Archive for September, 2008

For three days and nights I started then stopped writing, blocked by some unseen force that crippled my brain and prevented the words from flowing into my fingers and onto the computer keyboard.

The rain just kept coming, often with such force that it caused vehicles to pull off the pothole-laden streets.

Normally I love the rain. But on these days it only darkened an already dark mood as self-doubt set in and began to feed on my confidence, like a lion ripping at the throat of an antelope.

Why did we leave our home, our family, friends — a good life to live in a prison, behind the bars and gates of a home in a small town not far outside the blight called San Jose?

The isolation, made worse by the cultural and language barriers, gets worse with each passing day instead of better.

The mission to find a beach-side retreat is overwhelming. There are plenty of mansions and luxury seaside homes for rent but nothing that fits the budget of a middle-class Canadian family without a large source of income.

The best of Costa Rica, it seems, is reserved for the rich.

On the third day of this pity party, something strange happened.

As I sat at a table in the tiny backyard, the bubbling of a small fountain drowning out the cacophony of honking horns outside the front door, a frog appeared.

At first I thought the frog, almost black and just bigger than a softball, was a garden gnome it was so still, its throat unmoving. Its bulging dark eyes stared, unblinking, as if it were engaging me in a contest to see who would break first.

We’re in the tropics. Frogs shouldn’t seem such a strange occurrence, except that we live in a very urban area, and our backyard, though rife with greenery and flowers, is surrounded on three sides by a 10-foot high concrete fence and fronted by a busy street.

We’ve been here almost a month and in all that time I’ve never seen so much as a hint of a frog. Hummingbirds, carpenter ants and cockroaches? Yes. But not frogs.

Soon after, the rain came again, pelting the backyard so hard it was like thousands of tiny rocks being dropped from the sky.

The frog, which had by then hopped away after my daughter poked him a few times, suddenly reappeared as I stared out the patio doors.

He sat still, this time in the small patch of thick, green grass. The rain bounced off his hard back and he stared so intently it made me uncomfortable, like he was trying to tell me something through his bulgy, black eyes.

After some time, the two of us just starting at one another, the frog ambled away and disappeared under the foliage at the bottom of a large mango tree that provides shade to the postage stamp-sized yard.

Why did this frog suddenly hop into my life?

Curiosity led me to the computer, where I began to Google all things frog. Frog mythology. Frog symbolism. The meaning of frogs.

It seems the amphibious creatures hold a special place in many cultures and religions. They spend the first part of their lives under water and shed their skins, all of which are symbolic of resurrection and spiritual evolution.

According to one website, the appearance of a frog in your life indicates it’s a time to find opportunities in transition.

It goes on to say that:

In China the Frog is an emblem of Yin energy and thought of as good luck. Feng Shui practices recommend putting an image of a Frog in the east window of your home to encourage child birth and/or happy family life.

Frogs are also good luck symbol in Japan – especially for travelers. Images or charms were worn during long voyages to assure safety (particularly across water).

It said to call upon the energy of the frog when:

  • You need to easily swim through some tough life-transitions;
  • You need a little assurance while traveling;
  • And when you are working to enhance your intuition, and strengthen your connection with the spirit world.

Call me crazy, but there was no coincidence in the frog’s appearance, and its timing. It broke whatever dark spell had taken hold and bewitched me with fresh perspective. The words once again flowed.

The frog encounter allowed me to refocus my energy on the reason we’re here and get out from behind the walls of our prison to enjoy the morning sun and explore our town and the cultural, albeit urban, richness it offers. The beachside home will find us, when we’re ready.

Thanks frog, my prince.

I could just kiss you.


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Going to pot-hole

Life at Casa Roach has been unusually quiet, leaving me feeling uninspired and too lazy to craft something witty and insightful. I think Tico time is taking hold.

So, here a few fun photos from the weekend, which was spent helping Carlos, aka Dirty Harry, and his amigos fill in potholes on our residential street. It can take months, if not years, to get the deep holes in local streets fixed so Carlos picked up a few bags of cement and took on the job himself, turning up the tunes from his truck starting at 5:30 a.m.

There’s nothing like a blaring Jimmy Buffet and his Margueritaville to inspire a party, even if it spoiled a Saturday morning sleep-in.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about writing a book.

Not a fictional novel, but one about our journey and travels here in Costa Rica. There’s certainly no shortage of material.

Making the transition from newspaper hack to actual author has always been a dream but one that I’ve never seriously contemplated, let alone tried.

There is a dramatic story behind the story about how we arrived here, not so much the actual location as the place in our lives. But so far it hasn’t been told, at least not to the whole world.

Writing a book would require getting totally naked. In any compelling story, the author reveals something intimate about themselves. That’s what makes a good plot.

At least that’s what my neighbour, the old guy, Bradley, says. He just recently sold his autobiography to a Dutch filmmaker, celebrating the $2,000 down payment with a trip to the barber shop to cut his full head of black hair.

In the couple of weeks we’ve lived in Casa Roach, I’ve seen Bradley a handful of times. He lives in a hovel at the back of the small property where ours also sits. It’s like a detached studio apartment, probably originally intended as a maid’s quarters.

