‘Tis the season to be mouldy….

Key search words: mould, rain, socks, marmite, potholes, bananas.

Nearly ten days of solid rain and no sign of a respite.


This is not good.  Life is getting rather mouldy. A houseful of clothes and shoes in varying states of fester would delight Louis Pasteur types I’m sure, but horrify me.  Yet perversely, I see this as a rather handy way of forcing me to choose what item will live, or die, by the mould. First signs of furriness, and it’s time to make a decision. No room for prevarication or slow movements, or you too, will become mouldy. A great new wardrobe-clearing inducement, but a tedious maintenance job. I mean, have you ever tried drying a towel with a hairdryer?  Life is just too short.

The locals have an eminently sensible approach to managing this issue, of course. Dryers are seen as an extravagance  when you really only need it for 6 weeks of the year. Just plan ahead, hang your laundry out for about a week, and buy strange bag-like sponge things (or is that sponge-like bag things?) to hang in your wardrobe and soak up the humidity.

With all this cool dampness, my one pair of respectable socks has finally been liberated from the bottom drawer.  Can  you imagine going 6 months without wearing socks?  A truly liberating experience it has been. But putting them on again after so long was strangely exciting too. I have a renewed appreciation for socks. They truly can effect a mood change. For the better, I think.

Sock it to me!

The relentless grey skies and downpours have also re-awoken inherent British urges, which had for so long remained dormant in the tropical sun.  Back on the menu: marmite and toast. Shepherds pie. I have even considered porridge!  Thanks to Anna, who travelled all the way to Nicaragua with a pot of marmite for me, I have been able to indulge.  Marmite pots have moved on!  Did you know that they now come in squeezy versions like this…?


Getting rather fungus-obsessed. Apart from growing one type of mould on my clothes and spreading another type on my toast, I learned recently of another kind of fungus that threatens civilization (and milkshakes) as we know it. Bananas might be going extinct because of it. It is the HIV Aids for bananas. This is not good news for a country (region) that relies heavily on exporting the thing.. Apparently this has a lot to do with the fact it has not had sex for about 7,000 years. I’d say that was a pretty good reason for going extinct. Today’s bananas are nothing more than mutant sterile clones – thanks to a mixture of accidental evolution and less accidental technology. (I wonder what the local grocer – assuming you have one – would say if you went in and asked for half a pound of mutant sterile clones?)

Good old Darwinian principles at work, of course. The less we shuffle our gene pool, the less chance we have of fighting off disease and surviving.. Poor old bananas. Apparently the future fate of the banana lies either in the hands of Honduran scientists, who are working on an organic sexually active variety, or the monster GM world of Monsanto et al… I know which banana I’d rather have..

And a final remark on this remarkable fruit. There is also a nutter who is so bananas about bananas, that he believes that it was not the apple that seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden after all…. Read here for more info on nutter. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19097412

I think it is time to go. A monkey has just climbed onto my head (her name is Linda apparently). Must be all that talk about bananas.

My trip to Panama in search of a piano will have to wait till next time.

I leave you with a picture of the most virile banana I could find for your contemplation…(If Linda only knew..)

Last surviving virile banana in the world


Did I say a six month sabbatical…?

Ah, well, all this sunshine must have muddled my mind.  Six months is up and I am still here.

Until this morning, I had been reflecting quietly that during that time I had managed to pack in rather a lot, and was feeling rather pleased with myself. Until my 8 year old neighbour, Camilla dropped by, sucking furiously on a fruit popsicle, and disabused me of that notion rather firmly.  The conversation went something like this:

Camilla: ‘Can I help you do the cleaning?’ (I was sweeping the floor)

Me: ‘Well, that’s very kind. OK, why don’t you take this feather duster and go chase away all the scary spiders and their webs out of the corners. I will use that thingy there (gesturing at mop) to clean the floor.’

Camilla: OK. (still sucking on popsicle, but now looking quizzical). How long have you been here now?

Me: Six months. Why?

Camilla: Six whole months and you still don’t know how to say ‘mop’ in spanish! That’s terrible! It’s a ‘trapeador’!

Me: How terrible indeed. Well, the truth is, mops are pretty boring, don’t you think? I just like learning interesting and fun words, like popsicle, and cheeky monkey.’

At which point she laughed, remaining fruit slush ended up on floor, and newly appointed trapeador came to the rescue..

