I’d forgotten to buy salt on that first day coming up from the airport so we’d been eating salt-free meals like we’re cardiac patients. Fortunately, I’d purchased lemon-seasoned chicken so by stir-frying it with rice and veggies, we got by. But we really wanted salt.
“What day is today?” Paul asked after supper last night. It is quite easy to lose track of time when you have no particular place to be at any specific time.
“Thursday. Tomorrow the farmers’ market is opened in town.”
We decided to take our first bus ride to Grecia the next morning, find an ATM, and do some grocery shopping. I’d read several articles about the farmers’ market and we recalled nosing around it when we were here in June. We hoped to get as much of our food there as possible. Everything we’d researched, as well as advice from expats living here, was that avoiding “American”-type grocery stores was a key to living cheaply in Costa Rica.
The bus arrives at the top of our road every hour on the hour with maybe a few fewer stops on weekends. I readied my nylon shopping bag and stuffed my rain jacket and our one umbrella in my backpack. Having borrowed about 600 colones ($1.20) from our landlady Jenny before she left for Canada, we figured we’d have just enough for the bus before we withdrew more money from the ATM in town. “Living on the edge,” Paul calls it. But it’s actually pretty comfortable. Or it will be once we get salt.
As we locked the door and headed up the hill, a young woman carrying a sack stopped us. “Tamales,” she said shyly, holding out two freshly made packets.
“Quanto questo?” We were getting very good at asking how much something cost.
“Siete ceintos por dos,” she replied. That’s $1.40 U.S.
“Solo tengo colones por la autobus,” Paul said. “Later, when we come back.”
She smiled and put the tamales back in the sack.
Shortly after we arrived at the bus stop, we were joined by two women from the neighborhood. There were “Buenos” all around while we waited. “Solo dos dias in Costa Rica,” we told the ladies. They smiled warmly. Everyone in Costa Rica, either genetically or by some government decree, smiles warmly.
Only a few other passengers were on the bus when we boarded. Paul handed the bus driver some colones and got change back. The fare into town, we discovered, is 85 cents. A lot better deal than paying more than $5.00 a gallon for gas. And much more colorful.
As the bus wound its way down the mountain, it filled to capacity. Each time an older person boarded, a younger person quickly offered their seat. I whispered to Paul, “Maybe you should offer your seat,” as an elderly woman shuffled down the aisle.
“I’m old too,” said Paul. Sometimes I need reminding that I’m married to a 68-year-old retired guy. I guess that’s a good thing. Needing to be reminded, that is.
Seeing our road from the bus is very different than glancing quickly from a car window. At each bus stop I peered out to see what kinds of outdoor furniture people had – much of it Sarchi-made (Sarchi is a nearby town famous for its furniture factories); I admired the profusion of blooms in front gardens; I watched women sweep porches and men plant fruit trees. Uniformed children hiked up or down the hill on the way to school, heavy with backpacks or dragging wheeled book bags behind them.
On the seat across from us, a young pregnant mother dandled a bright-faced baby on her knee. “Isn’t he cute,” Paul whispered.
“She,” I whispered back, “she.”
“How do you know it’s a girl?” he asked.
“Well, for starters she’s got gold earrings, pink Mary Janes, lace socks and flowered pants.”
“Oh,” he said, “I was focused on the short hair – no long banana curls.” The baby looked from Paul to me, wide-brown eyes serious, probably wondering what jibberish we were spouting in our strange tongue.
Only one man, a few seats ahead of us, looked to be Gringo, not Tico. I tried to catch snatches of conversation going on around us. I’m very good at picking up “tengo,” which means “I have,” but I never get what the speaker actually has. Oh well. More Pimsler Spanish lessons coming up.
After about 20 minutes, the bus pulled up—conveniently – right alongside the Grecia farmers’ market. Booth after booth of fruits, vegetables, seafood, cheeses and meats beckoned. But first an ATM. I’d remembered seeing one somewhere near the church, so we headed in that direction. One of the reasons we love Grecia is that it feels like the kind of towns both of us remember from the 1950s – towns in which you could buy anything you needed, from appliances to shoes, codfish cakes or cough syrup.
At the first bank we came upon, there was a long double line at the outside ATM. Then I recalled that the 3rd day of the month was Costa Rican Social Security day, and yesterday was October 3. The second bank had a wall of ATMs, but it seemed like you needed some kind of key to access them. I’d remembered reading that once one became a legal resident and were able to officially open a bank account, you were given a key – and there was a slot that looked like it took a key.
“We need to find a Scotia Bank instead of one of these state banks,” I said to Paul. “I’m pretty sure I remember that there’s one a few blocks away from the church. Having the large church and park as a guidepost is very helpful and every town in Costa Rica has both.
We walked a few more blocks and were getting ready to cross the street when a car seemed to try to sideswipe us. But the driver looked familiar. “Richard!” I laughed. It was our landlord from our June visit. He’d seen us leave the bank and had followed us. Richard jumped out of the car and gave us hugs. We explained our situation and he said we must be mistaken; he always takes his guests to that bank. And it doesn’t charge a conversion fee either.
