Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Toros a la Tica

Having not had our fill of farmyard animals, Colin thought he would find out whether he was allergic to bulls as well as horses. So yesterday, we went to see Toros a la Tica. Las corridas (literally: the runnings) of the bulls is the Costa Rican answer to bullfighting. This event takes place in many locations around Costa Rica, but at this time of year the main event is at the Fiestas San Jose (which opened on the 25th December and ends on the 4th January). Toros a la Tica is very popular and is shown live on national television.

Fiestas San Jose is a huge party with fairground rides, megabars, concession stands and of course Toros a la Tica, which takes place in Zapote on the other side of San Jose to where we live. To get there we had to take a bus into central San Jose and then another bus out to Zapote. Total cost one way, for one person, was 480 colones – a bargain considering that parking at the Fiestas costs between 2500 and 7000 colones. We weren’t quite sure where to get off the bus in Zapote but it became obvious when we saw the cordoned off roads, police officers and tall structures of fairground rides.

We arrived shortly before 12 noon, and as we wandered through the quiet fairground – most of the stalls were still closed or just opening - we saw a queue forming at the boleteria (ticket office) of the redondel (bull ring). So we joined it without knowing how long we would have to stand there.

Fortunately for us, the ticket office opened shortly after 12 noon and the queue started to move. Upon reaching the front of the queue we encountered an improbably small and low down hole in the wall (you had to bend down and even then it was difficult to see the person you were talking to). We managed to get our tickets for the afternoon toros without a problem, they cost 5000 colones each.

After leaving the fairgrounds in search of something to eat (we stumbled across the Zapote branch of Vishnu, a nice vegetarian eatery which has a branch in Heredia), we returned just before 2pm to find small queues at each of the entrances to the redondel. So once again we joined the queue without knowing how long we would have to stand there. Again, fortunately for us, the doors opened about 20 minutes after we joined the queue (just after 2pm).

When we entered the redondel we were greeted by about 8 rows of “seats” – somewhat like an amphitheatre where the “seats” are also the steps. We made our way to the top and sat down. In hindsight we’d have entered at a gate slightly further round the redondel so that we had a seat in the shade as it quickly became very hot. We dutifully applied more suncream, but being in the sun also meant that Colin had the opportunity/perfect excuse to buy a cowboy hat to provide some shade (Zoë had taken a hat with her).

I’m a cowboy. Howdy, howdy, howdy.

The first hour was filled with pasayos, oxcarts and a marching band from Guanacaste advertising the Fiestas in Santa Cruz in January. There were also some folk on horses (the horses appeared to be marking time – though Colin thought they were moonwalking), an announcer wearing yellow, and another guy dressed as a clown with a red nose. There was also a man in drag who arrived on an oxcart and made frequent appearances throughout the afternoon running with the bulls, acting as a cheerleader and jumping on and kissing men in the crowd after leading chants of “Beso, beso, beso” (“Kiss, kiss, kiss”), after which he would give them a prize of a stuffed toy.

At 3pm, about 100 young (mostly) men* entered the ring. They gathered together while a prayer was said, and then it was time for the first bull. They huddled round the gate, from which the bull would enter, before running away as soon as the gate was opened. Several seconds later the bull came careering out, to cheers from the crowd. Once the bulls initial charge was over, the men proceeded to try to get as close to the bull as possible and provoke it into charging at them.

They employed several methods to achieve this: waving an article of clothing at the bull (for example a scarf or t-shirt) like a Spanish matadors cape, kneeling down with arms outstretched in the bulls eyeline, jumping around waving their arms, or running quickly past the bull (brave men ran in front of the bull, those not so brave ran behind it patting its buttocks a they passed). Most of these attempts at provoking the bull had no effect whatsoever, and the bull just looked on with either disdain or confusion (depending on the age and experience of the bull). However, occasionally, the bull would enter into the spirit of the game and charge at one of the young men. This would always encourage large cheers from the crowd.

On the very odd occasion that the bull caught up with one of the men and either trampled him or tried to gore him with his horns, the crowd would go silent until the man got up. Whereupon, there would be a really loud cheer. We are not sure whether this cheer was for the man or for the bull.

Whenever one of the men did have a close encounter with the bull, their first stop was to get interviewed (and of course show their battlescars to the cameras) and then on to visit the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) for treatment if necessary.

Each round lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, whereupon two cowboys on horseback would come out to lasso the bull and take him away. Then it was time for another bull to come out. Sometimes, there would be a different challenge: occasionally, the bull would come out with a rider on his back, and there was a strange game that involved three men standing on beer crates while another man ran around them being chased by the bull (the object seemed to be to stay on the crates).

