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Archive for April, 2009

In need of a bath

I’m dying for a bath.

Sounds odd, I know, but I am. It just suddenly struck me.

I haven’t had one in, oh, at least nine months. That’s almost exactly how long I’ve been living in Costa Rica, a tropical paradise smack in the middle of Central America.

And I could use one. Not because I stink (I shower daily), but because it’s cold tonight, about 21C. Seems strange to be cold at this temperature, when back home I’m used to enduring -21C, during the day, for half the year.

Must be the humidity, and the rainy season coming on here in the highlands of the central valley. Atenas proper is situated 698 metres above sea level and where we sit, high up on the side of a mountain it’s probably closer to 1,000 metres, not far off from my home town of Calgary, which is 1048 metres above sea level and at the same time of writing sits at 19C.

I love a hot bath, especially when it’s cold. There’s nothing like a good soak and a magazine. It’s both a physical escape (from kids and rigours of daily life) and a mental one.

Most houses here don’t have tubs. We didn’t have one until we moved to our “American” style home in Atenas. But even though we technically have one, we really don’t because we can’t get enough hot water to fill it completely. A hot water tank is a rarity here. Those who have hot water (it’s not typical) usually have an instant heater, which lasts a good five minutes or so but certainly not long enough to fill a tub.

On the upside, it’s very energy efficient and cuts down on both waster electricity and water.

Still, it’s one of those “takes getting used to” kind of things about Costa Rica.

I realize after nine months of blogging I have never really properly described this odd yet beautiful place that we have come to love and hate on varying occasions.

I’ve continually called it a developing country, which technically it is, according to official sources such as the World Bank, United Nations and other global agencies who like to collect data but do nothing with it. Most use economic means to measure progress using complicated formulas involving GDP and GNP although there are other indicators that are used to classify countries, such as infant birth and mortality rates.

The connotation of the word “developing”, like “Third World”, conjures up all kinds of images. It makes me think of little African children and bulging bellies, you know, the kind you see in the World Vision infomercials on TV designed to make us open our pocketbooks and feed off our collective capitalist guilt.

TV is often our only view into foreign lands and it’s amazing how much of our conceptions are shaped by what we see.

I had never been to Costa Rica and knew very little about the country before I came. All I knew was that it was a so-called developing country renown for eco-tourism.

After living here for almost a year, neither is the case, in my view.

Costa Rica is very well-developed, although perhaps not quite to North American standards. Most people are content to live in small houses without a tub, or even hot water for that matter.

It boasts the largest middle-class in the region and land ownership is widespread. Although there are many poor here in Costa Rica, about 20 per cent, according to some sources, there are plenty of people with brand new cars who spend their weekends at the mall.

To me, “developing” isn’t the appropriate word to described this country, although there are certainly aspects to life here that reveal Costa Rica to be behind other countries, like Canada.

The country has for years built a reputation as an eco-haven, a place where the environment is protected and pristine. Indeed it is bio-diverse with 25 per cent of its land protected. But the reality is that it is a long way from from being green, in an environmental sense.

Recycling is a rarity and people still throw their trash out car windows and on the ground without thought. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that signs were posted on public buses, encouraging people to throw their garbage out the window rather than leave it on the bus.

Waste disposal and sewage treatment is an ongoing problem all over the country and some popular tourist beaches are so polluted you’d be crazy to swim in them — although many unwittingly do.

But in other ways this country is no different than my own, just with a few quirks.

We can go the movies at the mall, or rent the latest DVDs from the video store, although they are always pirated copies burned onto blank discs. Or, I can buy those same movies in the streets, but these ones come with the laughs of the folks watching them along with the person who videotaped the screen where it played.

We can drive into the city and go one-stop shopping at Hipermas, the WalMart of Costa Rica. Everything that exists in a North American store can also be bought here, although usually of a lesser quality. The factory rejects are sent here along with the made-in-China toys and crap that doesn’t  stand up rigorous product quality standards in North America.

All this is apparently relatively new. To those who’ve been coming here for the last 10 years, Costa Rica is a different world today.

Our Spanish teacher, Odie, a well-educated and fully bilingual Tica, says they didn’t even have TVs 15 years ago.

If Costa Rica is a developing country, the only question is what is it developing into?

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My friend Mary calls Costa Rica opposite land.

It’s a good description because often the way things are done or happen are completely contrary to the way you’d expect.

