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For the past two years, a crew of Chinese workmen has been building a big new shiny spaceship for soccer fans in a western neighbourhood of San José, Costa Rica. The $100 million dollar engagement ring between these two countries is known as “the jewel of La Sabana” which is the name of this area in the city that includes a huge park with green space, playgrounds, lakes and art galleries. Since March 27 the inauguration festivities have gathered sports, music and happy-to-fiesta fans for more than a week of special events.

This “gift” of the Chinese government apparently came about thanks to Costa Rica’s twice ex-president, Oscar Arias, who started the process of signing a free trade agreement with the largest world nation, and second largest world economy, back in 2007. There are many people in Costa Rican still wondering what this little country will have to pay for this “gift”, as we all know that you don’t get something for nothing in this world…well, there are exceptions, like long prison sentences for possessing almost no pot and fatal diseases through no actual fault of your own, but we don’t need to go there right now.

The stadium, like all newly-designed big structures, has a grand presence both from street level and viewed from any high building or elevation around the city, day or night. It looks like a big crown or, as I said earlier, a spaceship. It is very open to the sky, and thus the elements. In Canada, most major sports stadiums are now built with retractable roofs that allow for relative comfort against the elements in extended sports seasons (have these seasons gotten longer, running into each other to fill up the whole year, or is this just my imagination?) Since there are several months here in Costa Rica when the rain will pour down, it would have been a more generous gift if the Chinese had added one of those sliding roofs, but beggars can’t be choosers and fans and players alike will just continue what they’ve always done – come to the game and get soaked until the possibility of a mass drowning finally gets the game called off and sends the wet puppies scampering home.

This stadium was also built to host major international music events, the first one being Columbian superstar Shakira, scheduled to rock the place next Sunday, closing out nearly two weeks of festivities. Once again, pouring rain would really put a literal damper on these concerts, and with the changing weather patterns present here, as all over the world, I can only imagine that it is hard to predict when one can safely plan a concert here, hoping for more than 35,000 fans to fork over the maybe $100 or more to see their idols only to get a free bout of pneumonia in the process.

The night of the grand opening, CR President Laura Chinchilla, ex-President Oscar Arias, and Chen Changzhi, the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, all put their patriotic political spin on things. Then lithe Chinese dancers performed, a few fireworks burst in the sky, and the first fútbol match was played between La Selección, Costa Rican’s national team, and the Chinese national team. It ended in a tie because of a goal scored in the last couple minutes by the Chinese, who may have given Ticos the stadium, but ultimately took away their glory…hopefully not a sign of things to come.

I spent that night in a beautiful home in the Escazu hills with my friends Edín and Lorena, our colourful hosts Raymond and Jerry, and a joyful mix of Ticos and ex-pats. We ate glorious food and drank nice wine while we watched the ceremony and game on the television screen, and the light show and fireworks off the sweeping balcony with the million dollar view over the city. I’m neither a big sports fan nor a supporter of the excessive amounts of money spent in the sports and entertainment sectors, but I’m always keen for a celebration! And when in Rome….

I am, however, a very huge fan of music of all kinds and especially the music and musicians I know here in Costa Rica. There were several music events at the stadium, covering all different tastes. Apparently the National Symphony put on a beautiful program one night to a huge crowd – who said classical and opera wouldn’t bring in the masses? There was a night when all the top dance bands in the land played to the biggest dance floor ever assembled – salsa, meringue, cumbia, the works – and people of all ages swirled and twirled together. And thanks to Edín, we had passes to get into the stadium on the day when 27 music groups of Costa Rica performed in a flawlessly executed show on the big stage. There are four large screens to amplify the images for the crowd, with two of the screens serving as front drops on the stage. One rises to reveal the next band which is already to play as they have been setting up behind the other big screen. The ten hours of show went off without a hitch – very professional, great sound, excellent music – definitely a world class festival of contemporary Costa Rican music. Lorena, her friend Vicki, and I only stayed for Edín’s band EDITUS 360 and a couple of other performances, and we wandered around, taking pictures and looking at the mammoth structure.