The last round finished at about 6pm, and the unluckiest man in the ring (who had turned his back on the bull thinking it was all over) was attacked by the bull as the cowboys were coming out. He was taken out of the ring by his fellow young men, and although he was then scooted off to the Red Cross on a stretcher he did have the wherewithal to ask for his cap back (which the bull had trampled in to the dirt) before being taken out of the ring, so we don’t think he was that badly injured. And we didn’t see any blood as he was taken past us.

Overall, it was a fun (if somewhat bizarre) afternoon. We didn’t want to see people being trampled or gored, but at the same time when the bull charged it did add some excitement to what otherwise looked like 100 young men running around playing “tag” in the playground. To the Ticos, this is a national sport and a fun, family, day out. When you go to the toros you are hoping for something to happen, but at the same time, hoping it won’t. As with many spectator sports a lot of the attraction is the atmosphere.

This bull decided to change the game by entering the "safety zone",
causing the men to flee into the ring, rather than out of it.

All in all, it seems that this is a somewhat more civilised (if you can call it that) way to mess about with bulls in a ring than anything involving a matador. The word matador comes from the Spanish word matar, meaning "to kill". At least here the bulls seem to be the stars of the show, and leave the redondel alive (and often kicking), if maybe a bit miffed or bemused.

*There were no women in the ring. Either they are not allowed to take part, or they are just more sensible.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Horsing around in San Jose

December 26th was not a typical Boxing Day (for us). We took the bus into San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, to see El Tope. The bus journey into San Jose was unusual because it only took 30 minutes – normally this would take at least an hour. El Tope is an annual horse parade which travels along the main avenues in San Jose.

As we were having a general wander around downtown San Jose, we noticed that people were already filling up the sides of the streets in order to get the best positions for viewing the parade. So at 11.30ish, an hour and a half before the scheduled start time, we joined them.

While everyone was waiting for the horses to come, there were numerous street vendors making their way up and down the parade route selling items varying from drinks and snacks to seats and hats (oh, and little nodding horses). It was only a matter of time before we purchased a couple of little seats for ourselves (3000 colones for 2).

Just before 2pm, the parade reached us (we think we were about half way along the parade route). Yesterday’s La Nacion stated that 4000 riders were expected and we certainly have never seen as many horses at one time before. Just as we thought they were finishing, a new herd would come along. The guide book says “many Ticos come from outside the capital to show off their specially trained horses”. Let’s just say that some are more trained than others and there were times when the horses were in control of their riders rather than the other way round.

Many of the horses and riders stopped to allow members of the public to pet them (the horses, not the riders!), much to the delight of the children in the crowd. We don't think that the occasional habit of riders picking up small children out of the crowd and riding with them would have got past the Health & Safety Executive in the UK, and we're not sure that the use of mobile phones or drinking while in control of a four legged vehicle would have been allowed either.

There were little horses, big horses, young riders, old riders, riders with chickens on their heads and even a gladiator (on a horse, of course)!

By 4pm Colin was feeling the effects of being around so many horses (we suspect he is allergic to horse hair – there was a lot of it about) and even though the horses were still coming, we packed up our stools and went to catch the bus back to Heredia.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

¡Feliz Navidad!

Christmas arrived in Costa Rica before we did. Certainly by the time we arrived here on December 2nd, there were already distinct signs that Christmas was already here. We are not sure what gave it away: maybe it was the giant inflatable snowmen, or the illuminated candy canes in peoples gardens, or the fairy lights strung around houses and in the trees, or the pop-pop of fireworks going off every night, or the giant plastic portales (nativity scenes). Whatever it was that gave it away, it was clear that Christmas here lasts at least the entire month of December; probably helped along in good measure by the aguinaldo (an extra month’s salary paid to all workers in December).

With the exception of the giant plastic portales, much of the above is often seen in the UK. But for us, celebrating Christmas outside of the UK for the first time, it all seems a little surreal because of one important additional factor: it’s hot and sunny!

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) is usually the time for a family get together, exchanging of gifts and, for many Catholics, attendance at Misa de Gallo (Christmas Eve mass, traditionally at midnight but now often earlier). We were invited to share a meal with our friends, Peter & Victoria, and their daughter, Caty. We have to admit that in spite of all the decorations, the feeling of Christmas didn’t actually hit us until we were welcomed into their home last night.

