Sunday, June 30, 2013

La Pura Vida by Paul

La pura vida. That’s how the locals (los ticos) describe life here. Relaxed, friendly, helpful and beautiful. Our first night at the B&B, when the hot water wasn’t working and two light bulbs were out etc. I thought la pura vida meant “nothing works and nobody cares.” I have since tempered my outlook. As we used to say in the 60’s “go with the flow.” Being retired helps a lot, of course, since we don’t have to be anywhere at any specific time and we’re not on vacation where we have to cram in X number of things in a limited span of time.
            One thing I have figured out is how this country got its name, Costa Rica, which means “Rich Coast.” It has to do with colones, the money here. 500 colones equal one dollar US. They don’t have Costa Rican dollars, only colones. It’s as if the US only had pennies. A movie would cost you 700 cents. So, we filled the gas tank of our rented SUV and it was 37,000 colones. To convert, drop the three zeros and multiply by two. That’s $74.00 US. (Gas is expensive here, around $5.00 per gallon.) Anyhow, the smallest paper bill is a 1,000 colones note. (Worth $2.00 US) But let me get to the point: Why does Costa Rica feel “rich?” They have these big golden (actually bronze) coins: 500, 100, 50, and 25 colones. At first, we just handed them American money, which they accept here. But the change is in colones. After a day at the market and shopping around town, you have a pound of brass coins in your pocket.  I like to stack them on the table in our little rented efficiency. They make me feel like Blackbeard the pirate after pillaging a village. Har!
            Getting used to no-street-names is a challenge. That’s right; they don’t have street names. So, if you want to get to somebody’s house, you have to ask them “How do I tell a cab driver how to get to your house?” They write it down. Something like, “From the church in Grecia, drive out past the supermercado (the new one, not the original one), take the right fork, then the third left turn and go to the red house on the left.” So, to get from downtown Grecia (our little city) we know to drive from the cathedral at the town square about 3 km to a sign that reads El Quixote. Hang a sharp right and go past Hydrante 4 and take the gravel road to the right. Odd as it is, you do learn where things are. The GPS is invaluable. You have to buy one from here. Our US one won’t work, they say. The GPS calls all the roads “unnamed road” but you see the display of the roads and an English speaking GPS voice tells you to turn in so many miles. We have already made several friends here as a result of the tour and just meeting Ticos. So using the GPS, once you get to someone’s house the first time, you just enter “Juan’s house.” The GPS logs the coordinates and will show you how to get there next time.
            Costa Rica is a small country of more than 20 micro climates, depending on the elevation and the mountains. There are few flat places here. Everything is up and down, and your car knows it (especially if you have an automatic transmission) This is the rainy season throughout the country. Where we are, that means an afternoon shower every day and temperatures that stay in the 70’s year round. Two hours away from us on the Pacific Coast it gets to 100 degrees and humid at the beach. (Costa Rica is only 10 degrees north of the equator.)  The rain forests are always wet and humid. No thanks!
We are looking for a rental house, furnished, with some open land to have a garden, chickens, a goat, horses, Internet, etc. etc.. We should be able to find something like that for $500 a month. We looked at a beautiful new 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom house with an amazing view of the hills and coffee plantations and distant mountains -- for $850/month. That's more than we'd like to spend, but considering you never need heat or a/c, it's certainly not bad. Yesterday we looked at a place for $450 a month that would be called a Tico house. It was a masonry bungalow on a steep hillside in the country. It had no glass windows, only wooden shutters. Two of the three rooms had a ceiling. The third room was like a shed (but it was supposed to be a bedroom and it had a bed in it). No ceiling and no soffits, so it was open where the roof met the walls. A bird flew out in a panic when we stepped in.
And for that $450 a month, instead of pesky windows that you’d always be washing, the house came with … juro por Dios … BATS living in the bathroom (bat-room?). Oh, and birds too, but it was the bats that REALLY got our attention! So we're still looking. We're willing to rough it a bit but I draw the line at taking a shower with a row of bats hanging from the rafters.  We took pictures and said, “We’ll let you know.” The “landlord” -- a very nice young woman who is really only the sister-in-law of the sister who now lives at the beach and apparently owns the “house” will discover quickly enough that nobody will rent it at that price (maybe at any price.) There are too many other Ticos and Americans who have really nice properties available.
Interestingly, as more and more Americans move here, I fear that the McMansions will begin to take over the Tico houses; and the hillsides, instead of being dotted with little farmhouses, pasturelands and coffee bushes, will be a puzzle of interlocking housing developments with nothing to look at but other housing developments. Once we move here, we don’t want anyone else to come (well, unless it’s any of our friends or family, of course).

