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Archive for November, 2008

After four months living outside San Jose, the seedy capital of Costa Rica in a typical Tico home in a typical Tico community we’re ready to say goodbye.

It has been a wild ride here, full of interesting people, times and experiences. Not quite what we had imagined for our life in this tropical destination in Central America, but nonetheless memorable.

During our stay at a home in Santo Domingo, where we settled, we endured an infestation of cockroaches, gunfire outside the gate on three different occasions and discovered the old man living in the casita on our property was once a drug runner for a Columbian cartel and has sold his life story to a Dutch filmmaker.

The neighbour residing in a house next-door is a retired sheriff from California who was shot four times on the job and sleeps with a .357 Magnum next to him at night.

We’ve been scammed by a Gringo to the tune of $1,200 and were rocked by an earthquake that measured 6.2 at its epicentre some 200 kilometres away.

It has been an authentic experience, if there is such a thing for a family of foreigners who barely speak Spanish and have lived behind prison-like gates feeling like an exhibit in the zoo.

We enrolled our kids in an international school where most students, and consequently their parents, are locals and became a part of an incredible community.

We bonded with several Costa Rican families, who have helped as us at every turn and taken care of us as if we were a member of their own family. We’ve also made friends with other expats, each who have their own interesting tale about why they came to Costa Rica and and are also moving on.

There’s the self-described geeks, the Joneses, an American family who felt like outcasts in their own country. They came here seeking a simpler existence, bringing with them their teenage daughter, but are returning next year, partly because their home was broken into one too many times, heightening their security paranoia to the point they live like prisoners.

Then there’s Francesca and Damian, a couple from Ireland who have lived here for the past year and worked as visiting professors at two local universities. We’ve taken several trips together, had a lot of laughs and I will miss them dearly. Both are volcanologists and earthquake experts, each holding a PhD in their respective fields. They’re leaving in two weeks, returning for work to Ireland, fed up with the myriad frustrations of working within the Costa Rican culture and system.

Among our Tico friends there are doctors, developers, business owners and a pensioner, George, who has tirelessly worked to teach us Spanish, mostly because he’s one of the few of our friends here who doesn’t speak English.

Tatiana, a brilliant and caring woman whose son and mine became fast friends, transported us to and from school almost every day and insisted we call her day or night if we ever needed help. Her sincerity was heartfelt and she befriended me, she says, because she imagined what it would be like to move to a foreign country without knowing a soul or the local language.

Me, Tatiana, and Karina

Me, Tatiana, and Karina

I’ve watched my son blossom from the ignored new kid, the only fair-haired non-native Spanish speaker in the class, to an outgoing, popular boy who can now communicate with his friends in their language. Though not completely fluent, I am amazed that at 5 1/2 my son is almost bilingual.
Amigos

Amigos

We have made a life here in Santo Domingo, one not entirely disimilar to the one we had in Calgary. Our kids go to school, we socialize with friends and combat a daily grind, although one much less hectic than before.

This is why it’s time to move on.

We came to Costa Rica to escape all this, an urban existence with chaotic pace and time spent in traffic instead of with each other.

On the other hand, we’ve lived four months (quite happily) without a car, reduced our spending and waste dramatically and grown in ways we never imagined.

It’s sad to say goodbye but with every end there’s a new beginning. There is still so much to see in Costa Rica, so many things to learn about this culture and oursleves and the clock is ticking. There are just eight more months to enjoy our adventure and the last four have gone in a blink.

So goodbye Casa Roach. We’ll miss you.

Hello beach, here we come.

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There are those who believe there’s no such thing as luck, that serendipity is what happens when planning meets opportunity.

Then there are those who believe there are no coincidences in life, that everything happens by some cosmic design or that we subconsciously create the lives we live, even those aspects of it we think we don’t want. 

Have you ever known someone who seems to consistently have bad luck and the more they complain about their misfortune the worse it gets?

There have been times in my own life where I was a shining example of this and it seemed that one negative thing piled on top another, and another, and another.

On the other hand, there have also been many times where I focused on something I wanted, saw it happening in my mind and it magically appeared.

I’m not talking about winning the lottery. If only it were that easy.

But there are numerous examples in my life where coincidence led to incredibly good fortune, including one this past week.

We have been for weeks desperately searching for a beach house, thinking the sand and surf is what Costa Rica is all about and what we should be enjoying during our year in this tropical destination.