To start with Colin was treated to a lovely mulled wine, warm and very Christmassy. The main course was pretty traditional (in UK terms; this and the mulled wine were probably influenced by Peter!) in that it was roast chicken with various vegetables. It was also very tasty and did make a nice change from rice and beans for us. (Zoë would like to point out that we aren’t JUST eating rice & beans … sometimes we have beans & rice, and maybe even a salad too ;) )

After a break to let our main course digest, during which we sang some villancicos (Christmas songs/Carols) in Spanish, and then English, it was time for pudding (postre). Imported apples are a special treat at Christmas time here, and every year Victoria makes a Christmas apple pie. This was served last night much to the delight of Colin, who reckons you can’t get a better postre than apple pie and ice cream.
Following the meal, as midnight approached, it was time to open presents. Zoë thinks this is fantastically civilised; she has forgotten how many times she has asked to open “just one present” on Christmas Eve, and always been denied.

Children here traditionally receive their gifts from niño Jesús (a.k.a. el Niño), but with traditions all over the world now becoming mixed up it is unsurprising that dear old Santa Claus is now a popular figure here. In order not to lose the niño Jesús tradition, it is often said that Santa Claus is his messenger.

Although we had a fantastic time and really delicious meal on Christmas Eve, we wanted to try something that in Costa Rica is very much associated with Christmas: tamales. Apparently, Costa Rican tamales are different from Mexican ones. But since we have never had Mexican tamales we can’t comment on this. Basically, a Costa Rican tamal is a mixture of corn dough with vegetables and meat, wrapped in plantain or banana leaves and then boiled. Tamales here usually come as a pair tied together with string (called una piña de tamales)

This video will give you the general idea: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=2j-hRcmfUdY

(We do wonder why the dog in this video is so quiet. Our experience of dogs in Costa Rica suggests they like to bark. A lot. Perhaps this one has eaten too many tamales already?)

And this page has a great description and recipe if you're feeling adventurous: http://www.cocori.com/library/crinfo/tamal.htm

We clearly didn’t make our tamales from scratch (too much work and not enough experience!) so instead purchased readymade ones from the supermarket and had them for lunch today (December 25th).
Verdict: quite tasty, but like post-Christmas Turkey we wouldn’t want to have them every day!

All Change!

So, just as we were figuring out where in Heredia to catch what bus to get to where we want to go … they change all the bus stops (paradas de bus) as of this coming Saturday (27th December 2008)! OK, not all of them. But most of them.

Fortunately, we read La Nacion online (a good way to practice our Spanish), so this didn’t come as a complete shock. Today they published a useful little map of the changed bus stops. I also managed to locate a full list of the changes (which includes those that haven’t moved, and details of the relocation of paradas de taxi as well) on the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes (MOPT) website.

The main purpose of all these changes is to try to decrease the congestion and reduce pollution in the centre of Heredia. We haven’t been here all that long, but it is obvious that anything is worth a try.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Mini Festival de Las Flores

Yesterday evening we went to investigate was happening for the Mini Festival de Las Flores in Heredia. This festival was on from the 18th to the 21st but we didn’t have the opportunity to go until last night. We were amused to see many people (especially children) wearing woolly hats, scarves and gloves, because to us this was a lovely, warm, summer evening with long sleeves being optional!

We were treated to a performance by Chester the pasayo, and were pleased that we understood all of what he was saying (of course it was mainly aimed at the children). In the background of the pictures you can see La Basílica de la Inmaculada Concepción built in 1797 which, due to its squat, thick-walled design, has managed to withstand several earthquakes which destroyed other churches of this period. Chestercito waited until evening mass (misa) had finished prior to starting his show immediately as folk streamed out of the doors of the church.

After the pasayo, one of the organisers sat down and read some childrens stories:

Then it was time for a very nice firework display (fuegos artificiales – sorry, no pictures) and a live merengue band (not that we are experts in latin music, but the main singer of the band did mention merengue and he did seem to have a güira …).

Please note that the video clip below is so that you can hear a short clip of the music, the video itself is very dark and you won’t see a lot!

We enjoyed the fact that everyone was in good humour, singing along and really dancing to the band (even though this made it a little difficult to hold the camera steady to get good photos!) Those that didn’t want to dance made sure that those that did had plenty of space, and it was a really nice atmosphere. Zoë enjoyed it even though she usually avoids crowds whenever possible. She was also very happy when the band played a version of a Juanes song (La Camisa Negra) and she was able to join in with singing along!

As we left the parque central to go catch our bus back, we were reminded that this is most definitely not the UK as we walked past 3 police officers with guns standing unobtrusively at the edge of the park. And then on the way past the casino, we saw a guard with the biggest gun we have ever seen (apart from in the movies). One day we will take pictures, but coming from a country where guns are a rarity we are understandably a little unsure how folk with guns react when you take pictures of them!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Phew! What a scorcher!

We promised a few folks back home that we wouldn't do too many of these type of blog entries, but today most definitely calls for one.

We won't say much apart from here are two photos showing the temperature in the shade and sun of our garden this afternoon at about 1pm. Can't say how accurate the thermometer is, but it certainly felt HOT!