The admonition was not yet over, however. Half an hour later, she turned up again with 2 books for me, her favourites. Greg’s Diary, story of a 12 year old boy (with all the sort of escapades you’d expect of a 12 year old little tike..) ‘I think you should start reading these’ she said. ‘They will be very good practice for your Spanish. And no boring words like mop.’

How thoughtful! No doubt a dose of adolescent musings on ‘Dog Days’ and ‘Crude Reality’ will do my conversational spanish a power of good, and prepare me for the world of adults.

No words like mop innit

My abject linguistic failure in the domestic cleaning appliance department has not, however, deterred me from reflecting on life in Costa Rica at the six month mark…. So here they are, six months, six ruminations..

1.  Potholes in paradise. They multiply secretly at night, and are out to get you. When I first arrived, there were only 2 on my road. Now there are 12.  Just when you think you know where they all are, they spring out of nowhere and bring you to a bone/axel- (axle?) crunching halt. My car hates me. The rainy season naturally accelerates the pothole breeding process, and I have begun obsessively counting the number between my house and campus to keep myself entertained. Currently at 64, of which about 10 are fully-fledged axel-murderers, the rest adolescent axel-grinders, growing daily in depth and menace.

2. Fancy-footed Firemen. In between all the macho Latin nonsense are some delightful acts of originality, flair and thoughtfulness. Witness my neighbour’s flambeed bananas, and the Lady Gaga lookalikes in a local drag show, for starters. More recently, one of my dancing partners, a 20-something volunteer fireman (with all the necessary physical attributes one would expect/hope of a fireman – fine tattoos to boot..) told me that the only reason he came to classes was to learn the Bolero, so that he could surprise his Mum for her birthday and take her dancing ‘just like she did in the old days’…. Now, how sweet is that!  (had he been ten years older, still living with his mum and taking her dancing, I’m not sure I would have found it quite so sweet..)

Bolero vertical

Bolero horizontal - not sure his mum will go for this one












3. Livin’ la vida pura.  A few months of sun on the brain, and it has now become almost natural to stick ‘Pura Vida’ (pure life) at the beginning or end of a sentence, by way of greeting, just like the locals do. And then it dawned to me, maybe this isn’t a sabbatical after all, maybe it really is just pure life! I mean, when does one actually end and the other begin?

Another aspect of ‘la vida pura’ that I have come to appreciate is the regular and spontaneous intrusion of the natural world on the man-made one (insects apart). An iguana on the doorstep for instance. A recent weekend getaway in what can only be described as a tropical neoclassical victorian guesthouse, and it came as no surprise to read a notice in the room that said: ‘Do not leave your room service tray outside your door. Small forest  animals may break the crystal ware.’ Well, naturally!

Small forest animals with penchant for crystal ware

4.  Where the Streets have no Name. I have learned the hard way that giving/getting directions to a fixed location will end in almost-certain failure if you rely on either street numbers or names. Either they don’t exist, or nobody has a clue what they are.  After all, this is a country that’s not long stepped out of village life. So it’s all about describing at least 3 other prominent features in the neighbourhood, and then hoping for the best. A grid reference of a sort, minus grid, map, or compass..

I feel truly sorry for Costa Rican postmen.

My address, therefore, is Casa Atmos (‘Atmospheric House’), Rio Oro (Gold River district), 200 metres south of the blue guard house (that is now red, but best not to confuse people with new information),  100m east of the ‘Quickie Chicken’-with-cool-shades sign, after the tunnel, house on the left with the wooden exterior and palm trees. I sometimes add, for effect, 1km from the President’s house. (Actually, it’s more like 2km, as the parrot flies, but who’s counting..)

The Quickie Chicken sign..getting close!

My street with no name (I'm the one with the palm trees)

5. The Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) factor. It’s not hard to see why Costa Rica sits at the top of this index still. While JD Sports shops were being looted up and down the British Isles this summer, Costa Ricans were either on the beach, or having a mild grumble about the Nicaraguans. Economic crisis? Oh, that. Never mind, at least the sun is out. The closest we got to a riot here this year so far was a march through the streets of San Jose to protest at comments made by a senior Catholic Bishop that women should dress more modestly, stay at home and make babies.. and that

“The sexual gift that God gave women is wrapped in love and fidelity for its ultimate purpose: fertilization.”