Ciao (adios) for now, friends all,

One Week Down by Paul

We are having a wonderful experience here. Three days at a horse resort in a rain forest at the foot of the Arenal volcano. Marilyn and the owner are thinking about ways Marilyn might do some of her horse therapy up there, depending on where we decide to live. Howler monkeys, parrots, lizards beautiful foliage and flowers … but way too much humidity for us to settle there. We took a half-day horseback ride through the dense greenery to a hidden waterfall, like the ones in the old Tarzan movies. We swam in the pool below trying not to break our feet on the boulders hidden in the water. 

We returned to our B & B near the airport and took off the next day for a 3-day tour. There were 3 couples, all retirement age and definitely not rich, plus George, our charismatic, friendly, knowledgeable bulldozer of a tour guide and Oscar, silent, intrepid driver who piloted our bus through rutted mountain roads and along steep precipices like a mountain goat. It was a terrific tour to many small cities in the central valley- San Ramon, Grecia, Baracoa de Puriscal (where George's mountain-top mansion is) Escazu (which is so developed with expats it's like Phoenix without the desert and heat) The Tico's(what they call Costa Ricans) are SOOO warm and friendly and helpful. It's wonderful practicing Spanish with them. Each night, we had get-togethers with people who had taken George's tour and had already moved to Costa Rica. Some were obviously people of means who built beautiful homes here, and others were renters (as we will be) We visited many homes and were especially knocked out by some of the beautiful rental homes( one for $500 per month) These are not tract homes. We saw none of those. They are nestled on steep hillsides with views of green valleys or in the distance, the Pacific Ocean.

Today, we are renting car and driving up to Grecia, where we will stay until we leave for the States on July 11. We plan to drive up to Guanacaste, the northwest corner, where it is hotter, lower elevation and drier and on the Pacific, plus some other areas. This is a country of mountains and valleys, so the driving is slow.

This is so different than a vacation. The excitement of planning where we want to live is invigorating. We have no doubt that what we have read is true. It is not cheap here, but cheaper than the US. If you insist on driving into the big city and shopping in the malls, it's just like the US. But, we can live easily for under $2,000 a month for everything, as several of the people we met are doing.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

