Friday, December 25, 2015

Feliz Navidad from Costa Rica

We joined a group of Ticos and Gringos to distribute Christmas gifts to Nicaraguan kids who come to Costa Rica with their families to work in the coffee harvest.  Harvesters tie baskets around their waists. Full baskets bring about $2.00 — a little more for all-red (ripest) berries. The best harvesters can do up to 20 baskets a day — but the average is closer to six or seven.  (Paul and I tried this a while back — it took us about 45 minutes to fill one layer in the bottom of a basket!) The blond woman in red above is Debbie Rudd, who together with the polka-dotted “Minny Mouse” on the right, organized this event. “Minny Mouse” is Mary Ulate Cardenal, who is the amazing and loving teacher of these children.  As we went from house to house (some were tin sheds or crumbling wooden structures overflowing with families; there were a few government-built “apartments” about the size of small motel rooms), the children began clapping and jumping up and down with pure joy on their little faces. As I was distributing gifts, one barefooted man came up to me and asked if we were giving away “zapatos” — shoes. I had to say “no” but he still gave me a big grin.
Santa Claus is not a big deal in Costa Rica — you’ll see some images around, but Costa Rican kids are told that the Christ Child brings their gifts. Rather than dress up like Baby Jesus, we went the clown route.
Paul and I were both feeling a little homesick for family, friends and a White Christmas … but the gift we were given to participate in this wonderful activity helped us get over that … and reminded us how very blessed and fortunate we are.

 Author Author!!!
We belong to a great writers’ group, Salon Cajón. This talented group of writers and poets encouraged us to complete and publish our first books in 2015 (available in paperback and e-books on—hint, hint). We’re both working on 2nd books that should be published in 2016.

Our Salon Cajon writers’ group (with our mascot Capo,
who doesn’t write, just begs for cheese and sausage).

Mucho Mascotas  (Spanish for “pets”)
Charlie was not quite sure what to make of his new “little brother.”
For the first time in nine years we have kitties One evening we were discussing the possibility of getting a cat again when we heard mewing outside. In the bushes was a tiny kitten who promptly adopted us. My students named him Umberto, but he’s Bert to us. When my friend Mary found out, she asked us to take one of the kitties she’d recently rescued from a washing machine (!!). So we took Bert down to meet the “girls” and he selected the grey tiger who we named Ernestina (Ernie).
Bert & Ernie
It took a while for the dogs, Lily and Charlie, to get used to the cats, including a scary moment when Lily thought Bert was a chew toy (3 nights at the vet and a month-long recovery!), but now it’s pretty much the Peaceable Kingdom, which also includes our filly Julia.
Lily bossing Julia

My friend and I had been caring for Julia and her mom and a gelding named Geronimo. I’d even started training Geronimo to be a therapy horse, but when the finca (farm) where they lived went up for sale, we could only bring Julia home to us.
I have been working with Julia since she was one day old and she’s becoming quite the young lady! Lily has taken on some of the “exercising” portion of the training, running Julia back and forth along the length of the paddock

Julia cruising her “trail” on our back ridge.

New Digs   In April we became caretakers of a small house on 2-1/2 acres at the end of a farm lane. Our closest neighbors are cows and coffee. It’s a great place for the dogs to get to be as “doggy” as they need to be — which includes barking from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. each morning at the “invading” birds — why we can never get good bird pictures here.
View to the next ridge looking at our
neighbor’s new house (with rainbow).

Kitchen with our “portable” cabinets

A few downsides of the property are that it’s too far from civilization to get a landline phone and our cellphones don’t work here — fortunately we have good internet, so we can use Skype for calling. Also, the property is for sale, which means we’d have to move with 60 days’ notice. When we moved in, the property had been vacant for 15 months. It was the end of the dry season so everything was brown and overgrown. Inside there were no appliances, no kitchen cabinets and no closets. 
We bought used appliances and Paul built totally portable cabinets that can move with us to our next house. We’ve spent the whole rainy season (May-November) planting and landscaping.

