As you know, I hate to complain. But a coupla things are ticking me off lately. Like…
1. Gringo Pricing. While ticas and I are the same height, all resemblance stops there. Ticos see me coming. Like going into the local pulperia [mom and pop grocery] for eggs last week. A flat of eggs in Auto Mercado is 2,800 colones. (Eggs are sold by weight, but this is average price.) Well, Juan charged me 4,000 colones and these were not heavy eggs. Nor were they fresh.
Like at Spoon yesterday in Alajuela's International Mall, I ordered a Capuccino and got out my rojo [red, slang for a 1,000 colon note which is red]. When the girl told me it would be un mil setecientos cincuenta [1,750 colones], I almost choked. $3.22 for a coffee in Costa Rica? Me being a quick thinker and all, I said, "Tengo solo un mil." [I only have a rojo.] As I turned to walk away, she – also a quick thinker – said, "Un mil esta bien." She snatched my rojo and pushed the coffee at me. Ok, I can live with that. Since prices weren't posted for coffee, I didn't know the true price. At home online, I see the price is 1,075 colones. (And, no, I did not misunderstand her. I made her say it twice and even repeated it back to her. Grumble, grumble.)
Most of the time, I don't notice, I take it in stride and try to prevent the more outrageous takings. Lately, I notice. Maybe it's more obvious, maybe I'm just homesick for Key West. But if prices aren't posted, gringos, ask cuantos before you order, or shop elsewhere. At the feria [farmer's market], I only buy from stalls that post prices. I hate feeling like I got taken. Which happens if you aren't mindful.
Petty Dishonesty (P.D.) is rampant in Central America. I don't think it's considered "bad" here. It's simply an opportunity to earn a quick few colones. And it's not really stealing (unless you are all hung up on the 10 Commandments). If a tico thief is caught with less than $400 worth of stuff, judges let them go. There are practical reasons: Costa Rica doesn't have jail space to hold every petty thief, one of my most favorite things about Costa Rica. But it's a fact everyone knows which probably leads to continued relaxation about P.D.
If I'm going to insist on firing every maid who takes a bag of oatmeal, a battery or a can of tuna fish, I'm likely not going to have a maid. Almost everyone tells me this, I didn't figure it out on my own. As my last maid told me, "I never took books or money." There was no shame for her in being a thief. There was dismay for getting caught and losing a good job. The rationale is that I have so much, she has so little, so it's not stealing. She's helping me share. Gringo pricing taken to the next level.
And it's not just gringo to tico where P.D. exists, it's tico to tico, too. It's why, if one is involved in an accident, one waits for a cop without moving the cars involved. Even if those cars are in the middle of the road blocking traffic. Why? Because ticos don't trust each other to tell the truth about what happened. Fabrication for fun. Exaggeration is sport in Costa Rica. There's not even animosity about it.
Are gringos more honest than ticos? At the petty level, what I'd call "cash register" honesty, I'd say yes. But only then. We have cash register honesty drilled into us from birth (except for politicians. They'll steal anything not nailed down.)
Gringos certainly own their share of thieves, just not so much the petty everyday thievery. We prefer Bernie Madoff-styled heists. And maybe foreigners in the U.S. have to constantly count their change. But, at this moment, I'm sick of it.
2. You can't always get what you need. Or even what you want. Like real whole wheat flour. Like most vitamins. And no mega-dose vitamins at all here. Like real salt. Or just plain salt with nothing added. Even though it's mined here, they add iodine and fluoride to all salt, even sea salt. Argh. Like a host of gadgets: a dehydrator, for instance. You can't get these items here at all, not to be found even for a price.
The vitamin situation is ridiculous. You can't even pay duty and get vitamins shipped here – customs takes them. Last fall, they took my eight bottles of Omega3 vitamins, which cost $150 for the vitamins and $50 for shipping. Eight bottles for a family of four is not that much. For a family of one, it's not that much. But the sharp tacks at aduanas insisted I apply for an import license for vitamins. For 8 bottles. So I did. They denied it, of course.
So, they had the vitamins, they weren't going to give them to me for any amount of money or permission. What was the point of that exercise? And did they sell them? Take them? I'll bet they are still sitting there, rancid by now, of course. The entire point seems to be simply to show who's boss. Like me telling Morgan he can't do something "because I said so." Stupid.
Whole wheat flour does not exist here. What is labeled whole wheat in the store is not. For one thing, it's Betty Crocker-style ww: everything removed, the life bleached out of it, then some fiber, iron and "nutritional stuff" added back in. We guess it's better than white, but we yearn for the real thing.
We do have a few pounds of whole wheat berries and would grind those if we could. But, unless you buy a Vitamix here (for twice the price in the U.S.), you can't buy a good grain grinder in Costa Rica. We've finally given up buying expensive small electronics and equipment here. I have long suspected that manufacturers send their "seconds" to third world countries, because, no matter the brand, every small appliance we've bought in Costa Rica has failed in short order. We are on our fourth coffeepot in four years. The current one broke yesterday.
For everything you can order in – including books, now – you pay anywhere from 50% to 100% duty on it plus exorbitant shipping fees from your mailing service. If you can get the gadget here, it's double the price it is in the states. If you are moving here – and there are still more things I love about Costa Rica than not – bring everything.
Here's my question: who does all that duty benefit? It supports the customs industry, but anyone else? Does the government use this money (if they see anything over and above what it costs to run customs) to benefit ticos? It clearly does not. In fact, it only makes it impossible for the average tico to afford any cool gadgets. And if a tico can't get a visa to visit the U.S. (who can these days?), you can't even go there and buy one at Best Buys.
Some days, I yearn to walk into a big health food store and buy a couple of bags of whole wheat flour. To have that coveted dehydrator shipped to my door. Easy vitamins. Ryan to be able to get all the books he wants. In Key West, we'd buy at least five to ten books a month. Not now.
Perhaps it's the old 'merican "I want what I want when I want it. Which is now." But I can't help it: I do. In the big picture, it's a small price to pay. Right at this moment, I'm annoyed. OH, wait, I hear the girls: