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Reality bites

While driving down a major freeway the other day, on my way to the old job in an office I haven’t seen in a year, my car suddenly stopped.

Dead. Right there in the middle of major traffic.

Surely this was the sign I’ve been looking for in the past month, since trading Costa Rican paradise for a chaotic life in Calgary.

No more work. No more grind. Time to quit my job for good and pursue the dream, whatever that is.

The $600 repair bill swiftly brought me back to reality.

It seems it was a sign, only the opposite. The sign that I HAVE to go back to work to pay off the mechanic, and the myriad other bills that mounted while we cavorted around Costa Rica for a year, having the time of our lives.

During the past several weeks of post-mortem, another epiphany occurred: Real life sucks.

I guess I can’t really call it an epiphany. I think it’s something I’ve known all along, that I’m not cut out for ordinary suburban life.

In fact, reading back over my old blogs, this fact jumped off practically every post.

So if this point was, and is so obvious to everyone, including me, then why was I then, and now still living it?

I’ll get back to you.

First, the mechanic beckons. And then it’s off to work.


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A letter home

Dear Costa Rica,

I just wanted to send a note letting you know, my love, that I made it home to Canada safe and sound.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I miss you desperately and would be on the next plane back to you if I could.

Our trip home was uneventful, though the boy burst into tears as our airplane ascended  into the sky and away from the tropical paradise that we all grew to love and at times, hate, too.

Though I shed some tears of my own before leaving, they were not initially for you, Costa Rica, but for the dear friends that we grew close to in Atenas.

It was not until days later that the floodgate opened, when I became overwhelmed with the culture shock of returning to the place that I once called home but, strangely, now is the one looks and feels like a foreign land.

Following behind a truck full of furniture to move back into the house I was happy to leave behind, the tears began to flow.

Though the sky was blue, it was cold outside. Barely above freezing and it’s the end of June.

While in the rear-view mirror I could see the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains, the flat lands of the Alberta Prairie were spread out ahead. It is a mildly green, uninspiring landscape that leaves me longing for the dense jungle of Costa Rica through which the winding, narrow roads are carved.

It is also a landscape noticably bereft of any character despite the rows upon rows of picture pergect gigantic homes that look as if they have been stamped one next to the other with a cookie cutter.

Aside from moving back into our home, there is a mountain of tasks to attend to. Cars to be insured. Utilities to be arranged. Battles with Revenue Canada to be fought – that’s a whole other story that leaves me longing to return to Costa Rica, a place where people’s lives are not governed by myriad rules and government intervention.

I just feel so sad and so lonely, despite the amazing reception and welcome back from all the wonderful friends we left behind.

I miss you Costa Rica.

I miss your smell after the rain. I miss being wrapped in the arms of your sunshine.

I miss waking up and feeling alive and full of joy.

But in reality it was all an illusion, a one-year affair that had to end. I knew that from the beginning and tried not to get too attached.

Still, I fell in love with you in spite of your flaws, or perhaps because of them. You taught me that paradise never comes without its pitfalls. That none of us is perfect and that it’s ok to be vulnerable. You accepted me and allowed me to be myself instead of who and what everyone else expects me to be.

I try every day to remember the many lessons you taught me but most of those days still end in tears. Even now, as I write this letter, they spill down my cheeks.

I do not regret running away from home to be with you but for now, it is too difficult to think of our time together. So, do not expect to hear from me for a while. It is simply too painful.

Hopefully, with time and distance, I can write again and reminisce about all the wonderful times we shared without feeling so sad.

So, until then.

Hasta luego, mi amor.

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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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Rough waters ahead

Riding the rapids

Riding the rapids




Riding the rapids of the Rio Sarapiqui brought to mind the ever worsening financial crisis that is gripping the globe, including Costa Rica, where some tourism operators are reporting serious declines in reservations for the upcoming holidays.

After a weekend getaway from our urban home near San Jose, we woke to even more bad news. The Canadian dollar continues to plummet along with out spirits and commitment to stay in Costa Rica away for an entire year. It seems we couldn’t have picked a worse time to abandon Calgary’s boom — which could soon be headed for a bust.

