Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bicycle Racing in Costa Rica

On our walk to further investigate the local grocery stores, we noticed that several of "our" streets were blocked off - so, more investigations!

Just down our block was the end of the last leg of the International Tour of Costa Rica bicycle race! I got there just in time to see (probably) the last guy race to the finish, escorted by half a dozen motorcycle cops :-).

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Quiet Few Days

We just got home after a nice quiet visit with friends – just what we needed after our hectic first few weeks back!

We took several buses on the 24th, watched the fireworks that evening, spent the 25th watching the clouds flit through the blue sky,

and took more buses home again today.

We were forewarned that there would be no bus on the 25th, but completely forgot about the tope (horse parade) that would shut down Paséo Colón today – what a surprise! At least we are becoming used to surprises, and so when the bus turned the “wrong direction” in San José, we weren’t alarmed. But it did throw a monkey wrench into our “bus connection” plans :-S. We ended up walking the pedestrian boulevard instead of riding a bus for part of our return. Not a lot of fun with a guitar and two backpacks. Still, with a late lunch thrown in, we got home in 3 hours, none the worse for wear.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happiness Around the World

Sign seen while waiting in an office:
¨Gaiety takes you halfway to good health.¨

It reminded me of my quote (on the right) - ¨Every hour spent angry is 60 minutes of happiness wasted.¨

Nice to see this sentiment, wherever you are!

Fixing our Caja – Costa Rican Medical Insurance

One *big* thing we had on our ¨must do¨ list was to fix our Costa Rican medical insurance – the Caja. Rick was fine, but he was still affiliated with the Alajuela clinic (he registered there last year when we lived there). All he had to do was to change the affiliation to San Pedro. But *mine* - ugh! Last year, we didn´t have a recent marriage certificate, and so we couldn´t get my affiliation set up at all! So, this time we came armed :-). We had a marriage certificate, plus we got a copy of our translated and stamped marriage certificate from our residency package (now 3 years old). No problem!

Friday, we walked around asking people where the clinic was, and found it (after it was closed, of course) – it is only a block away!

This morning, we went in and changed Rick´s papers, and got mine started. I have to call after Thursday to find out when to come in and get my card (and this is Christmas week, when you don´t expect to get *anything* done)!

After we have our cards, we can make an appointment to see a doctor – but we have to do that by coming into the clinic at 6:00 a.m - SIX in the MORNING!

Friday, December 19, 2008

December 18, 2008 - Our Carrito!

We found a shopping cart! Here we were, all set to go on another hunt for the Cemaco in Zapote – find the right bus, find the store, look for the cart, get back home… Ugh! Sure, we’ll probably have to find the Cemaco eventually, but if it can wait a while, so much the better. What did we do to avoid this headache? We decided to just stroll through a couple of our local department stores – we have a Yamuni and a Muñoz y Nanne right down our street, so we looped through. And found it! They are quite a bit more expensive than those I had seen in the Target in California tho – Target = $10, MyN = c21,000 (about $38). Still, when you are talking about saving your hands and back from lugging groceries home, you don’t quibble so much.

While at MyN, we also found some *round* shower curtain rings – the “rings” on our curtain are oval, and not quite wide enough for the shower rod. Often, the shower rods here are pretty small – about ½ the diameter of those you can find in the states – so the smaller rings would work. But (of course) *our* shower rod is bigger. And yes, size *does* sometimes matter :-D.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Alajuela Living: Pros and Cons

I’ve been putting off posting a review of living in Alajuela, and I’ve finally figured out why. I didn’t want to write anything negative about it! Our rule for town reviews is to write pros *and* cons, and Alajuela has always felt good – I didn’t want to dig for bad.

Well, since our plan for Costa Rica is to live in several towns for several months each before deciding where to settle down, we have to try to stand back; we have to toss the rose-colored glasses. I struggled with the Orosí review as well.

During our visits, we have been trying to keep in mind that we are looking for the best place for us - this is difficult because it is so easy to focus on the positive and ignore or downplay any negatives. It is easy to say "Oh, we can live without that," etc.

We lived in Alajuela for 4 months, from the end of the rainy season until the end of the dry season. When we left, we kept it on our list as a possibility. We let our impressions settle for a while, then came up with this list of Pros and Cons.