Our little finca’s “address” 400 meters south of the Matapalo Bridge,
 Calle Parrita, El Cajon de Grecia (nobody can find us)
We really love it here … sitting out on the porch with our morning coffee looking out into the forest, listening to cows lowing, roosters crowing and horses whinnying … watching hummingbirds and butterflies … Paul says he’d always considered himself an “urban kind of guy” but being retired right here is really pretty wonderful.

 Paul’s great workshop — another benefit of living here.

Here we are on the day we received our Cedulas (the magic residency cards).
We’re standing in our friends’ future backyard.
Behind us you can see the red roof of our house across the valley.
Pensionados !!!!  On September 9 we became official residents (pensionados) of Costa Rica. What that means is … we don’t have to leave the country ever 90 days to renew our Visa, we now have Costa Rica drivers’ licenses, we get all kinds of “resident discounts” at parks, museums and other attractions and we belong to the CAJA — Costa Rica’s socialized medical system (I’ve already taken advantage of several of the services available to us … lab work, EKG, medicines).

 In Other News …
So many other wonderful events …here are some highlights:
  • Paul and I are both volunteering as English teachers — he does a Saturday conversation class and I do tutoring every Wednesday. 

My students surprised me with cake 
and gifts for my birthday!
(with co-teacher Cheryle Pederson)
  • In October, we visited family and friends in Delaware and North Carolina. It was a blessing to see so many folks in two different states over a nine-day span … even though it felt too short. Highlights included going to Marilyn’s 50th 8th Grade Reunion (!!!) — what a treat; celebrating our grandson Matt’s 16th (!!!) birthday; shopping and jamming with granddaughter Kaylee; spending time with Marilyn’s sister, nieces and best friends; hanging with ALL of Paul’s sibs at his sister Deb’s house (and a really cool animal sanctuary)
  • Beatles’ medley with Kaylee and her Dzadzi (grandfather)

Hastings sibs: Phil, Bets, Don  (outlaw), Wendy, Paul, Marilyn (outlaw),
missing  Tom (outlaw) and Ingrid (outlaw and photographer)

Smile Matt! You just turned 16!!

    Phil and Paul, Ingrid and Marilyn
  • In November Paul’s brother Phil and wife Ingrid went on a nine-day tour of Costa Rica, culminating in a three-day visit with us. 

  • In addition to writing, when we’re not just enjoying our life here, Paul is working on his music, playing keyboard and guitar (including two winning gigs with our friend Irina at fundraisers for animal welfare), and Marilyn is working on art projects, mostly glass and ceramic mosaics.

Mariposa glass mosiac

Paul and Larry back up our friend Irina singing "Hallelujah"

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Different Visa Run Experience ... Los Chiles to San Carlos ... by car, boat, mini-bus, feet, bus, car

Because we’re still waiting for our residency to go through (it’s closer … ever so slightly closer), we continue to need to leave Costa Rica every 90 days to renew our visas. I had visions of doing a mini vacation this time, maybe taking Nature Air and spending a few days in Grenada.

But time flies when you’re retired, and on Monday the 15th I thought, “better check our last visa stamp; I can’t remember when our 90 days are up. I think we have a week.”

Well, we didn’t have a week. The next day, Tuesday the 16th was the last day. OMG! We didn’t want to end up in a Central American jail trying to scrape together bail money, so bye, bye mini vacation. Time to scramble.

When you have two dogs, two cats and a horse, and your house is not convenient to a bus line, finding a house-sitter -- even with pre-planning – is a challenge. Finding a house-sitter the evening before you have to leave turns out to be impossible. 

Plan B:  drive up and back on the same day. People do it. People who don’t mind windy roads through a cloud forest. In the dark. In the rain. Behind a caravan of 18-wheelers being passed on hilly curves by young guys on motos. We were not relishing the idea, but we couldn’t come up with other options.

We dropped a set of house keys with our friends. In the event something unforeseen happened and we couldn’t get back, they could do emergency animal feeding. 

