Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reflections on a Visa Run - Los Chiles to San Carlos by Boat by Paul

NOTE:  The shuttle boat part of this article is now out of date. The new bridge at Las Tablillas that opened on May 2, 2015 has meant lots of changes. Our June 22, 2015 post (above) documents some of these changes. Also check out this Tico Times article

Several gringos have written about driving up to Los Chiles near the Nicaraguan border to renew their visas (For very precise details – with photos – check out Irina Just's excellent article,). We have little to add about the mechanics of the trip, except for a few DOs and DON’Ts. But we were touched by a number of observations about the terrain and cultures of these two countries which we would like to share. 

So, let’s get our DO/ DON’T list out of the way first:
  1. DO bring dollars (for Nicaragua) and colones (for Costa Rica – although they also take dollars).
  2. DON’T walk away from the ATM with only 20 dollar bills. Few establishments (government or otherwise) have change, and it can be a problem. Have some ones, fives and tens. 
  3. DON’T get too many (or any) cordobas if you are planning to come right back. Nicaraguan money is the cordoba. You can get them and use them in Nicaragua, however everyone we encountered seemed to like dollars just fine. Bringing back unspent cordobas is a nuisance, since nobody else wants them (that is, until your next visa run to Nicaragua). We brought $100 US, and that covered all our expenses: hotel overnight, all tickets and fees, and food. Oh yes, gas was extra -- we used ¾ of a tank round trip from Grecia.
  4. DO bring some munchies with you for the boat ride, since they do not stick to schedules.
  5. DO bring some toilet paper and and some kind of moist towelettes, just to be safe.
A Peaceful Drive North

We passed through the beautiful mountain town of Zacero. We took it slowly and watched the mountain terrain gradually flatten out into farm fields and marshlands. We reached our destination near the Nicaraguan border in about three and a half hours.

Los Chiles at the Costa Rican border is small river town with brightly painted Tico bungalows, shops and a soccer field in the center of town. After turning left off the main road, you end up at the river, in probably less than a kilometer. Here, excursion boats are tied up in the shallows where green pastures gradually disappear in the muddy water. Cows graze and relax in the shade at water’s edge. This is their home. Our arrival interests them not in the least.

Marsh cows of Los Chiles
We parked in front of the Hotel Wilson Tulipan about two blocks from the cement dock and half a block from immigration. The spacious dining room is open to the street. White tablecloths and a long bar make this an inviting possibility for dinner.

Visitors to the Los Chiles area who insist on first class accommodations can find them –  and pay for them. (Marriot is $180 per night.) However, we came to Costa Rica to avoid spending that kind of money and to avoid the contradiction of traveling to a new country only to search for the most "American" accommodations. (Why not simply stay in the US and save the airfare? There you can have breakfast at Denny’s and dinner at TGIF! Yum!)

A real bargain, clean, cozy and welcomed A/C!!!
It was a rainy on-again/off again day, and the moment I got out of the car, my glasses fogged up. The high humidity is a factor here. In fact, the only negative review we found for the conveniently located Hotel Wilson was that the rooms were not air-conditioned. We could not imagine being able to sleep in the humidity we’re unaccustomed to, so we checked into a smaller, cheaper and more rudimentary hotel – but one with A/C – a couple of blocks away, Hotel Carolina. (NOTE: we just learned from a reader that Hotel Wilson does have A/C now. So we'll give them a try next time.)
We walked right past this building on the way to the dock.
We were supposed to stop and pay 600 colones (about $1.25 each)
as some kind of boat tax. We had to run back as the boat
was boarding to pay the tax.

Lack of Convenience

In many small ways it was evident to me that the consumer has little in the way of voice or choice. In our case, we were the consumers. After dropping our stuff off at the hotel, we headed over to the immigration office. Inside the little white building it was dark. A single overhead light bulb provided what light there was for the entire lobby area. A woman pushed two forms under the glass for us to fill out. There was a small bench but no table and too dark to see anyway.  She handed us a nice turquoise felt-tip that Marilyn considered keeping (but she returned it). We walked over to a closed-off staircase and leaned on the railing to fill out the form by the light of the sole window. I noticed a bathroom down the hall, and went in. No lock on the door, no toilet seat, no toilet paper, no light bulb. Luckily, this was sufficient for a pee, but nothing else.

We bought our boat tickets from a man at the door, who added our names to a list. They were $14 (one way) each. He told us the boat would leave in 30 minutes – 12:30 p.m. We walked down to the dock where about 20 people were already waiting on benches under an ancient ramada. The concrete was badly eroded. Crumbly cement steps descended steeply down to the water line with treads that couldn’t have been more than six inches wide. There was no railing.