The SlutWalk, as it’s universally known, was a lively event for some  (a veritable stamping of heels against a patriarchal, misogynist culture..) but a disappointing one for others. As a couple of smart, lively female friends informed me recently.. ‘We have plenty of things to complain about, but we’re just not organised enough. We have only ourselves to blame.’

Well heeled protest

Symptomatic of the wider problem perhaps. I mean, when you live in a small, safe-ish, economically sound-ish, geopolitically irrelevant-ish country that slipped gently into independence without barely noticing, hasn’t picked a fight with anyone since, and that doesn’t have oil reserves or diamonds worth coveting, then it’s quite easy to see how people can/do just get on quietly with life.  A daily dose of sunshine and palm-fringed vistas probably helps too. And slightly unstable neighbours only adds to the sense of complacency. (I mean, just take your pick, to the north or south!) A growth in drug trafficking may change all that…but that’s a story for another day.

6. The Ricky Martin factor. I nearly accepted an invite to see Ricky Martin play in the national stadium next week, but pulled myself back from the brink just in time. This is one in a series of recent incidents in which I have found myself attracted to florid, fanciful things that I would normally shun. Like pink flowery rubber boots with heels and sequinned cowboy hats. This is somewhat disconcerting. Maybe I am a 20-something Latina woman trapped inside a 40-something British woman’s body….!  Oh no! What to do, except go out and get that hat, go to a Ricky Martin concert, and hope that I can work through my latent Latina phase before I come back to Blighty and need to find a proper job..

Saddle up, boys!

Pineapple crush

Sabbatical life has been somewhat derailed recently by visits to brocoli and onion farms.

Not quite the exotic farm destinations I had in mind when I set sail for Costa Rica…But real work has rudely intruded on my peaceful ruminations, and a big retailer beginning with W has me running around talking to farmers of the most mundane vegetables you can imagine to make sure they are not being exploited (the farmers, that is, not the vegetables. But then again, maybe vegetables have rights too..?  I read the other day that the average grown lettuce in the UK has been subjected to 100 different chemical sprays by the time it hits the supermarket shelf…time to stand up for lettuce rights?)

There have been highlights though.. Like the wonderful Señor Alvero Gonzalez, small strawberry farmer with BIG personality, who not only had a fine crop of ‘reds’, but was packing them with little chocolate pots to dip them in.. What a great idea! We feasted.

But I did get to my pineapple farm eventually..

Prickly customer

It was in the pursuit of this prickly friend that I was first lured to this corner of the world..Costa Rica is the largest exporter in the world of the things, and yet despite its reputation for being green and progressive, its pineapple farms – some of them equivalent in size to more than 1,800 football pitches – are full of appalling evidence to the contrary –  not least underpaid, overworked immigrants exposed to a cocktail of chemicals, and communities and wildlife sick from polluted rivers and soil.. A sweet promise, a sour story..

In the course of this pursuit, I read a fascinating biography of the pineapple that  I found in the V&A bookshop.  Since its discovery in the Brazilian jungle  500 years ago (in the heart of a man-eating tribal community), the pineapple has, the writer argues, reflected the various dreams, obsessions and anxieties of the British, (other) European and American people.  Some interesting slices of the pineapple’s history:

1. (For nerds) It is one of natures most perfect example of Divine Proportion, or the Golden Mean. That is, owing to the order and symmetry of the ‘eyes’ on its shell, it is mathematically perfect (Apparently the evolutionary purpose of being perfect is that it takes less effort to grow..)

2.  Pineapples played a very meaningful role in history. They became a fruity icon of imperial mastery. Whoever laid their hands on the King of Fruits first could demonstrate that they had truly conquered foreign and exotic lands and was not to be messed with.  King Ferdinand of Spain got first dibs, then Charles II, to whose fanciful notions of grandeur it appealed.  Oliver Cromwell found it vulgar and bourgeoise and banned it. (Not known for his sense of fun or liking of kings generally…with a face like that, not hard to imagine…)

Cromwell the pineapple hater

3. The Dutch got fed up with shipping it across the oceans and decided to grow it in greenhouses  at the equivalent cost of about GBP500 per pineapple – to the outrage and indignation of Edwardian gentlefolk, who were trying to do the same in inferior, draughty greenhouses.

