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Penny's Peace of Paradise

A gringa and her family's adventures living in Costa Rica.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who Knew?

I would be remiss if I didn't admit that Marlon (Jason) Goldie's hunky new mechanic has been dumped. He basically patched her up and it turns out his treatment was yet, another Band-Aid. The other day she began loosing lots of oil, which was a problem, because we had begun parking her on our ceramic tile patio after hordes of bats spent their nights hanging in the palms over her munching fruit and pooping. BTW(by the way,) think about it...head down, pooping parts above and somehow they can skillfully not get any on themselves! Amazing!

Anyway, almost everyone parks on their patios here, and we have lots of patio space so we don't have our cars on the front patio, but I digress... We finally asked our landlord, who has lived here forever, and is beloved by everyone in the area, who his mechanic is, went to see him, and Goldie will be spending this week in his intensive care unit. I had quite a mess to clean up and I researched online, of course, and went up to our small local market (abastecdor), and found no cat litter, but was intrigued by a bag of chicken feed. Same color as sawdust, and let's face it, who sells sawdust, and the consistency looked similar with added larger chunks of corn kernels, so I bought it. Let me tell you, it cleaned up every little bit of that oil, even did well in the grout lines, thanks to the grit of the kernels, and the small bag was only 620 colones, about $1.40! So, next time you have a similar mess to contend with...head off to your local feedstore.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Trying to Party

Our daughter turned nine recently, so we wanted to have her friends over to celebrate. We were shopping at Pequeno Mundo, Costa Rica's bargain basement mecca, picking up some summer clothes for this glorious weather we've been having, when we found some "dollar store-type" items that would be perfect for fun party crafts. We decided to have a slumber party for four girls, including my daughter (mi hija, or "mija") and make it a slumber party, so there would be plenty of time for swimming, crafting, games and watching High School Musical 3, of course! We gathered up some other girly things for crafts and games and drove home excitedly making plans!

"Mija" knew which three friends she wanted to be there, so we created the invite and printed them out. Crickets, that's what we heard...crickets! No response. Nada. I wondered, did Costa Ricans not understand R.S.V.P.? "Mija" said the girls were excited, weren't sure they could spend the night, but we needed to talk to their parents. We finally gathered up their phone numbers and my husband called their parents. He spoke with one father on his first call, who said, "Sincerimente, los ninos en esta pais, no quedan a domir in otra casas hasta eran como quince anos." Translation: To be honest, the children in this country do not stay and sleep at other houses until about fifteen years old. We were so grateful this parent had gently leveled with the gringos, but I also felt embarrassed that should not have just assumed a practice, so unique to America, would be easily accepted by other cultures. It seemed so obvious once we were informed! My first instinct was to spend time smacking myself upside the head, saying, "Dummy, dummy, dummy!" My husband, bless him, saved me from this self-centered tirade, and said, "Hey, no big, we'll just hold it Saturday, and it will be great!"

I needed to decide if I was concerned about what people would think of me, because I made one mistake, or did I want them to see who I am, warts and all. I pick the latter, but it sure is easy to want to wallow and worry! I guess after almost 50 years of that useless behavior, I finally get it...sort of!

It's Sunday morning, and everything hurts! There is that problem with having a party at your hose, clean up before...clean up after, but there's the added challenge with kids' parties of running around the whole time, to to keep everything running smoothly. I crawled into the tub last night, and read five chapters of a book before I realized the water had cooled, then read two more before I could gather up the energy to stand up! The truth is, even if you stay in some sort of shape, a fifty year old body is not 30...period! The silver lining? The party was a huge success! The moms came and stayed for the entire party, which was great so we got to know each other, language stumbling and all! They loved our tranquil campo, and laughed along with the kids as they frolicked in the pool and ran in the water-fun relay.

The moms told us that girls did not go to sleepover parties until age 15, however, younger kids will attend the Latin version of a slumber party. It begins at five, ends about nine, and the kids all wear their "pijamas." One mom said that Grecia is more like old Costa Rica, more traditional, and so what may be popular in the city, is not embraced here. I'd have to say that suits us just fine! We are thrilled everyone had a good time at our first party here in Costa Rica, but me, I'm off to grab a couple ibuprofin!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


