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(506) 2223-1327        Published Thursday, April 3, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 66            E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Victim of progress
Collared plover among those threatened by beach projects
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Extensive Pacific development has had an impact on the many plants and animals that make the area their home.

The extent of the impact is unknown except in those few cases where environmental impact

collared plover
Photo by Steve Heinl
Solitary bird seeks lunch at Playa Guiones
studies were done. One victim of beach development is the collared plover, a bird that occupies the dry part of beaches and is notably wary and sensitive to disturbance.

Although Costa Rican law prohibits most development in the first 50 meters from the mean high tide line, the presence of additional humans and the clamor they create can cause the birds to seek out other locations.

The situation is in the news now because March to June in Costa Rica is plover breeding season.

Nests usually include two eggs on the bare ground, which are vulnerable in high traffic beaches.

Other species of plovers as well as the close relative, the snowy plover, are considered endangered in the United States, also because of development.

Development also means pets that can add stress to the lives of birds.

Collared plovers (Charadrius collaris) feed on various bugs and small sea creatures, so it is vulnerable indirectly to ocean pollution.

Yes, there really is a highway being built to Caldera
By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

They are at work building the San José-Caldera highway. Honest!

But you can't see the work because the concessionaire for the $230 million job started in the middle, according to a spokesman for the concession holder.

This is the phantom highway that has been 30 years in the making. The key bridges were up seven years ago, but the paperwork and the process of picking a concession holder had more moves than a belly dancer.

Finally Jan. 17 President Óscar Arias Sánchez inaugurated the new project, but he did so in the equipment yard of the concession holder Autopistas del Sol. Then no one saw any real work.

The company reports that there is work, but the job is on the 38-km (24-miles) middle section that runs from Ciudad Colón to Orotina. This stretch, the ones with the idle bridges, is expected to be in operation in 30 months. That would make the opening sometime in July or August 2010.

Costa Ricans have become so used to false starts, over-optimistic announcements and incorrect
timetables that most will not believe the highway exists until they can drive it from San José to the Pacific.

One advantage of starting in the middle is that there is no traffic control problem because the existing roadbed and the lonely bridges are only used by small amounts of local traffic. By May the concession holder should be at work on the stretch between the Gimnasio Nacional in Parque la Sabana and Ciudad Colón.  That job, involving some 14 kms (about nine miles), should take about a year. Extensive traffic detours and delays are expected.

The highway already exists and is mostly four- and six-lanes except as it approaches Ciudad Colón.

The whole stretch will be getting various improvements under the plan.  This is the Autopista Próspero Fernández that runs past Santa Ana where it becomes just two lanes.

Work is not scheduled until November on the 24 kms from Orotina to Caldera. This is an existing two-lane stretch, too, that will be improved, and plans call for just six months of work.

Speed on the new section is estimated to be 80 kph, about 50 mph. The other two sections will have legal speeds of 100 kph or about 60 mph, said the Autopista del Sol.

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going to lawmakers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Following up on a pledge to create the institution, the executive branch added a proposal for a fifth national public university to its legislative priority list Wednesday.

The legislative proposal would create the Universidad Técnica Nacional.

Rather than starting from scratch, the proposal would bring existing institutions into the new technical university. Among these is the Colegio Universitario de Alajuela, where the new university would be headquartered. 

Other education units include the Centro de Investigación y Perfeccionamiento de la Enseñanza Técnica, the Centro de Formación de Formadores y Personal Técnico para el Desarrollo Industrial de Centroamérica, the Escuela Centroamericana de Ganadería, the Colegio Universitario de Puntarenas and the Colegio Universitario para el Riego y Desarrollo del Trópico Seco.

Roberto Thompson, vice minister of the Presidencia, will manage the project in the Asamblea Legislativa. He said that many of the political parties in the assembly already have said they support the concept.

Medical device maker
adds facility in Heredia

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

ATEK Medical, a division of ATEK Companies, announced Wednesday that it has opened a medical device manufacturing facility in Heredia.

The facility is located in a free trade zone near Juan Santamaría international airport. ATEK took possession of the building late last year and is currently producing several product lines.

With similar capabilities as ATEK Medical’s facility in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Costa Rica facility will double the production capacity, the company said.

