Friday, December 6, 2013


Inspired by Paul and Gloria Yeatman+ ( we are determined to keep our living expenses in Costa Rica at or below $2,000. So, like the Yeatmans, we’ll be posting our expenses on our blog every month. I like the idea of comparing what we’re spending with what others are spending to live comfortably in Costa Rica. 

November 2013 TOTAL
LESS Extraordinary Expenses*
*Furniture for house; cables, etc. to bring electricity to workshop
In the States, discussing money issues with others is still pretty verboten. People will gleefully share information about who they hooked up with or what drugs they’re on, but talk about how much you earn … never!
Many who move here come with substantial savings and investments. They may have healthy pensions or retirement accounts. They don’t have to count pennies (or colones) every month. But there are also the folks like us who hope to find a way to live well on a limited budget.
It was extremely refreshing as I began my research on moving to Costa Rica to discover Paul and Gloria’s website. They are truly an inspiration and let us believe that we could do this too.  
A bit of background on us is in order. Paul and I spent much of our working lives as freelancers in creative fields. Although we had “real” jobs at various points, those jobs (editing, video production, adjunct faculty) did not provide opportunities to build strong retirement accounts. We were fortunate to have the last years of our working lives be as high school teachers. We each earned enough “points” in the system to have small pensions that now supplement our Social Security income.
So that’s what we have to work with.  By keeping our Costa Rica expenses below $2,000, we should be able to develop a decent savings account. In the monthly expense grid that I will be publishing, I am not including “prior commitments” like credit card and loan payments. Because we no longer use our credit cards, they are not part and parcel of our living expenses in Costa Rica; still, until we finish paying them off, they will be impacting our ability to save as much as we would like.
During November, we had nearly $1,000 of what I’ve indicated as “extraordinary expenses.” We moved into a house with almost no furniture. It is a great house and we feel very fortunate to have it, but all it had in it was a table, four chairs and a bed that was too small for us. After meeting Paul and Gloria in June, we thought we might be able to find a terrific furnished house in a great area for $500 a month because that’s the deal the Yeatmans have. They had strongly cautioned us that they’d fallen into a “one in a million opportunity.” But it wasn’t until two weeks of rental house shopping that the reality of the “one in a million opportunity” set in. The house we’re in now is the first one we looked at and initially rejected because the rent was $850 a month with minimal furnishings. But now that we’re here, it is right for us for many reasons (to be discussed in a future blog) and well worth the $850 a month.
 For several reasons we chose not to ship any of our furniture from the states. So for the next few months we will be purchasing (or Paul will be building) furniture. The “extraordinary expenses” in November represent a used bed and bookcase and a new sofa. We are turning the old house behind ours into a workshop (one of the bonus opportunities of this rental) To bring power to the building, we purchased electrical cable and fittings. These improvements will also be considered “extraordinary expenses” since they are not “required” to live comfortably in Costa Rica, but are choices we are making over and above our living expenses.

So there you have it. Of course every household will be different, but by looking at a variety of monthly expense budgets, you may be able to develop your own idea of what you’ll need to start your new life in Costa Rica with more clarity. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE BUS INTO TOWN: Part 3, The Detour by Marilyn

