Saturday, December 29, 2007

December 29, 2007 - Little Winter?

In June, there is a phenomenon here called Little Summer, or Summer of San Juán. It is a two-week period in the beginning of the rainy season that is sunny and warm (just like summer :) ).
Well, no one has said so, but I wonder if there isn’t something similar in summer. Let’s say there is, and I’ll call it Little Winter! For the last week, we’ve had rain almost every day! And this is summer! Last year in the two weeks before Christmas, we got storm after storm as well!
To be fair, it is only a little bit of rain, and usually only in the late afternoon…

Friday, December 28, 2007

December 28, 2007 – If the Shoe Fits…

We have a long-standing tradition of taking a fall each trip to Costa Rica. Well, since this usually happens within the first month, I´m hoping the trend is broken. Certainly I´ve had a few missteps, but have avoided an all-out fall. I think I finally have the right shoes (for me, that is). The main reason for (my) falls is the uneven ground and the unexpected shallow gutters in the parks. So, I got some *very* supportive shoes (Drew Shoes Phoenix Boot)! These have ankle support, flared soles, and a steel shank, AND they FIT! (I have wide feet with high arches…).

You may notice that most women in Costa Rica do *not* wear such shoes. I don´t know how they manage, but they do. These (sandals) are *much* more common. I suppose I used to wear similar shoes, but ¨sensible¨ (*not* ugly, no no no!) won a few years ago. Who knows what will happen in a few years though. The most populous age group here is currently 15-19 years old...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

December 19, 2007 – Music!

Last weekend we met some musicians from the group WireTree! We were at lunch and heard people speaking English; well, pretty soon we were all talking about music – I don’t think you can talk to someone for half an hour before finding out whether he is a musician. Since it was their last full day in Costa Rica, we decided to all get together for a jam session :).

It was short but sweet! Rachel, Kevin, and Carlos dropped by (with a bottle of wine :)), and there was music! Rick and Kevin traded off playing original songs; the rest of us sat back and enjoyed. I was the lucky one – I was between them, so when Rick played, I also got Kevin’s chords – true stereo :D.

Check out some of the songs here (http:\\ and here (http:\\ See YouTube too!

UPDATE: fixed the links (thanks for the heads up, Paul!)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

December 18, 2007 - Day Trip to San Pedro

Yesterday, Rick had a dentist appointment in San Pedro, so we thought we´d make an afternoon of it. Good thing we planned to be gone so long, I guess...

We started out trying to take the express bus to UCR (the University of Costa Rica is located in San Pedro, and San Pedro is on the far side of San José). They had just changed the schedule because finals were last week, so we found out that the first bus wasn´t even scheduled until noon! We got there by 11:40, and figured that wouldn´t be too long a wait. Well, by ten after, others were giving up, and so did we. We went to the bus station to San José, caught the direct bus and were in San José soon after. We decided to get lunch at a soda we know, and were done eating (I think we wolfed it down) by a bit after 1:00. Then (yikes!) we had to get across town – we went back to Paseo Colón and waited for the periferica (the intrabus system we knew would get us to UCR). Well, we just missed one, and the next one just whizzed by (arg!). We finally decided to ask a fellow traveler which bus he would recommend to get to San Pedro. He said to catch one to the center of San José, then catch one from there to San Pedro. We were just about to take his advice, when the next periferica bus came by (and stopped for us!). Whew! We got to San Pedro, then it looked like the bus would go right by Mall San Pedro (our ultimate destination), so we stayed on past UCR. Well, there is a huge, nasty traffic circle right where Mall San Pedro is – it has about 6 entrance/exits, all multi-lane. AND our bus went right on past the mall, and onto the freeway. We frantically buzzed to stop the bus, and he finally did stop – at a bus stop ON the freeway! We got off, and walked back towards the mall. This was not too bad until we got to the afore-mentioned traffic circle (traffic circle of death, I should say). We got past two of the entrance/exits, but at the final one, Rick said ¨this is suicide!¨ And I agreed! Well, we got across. Without dying. We *did* notice that on THE OTHER SIDE, there was a sign that said walking across there was prohibited – hmmm.

It is now 3:00 – 3 ½ hours after starting our trip. And Rick still has a dentist drill to look forward to :(. Well, we´re at a mall, so we look around a bit, get some coffee (yum!), and look for a phone to get our final instructions. This is starting to feel like the amazing race… We find a phone, but it doesn´t take coins (cards only). We ask a fellow standing in line, and he said there was a coin phone outside. So we go outside, find the phone,… And it doesn´t take our coins! It is supposed to, but it doesn´t! So, we go back inside the mall and buy a phone card (not bad, you can get them for as little as c500 - $1). Then back outside, wait in line for the phone, and call. Our dentist says to go through the mall, out the back, and he will meet us. That was amazingly kind; I don´t think we would have found his office on our own (next time, yes).

Our dental visit was amazing! Rick filled out a form while we talked, and we got to know each other for quite a while. Then they decided to take an x-ray to make sure he really needed work done. So no drilling today :).

Our trip back to Alajuela was much nicer. We caught a taxi at about 6:00, got the direct bus to Alajuela by 6:35, and were at Jalapeño´s in Alajuela for dinner by 7:30. Whew!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

December 12, 2007 - Our Alajuela Kitchen

I put some pictures of our kitchen in Alajuela on Flickr, along with some descriptions. Most kitchens come with a sink and a connection for an electric stove, and nothing else. Since we are here for only a few months, we decided to go the minimal route. We bought a gas range top, borrowed a fridge (thanks to Linda!), and got concrete blocks and boards for shelves.

