Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My visit to [REDACTED]

So I went to the [REDACTED] this week.

What's that? You've never heard of the [REDACTED] Hotel or the world-famous [REDACTED] Bar? Google it (but maybe not from your place of work)

For those of you who are too lazy to Google it (or just don't want to), here are the facts. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. There are many (MANY) places here to pick up some entertainment. Most of these places are not brothels, per se, but certainly aren't trying to hide that hooking up (pun unintended) of provider and consumer. The [REDACTED] is the largest and most famous hotel, casino, restaurant, and bar(s) for this type of entertainment.

So what was I doing there? I assure you it was in a professional capacity. First, out of fairness to the owners and operators of the [REDACTED], the joint was not even close to living up to the negative comments I've heard about it. The staff was professional, the hotel was clean, and the managment was open to talking about anything (and everything) that goes on there. There were business people enjoying lunches, and the working ladies kept themselves mainly to one section (it should be noted that none of these ladies are actually employed by [REDACTED], and are required to be paying customers in order to enter.

As you can probably imagine, Americans can get into plenty of trouble in a place like this. The least of these troubles is losing (forgetting?) a passport, credit card, or more. Last week we had someone report a relative as missing and last seen with a prostitute in one of the bars. He turned up the next day. Occassionally we have to go and claim the personal effects of a deceased American (and notify the family, of course).

I know; I still haven't explained WHY I was there. It was basically networking. The [REDACTED] is a major hub of American tourist...*clears throat*...activity, and we should have a working relationship to help resolve any mutual problems that arise. We had a cordial meeting, learned a lot, and were able to recover some lost items that we will return (as we're able) to worried Americans. It's hard to say if they are more worried that the things were lost, or that their wives will find out where they lost them.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


We’re dog sitting for some friends who went on a trip. This is sort of a trial run for getting a pet. Malachi has been asking for a dog constantly for several months. Sara and I agreed to have some discussions about it, and then we were pending out next assignment. If we’d gotten London, for example, there would have been a 6 month quarantine of the poor animal—about ¼ of our tour. But since we’re heading to Manila next year (which has no quarantine time), it’s looking more likely that we’ll be getting a furry family member soon—maybe even before the baby comes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

ACS (Jail Visits)

One aspect of ACS (American Citizen Services) work is visiting Amcits in prison. We have a decent number of folks in the jails throughout the country. Americans in Costa Rica get arrested for a variety of reasons, ranging from drug trafficking (very common) and sexual assault to murder and immigration violations. Others are arrested for crimes committed in the U.S. and then extradited. Regardless of the charges or conviction, Americans are never abandoned in overseas jails.

That said, Americans are subject to the justice systems of the sovereign nations where they choose to break the laws. Contrary to popular belief, we can’t come bust you out of jail. We can, however, work to ensure that you are not mistreated, that you receive necessary medical attention, and facilitate communications with family, lawyers, etc. We bring English magazines, toiletries, clothes, and other assistance as we can.

Recently, I’ve visited several of our inmates at several detention facilities, including the women’s prison and the psychiatric hospital. It is quite an experience. Between the double-capacity men’s jail, the women’s facility, and the psych hospital, I’m not sure which is scarier.

The men’s prison is oppressive—claustrophobic, dirty, hopeless. There are lots of guards, but we still have to enter and area where the inmates outnumber outsiders. The Americans complain of mild harassment (for being gringos and for not speaking Spanish) by other prisoners, but overall are in good spirits. Most just want to move to prisons in the U.S. That should tell you something about what it’s like in jail in Central America.

There is only one women’s facility in Costa Rica. It’s a lot more open than the men’s jails—like a small, walled neighborhood. They have a church, a school, and a convenience store. Some children live there with their mothers. Our Amcits there talk about the same harassment from other inmates, but are able to work as English teachers in the school. One problem I see that by having only one place for the women, there is no separation between violent and non-violent criminals.
The psychiatric hospital is the same way—no separation between “regular” cases and the criminally insane. Walking the paths one is subjected to endless solicitations for money or cigarettes, often by groups of people, and occasionally with pocket patting. The grounds are nice, but it’s unnerving to be surrounded and outnumbered by the unstable.

But these are the exactly the kind of experiences I signed up for. The feeling of directly helping or bringing comfort to another person is extremely rewarding and motivating for me. Consular work is full of these feelings, especially ACS.

Monday, March 14, 2011


It has recently been pointed out (by several people) that my blog has not been updated in a while. I'd like to say it's because I've been too busy, or because my wife takes all the good topics and blogs enough for the both of us. But really, I've just been lazy. I've also felt like blog posts needed to cover interesting topics or be generous in content. Clearly, from this post, I'm changing my mind about this (since it is neither interesting nor long).