This morning I had an appointment at 9 with Dr. Juan in Grecia. So I went up to the top of our road to get the 8 o’clock bus.
At the bus stop was one of my neighbors. After some uneasy, smiling silence (I really can’t wait to be able to speak in actual paragraphs in Spanish), she asked me if I had any “chicos” and I said “dos” and then she asked me if “estan vivienda aqui” and I said “no” and she shook her head sadly. We again fell into uneasy, smiling silence. If Paul had been with me, he would have found a way to continue the conversation – I tend to freeze.
The bus came and my neighbor smilingly ushered me to board first and I smilingly ushered her to board first. While we were miming “after you …” “no, after you …” and neither of us was getting on the bus, a young woman carrying a little girl started down the bus steps and handed the child to my neighbor – along with a teddy bear and a bag of clothes. Ah, I was getting it! My neighbor was the abuela of the little girl and she was babysitting. So after I realized my neighbor was staying behind, I boarded the bus, waved goodbye to my neighbor and her granddaughter and the bus continued down the mountain.
Until about 500 meters from where I had boarded. The bus stopped. At first I thought the driver was just stopping for more passengers, but no one boarded. The driver had the bus door opened and was talking to some men. People on the bus started standing up and looking out the front window. A truck was blocking the road. I thought it may have broken down as it was backing up and was now stuck. Of course, because I didn’t understand any of the conversations, it turned out I was dead wrong (I also can’t wait until I am able to comprehend actual paragraphs in Spanish).
The bus driver turned the engine off and we just sat there. He made a phone call. He talked to the guys that were standing around the truck. After about 10 minutes, he restarted the engine – but he began backing up the mountain. Rapidly. This is a very large, heavy duty Mercedes bus. Have we mentioned in previous blogs that the roads are narrow and have no shoulders? I looked out the window in amazement as we continued zooming deftly up the mountain – backwards. Finally, the driver pulled off on a small side road and turned the engine off again. This was getting interesting.
After a few minutes, his cellphone rang. When he finished the call he started the bus. We made our way down a much narrower and winding side road. At each hairpin turn he’d slow the bus to a crawl. This road was just a bit more than one car in width, so the bus took up the entire road and then some. The “then some” did not include any shoulders, because there were no shoulders, only deep drainage ditches.
We wound our way down to the river. I’ve noticed that most bridges on Costa Rican side roads are even narrower than the road leading into them. Another thing is that the bridges are often at the base of a “U” in the road. This means that you have to stop on your side of the bridge and make sure that no one is coming down the other side. You can’t tell if someone is coming down the other side until you’re right at the bridge. So there we were, stopped at this narrower-than-the-narrow-road bridge and on the other side, an SUV was stopped facing us, taking up the whole road.
I looked out the window. The non-shoulder of the road that was parallel to my side of the bus dropped about 20 feet straight down to the river. I decided to concentrate on the lovely tropical foliage that we would be crushing should the bus roll down the embankment. Meanwhile, the SUV backed up off the road and onto a front yard to enable the bus to pass. The bus driver beeped a thank-you and we crossed the bridge (I held my breath for everyone on the bus, just to be safe) and headed up the other side of the narrow, winding road until we came to the main road again.
Above us on the main road, a barricade had been put up. Several very large trucks were parked on the part of the road that we hadn’t been able to drive on. There were no detour signs, just the barricade. In other words, if you live here, you should know how to take the detour without anyone telling you. I still didn’t know what was going on.
The rest of the trip was uneventful except for the careening down the mountain part. We were about a half hour later than normal. I’ve never experienced our bus being anything but exactly on time. To make up for some of the lost time, the driver gunned the engine going down the mountain between stops. Amazingly we made it to town unscathed.
After my doctor’s appointment, I boarded the bus to go home.
As we made our way up the mountain, the bus driver stopped the bus and started beeping his horn across from an auto repair shop. Eventually, a young guy in work clothes strolled down the repair shop drive and walked up to the bus window. The bus driver gave him a box with an auto part in it. They chatted for a bit. Then we moved on.
I have now noticed several of these informal transactions – like the child being handed off to her grandma. Once a tiny, elderly woman stood by the side of the road at a bus stop. When the bus driver stopped, he reached down near the front seat and picked up a box of plants. He got off the bus and handed the plants to the woman. Another time, the driver stopped and a woman went up to his window and handed him what looked like his lunch. And then there was the time that the bus driver stopped the bus next to a large garage, left the bus and disappeared into a side door. He reappeared a few minutes later, hopped back on the bus and drove on.
(I love every one of these events. I’m not sure why, but it makes me feel like I’m truly part of a community. At this point it’s a community with whom I can’t communicate with very well – except for lots of smiling. But it feels very real.)
After the auto repair shop, the ride was uneventful until we reached the Bienvenidos a El Cajon sign, which is about a half-mile below our road (Echo Way, or Calle Eco). The barricades were still there. I could see that workers were pouring asphalt. The bus driver pulled into the side road and I thought he was going to take the same detour – just going in the other direction – that the earlier bus driver had, but instead of continuing down the side road, he turned the bus around and faced back down the mountain toward Grecia. He said something and all the passengers stood up. We were getting off the bus!
Everyone started trecking up the mountain through the freshly poured asphalt. A young man came up beside me. “We have a long walk home, don’t we?” he asked in perfect English.
“Good exercise!” I replied, determined to appear happy with this turn of events. I was regretting wearing my clogs instead of my sneakers.
“The driver told me to tell you that we had to walk the rest of the way,” he said.
“I figured that part out when we all got off the bus and started walking,” I said, adding, “your English is very good.”
He smiled brightly. “Thank you,” he said, “I study in Grecia.”
“I’ll be starting Spanish lessons tomorrow,” I said. “I’m Marilyn.”
“I’m Jason. Maybe we could practice with each other,” he said.
“That would be great.”
“You live in Jenny’s house?” he asked.
“Yes, are you related to Jenny?” Nearly everyone on our mountain is related to Jenny.
“We have been neighbors for many years,” he said.
We continued to plod up the mountain – the steep, steep mountain. Chunks of asphalt were sticking to my soles. I took the last sip of water from my thermos. I would have really liked to stop and rest at the bus stop in front of the church, but all the other passengers seemed to be keeping up the same pace and several of them looked a lot older than me.
Shortly after we’d passed the upper barricade where the road construction began, a white car pulled up. I recognized the woman in the passenger’s seat as one of the people who’d been on the bus. The driver looked just like her, except that he was a man and about 20 years younger. Had to be her son. Jason walked up to the car, said something, and then turned to me. “Do you want a ride the rest of the way?”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful!” I said. We climbed in the back seat. As we roared up the mountain, I thought I could have easily hiked the whole way, but this was much, much better. They dropped me off at the top of our road and I “muchas gracias-ed” as they rumbled away. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013


If you are old like us, maybe you remember watching George and Gracie (If not, check this link:.Burns & Allen
This morning, Paul and I wrote competing essays on ... pronunciation (we are flyin' high folks!!!). Anyway, here are the links to both from our Open Salon blogs:

Diapers, Scallops, and Which by Paul

Pak the Cah in Hahvahd Yahd by Marilyn

Friday, November 1, 2013

THE RESCUE by Marilyn

One moment all three dogs were frantically barking at a squirrel in the dead tree just outside of the natural fence on our property. And then Lily slipped through the fence to get a better crack at the squirrel. It was the first time she’d done that. She didn’t come back when I called her like she would normally do.