December 10, 2007 – Ordinary Day

We‘re getting to the point where we have “ordinary” days.

Today our ordinary day was:

5:30 – wake up, take out the garbage; go back to sleep :)

7:15 – wake up, relax over coffee; make breakfast, clean up, do dishes, shower; read a little

10:00 – go to the internet café; stop on the way at the park to make a phone call

11:30 – visit friends

12:30 – eat lunch at home :)

1:30 – do laundry (by hand); stop when you run out of line

2:30 – relax; read a little

3:30 – check the laundry; not dry

4:00 – still not dry; obsessively rearrange the sopping wet mess every 5 minutes; think about plan B

5:45 – go out to dinner; on the way back see people we know from previous trips (!), and talk on the street for a while

9:30 – go to sleep

Another ordinary day:

6:15 – wake up, have coffee, do some laundry (is there a pattern here?)

9:30 – breakfast

10:30 – internet café

12:00 – go out to lunch

1:30 – grocery shopping

2:30 – relax, have a siesta :)

6:30 – make dinner, eat, clean up

7:30 – visit with friends, play music

10:30 – go to sleep

Note on laundry: we took our clothes to the laundry last week. They charge by weight. I challenge *anyone* to guess how much their laundry weighs! Ours (including towels and sheets) was 14 kilograms! At c1000/kg, that is about $28. If you look under the Orosi tags, you may see that we used to pay $5 or $6 each week. Also, most books on moving to Costa Rica will say that laundry is $3 or $4 per load – hah! So, we’re experimenting…Most houses and apartments come with a laundry area, including a specialized set of sinks – dual cement, one shallow, and one deep, with a faucet over one. I’m either figuring it out, or I’m doing it all wrong… Either way, we have clean clothes (that take a loooong time to dry). One thing I am determined to do – bring back a bar of this soap! It gets out *anything*! Forget that darned “Shout” mess.

Note on phones: we went down to the ICE office on November 30, and got on the waiting list for cell phone lines/numbers. The process for this was *easy* - after we got to the right ICE office… We showed our cedulas, gave a phone number where we could be reached (had to use a friend’s, since we have no line at all here), they entered information, and gave us a reference number and info on what we will need when we pick *up* the phone (line/number). We did *not* ask how long the wait would be – I doubt the answer would have been based on reality anyway. So now we wait. And we use the phones in the parks. And we pester friends. And we make dates by email…

November 29, 2007 - Shopping for Unfurnished House

Wow! We are almost done getting STUFF for the unfurnished apartment!

Unfurnished here means - no (NONE!) appliances or cabinets in the kitchen. A kitchen is defined by a room that has a sink and an electrical connection for a stove - no more.

We moved in Saturday, expecting that at first we could just sleep and shower at the apartment - no problem; we had air mattresses, and we went right out and bought sheets and towels. Our next step was to be able to cook, and finally we wanted to be able to relax and to have company.

--- continued ---

A friend dropped by on our moving day, and lent us a shower curtain and mosquito netting - whew!

We wanted to get a bedframe that could be either two twins or one king, so we contacted a furniture maker and got a quote. Yikes! For a simple platform w/ one side left off, no fancy wood or stains, he wanted $120 each - $240 total! We said we'd think about it. We went to some local furniture stores to see what they had. We saw regular platform bedframes for less than half that amount. We ended up buying a wooden table with 4 chairs and a rocking chair. We decided that being able to sit was also pretty important for our first few days... One problem that we didn't anticipate is that the table didn't quite fit through out door and up the stairwell :( - the delivery guy did finally get it in place, but it got scraped up. We'll have to get some sandpaper at some point and do what we can.

Immediately after that major "oops." we measured the narrowest part with some string - we carried that around with us for the rest of the furniture trips.

After visiting the furniture shop, we headed to Pali for kitchen and cleaning supplies. Got all the important stuff, and then found that they had a nice section of sheets and towels (much cheaper than where I got ours, but also not as thick - I *almost* kicked myself...). Other things we got there - pillows, plates, glasses, silverware - so *now* we are already *way* ahead of where we were in Orosi! We have *four* of everything! I also got one blanket - it is very thin, almost like a thick tablecloth. Since our kitchen has no real counters, we are keeping our dishes in the dish drainer next to the sink - it works pretty well.

So, for the first couple of days, we're sleeping on the floor in the living room. But we have a table and some chairs! We're in the living room because it is the only room that is private - we have no curtains yet... Now curtains! Wow! We went to the ferreteria for metal pipes to hang them on (this time we used the new laundry line as a measuring line). Then we looked for the material - I think I made a mistake going to Llobet's (a high-end department store) for the towels and sheets; the Pali had much cheaper versions. But, we went back to Llobet's to find curtains - none looked like they were heavy enough to give some privacy; we looked for single sheets to hang instead - only sheet sets. I kept thinking about those thin blankets in Pali - as a test, we put one up in the bedroom, and got to move our beds in where they belong :D. That worked well, so on our next trip to Pali, we got a enough for all three big windows. Note: two good things to travel with are a packet of safety pins, and a small sewing kit.

Now - how to get cooking! We'd been glancing in at the electronics/appliance stores, and (as we remembered) stoves and refrigerators are *expensive*! We had heard about a used appliance store, but when we got there, it was only new stuff. So we hit craigslist and the papers. And we adjusted our thinking.