4.  People used to rent pineapples at posh dinner parties to impress their guests. The Prada handbag of its day, a pineapple gracing the table said as much about a hostess’ rank as it did about her resourcefulness.  Rented by the day, it would do a few dinner party rounds and then be sold on to more affluent clients who actually ate it.

And then suddenly it became all the rage to have pineapple shaped features on one’s house and teapots!

Pineapple shaped folly in Scotland

5. It even played a role in the American War of Independence..The ultimate manifestation of pompous colonial extravagance,  possessing a pinery meant that you probably had a fondness for all things British, including Mad King George, and were therefore an enemy of the people.

A fruit to be respected, therefore.  The fact that it ended up rather ignominiously served up in Mrs Beetons recipe book as a mere tinned and sliced accompaniment to gammon is rather sad I thought.

So seeing them live was rather exciting. There were no farmers or immigrant workers being exploited on this farm at time of writing, just a few cheery Nicaraguans on a tractor off for their lunch break..

Harvest crew

My farmer friend (not your conventional type – a Serbian who had arrived in Costa Rica 15 years ago with a suitcase, 3 small children and $200, on the run from his imploding country)  admitted his cocktail of (14) chemicals was the only way he could meet production targets and make money.  Going organic not an option if you want scale and turnover, he said. The poor old pineapple has its hormones ‘forced’ to flower and fruit in a shorter time as a result. Here is a one that has just had a dose of the pill…

Hormone treatment

So it’s not surprising that when it comes to preparing them for packing and shipping off to Tesco’s, that a bit of washing is needed to get rid of (some of) the nasty stuff…

Bath time for pineapples

This did not stop me sampling the stuff fresh from the field, however… and it was just like sunshine…

The fruits of hard labour

I think the most interesting/disturbing fact I learned about the pineapple that day was that it was flesh-eating. Just like the Brazilian tribe from which it originated, in fact. High in something called bromelein, an enzyme that digests protein, this means that if you eat 3,652 of them in one go you might dissolve into a messy goo. Good for dieting apparently, if you like that look. It also meant that the poor old workers on Dole canning factories in the turn of the century lost half their feet from working ankle deep in the stuff….

But pineapples do/can have a happy ending.. Let’s not forget the more frivolous and happy moments that it contributes to life..such as in the piña colada..

I can report that my full ‘farm to pool’ assessment of this particular fruit ended well..


The best use of a pineapple I know..

A bit of soul surfing

Nicaragua wouldn’t necessarily be the first place that springs to mind when you think of going surfing. Well, surfing on waves, that is. It does, however, get top billing if you fancy surfing down an active volcano..

But more on that later. First to the traditional variety.

I really would have been quite content to stick to mooching around colonial towns and marvelling at mountains, (more) monkeys, lakes and lagoons, but for the lure of the Pacific pounding the shore only metres from our guest house..and the promise of a whole new world of adventure opening up..

Playa Maderas. OK, not much pounding going on at this moment..

Apparently it is possible for someone over 40 to learn how to surf.  Well, sort of. If you don’t mind being pummelled relentlessly by waves, bashed on the head by your surf-board, face down and floundering, incurring bruises and board rashes, and waking up the next day feeling 195.  Curiously, this was all rather addictive, in a perverse sort of way.

I’ll have you standing up in the first lesson‘… said my Dutch surf guru Marcus. No pressure then. ‘Oh, and by the way, suggest you  moon-walk in the water to avoid stepping on a sting ray on the way out’..Marvellous.

There are some very annoying things about being a beginner surfer, and sting rays are actually the least of them. Not least, is your board, which is very large and cumbersome. The surfing equivalent of a bike with stabilizers. It screams ‘I’m a beginner!’ on the beach. So,far from strutting in a cool fashion with it nonchalantly stuck under your arm like all those cool surfer dudes, you lug it, stumbling along, and cursing the fact that the wretched thing was clearly designed for long-armed people, i.e. most men and Scandinavian women.

Braving the Wave (courtesy of Anna, who opted for more cerebral land pursuits)

The lugging is the easy bit, it turns out. There are two critical next steps. If you get them right, they will set you on your path to surfing nirvana and dude-dom.  If you get them wrong, you will crash face down, tossed and twisted in a turbulent torrent of wave-power, only to be washed up unceremoniously on shore like a bit of flotsam, bikini mangled around your neck, sand in every orifice, and gasping for air like an asthmatic whale. Your board, meanwhile, attached to your foot with a bit of rope, is every bit the sea’s accomplice, joyously springing to life to smack you on the head just as you surface spluttering..