EDITUS, who I’ve written about so many times before (most recently when I went to Guatemala with them), presented their show they call Latinamerica 360. It is the main three musicians of EDITUS along with a bass player and keyboardist as well as a cello and second violinist. They play electronic world music that you have to move to, with a backdrop of mesmerizing images. It was amazing to see the hundreds or thousands of people in the stadium, mostly youth with Megadeath t-shirts, mohawk haircuts, and attitude yet obviously fans of these superstars of Costa Rican music. It is a very long way from the days when Edín and Ricardo were a classical violin/guitar duo playing in the salons of Monteverde – which they still do. It is great to see them continue to be enthusiastic about music as they constantly switch up their playlist and musical colaborators.

As is the case with all mega-events, there was corporate advertising everywhere – mostly Coca Cola, Taco Bell and BCR (Bank of Costa Rica) – and corporate litter everywhere as well. Taco Bell (or BeatBell as they call their rock concert alter ego), BCR and Kolbi (taking over Central America’s cell phone service with a cute green frog as their logo), had to do that thing where they give everyone a free plastic blow-up tube to play with and ultimately toss away – all quadrillion of them end up on the floor, or the street, after. All those poor lost little green frogs.  As long as marketers believe that plastic throw-away garbage with their logo on it somehow increases sales, this scourge will continue. It drives me crazy – this rampant disposable advertising in exchange for corporations supporting cultural activities.

There were several controversies around the festivities that arose throughout the week. One involved the arrival of Argentina’s soccer team who came to play a friendly match against the Costa Ricans. One of the top teams in the world, it is also the birth-team of the hottest player in the world, Lionel Messi. Just the possibility of seeing this great player playing on the new concha had thousands of people lining up to buy pricey tickets to this game. My boyfriend Roberto said weeks ago that Messi would never play in this game, as he is a very expensive and important player for Barcelona and has some big games coming up for his cash-parent team in the next weeks. His owners wouldn’t allow that he take the possibility of getting injured in a silly little game in silly little Costa Rica. Roberto was right.

Messi came, I’m not sure why, since he never got off the bench. What did happen is that Costa Rican fans, hungry for even a few minutes of his renowned footwork, having paid the price of admission with that possibility in mind, booed every time Messi’s face was caught on camera and flashed on the big screen in the stadium. Perhaps not very polite behavior on behalf of the Ticos, but neither was the way they were sold the idea that if they paid the price, they would see the great one play. There was rumors that he had a mild injury, but I’ve also read that wasn’t true. Once again, the Costa Rican team only managed to tie Argentina 2-2, but that was a win for the Ticos, considering the strength of the Albicelestes.

One of the biggest events of the week was when Costa Rican female boxer, Hanna Gabriel, did her thing and held on to her world middleweight championship fighting against US opponent Melisenda Paris in front of a huge crowd at the stadium. I’m not a fan of fighting, wrestling or boxing, but I do find this woman beautiful and very gracious, and I have no doubt there is a huge pride on the part of her family, community and country. And that one woman did what all those male fútbol players couldn’t manage – to win!

The organizers of the inaugural events and the publicity surrounding them made a few errors, intentionally or not, by promising big names when they shouldn’t have, with the obvious intention of selling tickets. Another small scandal erupted weeks ago when the day of national music was being planned and the organizers used Malpais (one of the country’s most popular groups that includes Minister of Culture Manuel Obregon as their keyboardist) as a selling point for tickets before they had reached an agreement with the group itself to play.

Malpais refused to play when it was revealed that the organizers wouldn’t pay them what they normally get for a concert. They were asked to take less money as some kind of patriotic donation, while massive amounts of money went to bringing in Shakira, the international superstar. Musicians and artists here, as everywhere, struggle to survive financially but also struggle to receive the proper respect and remuneration for the talent and art that they bring to the big social table – without their music, words and images we would live much less enjoyable lives. Malpais made a public statement about their refusal to play. Other bands chose to play – many craving the exposure, others, such as EDITUS, simply feeling it was important to be part of this national event yet supportive of the statement Malpais was making.