At 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday the 16th, we were on the road, headed north to Los Chiles, Costa Rica. The plan was familiar: take the boat over the border to San Carlos, Nicaragua and return a few hours later. This would be our fifth trip since we moved here.

We’d been reading articles about a new bridge being opened in Las Tablillas (six km east of Los Chiles) that was supposed to make the whole trip easier. One person said they simply drove up, went through Costa Rica immigration, walked across the bridge, went through Nicaraguan immigration, walked back across the bridge and got their visa stamp for another 90 days in Costa Rica. That sounded very appealing, and we would have done it.

Until we read another account that turned out a bit differently. Those folks hired a driver to take them to the bridge and they went through Costa Rica immigration. But when they got to the Nicaraguan side, they were told they had to stay in Nicaragua for a minimum of three hours. Since there’s nothing on the Nicaraguan side but a vending machine and endless jungle, they were advised to take a (conveniently waiting) mini-bus to San Carlos and return three hours later. Apparently Nicaragua wants you to spend a few cordobas while you’re “visiting.”

So Paul and I agreed that we’d better not chance the new bridge. Because of our concern of getting back to the animals, we’d do the regular boat trip. By now we were old hands at the process. Go to immigration at Los Chiles, walk across the street, buy a boat ticket, walk to the dock (stopping to pay 600 colones for a “pass” out of Los Chiles), and wait at the rickety dock for the boat to take us up the Rio Frio to San Carlos.

Noticeable Changes in Los Chiles

When we arrived at the dingy white building that houses the Costa Rican immigration offices, we were struck at its emptiness. Not only were there no people waiting in line to go to a window, there were no clerks at any of the windows. As we stood scratching our heads in wonderment, a young clerk popped out of a doorway in the hall. “Everyone is at the bridge now, yes?” asked Paul.

The clerk smiled and said, “Si.”

“Well, good for us, then,” Paul said, “no lines.”

She went to one of the windows and processed our paperwork. “Do we still sign up for the boat across the street?”


Across the street on the cement porch of a closed-up-looking building stood a young man with a clipboard. In the past there had been a table and chair and a line of people waiting to sign up for the boat. “Doce mil por dos,” he said. $24. That was $2 a person less than we’d previously paid for a one-way boat ticket. He wrote our names and passport numbers on the otherwise blank page on his clipboard.
No people. Just empty tourist boats and
grazing horses. A different Los Chiles experience. 
“No other passengers today?” It was 12:15 and the boat had always left at 1 (or close to 1 – Tico time). Usually by 12:15 there was at least a page of names. Maybe things were working out more smoothly at the bridge than we’d imagined.

He handed us two tickets and we headed down the street to pick up our “leaving Los Chiles” ticket. The woman at the table selling the tickets looked really bored – almost asleep. At least she also sold tickets to use the restroom, so she had a little more to do.

Paul alone on the empty dock. 
At the dock, there was no hustle, no bustle, no crowd. A young guy napping on one of the cement benches got up and started loading huge bags of lifejackets onto a truck when we arrived. That left us. Alone. I looked at our boat tickets. They were different than the ones we had gotten in the past. These were for a boat operated by Ramon Augenta y Familia, San Carlos, Nicaragua. Ramon y familia must have gotten the Rio Frio shuttle contract. Well, good for them. But they probably needed more than Paul and Marilyn as customers if their business was to succeed.
This is what the Los Chiles
dock used to be like.
One o’clock came and went. We weren’t too concerned. We’d never actually boarded the 1 p.m. boat anywhere close to 1 p.m. But usually there was at least a boat at the dock. The only boats nearby were a few obvious tourista barcas and a sad little blue boat sitting low in the water, its sides covered in heavy clear plastic tarps used to protect against rain.