We  checked our watches. It was one p.m. By my reckoning, the 12:30 boat was late. I’m not a stickler for being on time, but I began to feel physically uncomfortable in a way that was all too familiar to me: shaky and weak with a taste of iron filings in my mouth. I am hypoglycemic, and my blood sugar level was dropping. My McDonald's breakfast was no longer sustaining me. We had planned to have lunch when we arrived in Nicaragua; however, now that the boat was late with no sign of getting going, I was beginning to worry.

It's 1:15 p.m. and we're waiting to board
the 12:30 boat to San Carlos.
I told Marilyn to wait, and I walked back to the car to grab some snacks. Even before I unlocked the door, I realized that we had left our snack food into the hotel room -- too far to go back to. I checked my wallet. I had three mil in colones. I stepped into the restaurant at the Hotel Wilson and asked the woman at the bar if they had any snack food I could get to go. The concept of “to go” was tough to explain, so I told her Quiero comer algun en el barco (I want some food to eat on the boat.) I’m sure it was the crudest Spanish she had ever heard but she got it. She handed me a menu. I told her “Tengo solo cinco minutes.” (I only have five minutes.)  She pointed to the top item on the appetizer menu:  Mexican rice and beans for 2,500 colones. It was in my hands in two minutes: a flimsy plastic container over-filled with steaming hot shredded beef salsa and a foil covered paper plate with the rice, beans and tortillas.

It was raining lightly but steadily by now as I hurried down to dock. People were beginning to board the fiberglass excursion boat like refugees escaping for their lives. As I guessed, making it down those steep steps with no hand railing was perilous. Everybody worked together. Some strong steady guys remained on the dock to help less steady passengers make it down the wet cement steps; while the guys on the deck reached out and grabbed their hands. Marilyn and I gladly accepted their help. I was the second oldest person on the boat; a tiny, frail woman who might have been 80 made it down safely thanks to the help of other passengers.  Gracias, gracias she said over and over. What if you are in a wheel chair? I wondered. Wheelchair? Why the hell would a person in a wheel chair want to go to Nicaragua? These were American thoughts, and I kept them to myself.

I was badly encumbered by the food I had bought. Still shaky from starvation, I fit myself into the narrow fiber glass seat next to Marilyn. We passed my “to go” food back and forth as we put on our required life jackets.

I started to open my food. My salsa and beef container was made of plastic so thin that when I popped off the cover, it bent in the middle, and I poured the hot shredded beef and salsa onto my shirt and pants. My orange life jacket was dripping with orange sauce (at least it matched). The string of epithets which normally would have passed my lips did not. Maybe I didn't want the other passengers (mostly Nicaraguans) to think all Americans had my colorful command of the English language.

With Marilyn’s help, I was able to start eating the food. It was not very good, but my goal was to bring the level of sauce down to the point where I would stop slopping it onto my lap every time the boat hit a ripple. It also quieted my shaky hands, and I began to relax.
Post-food Paul -- happy again.
The Boat Trip

The Johnson outboard whined steadily as we cut through the glassy surface of the river. The first 15 minutes or so of the ride was vaguely claustrophobic, as heavy plastic curtains kept out the pelting rain and limited our view to the inside of the boat. But as we continued upstream, the rain subsided, and the driver and his helper raised the curtains.

 Water fowl watched from the steep clay river banks, some of them taking off and flying alongside the boat. Here and there little shanties with rickety docks and skiffs appeared round the bend. But it was the tropical forest that predominated; huge plantain and banana trees, palms and towering deciduous trees whose branches must have reached a hundred feet above the canopy.
Life on the Rio Frio

Laundry on the Rio Frio
The hum of the outboard lulled me into dream land. I had watched Apocalypse Now earlier in the week and was beginning to feel like Martin Sheen. Suddenly, the hum of the outboard dropped an octave and my eyes popped open. We were now gliding through the water as the engine idled. The captain’s assistant, a pretty young Tico woman, stepped up onto bow and removed the Costa Rican flag, unfurled the Nicaraguan flag and mounted it on the bow.  
Putting up the Nicaraguan flag

We approached a steep clay bank where three Nicaraguan soldiers in camo uniforms watched us. The assistant told me to put my video camera away. No photographs of the soldiers. Got it. Behind the soldiers was their small outpost, also painted in camo colors. I saw no weapons. We bumped into the bank, and one of the soldiers jumped down onto the deck. “Hola, hola,” he said as he made his way to the back of the boat scanning the passengers and their luggage, apparently  looking for anyone with an eye patch and a parrot on his shoulder. I tried to cover the salsa stains on my shirt with my camera case, but I think I saw his nostrils twitch as he passed me.
One of the many tour boats on the Rio Frio.