Inside the cave there’s a small couch, TV and desk all situated within reach of each other. A few steps to the rear there is a single bed with messed sheets that look like they haven’t been changed in a while.

The white floors are darkened with dirt and Bradley keeps the yellowed drapes drawn with the lights on around the clock. Roaches are afraid of the dark and he’s not too fussed about them. God’s oldest creatures, he says.

At 78, Bradley is still quite spry, although lately he’s a bit wobbly on his feet due to vertigo.

Though American-born, he’s of Belizean descent and it shows in his dark skin, weathered and leathery from years in the tropical sun after retiring to his father’s homeland before migrating to Costa Rica. His dark brown eyes bulge out like a frog and he’s missing both his two front top and bottom teeth.

The landlord told me that Bradley was a writer and for the last few weeks I’ve tried to coax him out of hiding.

The other day, he poked his head out and called me to his door, where he handed over the manuscript about his life, or at least three years of it in the early 1970s. He told me to come back when I was finished.

When I appeared at his door later that afternoon, he was half asleep on the couch, forgetting to zipper up the dirty jeans held up with suspenders before inviting me in to discuss his manuscript.

Turns out, Bradley is a convicted felon. He spent three years working for a Columbian drug cartel as an aerial smuggler.

It was a job he took out of desperation to earn enough hours to qualify as a commercial pilot when no one would hire him upon his completion of his studies in the field.

He was about 35, and looking for something “different” after spending years in the family ‘s retail liquor business and pursued a dream of flying.

Flat broke, Bradley first sold himself as a gigalo. But when a lucrative offer came his way to run pot from the jungles of Columbia to his home in Miami, Bradley saw dollar signs.

His story, however, is one of a hapless smuggler who gets caught on his first drug run, then second and third. Ultimately, he ends up in a jail in the South American country, where his partner in crime breaks him out and gets him back to the U.S., where he was handed six-months parole for his initial crime.

There’s a whole lot in between and I don’t want to spoil the movie. But our conversation was illuminating. Not so much because of Bradley’s colourful past, but how one can turn an ordinary true life (OK, maybe not ordinary in his case) story into something that will entertain others.

Bradley’s dream is to see his manuscript, his life story, make it to the big screen.

“I don’t wish to be forgotten,” he said when I asked him why he so wanted to tell the world about his years as a criminal.

“Why?” I asked.

“Conceit. Just conceit,” Bradley replied.

“I just want to be remembered for something.”

I don’t know if I want to be remembered for all the dark days in my past. But I know that if I do write my own story, it’s going to require brutal honesty.

So far in the blog game of strip poker I’ve barely undressed.

And I’m not sure if I’m ready to take it all off.

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The pistol-packing Dirty Harry next door almost made someone’s day on the weekend.

Yup. Another shooting on the doorstep.

Carlos told me the news when I bumped into him at the pharmacy, where I was picking up medication for my sick daughter.

His rundown was brief: Bad guys tried to rob him at the store next door. They shot, he shot. No one was hurt.

In the seconds the gun battle ensued, the ex-California cop managed to get a licence plate of the getaway car. He went online, where simply plugging in the information on a government site pops up everything about a car owner, and traced them to San Rafael, where we used to live.

An expert marksman who during his career was shot once and involved in four gunfights, Carlos could have taken out the guys if he’d wanted. Instead, he said he sent a message by blowing out the car’s two tail lights and firing a third bullet in the centre of the licence plate.

My reaction was disbelief, and I began to think maybe Carlos is a bit loco. Two shootings in a week, outside our front door? Come on.

Away we went, our separate ways. He burning off in his black SUV, music blaring out the windows in true muchacho form and me on foot toward home, with a much quicker pace on the return trip.

Upon hearing the news, my hubby expressed similar skepticism.

Some time later, the old guy who lives in a tiny suite next to our house on our property (he’s a whole other story I’ll save for a future post) emerged from his cave. 

“Was there any excitement around here on the weekend?” I casually asked.

“Oh, yes. There were shots fired — right there,” he replied, his long, bony finger pointing toward the front gate.

“Scared the shit out of me,” he added.

So it was true, Carlos and his .357-Magnum were in fine form on Saturday, protecting the street from gun-toting robbers while we were away enjoying the sand and surf.

If this wasn’t happening before my eyes, I would think it were a James Frey novel.

I just hope this story doesn’t end with us in a Million Little Pieces.

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After a weekend at the beach, coming home to an iron gate, a barred front door and four locks felt like returning to prison from a three day pass.

The brief taste of freedom left me longing for a life at the beach and the search began almost immediately for an ocean-side home somewhere, anywhere, in Costa Rica other than the small urban centre where we live and rarely leave after nightfall for fear of being rolled, or worse.

In between firing off e-mails to potential landlords I realized that I’d forgotten we’d invited Jorge, George in English, to join us for dinner — our first guest in Casa Roach.

George was one of the first Ticos we met shortly after our arrival. He lives in a tidy, two-storey terracotta-coloured home across from the villas in the sleepy town of San Rafael where we stayed for the first month.