Over the last decade, Costa Rica has developed a strong medical device manufacturing industry and ATEK Medical said it and its customers will be able to draw on these strong skill.

U.S. citizen chases thieves,
and four are arrested

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Thieves broke a vehicle window to steal a briefcase owned by a U.S. citizen in a supermarket parking lot in la Tigra de San Carlos.

Three suspects fell into police hands when they tried to take a bus out of the area. A fourth suspect was detained while driving a vehicle police said was used in the getaway.

The three men and a woman are all Colombians, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The U.S. citizen, who was not identified further, left the briefcase in his vehicle when he entered the supermarket, said police. Witnesses alerted him when two men smashed the window and took the briefcase. He called police then got in his car to follow the fleeing thieves.

Police said he was able to alert them that three persons in the fleeing vehicle got on a bus. The briefcase was recovered because it was thrown from the getaway car.

Curridabat taxpayers get break

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Those who owe the Cantón de Curridabat money got a break Wednesday. The municipality said that it would allow payment of property, business license and other bills for a month without interest or penalty.

The new deadline is April 30.  Edgar Mora, the mayor, said the citizens got the break because Semana Santa or Holy Week was early this year and came within the first three months of the year. A lot of people take vacations during Semana Santa, the mayor noted.

El Salvador's president to visit

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The president of El Salvador, Elías Antonio Saca, will make an official visit to Costa Rica April 9 and 10. He will meet with President Óscar Arias Sánchez and others in officialdom. The visit will begin with both presidents placing a floral tribute at the Juan Santamaría monument at Parque Juan Santamaría in Alajuela. Monday, April 14, is Juan Santamaría day, a legal holiday.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, April 3, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 66

Maxime Plessir-Belair, an 18-year-old tourist from Canada, turns the tables on a group of street musicians and shows off his musical skills. He still would visit here even if Colombian terrorists had close ties.
Canadian tourist
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas

Who's afraid of the big, bad F.A.R.C.? No one, it seems
By Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Have you heard of the F.A.R.C?

Hardly any tourist has, and only a few business owners could say "yes" in a quick survey taken Wednesday.

F.A.R.C. is the acronym for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the largest, oldest best equipped terrorist organization in the world, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The terrorist group has been all over the news this week ever since the security minister, Fernando Berrocal Soto,
tourist comments on terrorism
Joe Carlson
...they need tourists
mysteriously left his position after a two-hour meeting with President Óscar Arias Sánchez. Berrocal's departure was cloaked in rumors that he had information linking Costa Rican politicians and the Colombian terrorists.

Business owners, people involved in the tourism industry including tourists, expats and Ticos all gave their views on recent political developments.

But “I don't pay attention to the news” or “I'm here to relax” were common answers, although  most visitors said a connection between the Costa 
Rican elected officials and Colombian terrorists would worry them.
The majority of foreigners in Costa Rica had never heard of "F.A.R.C.," but had some sort of an idea about Colombian rebels. All the Costa Ricans, on the other hand, were familiar with the term F.A.R.C., and most believed that the terrorist group was definitely connected to politicians here.

“I think they are connected, but I can't talk about this sort of thing over the telephone” said Alvaro Seguro Solano, who has worked five years in the travel industry. He was one of the few brave enough to let his name be used.

Berrocal, the former security minister, directed a raid March 14 at a house in Heredia which contained $480,000 in terrorist money. The location was in the computers of Raúl Reyes, who was killed by Colombian troops in a raid in Ecuador March 1.

Although the majority of travelers said they would be somewhat worried if they knew the Colombian terrorists had connections with the Costa Rican politicians, many said the news would not change their vacation plans.

“I'm more worried about Nicaragua,” said Joe Carlson, a visitor from Minnesota, “I wouldn't go there.” Carlson, who hadn't heard the term "F.A.R.C.," said he doubted that there was any connection between Colombian drug lords and the Costa Rican government. “They need the tourists in Costa Rica,” he said, implying that the government would not jeopardize the tourism industry with links to a dangerous Colombian group.

The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia formed in 1964, when leaders declared that they would overthrow the government and install a Marxist regime. It began as a guerrilla movement and later took on narcotrafficking and kidnapping as main sources of financial support.