Down but not out

So, to those key steps:

Step 1. Lie on the board on your tummy, bobbing around in the swell, preferably not too far out (so as to avoid becoming ‘shark bait’). A quick assessment of wave height, speed and wind direction is recommended at this point. Tips of your toes and arms poised ready to spring into action….

Step 2:  Timing is everything. As looming wave approaches, paddle furiously like a dog. Just as wave starts to lift you, spring, in one lithe movement, from a lying position to a standing one, onto the middle of the board, feet sideways. Easy, huh?

If all goes well, at this point you should be whooping something like ‘Da Bomb!’ or ‘Banzai!’, hunched in a cool surfer-dude position, at one with wave power, shooting the curl, and saluting your admiring beach-lubber friends as you cruise gently to shore..The cooler Salty Sisters adjust their bikinis in a nonchalant fashion at this point to make sure that their slick arrival on shore is not marred by a wave-induced wardrobe malfunction. (The less cool ones don’t notice..they’re just too excited to have made it ashore in one piece..!)

And I did stand up on my first lesson!  🙂

(sadly no pics of this, or subsquent heroic efforts, because Anna got bored and went off to do a bit of water-colour painting..)

Battered, bruised, and ready for a fish taco

3 days and 3,692 waves later, burned, bruised, creaking, and full of sea, it was time to dry out my water-logged brain and do something tranquil, like read a book. But the thrill of  harnessing the power of a wave (however briefly) was acute, and lasting. I can see how easy one might drift into Soul Surfer-dom, at one with the Spirit of The Sea, hair permanently tangled and smelling of seaweed. Get to wear cool gear and have a nice tan too..

Sweet boards for Salty Sisters

Dudes only

And I am sure there must be global warming dimensions to surfing too. What better source of (obsessive) data and knowledge about the changing tides and sea-levels around the world  could there be than a bunch of surfer dudes?  What is less clear is whether rising sea levels are a good or a bad thing for the surfing community. But either way, I think it needs investigating.

But one thing is for sure. Surfers say a lot of things that have nothing to do with global warming, and they usually begin and end with ‘Dude’. The rest is a rich and hilarious concoction of colourful expressions… Here are some of my faves:

1. A growler: big, hairy, scary wave. Does what it says on the tin. Closely linked to ‘Knarly’, and the opposite of ‘Ankle busters’,  smaller waves  (where people like me prefer to hang out)

2. A grommet:  Beginner, and therefore very annoying to have around. Similar to ‘Speed bump’ and related to ‘Butt crumb’ – a wannabe surfer. Difference being that a grommet actually gets out there and tries.

3. A hot-dogger: Flashy rider.  Closely related to ‘Big Kahuna’, best dude on the beach. Except Kahuna’s usually have the shorts, the body, and most of the girls.

4. Pimpin’ the wave: Similar to ‘Shootin’ the pipe’ and slightly different from ‘Powning the weasel‘ which sounds rather similar to something you should probably be doing onshore somewhere private.

5. A ‘ding in his doggers’; a dude with a hole in his shorts. Could be considered quite cool, depending on the location of the ding.

Suffice to say, I will be ‘Jazzing the Glass’ again.. Am already looking at the surfing website Magic Seaweed.com for tips on Grommet-friendly beaches and wave conditions in Costa Rica…

Something to aspire to…

Shootin' the Pipe. This is not me (yet)

But in the meantime, I leave you with the best that surfer talk has to offer….Check this one out! This is what happens when your head fills with salt water..permanently..

