A.M. Costa Rica

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These stories were published Friday, Sept. 9, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 179
Jo Stuart
About us

A guest editorial
Another great moment in promoting tourism
By Tony Bandoletti*
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Your Customs Procedures are a disgrace.

After traveling to Costa Rica over three dozen times and experiencing some of the finest culture, people, food, diverse attractions, I have been pushing my friends to have a large bachelor party in San José rather than here in the States as a long-time friend of ours will be getting married next week. I thought that there would be no better place than to enjoy the last few free days of my best friend and 90 of us (That’s right, 90 of us) booked our travel plans to San José over this past Labor Day weekend.

I choose to make up 90 baseball-style caps with my friend's name and a little saying which bid farewell to his life as a single man. Since my friends would be traveling in from all over the country, I decided I would bring in all the caps to be given out to my friends so we could wear them all weekend.  Since I had traveled through customs as stated countless times, I felt there would be no issue. The checking of packages, etc., was always sporadic with no clear cut method or procedure.

I arrived to customs with my two carry on bags and a soft travel bag containing the 90 hats. I put them through the X-ray and was asked to open the bag. I immediately was told Aduana, which I assumed meant customs. Now I speak no Spanish, and everyone was dragging me to some room on the left. I had the factory invoice showing clearly the price of about $3 per hat or less than $300. I had never had a personal tax exemption in Costa Rica, so I knew I could bring up to $500 in personal items.

I get in the back room and with no explanation since nobody spoke any English, they confiscated my bag, made me out a ticket, and told me I had to go to Aduana (customs) in the morning and retrieve my bags. I was outraged. I kept trying to explain or to find someone who spoke English to no avail. They just brushed me off like I wasn't even there. I would not have even cared and said "Keep the dam hats," but I had some personal items in the bag they would not let me retrieve. I finally found my driver waiting outside for me, and he translated back inside, but they kept telling him the same thing: Aduana no explanation. Needless to say, I was outraged and very upset.

So after an unsettled night, I wake, hire a driver (not my driver) who also speaks no English to take me to the place they directed me to via this little receipt. You guessed it. Nobody speaks English here either. Now I am on the phone speaking back and forth with someone who can translate, and they tell me "Yes, my luggage is here, but we must go to Aduana and pay the duty and come back."  We make our way over to behind the airport where there is finally a large group of people and a center, and I assume we are finally in the right place. Guess what? Nobody speaks English here either.

After about an hour of figuring out the procedures, it is now noon, three hours since the odyssey today began. It is explained through cell phones and translators to me that we can go through the various lines and have the proper stamps and duties paid, which will take approximately three hours, or we can have an agency of which there were two dozen guys outside “willing to help” do it for me.  Note: Without the agency there would be no guarantee I would receive my luggage today. So I choose to have the agency guy do it.

We go to an office down the street from customs where he writes up a proposal that is in total about $180 for duties and agency fees. I am stunned he claims this is standard

and has it all broken down with about $95 to him for a fee and the rest to aduana. It is
now 1 p.m. and I am panicked as I leave Sunday and there is no way for me to retrieve my items if I don’t get them today.  I agree, and he tells me come back at 3 p.m.

Now the driving whiteout conditions of rain come, but I go back at 3 p.m., and he is no where to be found. I walk aimlessly looking for him. Finally he arrives at 3:40 p.m. and explains that everything is in order but we need the signature of an inspector to get the luggage.

He takes me to the place I was at this morning and shows me it’s not his fault. The inspector one of three in the entire country left for lunch at 1 p.m. and had not yet returned at now 3:50 p.m. (Note: Customs closes at 5 p.m.). We proceed to head to another office towards San José now with someone in tow with us who “knows the guy.”  After 20 minutes in this office, this person is also not in, and we proceed to the last inspector’s office outside Cariari.

