Showing posts with label living in Costa Rica. Show all posts
Showing posts with label living in Costa Rica. Show all posts

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. 

Monday, January 20, 2014


Using cash for most purchases means piling up lots of change.
Before we moved to Costa Rica, the only time I ever had cash in my wallet was when our school was having a fundraiser and I knew I needed money to buy candy bars, frozen pastry, coupon books (which I never, ever used), raffle tickets, and once, I contributed to the group lottery ticket purchase (as a group, we won 20 cents each). I used my debit card for every other purchase, paid most of my bills online and wrote checks at the doctor’s office. If I ever had spare chance (e.g. my 20 cent lottery win) it went into the big change jar in the bedroom.
Using my debit card also helped me avoid handling anything with nickel, because I have contact dermatitis. Handling nickel (including costume jewelry) causes my hands to break out in itchy, oozy disgusting welts. Because I rarely had to use coins and knew better to own any jewelry with nickel, I’d basically forgotten about the contact dermatitis issue. That is, until I moved to Costa Rica.
We’d only been here for about two weeks, taking the bus downtown, shopping at the Central Market and the Farmer’s Market and using colones for all transactions. My palm started itching. Madly. Then the watery welts popped up. I hit the cortisone cream hard. Colones!!! That must be it. I’d been making change willy-nilly for two weeks and now I was paying for it, in a matter of speaking.
Grrrr! The cause of my contact dermatitis
(except for the aluminum ones)
As soon as I realized the colones problem, I made it a policy to bring Paul along whenever I knew I’d be using coins. One day he had so many coins in his shorts pocket that his pants started to hang down like some of our former high school students. I almost sent him to detention. At home, we kept the spare colones in a little glass box on the dining room table. For some reason, Paul became obsessed with sorting them, putting them into piles, and complaining about how useless the little aluminum ones (5 and 10 colones) were.

It seemed that many of the merchants weren’t so thrilled about handling colones either. If, for example, the vegetables we just purchased came to, say, c2565 (2 thousand, five hundred sixty-five colones, or about $5.00), I would pull out a 2 mil note (paper money starts at 1 thousand colones – 1 mil) and Paul would dig in his pocket for the remaining coins. As he would start counting out the coins and dumping them into the merchant’s hand, if he came anywhere close, the guy would wave him off. “Okay, okay … no mas!”

Sometimes a deal isn't that great of a deal. I thought
 these were sandwich bags. I'd never heard of snack size.
Now it came to pass that the week before we left Phoenix, I had one of those $5.00 “bonus bucks” from Walgreens. I hate wasting bonus bucks, but we really didn’t need anything, especially anything that couldn’t be easily packed for our move. So I cruised the aisles looking for a way to spend $5.00. There was a big buy-one-get-one free sale on baggies. I could get two of a couple of sizes of the store brand for my bonus bucks. Deal! I brought the boxes of baggies home and stuffed them into one of the suitcases. It wasn’t until we unpacked here in Costa Rica that I discovered that I’d purchased two of something called “snack sized.” They were these little bitty bags that I’m guessing were for people on diets who had to count out seven Cheetos for their permitted “snack.” That’s about all that would fit into these useless baggies. And now I had 100 of them. Try to squeeze half of a tomato or onion into one. Impossible.
Until one day when Paul and I were having lunch. There on the table was the box of colones. “Don’t we have a lot of those pointless little bags?” Paul asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“I have a great idea,” Paul said. He often has great ideas. Paul is a very interesting guy to live with. “I’m going to make 1 mil bags of these colones,” he said. “Then instead of digging through a pile of random colones from my pocket, I’ll know exactly how much I have in each bag.” He set about his task. At first he put all the big coins, the 500s and the 100s, in one bag. But then he was left with all the 50s, 25s, 10s, and 5s. So he evened things out a bit until he was satisfied.
Paul's 1 mil baggies of colones
The next task was to try out his new system. We drove down to the Farmer’s Market. It was to be my first foray out after 10 days of battling an ugly virus, so I was not planning to meander. Get in. Get out. The baggies of colones would help.
At our first stop, we bought a lot of greens. They came to exactly 1 mil. Oh boy! Paul pulled out a baggie and dumped the coins into the vendor’s hand. “One mil, exactamente!” Paul exclaimed. “Sistema por colones,” he added. The vendor smiled. But he still counted the change.
As we continued through the Farmer’s Market, Paul pulled out baggie after baggie. Usually what I was purchasing cost less than 1 mil, so he had to start juggling baggies. But he was still happy with his system. After finishing up at the Farmer’s Market, I had to stop at the regular grocery store. “How are we doing with the colones?” I asked.
“We have about 350 left,” Paul said, peering into his last baggie.
A week's worth of Farmer's Market provisions for under c10,000 ($20) includes a half-kilo of FRESH shrimp, fish filets, a kilo of tomatoes, a kilo of carrots, two kilos of onions, bananas, ginger and a variety of greens. 
“Perfect,” I said. “Just enough to tip the bag boy.” I had recently read on somebody’s blog (probably Vicki's extremely helpful blog) that most grocery store bag boys work for tips alone. Seems pretty sad. But maybe that put them at the head of the line when a paying job came up. I hope so. If I were getting more than three items, I might have thought that 350 (about 75 cents) was a little slim. But how hard do you have to work to bag butter, grated cheese and a bottle of wine?