Since we were the only people on the dock and had plenty of time, Paul began to check out the welded steel roof that was held in place by badly rusted steel posts. Paul discovered that several of the posts had rusted away. They were suspended in the air a foot above the concrete base to which they were once bolted.  Curious as to what was 
These are some of the "less rusted" posts
that are no longer holding up the dock roof.
preventing the entire welded steel roof from collapsing, Paul found a single (quite small) weld where one of the posts was attached to the hand rail. This is what held up the structure. He pushed it gently side to side, and it swayed ominously over our heads. On that cheery note we tried to focus on birds nesting in the eaves instead.

As 1 p.m. ticked closer to 2 p.m. we were still trying to hold onto our Pura Vida. I’d brought enough snacks to keep Paul occupied, but he kept asking me to check my watch. At about 1:45, a clutch of young Nica guys swaggered down the street and plopped onto the cement bench. An older couple showed up briefly, but when I looked back from my bird watching they were gone.
On the left side of this picture is the one and only
weld that was holding up the dock roof.
The small blue boat in the river would turn out to be
our shuttle to San Carlos.
A few minutes later, I saw the woman of the older couple. She was gesturing and calling us from the little blue boat. Its rain flaps had been rolled up and I saw that her husband was sitting in the back of the boat, next to an outboard motor. So this was Ramon y familia’s excursion boat. We made our way over to where they were docked, one impossibly thin nylon cord keeping them from drifting out into the river.

We carefully crab-walked down the steep, narrow and crumbling dock steps to the bow of the boat. In place of a railing, which would have been nice, there was a long, skinny green cord to hold on to.

Close up, the boat didn’t look so tiny, just small compared to the tourist boats nearby, and definitely a lot smaller than the boats we’d take previously. It was extremely long, about 30 feet, and so narrow that seating consisted of two board benches that ran from front to back. Passengers would sit facing each other with a narrow aisle in between. Along the roof, cords held a handful of lifejackets. The fiberglass roof was so low that Paul’s head nearly grazed it – not good – because it was screwed down with drywall screws whose tips poked out about every two inches ready to gouge his tall Gringo skull.
New shuttle boat to San Carlos.
The five Nica guys from the docks leapt down the crumbling steps like acrobats and settled themselves on the benches. Then the boat ticket guy came onboard with his nearly-empty clipboard and untied the green cord from the dock and pushed us off.  No one made an effort to put on lifejackets, so we didn’t either.

The outboard revved up and we were quickly in the center of the river cutting through the mocha colored water as easily as an eel. We had settled ourselves about midway in the boat, but Ramon’s wife, a warm and friendly woman, motioned for us to sit in the back near her and her husband. Over the roar of the engine, we asked her in Spanish if the boat would be returning from San Carlos to Los Chiles at 4, like it always had in the past.

She shook her head. “Oh, no, manaña,” she said.
Paul has just learned that there
will be no return boat today.
Uh … manaña? Is there another boat coming back here today? We asked, again in our best patented gestural Spanglish.

She began explaining a lot to us very quickly. We nodded but didn’t understand. Still, between her rapid Spanish and the eardrum shattering motor, we were able to catch one word that would prove critical: bus.

I started putting two and two together. No boat. There must be a bus that goes back over the new bridge. Okay. That sounded reasonable. I was not going to think about having to spend the night in Nicaragua. At least not yet.

One good thing about Ramon’s skinny blue boat with the giant outboard motor – it was really zippy. Before we knew it, clipboard guy was removing the Costa Rican flag as we passed the Bienvenidos a Nicaragua sign on the shore.
River horse.
I’d been trying to take a few photos as we sped along the river, but I knew from past experience to tuck away my camera before we got to the Nicaraguan military outpost – a sad little place with a camo-painted building, a few dogs and chickens and some young Nica soldiers with automatic weapons and practiced scowls. Right before we came into sight of the outpost, everyone began pulling down the lifejackets and slinging them over their heads. We followed suit.
Life on the Rio Frio.
Ramon deftly parallel-parked our craft along the shoreline and clipboard guy held out the skinny green cord to the soldiers. On previous trips, one of the scowling soldiers would make his way down a staircase carved in the mud wall of the shore and board the boat, ignoring any Gringos, while doing cursory checks of bags and backpacks of the Nicaraguan passengers. But today, the soldiers just waved us on and Ramon backed up and gunned the outboard. Out of sight of the soldiers, the lifejackets came off and got re-tucked into their homes in the boat’s roof.
Dancing branches on the Rio Frio.
We continued on past homesteads with rickety porches shaded by tin roofs, dugout canoes tied to docks and women waist deep in water at river’s edge beating laundry as clean as the Rio Frio would allow.

