Starting the New Manuel Antonio

Published: January 8th 2006
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Well, a new year is upon us. They just fly by and I’m not getting any younger. Yikes! There’s plenty to do in the coming year and the next few months are very busy with customers—which is good given that the B&B, under our ownership, has only been in business for about 6 months.

Manuel Antonio—again

I spent a few days over New Years in Manuel Antonio. I must admit I love that place! The beach is terrific, the people are friendly, the food is decent, and if you look hard enough, you can actually find a hotel room at a reasonable price, even in peak season.

After taking the local bus down there last time—which took about six hours—I decided to see if the ole Trooper would hold up, so I drove down there on the Thursday before New Years. Sure enough, it made it, and surprisingly there were very few cars on the road, at least from Puntarenas to Quepos. I don’t know what it is but the road from San Ramon to Puntarenas is always a pain in the neck. I think it is partially due to the fact that it is not only hilly in spots but winds around sharp turns in several places. This combined with the many trucks that travel this route, make it less than pleasant. At least after bypassing Puntarenas about 1.5 hours from San Ramon, heading south along the Pacific coast is much easier.

From Puntarenas to Quepos (Manuel Antonio is really part of Quepos), you breeze past Jaco and other fairly large towns, and luckily for the most part, you don’t have to go right through these towns. Every so often you come close to the shore which is a pleasant respite after dogging potholes just south of Puntarenas (and I mean in some places, you cannot dodge them because they litter the entire road!). About 1/3 of the way from Quepos the road become straight, and luckily flat, for most of the drive. On either side of the road you come across rubber tree and other plantations, no doubt owned by large foreign companies. Alongside these plantations you’ll find new neighborhoods apparently built by the companies for the workers. Solidly-built, concrete slab houses all exactly the same, while small, are neat and cozy. A few years ago I remember driving through this same area and only remember a bunch of ramshackle houses scattered about, so I gather this is a big improvement for the workers and I am glad to see the improvement in their lives (I assume).

Driving in the center of Manuel Antonio is always fun, if not a bit dodgy, given the tourists, hawkers and other cars on this narrow road—barely made for two cars going in opposite directions. In the center of M.A., I run into Gama, a friend who does tours of the national park, just off the beach. He tells me about a fashion show/happy hour at a local hotel that evening. It’s as nice feeling to be able to make my way into a town, by myself, and find people I know, especially a good four hours from home. So my plans are set for the evening.

Models and more models….

I was amazed how many models appeared at the hotel fashion show. This is a fairly small hotel, however, with a nice bar and pool area. The patio just off the pool was used as the runway. At the end of the show all the models dove into the pool—oh, this was a swimwear show!

I was pleased to meet a bunch of locals/ex-pats through my friend Gama, who apparently is well known in M.A! I’ve learned that no matter where you live in Costa Rica, everyone seems to talk about the same issues: the long rainy season, the onslaught of tourists, lack of funding to repair roads, residency status, and so on.

After the fashion show, we all head to dinner at a great seafood place just up the road. I was tired and actually turned in fairly early that night as I was determined to have three full days at the beach.

Snows Cones on the beach….

While I am not much of a beach person, I find myself sitting on the beach at Manuel Antonio on the last day of the year. After six months of living through an unusually grueling rainy season northwest of San Jose, the paleness of my skin is as much a reflection of my mood as it is a lack of sunshine. Fortunately, the sun is in abundance. There’s beautiful surf rolling in and out with proletarian surfers attempting to catch the less than gigantic waves. Tourists on a day trip roll along not far from shore on a polished-white sailboat. An occasional whistle is heard signaling that someone needs to be dispatched from a nearby restaurant to bring some food or drink to a sun-worshipper unwilling to give up a prized spot in the sand.

This beach, set across the street from the usual rattrap of t-shirt shops, restaurants and bars is crowed on this holiday weekend but not unpleasantly so. Sunbathers keep a respectable distance from each other. While there are a number of families on holiday enjoying the playa, there are not nearly as many snowbirds from North America, having fled their chilly hinterland, as I would have expected. A Costa Rican family with grandparents, parents, and not less than a baker’s dozen worth of children, sit near me. They have a full bar set up on their sprawling beach towel, complete with vodka, gin and “Centenario,” Costa Rica’s most well known, but not best, rum. They also have enough mixers to make even the most experienced bartender proud.