In January I moved from the visa line into ACS (American Citizen Services). I now spend my mornings helping American citizens (Amcits) renew their passports (for Amcits living in Costa Rica) or get emergency passports (for Amcits who had theirs' stolen). I see fewer boobs (see last post) but get yelled at just as much. It's quite different from visa work, and rewarding in a unique way. I like helping people, and especially cheering up Amcits who've had a rough turn of events on their vacations.

Passport adjudication is easier than visas, because the requirements are a lot more “documentary” (do you have proof of citizenship & identity?) and rely less on my judgment. Because I’m not so focused on judging the case, I can invest more emotionally in each case. I’m also speaking English to fellow Americans. All this to say that even though I saw and talked with more people doing visas, ACS feels more customer service oriented.

Can I say something about illegal immigration? No, not that kind. I’m talking about Americans who come and live and work illegally in Costa Rica. It’s amazing how easily we’ll flaunt another country’s laws when it doesn’t cost us anything, but get so up in arms about the same thing in our own country. I ask every American living in Costa Rica if they have their residency, followed by “why not?” (usually). The answers range from “it’s too hard” to “they always let me in without it.” There has been an increase in Amcit arrests for immigration violations. Hopefully these folks will get their acts together and I won’t be visiting them in jail.

This turned out a little longer than I thought.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Work is fun

Every day on the visa line is unique.

Today an applicant pulled her boob out at my window. No, she wasn’t breastfeeding (not an uncommon occurrence), and no, it wasn’t a wardrobe malfunction. She was explaining to me about the surgery she had undergone a few years ago and (for some reason) figured that visual aids were necessary. Sheesh.

In my (almost) 6 months on the visa line, I’ve seen people faint, puke, have panic attacks, heart attacks, and throw hissy fits. Though there haven’t been too many of the last one. The people here take denials well. Not that we deny all that many people. About 80% of Costa Rican visa applications are approved.

So, most applicants are not the fainting, puking, flashing sort. I’ve met several Hollywood folks (some names you’d know; some you wouldn’t), many government officials, dozens of doctors, and even more lawyers (side-note: I’ve noticed that lawyer-lawyer couples have a high divorce rate). But the good news is that you don’t have to be a lawyer/doctor/legislator to get a visa. You just have to demonstrate strong ties to your country.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but U.S. law presumes that everyone is an immigrant unless they convince a consular officer (me) that their ties are strong enough to compel them to leave the U.S. at the end of their stay. Some people insist that this is all about money, but it isn’t. Personally, I think some Americans need to come to grips with the idea that not everyone wants to live in our country. Yes, financial ties are a major factor we consider, but according to the law, social and family ties are to be considered as well. I’ve issued visas to plenty of poorer people who have credible ties here.

All this work talk is reminding me of our case notes. Because of the speed with which we work, even I make frequent typos. I’ve written countless times about an applicant’s “good toes” or “credible toes” (instead of ties). I’m sure they are relieved that I find their feet credible.

Work is fun.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Our latest excursion in Costa Rica was Tortuguero (tor-too-GEH-roh), a popular tourist destination on the northeastern coast. It was our first trip to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. It was also our first group trip; there were 30+ other embassy folks along for this one.

The bus took the winding mountain roads out of the central valley because the highway (also winding, but less so) was inaccessible due to heavy rains (not surprising). Two passengers puked (not surprising). The boys managed the bus ride like champs; it was Sara and I who were both feeling ill most of the ride. Once out of the mountains, we traded winding and paved for straight and unpaved. It’s hard to say which is worse.

We made two interesting stops along the unpaved road. The first was at a banana “processing” facility. “Processing” because it involves a total of two steps, repeated several times: cutting and washing. Everything was open to observe; we watched the heavy branches rolling in like clothes on a clothesline, and the flashing blades of practiced cutters as they crafted familiar-looking store-shelf bunches.

Our second stop was a small bakery operated by some local ladies. They came on the bus and sold (for $1 apiece) empanadas, quesadillas, and various fruit, nut, cheese, and dulce de leche pastries. Through the efforts of the tour company (making regular stops at the bakery), the ladies have been able to improve their facility and expand their business. Also the stuff they make tastes fantastic. We were all happy to stop again on the way home.

The bus ride behind us, we all boarded a long, narrow boat and headed off into the costal canals. Our hotel was not accessible by road. Malachi especially liked the boat ride (so did I). We saw two crocodiles and a turtle (and lots of birds) on two-hour ride.