We've purchased three cars since we arrived. Importing cars to Costa Rica is beyond cost prohibitive, so everyone is constantly resuscitating their 10-20 year old vehicles. Every year, all vehicles must be inspected for mechanical soundness, I guess. Inevitably, everyone must return at least a couple times to finally get a passing sticker that must be displayed prominently in your windshield. We've had to replace mufflers, lights, etc., but what is shocking, is the amount of foul exhaust that pours out of the majority of vehicles here! Certainly, NOT what one would expect from a country that prides itself on its' planet friendly pursuits. Very few folks living here can afford to purchase a new vehicle, and I honestly, can't understand the purpose of the annual vehicle inspection, as we frantically roll up the car windows to avoid certain asphyxiation each day! The import taxes have to be lowered for this problem to be resolved, but until then...we are the dotting parents of Goldie, a 1990 Honda Accord, and Hyundai with a Hex, a 1997 Hyundai Elantra Grand Touring. Sounds fancy, but, to be accurate, it is a piece of junk with a never-ending roster of problems than need repair!

Our first purchase was a Nissan Sunny which ran like a champ, and was missing all its adornments, which really was the perfect car for travelling in and out of San Jose. No "steal appeal!" My husband started getting a little nervous in the midst of the last rainy season, though, as the floor was so rusted out, there was two inches of water rolling around at all times. Literally, the poor guy was going to be Fred Flintstone any day! Fortunately, my mom had come for a few months and bought a car, and when she left we bought it from her. Once the dry season had begun, we were able to find a new "Papi" for Sunny.

When we bought Goldie, we felt confident we wouldn't have to replace much on her, because her last owner showed us all the receipts for what he'd had done, but no... She's had her share of "spa time." I call it that because the garage we've been going to charges a fortune, and takes days to get our vehicles back. We plan to cut the cord with them, but we won't finish paying them until the most recent problem with the Hyundai with a Hex is actually fixed. Goldie, however has found a new Svengali!

The kids and I needed to drive back up to their old school in the mountain town of San Isidro de Heredia. Ten kilometers from the school, Goldie began overheating, the latest in a series of maladies which her spa was unable to find an appropriate treatment for. We gingerly made our way up to the school, gave her a short rest at the school, then began heading downhill in search of a gas station or at least a hose. We found nothing, I mean nothing! We travelled at least fifteen kilometers, all the while, I had a panicky white knuckle grip on her steering wheel. Suddenly a Lubricentro appeared in the distance! I tensely turned into the lot and Goldie gave a final gasp as we rolled to a stop.

A young man came out to meet us, and I "charaded" our problem to him. BTW , (by the way), I have really honed my skills at this game, so challengers are welcome! Anyway, our young fellow quickly realized he was in over his head a called for some help...

No kidding! He rounded the corner and out came a young Marlon Brando, but with blonde highlights and a longer cut. As he came toward us, a hush fell over the other workers. The fellow who had been helping us didn't need to say a word, Marlon stepped up to Goldie and began gently manipulating her "parts." There are some people who seemed destined for their career, Marlon was one of those. You could tell he knew every inch of an engine and would be able to diagnose her problem in short order. Like a gifted surgeon, he was all over her testing her reflexes. I had him tell my daughter what his diagnosis was, and then called my husband to let them discuss her prognosis. It was decided that he would fix her and asked for only an hour in his garage bay nearby. We left her, confident that she was in good hands.

We returned from a walk in about 50 minutes and she was ready to go! He had replaced the top of the radiator, fixed some wiring, replaced the thermostat, and a few other things, and asked for only 25,000 colones, about $50.00, TOTAL! Who could have known, in our hour of desperation, we would pull into a garage and find a Master Mechanic!

I know I sound a wee bit taken by this young man, but I never found Marlon Brando the least bit attractive. I think I was taken by his confident command of our girl Goldie. Now, Goldie on the other hand, has put her tire down and we will now be driving over an hour each way to see Jason whenever she needs any further treatment!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Location, Location, Location

Moving to Costa Rica was not that overwhelming for us. My husband and I both share a sense of adventure that has not been dampened by having children. When the opportunity first presented itself, we had already been contemplating a major move, due to our changing financial situation. I was working for an airline, and there were many opportunities to relocate virtually anywhere in the US, or Caribbean. I love researching online, and spent hours familiarizing myself with possible new communities for our family. We love winter sports and in my 20's, I had lived in the Colorado rocky mountains. On the flip side, the thought of not wearing layers and procuring snow tires and firewood every six months had lot of appeal too! It's amazing how things do come to you when you are open to receive them. Once the call came in, we both said, "OK, I guess we're moving to Costa Rica!"

