Once inside it involves three immobile queues, the transfer of money and as the whole exercise takes about a day of your time generally you don’t even try to import tools directly.
You go to a shop.
You could go to a shop in our little town…you have a choice of several…but all are expensive and some are frowned on by Danilo as being vehicles for laundering money.
His favourite is the one called officially the Agrocomercial, but known to everyone more familiarly as ‘Macho’ Cruz, this being the name of the elderly owner and founder who is behind his counter every day, clacking his false teeth in greeting and asking after friends and families.
As the cunning old blighter also tried to charge me a mark up of sixty per cent on a water pump I am wary of his geniality and prefer to go to the Maravilla where they know that I check the prices of the goods which will be delivered later by lorries bearing the ineffable inscription ‘Thanks be to God that there is the Maravilla’….
Better prices by far are available in a nationwide chain known as ‘El Rey’…the King….but that means a trip to San Jose. See above for disadvantages of same…
Until my husband had a bright idea….from the bus he had seen another outlet of El Rey, opposite the mega mall on the outskirts of the capital. It would save about twenty minutes’ drive and – most importantly – was on our side of the toll booth.
As the interior doors had arrived we needed to fit them and for this purpose required chisels.
To my certain knowledge we possess enough chisels to set up our own emporium, but the masters of the universe who had done the packing for our move had no idea in which box or bag they had packed them and after a couple of hours of swearing and bad temper it was decided to give up and go and buy some more.
At El Rey.
If the BBC are still looking for someone to present ‘Top Gear’ then I suggest that they consider The Men and our clunking Japanese tin box of a 4×4 in the exotic surrounds of Costa Rica.
Leo was used to driving in London, where without quick reactions you could be blocking an intersection for hours until someone succumbed to road rage and killed you.: Danilo used to pick up coffee for one of the major firms in Costa Rica and has no equal on mud tracks and bridges with more gaps than slats. A sense of direction, however, was clearly not a requisite of the job and we have ended up in unexpected places more times than I care to remember.
I sit in the back and take a book.
However, we set off confidently…El Rey was opposite the mega mall on the main road, the autopista. What could go awry?
The weather, for a start. We had just emerged from the hills when the heavens opened, visibility closing to next to nothing.
So much for spotting landmarks: we should have to rely on memory for the right turn off…
Which is how we arrived in the forecourt of the Construplaza, a vast builders’ merchant situated some kilometres before our destination.
Why are we here?
We can ask for directions! El Rey must be right opposite. We just can’t see it through the rain.
But this is the Construplaza!
Yes! The mega mall!
After some snarling it appeared that in all his years of driving on the autopista Danilo had never registered the existence of the mega mall- a complex covering several acres but containing nothing of interest to him – so had assumed that the term referred to the builders’ merchant – a much more alluring prospect.
And once gripped by an idea, shaking his faith in it is quite an operation.
Firm instructions having been given to continue on the autopista until sighting the mega mall we drove off, only to enter an underpass and emerge on a country road on the other side of the road we sought.
Where the blazes are we going?
To El Rey, of course…opposite the mega mall!
Back to the autopista!
But it’s just down here….
And we turned into the car park of Pequeno Mundo – one of a chain of vast warehouses selling everything China has thought to export, from clothes to food via garden furniture and interior design tat.
But this is Pequeno Mundo!
Same thing! Sells rubbish, doesn’t it?
One of the car park attendants approached to offer us the shelter of his umbrella to cross to the shop and kindly gave directions.
Back to the autopista! Opposite the mega mall!
Sighting the mega mall in a break in the weather we achieved the turn off, circled the roundabout and crossed under the main road…..
No sign of El Rey.
Back to the autopista! There must be a slip road..
Under the main road, round the roundabout and back to the autopista where, as we emerged from the feeder road we saw the huge structure of El Rey warehouse on the other side.
Which brought us to another underpass alongside a river and we emerged into a smaller shopping centre featuring several shops and something called The Outback Grill.
That’s changed hands…it used to be called Hooters.
What is Hooters?
Tarts with tits.
Well, no tarts with tits today…but no El Rey either.
An attempt to penetrate further by way of the service road ended in defeat…and still no sign of El Rey.
Back to the autopista! It must be on the other side of the river…
Returning via the underpass the navigator thought it a good idea to cut off a dog leg by driving through the mega mall car park…until realising that this required payment at which point the three point turn required would have delighted a driving instructor but reduced the drivers queuing to enter to noisy fury.
Driving off to the accompaniment of the blaring of horns we took the dog leg, circled the roundabout and ended up on the other side of the autopista in an industrial estate which was closed for the weekend.
Still no sign of El Rey.
Back to the autopista!
Shall we drive into San Jose to the El Rey there? We know where that is!
No! I’ve had enough! We’ll buy it at home!
O.K. then, ‘Macho’ Cruz it is….