It was a cursory inspection at best, and in a couple of minutes, he was back on shore and we were off again. 

The glassy surface of the water was deceptive. Only where the dead branches of fallen trees jutted up through the surface could you see how fast the water was moving. At other points, little whirlpools revealed obstacles just beneath the surface. I trusted that our pilot knew where these were because he forged ahead full throttle.

The river soon opened up into Lake Nicaragua, an enormous body of water whose opposite shore was out of sight, a hundred miles distant to the north.  We hugged the shore on the right, and in a few minutes the colorful buildings of San Carlos came into view.

San Carlos
Welcome to San Carlos

The immigration reception building had been freshly painted bright blue. At the top of the second story, large letters welcomed us: Bienvenidos. Another banner below that read:  Nicaragua- La alegria de viver in paz. Cristiana, Solidarita,  Socialista (Nicaragua: The Joy of Living in Peace. Christianity, Solidarity, Socialist). Our boat pulled up against a dock cushioned by tires roped to the pylons. A husky man reached down with a beefy arm to help pull passengers up onto the dock. This was necessary because the deck of the boat was a good three feet below the dock, and there were no stairs. Again, as in Los Chiles, passengers helped each other disembark without complaint. This was obviously normal procedure in the Land of Few Expectations. My disbelief was my own personal problem.

We filled out another form and chatted with a handsome young immigration officer. We had to wait as he let most of the other passengers go ahead of us. He explained in Spanish that only one window had a scanner for our new U.S. passports. I felt that we were comprehending maybe 15 percent of what he was saying. We asked cuanto cuesta? (How much does it cost?) We thought he said dos. Two dollars. Pretty cheap we thought. Minutes later the official at the window told us it was doce, or twelve.  As former ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers we had a good laugh. Language comprehension begins with listening, after all. Newborn babies have no idea that they are Chinese or French or Egyptian or Costa Rican. They just listen and watch until it finally they say their first word. We are still Spanish-language babies.

We exited the building onto a narrow, cobbled street bustling with activity. We only had about 45 minutes until our boat would set sail for the return trip, so we couldn’t do much exploring. Despite the beef and salsa I had spilled on my shirt and shorts, enough had gotten into my stomach that I wasn't hungry. But Marilyn was. We found a nice little outdoor café by a little park at water’s edge. We were the only people there. We told the owner no tenemos mucho tiempo (we don’t have much time) so he suggested the chicken. I had a beer.

Marilyn asked if they had a baño. He replied of course and indicated a doorway. When Marilyn came out minutes later, she sat quietly, pouring water from her thermos onto her fingers and drying them with napkins. “It's baño-ish," she said. "No toilet seat, no sink. There is a bowl of grayish water to rinse off your hands." She continued with a soft chuckle, "I got excited because I thought there was a basket of moist towelettes on the back of the toilet, but they turned out to be condom lubricant.” 

"The chicken, however, is delicious." 

We reboarded our boat at the dock, again with passengers helping other passengers. You had to sit on the dock and then drop down onto the deck. I thought of how a little step unit built of 2 x 6 lumber could enhance “the joy of a life in peace.”

I contemplated the great revolutions of history. They use grand words. Take the French Revolution. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! Or here in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua: La alegria de viver in paz. Cristiana, Solidarita,  Socialismus. Okay, but how about a little edit: Nicaragua: The joy of life in peace. Toilet seats, a sink in the bathroom and steps at the dock.

Restaurant at the dock -- great chicken -- not great baño.

We arrived back in Los Chiles in less than an hour, this time docking at a different concrete staircase. This was the happening place in town for all teenaged boys. They slouched around on their bikes, joking and laughing. One guy even dove into the muddy water. They watched as we climbed the stairs to a large tin-roofed structure where a card table was being set up. We lined up and produced our passports for one official. Another official glanced at Marilyn’s backpack. All was in order. No guns, no drugs, no endangered species.

We hiked back up the street to immigration to have our passports stamped, and we were officially welcomed to Costa Rica for another 90 days.