There are some very informative websites, like therealcostarica.com, and before we moved, I read some blogs to see what other expats' experiences had been. You must first gain an understanding of the current residency laws. They change often, and are confusing to say the least. Some options available are: You can "retire" here with proof of a steady income coming to you each month or you can open a business, as long as you are committing a qualifying investment. The Real Costa Rica has good basic residency information on their site, so I would start there, but we would strongly recommend hiring a professional!

Once you have a residency plan, you need to decide what to bring. You may be moving "Lock, Stock and Barrel, or you may choose store some items in your country of origin. There are two versions of the afore mentioned "LSB" method: ship everything in a crate/s, or sell everything and start over when you arrive. Shipping is costly, can be frustrating and unnerving. We decided to let everything go and start fresh in our new home. We advertised on Craigslist and then liquidated the balance at two moving sales. It was liberating! I'm crafty and thrifty, which is the kiss of death for trying to live simply, so once the decision was made, getting rid of ALL OF MY STUFF was fantastic! We were not dependent on the sales to move, so we were able to make others happy while achieving our goal.

Of course you'll be unsure of what to bring, so let me share our list...I brought our favorite bedding/linens, a couple of dishes with sentimental value, small electronic appliances (mobile phones, flat iron, razors, dvd player, cameras,) a few toys, a few collectibles, pictures,laptops, cd's, etc. You can buy almost everything you need here. Walmart has stores here, and on Craigslist,bargains can be found. You won't find thrift stores here, nor will you see any garage sales in the majority of the country, so don't count on those for purchasing. There are furniture stores, even one large chain with modern offerings, but there are no IKEAS here, :( Electrical appliances and electronics are expensive here. Don't bother bringing your cell phones, unless the chip can be removed and another service provider can be used, probably not likely. Clothes are easily acquired here, and there are used clothing stores everywhere, called Ropa Americana. These are stores that buy big lots of clothes from thrift stores in the states, as they rotate their stock regularly. I have had great success shopping at ropas, and there are other bargain stores for new clothes too. We lived in the Lake Tahoe area for years, so we had a huge collection of winter clothes and toys...we got rid of all of it! You will not need any of it, unless you are travelling to those cold areas often. Knit hats and gloves are for sale, but even in living in the "mountains" here, we never needed more than a sweatshirt and socks. Regrets? I've had a few... There will be moments when you say, "Gosh I wish we hadn't sold that!" but overall, this has been a great lesson for our entire family of American consumer alumni.

San Jose is the largest city here, and as the capital, is the major commerce center. Tourists and future residents alike, will fly into the airport near San Jose, spend a night and head out of the city to their destinations. The city is congested, and has less than desirable areas, however, there is a ton of culture, a real mix of interesting architecture, and an atmosphere that should be experienced by every visitor for at least a day. Before you come, you will hear about the crime, maybe even hear expats personal experiences, but we believe these stories should be balanced by research and common sense. Research who the victims often are, where the crime most often takes place and don't be a victim! We've met tourists who have had items stolen, but by staying away from areas where you would be more vulnerable, and being aware of your surroundings you can probably avoid being a victim. We have walked around much of San Jose without incident.

Our business interests are in the central valley, so we would not be living on either coast. Looking for our new home, we wandered around the "mountain" communities and liked the feel of a more rural lifestyle, but wanted to be able to commute to the city within about 30 minutes when needed. Not far from San Jose, are the cities of Escazu and Santa Ana. These are wealthier communities with lots of familiar American restaurants and expensive shops. These areas are popular with expats because they can find lots of English-speaking friends to spend time with and perhaps, it makes them feel less like a stranger in a strange land. This was not what we were looking for. We wanted to embrace our new home and neighbors. The Costa Ricans we've met in the communities where we have lived, have been welcoming, generous and eager to get to know us too. We help each other with our "language learning," and spend hours talking, but we have also spent quiet walks witnessing incredible beauty with our new friends. Our children have attended local private (Catholic) schools and have also made lots of wonderful friends. We have, neither the desire, or the money to enroll our children in any of the international schools here. They are very good, emphasize English, and can offer enrichment activities that most other schools without the nearly $1,000. per month tuition, can not. All of these schools are located near areas where many gringos live, and that is not close to us. We were looking for a Latin American experience for our children and ourselves, we feel it would be crazy to not make the most of this opportunity.