We decided on a three-burner gas stove (just the top, no oven). These run about $30. Then we got the hose and regulator for a few dollars more at the ferreteria. (We asked 3 or 4 people where one was close to where we were; they all pointed us toward the same area, but we were blind and couldn't find it. We knew where another one was, and went to it instead. Later, we finally found the other one...) Then we had to arrange for gas (you know, so we can cook with gas!). The supermarket is where many people buy the gas (c9,800) and cilindro (c18,000). But we needed to find a way to get it delivered up our stairs. So we looked around some, and asked around some. We got two good leads - one that delivers to a restaurant (c9,000 for gas, and c18,000 deposit for the can), and one that delivers to various people in the neighborhood (c8,500 for gas, c9,000 deposit for the can - used, but usable). In either case, the deposit could be turned into a purchase. Rick arranged for the latter, and they met him at the apartment in less than 20 minutes! They even connected the hose, regulator, and stove! Now we just have to call them when the gas runs out, and they exchange it for us - nice!

We were looking for a fridge - thinking very small, but hoping for somewhat larger. We heard of one from a friend that might be for sale, and found another posted on craigslist. But then another friend offered to *lend* us one! Wow! We found a mover, and brought it home ($30). And it FIT! The next morning, two days shy of a week in our new home, we made breakfast! Ahhhh.

A bit later, we finally decided on bedframes - we got two twin metal tube frames (green), had them delivered, and then we set them up. Finally we're off the floor! We're using our big suitcases as night stands, one of the totes as an end table, and the smaller suitcases as temporary kitchen shelves. The table-top stove is outside the kitchen door, set up on the laundry sink. Pretty soon, we need to get shelves in the kitchen - we're thinking of the college answer of cement blocks and boards...

One thing that caught me off guard - everything is done with cash. I haven't had to worry about carrying the right amount of cash in so long - at the end of it all, I definitely knew the phrase in Spanish for "I'm not sure if I have enough money with me - can I get subtotals please?"

I can't imagine trying to do this without friends who have been through it all themselves. One knew of and contacted several people for us for moving, for deliveries, for housing. One knew of the best place to get furniture and supplies. Several had kept items for us from previous trips and brought them back to us when we moved. Several lent us items for the duration. All had excellent suggestions for so many things. And all of them kept us SANE! THANK YOU!!!

November 27, 2007 - Expedition

CRASH! What a way to wake up! Yesterday we got a mirror, and used it for all of half a day - this morning, a high wind sprang up and blew it right off the wall. Since *we* didn't break it, I am maintaining that we *don't* get 7 years of bad luck...

We had planned to meet friends for coffee, go on to Volcán Poás, then have lunch at Chubasco's - a highly-recommended restaurant. Even with the high winds, we decided that you can never tell whether you can see anything until you get there.

Well, we walk to the restaurant, and hear the now-familiar refrain "no hay luz" - central Alajuela has no electricity :(. So we go to another soda, have breakfast, and call our friends - no problem, they meet us at the new place for coffee!

And we're off! We hit the mountain road - BAM! The water hose jumps off the radiator and steam pours out of the hood! We all get out, check the damage, and a taxi driver offers help. We re-connect the hose, fill the radiator, limp to his house, and he adds more water. It becomes obvious that the water pump is not working, so he fiddles some more, pours more water... Ultimately, he fixes the water problem AND a problem with the horn - then smiles and waves as we thank him and drive off :). (no more problems - with the car...)

At the final turn-off for Poás, it becomes obvious that we will see nothing but clouds at the top. So, we blow off the mountain, and turn towards La Paz gardens to see butterflies. We are thinking that we would spend perhaps half an hour or a bit more there, but when we get there, we find that the main trail takes 2 1/2 hours (too long) and they don't have a partial-tour price. So we would be spending a *lot* for our little stroll ($29 for non-residents and $15 for residents). Guess what we did - yep, went to the gift shop instead :).

On the way back, we stopped at Chubasco's - they are *closed*!!! (not shut down, but *closed*!) We head back to another restaurant we passed, and had a *great* buffet lunch instead.

Then we decide to see if the Christmas tree farm will sell us a living tree (dug up, not cut down). No luck.

So by now, we're asking ourselves "was this a completely failed trip?" Believe it or not, the answer is NO. We had a very nice visit through it all, we drove through gorgeous countryside, had an unexpectedly nice lunch, and met even more wonderful Ticos!

(Again, *we* *didn't* break the mirror!)

November 22, 2007 - Alajuela Apartment!

We have an apartment! :D

A friend lives in Alajuela, and the apartment near his was empty. He found the landlord, we talked, and finally saw an apartment. It is about a block outside the center of town, which is important to us because we don't have a car. It is upstairs and has two large bedrooms, one bathroom, kitchen and living room, plus it has an outdoor area for laundry. It also has a small room and bathroom off the laundry area. We wondered a bit about this until we found out that it is actually a "maid's room." Wow! That room is *small*! Just enough room for a single bed and maybe a shelf for clothes.

We saw the apartment a couple of days ago, and given the speed that apartments get snapped up here, I was pretty anxious. But the landlord was in no hurry (he didn't even have a sign up), and so we looked around some more. I know I have a tendancy to get too upbeat about things (almost anything), so I have to tell myself to wait at least a day to think before making any big decision.

So, Rick and I spent about two hours the next morning walking around one small area of Alajuela. Then in the afternoon, I took a taxi for another hour looking at more areas. More and more, it became clear that the way to find a place to live is *not* to depend on papers, signs, or ads. We found out more by asking people in front of their houses - we asked not only if they knew of any houses or apartments for rent, but also if they knew of any that were empty. By the end of that day, we had found two houses and one apartment for rent, and several that might be for rent in a month or two. NONE of them had signs up, and none were advertised *anywhere.* Two more places had signs up, but one was taken and the other - well, we tried the phone number four different times, with no answer. Oh, how silly were were - thinking we could just walk into a town we didn't know, make a few phone calls, and have the perfect apartment...

