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Archive for the ‘housing’ Category

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 morning after meeting my prince (which a blog reader informed me was actually a poisonous toad, spoiling my epiphany) there were two e-mail messages waiting about beach houses for rent.

The fog (and frog) were gone and I was possessed by spontaneity.

A quick call to a car rental agency and we were off on another adventure, in search of the perfect beach house and pura vida for a three-day whirlwind trip to the coast.

Getting around by bus in Costa Rica is the most economical way to travel but not always the most efficient. The country is small, the size of southern Alberta, the Canadian province we formerly called home, but it takes hours to drive from one end to the other. Traversing the mountainous terrain and twisty roads that connect the wet central valley to the country’s coastlines can even be treacherous at times, like driving through the Rocky Mountains during the summertime where getting stuck behind an RV can add hours to the trip.

Navigating was a snap. Despite Costa Rica’s lack of street addresses and road signs we easily made the 4 1/2 road trip to Playa Conchal, in the province of Guanacaste on the northern Nicoya Peninsula.

We even managed to find the home we were to look at, despite its remote location in the middle of the jungle down a muddy dirt road barely passable by car.

The owner, an American named Patricia, who despite years of living in California never lost her New Jersey accent, turned out be another character in our unfolding drama.

The middle-aged school teacher and her husband built a beautiful, large, four bedroom home with a backyard pool in the middle of the forest about four years ago. They intended to relocate, along with their four children from the U.S. but the dream collapsed along with the housing market.

Patricia graciously invited us to spend the night, saving us one night’s expense in a hotel.

But it became clear early on that her motives weren’t entirely altruistic.

Patricia is a conspiracy theorist — in the extreme, who believes in the Illuminati and the New World Order. In a nutshell, its followers subscribe to the notion that the world is controlled by a select group of people, including many of the world’s wealthiest people, top political leaders, and corporate elite whose goal is to control the world and every human being on the planet.

Patricia, who is extremely knowledgeable on the subject, kept us up until after midnight educating us on her favourite conspiracies, among them the goal of the United States government to create a common North American currency. She even happened to have with her what she claimed is a prototype for the Ameros.

The Ameros

The Ameros

Patricia believes that Sept. 11 was manufactured by the Bush government; that cancer can be cured but for the power wielded by pharmaceutical companies; that non-carbon-based fuels and technological advancements in clean cars is stymied by Big Oil and that dentists are poisoning us by perpetuating a myth that fluoride prevents cavities. Autism is caused by vaccines; microwaving food will kill you; Bill Clinton has people killed to protect his secrets and people can cure themselves of cancer. Just Google “Clinton body count,” says Patricia, who was nonetheless great company and joined us for dinner the next night.

And these are only a smattering of the things Patricia covered during our chat in her jungle home, whose nearest beach is several kilometres away and aptly named Pirate’s Cove.

Sunset at Pirate's Cove

Sunset at Pirate

The home — within sight of a mountain held sacred by the indigenous people because it was believed to be the last point where the spirits gathered before they journeyed across the ocean — is too remote for a family without a car.

We decided not to take the house.

I love a good conspiracy, but Patricia is way out there and so is her house.

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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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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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I just hired a maid. I didn’t mean to. Wasn’t looking for one. But apparently, I’ve now got one, twice a week for two hours each day for a total of $10 per week.

I just hope I haven’t opened the door to another scam or something more sinister.

The transaction began in the morning, as a woman passed our home on the way to the pulperia, a tiny convenience store located directly next door to our house.

Behind bars

Behind bars

At the time we moved in, having a store next door seemed like a blessing because we are without a car and forever forgetting to pick up everything we need on our weekly run to one of the bigger groceries in the neighbourhood.

Given that my life seems always lived in hindsight and with regret, it’s no surprise that the idea doesn’t seem like such a good one now.

Not only is the street busy with a constant stream of people walking past, but we are also on display most of the time. And as gringos, we are a visible target for criminals.