We ate dinner on the patio of our hotel. The rustic tables and stools are cross sections cut from the trunks of giant trees. It was picturesque, but my tired body would have preferred a chair with a back.  We both ordered fish, which was excellent, but the rough ambiance of the place made me wish we had spent a little more and eaten at the Hotel Wilson. At least they had chairs with backs and white tablecloths. If we ever take friends to Los Chiles, we will take them to Hotel Wilson.  

The next morning we paid our hotel bill. Twenty dollars (US) for a clean room with two beds, freshly remodeled bathroom, AC, a TV and breakfast. Half as much as Hotel Wilson. To my eye, this was good. Competition in Ticoland.

Heading Home

We were looking forward to stopping in Zarcero on the way back to have lunch and take some pictures. Unfortunately, it was drizzly and rainy all the way. We slowed to a crawl as we passed through heavy fog at high altitude. One of Costa Rica's famous cloud forests, it is eerily wonderful to behold.

In Zarcero, it was 60 degrees, drizzly and windy to boot. We ate chicken at a soda and watched the World Cup (try to find a TV in any establishment that was NOT tuned to the World Cup – you would’t). Across the street were the delightful topiary gardens in front of the Iglesia de San Rafael. We wandered through the leafy sculptures to the doors of the sanctuary, which were open. We stepped inside. Quietly we took it all in. The intricately painted ceiling of the nave, the altar rising impressively up several steps to a crucifix, and a single woman kneeling in prayer.

Here, as in Grecia, the doors to the sanctuary are always open. Even though I, a minister’s son, am not a religious person, I am moved by the church’s commitment to provide a safe place, a sanctuary, for prayer and reflection.

By 2 p.m. we were back home where our happy dogs greeted us with jumps and licks. Things settled down in a few minutes and we all cuddled together on the sofa.      I thought how lucky we are to be able to live in this country.

I thought of those lost souls on Expat Exchange who do nothing but complain about prices, roads, theft and the inability to get a good steak in Costa Rica.

Lost indeed. We are not lost here. We are found.

Monday, June 9, 2014

THE MILKMAN by Marilyn

The milkman. Not "my" milkman.
Ultra-pasteurized, shelf-stable milk. Missing all the happy enzymes.
So I’ve been researching raw milk and I’ve determined that making my yogurt from raw milk is a much better idea*. The only whole milk I’ve been able to find locally has been the ultra-high-pasteurized (UHP) kind in the “shelf-stable” packaging. Since UHP milk is heated to 280 degrees, which apparently kills all the good bacteria too. And good bacteria is needed for making the most nutritious yogurt.  

Now, I live in the middle of farming community. Dairy cows sometimes take detours through my front yard. How hard would it be to find fresh local milk?

My neighbor Irina was getting fresh milk and sour cream from her housekeeper. Maybe the housekeeper had extra to sell. I checked. No, in fact, the housekeeper’s cow is pregnant, so no more milk from that source for the next three months.

I was missing my yogurt. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to make any more with the UHP milk. For more than a week, that meant eating my homemade granola dry. Crunch, crunch, crunch – very crunchy!

Irina suggested I check with my intrepid landlady Jenny. Jenny, who is related to most of the Ticos on our mountain, has been incredibly helpful with everything we’ve needed. And her father raises cows. I e-mailed Jenny.

The milk box from the 1950s
that sat on our back steps
She said that the milkman drove up the mountain regularly – but not necessarily on a regular schedule. Milkman!! Images of the sparkling white panel truck that pulled up to our house in the 1950s floated in my head. Twice a week, the milkman
I had fond memories of milk delivered
n glass bottles to our doorstep.
delivered glass bottles of milk and cream to a galvanized steel milk box on our back steps. When we finished the milk, the empties would go back in the box for pick-up. It was a great system. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Jenny said that the next time she saw the milkman, she’d stop him and ask him to go to our house. Living on a side road, we don’t get “Upe!”-d (oo-pey’) very often. “Upe!” is the call that vendors make as they stand outside your gate or door. It is short for Guadalupe, which is short for Our Lady of Guadalupe, who apparently is the patron saint of door-to-door salespeople. Who knew?

Only once, when we were hiking up the mountain and actually had some colones on us, were we able to take advantage of one of the vendors who was selling potatoes and tomatoes from the back of his truck. So I was looking forward to having the milkman “upe” me from our driveway at some undifferentiated time in the relatively near future.

The Milkman Cometh

But a few days ago, as I was driving home from Grecia, I saw a small Toyota pickup stopped along the road. The back of the pick-up was packed with stainless steel canisters. Could this be the elusive milkman? I pulled over and this guy walked up to my car window. “Tiene leche?” I asked. “Si,” he replied.