We finally get the signature, and then we have to head back to the Aduana office for a stamp and another signature. Then finally back to the place to get our luggage.  It is now 4:55 p.m. when we get back to the luggage area. (Note: the inspector never came back from lunch). I am able to retrieve my luggage and the odyssey is over.  Cost $180 customs and service fees (Note: No agency fees listed on my luggage, just the duties). Cost: Taxi driver 10 hours at $13 per hour: $130. A total of $310 to retrieve hats that didn’t cost that much. I would have left them there for their amusement if I didn’t have other personal items in the bag that I needed.

How it is possible in a country like Costa Rica that this can be their procedure to pay import duties and taxes? It is an experience that has left me wondering who is running this country and its departments and also understand why absolutely nothing ever gets accomplished on a government level as well. The procedures are ridiculous and, in my opinion, one giant shakedown. 

There is no rhyme or reason to who gets stopped and why and no actual procedure in place as to how to resolve a harmless issue, etc. With a high number of American tourists entering the country, you would think they would have an English-speaking representative to discuss matters to make common sense decisions or to explain the easiest possible way to resolve a simple matter.

Customs inspectors that take off for lunch and never come back when there are only three makes me wonder how anyone ever gets their property returned. Maybe that is the idea make it so difficult to retrieve nobody retrieves it and it ends up who knows where.

I will say this: After 36 trips to your country and after the experience I just had, I will not be returning to your country anytime soon.  Here I am bringing 90 American tourists in to spend money in your hotels, bars and restaurants and casinos. We were to take a fishing day along with some other cultural events. The money we were to spend was mind-boggling compared to an assessed duty for baseball caps. Yet I lost an entire day of my trip to retrieve these items. Whoever is in charge certainly does not have a clue as to what an absolute disgrace the customs agency in Costa Rica is.
 * Mr. Bandoletti is from Manhattan, New York City.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Sept. 9, 2005, Vol. 5, No. 179

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Our readers' opinions

In defense of giving
by the United States

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

In response to Graham Cox’s letter in the Sept. 8 issue, does he  live without TV or newspapers. The United States in particular has always  responded to “Third world” disasters.  The support given to the Tsunami victims, aid to Africa for Aids and numerous other acts has been in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The U.S. has given freely of its resources and has always covered these events in television and the printed media.  Some citizens here think we do too much for other nations and less for our own people.  Evidence of  this may be in the aftermath of Katrina. Although I don’t think the federal government is entirely to blame.

So before Mr. Cox points a finger at the “First World,” maybe next time someone could send him a few articles from the newspaper. Let us pray that never has to happen.

By the way, I’m sure the U.S. and other countries would respond to an earthquake or any other major event in Costa Rica.
Al Loria
New York
He likes bottle idea

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Cheers for The Women of the Osa!  Thanks for reminding a multinational of its social responsibility.  Imagine if that concept were required in all business decision making processes.  Maybe we could still save this world.

Ralph Antonelli
Even Sri Lanka gave
something to refugees

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Costa Rica is now my adopted country.  I love the people and the country. However, I am a bit embarassed by the lack of help the government of Costa Rica has offered the victims of Katrina.

The excuse that Costa Rica is a poor country doesn’t fly.  Sri Lanka is very poor, and still they offered some help.  The government of Costa Rica doesn’t hesitate to accept aid from U.S. but when it comes to giving, that seems to be another matter – it certainly doesn’t reflect the attitude of those many Costa Rica people I have had the pleasure to meet.

Jack N. Whipkey
El Coyol de Alajuela
Native New Orleanian
presents his view

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I am writing in response to the letter of Graham Cox published Sept. 8.

I was personally offended by the uninformed anti-American rhetoric of Cox. As a former resident of Costa Rica and a native New Orleanian, I feel that I must respond. To answer Cox’s “doubt” I must say that he is grossly ignorant and uninformed on the United States and their humanitarian relief efforts worldwide. We not only have helped and will help Costa Rica, but would even help a sorry country that produces an old sour-grapes person like Cox. I suspect he’s a
Northerner. They’re always jumping on the U.S. It seems to be the in-style liberal thing, to bash the United States.