Although the U.S. government and the European Union consider the Fuerzas Armadas a terrorist organization, some prefer not to use that word. “They are armies, true armies that occupy a space in Colombia," said Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela in
January. Chávez has been criticized by some in his negotiation strategies and relations with the terrorists, and Colombian officials say the Reyes computers showed he gave the group $300 million. He denies that.

Could the international situation effect tourism?

“Not at all” was the answer from Ticos in the tourism business. 

“In five years, maybe one tourist has asked me about politics,” said Seguro, the owner of a Costa Rican travel agency and internet company. “Really they don't hear anything or they're not interested,” he said. 

Every Costa Rican involved in the tourism industry said that they did not think tourism would at all be effected if links between the politicians and Colombian terrorists were confirmed.

“They come here to vacation,” said Vinicio Hidalgo Rojas, a manager at Capitan Suizo, a hotel in Tamarindo. “They have the news from their own countries to deal with.” Hidalgo, who said he didn't know much about politics, was perhaps the most versed on the current political situation in the country. “Berrocal was a good minister,” he said. The hotel manager said he believed that the Fuerzas Armadas  had connections with some in government, but he did not know with whom exactly.

Should investors be worried?

“If I had investments, I'd be worried,” said a man from Pennsylvania who is now living in Naranjo. “It would probably mean an influx of drugs into the country,” he said, although he had not heard the term "F.A.R.C." either.

A real estate agent at Coldwell Banker in Jacó, said he didn't think the news would effect the market unless some event made international headlines. The agent, who did not want to be named, said he tells new clients that the Costa Rican government is stable and that the country has no army.

Although he had not heard of the Fuerzas Armadas, he said, with the corruption in the government, it was quite probable that the two groups were connected. “It's possible that there is drug money in the real estate business, but not that I know of” he said when pressed. “There are a lot of businesses here.” The only real problems he has with the government are the road construction delays in Jacó, he added.

“Arías was a good president in his time,” said a clerk at Hotel California in Quepos, “but his time has passed,” she said. The receptionist, a Costa Rican, said she believed there is a connection between officials and the Fuerzas Armadas. However, tourism will not be effected she said. “Tourists ask about activities, tours, and nature in Costa Rica,” she said. In her three months at the Quepos hotel, no one has ever asked her about the government or politics, she added.   

“Unless you have a million dollars to spend, you can't change anything,” said Maxime Plessir-Belair, an 18-year old traveler from Canada. “I got bored of the news on TV after awhile,” he said, “I'm sick of it.” Plessir said if there were connections between the terrorists and the government, he would still visit Costa Rica. He said he smokes marijuana but isn't keen on the idea of visiting Colombia. “Cocaine. Coffee and cocaine that's all I've heard of,” he said.

The only tourist who had heard of "F.A.R.C.," was an Irishman visiting the country for the first time. “They probably have their hands in everything,” he said, referring to the rebel group. “Like most groups of this kind, they probably started out with a good idea and eventually turned into gangsters and terrorists,” he said. 

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, April 3, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 66

European tourism suffers from U.S. economic problems
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The dollar's sharp drop on currency markets, along with economic doldrums in the United States are taking their toll on American tourists and expatriates overseas. Even Paris has seen a 10 percent decline in its No. 1 foreign visitor.

The cold and rainy weather in Paris has not stopped Joe Schaeffer, an American tourist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from visiting the City of Lights with his family of four. Nor have the city's expensive prices — all them higher because of the huge drop in value of the American dollar compared to the European euro.

"We were coming anyway, no matter the price. We might not stay as long. We might eat cheese sandwiches," he said.

At Notre Dame cathedral a few blocks away, Linda Surma from Detroit, Michigan, said she is also shocked by high prices in Paris these days.

"We were at just a little cafe and it cost me five euros for tea — a tea bag. I thought that was rather ridiculous. I mean, what is a tea bag? My soup was seven and a cup of tea was five and that was a little shocking," she said. A euro was trading at 1.5643 to the U.S. dollar Wednesday.

But Ms. Surma does not regret deciding to come to Paris and has no plans to trim tourist attractions from her itinerary because of the expense — even if she might not buy souvenirs.

Paul Roll is managing director of the Paris Convention and Visitors Office. He said American tourists in Paris — who numbered about 1.5 million last year — tend to cut expenses when the dollar is weak rather than cancel their trip.