Right is Just Wrong…

One of the delights of working in a friendly, relaxed, academic environment is that there is often plenty of time to ruminate on, and debate, random subjects without some pesky deadline interfering..(well, actually, pesky deadlines do exist, but we don’t let them get in the way of a good rumination)
So it was with some enjoyment that I embarked on just such random rumination with my German colleague, Bernard, Bavarian farmer and very clever man on all matters to do with agronomics and precision agriculture (but who has never heard of the Black Eyed Peas..shocking admission for a crop farmer!)
As well adjusted Brits and Germans are wont to do, we’ve already covered the usual topics over recent months: 2 world wars, one world cup etc.  But Bernard’s latest provocation revolves around why the Brits still insist on driving on the left hand side when 2/3rds of the world has moved to the right.
Following a lively but inconclusive discussion in the office, and with a large crate of German beer and a bottle of Scotch at stake (wagered in the presence of bemused Tico witnesses) I decided to do a bit of homework. Firstly, the question is over simplistic and needs re-casting.  And the evidence on both sides of the road needs examining.
So here’s where I got to:
‘Rationale’ for why so many countries drive on the right? The Facts:  combination of the mad egotistical ravings of a French despot, the later, equally mad ravings of a German despot, and a bit of irrational post-colonial spite…
1.  Napoleon was left-handed, which meant he drew his sword from the right. He insisted that his army – and all the countries he subsequently invaded (including Germany)- march on the right so that he could keep his sword arm
between him and the advancing army.
2. Hitler later insisted when he invaded the rest of Europe, that countries drive on the right, like him. A violently Rightist despot imposing once more, a violently rightist driving habit.
3. Post-colonial times – to distance themselves from their former British colonial masters, former colonies in Africa, the US and others switched to the right hand side by way of saying ‘two fingers up’ to the Brits. Hardly a decision
based on reason and logic, methinks.
4. Henry Ford (see item 3). The largest car manufacturer and exporter in the world, and former colony, the US designed cars for right hand driving. This drove countries who had been perfectly happy with driving on the left, to the right. A practical reason maybe, but hardly one based on cast-iron logic.
5. ‘Because the neighbours do it’: poor old Sweden was forced to switch to the Right because most of its neighbours were already driving on the right (see reasons 1-4). It was put to the public vote and the Swedes voted overwhelmingly against the Right… nonetheless, their government wanted to keep neighbours happy and boost cross border trade, so they ignored the public and switched regardless. Hardly a thoughtful, democratic reason, and very un-Swedish I thought.

Rationale for driving on the left: key facts: combination of common sense, road safety and human biology. Rooted, therefore, in scientific reason and logic.
1. Most people in the world are right handed. As I had suggested in the office earlier, in violent feudal societies of the past (i.e. most of the world until the 20th century) it made sense to carry any weapon in this hand. When passing a stranger on the road, it would be safer to walk or ride on the left, so ensuring that your weapon was between yourself and a possible opponent.
2. In a pre-car world, it made much more sense to dismount from your horse, or your bicycle, on the left, closest to the roadside, rather than on the right, where, owing to prevailing global right-handedness, you would be dismounting into the middle of the road. Safer, and more practical, therefore.
3. Some of the greatest empires rode on the left: the Romans, the Mongols and the Austro-Hungarians to mention just a few. There was even a Papal edict that re-enforced this in 1300 AD. (But let’s not bring religion into it)
4. Research conducted in 1969 by a clever nerdy person interested in the subject showed countries driving on the left have a lower collision rate than countries driving on the right. Reasons cited were that the right human eye is the stronger one, and therefore better at both judging and anticipating oncoming traffic.
5. As if reasons 1-4 were not enough, the Brits believe that driving on the right hand side is just one more example of bland, global homogenisation that makes the world a far less interesting place.
So, what do you think? I think 2 World Wars, one World Cup, one crate of German Beer and a bottle of Scotch…


Quality product from an island nation

Flambeed bananas

The ante has been upped.  Flambeed bananas with ice-cream and brandy, courtesy of my delightful neighbours and their orphaned parrot. Life just gets richer..!

This goes way beyond any neighbourly act that I was given to expect in Costa Rica.. Am now moving into unchartered territory:  swapping music collections and children, amongst other things.  They get my music, I get their children. (Hang on a minute, how did I end up agreeing to that?)  Singalongs with the muppets, baking cookies and Wii dance-athons have all been proposed..  Yikes!

On the culinary front, I have promised a return match..(Coronation chicken and roly poly with custard??) Rather daunting considering the only ‘oven’ I have looks about 65 years old, just about big enough for the back-end of a chicken (but not the front), with 2 poxy grill elements that gently toast things on the top and the bottom but leave the middle largely un-cooked (witness recent attempt at banana cake).

And here’s the lovely hungry family (and parrot) awaiting their culinary adventure…

Spot the birdie..!

