(Plus Some Finales and Encores Because That’s How Long It Takes to Tell This Story)
Act 1: Solutions … Temporarily
ICE (eey – say) is the Costa Rican government’s internet service provider. When we moved into our house, Jenny (our landlady) told us that the internet was already set up and ready to use. But if we wanted WIFI we’d have to get our own universal WIFI router. “For now, all you need is a cable,” she said.
We didn’t have a cable. Jenny made a phone call. “The ICE guys will be out here in an hour or two,” she said. “They will be wearing yellow shirts and driving a yellow truck.” Pretty easy to spot, especially since no one drives down our road.
A few hours later, the yellow ICE truck pulled up and two guys in yellow ICE shirts got out. I jumped up and down on the porch like a little kid seeing the ice cream truck. Different “ice.”
We pointed them to the modem. In Spanish they told us something. In English we responded. Finally we got it. They were telling us we needed an Ethernet cable. We were telling them, “Si, comprendemos!”
They hooked up an Ethernet cable that was long enough to go from the modem in the spare room out to the dining room table, which, because we have no other furniture, is also our current office workspace.
Buenos and handshakes all around. They got in their yellow truck and drove back up the hill.
We had internet!!! We could contact our loved ones and let them know that we’d gotten on and off the correct plane and were now happily in our Grecia house. Our joy was relatively short-lived when the first thunderstorm hit. Jenny had warned us to unplug the computer and the internet during any storm. Even though we have surge protectors, I have a feeling that 3-pronged electrical outlets all over the house aren’t actually grounded—they’re more for show. At least that’s what we’ve heard from other expats.
So each evening for a week we faithfully unplugged during the storm and then replugged. Sometimes we got internet back but sometimes not so much. Then I would go into reset mode, unplugging the modem, restarting the computer, sticking a pen into the reset on the modem. For several days this system worked. Until it didn’t.
That’s when all the tricks stopped working and we lost internet connection completely. This happened at a very inopportune time, because we needed to wire funds to the people in San Jose who had received our 85 boxes of stuff from the shipping company. They were waiting to deliver them to us but they needed to be paid. I had previously emailed Betty, my very helpful and sweet delivery contact, to let her know that I would transfer the funds on Wednesday morning. But on Tuesday evening the internet stopped working.
Act 2: Who’s Elise?
Wednesday morning came and Paul dialed the first of two phone numbers Jenny had left for us in case we had problems with the internet. He turned away from the phone for a moment with a relieved look on his face, “Press nine for English,” he said. Great, because it’s really hard to mime what you need over the phone.
He spoke to a nice lady who assured him that someone would be at the house either that day (Wednesday) or Thursday before noon. They would call first.
At about noon on Wednesday, the phone rang. Paul answered. “No, there’s no Elise here,” he said. “You must have the wrong number.”
I’d remembered that the name of the cleaning lady who used to clean this house was Alyssa. Maybe that’s who the caller was looking for. I started waving my arms at Paul so he’d look at me. “Ask if they want the lady who cleans houses,” Paul was being insistent that Elise didn’t live here. He finally noticed my flapping arms.
“Do you want the cleaning lady?” he asked, “she doesn’t work here now.” At that moment I had a rare insight en Español.
“Wait!” I shouted. “They’re not asking for Elise! They’re telling you that they’re el ICE!! El-eey-say!! The internet people!!”
Paul was just about to hang up. “Internet?” he said hopefully into the receiver. I saw him smile and nod. “Si, si, internet! So you’ll be here in two or three hours? Great!”
He hung up the phone. “Two or three hours,” he repeated to me.
Five hours later we were sitting on the patio. The afternoon rain had lulled. “They’re not coming,” Paul reported to me. Unnecessarily.
Act 3: The Phone Number
On Thursday morning at 8 a.m. on the dot, Paul called ICE. Or at least what we thought was ICE based on the information Jenny had left for us.
He pressed 9 for English. A woman answered.
“What is the phone number?”
He gave her our phone number. She told him nothing was wrong with the phone. “I know that,” he said, “I’m calling about the internet.”
“The number you called is for problems with the phone,” she said.
“But I called this number yesterday and talked to someone about the internet,” he said.
They went around like this for a few minutes. “Maybe if I gave you the account number?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. He gave her the account number.
“Oh, you’re having problems with your internet,” she said.
“Yes,” said Paul, “and the person I spoke to said that someone would be out either yesterday or today before noon.”
“We’ll send someone out before noon today,” she said.
“Great,” said Paul.