If Cox would check he’d find that North American citizens of the United States are the first and most generous givers in each and every crisis. I personally served alongside many other gracious North Americans in Costa Rica during the Nicaraguan war. They worked tirelessly in the refugee camps.

Cox inferred that there was an arrogance in the demands of New Orleanians needing help. But that’s the wonderful thing about our country, here people can make demands of their government without fear of reprisal. We Americans expect the very best help from our leaders and do not back off of demanding it. New Orleans will return and will do it without the help of sorry people like Cox, and we’ll still be there to get his butt out of the sling when the Big One hits.  By the way I have been working in the relief efforts to feed the displaced persons and have yet to find one person wallowing in self-pity.  Cox, you’re just wrong!

Please print this letter of one positive New Orleanian who will always be willing and ready to help!

Dr. John C. Baye Jr.
New Orleans, Louisiana
She says it's wrong
to be critical of Costa Rica

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I write in response to those who have criticized me for denigrating Mr. Perrochet's offer of assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina, and for the benefit of readers who might not have read your article which prompted my original letter.

Mr. Perrochet offered a week's free lodging at his hotel for five senior couples (families with homeless children need not apply), an offer which the writer of the article conceded might be only a gesture since transportation was not provided.  My only knowledge of Mr. Perrochet's motives is the statement attributed to him in the article, that his offer was designed to attract people who might end up staying in Costa Rica as foreign residents, particularly U.S. citizens with external income sources.

I remain less than overwhelmed by this offer, when the heartbreaking scenes from New Orleans show tens of thousands of families who could not afford even the costs of transportation or lodging to enable them to escape the path of the storm.  But I would not have been critical of any offer of help if it had been the sole focus of your article.

My letter was prompted by the fact that your article was harshly critical of the failure of the Costa Rican government to offer assistance, which the article said was "in stark contrast" to Mr. Perrochet's generosity.  I wrote in an attempt to counter that criticism by expressing my own gratitude for the everyday assistance I receive, directly or indirectly, from the government and people of Costa Rica.

I regret that my characterization of Mr. Perrochet's offer has overshadowed the point I really wanted to make:  that those of us who have chosen to make this country our home, and who have greater financial resources than the vast majority of its own citizens, might do a better job of showing gratitude to our host, instead of criticizing how the Costa Rican government chooses to utilize its limited resources.
Rebecca Baitty
Professional Directory
A.M. Costa Rica's professional directory is where business people who wish to reach the English-speaking community may invite responses. If you are interested in being represented here, please contact the editor.

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A chance to evaluate two hospitals: Part I
It was pure arrogance on my part, followed by a number of stupid moves.

It started with a small scratch on my right arm.  It had happened before, and I always had the good sense to immediately start on antibiotics.  But lately, small scratches had gone nowhere, and Unberto was in the kitchen installing a shelf, and my friend Sandy from Tilarán was on her way.

Looking at the advancing reddening of my arm, I knew that this time it would not be so benign.  As soon as Unberto left, I called a taxi and went to my favorite pharmacy for a course of antibiotics.  I popped one at the pharmacy and caught a Sabana Cementerio bus heading home, getting off at the Paseo Colón Building.  There I was surprised to notice a big blue bus marked Hospital Mexico. 

“Is this a sign?” I asked myself.  “Should I get on that bus and head for Hospital Mexico?  Or, better yet, take a taxi?  And will I be sorry if I don’t?  Would they even take me, since Hospital Calderón Guardia is where I’m still signed up, even though I’ve moved?”

I hailed a cab and gave him my home address.  I had my antibiotics.  I would wait for Sandy at home. But, by the time she arrived, I knew I was in trouble and needed help fast.  Hospital CIMA  was close and, since it’s a private hospital, I figured there would be no long lines in emergency and I’d be treated faster.