It only took us about a half an hour to reach San Carlos in this lightweight craft with few passengers. We disembarked behind the young Nica guys and headed up the steps to Nicaraguan immigration.

I had remembered to get US dollars for this part of the trip, since Nicaragua doesn’t accept Costa Rican colones. But because the bank was closed the night before we left, I only had twenties from the ATM. Not having change had been an issue before, and we’ve cautioned in a previous blog to make sure that you bring ones and fives. I did have a ten from getting change at McDonald’s on the way up – the fee at Nicaraguan immigration is $7/person US … so I was close. Not surprisingly, the clerk could not change my $20. Surprisingly, he asked if I had 2 mil in colones (1 mil = approximately $2US) and accepted that along with the $10.

We asked the clerk – just to be sure – if there was a boat leaving for Los Chiles and got the same answer “Manaña.” Okay. And the bus station? He pointed east.

“I think I saw the bus station from the boat when we were pulling in,” I said to Paul. “So it should be close by.”

We passed customs and handed the customs clerk our declaration (we had nothing to declare) and she waved us through. Out on the San Carlos street, we were reminded about how different this part of Nicaragua is than the comparative sophistication of our little town of Grecia, Costa Rica. A winding cobbled street boasted every storefront imaginable – from clothing to clinics, fruits and vegetables to cigars, bodegas and little hotels with ancient rickety balconies whose rooms we hoped never to visit. A tangle of clerks, children, customers and dogs mingled among the wares. As the only Gringos in sight, we must have stood out like two tall sore thumbs.

Los Chiles Is Not a Unique Name

With the help of two amused soldiers who pointed out that the bus station was directly behind where we were looking for it, we made it. Various multi-colored buses were lined up facing signboards painted with names of Nicaraguan towns. Rows of chairs faced the buses; all filled with Nicaraguans needing to go somewhere that wasn’t San Carlos. I saw a sign that read “Los Chiles” and walked up to a relatively modern-looking bus facing the sign. “Los Chiles?” I asked, peering in to the bus’s dark interior, already packed with riders.

Heads shook no in unison and fingers pointed to a bus farther down the line. A chicken bus. A chicken bus is an old brightly painted school bus – seen in many Central American countries, most likely imported from the US. Two schools of thought exist as to where it got its name –  either the fact that people are crammed on it like chickens in transit, or more likely, that the bus transports both people and their livestock – often chickens.
“Los Chiles?” I asked. This bus, too, was already packed with passengers.


We started up the bus steps, but then I had a thought, “Los Chiles … Costa Rica?”
“No, no, no!” More heads shaking. More pointing. This time to a white mini-bus. No logo, no sign.

We headed to the mini-bus. “Los Chiles. Costa Rica?” Paul and I both articulated the “Costa Rica” part strongly.

“Si. Si.”

Phew. There was no one on the mini-bus. We boarded and settled in. The driver, one other guy, and somebody who was probably the driver’s son, got on. “Los Chiles, Costa Rica?” I said again. Just to be sure.

The driver confirmed. “Si. Los Chiles, Costa Rica.”

Inside the mini-bus.
With his handful of passengers, the driver headed out of town. The mini-bus was relatively new with comfortable seats. “Look,” I said to Paul. All of the signs in the bus were Russian. It was certainly a much nicer vehicle than any I’d ever ridden in when I was in Russia in the 90s. I guess Russian bus manufacturers have finally figured out how to keep diesel fumes from the passenger compartment.  

The driver’s probable son turned to us. “Two dollars each,” he said.