The next bark I heard was not of the “I’m gonna get you Mr. Squirrel” variety, but more of a “Holy Crap!! What did I just do!?!”

We knew that there was a steep cliff in the pasture next to our house, but we’ve never really explored it. Looking up at it from the road below our house was something we were waiting to do when the rainy season was over. The clay road was so slippery it was almost impossible to hike without cleats or crampons – we had neither. There were random rocks in the center of the road, but if you missed one of them, you were down … and dirty.

We’d only gone into the pasture itself once. The growth was overwhelming – 6 foot high grass and hidden stumps --  and you actually walked on a series of spongy roots, rather than firm ground. So when I heard the panic in Lily’s bark, I knew right away that she’d either fallen off the cliff or gotten stuck in the root system, or both.

Paul and I quickly changed into jeans and boots for the rescue. We were going to do our best to avoid snakes while we were saving Lily. If we could save her.

We scrambled down the road, slipping and sliding on the wet clay. Sometimes there were sturdy enough branches on the side of the road to hold onto; sometimes not. We got to a clearing below the pasture. Lily had stopped barking, so we had no idea whether we were near her or not. Below us, the cliff dropped down another several hundred feet to the river. Above us the cliff rose -- straight, slippery mud. We would not be able to attempt the rescue from this location. And Lily wasn’t barking at all.

“I’m going into the pasture from our side yard,” I told Paul. He was trying to find some way up the steep sides of the cliff.

I got to the side yard and slipped through a hole in the fence. 
I’d watched Sacha do this many times, but of course she is a 12 pound dog and I’m … not. I headed through the dense, eye-level weeds, calling Lily. She started barking again. He barks didn’t sound like pain barks, which was a relief. I remembered reading Emily’s post about rescuing the puppies ( It seemed like Lily had fallen down to the same ledge as the puppies had. I started praying that she stayed there. I kept calling to her to let her know help was on the way, although I had no idea what I was going to do.

I continued crunching through the weedy roots (or rooty weeds) until, boom, I was no longer on solid ground. I’d arrived at the edge of the cliff and I was caught in tangled roots up to my hips. Abbott and Costello came to mind. Flattening myself out I was able to extract my right leg, but my left boot was caught in a jumble of thick roots. My foot could come out, but I’d be darned if I was going to leave my boot behind.

Right about then, Paul showed up. He looked over the fence and saw me trapped in the weeds. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just a little … stuck,” I said. Lily barked again. She sounded close by.

 “I think I know where Lily is,” he said, coming to rescue me.

“Me too,” I said, “but first I need to get my boot uncaught.” I wiggled and jiggled until the boot came free.

“Crawl on your belly until you get to firm ground,” said Paul. He reached out and grabbed my hand and I slithered, mud-covered, back into the yard. We both called to Lily. “We’re coming, girl,” said Paul, “hold on a few minutes.”

Paul went to the Tico house to get an old, home-made, wooden ladder. I went inside and got some rope and also our nylon laundry bag. I figured we could put Lily in it and haul her up the ladder in case she was injured. I stopped to take a sip of water and realized my hands were shaking.

Paul dragged the ladder through the fence and Sacha and I tromped behind him. He got to the edge of the cliff and we were able to see Lily, about eight feet below, on the same ledge as the puppies had been. He lowered the ladder and kept poking the end of it until he felt solid ground. Lily looked up at us eagerly, a hopeful, timid wag of her tail.

Paul lashed the top rung of the ladder to a stump but before he began to climb down, Lily started to climb up. “C’mon, girl,” we reassured her, “you can do it.” She got up about two rungs and chickened out, sliding back down to the ledge.

After she’d made a few more attempts, Paul decided to go down and get behind her. Sacha stood at the top of the ladder, wagging her tail in encouragement. At the bottom of the ladder, Paul positioned Lily, putting his hands behind her rear haunches to support her. Up, up she climbed, with me and Sacha cheering her on.

She got to the top and made her way through the fence to the yard, trotting up to the patio as if nothing had happened.

As I peeled off my muddy jeans in the laundry room with still shaking hands, I heard Lily’s familiar, muffled bark coming from the other room: “Muwff, muwff.” She had her beloved orange ball in her mouth and was ready to play. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Monday, October 28, 2013


For eight years, Marilyn and I taught English as a second language in Phoenix, AZ, where life is lived with one foot on the gas pedal. We arrived in Grecia to start our new life on October 2.  Our car is supposed to arrive here this week, but it’s not here yet (we just learned it will be next week). We have gone three weeks without a car. But this pitiful little hardship has turned out to be a blessing. We have discovered the joy of riding the bus. 

This is a country in which 50 percent of the population does not own a car, so buses are an absolute necessity. They are clean, on time, and run hourly day and night, even up on our little mountain road four miles from downtown Grecia. (Last week, they raised the fare from 415 colones to 420 colones; or from 83 cents to 84 cents.) Today, we will shop for groceries.

 At our bus stop, a yellow line painted on the asphalt, we see the familiar faces of neighbors, whose names we will learn in the months to come. But for now, a smile and “Buenos” suffices. Since we live near the end of our bus line, the bus is empty and we have our pick of seats. The driver is a handsome man who clearly loves his job and the people he transports into town daily. He makes change from his money tray without missing a beat. (I am muy impressionado. It seems like in the U.S., the ability to make change has gone by the wayside, with high-tech cash registers doing the math for the clerks.)