“Enjoy the apartment,” I told Sandy, “I’m off!” and I climbed wearily into a Cooptico taxi.  “CIMA Hospital, por favor,” I said, sinking back into the seat.

At the hospital, I checked in with the receptionist quickly, since I was the only person there.  In only 10 minutes, I was ushered into Emergency.  “I was right,” I thought, “I’m going to get help fast.”  In a small room, a nurse drew some blood.  I explained, as thoroughly as I could, the nature of my condition and my urgent need for antibiotics. 

My arm was growing redder by the minute.  “How long will it take to find out which bacteria are after me this time?”  “About half an hour,” she said.  I looked at my watch:  2:35 p.m.  And I was led into a cubicle, where my arm was prepared for intravenous medication.  “Closer and closer to help,” I thought.

Shortly, a doctor came.  Then began a conversation at loggerheads.  He said they wanted to admit me to the hospital, which required a $1,000 deposit.  I said I wanted to be treated (please, please, please!) immediately.  In the end, exhausted, my entire arm threatening red, I gave them my debit card, signed four separate papers with no idea what I was signing, and I was taken upstairs to a private room.

The nurse parked my wheelchair next to my bed and said, “Get into bed.”

“Should I take my shoes off first?” I asked.  She shrugged.  I climbed onto the bed in the clothes I had come in.  “Do your patients usually wear their clothes to bed?”  She shrugged again.  “I can get you a gown if you’d like.”

“What I’d like is some antibiotics,” I said as I lay back utterly worn out.  It was now 7:30.

The doctor from Emergency came to see me.  He explained again that CIMA was a private hospital and had to charge for its services.  He was sticking to his guns, and I would stick to mine.  “Yes, but you should have started treating me immediately,” I said.  “That’s why I went to Emergency.”

“Well, we’re treating you now.”

“I’d like a hospital gown, too.”  The nurse next to him blushed.  “I was going to get you one,” she said.

After they left, I lay back and wished the antibiotics bon voyage through my body.

I turned on TV, Fox News, and watched the disaster of Hurricane Katarina play itself out before me.  It was Aug. 28.  For two days I lay watching the horror, made even worse by the stampede and deaths in Iraq.  Putting things into perspective, my own struggle with death seemed relatively unimportant. 
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

When I told my friend Liz this, she huffed up and said, “My mother used to get very annoyed when people made comparisons like this.  ‘Your headache is your headache,’ she always said, ‘no matter what others are suffering’.

I needed that to renew the fight I seemed to be losing.

A new doctor came to see me on Tuesday, and I asked him to be my doctor.  I liked him better, and he spoke a bit of English.  He told my I had a staph infection.  I didn’t know if he meant “instead” or “in addition,” but my antibiotics increased.

So did my worry about how much all this was going to cost.  I figured it would take everything I had, and I would lose my job to boot.  I tried hard to visualize the medicines destroying every bacterium in my body.

On Thursday, the redness was receding, but I had begun coughing up blood.

On Friday, the doctor said the blood was probably only a vein in my throat, irritated by my coughing.  He wasn’t worried, and I decided not to.  But I wanted to go home.

Saturday afternoon I was told I could leave once I had settled the bill.  The doctor said he would send me home with medications and to be sure to continue taking them.

The bill was $3,600.  I could manage that, but not with my debit card.  And, somehow, in the move, my credit card had slipped into a box and I had no idea which one.  The people in Billing spoke English and were helpful in contacting my credit card company, so that by 6 p.m. I was paid up and ready to leave.  Liz and Dick were there to take me home.

On our way out the door, a nurse came up to us and said that the hospital pharmacy had made a small error in billing and would I stop by to correct it.  She spoke no English, and I couldn’t really make out what she was saying.  Finally, I interpreted that the error was in my favor.  Oh joy!  Liz wheeled me to the pharmacy.  The error was in the amount of ¢ 50,000.  Double joy.  “Do you have your credit card?” the pharmacist asked.

“Can we just do it in cash?” I asked, thrilled to have some money on hand.