So! Today, we went to see the landlord again. We agreed on a few things that he was fixing, found out when garbage days are, who pays what and when, when we move in and out, etc.

· Garbage is picked up Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It has to be out by the street that morning by 6 or 7. NOT the night before (because of the dogs in the neighborhood) - I guess we now have our wake-up time determined :(

· Electricity is paid by us at the end of each month. The landlord will pay for November. The bill is left for us at our door.

· The landlord will pay the garbage and water bills, and the guard (who handles the entire street) is covered as well.

· There is no telephone (there is a hookup, but no line) or TV cable.

· He is replacing the roof, but it will probably take a week at the most (that is his estimate). We were concerned that the workers would need to access the roof through our apartment, but he worked it out that they can get there from the outside laundry area.

· We will bring him the first month's rent tomorrow and get the keys. We will move in SATURDAY!!! And there is no deposit - yay! Rent is c120,000 per month, approximately $240.

Next - SHOPPING! We don't have any furniture with us, and we *definitely* gave up on finding a furnished place.

November 19, 2007 - Music!

Last night, we went to Vida Tropical for a jam session! Bill and Karen always travel with their instruments (guitar and autoharp), and Rick had his banjo. We all contributed booze and voices - Que Bonita!
We moved back to VT today, so we'll probably play and sing some more tonight (espero)

UPDATE: Gotta remember to look up Walter Ferguson in Cahuita (The King of Calypso). Basic instruments for Calypso in Costa Rica are: banjo, bongos, and a square cousin of the washtub bass.

November 19, 2007 - House Hunting 2

Oh boy, were we naive! We probably still are, but a bit less now.

For some reason, we thought we'd be able to find the perfect house or apartment in just a few days. HAH! We started looking last week, and we *still* haven't even *seen* a place!

We started with very specific requirements - San Pedro, 4 months (this is short-term, since the usual minimum is 6 months), fully furnished, not expensive... We actually didn't care if it had a view or a garage. One realter said he knew of a place - it fit all our needs. He said he would call the landlady and call us about seeing it. Well, we thought this meant that the place was available, and that he would call us the next morning. HAH!

We got the newspaper and looked at the online ads - when we called, all the places had been rented already.

So, after a few days of no progress, we expanded our "requirements." We said it doesn't have to be in San Pedro - it could be anywhere in the Central Valley, as long as we could walk to town (we are *not* buying a car just to get into town on this trip!). We said we could go unfurnished, and just buy some basics - figure out later what to do with the stuff when we leave. We said maybe we need to pay a bit more (ack!).

Then we found out that at least one person had tried to call us at the hostel, but couldn't get through. Drat! Now we not only can't make phone calls, we can't even receive them.

We enlisted help from even more people - we spent the afternoon first calling about more ads in the paper. We called about the ads in the ICE office. We drove to a realtor's office - none available in the area. We drove around and found ads posted - when we called (standing outside the apartment), the places were already rented. And the signs are still out :(

We moved from the Hostel - we're back "home" at Vida Tropical :)
So now we have internet access and a *phone*!

We still don't know where we will live...

November 16, 2007 - Can´t Live Without a Car

Yesterday we spent the day with our friend Joe!
He said the one thing that he adjusted his budget for was his car - he can´t live without it :)
He took a friend into San José and back to Grecia for a doctor´s appointment, then drove back to Alajuela, picked us up, and drove us *all* over - the man loves to drive! We went to San José, then Santa Ana for Margaritas (and they were good!), then through Belén back to Alajuela. We hit a *lot* of traffic - an unusual amount according to Joe. But it *was* 6:00 - very much like the stop-and-go of Bay Area Rush Hours.

We´re still going to try going car-less. It is certainly a very different perspective tho. When you have a car, you have a much wider range, but you have to worry about parking, traffic, which direction the roads go, gas, repairs, marchamo (and other fees). You tend to shop in the bigger stores (HyperMas, PriceSmart). You see more neighborhoods in the cities. But when you don´t have a car, you take the buses and taxis. Your neighborhood becomes your ¨town¨ and you rarely go to the big malls and shopping centers. You find it difficult to give directions to people who drive (oops - you can´t turn left here...). We like the amount and type of interactions we get with people on the buses and on the streets. You find a lot of friendly types, and your blood pressure is a bit steadier :)

But Never say Never...

November 16, 2007 - House Hunting

House-hunting in the city is quite different than looking in a small town!

Wednesday, we went into San José and got the ball rolling (at least we tried to). We got the paper, talked to a few people at ARCR, got some advice about where else to try (near San Pedro, but not in San Pedro - Curridabat, Sabanilla, Yoses, Escalante, Guadalupe).

Our two biggest problems are (1) we don´t have phone privileges at our hostel, so we miss calls and have to go to either the park or the internet café to call out, and (2) we are not staying in San Pedro while looking for a place there. Our hostel is a long bus ride (1 hr) to the area.

We called back on some leads, but nothing so far.

Meanwhile, just in case... Our Hostel-keeper is keeping an eye out for us in Alajuela.

November 13, 2007 - The Search Begins

Today we start looking for a place to live in San Pedro!
ask at ARCR
look at La Nación paper
look online at
ask *everyone* for advice
bus to San Pedro, walk around, look, ask

The hard part is that we need fully furnished, and fairly short term (3-4 months).