But nothing seemed to work out, the endless options of housing and beaches not quite right for whatever reason.

Then my parents decided to visit, and plan to arrive at the end of December and stay for a month.

The beach idea suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea, the thought of my retired folks suffering in the heat in something much less than an air-conditioned five-star resort too much.

So we changed our plans and started looking for a house in a place called Atenas, a small Costa Rican town ideally located between the beach and the mountains that is said by National Geographic to have the best weather in the world.

Problem is, every real estate agent in Atenas told us there was nothing available there, that every fully furnished rental home was presently occupied and would be throughout the rest of the high season here in Costa Rica.

So we went there, intending to scour every gate, restaurant, grocery store and public billboard in search of ‘house for rent’ signs and ads.

That’s when things began to take an unexpected but fortunate twist.

We booked into a small resort called Poco Cielo, which turned out to be owned by a couple from the small town near Calgary where I grew up. By coincidence, my father had just a week earlier sent me an e-mail about their resort after having run into a mutual acquaintanceof the couple’s back home in Canada but I had forgotten about it.

The evening we stayed, the couple invited a friend of theirs to dinner and he told them that evening he had accepted a job back in the U.S. and would be leaving in January after four years of living in Costa Rica.

As it happened, he broke the news in front of my husband, who mentioned we were looking for a place to live.

By the next day, we signed a deal to live in this man’s house, a fantastic property perched on a mountainside with the kind of view I had dreamed we would enjoy while living in Costa Rica.

Then, we sped down to the beach, where we had also planned to look at a house and picked up an almost half-price deal for the month of December at a place that we had not intended on looking at.

Was this a case of planning coinciding with opportunity or was there something more at work?

At the end of the day, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

What’s important is that three days from now, we’ll be splashing in the waves of the Pacific and enjoying Christmas at the beach and after a month’s vacation living in the kind of home we dreamed about.

Life in Costa Rica is looking up.

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The bed in Casa Roach rocked last night but it had nothing to do with getting frisky.

It was an earthquake.

It happened just after midnight, as I was just drifting off to sleep. A wind and rain storm, combined with the usual racket of blaring car horns and a mind unable to be quieted had left me tossing and turning for about an hour.

First, the rattling of the gate roused me from a half-slumber. I worried someone was trying to get in.

Then, the bed began to gently shake and seconds later, sway, as if it were a boat floating on the ocean and suddenly thrust about by a squall.

After about 30 seconds, it was all over, the bed again still but us feeling a bit shaky, like we’d just stepped off the boat and had sea legs.

I turned to my husband, who was also awake but had remained silent, just like me.

“Was that an earthquake?” I asked.

“I thought you were scratching your leg,” he said.

To which I replied, “I thought you were pleasuring yourself, thinking I was asleep.”

He looked at me incredulously.

“I’ve never done that in my life,” he scoffed, surely meaning not beside me as I slept.

Then we burst out laughing in a fit of giggles, both from the experience and misunderstanding.

The children were still fast asleep, the rumbling not quite strong enough to shake them awake or out of their beds.

Though we felt what was probably the equivalent of a tremor, the quake was a big one — 6.2 on the Richter Scale, its epicentre in the Pacific, near the border of Costa Rica and Panama, to the south. We live near San Jose, about 220 kilometres north as the crow flies.

News reports said that terrified residents of the town of David, a Panamanian border town where expats frequently do their visa runs, slept outside their homes for the remainder of the night, fearing the aftershocks would bring down their houses on top of them. There is no word yet on damage or possible injuries.

Two years ago, an earth shaker of the same magnitude hit highly populated areas in Indonesia while many were sleeping. Indonesian officials estimated more than 4,600 died from the disaster, with thousands more injured. Tens of thousands were left homeless.

It just so happens one of my closest friends made here in Costa Rica, Francesca, is a visiting professor at Universidad Nacional, with the Observatory of Volcanology and Seismology (OVSICORI). She lives two towns away, in San Rafael where we spent our first month here.

Francesa says she was awakened by the noise of the shaking wardrobes in the room of their villa.

Five minutes later, her phone rang.

“I was sure it was you,” she said the morning after.

It wasn’t. It was a colleague from work; people get called into work when things like this happen.

“Amazing,” Francesca said of the quake.

“I felt others in my life but never like this,” she added. “I went back to bed but didn’t fall asleep as I was afraid of aftershocks . . . was ready to run to get Liam (her son).”