The pulperia

The pulperia

We have been reminded of this by several people who live on the street. One neighbour, a Tica who speaks fluent English and spent many years in the U.S., told us to trust no one and never speak to a soul on the street. She said gangsters last week followed an American expat from the bank at 10 a.m. and robbed him.

The fear of crime in Costa Rica is extraordinary but I’m still uncertain whether it is warranted or just an unhealthy state of paranoia.

Either way, I ingored the neighbour’s advice and said hello to the woman passing this morning, who stopped to admire my children, uttering the same words we’ve heard over and over ever since we arrived.

“Que linda (how beautiful),” she grinned, bringing her palms to her cheeks.

The next thing I knew I was agreeing to the possibility of her working for us as a maid. My Spanish is still bad, but from our conversation I gleaned as much.

Then this evening, she showed up at our gate with her daughter and two grandchildren in tow, wanting to further discuss working for us.

The Canadian in me took over and suddenly I had agreed to have her come in twice a week to clean the house, which frankly doesn’t need doing because my fear of a return of the roaches means the place gets scrubbed top to bottom every day — sometimes twice.

During our conversation, most of which I didn’t understand, the two women boldly peppered me with questions about how much we pay in rent, how much money we earn in Canada and the cost of living there.

Fortunately, not all of my common sense had left me and I either refused to answer or pretended I didn’t understand what they were asking.

The encounter went from strange to bizarre when they asked how many pairs of shoes I had and what size my feet are. Despite my lack of Spanish, I finally figured out that they wanted me to “lend” my running shoes to the little girl because she had none to wear to school tomorrow for a special day that requires tennis shoes. Huh?

The poor little thing. She looked so embarrassed as I explained to her mother and grandmother that I had only one pair and needed them tomorrow. This was half true — they are the only pair of running shoes I have but there’s no way I plan to go for a morning run while the kids are at school and leave this woman in the house alone. And I’m pretty sure if those shoes had gone with them they wouldn’t have found their way back.

Feeling badly that the family — who supposedly lost its patriarch in a violent crime — can’t afford to buy a pair of running shoes for a little one, I got suckered into hiring a maid I don’t really need and whose employment will require me to be at home for two hours that I could be otherwise out of the house doing something else.

How do I get myself into these fixes?

More importantly, how do I get myself out?

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I am sitting on the roof of our new house on a tiny little square of concrete accessible via a steep set of stairs which up until a few moments ago was safety locked with a gate.

I’ve climbed up here because it is the only place I feel safe from the cockroaches.

My escape to the roof came just hours into our first evening in the new place, which is a completely different one that we had originally secured. That is a whole other story.

After tucking the kids into bed and getting them off into slumber-land I stepped into the kitchen, which only a couple of hours earlier I had finished scrubbing, on my hands and knees, with bleach to ensure it was clean for my kids to crawl around on.

In the glow from the oven light left on after cooking home-made pizza I saw dark specks on the white marble floor. Wondering what they were flicked on the ceiling light which sent the specks scurrying, back into their dark hiding places and me into a frenzy.

Hearing a screech, my husband came running and began furiously stamping out the disgusting little creatures I’ve only ever seen live once, at the Victoria, B.C. bug zoo. He captured one in a bottle my daughter has used to catch butterflies and no kidding, it was nearly two inches long, its unmistakable barbed legs sticking out from its sides like razor wire.

It’s a good thing I had already opened a bottle of wine because at that moment, alcohol was the only thing that would calm my frayed nerves.

I immediately collapsed into a heap of tears. I must have done something really shitty in my past life because the crap just keeps coming.

We are in this house instead of the one we originally rented because our landlord there ended up shafting us, switching out all the furnishings he’d promised and generally making our life miserable by constantly contacting us with some kooky question or another. and we weren’t even living there yet.

