When we showed up at Alice Olson's doorway all clueless and hopeful. Alice and her husband Mike undertook to clue us in. Even with receptive clue-ees, there is only so much cluing in one can manage in two days. With all the lessons we could quickly absorb, we still had much to learn about Costa Rica. We learned a lesson or two in Puntarenas, lit out for San Jose and from there landed in Palmares. This is what I wrote at the end of our first week there:
We've been in Palmares about a week now. We like it here. The people are friendly, as most Ticos are, and the weather is wonderful: warm to hot at midday, cool to nippy at night, and with a strong breeze most of the time. It's really pretty damned nice. People often speak to us on the street, both in English and in Spanish. It's not unusual for strangers to spontaneously welcome us to their country or their town, and people will often speak just because they want to practice their English. They're friendly rascals, these Ticos.
Here are our soon-to-be new digs.
I would never have imagined living in a gated community, but it's one way to deal with the ever-present threat of petty theft. It's how a lot of people live here, including Ticos. If people are going to steal your shit if you don't lock it up, I guess you lock it up. I wish it weren't like that, but my wishing it probably won't change things much. It does take some of the fun out of Costa Rica, regrettably, but she makes up for it in other ways.
Here's our local volcano. I say it's a volcano, anyway. Daniel says it's a volcano-shaped mountain. I think it unwise not to suspect volcano-shaped mountains of being, you know, volcanos, in this particular part of the world.
Here's our volcano, or volcano-shaped mountain, early in the morning.
Here's a yellow-bellied something or other snapped from our window.
Palmares is a sleepy little mountain community high in the Central Valley about an hour by bus from San Jose. We can walk into town from our little casita and it's just enough of a hike to be good exercise, about a kilometer. Our second day here, I walked into town, walked around the central market for a while and then walked back. I was plenty tired by the time I made it back but it felt good.
Here's a view of Central Park in Palmares.
All this walking is going to improve my condition considerably. I could have done the same thing in the states of course but I didn't have to and so tended to avoid it. Here, if I want to go somewhere I have to walk. And that's a good thing for me. At least here it's not the Bataan Death March.
Historical Note: I didn't know it at the time that I compared a hike in Costa Rica to the Bataan Death March, but there really is a Bataan, Costa Rica. I worked for this photo. I missed it the first time I came into Puerto Viejo from San Jose . There are three chances, three signs to Bataan. The first Bataan sign I saw, I missed because I was busy being mildly stunned by the coincidence and it flew by so fast. Snapping photos from a speeding bus is tricky. I missed all three signs the first time. On the second trip I knew to watch for them, I just couldn't remember exactly where they were. I missed the first sign – bus too fast/saw it too late. Got this on the second sign and missed the third. So one out of six ain't bad, now it lives in infamy.
We had been ensconced in a two-bedroom apartment over a little pulperia (convenience store) just down the street from the place we planned to move into (the one with the pool) for three weeks until it came available. It was comfortable enough, if a little awkward, being carved as it was out of the upper front portion of the larger house of the family who ran the pulperia. We could hear their every move just behind thin walls and vice versa.
The family members were friendly enough but maybe a little wary about foreigners. Over time they seemed to get the impression that we were a couple of pretty crazy gringos. It may have just been the reputation that gringos have or it may have had something to do with the mopa incident.
The great mopa incident of 2014 began innocently enough. I was trying to wash a load of clothes using a Tico washing machine for the first time, but since the Tico washing machine had just been installed that day, and incompletely installed and untested as it turned out, the end result was a couple of inches of water on the washroom floor.
Daniel, who actually speaks Spanish, was tired and surly so I ended up being the one to go down, approach the family for the first time, and ask to borrow a mop. “Just ask for un mopa,” sez Daniel.
I went down the outside stairs and approached the home in the dark, dog a barkin'.
Wary of walking right up to their open door, I called from a distance, “Hola la casa,” as a way of announcing myself. None of us had met yet, we rented through an intermediary.
“Hola la casa!” I said again, because I heard it in a movie or something.
A woman and an old man came out looking rather confused, there were introductions.
“Me llamo es Randy,” I said.
“Me llamo es Juan,” said the old man.
I asked for a mopa. They looked at me like I was crazy.
I took their Spanish chatter to be something along the line of, “A mopa? Seriously dude, wtf!”
“Un trappa?” they asked, clearly perplexed.
“No entiendo trappa,” I replied – and they clearly did not entiendo mopa.
Another, younger woman entered into the fray chattering unintelligibly at me in Espanol mas rapido. I understood not a word.
“Agua sur el piso,” I said, gesturing grandly toward the floor.
“Ah, si, nessicita un trappa,” the older woman said, or words to that effect. She disappeared then reappeared with a big raggedy towel, which I assume is how they deal with agua sur el piso in Costa Rica, and also presumably un trappa. They don't know from mopas – nor do they use mops, as far as I know.
In the midst of this, there was much back and forth with Spanglish and pantomime. They were friendly and helpful but also quite perplexed by me, but I think it was mostly just my words and gestures. All in all, a long awkward encounter that Daniel could have easily saved me from...but no.