Relationships with resident domestic animals have also advanced (and regressed) in equal measure in recent weeks. There is the one that giveth, and the one that taketh away..

She that giveth, is the aforementioned little black chicken (Tia), who not only keeps the insect count down, but recently dropped by uninvited to lay an egg on my shelf..



Which is more than can be said for this four-legged rogue, Luke, who has demolished in the recent past, my birthday cake, a pair of dice, a few houses (mid game of monopoly), and my yoga mat. Here he is, sitting outside my window looking hopeful, having just weed on my bench in excitement.


Domestic life aside, the exotic continues to intrude, as it should.  About an hour’s drive away and you can get your fill of howling monkeys, steaming volcano, thundering waterfalls, and the splendiferous colours of the wild..

Just look at the colour of this plant/flower/fern/thing..! It was almost florescent pink in the dark undergrowth..  Like one of those  supposedly ultra-trendy plastic ones for lazy middle class people who don’t have time to water real plants. Except much nicer.

In the pink

….and a steamy volcano not far away…(which started fizzing in a mildly alarming fashion while we were there)

Getting steamed up before lunch

And then, a delightfully colourful couple of cows! (well, oxen, really, but doesn’t quite work with the alliteration)

Costa Rica is really mostly just a collection of overgrown villages in between the jungle, the beach, and the odd mall, at the heart of which beasts of burden like these have pride of place..All dressed in their Sunday best, looking suitably burdened.

A fine pair

And finally, a desperate attempt to photograph the devilishly speedy and beautiful humming bird feasting….   What with all that wing-beating going on (anything between 25–90 times per second..!) it’s not surprising I failed with my substandard camera.

Two interesting nuggets about humming birds that I learned in the process:

The aerodynamics of the humming bird have been fascinating engineers and a nerdy sub-group of people called bio-mechanists for decades. They do experiments with them in wind tunnels, apparently.

And:  the humming bird is the only bird in the world to be able to fly backwards. Fancy that!

Believe it or not, there is one there…. just see if you can spot it!  This is either just a pointless photograph of a red plastic thing or a true work of art..

Spot the birdie! (2)

Ah, there he is. Not quite so interesting to look at when he’s not humming.

Green blob on larger red blob

Not bad for a spontaneous Sunday afternoon though.  If I’d been in London I might just about have managed to get the Sunday papers, go to the supermarket, fix a lightbulb, and watched a dodgy pirated DVD of Desperate Housewives, or something equally mindless..

Actually, that sounds quite a nice way to spend a Sunday, now I come to think of it..

Next stop: Nicaragua.

Colombian Coffee Break

Lest you think I just spend my life mooching between pool, party and pontification, I should point out that work does occasionally feature.  How else could I fund the three P’s otherwise?

I presented to the Board of the organisation I am working with recently. A strategic review, and the product of 2 months work (admittedly half of it spent with laptop by pool). As it turned out, they were Quite Important People.  At least one former Minister of Agriculture now current President of the National Bank of Costa Rica, one former Foreign Minister of El Salvador, and an Impresario who had made her name and fortune growing organic indigo and selling it to Gap and Levi’s.  The President had to leave a tad early to go to sort out the country’s inflation rate. (I reckon our discussions were far more interesting than his could possibly have been..)

From here, straight to the airport and Bogota and three days of intense, beautifully brewed coffee with some of the worlds experts on the stuff.  People who grew it, roasted it, distributed and marketed it, and those whose careers were built on tasting it. Like the chief Nespresso Wizard who could tell you down to the last 50 yards where a bean had been grown, at what altitude and with what degree of shade.. (can’t imagine how much his taste buds must be insured for..!)

The purpose of the three day shindig: to discuss how to improve the long-term sustainability of coffee. The stuff is pretty important to Colombia’s economy and at least 400,000 farmers depend on it.  But it faces similar challenges to other coffee growing parts of the world – decreasing prices, increasing costs, declining productivity, and if that wasn’t enough, the tangible effects of climate change to boot. Not surprisingly, farmers are getting fed up with any or all of these issues, leaving their farms, or switching to growing something else.

Interesting nugget: did you know that it takes 4 day long donkey trips, each carrying 150 coffee plantlets, to restock the average 2-3 hectare farm? Can you blame the poor farmer (not to mention the donkey) for packing it all in?