He's not "my" milkman, but you get the idea.
Then he asked me if I had any containers which of course I didn’t. What was amazing about this part of our conversation is that he was speaking Spanish and I was understanding it. “Questo?” I asked. “Mil dos por dos litres,” he replied. “Dos litres,” I said. I was getting raw milk. Yippee!!

My Mom Is Rolling Over in Her Grave

The milkman then got out two baggies. He opened the first baggie, sticking his hand into it to separate the sides. I tried not to think of where his hands had been. From somewhere in the truck he produced a ladle and opened one of the canisters. He ladled milk into the baggie that he’d set on a scale, then deftly tied the bag and repeated the process.

I attempted to focus on the fact that he had a full truckload of canisters and that he probably sold milk this way on a daily basis and most likely the majority of his customers were still alive. I tried to keep the distant dire warnings of my mom out of my head; she was pretty nuts about sanitation in all forms. But then I remembered that my favorite thing to do for most of my life was rebel against my mom.

The milkman brought over the two filled bags and I paid him. He made change with the same hands that had touched the inside of my milk baggies, so I figured he’d been making change with those hands all morning. Still, I had my raw milk and I was going to make yogurt with it.

Making My Yogurt

When I brought the baggies into the house, one of them began leaking, so I quickly stuck them in a ziplock bag and put them in the fridge. I’d make my yogurt in the morning.

The next morning, Paul went into the kitchen to make coffee. “Honey,” he called out to me. “Do you know why the kitchen floor is all wet?” “Maybe I dropped an ice cube earlier,” I said. “No, this is more than one ice cube.”

We have white tile on our floors, so it was hard to see that what was leaking out of the fridge was my raw milk. I hadn’t zipped the ziplock zippy enough and it had tipped. Milk was pouring out. I grabbed the bag and Paul handed me a bowl. I was able to rescue about half of the leaky bag. Time to start my yogurt.
One thing very interesting about making raw milk vs. pasteurized yogurt is how much you heat the milk. It almost sounds counterintuitive. Raw milk is only heated to 110° to preserve the beneficial enzymes and bacteria but pasteurized milk has to be heated to 181° because there are no more beneficial enzymes left to protect the milk from nasty bacteria. This is not the most scientific explanation, I know, but you get the idea (if you want a much more comprehensive explanation,  this is the best website:  

I heated the milk (what was left of it) to 110° and then added a bit of it to the two tablespoons of yogurt I’d kept from my last batch. After the saved yogurt was incorporated into about a cup of warmed milk, I added that cup to the rest of the milk, and dumped it all into my crockpot, which I’d turned on to the “warm” setting about an hour before. I unplugged the crockpot, wrapped it in two beach towels and left it alone for about 10 hours.
Two large beach towels wrapped around the crock pot
keep the fermenting milk at the right temperature.

That evening, I unswaddled the crockpot and lifted the lid. It was yogurt! Much runnier than the UHP yogurt I’ve been making (I was expecting that from my research), but that just means more whey to use in my sourdough bread and sauerkraut. After straining and chilling I had my first batch of raw milk yogurt. It was delicious. My granola was happy to be pared with it. I ate it for breakfast four days in a row and I stayed healthy (probably healthy-er!!)

I should have told the milkman where I lived, so he’d come down my hill and “Upe” us whenever he irregularly sold milk. At home I’ll have a container to provide – no more leaky baggies. It’s not the sanitized version of the milkman I’d remembered in my childhood, but, hey, this is Costa Rica. Pura Vida!

Another Raw Milk Source

One of my neighbors told me that there's a dairy vendor at the feria -- a regular source of raw milk. I couldn't wait until Friday! I brought a thermos with me just in case. Didn't want another leaky plastic bag. I got to the feria when it opened at noon. Some of the vendors were still setting up. I visited my favorite fruit and veggie vendors, bought some seafood and headed down to the milk booth. Darn! The booth was still covered with a tarp, and there was no truck backed up to the site. I had other things to do, so I couldn't hang around and wait. No raw milk yogurt this week.

The next week I was busy on Friday and couldn't get to the feria until Saturday afternoon. On Saturdays the feria closes at 2, and I was cutting it close, so I rushed down to the dairy guy first. Darn! He was cleaning his empty refrigerator case; not a drop of milk in sight.