And the alarm went off … and off … and off … by Marilyn

The folks at the B&B were incredibly warm and sweet. When they heard we hadn’t yet rented a car for our drive up to Leaves & Lizards, Carol, the wife, offered to rent us their Toyota SUV. The rental on it was a real deal compared to rental places I’d checked out and it seemed like a win-win – Carol and Barnabi would get some extra colones and we’d have a nice, older SUV that didn’t look like a rental car. I really wanted to avoid looking like a tourista, which is kind of imposible considering the fact that Paul and I are about 6 to 8 inches taller than the average Tico, extremely WHITE and our Spanish at this point is a pretty good rendition of “Donde un cervesa y donde esta el bagno?” which is probably fairly importante though not nearly complete enough to get us very far.
So a deal was struck and Barnabi began explaining the ins and outs of the Toyota. He pointed to a red button on the driver’s side door. “Sometimes,” he said, making it sound like an extremely rare occurrence, “the alarm will start to go off for no reason. When that happens, just push this red button – once – and it will stop.”
“You’re sure about that,” Paul prodded.
“Si, si. Just push the red button,” here he flicked it nonchalantly as if to prove how simple it was to control, “and no more alarm!”
“Well, okay … .” I could tell Paul was a bit concerned, but Barnabi was so darn nice. And it seemed like a simple solution to something that should hardly be considered an issue.
Barnabi left for work shortly thereafter and we loaded up the car. The alarm went off. Paul pushed the button. The alarm continued. Paul pushed another button – one on the automatic door lock – and the alarm stopped.
We got in the car and Paul started it up. The alarm went off. This time Paul pushed the red button. The alarm stopped. Hmmmm … two times in as many minutes. Coincidence?
We followed Carol’s directions to the PanAmerican Highway and ended up driving into the airport instead. Somehow we turned ourselves around and got on the right road, going in the right direction, although getting lost three minutes into our journey was as unpropitious as the alarm going off twice.
“Should we get gas before we get out in the country?” I asked.
“Nah,” Paul said. “We have a half a tank.”
I have run out of gas enough times in my life that “half a tank” to me sounds like “we should be carrying a five-gallon gas can for when we are hitch-hiking to a gas station.” But I remained silent. Instead I became an eagle-eyed lookout for anything vaguely resembling a gas station. Barnabi had assured us that there were “many, many” gas stations on the way to La Fortuna.
What I discovered instead was that there were many, many structures that looked like gas stations on the 75 km to La Fortuna. As Paul and I chatted pleasantly about this and that and marveled at the abundant green all around us (we do live in Arizona, after all), I asked with greater and greater frequency “so, how’s that gas gauge lookin’?”
“We’re fine, we’re fine,” said Paul.
“Okay.” I tried to shut up. Paul caught me glancing furtively in the direction of the gauge. We stopped for lunch in San Ramon after driving around the town a bit. I did not see one actual gas station despite seeing several faux gas stations that turned out to be shoe stores or whatever.
We parked the car in front of a beautiful church across from a lovely square in downtown San Ramon. The alarm went off. Paul hit the red button. It stopped. Phew! He turned the car off and pulled the key out of the ignition. The alarm went off. He hit the red button. Nada. He turned the car back on. By this time the gentle beep had turned into the aa-oo-gah of a London police car. Once the ignition was on, he hit the red button again. This time the alarm stopped. We sat in the car a few minutes. Gingerly, he turned the car off again. We carefully opened the doors and slipped out so the alarm wouldn’t notice. We tiptoed through the park to a café where we had lunch. We paid in colones. We think we paid way too much. We figured it came to about $18 in dollars which didn’t sound like what everything we’d read about getting inexpensive lunches in local cafes.
After visiting the beautiful church, which was a surprise because it was wide opened, unlike nearly every church we’re familiar with in our neck of the woods, we snuck back to the car. Paul started it. Warning beep. He hit the red button and it stopped. He was getting pretty good at this “rare occurrence.”
We drove further and further into the countryside. In nearly every village there were several auto repair shops but not one gas station. But again, many faux gas stations. I began to wonder: had most of the buildings in Costa Rica begun their existence as gas stations? And then, without discussing it with one another, all at the same time they decided to become something else? And there were really and truly no more gas stations in all of Costa Rica except for the one we’d passed on our way out of Alejeula? So so long ago? Paul assured me we’d be fine until we got to La Fortuna.
On the map that Leaves & Lizards provides, there is a gas station marked on the road going out of town. I didn’t see that until after Paul stopped at the local Alamo car rental place and asked. They pointed to a gas station even closer. I unclenched everything that I’d been clenching for the past two hours. It felt good to be so clenchless.
In Costa Rica, as if it were the 1950s in the U.S. or present-day New Jersey (check on this) there are attendants who not only fill your tank, but wash your windows and your headlights and are generally many and pleasant. We were on a main stretch of noisy and busy road, so at first it was hard to hear the tell-tale beep. “Isn’t that our beep?” I asked Paul.
“No, that’s not our car,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“No, it’s out there somewhere.”
I saw the guy getting gas in the bay across from us staring at us. Soon all the many and pleasant attendants were swarming our car. The aa-oo-gah had started it earnest.
“It is us!!!” I shouted. “Hit the red button!!”
Paul whacked the button but of course it wouldn’t work because he’d turned the engine off which is what you’re supposed to do when you’re getting gas. He quickly tried to start the car and it wouldn’t start. By this time, the aa-oo-gah had morphed into an even more horrendous and nerve-wracking squeal, like something was dying and something else was eating it. Or something.
Paul jumped out of the car and the many and pleasant attendants pushed their way in, pushing every button they could get their hands on. The caterwauling alarm by now was surely disturbing every sleeping baby in La Fortuna and up into Nicaragua.
I sat helplessly in the front seat, praying to all those saints I’d just made acquaintance of back in the beautiful San Ramon church. Paul was beginning to get hysterical as the attendants were threatening to pull out wires and the like. They had the hood up. “Where’s the number for the B&B?” he shouted. I handed him the card. “Does anyone have a cell phone?”
One of the attendants called the B&B and Paul tried to explain through the din what was going on. Not that much explanation was needed. Whoever was on the other line gave him the helpful suggestion to push the red button. By this time, the attendants had disconnected the battery, and the hellish racket went silent.
After what seemed like many hours (but was probably only about six minutes) of reconnecting the battery, alarm going off, starting the car, pushing the red button, rinse and repeat, something finally worked and silence again reigned in La Fortuna. We muchas graciased the many and pleasant attendents up and down and bailed out of town. And it only cost us 42000 colones to fill the car ($81-ish).
We came to a sweet little café on the side of the road. “I need ice cream,” I announced. Paul didn’t need any more prompting than that. He pulled into the parking space in front of the café and turned the car off. We waited. Blessed silence. We ordered milkshakes, chatted with the wonderful Israeli proprietress, admired and photographed her wonderful murals and enjoyed our shakes on a patio overlooking – what else – abundant green.
Pulling out of the lot, the alarm dared a tentative beep. Paul flicked the red button and it shut right up. Maybe it had gotten all this blaring out of its system.
We finally made it to Leaves & Lizards and gratefully rounded the driveway in front of the reception building. Turned off car. Alarm beeped. Turned car back on. Pushed red button. Alarm stopped. This was getting really, really tiresome.
Debbie the owner, with her husband Steve, of this amazing eco-resort, led us up a steep hill to our cabin. We’d told her about the alarm problem so she wasn’t surprised when it beeped again as we got out. “God, I hope it doesn’t start beeping in the middle of the night,” Paul said. We surveyed the exquisite, lush tropical and peaceful surroundings. If that happened, it would really, really stink. “Maybe I should borrow a [name of wrench] so I can disconnect the battery.”
“Maybe,” I said, “that will be the only way we can get a good night’s sleep.”
Debbie had told us that we were invited to a party at the finca down the road. She was going to go with us because her husband was wrapping up a construction project.
The frustration of the car alarm took away some of the joy of being in this absolute paradise. What would we do if the alarm went off in the middle of the night? Paul joked that he’d have to sleep in the car, but I was starting to think that was not such a bad idea.
At the finca, the alarm went off two more times as soon as we arrived. I was glad when the music started because at least if the alarm sounded then, it would be less noticeable. But we were okay.
When we got back to our cabin several hours later, sure enough, the alarm went off as soon as we got out of the car. Paul was getting really expert at jumping back in, starting the engine and hitting that @#$% red button. He shut the door again. Very very gently. I held my breath. We backed up the walk to our cabin. Silence.

