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Published: January 25th 2006
A few days at the Gran Hotel….
I spent four days in San Jose on a working vacation (meaning work during the day and have fun in the evenings) this past week. The weather was picture perfect and I was able to score a great rate at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica. The Gran Hotel is well situated: right next to the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre) and directly in front of the main pedestrian artery, Avenida Central, which is great for shopping and people watching.
While the Gran Hotel, now 75 years old, is not as grand as some of the landmark hotels in Europe such as the Ritz in Paris or the Mayfair in London, its neoclassical lines were inspired by the great old hotels of Europe.
Impressed by the proposal of Dr. Jimenez Ortiz, the government of President Cleto Gonzalez Viquez met with the founder and owner of what would be the Grand Hotel of Costa Rica, and decreed it a landmark before the Constitutional Congress of the Republic of Costa Rica in 1928. The first great hotel and the first one to be constructed to withstand severe seismic activity, the Grand Hotel Costa Rica stood out as being a five-floor hotel when in those days no building exceeded two floors. With 120 rooms, the Grand Hotel was destined to be converted not only into a historical site displaying the magnificence of Costa Rica that became a monument to the visionaries of the times, but also in the symbol of its capitol and an important part of its history. In fact, John F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and many heads of state have stayed there over the years.
My room was small and did not have air conditioning (it had a fan though) but it had two conveniences I crave in any hotel: Cable TV and high speed Internet access. Compared to my dial up access at home in Los Angeles Sur, what a pleasure it was to freely surf the Internet, open multiple web pages, download files and watch video clips all at the same time. I was in heaven! The room also overlooked the National Theater and the big square beside it so it was a good vantage point to watch the comings and goings of daily San Jose life. The downside, though, was after four days I was less than happy about the street noise, particularly the street performers playing all types of music, luckily not at night.
My days were pretty much the same in San Jose. I spent my days surfing the Internet, doing online marketing work for the B&B and writing some articles (yes, I’m writing travel and culture articles these days for various publications) and my nights having dinners and drinks.
In the early evenings, I often went to the News Café, a bar and restaurant just a few blocks from the hotel for a drink or two. Usually filled with gringos, it is a great spot for people-watching with its tables and the bar overlooking the street. On the street in front of the café, one finds a mix of Costa Ricans and I would suggest, Africans, with blankets laid out on the ground, selling all kinds of goods. Cuban cigars seem to be a popular item—I have a box of them that I brought back from the Dominican Republic years ago—with gringo tourists. It’s certainly a novelty for us. Another item for sale, which I find amusing, are these crudely painted birds (mostly toucans) with movable wings and legs. The funny thing is, though, they’re made of wood and certainly not ready for flight. Nonetheless, I saw several North Americans buying them.
There are several benefits to being in San Jose, two of which are most important to me and Beth: English-language magazines and decent restaurants. It is nearly impossible to find magazines and books written in English in the San Ramon area. We sometimes crave People, Time, Vanity Fair, and one of my favorites, the Economist. In terms of restaurants, San Ramon has a decent number of them, however there isn’t much variety. In San Jose, you can find Chinese, Italian, Thai, and many other types of food; and all pretty decent quality as well. My favorite restaurant is Tin Jo, an Asian restaurant with a huge menu covering China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. It is definitely an Asian food lover’s paradise!
One thing you do in encounter much more regularly in San Jose than in the San Ramon area, is the sound of fire engines and police cars. I heard them several times at night and it reminded me of where I lived in Washington, DC.
Back in Los Angeles Sur….
Back to reality after a few days away is never fun. In fact, a few days ago, a man shows up at my front door on a motorcycle. Around his neck he has some official-looking badge and I start to cringe slightly. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong here so far (except almost get into a bar flight—see my previous blog entry) but he did have some kind of official-looking paper to give me. As it turns out, it was the annual property tax, a mere $66 (okay, Beth just screamed at the top of her lungs because she though she saw a rat—Lord help us!) which I was more than happy to pay. Of course, this being Costa Rica, I needed to go down to the municipal office in San Ramon to pay it. It seemed easy enough: show them the paper and give them $66 worth of colones (no credit cards of course!).
My neighbor (and a good sport I might add!) offered to take me there since I had not done this before and she needed to pay her bill as well. So, we set out at 9am for the brief trip to San Ramon, thinking I’d be back home by 11 or so—I always add an hour to what I think something should take here—after completing this minor errand. Well, as I knew inherently, it was not that easy and took over three hours to give the local government my money!
The clerk behind the counter at the San Ramon municipal office—called “muni” by everyone, stared at my paper, looking a bit perplexed, then hit a bunch of keys on her computer and made a few calls. After several minutes I was still not at the point of handing over my money. What I’ve learned here is that when they stamp a document one or twice, or even three or four times, then you’re in the clear. This wasn’t happening yet.
A man came over and motioned to me to follow him. Up a windy, rickety stair case, I was presented to another clerk, this time simply sitting in front of her desk while she typed more keys on the computer. She printed something out which I assumed I would need to use in some way. She stapled it to my document, said good bye, and I was on my way to—well, I wasn’t sure.
The small piece paper she had affixed to my property tax bill had the name, address and phone number of a local attorney on it. As I’ve also learned living here, most things involving property, purchasing an automobile or even a cell phone, require an attorney. So, after many false starts me and my friend found the attorney’s office and went in.
I wasn’t sure what the attorney was going to do but learned fairly quickly in the conversation that it would cost 18,000 colons (or about $36) for her services. Even before we could get to her services, she should showed us a picture of her home and plenty of small talk ensued, much of which I did not understand. So, the attorney finally turns to her computer. She has some legal looking document on her screen and I watch her quickly delete the name of some other corporation in the document and replace it with “Angel Valley Enterprises, S.A.,” the name of our corporation. After a few more name changes (I’m not sure she knew how to use global “find and replace” in Microsoft Word), she prints out this one page document and sends us on our way. I think, but I’m not positive, that the document said this was a valid corporation and there were no liens on it or some such thing. How she would know that, I’m not sure, as she didn’t search any online directory or database that I could see—and I wasn’t asking questions.
Back at the “muni,” we go to the same clerk and clearly she’s having difficulties as I don’t see here stamping my document and asking me for money. After more phone calls and explanations that I cannot understand (even my friend who is quickly becoming fluent in Spanish could not understand her), we’re told to come back at noon.
Our biggest concern in coming back at noon is that many offices, particularly government offices, close at lunchtime, and exactly at noon for one hour. So, we made our way back there by 10 until noon just to make sure. I hand over my document and we wait and wait and wait, until finally someone brings a piece of paper to the clerk, which to us looked like a bank statement from Banco Nacional. She stamps that document, twice, I pay the bill, and we’re on our way—by about 12:30pm. Who know really what went on but I’m hoping this means next year’s tax payment will be easy. It just boggles the mind how hard it is to give up a small amount of money!
In a few days I go to get my emissions inspection for the car. That may be a whole other blog entry!
Thanks for reading and keep those comments coming! In the next entry I may write something about the ins and outs of running a B&B (unless something more interesting comes along!)
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