He grew up in San Rafael, raised his children and is now retired there, spending his days washing and buffing his car until it shines, visiting with friends and listening to his canaries sing up a storm.

At 53, George prides himself on his svelte physique. We went running together a couple of times before the move and George pushed me hard, refusing to stop despite my pleas and his bad knee that was obviously starting to give out and left him limping.

The day of our move, George drove us and our piles of bags to Santo Domingo and our new home — despite our protestations and offers to take a taxi.

A week after we moved in, the phone rang for the first time. And it was George, inquiring as to how were settling in. So I invited him for dinner.

George doesn’t speak a word of English. Our Spanish is still poor.

But somehow, we manage to communicate and understand each other. Or at least we try.

George doesn’t like garlic. I served spaghetti with meat sauce — heavily dosed with garlic. George at a whole plate, complimenting me on the meal and insisting he loved it.

George is someone special. He’s the reason I’ve decided to stay in Santo Domingo — at least for a while longer.

Dinner with George.

It’s like a day at the beach.

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What a difference a few days and change of scenery can make.

We’ve discovered paradise.

It comes in the form of a tiny A-framed cabin, with gleaming dark wood floors and thatched palm roof, situated in the midst of a colourful forest with the lulling sound of the Caribbean Sea crashing against the sand. Monkeys swing through the trees overhead and blue crabs cover the ground like a blanket of skittering shells that retreat to their holes at the sound of footsteps.

Alby Lodge, Cauita

Alby Lodge, Cahuita

A four-hour drive through the misty green mountains in Costa Rica has taken us from urban misadventure to heaven on earth; Cahuita, an off-the-beaten bath tourist village at the edge of of a national park teeming with monkeys who hang above the canopies of trees dangling over the beach.

We’ve left behind — at least for a weekend — the chaotic streets of Heredia, the inland Central Valley province where we live, where a gunfight ensued outside our front door just days ago.

So many people assumed when we told them we were moving to Costa Rica that we would be living surfside, enjoying daily romps in the sand and sun.

But we decided before we arrived that we would live in the Central Valley, a mountainous yet lush area of the country where temperatures never climb above 25 C and never fall below 20 C.

There are all the amenities that exist back home; major supermarkets, relatively reliable Internet service, schools for our kids and efficient public transportation that enables us to get around easily without a car. Plus, we wanted an authentic experience; to live like the locals, many of whom have never even visited this beautiful place we’re at right now.

We also figured that living at the beach would get old after a while, and prevent us from making friends with anyone other than other expats who operate tour companies, hotels and like.

But as we sit here, amidst the buzz of the jungle under an almost full moon, sipping on an Imperial and swinging in a hammock, we wonder whether our year would be better spent sea-side.

This is the pura vida sold in the travel brochures.

Pristine beaches. Quiet nights. No TV. And no gates or razor wire.

For the first time in weeks we ventured outdoors after dark, walking the streets with ease and enjoying the gentle evening breeze coming off the water.

Of course, there was the white-haired crazy man screaming unintelligible words down as he weaved down the middle of the main street past the restaurant where we ate dinner. And an either drunk or high shirtless local who stopped in the middle of the street to sway to the reggae music pulsing from a bar.

But hey, what’s a funky little town without its resident crazies?

Life is decidedly more laid back here than what we’re used to, both in the Central Valley and back home in Calgary.

We came here to slow down yet most of our last two months have been the opposite.

First it was rushing around looking at houses, then trying to find our way around and after that looking for schools for our two small kids, one of whom was supposed to this fall start kindergarten back home.

Changing our lifestyle has proved much more difficult that we expected; it’s been like breaking a New Year’s resolution before the clock strikes midnight.

Well, for now we’ll enjoy the next two days of absolute bliss without worrying about the long drive home to Santo Domingo and back to our routines, which now includes a private school for the kids.

There’s another nine months to go and plenty of time for beach vacations to break up the monotony of another ordinary urban life, albeit one a lot more colourful.

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There was a shootout just steps from our front door this morning.

Forget fears about being robbed by the maid, it appears there are far more serious crime worries here in Costa Rica — or at least in our small town of Santo Domingo.

I learned of the incident hours after it happened, having slept right through the 4:30 a.m. gunfight between police, the security guards who mind our street and robbbers, who broke into a home around the corner then later an Internet cafe up the street.

Coincidentally, I was bringing cake to the security guard who was involved in the gun battle when my next-door neighbour, Carlos, informed me of the drama.

The guard shack is situated one gate over from ours, in front of the home Carlos shares with his mother. It just so happens that Carlos is a former sheriff from California who retired to his native Costa Rica after being shot on the job.

He is one tough hombre; a short, rotund, bald version of Dirty Harry. I hate to admit, but it’s comforting knowing he packs a pistol and is at the ready in case we need help.

This has been a strange few days.

First, I hire a woman to clean my house who asked me the size of my feet and how many pairs of shoes I had only to fire her before she started after realizing the absurdity of the whole situation.

A day later, one of my neighbours, Nancy, who speaks English screams obscenities at a man who walks past her on the sidewalk who she claims tried to molest her children 15 years ago.

Then tonight I learn there was a shootout within spitting distance of our house.

What a gong show.

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