“Nice English,” Paul complimented the young man and handed over a $5 bill. The young man gave him a dollar.

The mini-bus headed out into the Nicaraguan countryside. A tiny part of me – the part that has the vivid imagination – considered that we might be being kidnapped and held for ransom in a dark and dank Nicaraguan prison somewhere in the depths of the country. I quickly dismissed that thought and decided to focus on the rural landscape instead.
Passing through the Nicaraguan countryside on the way
to what we hoped would be the bridge to Costa Rica.
We passed many sad-looking horses completely tacked-up and “parked.” I wondered if they had to stand all day while their riders went to work before commuting back home on them. Pigs and chickens scurried out of the roadway as we approached. The mini-bus seemed to be the only engine-powered vehicle on the road. At least, with the sun behind us, it felt like we were headed in the right direction toward the new bridge.

After about 45 minutes the road veered south. There was a brand new sign advertising some jungle resort. A hopeful indication. The one other passenger got out at a crossroads. Buenas tardes all around.
The empty roadway heading to
Nicaraguan immigration.
The driver turned his head toward us, pointing out the front window. “Los Chiles,” he said cheerfully. Ahead we could see several uniformed people – white shirts, navy pants – Nicaraguan immigration. The driver stopped the mini-bus. “Los Chiles,” he said again. The young probable son helped us out of the mini-bus next to a large, gravel-covered clearing. Rebar stood at one meter intervals in the gravel, construction soldiers awaiting orders. Most likely the eventual home of Nicaraguan immigration.

We turned and waved to the mini-bus driver and began walking toward a distant Costa Rican flag. Closer, a Nicaraguan flag flapped in the breeze. Another resort sign hastily tacked to a new, seemingly empty hexagonal building. Possibly a future restaurant. 

Behind the hexagonal building, many Nicaraguan immigration officers with not a lot to do. They ushered us toward a table. Customs. Filled out the form, then another for immigration and were directed to a window. An obvious trainee, another officer at her side, took our passports. I handed her one of my US $20s. She handed it back. She pointed to a miniscule tear at the top of the bill, shaking her head. Her supervisor looked on approvingly. I peeled off another $20, this one crisp and perfect. She accepted it and gave me change. This, too, reminded me of Russia, where U.S. dollars were happily accepted – as long as they were brand new and perfect.

I wondered, what if the $20 with the tiny tear had been the only cash I had?

Walking Across No-Man’s Land

Large orange plastic road barriers rimmed the Nicaraguan side of the bridge. We walked toward the Costa Rican side. I forgot to look down to see if we were really crossing a river. We made it over to another set of large orange plastic road barriers and the Costa Rican flag. Home! 

Customs was set up at a few long tables under a temporary-looking roof. They took our forms and glanced briefly at my backpack and our snack bag before pointing us across the road to a series of cream-colored metal buildings, that looked like they’d been shipping containers in a former life. We could see a large parking lot behind the triple row of buildings. I wondered if that might be public parking for people crossing, but I forgot to ask.

At the end of the rows of buildings was a ramada with wooden benches. Clerks sat behind three windows.  We went to Window 1 and discovered that it was for people leaving Costa Rica. So was Window 2. At Window 3 the clerk took our forms and passports. Paul pointed to a sign next to the window. Immigration closed at 4. It was 3:57. What would we have done if immigration had been closed? We’d already “checked out” of Nicaragua. There was no air-conditioned waiting room in the no-mans-land between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Our timing was a little too close for comfort – but we’d made it.

I’d been resting my head on Window 3 while the clerk ran our passports, watching him stamp and then very carefully write -90- into the visa stamp. We were good for another 90 days! When I straightened up to take back the passport, I saw that I’d sweated onto Window 3 and my sweat was now slowly dripping down toward the ledge. Good thing they were closing in a few minutes.