We had good wifi there when we first moved in but then it went away. It had been intermittent and we tried to be patient, but previous outages had been hours, when it became days we inquired as to the nature of the problem.
“Internet's out,” Daniel was told. Everyone in the area was affected. So we practiced our patience. We invoked pura vida. It will come when it comes. Eventually we found a neighbor where we could get wifi long enough to check email and do stuff. Our host family called the Internet provider, they sent out a bunch of guys who crawled all over our roof all day long then went away without fixing anything. Finally I told Daniel, maybe you should offer to take a look – he has the nerd's touch when it comes to technology. Who knew? Maybe he could help.
They said he was welcom him to take a look, he did, then he rerouted some cables and we had the Internet again in a matter of minutes. Of course by then we were also questioning whether Palmares was the best place for us. We had come to realize just how sleepy and boring it was. We searched but could not find much in the way of flavor or color. And then we noticed the Nazi graffitti, by which we were both perplexed and at least mildly troubled.
Here's the stadium wall the Nazi graffitti was on. I thought I had a shot of it, but no. That's just as well. It was, as you might imagine, not pretty.
In addition to Nazis, there were anti-authoritarians, for whom I will always have a bit of a soft spot. I like what Tim Leary said: "Think for yourself and question authority."
So we snuck out of Palmares under cover of night (not really). As great as the weather was there, we were glad to leave. Everything else about the place was bland, dull or marginal. And there was the matter of that Nazi graffiti. The people were friendly enough but more and more we got the idea that they looked at us with some degree of perplexity, as if they were thinking, 'dude, I've been trying to figure out how to get away from here and you came all the way from the U.S. to plunk down in Palmares?' A couple of kids in a supermarket asked us if we were touristas. We said yes, and again it seemed they were thinking, 'so why are you here?' We decided it was a good point. Sometimes when people persist in asking that question, it's just best to leave.
It's easy to catch a bus from Palmares to San Jose and from there we can go anywhere in the country. Fares are inexpensive.
With the help of our friends the Olsons and others, along with our own experience to date, these are some of the lessons learned:
1. Costa Rica is not paradise – It's a real place in the real world with its own problems and challenges.
2. It's not cheap – At least not like it once was. Prices have been driven up over the past decade or so, largely due to the influx of foreigners from the U.S. and Europe. There are some exceptions: rent and utilities are half what we'd pay in the states. But restaurants are about as expensive as in the U.S. and electronics, motorized vehicles and other imported goods are more expensive. It is possible to eat inexpensively if you do your own cooking and buy the bulk of your food at the farmers market on Saturday morning where the produce is fresh and the prices are low. That's what we try to do. The bus system is robust and the prices are cheap. It's two bucks from Palmares to San Jose and ten bucks will get you anywhere in the country.
3. It's not easy – While many people speak English here, and it is possible to get by without Spanish, it really helps to speak the language. I'm lucky to have brought my own interpreter with me. It would be much more difficult without access to Daniel's Spanish. There are also any number of minor and/or major adjustments to be made when adapting to a foreign culture, all of which require a somewhat adventurous spirit. We're not in Kansas anymore. As an example, it's a noisy-assed country. Between the howler monkeys, the squawking birds, the yapping dogs, the ubiquitous army of psychotic roosters, the frenetic traffic with the motorbikes with their loud pipes, the buses and trucks and the loud-talking people, ai-yi-yi, this is not the ideal place for people who love quiet. I'm trying to adjust.
4. The advertised cheap, world-class universal healthcare is misleading. The healthcare system here is two-tiered: public and private. The public system is universal but sub-standard. The private system comes closer to the world-class standard, and while much cheaper than our own (how could it not be?), it isn't cheap. Most of the expats we've met purchase private insurance and use the private system. Still, much cheaper than in the U.S.
5. The application process for the pensionado program is a significant bureaucratic challenge with a much lesser benefit than we had expected. While it is possible to do it all yourself, the bureaucracy makes it more practical to hire an immigration lawyer which of course adds to the expense. If you are going to buy private insurance and use the private health care system anyway, the chief benefit is not having to leave the country every three months to renew your visa. Most people just do that, take a little jaunt up to Nicaragua or down to Panama for a couple of days of vacation and a new visa stamp upon reentry.
All of that being said, Costa Rica does have its charms. You have to love the friendliness that you will encounter most everywhere you go. The country is topographically dramatic and strikingly beautiful, the seafood, tropical fruit and fresh produce are fabulous, and there is a lot to be said for the 'pura vida' lifestyle. People don't sweat the small stuff here.
Our sojourn here has been a great adventure. I'm glad we came but I don't know if we will remain in Costa Rica or not. The dream of affordable living and high quality universal healthcare remains elusive. For the time being we are content here and are enjoying our stay, but given the facts on the ground regarding the healthcare system, cost of living, etc. we have less to keep us here than we thought. We may well go elsewhere.
Next episode of OPOL and Mijo's Costa Rican Adventures will cover our move to the Carribean Coast and jungle living in the Irie Zone.
It ain't paradise, but it's close.