“Get in,” he said and drove us back to the bank. He introduced us to his most recent guest, a handsome black man who said he was considering moving to Costa Rica. “Well, when Richard comes for dinner, he’ll have to bring you too,” I said. Richard offered to wait for us, but we explained that we had shopping to do and planned to take the bus back for practice anyway.
This bank was also crowded. We went inside, which meant one person at a time going through an airlock kind of security system. Once inside, a guard asked to check my bag, but all he really looked at was my umbrella and rain jacket. I guess I didn’t look very suspicious. I showed him my debit card and asked if I could get money. He called over another bank employee who escorted us past several lines of people to a teller, where she confirmed that, yes, indeed, I could get colones from the ATM. She then escorted us back to the bank of ATMs where I put my card in the slot with no problem this time. We “muchas gracias”-ed her and got our colones.
SHOPPING IN DOWNTOWN GRECIA
After picking up a few staples and cleaning supplies at the corner grocery, we headed to the farmers’ market. People swarmed every booth but no one seemed out-of-sorts or in any kind of hurry. And there were those warm smiles again.
I stopped at a produce booth. “Ajo?” I asked. The young clerk handed me a sleeve of very fresh looking garlic and took about 15 cents from my handful of coins. As I rounded the corner, I saw huge pineapples dangling from hooks. Got to get one of those. Same clerk took a 100 colones coin from my hand and brought back change. I think the last time I purchased a pineapple at the Sprouts in Phoenix it was $2.99 – and it was a Costa Rican pineapple.
At the next booth I pointed to what appeared to be a whole chicken, but it turned out it was only the breast – it was about as large as a whole chicken you’d get in the states. Paul found the actual whole chicken – which was really large – and we purchased it for about $3.00. At the next booth, a kilo of hamburger (2.2 lbs.) because it was recognizable in the meat cooler. We really need to practice the names of cuts of meat or we’ll be stuck eating chicken and hamburger forever. The seafood looked fresh so we’ll definitely pick some up next Friday.
By the time we got to the cheese vendor, our bag was strained to capacity. I asked for parmesan and the vendor reached past all his fresh cheese and held up a tiny bottle of grated cheese. “No, no,” I said.
“Block?” he asked. Or at least I think that’s what he asked. “Si, si,” I said. Would I really be getting actual parmesan from a block? One of the things I’d picked up on from various expats was that there were basically two kinds of cheese available in Costa Rica: mild and really mild. I peeked over the counter as he was cutting my “media kilo.” It did not look at all like parmesan. But it did look fresh and local and, what the heck? Who needs hard cheese anyway? I’ll wait until I get goats so I can make my own.
At the pet booth we passed cages of sweet bunnies (pets or dinner?) and chirping birds to buy some dog food. The dry food was displayed in plastic kilo bags. We only had room for one kilo, which wouldn’t last very long, especially now that we have a (sort of) third dog (more on that in another blog).
When we finished shopping, we’d purchased a week’s worth of meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit and dog food for $35. Not bad. We’re getting more comfortable with using colones and the vendors are quite accommodating. If you look like you don’t understand (apparently that’s a relatively common look on my face), they use a calculator to convert colones to dollars and show you the amount. But that only had to happen a few times. I was pleased that we could communicate enough in our 1st semester Spanish to get what we actually wanted and not come home with an entire pig’s head by mistake. Although I think I could manage to roast up a mighty fine pig’s head if necessary.
We had to buy another shopping bag to accommodate all of our provisions. Both my nylon bag and the new gigante bag were filled to the brim. We found the bus stop to go home with no problem and the bus was sitting there waiting for us. No driver in sight so we just climbed in and sat down among the other passengers. It was 11 a.m. We had boarded the bus to come into town at 9 a.m. Not bad considering all we’d accomplished.
At 11 a.m. on the dot, the bus driver emerged and walked up and down the aisle collecting fares. Paul had exact change this time. I was a little bit concerned that we might not be quite sure of a landmark near our stop, but then I saw one of our neighbors who’d boarded the 9 o’clock bus with us, so I knew she’d pull the cord at the right time. Once again, I tried to pick up different snatches of conversation and this time I learned that the guys sitting behind us were going to “comer algo” (eat something) soon. Good for them.
Sure enough, our neighbor pulled the cord for our stop, but so did Paul, who recognized the saddle-maker’s sign near our road. Leaving the bus, we “bueno”-ed our neighbor, introducing ourselves. She’s Sonia and she lives down a rutted trail to the east of our house. We’ll have to explore it the next time we walk the dogs.
Sure enough, at 12 noon, three hours after we’d told the tamale lady “tres horas” she showed up and I purchased two tamales wrapped in banana leaves from her. We had them with salad for lunch. They were delicioso with some of the ubiquitous Costa Rican salsa (which is nothing like Mexican salsa – it comes in a bottle and is tangy/sweet – I think they use it on just about everything).
RELAXING INTO THE COSTA RICA VIBE
The week before we moved here (actually, just about a week ago), I was so stressed about what seemed our unsurmountable moving problems that I said (to anyone who would listen) that my “vida” had lost its “pura.” After our bus ride into town, I feel like it’s come back to stay.