“Oh yes.  Do you have ¢50,000 in cash?”

“Do I have ¢50,000?  You mean I owe you the money?”

“Of course.”

“Of course,” I echoed bitterly.  They now had three months’ of my income.

Later, Liz and Dick settled me in my apartment and left.  I found I was too weak to do any of the things I’d planned to do, so I lay in bed, happy to be home.  But, by 8 p.m. my cough had become persistent, as had the bleeding.  I found I couldn’t breathe, so I concentrated on taking deep regular breaths.  It wasn’t working.  The breaths that came were shallow and insufficient.  Now dizzy as well as weak, I knew I couldn’t last the night.  I dialed 911. 

In 10 minutes the paramedics arrived, along with a strange man with a persistent smile.  The medics immediately gave me life-saving oxygen.

“Is he your friend?” one of them asked.

“No, I don’t know him,” I said.  “Who are you?”

“I’m your neighbor,” he said in English, still grinning.

“Where to?” asked a paramedic.

“Take me to Hospital Mexico,” I said.

To be continued

A chance to add a little zip to munchies with dip
One of Costa Rican cuisine’s greatest short comings is the lack of imaginative dips.

Mayo and ketchup or salsa Lizano just doesn’t do it for me, not in this cornucopia of fruits, herbs, imports and ethnic markets. In our pueblo, people often entertain by covering buffet tables with wonderful finger foods, usually served at room temperature, including meat kabobs, fried morsels of fish or chicken, fresh or grilled vegetables, chicharrones, small sausages, prawns, empanadas and puff pastries filled with all of the above.
As we were leaving such a feast which included a grand array of home baked pastries, a pie and a cake, I overheard a neighbor mumble to herself, “How can I compete when it’s my turn?” Well, my dear friend, it is not a competition, and the camaraderie was far more important than the delicious food. But we all like to show off a little and not have to fuss in the kitchen during the event.
One answer is to offer an eclectic bunch of dips to add mystery and fun to the same kabobs, morsels and veggies.
How about raita, an Indian yogurt sauce with a dash of curry or a mango chutney for the fish or chicken; a Thai coconut milk and red chili sauce for prawns; a Japanese ponzu of soy sauce and citrus juice or blended sweet saki and soy for fried morsels; garlicky aioli or Chinese hoisin sauce for crudités and vegetables, or English-style clotted cream or chocolate sauce for grilled pineapple and banana or fresh fruit pieces?
Raita is an Indian yogurt dip traditionally used to offset the heat of very spicy foods. Here, I suggest making it a little spicy to add flavor to blander foods. The ingredients are unflavored yogurt, seeded and diced cucumber, cilantro, mint, curry powder, black pepper and lime juice.

Commercial yogurt is a little runny by Indian standards so I suggest you drain two cups over cheesecloth or a very fine strainer for an hour or two, then simply mix in two tablespoons each of finely chopped cucumber, cilantro and mint leaves, a tablespoon of curry powder, a half teaspoon each of salt and freshly cracked black pepper and a squeeze of lime juice. Mix and refrigerate until you set the buffet table.
Mango chutney, coconut milk, hoisin sauce (the rich brown sauce that is used on Peking duck skin) and srirachi sauce (hot and sweet red chili sauce from Thailand) are available in upscale supermarkets or Asian markets.
Use mango chutney right out of the jar, but be warned that there are varying degrees of hotness. So, be sure you choose the one that fits your taste. The hottest are incendiary strength. To make it a little milder and tastier, dice a large peeled mango and mix it in.
For the coconut milk sauce, stir the contents of a can well and reduce it in a pot to half its prior volume by boiling gently. Mix in a tablespoon of srirachi sauce.
Use the hoisin right out of the jar. A little bit goes a long way. Drizzling some over steamed Chinese broccoli while it is still warm makes a great buffet dish. It does nicely on room temperature asparagus as well.