Back to the Correct Los Chiles

A large, modern bus was parked on the road next to a “Los Chiles 6 km” sign. The bus driver stood outside and greeted us. He pointed to his watch “Quince.” Fifteen minutes. He made it clear that it was too “caliente” to wait in the bus, so we went back to the ramada and sat down to wait there.
Workers laying sod at the new Costa Rican immigration facility.
A welcomed sight - the bus to Los Chiles (Costa Rica!!)
At 4:15 we headed back to the bus. No sign of the driver. We sat on the brand new curb and watched workers lay sod on the brand new front lawn of the brand new immigration facility. This is going to be a pretty nice set-up when they complete it. At 4:25 the bus driver came and we boarded with a handful of other folks. In about five minutes, he pulled into the tiny Los Chiles terminal about four blocks away from where we’d parked the car.

I Get to Drive First

This would be our first time not staying over in Los Chiles for the night. We grabbed a few cold ginger ales from the local grocery store and headed out. I chose to drive from Los Chiles to Ciudad Quesada, about 60 miles (99 km) south. Our car was due for repairs in a few days and one of the things that needed repairing was the windshield washer pump. On the drive up to Los Chiles the day before, the dirt had built up so much on the windshield that we had to stop and pour some of our precious thermos water on it so we could see out again. But now there was a sometimes-light/sometimes-heavy rain that kept the windshield relatively clean.

Driving in the rain as dusk falls is not my favorite thing to do, but I thought that the 20 more miles that I had volunteered to do would more than make up for Paul’s leg of the trip on the treacherous road through the cloud forest.

By the time we were within about five miles of Ciudad Quesada, night had fallen and the rain was coming down heavily. The shoulderless road climbing up the mountain into town was black and slick, with no center line, no side line and no reflectors. 

I was white-knuckling it, flicking my high beams off and on as massive 18-wheelers seemed to be coming directly at me from the other direction. As we got a little closer to town, we finally fell behind a line of cars and I could follow their brake lights. Paul said, “If the car in front of you goes over the cliff to the right, bear left.”

We reminisced that in our past travels in the U.S., whenever Marilyn took the wheel, the weather would turn bad – sleet, rain or ice – or the paved road would suddenly turn into a cow path; and then when it was Paul’s turn to drive, everything would clear up. It was a family joke, but it was true. He apologized to me that I once again was at the wheel for a very difficult and dangerous leg of the trip.

“But you still have the cloud forest to look forward to,” I said – cheerfully … but through tightly clenched jaws.

The Cloudless Cloud Forest

After a pit stop at McDonald’s (we had initially planned to stop at a terrific Italian restaurant we’d discovered on our last trip –- Italianissimo -- but we were too tired), Paul took over the driving. This was the part of the trip we’d really dreaded – the part that kept most people in Los Chiles overnight. 

The road heading south from Ciudad Quesada through Zarcero and onto Naranjo was narrow, windy, hilly and usually full of truck traffic that kept all but the most intemperate of drivers crawling behind them. And of course it was a cloud forest – thick mist floated over the hills, making visibility even during the day problematic.

But on this night … the road was clear. Clear of traffic, clear of rain, clear of mist. Not even a random lunatic motorcycle driver trying to pass on a curve. Newly painted yellow center lines were dotted with bright reflectors. Sharp white side lines also had reflectors. Paul kept commenting on this: “Wow, isn’t this amazing! What a pleasant drive! This is a piece of cake!”

Every now and then, my stony silence got to him. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he’d say. “Once again, I got the easy part of the drive." Of course, his sympathy for me was of the Schadenfreude sort – he was sorry for me but glad that he hadn’t been at the wheel during the hair-raising part of our trip.

Before we knew it, we were in Naranjo. After that, Sarchi and 5 kilometers to home. It was 8:30 p.m. We’d made it. I made a quick call to our friends with the house keys to let them know they wouldn’t have to do any emergency animal feeding.

By 8:45 p.m. we were at our gate. Joyful dog barks and a happy horse whinny greeted us. In the house, the kitties were looking at their little kitty watches and complaining that we were five hours late in giving them supper. We fed the animals, knocked down some Tylenol against our aching joints, and fell into bed, ready for a 90-day rest.

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.