Costa Rica update
  • Affordable: While still affordable, CR has gotten more expensive.
  • Safety: We believe CR is getting more violent.
  • Year-round living: We have our residency (no change in outlook)
  • Religion: We’ve seen many saints’ processionals, we’ve met more people who attend church, but are not fanatics. However, Alajuela central park often had yelling bible-thumpers. (no change in outlook)
  • Interesting (culture, activities): There are many universities, 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. A question we still have is how easy is it to get involved?
  • Dangerous diseases (few or none, please): Dengue fever is on the rise.
  • Medical care (accessible and good): We bought into the state-run medical insurance ($61/month for both of us). There are several excellent private and public hospitals, but the best ones are in San José. I had surgery – so far, so good.
  • Water – must be drinkable (bottled water is available, but too expensive and bothersome). Neither of us could drink the tap water without some degree of discomfort; we ended up using bottled or filtered water for drinking and for making soup and coffee. This has been true in every town so far, so we have decided that we will need a water filter for anywhere we live in Costa Rica. We found a faucet-mounted water filter at EPA in Escazú, and brought a large supply of the replacement filters from the states.

Alajuela Overview (see here - - for data**): Alajuela is a large city – it is the second largest city in Costa Rica, and has about 72,000 people. It is the city nearest the “San José” airport. It is about 17 km West of San José (560,000 people). It is in the central valley - a bit lower in elevation (918 m / 3015 ft) than San José (1146 m / 3763 ft).

  • Friendly people – Alajuela has some of the friendliest people! On our nearly daily walks, we exchange smiles and greetings with many people. We have met and become friends with many people there. Alajuela is on par with small towns in its friendliness. We felt much more welcomed than in Grecia (for example).
  • We fit in (purely a feeling): We are comfortable walking around Alajuela. The neighbourhoods make us feel energized.
  • Very few of the helpful people have ulterior motives (e.g., they genuinely want to help; they are not just trying to sell you something).
  • Alajuela is not a tourist town, but we saw a lot of travellers.
  • A Central Park – Alajuela has an excellent central park, as well as many others. We regularly walked through 3 on our short trip to the bus station; all are beautiful and relaxing.
  • Excellent central market; a lot to chose from. However, we didn’t shop there often enough to develop a sense of what were fair prices. There is also a weekly farmers market, verdurerías, and super markets.
  • Good doctors are available in town; there are both a clinic and a hospital. It is a decent bus ride (20-45 minutes) to San José for private hospitals and major public hospitals.
  • Easy to find things – it is a large town, and the provincial capital, so most items are available (shoemakers, tailors, spices, appliances, furniture, bedding, “unusual” medications). Specialty items (CPAP) are available in San José.
  • Many ethnic restaurants – Chinese, Columbian, Peruvian, Italian, Tex-Mex…
  • (Pro for Julie) ¨Good¨ climate - not too humid, a little bit too hot. “Hot” was 84-87 inside. A fan helped, and Julie got used to the heat. At the peak-heat time of day, there was usually a nice breeze, so going outside (like to a park:)) helped. Our apartment got pretty cold at night – 67 was not uncommon (a thicker blanket would have been welcome).

  • (Con for Rick) Climate – Rick needs a cooler elevation (perhaps 1200-1300 meters or higher); Alajuela’s elevation is about 900, and is on the hot side. Temperatures in the upper 80s were common. It was too hot for Rick.
  • Somewhat difficult to have a horse nearby, but there is a stable. We didn’t see any riders.
  • Not as affordable as smaller towns – rent was double; food was more expensive.
  • Few opportunities for social interactions and meeting new people. There were few events for such a large town (although the soccer stadium had games and a few concerts). Limited to “hang-outs” such as Jalapeño’s, and private parties.
  • Able to find housing within 10 blocks of the center of town – we found an apartment that was 5 blocks from the central park, but it is more expensive than in smaller towns. It was also hard to find!
  • Feels safe (emphasis in addition to above list) – safe enough that a woman can walk around alone at night? I used to do this in Alajuela, but now I would think twice about going by myself after dark.
  • Community – need to be part of an artist/music/movie community (how far away is too far?) – near UCR, or other center. Didn’t find this in Alajuela.
  • Entertainment / Mental Stimulation – we need a town with more than churches and bars (of course, parks are very entertaining) – Difficult to find.