Donkey work (ok, so not coffee plants, but you get the idea..)

Our role in the proceedings was largely to shake some complacency out of the proceedings and deliver some hard facts to the hard of hearing. Not least the Colombian Coffee Federation. An ageing, secretive cabal, if ever there was one. They travelled in packs, mostly men, all wearing the same ill-fitting dark suits, lurking in corners looking slightly sinister and reeking of bureaucracy and self-interest. Reminded me very much of the Chinese Tobacco Monopoly Administration, who did a fair share of lurking in packs (as you’d expect from a tobacco company I suppose), in badly made suits attempting to hide their dark arts and machinations from the outside world.

Was given strict instructions not to wear open-toed sandals and to lose my ‘free range sabbatical look’. Bogota’s posh like that.  So naturally I had no choice but to go buy a new pair of red shoes..

Red not Dead

But then some fun stuff!  
Bogota, big and burly, an ancient underground cathedral made of salt (great place for tequila parties..), and a lovely long weekend on a beautiful flower farm.
The city (as indeed the country) is fast shaking off its reputation as a dangerous, crime-filled, drug fuelled, FARC-threatened place and it’s been a few years since a bomb went off. There are still places even taxi drivers don’t go, but then there are probably places in Yorkshire that no self respecting cabbie would go either..
I found shi shi cafes and slinky bars that wouldn’t look out of place in New York.
 I also found a llama for rent and a man selling coconuts on the main street.

Hairy llama and coconuts

  And people renting out mobile phones on a chain for 7 pence a minute.

Rent-a-mobile man

However, just when I was getting all complacent about walking back to the hotel myself at night.. the guide I had planned to take for an out of city tour never made it. Poor man was  mugged 2 blocks from my guesthouse on his way to meet me.. broad daylight in a ‘safe’ part of the city!  Crime, just like any other big city, but tragically exacerbated by 40 years of ‘La Violencia’ which has displaced millions of people from their homes, land and livelihoods.  These poor souls end up in cities like Bogota looking for anything that might keep body and soul together.

Interested to read of one rather clever ex-Mayor of the city, (Mockus) who did huge amounts to restore civic pride and confidence in Bogota in the ‘bad years’. Artist and self professed ‘anti-politician’ he sought to reach people by appealing to the power of collective and individual (dis)approval through ‘creative expression’ –  rather than through boring speeches and formal regulation. Like: dressing up as Superman, employing mime artists on the streets to follow and mimic people behaving badly, inventing ‘Women only’ nights out (leaving men at home with babies/washing up – or, if they insisted on going out, requiring them to carry passes..imagine that, in a macho Latin culture! Que cojones!). And, to address a water shortage, appearing on TV taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped up..  Boris, get a load of this! (but please don’t get soapy and naked on TV..)


I stayed with one friend that refused FARC threats to leave his farm in the ‘bad years’. He hired two body-guards, bought a bullet proof car, got police to trace the incoming calls/threats, and sat tight for a few years.  Scary. And expensive! As we drove into his beautiful flower farm (in aforementioned bullet proof jeep), he introduced me to aforementioned body guard, now just a gate-keeper. And happily no longer armed.  The most dangerous weapon he carries on him these days is a nail clipper…

Warmth and hospitality in the heart of Colombia

Flowers destined for M&S... (is that child labour I see lurking amongst the leaves?)

Flower farming in Colombia: key facts:

1. Getting the ‘wrong colour’ for the season can wipe 200K off the bank balance…

2. Brits seem to go for gentler shades, Americans bolder ones, and Latin markets..a riot of brassy hot pinks!

3. Precision and speed are key when M&S wants its fresh flowers within 24 hours. On progressive farms like this one, good piece rates mean that women can be big earners. Colombian men just stick to fixing things, fumbling around and driving trucks.

4. Workers are scared of going into the cold storage unit because it represents ‘a change of season’ which can be bad for their health..

Barely skimmed the surface of this beautiful, wounded country, and only a glimpse of what is now shaping its future. As to what shaped its past, you can’t go wrong with a visit  to El Museo D’Oro, the Gold Museum for starters. Best of its kind in the world…

A couple of my favourites..

cheeky monkey pre-colombian style

cheeky man, pre-colombian style

Life is speeding up. Probably more than I want it to.

But I’ll be back.