Ponzu is a Japanese dipping sauce made from citrus
Dr. Lenny Karpman

we eat


juice and soy sauce in essentially equal amounts alone or with as many as a dozen different additions.

It goes well with tempura, fish or chicken sticks, Korean pancakes or, when a little sesame oil is whisked in, as a dressing for cold Japanese noodles.

Kikkoman even sells it ready to use from the bottle – a mixture of soy sauce and lemon juice. I suggest that you use the more expensive Japanese rather than Chinese soy sauce and avoid the “ lite”  variety which is even saltier and less flavorful than the heavier stuff.

My personal favorite simple recipe is a cup of soy sauce, a cup of lime juice, a quarter cup of Mirin, a sweet saki-like wine available in Asian markets and a little juice from the pink pickled ginger bottle that lives in the back of the bottom shelf of my refrigerator if you have it. A half inch of macerated fresh ginger will do the same.

Put everything together in an enamel pot and bring to a boil, turn down the flame and let it simmer for another 15  minutes, then let it cool off the heat. Depending on the acidity of the limes, you might want to add a little sugar if it is too tart for your taste. If you added ginger, strain out the solids.
Aioli (ay as in hay, o as in oh and li as in lee) is homemade garlic mayonnaise. The ingredients are egg yolks, garlic, salt and olive oil. Optional are mustard, sherry, Tabasco, lemon or lime juice or Worcester sauce. The ratio of major ingredients is four garlic cloves to two egg yolks to one cup of olive oil.

The yolks and oil should be at room temperature. Peel and mash the garlic into a paste with a pinch of salt. Beat the egg yolks and garlic briefly with a mixer or blender then very slowly drizzle in the oil while mixing continues until you have the consistency of mayonnaise. My personal additions are a tablespoon each of Dijon mustard and lime juice.
Clotted cream is a nuisance to make. You need very rich milk that is not pasteurized, patience, careful simmering, straining and overnight cooling.

A quick fake version that I heard from a friend is pretty close: add a tablespoon of powdered sugar to a half pint of whipping cream and whip until it holds peaks.
Stir in two to three tablespoons of sour cream, stir well and refrigerate.
For a jar of first rate chocolate fudge sauce, order it from the very same famous Jo Stuart when she gets home from Hospital México.
You might want to place small name cards in front of the dips on your buffet table. Enjoy.

Police seek clues to missing youngster

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An 8-year-old girl is missing near Sarapiquí, and officials have mounted a search.

The girl, Josebeth Adelina Retana Rojas, left the local school in Ticari de Horquetas de Sarapiquí about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. She is a second grade student. She never arrived home.

Trained dogs seemed to have located her scent near a well Thursday afternoon, and officials conducted a detailed search without finding any evidence of the missing girl. The well was near the place she was seen last, said officials.

Searchers covered much of the surrounding area Thursday with no success. That she could vanish without a trace is a mystery in the area, and officials are beginning to suspect foul play as the hours turn into days. There is no indication of family disputes and both parents live together.

Josebeth Adelina Retana

Camera crew robbed at gunpoint

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Repretel said Thursday that one of its camera crews got an up-close and personal look at crime.

The television station said that a two-man crew that works nights and early mornings was held up Wednesday morning as the pair approached Tibás. Robbers put a gun to the head of Johnatan Bonilla, the driver and chief cameraman, and ordered him to get out of the television station's pickup. The companion, Michael León, was held hostage for a time in the back seat of the vehicle until the robbers dumped him south of San José.

The vehicle, a Toyota Hi-lux with crew cab later was found with most valuables, including an expensive television video camera, removed.

TACA suspends flights

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

TACA has suspended air flights into New Orleans for at least five months. Those traveling to southern Louisiana are being urged to land at Houston, Dallas or other cities.

TACA said it was responding to the state of emergency declared in the New Orleans area and that other alternative airports were not suitable for its flights.  The airline has made arrangements for passengers who already have booked flights and are providing options.

Jo Stuart
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