Costa Rican coins are mostly gold-colored and come in six sizes: 500, 100, 50, 25, 10 and 5 colones. The 5 colones coin is stamped in aluminum with the thickness of a disposable turkey roasting pan. 


As we progress down the road, the bus fills with Ticos, many of whom greet each other with little pecks on the cheek.  Young people offer their seats to the old folks, all wizened, wobbly and bent over. Down the mountain we go, past the local bodegas and countless free roaming dogs. Now and then the driver hits the horn to say hello people working in their little yards by the road. In the US, the bus would be quiet and eye contact would be avoided. Here, there is no fear. School age boys and girls ride the bus in their uniforms unaccompanied by parents.

 The clouds are gathering in the east as we arrive at the bus station. The sidewalks are bustling with people on foot. The doors to all shops are open. I don’t mean simply open for business; I mean open to the outside world. This is normal here where the climate is generally in the 70’s and insect free- especially mosquito/fly free. For Norte Americanos, strolling down the side walk is like a trip back to the 1950’s in the US.  You  pass a pharmacy, an appliance outlet, a dress shop, a bank, an ice cream parlor, a café, and a variety of little stores selling men’s clothing, jewelry, fabric, shoes, hardware, and cell phones.  (As in the US, everybody has a cell phone.) This vitality is not interrupted with silent parking garages or vacant lots filled with empty cars waiting for their drivers.  This small city has not been repurposed for the convenience of cars. Cars park on the street. (There are no parking meters, by the way.)

 A delightful hodge-podge of human activity is present here. A delivery truck double parks, and the driver unload appliances to the whirr of the hydraulic lift. A man in a Hawaiian shirt disappears into a produce store with a huge bunch of bananas on his shoulder. An attractive Tica in tight blue jeans and high high heels crosses the street pretending not to notice the stares of all the men. But her splendidly exposed cleavage and heavy eye makeup leave no doubt that stares are welcome.  Traffic lights are few, and stop signs are no more than a nuisance; but somehow people and cars get along without injury.

 A block away is the town square shaded by massive trees who spread their grandmother arms over the Ticos as they have every day for a hundred years. Here is where young couples stroll, moms sit and chat watching children romp in the grass, old men nose through the morning paper, various hombres doze on the cement benches while others just sit on the corner watching all the girls go by.  A sprinkling of gringos snap photos. They try to fit in, but somehow, like us, they stand out. 

 Facing the park is the Cathedral de la Mercedes, a towering, deep red structure constructed of steel plates. Its doors are always open for people to wander in and out. Here, during the noon day hustle, a few people kneel or sit quietly in meditation before ornate wooden statuary carved by skilled local craftsmen. It faces west as apparently all Costa Rica churches do, and we can see its twin steeples from our patio four miles away.

While we are shopping, the rain begins, hammering on the tin roof above the open air market.

We have three shopping bags of food, so I can’t hold the umbrella. Outside, people are huddling under the overhangs and in doorways of the shops.  Many have umbrellas since this is the rainy season, and downpours visit each afternoon. There is a lot of smiling and joking. Though it’s late October, the rain is warm and friendly.  We have 45 minutes to kill and so dash down the street to an open air café for coffee and a pastry.

 Totally drenched and happy, we sploosh into an open air café, The Café Delicias. We order café con leche and two cinnamon rolls. Feeling like two characters in a Woody Allen movie, we watch people dash through the puddles and between cars. We can’t help our idiotic smiles. With five minutes to spare, we lug our three grocery bags a block to the station and climb aboard the bus for El Cajon, our neighborhood up on the mountain ridge. I dig out 840 colones for Marilyn and me ($1.68 US), and we head home.

Out of town the bus make a hairpin turn right, and the engine slows. The driver downshifts and downshifts again as the pavement begins to rise steeply. The windows are fogged up, perfect for drawing silly faces. Up front, our driver is joking with the passengers.  We wipe away the steamed-up glass and watch for our stop by the saddle maker. We get off and walk down Calle Echoes, our little street, which descends steeply. We are the fourth house, the last house, before the road disappears steeply into undergrowth. Our new family member, a sweet little stray we have nicknamed “Mama dog”, runs up the road to greet us, tail wagging.  At our driveway, we hear Lily and Charlie barking excitedly. This is it. We are home, soaked and smiling.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

ICE ON ICE by Marilyn

Getting Reliable Internet Service: A Tale in Six Acts
(Plus Some Finales and Encores Because That’s How Long It Takes to Tell This Story)

Act 1: Solutions … Temporarily 

ICE (eey – say) is the Costa Rican government’s internet service provider. When we moved into our house, Jenny (our landlady) told us that the internet was already set up and ready to use. But if we wanted WIFI we’d have to get our own universal WIFI router. “For now, all you need is a cable,” she said.

We didn’t have a cable. Jenny made a phone call. “The ICE guys will be out here in an hour or two,” she said. “They will be wearing yellow shirts and driving a yellow truck.” Pretty easy to spot, especially since no one drives down our road.

A few hours later, the yellow ICE truck pulled up and two guys in yellow ICE shirts got out. I jumped up and down on the porch like a little kid seeing the ice cream truck. Different “ice.”