"We have no statistics on the subject, but we have seen over the years that when it gets more expensive to go to Europe, they downgrade the type of services they buy. Instead of going to a luxury hotel, they will go to a four-star hotel. Instead of going to a gastronomical restaurant, they will go to something that has less stars on the Michelin (restaurant guide)."

But recently a number of Americans have been staying away from Paris altogether — and from Europe as a whole — as the dollar reaches record lows against the euro. A few years ago, the two currencies were about equal.

Paris, has weathered a decline in tourism before, notably in 2003, when trans-Atlantic differences over the Iraq war were at a high. At the time, the French tourist office
launched a campaign to woo back Americans, hiring American actor and director Woody Allen for a promotional clip titled: "Let's Fall in Love Again."

Roll says the Paris tourism bureau has no immediate plans for a new charm offensive, although some Paris hotels are offering fixed euro-to-dollar rates.

But worries about the falloff of American tourism can be seen elsewhere in Europe. In Ireland, the tourism ministry announced it had earmarked an extra 4.8 million euros to market the island's attractions in North America. The Irish Hotels' Federation is also promoting a price discount.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam, Dutch currency outlets are turning away tourists trying to exchange their dollars, fearing to be caught with a loss as the currency continues its breathtaking fall.

In Paris, Americans who are paid in dollars are also hurting. That includes Eleanor Beardsley, the correspondent for National Public Radio, the American public radio channel.

"It is getting so bad I do not even look at the exchange rate every day. I do not go shopping anymore for clothes," she said. "It is just depressing. Every time you look at your bank statement on line — I might withdraw 300 (euros), that is $500. It is just completely depressing and I do not see any end in sight."

But American companies operating in Paris have been less affected by the dollar's decline, according to Oliver Griffith, managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce. Many of them hire Europeans, not Americans, who are paid in euros — not dollars.

"American companies that invest in France have not declined that drastically," he explained. "Because a lot of the companies are multinational. They have assets in dollars, euros, all over the place. They get some inputs in euro-denominated countries, others in dollar-denominated countries."

Others are profiting from the slump. Griffith says French investment in the United States has climbed sharply during the past two years and American exporters are eyeing new opportunities furnished by a cheaper dollar.

Even when it comes to tourism, Roll of the Paris office is pragmatic. Paris has seen a surge of Russian, Chinese and other foreign visitors who have recently made up for the drop in American ones. Even the drop in U.S. visitors, he says, is just part of the cycle.

France says humanitarian mission to Colombia is under way
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

France says it has launched a humanitarian mission with the assistance of Spain and Switzerland to help an ailing French-Colombian politician who has been held by Colombian terrorists for the past six years.

The French government says the mission will include a doctor and aims to help 46-year-old leftist politician Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held hostage by Colombia's Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia since 2002. The plight of Ms. Betancourt, who holds both French and Colombian citizenship, is a popular cause in France where posters of her face are plastered on many public buildings.

In a recorded statement from the Elysee palace in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged terrorist commanders to release Ms. Betancourt, who is believed to be seriously ill.

Sarkozy said that by freeing Ms. Betancourt and other ailing hostages, the Colombian rebel group will offer relief to Ms. Betancourt's family and appease the international community. He said her release would open up the
possibility of peace in Colombia and he urged the terrorists to seize the opportunity.

The French government has divulged almost no information about the mission. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said it would leave as soon as possible.

News agencies reported that a Colombian official told a local radio station it was already under way.

At a news conference in Paris, Ms. Betancourt's son Lorenzo said his mother is suffering from hepatitis B and a skin disease. Without a blood transfusion, he told reporters, she could die.

Lorenzo Betancourt suggested his mother is strong, despite her illness. She would go on to the very end, he said. But he said it was time for the Fuerzas Armadas and the international community to act.

The Fuerzas Armadas is a Marxist guerrilla movement that has been fighting the Colombian government for more than 40 years. It is believed to be holding more than 700 people hostage in Colombia's jungles — including Ms. Betancourt.