At one of the cheese vendors I bought a bottle of plain yogurt. It was terrific. If I wasn't on such a do-it-yourself kick, I'd probably just keep buying yogurt from these folks. But I love the alchemy of having milk turn into delicious yogurt right in my own kitchen. So I knew I would keep trying. I hadn't seen the milkman on our hill in weeks, so I'd have to keep looking for the dairy vendor at the feria.

On my third try, I hit pay dirt (probably not the best metaphor for a dairy product). Leche entero? Si. Dos literos por favor. Oh, and I also picked up two baggies of sour cream -- and it's the thick, pale yellow tart kind that I used to get at my grandma's when I was a kid. I was so happy.

I've just made a batch of yogurt from my new source of raw milk. It is wonderful.

Happy homemade granola topped with nutritious raw milk yogurt.

My granola is going to be thrilled.

* . NOTE: you can find just as many, if not more, websites devoted to the “dangers” of consuming unpasteurized milk – but how many are sponsored by factory dairies? I’m choosing to focus on the benefits.

Monday, June 2, 2014


I had several errands to run in downtown Grecia. I found a parking place on a side street and parallel parked with the help of a Watchiman (or Guachiman or Cuidacarro) one of many mostly older gentlemen who guard your car while you’re shopping. Watchimen, wearing official-looking Day-Glo vests, work for tips. (Realtor Ivo Henfling wrote a comprehensive article about Los Guachimanes click here.) The first two times I’d parked, I’d thought they worked for the city and I didn’t tip them. I know better now and have begun tipping between 500 and 1000 colones ($1-2), depending on how long I’m going to be.

Watchiman from Ivo's Blog
After about an hour of walking around town, loaded down with two large shopping bags, I returned to my car, only to find a flat tire. Before I even opened the way-back, I knew I wouldn’t find the lug nut wrench.

(A few months ago, we took our artist friend/neighbor and his monoprinting equipment down to the art festival in San Jose. Right before we arrived at the festival, he slapped his forehead. “I forgot the handle!”
Mi esposo Paul, always one to think on his feet, said, “You should be able to use our lug nut wrench.” He was right. The wrench made a perfect handle and our friend was able to do his demos. He promised to return the wrench once he got back to Grecia the next day. He didn’t. And we forgot to remind him.)

In the car’s way-back, not only was there no wrench, the jack was missing too. Then I thought back to a noise I’d heard several weeks earlier. I’d fallen asleep reading in bed and was partially awakened by what sounded like a car door opening and shutting outside of the bedroom window. The next morning, I asked Paul, “Did you open the car door sometime last night?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, I was sure I heard the car door open and close. I must have dreamed it.”

We didn’t think to check the car. We are really terrible about locking the car door; we rarely locked our cars in any of the places we lived in the states, so we never developed that habit. And because where we live now is basically a dead-end rural road, it didn’t seem that critical. But we’d heard that a few of our neighbors on the main road had had their jacks stolen recently. Apparently we had too. (Note to future thieves: we now lock our car -- mostly -- and we almost always take the keys out of the front door when we go to bed. So if you come to steal our new jack and the car is locked and the keys aren't in the front door, try again tomorrow.)

So now I was facing a flat tire with nothing available to fix it. The Watchiman seemed to think that a teenager who lived on the same street might be able to help. He couldn’t. So the Watchiman and the teenager and I walked a down the block to a lumber shop. The lumber guy couldn’t help either. A young man pulled up in Toyota Corolla. The Watchiman explained my dilemma. “I think I have a jack,” he said. In English. My day was looking up. Currently my Spanish works best at the butcher shop or the farmer’s market. I’ve focused my studies on grocery shopping, not car repairing.

Toyota Corolla guy dug around in his trunk and pulled out a Toyota Corolla-sized jack. We walked back to my vehicle, a Subaru Forester SUV. Toyota Corolla guy pumped the little jack all the way up. About four inches remained between the top of the jack and the bottom of the car. The jack was just too small. Moments later, the Toyota Corolla guy flagged down another guy in a shiny red Suzuki SUV. The Suzuki guy, who wore an official Municipalidad de Grecia shirt, had a much more substantial jack and it worked. Soon Toyota Corolla guy (whose name was David) was jacking up my car.

I hated to play the part of “helpless female” but all I could do was sit on the stoop of a small restaurant and watch.

The Suzuki guy stood on the sidewalk with the Watchiman. They watched.

The teenager who lived on the block watched.

Various neighbor-ladies watched. From a polite distance.

David removed the nuts on the tire. He tugged at the tire. It wouldn’t come off. He whacked the tire with the Corolla jack and it finally loosened. David rolled the flat tire over to me, pointing to a large nail head in the treads. “Well, that’s your problem,” he said.