November 13, 2007 - Catching Up

Yesterday we caught up with our friends Linda and Norman!
Linda met us at Jalapeño´s in Alajuela, where we all caught up with Norman :). After lunch, she drove us to see her house and the house she is building in Bodega (a small town outside of Tacares, which is a small town between Alajuela and Grecia).

The house she is renting is just lovely! It has 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, great tile, wonderful view, and evokes comforting feelings.

We went to see the progress on the house she is building nearby - they have the foundation done, and have most of the walls done, so you can see how it will be to live in it. (check out Linda´s blog)

After seeing the work-in-progress, we went back to her rental, sat on her front porch, and Rick played his banjo :). The neighbors come out to listen to the last couple of songs - that was nice.

It started to rain pretty heavily, so we went back inside for a while, then out to dinner in Grecia. Let me tell you - don´t look for an open restaurant on Mondays in Grecia! We finally found the Oasis restaurant open (we were the only ones there). *All* of the others we knew of were closed!

After dinner, we caught the 9:00 bus back to Alajuela (they leave every hour, but I don´t know how late they run). We walked from the bus stop to the central park with a very nice gentleman who had been visiting a friend in Naranjo.

PS - Most restaurants in Heredia are closed on *Sundays*

November 11, 2007 - Relaxed Sunday

I can't *believe* it! We slept until 10:30! What was left of the morning was sloooow. Showered, ate some of the food we brought from the USA, finished unpacking, and went in search of coffee!
First, we needed $$$$ - the Banco National and ATM are right across the street from the central park, and 2 doors down - COFFEE!!! By then, it was 2:00, so we got breakfast makin's at the mega super, and stopped at a Chinese restaurant for a late lunch.

Our phone numbers are all on-line, so no catching up with friends tonight :~

Rick's playing his banjo :) :) :)

Then we're off to Cugini's for dinner - yum!

Weather report: light rain off and on all day; 70-73 inside

November 11, 2007 - We're Baaaack

Ahhh. We're back in Alajuela! :D

Yesterday, we were up at 3:30 AM. Neither of us could get to sleep early enough for that to count as more than a nap! Then to the airport for our 6:50 flight. As we checked our bags, Rick asked the fateful question - "can I take the banjo as carry-on?" Well, the clerk wouldn't give a definitive answer, so we checked it and kept our small suitcase as a carry-on instead. Every one of our suitcases weighed *exactly* 49 pounds - what planning! Of course, this meant we were lugging around a 50 pound carry-on. At least it had wheels...

We flew via Atlanta, with a 4-hour layover, so we got our last chance to have super-spicy food - cajun - ow! Atlanta's other notable feature is that we didn't have to go through security again - I stupidly wore my new lace-up-to-the-ankle shoes...

Our trip was so last-minute, we had the last 2 seats available - so we weren't sitting together :(. We were both so dopey from lack of sleep, I don't think it mattered though. We hit some turbulence, but not enough to mention until we were on approach to San Jose. I'm writing this down - I will *not* pester Mom to fly. It wasn't awful. I didn't even clench (remember - dopey - no sleep - works like a tranquilizer), but if you were apprehensive about flying, you wouldn't like it.

Then - Yikes! the line! We've never *seen* the immigration line so long! It was nearly to the last gate! It took us 2 hours to get from our plane to our hotel. We did ask the officials if there was another line for residents; they said no - I think they either though we were scamming for a short line, or they didn't think we were residents. When we finally did get to the split, we had to say "really, we're residents." Oh well, we left all that at the airport (check your panic and baggage at the gate) :).

We got to the Fifth Avenue Hostel, unpacked the minimum, and konked out by 12:30 AM.

October 18, 2007 - Moving Decisions

When we thought about our move to Costa Rica, our original plan was to get rid of everything and take what we could in our suitcases. Well, after the first trip, we re-evaluated. We realized that we had finally found the ideal mattress and the ideal dual recliner, and so we shouldn’t leave them behind. Since these are large items, plan # 2 was to move a few things (our bed and chair), store some others that we weren’t sure about, and decide whether to move them in a second shipment after a few years. We held to that plan for a long time. But it seems we are more attached to our stuff than we realized…

So, if we are bringing stuff, we needed to know more - I scanned all the forums and blogs, looking for information on timing and cost for shipping stuff to Costa Rica. When I talked to people, they had some recommendations, but not much specific information – they either couldn’t remember, or they didn’t think it would apply to us. Finally, we got in touch with a real shipper and got real information .

The shipper needs 2 weeks lead time, and transit from the San Francisco Bay Area of California to the central valley of Costa Rica is 4-6 weeks. The shipping point by freighter is Long Beach, California.

There are two sizes of containers, 40 foot (40x10x10) and 20 foot (20x10x10).

The typical weight (used for estimates) for a 20 foot container is 44,000 pounds. If the 20 foot container is full, and there are no “special items *” or extra weight, the cost is $3500 for the shipping and $2900 for taxes. If the 20 foot container is more than 1/3 full, the cost is the same (this is the break-even point).

You can check whether the container is waterproof before approving it for your use. Simply get inside, close the container, and look for light (no light = waterproof).

The shipper recommended using a local mover, but not a chain for packing and loading the container. He estimated that a pack and load for a 20 foot container would cost $3000-3500, including materials. If we did it ourselves, materials would run about $800.