Manuel Monestel, who recently received two national awards for his music and work, and his group Cantoamerica also didn’t play and, knowing Manuel and his politics, I can imagine he not only agreed with Malpais but also didn’t want to support the extravagance of the stadium. So many other aspects of society in Costa Rica are suffering by cutbacks to social programs, poverty and poor infrastructure in a quickly developing nation. I have no doubt that he questions, as do the activists who were demonstrating politely outside the stadium, the price to be paid by Costa Rica for this “gift” from China. He and those activitists, as their sign states, love their country as much anyone who was inside praising the new stadium.  Considering China’s poor human rights, health and environmental record, it is scary to think what the free trade agreement will lead to for little Costa Rica with its faded green party dress and schizophrenic spirit mixing ecology with development.

Sports and entertainment are very important elements of society – a place to learn teamwork, be creative, to relieve stress, to enjoy yourself, etc. People work hard and at the end of the day deserve to be entertained. I agree with that, yet I also agree with those that see the attention on sports and other forms of mass entertainment and scandal used as a distraction from the real issues. And the money involved always astounds me to create these megastructures. I would propose that people living with good health care, education, safe infrastructure and roads, and less crime, at the end of the day would come home happier and would still enjoy a game or a movie. It all seems hopelessly out of whack to me.    

At the inauguration, Oscar Arias spoke of the relationship of Costa Rica and China as “a young bonsai tree creating a bridge over the Pacific Ocean”. I love these delicate dwarfed living sculptures as much as the next person, but considering they are created by cutting roots, trimming healthy branches and keeping the poor little things stunted in a rather unnatural environment for years, I’m not sure that it is such a healthy image for the future of Costa Rica.

The symbol over the entrance to the National Stadium…don’t know what it means, but it looks like it says that Costa Rica and China are intrinsically linked for life….or maybe it says what’s yours is now ours…

It is as inevitable as the wind and rain in Monteverde, that one day my time will be up and I have to leave. I don’t worry about going and I quickly transfer my thinking to arriving instead – back to Canada, friends there, familiar haunts, a different kind of music and the beautiful northern landscape. As long as I have the privilege and ability to return when I want to Costa Rica, then I can leave with a simple “nos vemos” – “we’ll see each other”, rather than “adios”, which feels much more final.

 

Of course this year also takes me back to Canada with a whole new purpose in life – bringing Walking with Wolf to the masses, doing publicity, marketing and distributing of my precious little tome. So there is an excitement at the back of my brain that I try not to get too caught up in, but will soon – within twenty-four hours now, I’ll be full on ready to conquer the north. I have until September 6 to prepare for the first big official book launch in Hamilton, and then the following weekend I’m returning to my old community in the northeast to do hopefully three presentations over a few days. This is the part of the world close to Temagami, Ontario, which I talk about in the book. I have many old friends there who have been very supportive and I am really looking forward to the book parties there. And in the second week of October, I think I will be doing a presentation at Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, which we also talk about, Wolf’s alma mater, for their Homecoming weekend. This hasn’t been decided yet, but the idea seems to have interested the director and so I will soon be in touch with him about the possibility. 

 

Having received such wide spread acceptance and praise in Monteverde from the people who are closest to the story will truly help me go out in the big northern world and hold my head up, proud of our book. I know that I was most nervous of the reaction of the biologists – sticklers for detail that they are, strong-willed, educated and quite sure of their own versions of the world – but several of them have spoken up for the quality of the book and have enjoyed reading it and shared a minimum of criticism (maybe I shouldn’t have called the tropical cloud and rain forest “jungle” but to the outsider, that is truly what it is, by dictionary definition as well.)

 

One of the surprises of the reaction to the book is how many people have said to me that it has revived in them the spirit of the community. Wolf’s stories about the founding of Monteverde, and my modern day descriptions have given them a renewed sense of what a special community they are part of. I had always hoped to properly present Wolf’s life and accomplishments but it had never occurred to me that our book might be a positive factor in the community. How proud can one be for playing a role such as that?

