Monday, January 13, 2014


We have lived in Grecia, Costa Rica for nearly thirteen weeks; but legally speaking, we are still tourists. We will start the process of getting our residency this month, January. Those who have been reading our blog know the routine. Briefly, as tourists, we are required to leave the country every three months and then re-enter to begin a new three-month stay. In March, we’ll travel up to Nicaragua for a few days. This process will continue until we become legal residents.
Our three months were up in December, so we decided to fly north to frozen Delaware on December 28 to visit friends and family. But on January 7, as we boarded the plan at BWI airport to return to Costa Rica, I became aware that a simple question was floating around in my subconscious.  Was I going home or leaving home?
In the faintest of voices, an old strand of DNA was speaking to me. Don’t leave, it warned.  Did I really want to stay? Or was I merely anticipating six hours in a horrible coach seat whose headrest would reach only to my shoulder blades, leaving my head to bobble around in agony.
Happy Family: Back row: Michael, Matt, Marilyn,
Paul. Front row: Chris, Kaylee, Stephen
But the voice inside came from a deeper place. My stepson and his wife and two wonderful grandchildren (they aren’t children anymore) live in Wilmington. We love to visit them; there’s nothing like laughing and playing music, hours of Scrabble and Monopoly (this year, Beatles Monopoly!) and just connecting in ways that don’t quite translate over SKYPE. Was it the time we spent with old friends downing eggnog and catching up on each other’s lives? Maybe it was the general ease and familiarity of English, of knowing where to go for the best kielbasa (Johnny’s Market on Maryland Ave.), or buying shop lights at Home Depot with actual dollars.
As I buckled my seat belt, it came to me that a visit is like a dip in the pool. It’s nice, it’s refreshing, but eventually you get out of the pool. The answer to my question became obvious. Marilyn and I have changed profoundly since living in Wilmington. Our brains have been rewiring at breakneck speed. We were going home.
At 6:10 am our plane lifted off the frozen runway at BWI. My mind drifted to the 1938 film Lost Horizon, in which a group of plane passengers survive a crash in the Himalayas and stumble upon a hidden valley called Shangri-La. Here people live contemplative, peaceful lives and remain young for hundreds of years.  The passengers become enchanted and choose to remain in this paradise, except for one, who wants to return to his old life with Maria, a beautiful young woman from Shangri-La. But as they hike out of the valley back into the mountains, it becomes clear that she is no spring chicken. Her body begins to shrivel up like a three-hundred year-old raisin. I looked over at Marilyn, who was dozing next to me. She still looked good, and I put the movie out of my mind.
At 9 am, we touched down in Miami. All but paralyzed from the neck down, I found a place on the carpeted cement floor and with a rolled-up towel under my neck, fell asleep. Ahh, divine flatness! We finally took to the air at 2 pm and arrived in Costa Rica at 5 pm. There were plenty of old people who were not all shriveled up. The warmth and familiarity of the place embraced me at once. This was home.
Flor, telling her mountain lion story with daughter
Jenny, our landlady, translating
Customs was a breeze. A cursory question: “How long are you going to stay?” and the thump of a rubber stamp. We snatched our bags from the carousel and headed outside for a taxi.  Immediately, I spotted a familiar face in the crowd. It was Flor, our landlady’s mother. We had met her at a Christmas party where her delightful story of fending off a mountain lion somehow melted through the language barrier and had us all laughing.  Now, here she was, smiling and waving at us. Flora! Pablo! Marileen!  Hugs and kisses all around. She introduced us to Giselle, who explained that she was our neighbor. Her husband is the saddle maker at the top of our little road. Aha!  The sign at the top of the road. Monturas! Saddles! More hugs.
Woozy from all the bienvenidos, we loaded our bags into Giselle's nine-seat van. She cranked over the engine, which sounded to me like a V-3. At the exit gate, the machine wouldn't accept her ticket. Clearly, she had not experienced the airport parking garage before. She and Flora chatted about what to do as we circled the parking area looking for a way out. Finally, Giselle called to an hombre who pointed to a door in the terminal where you had to pay. Giselle turned to Flora with a shrug. Que? (I took it to mean “What the…?”) She killed the engine, got out and walked back to the terminal and paid the guy. When she got back in, she said something to Flora which must have been hilarious, because they both exploded in giggles. The V-3 started with a jolt, and Giselle took us back to the exit gate, which this time accepted our ticket.  
Giselle and Flora seemed unaffected by the traffic congestion outside. They chatted as if they were on a veranda somewhere.  Marilyn and I, seat belted in the back, attempted to add comments in Spanish based on our guesses as to what they were talking about, but it was obvious that we were not making any sense. I wanted to ask, “Is rush hour always like this?”, but decided it was best to sit quietly and wonder at Giselle’s light and breezy mastery of traffic which might easily have driven lesser drivers to curses and bloodshed. Every so often she would ask a question over her shoulder. We assumed she was asking if we were all right, so we would say, “Si, si. Gracias.”  We laughed at ourselves remembering how new ESL students would come to class with only a few phrases of English.  “Welcome to my classroom,” we would say.  “Yes, yes. Thank you,” they would respond.
By the time we arrived at our little barrio on the mountain ridge, it was dark. The lights of Grecia twinkled in the valley below; the stars of the Southern Hemisphere twinkled above. We paid Giselle 25,000 colones ($50). Muchas gracias, mucho gusto and hugs all around, and Giselle was off, back up the hill to the house with the “Monturas” sign.
Charlie and Lily, our sweet doggies, were wild with joy. Of course, after our 10-day separation  they had no way of knowing if we had died or what. I took off my glasses and let them lick my face until they had their fill. It was the least I could do.  Marilyn threw some bow-tie pasta together with tomatoes, olive oil and Parmesan. We barely had enough energy to eat before we crashed onto our fantastic Swedish foam king-sized mattress with Charlie and Lily. Hugs and licks all around, and we fell instantly to sleep. Yes, this was home.
We woke at 5:30 am (a habit acquired during our teaching days) and had our coffee on the patio, as the sun was rising over the mountain to the east. The dogs ran around the yard; Charlie, like a jet powered aircraft; Lily, like a tugboat in hot pursuit.  After about an hour, we listed the payments we had to make today from my Social Security check. Rent, utilities, payment to Justin the dog sitter, groceries, and if we had enough left over, some lumber for improvements around the house and my Tico workshop. I was in the shower, when I heard the dogs barking. Marilyn called to me, “Paul, come on out. I want you to meet Hansy.” I threw on some shorts and T shirt.