He had some recommendations about what sort of things to bring, and what to avoid. If you are bringing a car, you need the 40 foot container. The ideal car (for taxes, value, and usability) is a 1996 4-Runner or Pathfinder. Other things to bring include good ceiling fans (Casablanca or Hampton Bay), entertainment items (books, DVDs, CDs), and items that have sentimental value or are hard to replace. Others have recommended piano rods (dehumidifiers), bug zappers, weed whackers, blender, water purifier/filter, electrical parts (connectors, etc), ice cream maker, drain snake, and cutting board sheets (the flexible kind). Many have recommended good quality sheets and towels, and we have seen that the silverware and cutlery is often not what we are used to (few forks actually penetrate food – you have to use them like spoons).

Items to avoid include things that look like bombs to the screening mechanism, and therefore increase the likelihood of inspections (messing up your packing, increasing theft or confiscation). These are food, detergents, pet food, kitty litter, vitamins, and liqui-gels. If you do ship vitamins and Advil, put no more than one bottle in each box (spread them around).

* Other items to avoid are “special items” – basically anything that will have high taxes (and inspire theft or confiscation). These include:

· Refrigerators bigger than 25 cubic feet

· High-end, large appliances (Subzero, Viking, etc)

· “Big” Flat panel TVs

Given the cost of a single shipment, and the fact that 1/3 of a container will cost as much as a full one, we are fast leaning towards one move, all at once. Part of the reason for moving “lite” is that we will be moving from place to place in Costa Rica for several years. We had intended to spend only 3-6 months in each town, looking the just the right spot for us before settling in (and before moving *everything*). But after the last few trips, we feel that we could stay longer, move less, and make some decisions based on day/week trips and finding out more about what we like and dislike in general.

We’ve got some decisions to make, but if we end up with some wrong choices, we’ll figure out something – it won’t be catastrophic!

October 17, 2007 - Alajuela Map

Here is a map of Alajuela, provided by Norman and Isabel at Vida Tropical. I’ve added the bus stop to Grecia (G). The buses from San José and Heredia can drop you next to the parking lot across from Soda Palmares (1). The express bus to UCR is on the South side of the central park.

There is a good seafood restaurant North and West of the Tribunales (on the road to Poás) – called something like Aquí Sus Mariscos.

October 02, 2007 - Orosí Map

Here´s my working map of Orosí.
We stayed in a house (#4 on the map) for about two and a half months.

September 27, 2007 - Summer, Fall, Rainy Season

I hear from friends currently in Costa Rica that the rainy season is in full force - anywhere from 6 hours of rain in a day to a full day of rain!

Such a contrast to the weather in California - we had our first day of rain in several months, on the *last* day of summer.

For those in Costa Rica who may miss the Fall Foliage of the North, here is a nice selection from a friend. Enjoy!
Fall Fotos by Don French

September 15, 2007 - Orosi Pictures

I got the pictures from Orosí uploaded - finally!!!
Check them out on Flickr.

August 21, 2007 - Cartago map; Better

This is *much* better! The draft got cleaned up! I lent it to someone who had never been to Cartago before, and he really liked using it :D

August 21, 2007 - Cartago map; what a mess!

Yikes! this is a *huge* mess of a map! But, it still helped me find my way around. Notice the block I added North of the park and the block I added to correctly split the park and the ruins. See the oh-so-many-times-moved bus stop to and from Orosi (that was fun - a good example of when not to trust the guide book map). You can see where I got turned around (I didn't notice a turn that the bus took), and had to move the justice building.
Even though I started with the park and ruins in the center of my map, we ended up spending most of our time North and West. That just seemed to be where the action was - so that is where the detail got added.

August 21, 2007 - Paraiso map; beginnings

This was my first stab at a Paraiso map. If I started making regular trips, I would add the location of the Saturday morning farmer's market.

August 21, 2007 - Grecia map; Better

Here is a better map, created by the good folks at B&B Grecia
- sometimes it *is* better to use existing goodies

August 21, 2007 - Grecia map; draft

I promised I would expose my foibles with map-making, so here goes...
Here is my first version of Grecia - notice the crossed-out block/street, and the questioned business names - ya gotta start somewhere...

August 09, 2007 - Where Am I? 101

Where Am I? 101
Or, finding your way around a Costa Rican town.

First, REMAIN CALM! All will be well – don’t panic. Every time I panic, I get lost.
I finally feel confident stepping off the bus in a new town. OK, proud. Cocky even. I don’t expect to find everything on the first trip, and I know I will find plenty of interesting places that I didn’t plan on. Here’s what I do.

Do some planning ahead, but don’t get anal – this (the latter) was the difficult part for me, but I’m getting better. If the town is fair-sized, look it up in a guide book. If you are staying in a hotel, see if they have a hand-drawn map. If not, make your own. Get some grid paper (or just any paper), and lay out a basic pattern, with a central park and cathedral in the center. These are usually a full block each, and within a couple of blocks of the center of town. If the guide book has a map (this is important), COPY it onto your paper – guide books usually show no more than 10 square blocks. Add some of the landmarks, like banks and perhaps a hotel. Mark the bus stop (coming and going) if this information is available. Mark a couple of avenidas and calles, and mark the compass directions. If you have any specific destinations, mark them on the map. Of course, if you are starting from scratch, your map will start out with nothing but a street grid and a central park & cathedral. That’s OK, because you will add to it as you go! Also, if you start with another map, keep in mind that parts of it could be wrong (or changed since it was published). This is also OK, since you will be marking it up.