So, after two weeks of the stress of trying to find a car (the purchase of which finally seems imminent), and the prospect of being homeless in a little more than a week (we’ve still not found anything else) we experience an earthquake.

Maybe this little shakeup is what we needed to remind ourselves that cars and houses aren’t worth getting that excited about.

At least the roof we have didn’t come tumbling down on our heads.

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The search for a beach house has been put on hold as we undertake another, equally difficult hunt for a vehicle.

For three months we have relied on public transportation and taxis to ferry us around and it hasn’t been a hardship, financial or otherwise. Bus service is stupid cheap here, as little as 50 cents each and where we live we can flag down any passing bus and it will usually travel by the place we need to go or stop relatively near.

Taxis are also relatively inexpensive — for the most part. On occasion we’ve encountered drivers who take what I call the scenic route or others whose meters operate as if they’ve been injected with adrenaline. Then there are those who try not to turn on the meter at all only to demand a jacked up fee at the ride’s end (we learned quick to negotiate a fee before getting in the car.)

Of course, we’ve had to suspend some conventional ideas about safety — such as child restraints and even seatbelt use for the kids as they rarely exist in the back seats of taxis.

That aside, I haven’t missed driving one bit and don’t have any desire to navigate the hellish roads around San Jose and its maze of one way, twisty roadways jammed with cars who completely ignore traffic laws — if they even exist.

But having a vehicle is a necessity by the beach, unless we want to live right in a busy tourist town and never leave. If we’re going to enjoy this incredibly diverse country and all it offers then buying a car is a must.

Actually doing it, though, is proving a monumental task. We spent several months researching and viewing vehicles before purchasing a used car back home several years ago. And back then, we already had a car to search for one.

Not only do we not have a car to conduct our search, but we don’t know a reliable mechanic to inspect a prospective vehicle. Our Spanish has dramatically improved and we easily go about our daily lives but we’re still not fluent enough to conduct a proper negotiation.

On top of this, used cars are priced at least one-third higher here, meaning we might find a 15-year-old, high-mileage vehicle for our measly budget of about $5,000 US — an amount we will borrow from our line of credit at home and which actually will be a lot more once the exchange rate is factored in.

Purchasing a car here is like buying a house back home. Title transfer requires the services of a lawyer and there are taxes to be paid for every purchase, never mind the minefield of research that goes into checking the vehicle’s background to ensure it’s not stolen or has been involved in an accident.

And like so many things here, there are Tico prices and Gringo prices. Believe it or not, one private seller actually quoted us a higher price once we arrived to view the vehicle than the information in the ad where we found it.

Then there are the Gringos themselves, expats who use their experience and knowledge to cheat people like us, fresh off the boat so to speak. We found one American used car dealer who tried to persuade us to buy a vehicle for $2,000 more than what the same or similar ones were being sold by Tico dealers.

This blatent explotiation is what really makes me furious.

A few years ago, I investigated a case of municipal voter fraud in Calgary, where Vietnamese immigrants were being scammed by members of their own community. During the probe, I discovered that recent immigrants were also losing money at the hand of their fellow countrymen in a variety of scams. I remember one couple who had sadly lost thousands of hard-earned dollars to another Vietnamese immigrant they had paid to fill out immigration papers and navigate the Canadian system to assist them in bringing over a family member. Not only were the papers never processed, the scammer wasn’t even properly licenced to offer such a service.

I remember being sickened that these young people, who didn’t speak a lot of English, had been had by someone who had endured similar hardships in their home country and escaped to Canada in search of a better life.

Who do you trust if you can’t even trust ‘one of your own?’

Anyway, it’s just another adventure in this wild ride and gives me a whole new perspective of what it must be like for the many immigrants who have in recent years flocked to Calgary during its now-cooling economic boom.

Imagine, landing in an unfamiliar city or country where you don’t speak the language or undertsand its local customs and culture. Imagine how difficult it must be to find housing, your way around or even a job.

We are so fortunate that we’ve made Tico friends here, who help and guide us almost every day. I don’t know if we would have lasted this long without them.

Remember this if you ever encounter a new immigrant wherever you are, and feel frustrated at their inabiliy to communicate in English. And if they’re struggling in a situation, offer to help in whatever way you can. Don’t assume that people within their own communities are a soft place to fall.

Like Kermit the Frog used to say, it’s not easy being green.

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