While we’d been following the ever-worsening sub-prime problems in the U.S., we were completely oblivious to the mounting financial crisis when it rocked the rest of the globe in recent weeks. When the economic earthquake hit, we were sitting on a beach in Nicaragua which in hindsight I suppose was a blessing. What could I have done, but hold my stomach as my investment portfolio dropped like a rock in the ocean.

Ignorance truly is bliss.

After a week unplugged, we returned to our home in Santo Domingo to discover that while we were splashing in the waves, economies around the world were drowning.

Despite being in Costa Rica, we’re feeling the financial pinch like everyone else. My retirement fund account is down by nearly $10,000. Ouch. And everything here is based in US dollars, so our cost of living is going up — way up. We’re now getting 441 colones for every Canadian dollar, compared to almost 550 when we arrived (a difference of about 26 cents). 

It still doesn’t make sense to me that the Canadian dollar, which a few weeks ago was almost par with the greenback, is plunging even though our economy has been strong. No offence American friends, but it’s totally unfair that because the your country goes to shit the rest of us have to pay for it.

Anyway, we’re at a crossroads: do we ride out the crisis here in Costa Rica, forget our financial woes by frolicking in the waves, or like this past weekend, the rapids? Or, do we pack it in and head home, preserving what we have left of our rapidly dwindling savings account?

After looking at a few photos from our weekend away, what would you do?

Suspending worry

Suspending worry


Poison dart Frog

Poison dart Frog


Creepy crawly

Creepy crawly

Toucans above

Toucans above

Relax. It's only money, right?

Relax. It’s only money.

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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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When I was a kid I had a maid.

Every week she would enter my room, ground zero, carefully stepping along the path from the door to the bed, searching for life under the pile of rubble that often included soiled dishes and green food.

The maid doubled as my nanny and she loved me despite my messy ways, never following through on the threats to bag everything in my tornado-like room and put it in the trash.

It was nice being taken care of, never having to lift a finger until my teens, when my maid and nanny — also known as my mother — got fed up and quit.

Ever since I’ve had to do my own laundry, clean my own room and then my own house. And now, I clean up after my own kids and am myself a maid. That is, I was up until we moved to Costa Rica, where hiring domestic help is commonplace, if not expected.

A maid came as part of the deal at the villa we rented for the first month of our stay.

For the first few days, it was a blessing to come back from a day’s outing to have the beds made, dishes done and laundry hung on the line.

But as time passed, the novelty wore off and so did my patience as the dirt left in the corners and goop on the plates became more apparent.

The same cobwebs that clung to the ceilings when we first moved in are still there and the bottoms of the kids’ feet are usually black by the end of the day from running around on floors that only ever get a quick swipe with something resembling a mop.

I haven’t the heart to complain, as the two lovely women who each day clean almost a dozen houses on the sprawling gated property where we live are paid a pittance, less than $300 per month, to clean the toilets where other people . . . you get the idea.

But it still irritates me that the job is always seemingly half done. My grandfather always used to say, even if you’re a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger you can be.

I’d pass it along to the maid but it would only demean someone already forced to perform a demeaning job.

So instead I just say, mucho gracias and then remind myself of another old adage:

Never ask someone else to do something wouldn’t do yourself.

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Gone on vacation . . . check back in a few days.

Meantime, some photos from our week.

Our boy loves to play in the rain, which comes every afternoon in the form of cats and dogs.

Our boy loves to play in the rain, which comes every afternoon in the form of cats and dogs.


Feeding the pigeons is illegal in some places. Apparently not in Heredia, where old men sell bags of corn for about 10 cents.

Feeding the pigeons is illegal in some cities, like New York City. Apparently not in Heredia, where old men sell bags of corn for about 10 cents.

There are hundreds of "winged rats" in this public square in the nearest city to us, which has a population of about 30,000 to 50,000. Heredia is a bustling town, filled with students as it hosts a major university.

There are hundreds of

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