Bring your map, a pen/pencil, and a compass (not always needed, but nice to have). Leave the guide book at home. The guide book is conspicuous and distracting – you are exploring! If you don’t know “enough” Spanish (“enough” is individually defined), bring a small dictionary or phrase book – if it makes you feel like a newbie, guess what? You are! You’ve never been here before! Most important, bring a smile and a “buenas.”

Which brings us to a very important aspect of this excursion – Attitude! Be flexible. Don’t expect to find everything you look for. Treat this as an adventure. When in doubt, know that a taxi is always near; relax and enjoy yourself. Accept that you and your travel companion will have moments of stress and get snippy – let it go. Best of all, go with Rick – he’ll let it slide unless you go off the deep end, *and* he’ll let you apologize gracefully (I know, that *could* be sarcasm, but it’s not).

As your bus is coming into the town, look for landmarks – Tribunales, parks, churches, banks, taxi stands, etc. Have your compass out, and try to fix North in your head (if you can’t, that’s OK – it will come). The bus ride is where I still get anxious. I often end up getting off WAAAY too early (click on “bus” in the tag cloud, and you will see what I mean). Wait till you can see the central park and/or central market, then ring to stop. Many bus terminals are within a couple of blocks of the central park (bigger towns have multiple terminals, and many small towns don’t have terminals). Sometimes it is difficult to tell if you are even in the right town. I find that bus passengers are very friendly, and love to tell you that your town is still ahead (and they aren’t pulling you leg).

Stop, look, and listen. When you get off the bus, your first instinct is to walk - anywhere. Don’t! Find a place to sit, or stand out of the press of people. Pull out your map and compass. Be discreet but not paranoid. Notice which direction most of the people are going. Notice which compass direction is uphill (most towns have at least a slight incline), and mark it on your map. Look around for the park, market, church, or other landmark. Look for the bus stop sign – it usually has some (but not always all) interesting information, like where it continues, schedule, and whether the return is from the same place. Keeping up/down and North firmly in mind, put away your compass and map, and start walking. You are looking for the park. Turn a few corners. Look for trees and spires.

Stop and smell the orchids. When you find the park, have a seat! This is a good time to update your map. Mark the bus stop and any landmarks you noticed on the way. I like to do this several times in a visit, and add stores, restaurants, schools, whatever. Mostly I just like parks . Don’t worry if you can’t remember exactly how many blocks or turns. Just mark what you think is right, and check it on the return. I once added an entire block to Grecia’s downtown – it stayed that way for nearly a week (no one seemed to notice the longer walk).

Ask and ask again. I have rarely had trouble finding the park within a few blocks, but in larger towns, you may want to step into a shop and ask. Also, if you have any destination in mind, like a bookstore or a Chinese restaurant, but you don’t have an “address,” just ask around. I have had conversations in parks that turned towards recommendations for restaurants and stores, and I have asked bookstore owners for directions to a close Chinese restaurant. I’ve asked bank guards and bus drivers about which street we were on. Sometimes you get an answer that is wrong, because (as my Spanish teacher says) Ticos don’t like to say they don’t know something, but most of the time you get the right direction. If you don’t find what you are looking for, ask again (and remember, stay flexible).

Helpful information:

· Este (East) and Oeste (West) are the directions that start with vowels. Avenues (with a vowel) go East and West. Towns are a rough grid, with street numbers (rarely names). Calles are even (2,4,6) West of the center and odd East of the center. Avenidas are even South of the center and odd North of the center. The saw to use is “North-Easterners are Odd.” What do I know about Odd – I’m from California.

· You can usually see the tree-tops of the park and the spires of the church many blocks away.

· The central market is usually within a couple of blocks of the central park.

· Streets hardly ever have signs. Sometimes even bank-guards do not know which street their bank is on.

· Usually the wait between buses is half an hour or less.

· Banks usually have bathrooms available.

· Most of this will also work in San José, but there is so much more to deal with. I start with an actual city map here.

I’ll post some of my maps soon – you can see how messed up things can get :(

Thursday, December 13, 2007

August 04, 2007 - Costa Rica, But Which Town?

So, we know more about what we are looking for (see my last post), now what? We made a list of towns to check out. We put together this list from word-of-mouth, maps, and driving through towns on our way elsewhere. It is not carved in stone; we can add towns at any point.

Next, we visit! That is possibly the best part. Some towns we go to for the day via the bus, some we stay in a hotel for a few days, some we homestay with a local family, and some we rent an apartment or house for a few months. I believe you get the best information and feel for a town by first doing a homestay (for at least 2 weeks), then renting your own place for a month or two. But, of course, some places just don’t grab you enough to make that kind of investment.

This is also difficult. The objective is essentially to find fault with the towns on your list, and determine whether they go on the “no, not for us” list or the “possibly us, check more” list. It is soooo easy at this point to “overlook” something, or downgrade the importance of a criterion – usually, we get overwhelmed by how nice the people are.

Also, I think the way you get to know the town colors your judgment. If you stayed at a hotel in Orosí, you would never know that the lady who lives across the street from the supermarket sews for a living. You wouldn’t know that there actually *is* a place to get your nails done, and a place to get a massage. If you take a day trip to Sarchí, you wouldn’t know that it has a botanical garden, but if you got off the bus too early , you would get a great introduction to the wood-working business.

It is a strange thing to blog about as well, since this is purely *our* list. I know that many of the towns that we will have on our “no, not for us” list are where others have put down roots – perfect for them. So, disclaimers apply – here are our lists.