For instance, if a Tico has his house for sale and has not had a nibble in a year, he will raise the price rather than lower it. This actually happens, according to my friend Mary’s husband, a local realtor.

These types of contrarian situations can happen anywhere, anytime and always when and where you’d least expect. In some ways, it’s part of what makes living in this developing country so alluring because life and the little things that happen in it are never predictable and consequently, never boring.

One of these moments happened the other day while I was at Scotiabank, where we have an account.

I had discovered about a week ago that my debit card was missing and realized I must have left it at the ATM when we were last there, so we drove the 45 minutes to the bank to see if it someone turned it in.

Of course, the day I made this discovery was the eve of Semana Santa, Holy Week in Costa Rica, when everyone is scrambling to do their banking and shopping before the entire country grinds to a halt for several days in religious observance (no beer/liquor is allowed to be sold and nearly every store or institution closes its doors for at least three days.)

The bank was jammed so I grabbed the obligatory number from the dispenser and patiently settled in for my turn.

About 30 minutes passed, without any new numbers being called, when an old Gringo with a young chica entered the bank and walked straight over to a bank representative and sat down and were served.

Had this happened back home, I probably would have went berserk and demanded I be served first.  But being in a foreign country without a good command of the langauge has taught me a few things, patience among them. It is neither worthwhile nor productive to scream and holler and get upset over things you cannot control. So, there I sat, prepared to wait it out.

Then, the opposite of what I would have ever expected here in Costa Rica happened. An armed guard, who unbeknownst to me had seen what happened, went to a woman who appeared more official than the front counter bank officers and reported the incident.

The woman promptly called me over and dealt with me personally, apologizing for the wait and someone else being served first. More importantly, she said my card had been turned in (another unexpected happening) but had been destroyed for security. She would promptly issue me a new one, she said.

When we were done, she asked me to fill out a form explaining what happened. The bank, she said, needed my feedback to improve the quality of service. Now, if that’s isn’t opposite of what you’d ever expect I don’t know what is.

Of course, I went to the ATM shortly after that and the card didn’t work. It hadn’t been activated and by then it was too late to return to the bank and I couldn’t face another long lineup, anyway.

My friend Mary’s onto something. Opposite land. A never-ending adventure in the expected and unexpected.

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While cruising the CR classifieds on a Yahoo group the other day it was a bit jarring to see a ‘for sale’ ad for a Glock, as in the gun preferred by most North American law-enforcement agencies. It is apparently legal to pack in Costa Rica but like most things, nobody can be bothered with the paperwork. In Granada, Nicaragua, people need to be reminded that weapons are not allowed in the park.

Centro Turistico, Granada

Centro Turistico, Granada

It poured rain for about an hour tonight — the first time in almost four months of continuous blue sky in Atenas, the Costa Rican town that boasts the best weather in the world. The air is fresh and the wonderful smells of the tropical forest waft up the nose like a freshly sprayed floral perfume.  The change in season is distinctive and Costa Rican winter is coming. Soon, the crunchy brown grass will be lush and green again and the rains will come every afternoon. God, how am I ever going to live through another Canadian winter after one without cold and snow.

The kids are finally loving school and eagerly dress every morning in their uniforms and march off without complaint. It is amazing to hear them greet their friends in Spanish and play in another language. Bilingualism (and I don’t mean a smattering of French) should be mandatory in Canadian schools. We are so myopic in North America.

Every day that passes brings me closer to our return to Calgary and the home we left almost a year ago. I’ve coined a new term for my old life: suburban suicide. The big question looms — how am I going to go back?

Continental Airlines has to have the nastiest and most unhelpful staff I’ve ever encountered. They were rude from the moment we stepped on the plane to fly to CR and even ruder when when I’ve tried deal with them over the phone to make airline reservations to return to Canada. I will never fly that airline again and if I can ever help, avoid Houston airport forever.

After seven months in Latin America, we are finally taking Spanish lessons. It would have been handier doing this at the beginning of the trip instead of the end. Somehow I always manage to do everything backwards.

Life’s problems follow you wherever you go but they sure are easier to work out when the mind is not cluttered with a million things to do. A sabbatical year is more useful than 10 of therapy and probably cheaper in the  long run.

Six years ago today two beautiful babies were born to an incredible woman in Calgary. Three weeks after that, my first child was born. The trio became very best friends and so did their moms. The same month we moved to Central America, my friend’s family moved to another city in Canada, about an eight hour drive away. It will not be the same going home without them there.

Happy Birthday Aiden and Abby. We miss you.

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