It has been exactly 24 hours since we arrived. We haven’t gone near the car for fear of setting off an alarm storm again. All the other guests drove down the hill to the lodge’s restaurant this morning in what was a torrential downpour. Not Paul and Marilyn. We walked. Happy for the soft sound of rain hitting our umbrellas. 

En Costa Rica by Paul

Our Frontier plane lifted off at 6 pm for Denver on the way to Costa Rica. That’s right. Phoenix north to Denver to CR. A two-hour layover later we headed south and arrived in Costa Rica at 5 AM Tuesday morning after a #$%& night’s sleep.
Customs was fast and easy, no body cavity searches, no grimy hombres with elaborate mustachios and bandeleros across their chests. I have had my passport for 9 years, and here in Costa Rico, it finally got the rubber stamp.
Outside as warned in the many travel guides we studied, a swarm of hungry looking men wanted to help us carry our bags or take us to a taxi. We avoided cars with no hubcaps that looked they had been painted with a roller and got into a bright orange, official aeroporto taxi.
Getting to the Melrost B & B was not the problem I thought it might be in a city that has neither street names nor numbers. Our driver asked us where the Melrost was. We told him it was in Costa Rica. He got on his walkie talkie and after some back and forth with the dispatcher seemed to know where he was going.
He led us through bustling but crumbling neighborhoods, obviously repaired, patched and repatched, painted and repainted many times since the 1950’s when I assume these structures were built. Block walls are topped with barbed wire, and windows and parking areas everywhere are protected with iron bars. We emerged into a quiet cozy neighborhood whose narrow streets are bordered in tropical vegetation. Here was our B & B.

We were shown to our room and crashed. That first night a torrential rain storm pounded on the roof and a crack of lightening knocked out the lights. We didn’t care. We had bed to sleep in instead of an airplane seat.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Nerve Ablation ... Whaaaaaat?