We pointed them to the modem. In Spanish they told us something. In English we responded. Finally we got it. They were telling us we needed an Ethernet cable. We were telling them, “Si, comprendemos!”

They hooked up an Ethernet cable that was long enough to go from the modem in the spare room out to the dining room table, which, because we have no other furniture, is also our current office workspace.

Buenos and handshakes all around. They got in their yellow truck and drove back up the hill.

We had internet!!! We could contact our loved ones and let them know that we’d gotten on and off the correct plane and were now happily in our Grecia house. Our joy was relatively short-lived when the first thunderstorm hit. Jenny had warned us to unplug the computer and the internet during any storm. Even though we have surge protectors, I have a feeling that 3-pronged electrical outlets all over the house aren’t actually grounded—they’re more for show. At least that’s what we’ve heard from other expats.

So each evening for a week we faithfully unplugged during the storm and then replugged. Sometimes we got internet back but sometimes not so much. Then I would go into reset mode, unplugging the modem, restarting the computer, sticking a pen into the reset on the modem. For several days this system worked. Until it didn’t.

That’s when all the tricks stopped working and we lost internet connection completely. This happened at a very inopportune time, because we needed to wire funds to the people in San Jose who had received our 85 boxes of stuff from the shipping company. They were waiting to deliver them to us but they needed to be paid. I had previously emailed Betty, my very helpful and sweet delivery contact, to let her know that I would transfer the funds on Wednesday morning. But on Tuesday evening the internet stopped working.

Act 2:  Who’s Elise?

Wednesday morning came and Paul dialed the first of two phone numbers Jenny had left for us in case we had problems with the internet. He turned away from the phone for a moment with a relieved look on his face, “Press nine for English,” he said. Great, because it’s really hard to mime what you need over the phone.

He spoke to a nice lady who assured him that someone would be at the house either that day (Wednesday) or Thursday before noon. They would call first.

At about noon on Wednesday, the phone rang. Paul answered. “No, there’s no Elise here,” he said. “You must have the wrong number.”

I’d remembered that the name of the cleaning lady who used to clean this house was Alyssa. Maybe that’s who the caller was looking for. I started waving my arms at Paul so he’d look at me. “Ask if they want the lady who cleans houses,” Paul was being insistent that Elise didn’t live here. He finally noticed my flapping arms.

“Do you want the cleaning lady?” he asked, “she doesn’t work here now.” At that moment I had a rare insight en Español.

“Wait!” I shouted. “They’re not asking for Elise! They’re telling you that they’re el ICE!! El-eey-say!! The internet people!!”

Paul was just about to hang up. “Internet?” he said hopefully into the receiver. I saw him smile and nod. “Si, si, internet! So you’ll be here in two or three hours? Great!”

He hung up the phone. “Two or three hours,” he repeated to me.

Five hours later we were sitting on the patio. The afternoon rain had lulled. “They’re not coming,” Paul reported to me. Unnecessarily.

Act 3:  The Phone Number

On Thursday morning at 8 a.m. on the dot, Paul called ICE. Or at least what we thought was ICE based on the information Jenny had left for us.

He pressed 9 for English. A woman answered.

“What is the phone number?”

He gave her our phone number. She told him nothing was wrong with the phone. “I know that,” he said, “I’m calling about the internet.”

“The number you called is for problems with the phone,” she said.

“But I called this number yesterday and talked to someone about the internet,” he said.

They went around like this for a few minutes. “Maybe if I gave you the account number?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. He gave her the account number.

“Oh, you’re having problems with your internet,” she said.

“Yes,” said Paul, “and the person I spoke to said that someone would be out either yesterday or today before noon.”

“We’ll send someone out before noon today,” she said.

“Great,” said Paul.

We were on edge all morning waiting for the yellow truck with the guys in yellow shirts to arrive. I was worried that sweet Betty who was holding our stuff hostage in San Jose was probably thinking we’d just dumped 85 boxes on her for the fun of it and she’d never hear from us again.


Paul made hot dogs for lunch. I bit into one. A crunchy fried plastic sleeve slid off the hot dog into my mouth. Apparently Costa Rican hot dogs are individually wrapped in plastic and then vacuum sealed to keep all the yummy hot dogs parts under control.

Paul had already eaten half of his plastic-grilled hot dog. I guess it’s a guy thing (and also a dog thing). After we peeled the nicely crisped plastic off our hot dogs and started lunch over, I said, “I’m gonna call again.” It was only noon, but I was beginning to be wary of the responsiveness of the guys in the yellow shirts.

Act 4: The Next Conversation

I dialed the number and pressed 9 for English. It was raining so hard I could barely hear. A gentleman answered. I got right to the meat of things. “Internet,” I said.

“What is your phone number?” he said.

I gave him the phone number.

“Do you have a problem with your phone?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “With the internet.”

“This is the number for phone problems,” he said.

I sighed. I don’t think he heard me sigh. “Here’s the thing,” I said, “we’ve been calling this number – and people on the line have been telling us that the ICE guys were coming but they never come and so I’m just calling back to make sure that they’re really coming.”

“But this is only the number for phone problems,” he said.

“How about if I gave you the account number,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. I gave him the account number.

“One moment,” he said. He came back on the line. “The account number you gave me is only for the phone. You don’t have internet service.”