 

I have also heard from friends in Canada who don’t know Wolf, Monteverde or Costa Rica, and have said they love the story and the writing. So that bodes well for the future of the book simply as a piece of literature. I think it’s deepest purpose is the telling of Wolf’s interesting and dedicated life with all its flaws and colorful tales, and that is what I feel the most able to go out and talk about. His is an inspirational story of humor, hard work and humility and I take great pride in being able to tell this story.

 

In the week that I was offline, I returned to Monteverde, saw friends, packed and repacked, sat down with Wolf and signed a whole box of books to take back to deserving friends in Canada, did some dancing, had some great conversations and enjoyed my final days of tropical life. I spent a day down in San Luis waiting for the arrival of fifteen teams of oxen who were coming from the low lands for a festival, but unfortunately had to leave by the time only one team had arrived (those beasts move very slowly). I managed to get bit on my finger by something – I thought an ant, but now think maybe a spider – that now, four days later, is still swollen up in a bunch of itchy bumps. What a year for bites! I think it may be caused by the rainy season, as I found the bug population rampant. I ran off to Cahuita on the Caribbean for twenty-four hours and was blessed with sunshine and a starry night, whereas there had been pouring rain for the days before I got there. Here too I was bitten while swimming in the sea, something that rarely happens at all, especially in the Caribbean. But I was floating and some seaweed wrapped itself around me and four sharp stings (jelly-fish? Some say sea fleas?) sent me out of the water, waiting to see if I’d have some weird reaction like that poor Australian nature guy. You just never know these days. My papalomoyo seems to be under control, though I’ll continue with my sulpha treatments in Canada – and I still have a series of bitemarks on my thighs that we think are from mites of some sort. Hmmmm, August in Hamilton, the bug situation should be pretty tame in comparison.

 

I spent the last couple nights with Edin Solis (the photo is me with one of his Grammies) and his wife Lorena Rodríguez, he of Editus, she an interior, exterior and just about all round everything designer.  Edin was finishing the work on the soundtrack to a BBC documentary production called “The Winds of Papagayo” – about the changes of the environment in Guanacaste, the northwest province of Costa Rica.  How interesting was that – not just listening to the musical themes that Edin had composed (great surf beat dude) and admiring how the music followed the images and the story of the documentary, but the information within the work itself. It promises to be a very interesting piece of journalism (with a beautiful soundtrack) about what is happening with development on the fragile Pacific coastline. I had never realized that the winds collect and transport great fertility that has risen from the huge Lake Nicaragua to the north, as well as from the potent gases of the various volcanoes that run in a chain straight through Central America. The strong winds we know in parts of Costa Rica do have an important purpose besides blowing us around and keeping us cool. The doc also focuses on the over-expansion of development on the coastline, the extreme change of community life in less than thirty years, the changes in the winds themselves, and the struggle of the turtle population to survive the many forces that are working against them. 

 

I think of Costa Rica in general as about as fragile as a population of olive ridley sea turtles. Even though I know so many dynamic, charismatic, kind, intelligent and hardworking people in this little country, over all I feel they are all under threat. Out of control development, foreign influence, fear, and an economy that isn’t servicing the people at the lower end of the scale are all signs of a difficult future. The country has great “green” policies but doesn’t seem to have the backbone to enforce the laws. Most people I talk to have little faith in the government, having had three of their last presidents found guilty of some form of kickbacks. The president of the day, Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in the 80s on bringing peace to the Central American region, had the constitution changed, by the vote of 4 judges, so that he could be re-elected (up until the last election, Costa Rica had a rule, similar to the USA, that presidents could only serve one term). He also supported CAFTA, the free-trade agreement with the USA, which many people are extremely leery of. This all adds up to a disgruntled society in an over-stressed country with a frustrated view of the future.

 

I love these people and this country.

 

The very talented Sofia Zumbado, award-winning saxophonist and her beautiful mom Myrna Castro

My friend 100-year old Otilia Gonzales and her daughters Gladys and Margarita

Luis Angel Obando, Head of Protection, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

HEY! How’d this guy make it in here?

 

Everyone I know in Costa Rica is involved in some interesting project, not only to make a living, but to bring some new awareness to their life. I wish them all well. Tenga fe mis amigos, nos vemos pronto.

 

 

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