We arrived at the hotel just in time for lunch. From our room, we could see the canal out one window, and the ocean out the other. The grounds were beautiful, with a host of wildlife and wide variety of fruit trees. Malachi’s favorite part of the hotel was probably the swimming pool; which was large, free-form, and always full of his friends. Simon’s favorite part was all the attention he got for being so cute (and serious). His least favorite part was not having a bed. The first night he shared with mommy; the second night we built a cage bed on the floor for him.

We participated in a number of scheduled activities: a nature hike through the jungle (LOTS of spiders), a tour of the nature park at the hotel (butterflies and poison dart frogs), and, of course, mealtime. The food was not bad; definitely a notch above resort food, and it was included in the price of the hotel, so no complaints here. In lieu of one planned activity, I napped for three hours in a hammock. We weren’t allowed to swim in the water because of riptides and sharks; but Malachi and I had a nice walk on the beach one morning where we saw some sea turtle eggs.

Sara and I separately went on night excursions to watch the sea turtles nesting. For me, the experience was quite impressive, although the turtles were only a small part of that. I did get to see a turtle laying her eggs, covering the next, and returning to the water.

The more magical part was the atmosphere. We walked out onto the beach around 10:00 p.m., so the sun had set five hours earlier. But there was so much light from the stars, more stars than I’ve ever seen before: planets, shooting stars, the hazy course of the Milky Way. While waiting for the turtle to prepare her nest, I lay on the beach for nearly an hour, watching the surf in the starlight. I could make out the dark line topping each wave as it rose toward the shore, followed by its violent change to light as the wave broke. It was like a horizontal lightning strike arcing along the waterfront. Beautiful and primal.

The ride back to San José was better because the highway was open, though our boat ride was rainy. This is definitely a trip that I would recommend for visitors to Costa Rica, but I’m not sure we’ll repeat it next year (just because we like doing new things). Below are some photos. Enjoy!

Malachi said, "Look! A person in the trees!"

Simon and Malachi enjoying the boat ride.

Destroying the bed

Malachi and a boa

I am NOT amused.

Butterflies snacking

Poison dart frog

Iguana on the tree

Bullet ant (HUGE)

Spider of some variety

Crocodile along the canal

View of the canals

Canal house

Getting ready to board the boats

Looking down into the central valley

Friday, June 4, 2010

Manuel Antonio

Sara decided that she had had enough of this not having a car business. So we rented a car and went away for the weekend (last weekend; I know; I'm slow.). The car rental process was fairly painless. They even dropped the car off and gave us a discount. Prices weren't bad; it was all the extra insurance I paid for that jacked it up. Even so, it was worth it.

I employed a travel agent I met to find a good hotel deal for us. He got us a 50% discount at a eco-boutique hotel. It wasn't ON the beach, but the views were impressive and the beach was very close. A nice surprise when we arrived was an upgrade in our room. So we ended up with the honeymoon suite. Since we've started traveling with kid(s), we appreciate suites so much more. It's partly because the extra space is needed, but also because it helps get them to sleep when you can close a door.

The view from our balcony.

It was about a 3-hour drive from our house to the hotel (the nearest beach is only about an hour). The costal plain is significantly more humid than the central valley. We lunched a little Tico place and arrived a the hotel early in the afternoon. Malachi enjoyed the pool and waterslide before dinner.

The family pool at Si Como No

The next day we visited the national park. We opted for a nature guide, and it's a good thing we did. Otherwise we might have missed all the birds, sloths, monkeys, crabs, lizards, and other animals we saw. The day started out a little bit cloudy (this is the rainy season, after all), but quickly cleared up.

After the park we ate at El Avion, which is exactly what it sounds like (in Spanish). It's an old cargo plane that was abandoned by its owners after the Iran-Contra affair broke open. The inside of the plane is a bar, and there are tables surrounding the outside of it. Good food, great views, and a unique experience. The history of the plane is interesting, and worth a read at the link above.

El Avion bar & restaurant

We finished the day with a couple of hours at the beach. Malachi had a fantastic time--he maintains that the best part of the trip was playing in the waves. Simon took a comfy, tropical nap on a beach chair. At night, the family hit the sack pretty early, so I slipped out to the hotel movie theater and watched about half of Sherlock Holmes.

Malachi & I in the surf.

Simon getting his beach on.

In the morning we visited a butterfly farm and reptile lagoon. We were the only ones there for most of the time, and the guide was very attentive and informative. Malachi and Sara were plagued by mosquitos, but they didn't really bother me. Learning about butterflies was more interesting than I expected.

Blue morpho butterfly.

When we returned home on Monday afternoon, we had enough time to take ourselves shopping. That was a real treat; I can't wait to get our car.