I sighed again. I think he heard me this time. “Sir,” I said. “We’ve been calling this number and giving out this account number for the last three days. We were told that someone would come out to fix our internet either yesterday or today by noon. I was simply following up to make sure that they were still scheduled to come out. And now you’re telling me we don’t even have internet service.”

“That is correct,” he said.

“Then why did ICE come out a week ago to fix our internet?” I asked.

“They must have come out to fix your phone,” he answered.

“No, they came out and checked the ICE modem. They provided an Ethernet cable for my computer. I have been using the internet for a week. So I know that I have internet service.”

“There is only record of phone service on the account number you gave me,” he said. Was I in a Saturday Night Live sketch or a Twilight Zone episode? “Let me talk to my supervisor,” he said. He put me on hold. There is no “hold” music or adver-happy-jingles to help you distinguish whether you’re actually on hold or if he’s simply bailed on you. I chose to believe he was, indeed, conferring with a supervisor.

“We do seem to have an open work order for your internet repair,” he said when he came back on the line.

“So you do have a record that we have internet service here?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “they work until 4:30, so someone should be out before then. They have many service calls which is probably why they were delayed.”

“Why did it take so long for you to find out that I had internet service?” I asked.

“Because the account number you gave is only for WIX [that’s what it sounded like to me],” he said.

“What is WIX?”

“Your phone service.”

“What is the account number I should use if I have internet problems?” I asked.

“The service people will be out today before 4:30,”

“I am aware of that,” I said. “But in the future … should I ever need internet service again … is there a different account number I should be using?”

“The number you gave is the correct one,” he said.

I sighed. Or growled. One or the other.

“They will call before they come,” he said. “Who should they ask for?”

“My husband Paul or me,” I said, “I’m Marilyn.”

“What is your last name?”


“And your passport number?”

I considered asking “Why do you need my passport number?” but I quickly decided if I did he might cancel the service call and I’d have to start over again. I gave him my passport number.

“Do you want my husband’s too?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “that will not be necessary. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“So they’ll really be out today …” I was eager, grasping.

“Before 4:30,” he said. There was a firmness to his voice I hadn’t detected previously. “Will that be all?”

“Yes. Thank you.” I was meek. “Buenas Tardas,” I whispered.

Act 5: Paranoia

I am absolutely sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that my passport number is – right now, before 4:30 – being filed with the only efficient part of the Costa Rican government – the Problem Gringo Blacklist Department (PGBD). I will never be able to get my pensionado. Paul will be allowed to live out his golden years in Costa Rica but I will be forced to return to the states and work in the circus (under an assumed name). We will never be able to communicate. Because he still can’t get ICE to come out and fix the internet.   

Act 6: Yet Another Phone Call

At 4:30, Paul called. It was obvious no one was going to show up. He had a long drawn out conversation with the person on the other end of the line, which I won’t repeat here because it was almost word-for-word like the one I had had earlier. The new information that he gleaned:  when the customer service people asked for our phone number, and like fools we gave them our phone number, what they really wanted was what Jenny had written down as our account number.

After checking with various supervisors, the customer service guy got back on the phone and assured Paul that someone would be out first thing in the morning.

Following is an approximate transcript of the half of the conversation I heard:

Paul:  I know you are trying to support my needs by telling me that someone will be here first thing in the morning, but I would really prefer honesty.

Customer Service guy says something.

Paul: You see, for the last two days, every time we’ve talked to a nice person like you, we’ve received assurances about something that, in the end, did not occur.

Customer Service guy responds.

Paul: I understand that you have no control over whether or not a technician actually comes to our house. Let me suggest that a better system might be if your department and the technical service department had some way of communicating? It seems to me that your job is to just make the customer feel better, even if it is not the truth.

Customer Service guy goes into a lengthy explanation. I know that because Paul said “Um-hmm,” and “I understand” a lot.

Paul: Well, thank you for running all over the building trying to get answers for me. I really appreciate it. (using his firmest tone) And I expect to see a technician in the morning, or we will be looking for other service.

Mi esposo spent many years as a corporate trainer. He helped companies with their communication issues. He was very good at it. I think, deep down, he’s expecting to receive a call from one of the jefes (bosses) at ICE who had eavesdropped on his exchange with the customer service guy. “Señor Hastings,” they would begin, “it appears you know much about efficiency. We would like you to consult with us as to how better to serve our customers, before they all leave us for X internet company.”

Paul would demure. “No es nada,” he would say, humbly. “I will be honored to work with you.” He eventually receives a medal from the Costa Rican government for helping to make their services profitable. I read about it online when the circus train stops at a Starbucks with WIFI somewhere in Nebraska.   

Finale (Or So We Thought)

On Friday morning, we were sitting out on the patio, having our coffee. “Wanna take a bet on whether they’re coming this morning.”

“They’re not,” I said glumly. “No need to bet.”

At 10 a.m. the yellow truck pulled up and a young man in a (very) yellow shirt got out. I could barely control my excitement.

He held a sheaf of very official looking papers in his hand (my deportation to the circus papers?). We showed him the modem. He sat at my computer and shortly took out the Ethernet cable. He changed the plug. He pinged stuff on my computer. He explained what was wrong in Spanish. We nodded understandingly (did not understand him at all). He added a third different kind of Ethernet plug. He jiggled it. The pinging report showed that one kind of jiggle make the internet work, while another kind of jiggle made it stop working. It was MY LAPTOP that was the problem – my big American Ethernet outlet was too big for the dainty Costa Rican internet plugs!!!