Towns Currently Under Consideration

· Alajuela

· Atenas

· Barvas

· Cartago

· Heredia

· Naranjo

· Palmares

· Sarchí

· San Antonio Belén

· San Isidro del General

· San Pedro

· San Ramon

· Santa Bárbara de Heredia

· Tres Rios

· Zarcero

Towns that are “not for us”

· Grecia

· La Fortuna

· Monteverde / Santa Elena

· Nosara

· Orosí

· Paraíso

· Sámara

· San José

· San José de la Montaña

August 04, 2007 - Costa Rica Decision Details

When we first investigated how to retire early, and where we could do this, we made a list of “needs” and “wants” – we’ve both worked on trade studies in our technical careers, so this was nerdy second nature to us ;).

Our original list, and how Costa Rica scored (before our first trip, book & internet investigation only):


· Affordable (can we live there on less than $30,000 / year): Costa Rica has a good exchange rate, medical costs and medical insurance are reasonable, housing is reasonable (especially if you are not in a beach resort)

· Safety (laws, enforcement, history, stability, how does it feel): CR has been a stable democracy for over a century, with one 2-week civil war in 1948. It has no army; the government saw that the main purpose served by the neighboring armies was to control their countries, not to protect them. The people are welcoming and friendly. They are generally happy and caring. The country gets earthquakes, but they build for them (and we are used to this phenomenon, being from California).

· Able to live there year-round (weather, visas, residency): Costa Rica has good weather year-round, with the temperature dependent on the elevation. It is off the hurricane belt, and has many sunny days even in the rainy season. Tourist visas are easy to get, and last 90 days. A three-day trip out of the country is enough to get a new tourist visa for another 90 days. Residency is relatively easy to get.

· Religion (tolerant, doesn’t dominate life and laws, the people are not fanatical): Catholicism is Costa Rica’s official religion, but there are a multitude of other churches and temples. Many major Catholic holy days are also state holidays. Some church buildings (e.g., the basilica in Cartago) are state-funded. Costa Rica farmacias sell birth control; prostitution is legal, abortions are not.

Wants (weighted and scored)

· Language (English, or able to learn fairly easily): Weight = 9, Score = 7. Spanish is spoken in Costa Rica, and many people know some English and French. There are many language schools and tutors.

· Easy to travel “home”: Weight = 7, Score = 8. It is physically possible to drive to Costa Rica from USA, but there are several somewhat-unstable borders to cross. Flying is relatively easy. Cruises stop in Puntarenas and Limón.

· Easy to establish residency: Weight = 9, Score = 8. The Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR) is an organization that helps people immigrate. The information is easy to get, and the immigration laws are such that we could do it without too much risk.

· We fit in (purely feeling): Weight = 9, Score = 8. This is almost simple gut reaction. Are we comfortable walking around the towns? Do we feel energized or depressed? Is it likely we can adjust through all the phases of the culture shock we know is coming?

· Interesting (culture, activities): Weight = 8, Score = 8. Costa Rica is a small country (approximately one eighth the size of California, about as big as from the San Francisco Bay Area to Lake Tahoe). It has a huge diversity of environments (but no snow – boo hoo – when was the last time I actually sought out snow?). Tourism is a large part of the economy, so there are plenty of activities geared toward fun. There are many universities, and the “college culture” that goes with them. There are museums, theaters, and a symphony (but mostly only in San José). Music is a big part of life. Cowboys (sabañeros) are alive and well, contributing fancy horse-back riding, topes, and rodeos to the scene.

· Dangerous diseases (few or none, please): Weight = 7. Score = 7. I am including snakes and bug bites here. There are something like 20 different venomous snakes in Costa Rica, but they are rare in the cities, and only a couple are aggressive. I figure the less you know about something dangerous, the scarier it is. So I intend to learn a *lot* about snakes and bugs. Mosquitoes carry malaria in the wet lowlands (mainly in the far North and South boonies). Dengue fever is on the rise - it is usually not fatal, but gives you a week or two of hell instead (Hawaii has this mosquito-borne disease too). CDC recommends hepatitis shots (this is easy to do, and is a low-risk vaccine). Most of the water is drinkable (we found a few places where we had problems).

· Medical care (accessible and good): Weight = 8, Score = 9. Any resident may buy into the state-run medical insurance ($60/month for both of us. It is less if you are older – yes, *older* - the extra that younger people pay goes towards a pension.). There are several excellent private and public hospitals, but the best ones are in San José. Many of the hospitals in towns have the ability to stabilize you, but then they transfer you to San José. Costa Rica is sometimes known as “Beverly Hills South” because many people come to get cosmetic surgery done on “medical” vacations.

· Expatriate community (available, supportive): Weight = 8, Score = 8. There are many centers for ex-pat support. These include ARCR, internet groups, and local hang-outs in most towns (and they are amazingly easy to find).

Since visiting and living in different towns in Costa Rica, we have fine-tuned our list, and added some more specific things to help narrow the list of towns.

· A Central Park – there is just no substitute

· A Central Market – variety is the spice of life

· Friendly people, with few ulterior motives (this is difficult to determine, and even more difficult to agree on)

· Able to find housing within 10 blocks of the center of town (5 is even better, as we’re still trying to go car-less)

· Feels safe (emphasis in addition to above list) – not necessarily all places in a town (most towns of size anywhere will have *some* “bad” parts), but safe enough that a woman can walk around alone at night

· Climate – cooler elevations (1200-1300 meters or higher); beach is too hot for us

· Community – need to be part of an artist/music/movie community (how far away is too far?) – near UCR, or other center

· Entertainment / Mental Stimulation – we need a town with more than churches and bars (of course, parks are very entertaining)

· Water – must be drinkable (bottled water is available, but too expensive and bothersome)