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Egyptians led the way with their classic tomb pyramids
By the Pennsylvania State University research staff

The Aztecs, Mayans and ancient Egyptians were three very different civilizations with one very large similarity: pyramids. However, of these three ancient cultures, the Egyptians set the standard for what most people recognize as classic pyramid design: massive monuments with a square base and four smooth-sided triangular sides, rising to a point. The Aztecs and Mayans built their pyramids with tiered steps and a flat top.

The ancient Egyptians probably chose that distinctive form for their pharaohs' tombs because of their solar religion, explained Donald Redford, professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at Penn State. The Egyptian sun god Ra, considered the father of all pharaohs, was said to have created himself from a pyramid-shaped mound of earth before creating all other gods. The pyramid's shape is thought to have symbolized the sun's rays.

According to Redford, "The Egyptians began using the pyramid form shortly after 2700 B.C., and the great heyday of constructing them for royalty extended for about a thousand years, until about 1700 B.C." The first pyramid was built by King Djoser during Egypt's Third Dynasty. His architect, Imohtep, created a step pyramid by stacking six

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mastabas, rectangular buildings of the sort in which earlier kings had been buried. The largest and most well-known pyramids in Egypt are the pyramids at Giza, including the Great Pyramid of Giza designed for Pharaoh Khufu.

For centuries, people have theorized how the great pyramids were built. Some have suggested that they must have been constructed by extraterrestrials, while others believe the Egyptians possessed a technology that has been lost through the ages.

But the process of building pyramids, while complicated, was not as colossal an undertaking as many believe, Redford says. Estimates suggest that between 20,000 and 30,000 laborers were needed to build the Great Pyramid at Giza in less than 23 years. By comparison, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took almost 200 years to complete.

According to Redford, pharaohs traditionally began building their pyramids as soon as they took the throne. The pharaoh would first establish a committee composed of an overseer of construction, a chief engineer and an architect. The pyramids were usually placed on the western side of the Nile because the pharaoh's soul was meant to join with the sun disc during its descent before continuing with the sun in its eternal round.

Added Redford, the two deciding factors when choosing a building site were its orientation to the western horizon where the sun set and the proximity to Memphis, the central city of ancient Egypt.

The cores of the pyramids were often composed of local limestone, said Redford. Finer quality limestone composed the outer layer of the pyramids, giving them a white sheen that could be seen from miles away. The capstone was usually made of granite, basalt, or another very hard stone and could be plated with gold, silver or electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, and would also be highly reflective in the bright sun.

Said Redford, the image most people have of slaves being forced to build the pyramids against their will is incorrect. "The concept of slavery is a very complicated problem in ancient Egypt," he noted, "because the legal aspects of indentured servitude and slavery were very complicated." The peasants who worked on the pyramids were given tax breaks and were taken to 'pyramid cities' where they were given shelter, food and clothing, he noted.

According to Redford, ancient Egyptian quarrying methods — the processes for cutting and removing stone — are still being studied. Scholars have found evidence that copper chisels were used for quarrying sandstone and limestone, for example, but harder stones such as granite and diorite would have required stronger materials, said Redford. Dolerite, a hard, black igneous rock, was used in the quarries of Aswan to remove granite.

During excavation, massive dolerite "pounders" were used to pulverize the stone around the edge of the granite block that needed to be extracted. According to Redford, 60 to 70 men would pound out the stone. At the bottom, they rammed wooden pegs into slots they had cut, and filled the slots with water. The pegs would expand, splitting the stone, and the block was then slid down onto a waiting boat.

Teams of oxen or manpower were used to drag the stones on a prepared slipway that was lubricated with oil. Said Redford, a scene from a 19th century B.C. tomb in Middle Egypt depicts "an alabaster statue 20 feet high pulled by 173 men on four ropes with a man lubricating the slipway as the pulling went on."

Once the stones were at the construction site, ramps were built to get them into place on the pyramid, said Redford. These ramps were made of mud brick and coated with chips of plaster to harden the surface. "If they consistently raised the ramp course by course as the teams dragged their blocks up, they could have gotten them into place fairly easily," he noted. At least one such ramp still exists, he said.

When answering to skepticism about how such heavy stones could have been moved without machinery, Redford says, "I usually show the skeptic a picture of  20 of my workers at an archaeological dig site pulling up a two-and-a-half ton granite block." He added, "I know it's possible because I was on the ropes too."

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, April 3, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 66

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