I shook hands with Hansy, an amiable, generously tattooed young guy who lives a couple of houses over across a field. He is Tico but lived in the US for a few years in Woodstock, New York when he was married to a Gringa. He told us about his youth on drugs and alcohol and his rebirth only a few years ago as a painter. That explained the canvas he had with him, a still life of flowers rendered in a playful, giant, acrylic pointalistic kind of way. After taIking a bit about trying to survive as an artist, he offered to sell us his painting for a very good price.  He couldn’t have come at a worse time since our money is all spoken for and will be for the next several months. We gave him a ride downtown where we were headed to buy groceries. He showed us a large mural he had painted in the market by the bus station and then was off to sell his painting.
Grecia de Mis Abuelos by Hansy Lizano (The Grecia of My Grandparents); Mural in Grecia's Central Market
On the way back up the hill to our house, we decided to stop at the local ferreteria (hardware store) so I could buy some lumber for a light installation over the kitchen sink. Who did we run into but our landlady, Jenny and her father, Fernando. Hugs, slaps on the back and mucho gustos all around. Jenny insisted that her dad bring our lumber to our house in his truck, so we wouldn’t have to tie it to the roof of the Subaru. While Fernando and some workers loaded up his truck, Jenny introduced us to the owners and staff of the ferreteria. She knows everybody! She told Orlando, the owner, that I was doing home improvements for her rental houses and that I should always receive her discount. She was everywhere at once, climbing a ladder in the lumber yard to show me a Costa Rican hardwood, leading us into the back room where the stock is kept, assuring the salespeople that Marilyn and I are to be trusted.  They all smiled and stepped aside. 
On the way up the hill to our house, we looked at each other with goofy grins.  Ten minutes later Fernando arrived in his Land Cruiser truck with my lumber.

Yes, this is home. Gracias, Fernando. 
Fernando, Jenny's Dad