Enjoying the luxury of not having to hide among the shadows of the palm trees that dot the far edge of the beach to avoid irritating gringo tourists, I find myself wondering about the local people who live and work here. I wonder about those people who ply their trade day after day hoping to make a living from the conveniences expected by developed-world citizens before the sunshine again retreats behind the clouds of the rainy season. I reflect on their lives and livelihoods—probably not a bad day for reflection on the last day of the year.

My new friend on the beach is Jorge, the snow cone maker who I’ve gotten to know over a few days. He seems to cautiously notice my skin transforming from modestly ashen to bright red while fastidiously keeping to his route along the beach. It becomes apparent to me that generations of family history must have made his dark brown skin immune to the ills of the sun. He looks darker than most Costa Ricans though. He could have indigenous blood in him, or perhaps he is Nicaraguan or El Salvadorian. It might just be that his many years of living at the beach accounts for his dark complexion. He doesn’t appear to be more than 40 years old but I’ve never been accurate in guessing ages.

Jorge travels up and down this fairly long stretch of dark sand beach dozens of times a day bringing a chilled joy to the masses. I’ve had snow cones many times before but never one con leche; the milk swirled adeptly in a zigzag pattern on top of the cone by Jorge’s experienced hands. The shaved ice now saturated with sweet, creamy condensed milk and combined with cherry syrup does not wear thin even after eating three of them in rapid succession.

As I watch Jorge push his snow cone cart up and down the beach my business mind turns on. I wonder a number of things about him. First, as any good businessman is likely to do, I wonder how much money he makes a day at $1 a pop. In a half hour I observe him dispense ten cones, three of them to me. So, if that holds true he could be earning $20 an hour which I suspect for a Tico is a good income. I also realized that I was thirty percent of his business in this short time span so perhaps I was due a discount on my next purchase. I won’t ask however.

My second thought about Jorge’s small sliver of the snow cone industry is to consider whether he runs an efficient business. As I watch him make his way along the beach I wonder if his straight-line trajectory, as if he is on a highway for which he cannot exit, brings him the most income. I think perhaps he should be going in and out among the sunbathers rather than traveling in front of them.

As the day wears on, the beachgoers inch their chairs, towels and umbrellas back at fairly consistent intervals as the tide creeps closer to them. I notice, somewhat surprised, that Jorge does not alter his route, staying in his highway’s right lane, moving at the same leisurely clip as he had all day. An occasional parent runs over and purchases two cones most likely to keep her sniveling kids occupied and at bay.
Later in the afternoon, Jorge stops for a few minutes not far from me appearing to be just as weary from the sun as the rest of us. Thinking it to be a convenient moment for me to approach him and make conversation, I seize the opportunity.

“It’s hot out here,” I tell him casually in very broken Spanish. “Si, muy caliente,” he responds wiping his forehead with a scraggily, soiled hand towel. I want to know why he hasn’t altered his path in the sand since his customers have all moved significantly away from him. I don’t want to be pushy, however, especially when the sand and the sun are enough to try one’s patience on this hot day.

He asks me, as any good businessman would, if I would like another snow cone. I decline not wanting him to think I’m just another overindulgent Norte Americano, even though it has been some time since my last one. Gaining some bravado as he doesn’t appear to want to move on despite my having just rejected his business proposition, I ask him more about his voyage up and down the beach.

“I see all of the people are far away from the water now but you are still here.”

Before I could further explain myself and ask my burning question, he breaks into a thin smile perhaps because my abrupt statement is as obvious as the sun is hot. After he unclasps a button from his shirt to let some additional air in, he points to his small thin lump of ice seemingly taking up less and less space in the bottom of his cart. “It is almost all gone. No ice, no money.”

“But it looks like you have enough ice for several more snow cones?” I would have thought he would want to sell as many more snow cones as possible before the ice became just a small trickle of water leaking out of the bottom of his patched-up cart. My mind rattled with several good reasons why he should get out there and “Sell! Sell! Sell!”

“Yes, I want to sell many snow cones.” All the while he fidgets with his numerous bottles of syrup, wiping some down, closing others, but making no effort to move on. “My family depends on me.”

I wasn’t sure he understood me. If he hustled up to the edge of the beach that meets up with Manuel Antonio’s main strip, where the beachgoers were now congregating, he could perhaps sell a few more.

“If your family depends on you, then why not go where the customers are?” It seemed there was just something I did not understand about his business and I hoped he would provide an answer that as a foreigner in this country and to his business, was not be apparent to me.

“It is 4:30. I have to be home by 5 to prepare dinner for my children.”

That’s as good an answer as any I could have imagined.

Talk to you all soon.

Pura Vida!



12th January 2006

those are some really cool pictures i have to do a project on that country well g2g bye

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