“You are my guardian angel,” I said, all helpless female.

David picked up my spare and tried to line it up with the bolts. The car wasn’t jacked up high enough for the spare. The jack was pumped to its limit. So David sent the teenager down to the lumber shop for a block of wood. The teenager came back and David lowered the car and slipped the block of wood on the jack, re-jacking the car up. He tried to line up the spare on the bolts again. Still too low. He sent the teenager back to the lumber shop for more wood. The teenager came back with a meter-long piece of 2x4 with big nails sticking out of it.

David looked at me and shook his head. “Don’t cry,” he said, peering up at the ever-darkening sky, “the rain hasn’t arrived yet.” It being the rainy season and it being the afternoon when the rains typically came.

Waving the nail-studded 2x4 in the air, David spoke to the teenager in rapid Spanish that I couldn’t parse but figured it had something to do with the inappropriateness of the 2x4. The teenager took the 2x4 and headed back to the lumber shop. He returned with several chunks of wood of various thicknesses. David smiled. He turned to me, “Don’t cry,” he said for the second time. “This is going to work.”

I had no intention of crying. But I was grateful that someone who wasn’t me was handling all of this.
David slid the spare under the car and then stacked up the chunks of wood on the jack and began pumping. The parts of the jack handle that were supposed to connect to make the handle long enough were smashed in, so he couldn’t put them together. To get the proper leverage, he had to push the handle down with his foot and then pull it up with his hands. Slow going. Just as the car finally seemed high enough, the blocks slipped and the car came crashing down. Fortunately, the spare tucked under the frame kept the car from crashing to the street.

By now about 25 minutes had passed. David’s cell phone rang. He answered it and spoke again in rapid Spanish that I was unable to catch. He smiled at me, “If we’re lucky, the rain will come soon.”

 I moaned. “That’s supposed to be funny, right?” I said. He brushed the grit off his knees.

“My jeans are dirty,” he said.

“Lo siento,” I said. I’m sorry. “When you’re finished I’ll buy you a cervesa,” I said.

“Not necessary. Today you; tomorrow me,” said David. He smiled warmly. Very Pura Vida of him. 

An older man showed up, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. Without speaking, he took the little Toyota Corolla jack, grabbed a stack of wood blocks and slid everything under the back of the car. He laid down on the asphalt and carefully placed his lit cigarette on the ground next to him.

Now all I could think about was: there is a lit cigarette smoldering beneath my gas tank.

The little jack had a crank handle. Cigarette guy had to manipulate the crank handle from his position on the ground. It was very awkward. While he was doing that, David began re-pumping the larger jack. So now there were two guys pumping my car higher and higher. And one lit cigarette under the gas tank.

With both jacks holding the car up, David rolled the spare over again. This time it aligned perfectly with the bolts. “Not raining yet,” he said, turning to me with a grin.

Cigarette guy slid out from under the car, picking up the remainder of his smoke and replacing it on his lower lip.

“Gracias, muchas gracias,” I said. He nodded almost imperceptibly.

With the spare on, the guys picked up their various tools and wood blocks. I gave David a hug and slipped a 20 mil note into his hand. “Cervesas para todos,” I said.

“Forty-five minutes,” he said. He looked up at the sky. “No rain yet. Now,” he said, “drive very carefully and get your tire fixed right away.”

I thanked all the guys again and got into the car. I pulled away, blowing kisses to my guardian angels as the first big plops of rain hit my windshield. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014