The last straw was when we returned from our short trip to the beach to a series of e-mails, one of which said to call him right away. When I did, he said he’d thought we left the country because he hadn’t heard from us, and said he’d just as soon stay in house the now if we wanted to get out of the contract. Happy to do so because it was becoming apparent that he was stark raving mad, we searched and found a new place. But the next day, he reniged on his offer and refused to return our deposit — a full month’s rent.

Money isn’t worth our sanity so we decided to forgo the deposit and rent the home we saw in the a little town nearby to where we first landed, called Santo Domingo.

It seemed to be everything we were looking for — and now roaches. Spiders, ants, flies — I can live with those bugs. But roaches?

It’s going to be a long night. I only wish I’d brought a sleeping bag.

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After three days of searching and much time spent in cabs criss-crossing the central valley we found a place to settle for the next year, or as long as we like it. In Costa Rica it seems people do the midnight move if they don’t like their accommodations despite signing the requisite one-year lease.

But like many things here, it took a big leap of faith securing it. We plunked down a half month’s rent, in cash, to hold it without any written contract — not that it would do us much good if we were swindled.

There are no real rules governing those who operate as “real estate agents.”

Many people — including expats — simply hang out a shingle and call themselves an agent or broker. They troll for clients and listings, both for rentals and sales, in the classifieds of the only English language newspaper, word of mouth and signs hung out on gates of residences. Owners pay them a commission if they bring someone in, although it appears there are no contracts or obligations to any one in particular.

In our case, we had one agent looking for us but it was in the end another who contacted us with a potential property after we placed an ad on a popular Internet classifieds forum cruised by people in the Central Valley.

Either the agent delivered the house of our dreams for what we need in the next year or we’ve been had. The modern residence situated at the top of a hill in a prime area just outside San Jose features three bedrooms with furnishings nicer than our home in Canada. It has a swing-set/climbing apparatus for the kids, a pool with an outdoor BBQ, lemon and orange trees and a miniature soccer field to boot. It is near a half dozen international schools, a quick bus ride to large grocery stores and everything else we could possibly need. All this for $1,200 per month — much more than we anticipated spending but certainly par or better for the local market, which is very tight on furnished lodgings with high-speed Internet.

Of course, we could get a place farther away from the urban centres for as little as $500 per month (not likely furnished) but then we’re still faced with the dilemma of no transportation and spotty Internet service, which is critical not only for me but more importantly my husband, who is studying for his master’s degree online.

Beating the boom and hightailing it out of Canada was about slowing the pace and escaping urban life but I’ve made peace with the fact that a lifestyle change is as much about your mindset as it is about your location. And this new home we’ve found seems to have the best of both worlds — it’s on a serene hillside situated on a dead-end street in a suburban-type area, overlooking the incredibly lush valley below. Yet the commercial development that has overtaken the nearby centre of Escazu still out of sight.

Not too far away, but far enough, is the Multiplaza. It’s a major mall that could be found in any major North American city, complete with a bustling food court and high-end stores.

Having settled into the small village where we first landed, I could feel my shoulders tighten as we strolled through the mall, weaving our way in and out of the people. The whole vibe was also in stark contrast to San Rafael, where the other day I watched someone step outside their gated property to guide a blind man with a cane up the road after we were unsuccessful in assisting him due to the language barrier.

When we became caught in a torrential downpour yesterday in downtown Heredia (the closest city to us with a population about 50,000 or less) a young woman kindly gave shelter to my children under her umbrella (we’ve now learned never to leave home without them.) Then, she walked us to a taxi stand so we could get home and out of the rain. Conversley, when we were at the mall today a man passed by me walking the other way and when I smiled at him he hissed “gringo.” Store clerks were equally as unfriendly, almost sneering at me when I plunked down the wrong change for a coffee, which by the way I asked for in Spanish — albeit badly pronounced.

Urban development and all that goes along with it can steal the soul of people and drive wedges between its residents. Whereas there’s usually more connectedness and community spirit among those who inhabit small towns.

Costa Rica is certainly no exception to this social phenomenon.

Perspective is something that can be found in both. It just depends on your view.

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