We were on edge all morning waiting for the yellow truck with the guys in yellow shirts to arrive. I was worried that sweet Betty who was holding our stuff hostage in San Jose was probably thinking we’d just dumped 85 boxes on her for the fun of it and she’d never hear from us again.
Paul made hot dogs for lunch. I bit into one. A crunchy fried plastic sleeve slid off the hot dog into my mouth. Apparently Costa Rican hot dogs are individually wrapped in plastic and then vacuum sealed to keep all the yummy hot dogs parts under control.
Paul had already eaten half of his plastic-grilled hot dog. I guess it’s a guy thing (and also a dog thing). After we peeled the nicely crisped plastic off our hot dogs and started lunch over, I said, “I’m gonna call again.” It was only noon, but I was beginning to be wary of the responsiveness of the guys in the yellow shirts.
Act 4: The Next Conversation
I dialed the number and pressed 9 for English. It was raining so hard I could barely hear. A gentleman answered. I got right to the meat of things. “Internet,” I said.
“What is your phone number?” he said.
I gave him the phone number.
“Do you have a problem with your phone?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “With the internet.”
“This is the number for phone problems,” he said.
I sighed. I don’t think he heard me sigh. “Here’s the thing,” I said, “we’ve been calling this number – and people on the line have been telling us that the ICE guys were coming but they never come and so I’m just calling back to make sure that they’re really coming.”
“But this is only the number for phone problems,” he said.
“How about if I gave you the account number,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. I gave him the account number.
“One moment,” he said. He came back on the line. “The account number you gave me is only for the phone. You don’t have internet service.”
I sighed again. I think he heard me this time. “Sir,” I said. “We’ve been calling this number and giving out this account number for the last three days. We were told that someone would come out to fix our internet either yesterday or today by noon. I was simply following up to make sure that they were still scheduled to come out. And now you’re telling me we don’t even have internet service.”
“That is correct,” he said.
“Then why did ICE come out a week ago to fix our internet?” I asked.
“They must have come out to fix your phone,” he answered.
“No, they came out and checked the ICE modem. They provided an Ethernet cable for my computer. I have been using the internet for a week. So I know that I have internet service.”
“There is only record of phone service on the account number you gave me,” he said. Was I in a Saturday Night Live sketch or a Twilight Zone episode? “Let me talk to my supervisor,” he said. He put me on hold. There is no “hold” music or adver-happy-jingles to help you distinguish whether you’re actually on hold or if he’s simply bailed on you. I chose to believe he was, indeed, conferring with a supervisor.
“We do seem to have an open work order for your internet repair,” he said when he came back on the line.
“So you do have a record that we have internet service here?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “they work until 4:30, so someone should be out before then. They have many service calls which is probably why they were delayed.”
“Why did it take so long for you to find out that I had internet service?” I asked.
“Because the account number you gave is only for WIX [that’s what it sounded like to me],” he said.
“What is WIX?”
“Your phone service.”
“What is the account number I should use if I have internet problems?” I asked.
“The service people will be out today before 4:30,”
“I am aware of that,” I said. “But in the future … should I ever need internet service again … is there a different account number I should be using?”
“The number you gave is the correct one,” he said.
I sighed. Or growled. One or the other.
“They will call before they come,” he said. “Who should they ask for?”
“My husband Paul or me,” I said, “I’m Marilyn.”
“What is your last name?”
“And your passport number?”
I considered asking “Why do you need my passport number?” but I quickly decided if I did he might cancel the service call and I’d have to start over again. I gave him my passport number.
“Do you want my husband’s too?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “that will not be necessary. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“So they’ll really be out today …” I was eager, grasping.
“Before 4:30,” he said. There was a firmness to his voice I hadn’t detected previously. “Will that be all?”
“Yes. Thank you.” I was meek. “Buenas Tardas,” I whispered.
Act 5: Paranoia
I am absolutely sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that my passport number is – right now, before 4:30 – being filed with the only efficient part of the Costa Rican government – the Problem Gringo Blacklist Department (PGBD). I will never be able to get my pensionado. Paul will be allowed to live out his golden years in Costa Rica but I will be forced to return to the states and work in the circus (under an assumed name). We will never be able to communicate. Because he still can’t get ICE to come out and fix the internet.
Act 6: Yet Another Phone Call
At 4:30, Paul called. It was obvious no one was going to show up. He had a long drawn out conversation with the person on the other end of the line, which I won’t repeat here because it was almost word-for-word like the one I had had earlier. The new information that he gleaned: when the customer service people asked for our phone number, and like fools we gave them our phone number, what they really wanted was what Jenny had written down as our account number.