“When we get WIFI will that solve the problem?”

“Si, WIFI.”

Paul said, “Well, until we get WIFI, I can just hold the plug while you type.” I thought there had to be a better way. Masking tape did the trick. So now we have internet and we know what to say if we need to call ICE again. And no one from PGBD has shown up to haul me off. Yet.

Encore (But wait … there’s more …)

Remember a little earlier in this essay when I said that we were supposed to unplug all the technology when the rains came? One afternoon, we forgot. So ICE stopped working. I tried all the restart tricks I could think of, plus a few that I thought should be restart tricks (note to self: never, never do this again).

We called Jenny who suggested that cable would probably be a better option for us – and it was about the same price ($26/month). The cable company, TIGO, had recently installed cable at the top of our hill. On Saturday, the cable sales guy showed up. Jenny came with him which was great because he only spoke Spanish and kept trying to sell us the “premium package” which was for internet and TV, even though we don’t own a TV.

After we signed up for the cable (and I had to give out my passport number again), we were excited to see the installation guys show up early Monday morning. But our joy balloon soon deflated, when they came back from the hill to say that our house was 115 meters away from the pole, and the cable would only work within 80 meters. Great.

We called Jenny. She called TIGO. Someone at TIGO told her that those installers were probably “inexperienced” and didn’t realize that even though they were told that they couldn’t install cable beyond 80 meters, it would really work (pretty well, mostly) up to 120 meters. They would send more experienced installers. Maybe tomorrow.

Another Encore?

When “tomorrow” came we waited for a few hours and then made a decision. We would go with the third option that Jenny had told us about. An American-owned internet company that was more than twice as expensive, but apparently much more reliable. Reliable was going to be worth the $60/month (still much less than we were paying in the states). The next day the installer from the company, CRWIFI, showed up and, with only a few speed bumps, got everything working.

What is interesting is our attitude about this entire experience. Yes it was frustrating to be unable to communicate online for nearly a week. But I think back to our stress level in the states if we had problems with our internet service provider. There would be pacing, teeth clenching, elevated blood pressure … (lots of) foul language. None of that showed up this time.  In Costa Rica we are trying to allow the spirit of place to color our reactions. It is getting easier every day.   



Just hangin' out. Click for video:

View from the Patio in Grecia

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


A diffuse light teases the sheer bedroom curtains. Rooster greets the dawn. Charlie’s wet nose nuzzles my ear. After three weeks here I no longer need to look at my watch to know it is 5:10 a.m. The day has started. A little too early for Paul, but when he hears me rustling in the kitchen, making our coffee, he’ll be up too.

I make the coffee with the Melita – a plastic cone that fits a filter and makes one mug at a time. While the water heats on the stove, I set the Melita on my travel mug. Whenever possible, I’ll use my travel mug; it makes drinking my coffee a leisurely activity – no matter how long it takes me, the coffee will still be piping hot.

Now that we’ve unpacked, though, Paul prefers what he calls his “Cindy mug.” Years ago my sister Cindy gave Paul a handmade mug for Christmas. It’s square on the bottom and round on top decorated with a moon and stars. He wrapped it carefully in bubble wrap and was delighted when it emerged unscathed from one of the “miscellaneous kitchen” boxes.

Paul wanders into the kitchen, drawn by the smell of fresh coffee. As we embrace, we murmur “I’m so happy here.” “Me too.” The dogs will have none of it, and fuss at our ankles, anxious to check out, with the 5 million scent cells in their noses, what enemy dog might have dared enter our property while they slept.

Until yesterday, we had to drag two dining room chairs out onto the patio every morning and drag them back in at night. But now, Jenny and Tim have given us two white plastic deck chairs – Christmas in October. Sitting outside each morning at six we marvel at the scene unfolded below us. Each day dawns slightly differently but we always look out on lush green fields and rows of coffee plants. Here and there a blanket of black shade cloth protects what will become the fabulous Costa Rican brew. Red-roofed houses dot the landscape. In the distance we can see our town, Grecia, the prominent steeples of the church looking expectantly to the west, as is every church steeple on every town square in the country. 

As the dogs romp on the front lawn or sun themselves on the patio, we breathe deeply. Each breath of clean mountain air feels healing, cleansing, life-giving. Some mornings, before my second mug of coffee, I need to stop my reverie to hang out the laundry that I’ve washed the night before. It’s important to get it on the line as early as possible, ever hopeful that morning sun will win out over driving afternoon rains and I’ll be able to pluck dry laundry off the line on the same day I’ve hung it out.

This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I miscalculate the speed of the clouds filling in the valley below or hiding behind the eastern hills. Then the rains come, and my laundry gets a second rainwater rinse, and I wait another day to let it dry. It was frustrating that for the eight years I lived in the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix), I never hung out any laundry except for our bathing suits and towels. Probably my job and volunteer work and hobbies got in the way, but also, there was the ever-present dust. So I used the clothes dryer, just like about 90 percent of the other desert dwellers.