So now we have no spare colones in the house, but when we do, I know the snack-sized baggies will emerge once again. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


December 2013 TOTAL

Cheese!!! Enough cheese to make Wallace and Grommit happy.
Saw these on first visit. Didn't buy.
They were gone, gone gone a week later :(.
Remember last month, the first month that I published our expenses, where I said we were trying to keep our expenses under $2,000? Well, that was before we joined Price Smart (the Costa Rican COSTCO) and shopped there … twice. True, the many staples I purchased will last us for months, but will we be able to avoid the Siren Song of smoked sausages, imported cheese, GHIRADELLI CHOCOLATE CHIPS!???
I hope so. We actually only bought one pricey chunk of cheese, skirted past the smoked sausages and, much to my broken heart (and the main reason we’d returned to Price Smart for the second time in as many weeks) the Ghiradelli chocolate chips were gone. Shoulda bought them on the first trip.
We will probably go back sometime in January because the giant bag of premium dog food at Price Smart was twice the size and half the price of the dog food we’ve been getting downtown in Grecia. But I’d still like to keep our grocery/household budget to about $100/week. I also prefer shopping at Grecia's Central Market and especially the Farmer's Market. It makes me feel much closer to becoming a "GringTica" which I hope some day to consider myself. 
What else kicked us over our $2,000 budget? Well, as everyone who owns a car in Costa Rica knows, December is Marchamo month. Marchamo is the annual liability insurance that car owners are required to pay. It’s based on the kind of car you drive and the age of the car. For our 2004 Subaru Forester, this year’s Marchamo was about $300.00.
I’m thinking that our doctor/dentist/meds category will probably stay around $250.00 until we get on the CAJA, so for the foreseeable future that’s not going to go down and may increase – neither of us has seen a dentist yet and although they are supposed to be a lot cheaper than in the U.S., we are going to wait for a few more months.
EPA -- just about everything for home and garden.
The other expense that is high this month is workshop/garden (besides being seduced by Price Smart, we were also lured by EPA, which is similar to Home Depot. It doesn’t help that Price Smart and EPA are within a half mile of one another). Paul is still putting together his workshop, and, unlike last month when we counted the electrical wiring as an extraordinary expense, we’re considering the lighting and shelving as more of “development expense.” And apparently the only place to get organic insect control is at EPA.  So those items are in the budget.
An EPA purchase and husband installation: Critical to my culinary happiness
and Paul's evening dish washing tasks -- lighting over the kitchen sink!
Well, even though we didn’t stay below $2,000, we spent a lot less than we would have if we were still living in the U.S. And most importantly, we love it here – we love our house, our garden, our workshop, our community … and especially the friends and discoveries we are making.