Misc.* (Passport Renewal)
APRIL 2014 TOTAL                        

I’m finally getting around to posting our April expenses. I’ll be blogging about the reason I am so late (it has to do with a spider) soon, so be on the lookout for my tale of woe.  I was really hoping for a first $2,000 month, but it was not to be. Some of the highlights:
Because we rarely go out to eat and I love to cook, our Groceries/Household expenses of more than $500 this month include items we don’t need, but we’re going to continue to buy as long as we feel we can afford them. Some of those items (that we get at PriceSmart) are huge quantities of pecans, chocolate chips, and grated Parmesan. They last 2-3 months (pecans and chocolate chips live in the freezer), still, at about $18-20 each, I wince a little when I toss them into the shopping cart.
Our Doctors/Dentist/Meds category is similar to March, at $250. In April, Paul’s health was a contributing factor with a torn meniscus in his knee. His injury started us thinking about how really vulnerable we are medically (our May expense report will have more details about this).
When he realized that his knee pain was not something temporary, Paul got an ultrasound ($25) recommended by the physical therapist ($25) at our doctor’s office. After reviewing his ultrasound, the therapist thought he should see an orthopedic surgeon (approximately $110 for a consultation). He hasn’t done that yet. We decided to research treatments for torn menisci first. There have been several positive studies citing exercise as a viable treatment, so Paul has joined a gym ($25/month) and is working with a trainer familiar with his issue.
Our doctor wants him to get another ultrasound next month. If there’s no improvement, then Paul will get the orthopedic consultation. At that point, we may have to face the fact that he’ll need arthroscopic surgery. If you’ve read our previous posts, you’re aware that we have not yet gotten our pensionado, which will eventually give us access to Costa Rica’s government health program (CAJA). So if Paul needs surgery sooner rather than later, we have two options: 1) Medicare. Paul has maintained his Medicare in the U.S. so he’d have the option to go to the U.S. for something serious. His Medicare is 80/20, so whatever the surgery cost would be, we’d have to pay 20 percent. And of course, there’s the airfare and other expenses associated with going back to the states. 2) Private health facility in Costa Rica. One of the highest rated hospitals in Costa Rica, Hospital Clinica Biblica, will arrange monthly payments after an initial deposit. Either way, we’ll be looking at thousands of dollars on our fixed income. Not pretty.
This has been a wake-up call for us to get going on our pensionado, so we’ve finally started the paperwork with our attorney. One of the things we had to do first was renew our passports – that’s the $220 miscellaneous expense this month.
This is the end table that Paul built -- total cost $36.56.
And the chair was free from friends!
Finally, some good news. We had been using shipping boxes for end tables for the past eight months. But in April, Paul bought some nice laurel wood and made a lovely Mission-style end table – final cost for materials -- $36.56. 

Folks who’ve lived in Costa Rica for several years have noted how much the cost of living has risen in the past few years. I’m beginning to wonder if we can really ever hit our $2,000 monthly goal, but I am still determined to stick with it. Once we’ve been here a year (October 2014), I’ll re-evaluate. But I won’t be giving up my pecans. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014



March 2014 TOTAL                        
*March Visa Run to Nicaragua
Bus tickets to/from Nicaragua
Transportation in Nicaragua (taxis/shuttle to border)
CR buses
House Sitter
Customs/Border Fees
March 2014 Visa Run TOTAL

 Without going to Nicaragua this month, we would have just missed our $2,000/month goal, spending $2,184.47. Last month was $2,248.21. Should I change the goal to $2,200? I really don’t want to – I do think that once we get our pensionado, our medical expenses (mostly mine) should decrease enough to keep us below $2,000. So I’m going to hang onto the $2,000 goal for now and see what happens in the coming months.

But … until we get our pensionado (which we still haven’t begun working on), we will have to leave Costa Rica every 90 days for 72 hours. (UPDATE:  Several folks have shared information with me since I posted this, explaining that the 72-hour requirement has to do with customs, not immigration. I appreciate their taking the time to explain this, and we'll happily use that information to take a much shorter trip next time.)And even after we get a cedula number, which means that we’re “in process” we will continue to have to cross the border to recertify our U.S. drivers’ licenses (not the 72-hour requirement), but we’ll most likely follow the lead of our neighbors, Jim and Irina Just -- A Different Kind of Trip to Nicaragua ..., who have ferried to Nicaragua for lunch and come right back.

We learned lots of lessons on this, our first trip to Nicaragua. In total, our trip cost us nearly $800, pretty pricey (for us) for a 4-day trip. To get the complete picture of this trip, check out the three-part “Busing It from Costa Rica to Nicaragua” articles on our blog. After reviewing what we spent our money on, there are definitely a few things we could have done to cut down on these trip expenses:  picked a cheaper hotel (downtown San Juan Del Sur has several modestly priced hotels that are rated okay on Trip Advisor); taken the un-air-conditioned, but much cheaper Deldu bus both ways; spent less on food -- we ate at the hotel restaurant which was delicious, but pricey for Nicaragua. I'm not sure how many of these Visa runs are in our future -- friends who've applied for their residency more than 15 months ago are still waiting. It will be interesting to see how much we're spending every three months or so on these trips. So far January and March haven't been too promising in the "living cheaply" category. 


I’ve added the category “Exercise/Fitness” to the March budget. We are trying to be regulars at the twice-a-week yoga, and Paul has started playing tennis again after a 10-year hiatus. Maybe in future budgets our Exercise/Fitness expenses will help reduce the Doctors/Dentists/Meds category!