Here, I have no choice. There is only a washing machine in the laundry room. Paul has offered to help me hang the laundry, but I’m a little obsessive about the how of it, so I decline his assistance. Going back to my childhood days on Augustine Street, I had to hang the laundry in very specific order. Never would a facecloth be hung amongst the underpants. And if you were a t-shirt – you would get hung in a neat row with the rest of the t-shirts – in color-coded order, from the hem, all facing the same direction.

And so the sunny morning goes. After laundry and a second cup of coffee, there’s maybe some writing or art, sometimes a Spanish lesson, but first the daily sweeping and mopping. Again, I am loathe to share these chores with my more-than-willing spouse. He is master of the dish washing, and that is fine by me.

I might add flour to my sourdough starter or start a soup for the evening’s meal. I have time now to indulge all my joys of cooking. But mornings are also the time to do anything related to the internet. As we’ve learned firsthand, when the rains come, often with them comes lightning, and all of our technical equipment has to get unplugged. Just the other morning, Paul was screwing in a light bulb when lightning struck – fiercely. It burned his finger and, possibly unrelatedly, caused Lily to throw up. The sound was something like a Mac truck crashing into a moving freight train, if you were in between the truck and the train – only louder.

So even though all of the outlets look like they’re grounded, they’re probably not, and we have no internet now to prove the point even further.

Once the rains come – and this could be anywhere as early as noon or as late as 6 p.m. – the mood changes. Grey skies darken all of our large windows and the sound is deafening. I might need to throw on a sweatshirt and some socks. It’s in this damp chill that I remember why I’d decided to make soup for supper. The afternoon darkness is the perfect excuse for a nap, and the dogs have usually beat us to the bed.

When I awaken, there might be a break in the rain and I let the dogs back out to run off steam, chasing each other. Charlie patrols the perimeter of the property, re-marking all the bushes that the rain may have rinsed clean of his earlier manifestations. Sacha pops out from the little house we’ve made for her on the porch and politely requests “up” into my lap. As I nuzzle her, she makes tiny little growling noises – if dogs purred, this would be purring.

 Lily lets me know it’s “ball time” and I retrieve her big orange ball from its hiding place in the laundry room. She had gotten fat and lazy in Phoenix, where it was too hot to go for proper walks. Outside for her meant finding a good sleeping spot, so she could continue the nap that she’d started inside. Now, she’ll run up and down the hill playing catch for as long as we’ll play with her. All of this exercise is trimming her up, but sadly, there’s probably nothing that can be done with the excess skin that now flaps from her belly. I don’t think they make Spanx® for dogs.

Before the next rain, Paul gets out the binoculars and we watch the buzzards on their daily mouse hunt. They glide gracefully over the valley, swooping and soaring. With their long necks tucked in, they resemble hawks. It’s not until they rest high in the dead tree at the edge of our property that their ugly heads emerge. It’s as if the tree and the buzzards are one, waiting for Edgar Allen Poe to wax poetic about them.

When the rains come again, I go into the kitchen to finish making supper. Now that all of my kitchen equipment and supplies have arrived safely, I feel I can be my creative best. I’d packed all of my spices in a shipping box and they are now safely stored in a kitchen cabinet. I don’t know if it was legal to do that or not, but I was bereft without them in the two weeks before the boxes arrived.

We eat supper in the glow of one of the three lamps we shipped. All the Gringos we met or read warned that lamps are in short supply in Costa Rica. One of the three didn’t have a good ocean crossing – it broke in several places. Rather than toss it, Paul is rebuilding it. It’s one of my treasures from my Crafts Report days, so I’m glad it will live to see a new day.

After supper, we either download a Netflix movie or play a game. We shipped Scrabble and Power Yahtzee, which are good for the times when the internet is down and we can’t get to Netflix. On clear nights, we can see the lights of Grecia from our windows. We haven’t seen many stars yet – or the moon for that matter – they will have to wait, I guess, for the dry season that starts at the end of November.

In this time of no furniture, of 85 boxes in various stages of unpacking, projects yet to be done, we are healing. We are healing from the stress of the last year of working – for me it was largely physically challenging; for Paul, more emotionally draining. We are healing from planning the move, packing and, finally, moving – an overwhelming experience which I’ll write about eventually – there are many lessons-learned in our process.

After the evening’s entertainment, we have reached maybe 7:30 or 8 p.m. I turn in to the bedroom to read – we only have two options for sitting right now – the bed or the dining room chairs (oh, I forgot that we now have the plastic patio chairs). Paul has constructed both a desk and a keyboard stand from shipping boxes – his office now looks like a giant Lego-land site. He’ll either write at his computer, play his keyboard or, if the internet is working – watch old comedy shows. My favorite way of drifting off to sleep is listening to Paul play the piano. He always played when we had the piano in Wilmington, and now that his keyboard is in the room next to the bedroom, I love having him play me to sleep. When I was a little girl, my dad played the piano every night after the news and I have that same warm, safe feeling now.

So are our daily rhythms, with minor changes from day to day, as we settle in to our new life here on our mountain. As we begin unpacking our art supplies, as Paul moves his workshop to the Tico house (behind our house) and I plant my garden, get chickens and a horse and maybe goats, these rhythms will change. We may find opportunities to volunteer in the barrio of El Cajon where we live; we may want to connect regularly with expats nearby. But that’s still in front of us. For now, these are our days, and we are happy.