85F = 29C

115F = 46C

School Days

For the last two weeks we have been taking Spanish classes with the International Spanish School of Costa Rica. Unlike many schools, the lessons here are completely conversational with grammar points covered as and when necessary. This posed somewhat of a challenge for both Zoë, who knows quite a lot of Spanish but isn’t particularly talkative, and Colin, who can be particularly talkative but didn’t know that much Spanish!

Although the classes took place in the spacious but homely and welcoming garage of Doña Ligia’s house, and not a dedicated school building, this certainly does not indicate a lack of dedication or professionalism on the part of the tutors (and directors), Rafa & Wes, who undertook a 2 hour commute by bus every morning to come to Heredia to teach us (and then another 2 hours home again). And it also enabled us to chat with Doña Ligia and meet members of her family.

Listening and talking only in Spanish for 4 hours a day (or more!), Monday to Friday , for two weeks was at times difficult, however it was an enjoyable and largely stress free experience, and we don’t think we would have learned as much in this short space of time in another school with a different methodology. The tutoring was mostly one-to-one with Colin paired with Rafa and Zoë with Wes (pairings which both seemed to work very well and felt comfortable), joining together for a coffee break mid lesson where we had delicious treats to eat (sometimes baked by Wes – yum yum).

We must have talked about EVERYTHING … from our childhoods and family history through to topics such as Costa Rican and Scottish culture, political issues and the current economic crisis, along with our own personal interests such as computers and Tai Chi. And, of course, what we would do if we were fish or had been living in England during the bubonic plague outbreak of the 1300’s …. (all hail to the subjunctive!)

After spending so long each day with Rafa & Wes it will seem a little odd not to see them every day. Now we just need to practice what we have learned in the real world.

Zoë's Spanish Phrase of the Day

Si tuviéramos más dinero, estudiaríamos más con Rafa y Wes.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Col's Creature Watch #3

Whilst we were out watering the plants in the garden this week, we unexpectedly came across a couple of creatures scurrying to get away from the water.

The first was a large grasshopper measuring about 4 inches long. There were actually two of these, but the other one was a bit camera-shy.

The other creature was some sort of beetle. Although he was only about an inch or so in length his antennae (or feelers) were huge! As you can see below.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Where we are.

Costa Rica, the Central American country (not to be confused with the island of Puerto Rico), is divided into 7 provinces (provincias), each of which is divided into a number of counties (cantones), and each of these into a number of districts (distritos).

Our home in Costa Rica is officially located in the district of Santa Lucia, in the county of Barva, in the province of Heredia (Santa Lucia de Barva de Heredia). However, for most practical reasons relating to our everyday life it is located in San Josecito de San Rafael de Heredia. The house was designed and built by our friends, Victoria & Peter. They have since moved to a new property close by, so this house is on the market – in the meantime, we took the option to rent it for 3 months as we were already familiar with both the house and the area having previously stayed with our friends here.

The house has a virtually unobstructed view across the central valley (meseta central or valle central) to the west, which affords us wonderful views of the sunset from both the roof terrace and big picture windows in the master bedroom. If this sounds grand … then, for us at least, it is. The house is bigger than the one we have in Aberdeen and certainly has better views!

Our home is a 25 minute walk from the centre of the city of Heredia (the capital of the province of Heredia). Or, more accurately stated, it is a 25 minute downhill walk to the centre of Heredia from the house. It takes longer to get back because it is all uphill – we usually wimp out and take the bus!

It is a 20 minute walk to the centre of the city of San Rafael (city by name, small town by UK standards). This is where we usually go to buy our groceries, either at the weekly farmers market (feria) or the Palí supermercado. We choose to shop here instead of Heredia because we can walk back without having to negotiate the killer hill*, but if we need to pick up a few bits while we are out and about in Heredia we’ll either go to the Mercado Central, Palí or Mas x Menos (another supermercado).

For items that are more difficult to come by, or “pequeños lujos” (little luxuries), we plan to go to the Automercado (which sells a lot of imported foods that you can’t buy elsewhere, at a price, of course) which is a 20 minute walk from the house. But so far, we haven’t had any little luxuries as with the current weak £ our budget is a little stretched.

And, naturally, the house is also within easy walking distance of the Taoist Tai Chi Society clubhouse … which is conveniently situated right next to yet another Palí! So, walk to Tai Chi, pick up a few necessities from Palí, get the bus back up the hill…

* The hill is actually the slope of Barva volcano. Fortunately this volcano has been dormant since 1492.

Zoë's Spanish Phrase of the Day

Mi papá montó en avestruz.

This was a phrase that came out of my mouth in my Spanish lesson today.... erm...