Well my dear doc moved up the schedule so I could get the nerve ablation of my lower spine in time for it to take effect when we are in Costa Rica (maybe). He did say that the nerves are gonna be pissed off for a while (his words, not mine) so the pain may be increased for a while (what is a while, I ask: a few weeks, he responds. So that means I'm going to have a crappy time in Costa Rica, I start to ask ... But then I remember that I'm so used to pain it probably won't matter). He said I can ride tomorrow and that's great news.
Paul and I are trying to use our very fractured Spanish whenever possible. Example: driving to the surgery center this morning we came up to an "Endo de muerta" so we had to turn around. Obviously, neither one of us know the Spanish word for "end" yet.
One week from this evening we'll be boarding the plane. DON'T FORGET THE PASSPORTS! I wonder if we're allowed to bring snacks into the country. I sure would like to bring my newest addiction, Snyder's Hot Buffalo Wing Pretzels. Note to self: check on this.
Must take a nap right now -- sedation hasn't worn off yet.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Countdown Begins: Phase I, The Plan to Check Out Costa Rica (We'll See)

We began discussing how we could survive as retired people about a year ago. Costa Rica came up a lot in those discussions because of its weather and because, most importantly, of its highly rated and economical health care system (both public and private). 
I've just finished re-reading Unraveling the Mysteries of Moving to Costa Rica: Real stories from real people, what we've learned and how it can help you! which is an incredibly long title for probably the most helpful book I've found so far about retiring in Costa Rica. The author, Arden Brink, surprisingly no longer lives in Costa Rica, but is still involved in a Costa Rican shipping company. I wrote her a few months ago about MOLD (as in, what's the deal with mold?) since I'd figured that Costa Rica being a tropical country with lots of rain, mold has got to be an issue. But it certainly isn't one that is openly discussed on any of the hundreds of blogs, websites, books, forums ... . 
Arden, however, was quite forthcoming (from her new dry perch in Utah) and said that mold was a terrible problem that had ruined all of her dad's art canvases (among other things). When I told her I thought I had health issues relating to MOLD, she strongly cautioned against moving to Costa Rica. 
For a while, I took her cautions to heart, and began searching other options in the U.S. But then I learned that my COBRA health insurance was going to cost more per month than my entire school retirement check, so I took a new tack: researching about how people cope with mold in CR. 
Open closets, heated towel bars, plastic containers ... these were a few of the ideas. There is also some kind of ozone machine that's made specifically for Costa Rica (so that the parts don't disintegrate in a few months like the U.S. machines apparently do ... hmmm ... There doesn't seem to be a price anywhere on the website -- granted, I haven't looked at ever page, but most other ozone generator sites have big "ON SALE NOW" notices as soon as you click on them -- and those seem to cost about $400. Might they not be listing the price because it's closer to $4,000? We'll see. 
So in one week we'll be boarding a plane in Phoenix, flying north to Denver and from there, flying south to Costa Rica. This seemed a better option than flying across the country to Miami and then to Costa Rica. There don't seem to be any direct flights to Costa Rica from here, at least in our price range.
Once in Costa Rica, after crashing at the Melrost B&B in San Jose (because our plane lands at 5:30 a.m. and we'll definitely need a nap!) we'll spend three days at the resort Leaves & Lizards near the Arenal Volcano and about a three-hour drive from the capital, San Jose. 
There's a kind of convoluted reason why we're spending three days at Leaves & Lizards. Because I am certified as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning and have spent the last six years volunteering in equine therapy, I was very curious about whether there was anything similar in Costa Rica. I stumbled upon The Horse's Bond or Vinculo con Caballo, which appears to be the ONLY equine therapy center in Costa Rica. It is run by the woman who owns Leaves & Lizards. She invited us to visit and discuss how I could possibly get involved in Vinculo con Caballo after we move. I'm really excited about this.  I hope that the place is not so far removed from where we may end up living that it won't be feasible to work with her. We'll see. 
After that, we head back to San Jose, stay a night at the Melrost again and on Sunday morning get picked up by George Lundquist. George conducts these highly recommended tours for people who have no interest in retiring to a million dollar American-style McMansion in a gated community full of expats. In other words, for people like us who want to explore whether we can live a more satisfying life on not a lot of money. 
We've Skyped with George (who, by the way, has one of those afore-mentioned ozone machines in his house) and it looks like at this point, there will be seven of us on his June tour (maximum of 12). He'll take us to communities in the Central Valley, which is an area within about 60-90 minutes of the capital. Because Costa Rica has some 27 micro-climates, there's kind of a pick-and-choose idea of the kind of climate you want to live in (okay, no ski areas, but it's not all tropical jungle either). Getting back to Arden and the mold issue, I'm wondering if where she lived -- and based on the pictures in her book, it looks pretty darn "jungle-y" -- was just extra-moldy. We'll see. 
After our "George Tour" we have two weeks on our own to more deeply delve into where we might want to settle, or even if it's feasible.