Rents are cheap in Costa Rica, period. You will spend less on your housing and utilities here than in the US. Before we knew better, we were spending $900. for our first home on a big chunk of land with a view looking over the central valley, that I still daydream about. We then began looking for a rental for my mother to come spend time in here, and that's when we unexpectedly, found our next home. It was on about ten acres, and was a non-working farm which included a dairy, chicken coop, vegetable garden, re-naturalized rain forests, fruit orchard, a large lawn area, and a funky, rambling five bedroom house. All this for $695. per month, only problem? The property is jointly owned by a father and his daughter and son. The kids (both in their 20's now) are products of a marriage between an American hippy and his Tica wife. The parents' marriage ended when the kids were young, and their daughter is still pissed at her "papi!" I could go on and on about this young woman, but I'm going to keep it simple, and just say, she has a lot of growing up to do. My husband was spending more time in Alejuela, so we relocated for convenience and the chance to get away from our landlord!

At this point, you're probably asking about the legalities of renting/leasing, basically, there is a lot of wiggle (walking) room in lease agreements here. That does not mean that you shouldn't secure the advise of a lawyer, because the landlords will, and it is expected. Our current home is on the oposite side of the central valley, far from the hills above Heredia, where we were before. It is fairly rural, impossibly peaceful and we are happier here than in any other area we've been in before!

It takes time to find your perfect place in Costa Rica, so don't get "wedded" to any place too quickly. If you don't speak much Spanish and are not committed to learning the language, one of the cities with more gringos, may be a good bet for you, just know, that when you live in gated communities, those who would steal, may be drawn to that type of enclave. Costa Rica so is so diverse, you will ultimately find your perfect fit!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Vacation Time Already? (Part one)

We like to travel regularly, about every three months we get away. Our first trip to check out our neighboring countries, was to Panama. At that time, we were living in the hills near Zurqui (off of Highway 32, although, no one here references road numbers!) so, it was more convenient to go down the Caribbean coast, rather than the Pacific side. We love to spend time on the beaches south of Puerto Viejo. It is less developed and is not over run by tourists, but this trip, we would stop short of Puerto Viejo and head west to Bribri, then south to the border crossing in Sixaola. This border is a rickety old one lane bridge, over a muddy river.

This is a BUSY crossing, so bringing your vehicle, requires patience and paperwork (the keystones of Costa Rican society.) I drove down from Los Angeles to Panama in 1977, and at every boarder crossing they would fumigate your car's undercarriage. This was to eliminate all those pesky hitchhikers (mostly of the insect persuasion!) So, be prepared and have your windows rolled up! Once over the border/bridge, there is a very dramatic difference between the standard of living in Panama and Costa Rica, even in the poorer areas. We made our way to the coastal town of Almirante and secured a water taxi to take us to Bocas Town in Bocas del Toro, and a secured lot where we would leave our car. Unlike CR, there are people trying relentlessly to sell you things at every turn in Panama. This means that you will want to find the taxi service that most of the locals use, not the tourist taxis, or you will pay dearly for the trip! The residents who live along the water are living a very desperate and meager life, which I think is important for tourists to see, to be reminded how fortunate some of us are, and to think of ways these families could be helped.

Bocas Town, on Isla Colon, seems to be the gateway town where tourists stay only for a night, and then take boats to many of the interesting places in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. We had made a tentative reservation at the Hotel Angela but, I was not ready to commit. Once we had been shown around, I felt it was too pricey, so we walked across town to the Hotel Olas, which had simple clean rooms at a reasonable price. It is busier too, which I saw as a positive, even though it had an almost hostel feel. There is a popular park in the center of town and it is surrounded by stalls selling jewelry and reggae wear, as this is a mecca for the surf and fishing tourists to shop for trinkets.

There are nice beaches on the other side of the Isla Colon and on the neighboring islands, but they are a quite a distance from town, and the beaches near town are very dirty, you will not want to spend time there! We were serenaded all night long by the the scratching sound of rats in the walls, and I shudder to think what it would have been like without the ac on to keep them at bay! Needless to say, we are ready to leave this island paradise the next morning. I've been told there are amazing beaches to be enjoyed on these islands, but travelling with children and not much time, we didn't have the luxury of taking a taxi/water taxi and surveying potential spots to spend the day. We did know there are wonderful beaches and lodging just over the border, and on the way home, so we got on the first boat out and high-tailed it back to the border. Panama is beautiful, and we look forward to returning and exploring when we have time to enjoy it, but for now, we were ready to return home.

Prior to our next "regularly scheduled mini vacation," I researched a journey into Nicaragua. A mutual friend said he loves to travel to Grenada, so that's where I started, but for us to drive to the border crossing on the pacific, and then make our way all the way up to Grenada, we simply did not have the time. So, now what?