After checking with various supervisors, the customer service guy got back on the phone and assured Paul that someone would be out first thing in the morning.
Following is an approximate transcript of the half of the conversation I heard:
Paul: I know you are trying to support my needs by telling me that someone will be here first thing in the morning, but I would really prefer honesty.
Customer Service guy says something.
Paul: You see, for the last two days, every time we’ve talked to a nice person like you, we’ve received assurances about something that, in the end, did not occur.
Customer Service guy responds.
Paul: I understand that you have no control over whether or not a technician actually comes to our house. Let me suggest that a better system might be if your department and the technical service department had some way of communicating? It seems to me that your job is to just make the customer feel better, even if it is not the truth.
Customer Service guy goes into a lengthy explanation. I know that because Paul said “Um-hmm,” and “I understand” a lot.
Paul: Well, thank you for running all over the building trying to get answers for me. I really appreciate it. (using his firmest tone) And I expect to see a technician in the morning, or we will be looking for other service.
Mi esposo spent many years as a corporate trainer. He helped companies with their communication issues. He was very good at it. I think, deep down, he’s expecting to receive a call from one of the jefes (bosses) at ICE who had eavesdropped on his exchange with the customer service guy. “Señor Hastings,” they would begin, “it appears you know much about efficiency. We would like you to consult with us as to how better to serve our customers, before they all leave us for X internet company.”
Paul would demure. “No es nada,” he would say, humbly. “I will be honored to work with you.” He eventually receives a medal from the Costa Rican government for helping to make their services profitable. I read about it online when the circus train stops at a Starbucks with WIFI somewhere in Nebraska.
Finale (Or So We Thought)
On Friday morning, we were sitting out on the patio, having our coffee. “Wanna take a bet on whether they’re coming this morning.”
“They’re not,” I said glumly. “No need to bet.”
At 10 a.m. the yellow truck pulled up and a young man in a (very) yellow shirt got out. I could barely control my excitement.
He held a sheaf of very official looking papers in his hand (my deportation to the circus papers?). We showed him the modem. He sat at my computer and shortly took out the Ethernet cable. He changed the plug. He pinged stuff on my computer. He explained what was wrong in Spanish. We nodded understandingly (did not understand him at all). He added a third different kind of Ethernet plug. He jiggled it. The pinging report showed that one kind of jiggle make the internet work, while another kind of jiggle made it stop working. It was MY LAPTOP that was the problem – my big American Ethernet outlet was too big for the dainty Costa Rican internet plugs!!!
“When we get WIFI will that solve the problem?”
Paul said, “Well, until we get WIFI, I can just hold the plug while you type.” I thought there had to be a better way. Masking tape did the trick. So now we have internet and we know what to say if we need to call ICE again. And no one from PGBD has shown up to haul me off. Yet.
Encore (But wait … there’s more …)
Remember a little earlier in this essay when I said that we were supposed to unplug all the technology when the rains came? One afternoon, we forgot. So ICE stopped working. I tried all the restart tricks I could think of, plus a few that I thought should be restart tricks (note to self: never, never do this again).
We called Jenny who suggested that cable would probably be a better option for us – and it was about the same price ($26/month). The cable company, TIGO, had recently installed cable at the top of our hill. On Saturday, the cable sales guy showed up. Jenny came with him which was great because he only spoke Spanish and kept trying to sell us the “premium package” which was for internet and TV, even though we don’t own a TV.
After we signed up for the cable (and I had to give out my passport number again), we were excited to see the installation guys show up early Monday morning. But our joy balloon soon deflated, when they came back from the hill to say that our house was 115 meters away from the pole, and the cable would only work within 80 meters. Great.
We called Jenny. She called TIGO. Someone at TIGO told her that those installers were probably “inexperienced” and didn’t realize that even though they were told that they couldn’t install cable beyond 80 meters, it would really work (pretty well, mostly) up to 120 meters. They would send more experienced installers. Maybe tomorrow.
When “tomorrow” came we waited for a few hours and then made a decision. We would go with the third option that Jenny had told us about. An American-owned internet company that was more than twice as expensive, but apparently much more reliable. Reliable was going to be worth the $60/month (still much less than we were paying in the states). The next day the installer from the company, CRWIFI, showed up and, with only a few speed bumps, got everything working.
What is interesting is our attitude about this entire experience. Yes it was frustrating to be unable to communicate online for nearly a week. But I think back to our stress level in the states if we had problems with our internet service provider. There would be pacing, teeth clenching, elevated blood pressure … (lots of) foul language. None of that showed up this time. In Costa Rica we are trying to allow the spirit of place to color our reactions. It is getting easier every day.