** use some caution when looking at populations – this site counts the population within a 7 km circle. So, large towns are under-represented and small towns get more population than actually live in town.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sabana Cementerio Bus Route

The Sabana Cementerio has two routes in San José, and is c115.

The only part of route #1 that we know about so far is that it goes from the park near ARCR to the park near Clínica Bíblica, and ends at the CCSS (the central Caja).

Route #2 starts around the corner from the terminus of the San Pedro bus, near the East end of the pedestrian boulevard. It goes to the North of the Paséo Colón, past the central Banco National (at the North end of the pedestrian boulevard), past the Mercado Central, near Coca Cola (many bus terminals to other cities are here), then past the park near ARCR, and to the East end of La Sabana park – the stop is across the pista, next to the national gymnasium. Then it takes Avenida 10 (South of Paséo Colón) turns up Calle 5, goes past the CCSS (central Caja) on Avenida 2, then back to the starting point.

San Pedro Bus Route

We have another bus route to add to our repertoire. :-)

Although we haven’t yet ridden the bus through most of San Pedro, we take it *all* the time into San José! We catch it across the main street from the Outlet Mall (this isn’t full of outlet stores, it’s just the name of the mall). It is c185, and goes straight down Avenida Central to the terminus near the East end of the pedestrian boulevard.

The return takes you South one block, then East, following the old railroad tracks. This road curves back up to become Avenida Central again, where the route goes past the San Pedro Mall, the circunvalación, the Outlet Mall, and into San Pedro.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

December 16, 2008 - Fixed!

Ahhh – today was a day of fixes.

Although the day was not pleasant *at all,* we did get a lot of long-standing items checked off.

We got up early, skipped breakfast, and took two buses to Clínica Bíblica for my surgery follow-up. I got blood tests, an endoscopy, and met with my doctor. All good news! I have a clean bill of health, I can stop taking medication, and have no more restrictions on what I can eat :-).

To top that off, when we got back to the apartment, we found the landlady working away! She was replacing the hot water system *and* the leaky sink faucet! AND I was able to put our water filter on the new faucet! Ahhh, life is good again!

Some costs (with 10% ARCR cash discount):
- complete hemogram = c10,400
- full lipid panel = c18,500
- fasting glucose = c3,600
- TSH = c18,500
- endoscopy = c58,500

Monday, December 15, 2008

December 15, 2008 - Apartment Woes

Apartment woes - or is that “Whoas”?!?

We lept a little fast this time – we keep learning lessons from our past visits, but sometimes they are the wrong lessons for the current visit… I guess that is a life-lesson :-P

We’ve been in the apartment for almost a week, and we still haven’t seen our landlady long enough to get a contract, pay the rent (wow! Really strange, since we expected to have to pay and sign before moving in.), get more than one set of keys, get the electric and phone bill (we need the phone bill to get internet started up), etc – certainly different than every time before…

So, our apartment has some drawbacks:
  • The sink is leaky, and too small to fit our water filter. On our past stays, we had discovered to our dismay that we can’t really handle too much of the water without filtering it – so we have a nice little filter that fits right on the faucet. And we brought down a year’s supply of replacement filters :-)
  • The water heater is a very small tank, not on-demand, and so it doesn’t quite last a shower – we are taking “Navy” showers – get wet, turn off the water, soap up, then rinse – and the rinse ends a bit cool…
  • The pila doesn’t get much sun, so clothes on the line take a couple of days to dry, even when there is no rain. (yes, that was a hint – I did do some laundry, by hand…).
  • We don’t have internet set up, but there is some hope here. Cable is available, and there is a landline. And the apartment has had internet before.

We called our landlady (Friday), and she said she would send someone to look at the hot water situation. Well, someone came out Monday, checked it out, and said that the water heater worked the way it was supposed to, but it just wasn’t big enough for us. He had some recommendations for replacing it with a bigger one. Hmmm – given our past experiences, we aren’t holding out any hope for anything to change.

What to do? We went through some possibilities – we decided that we couldn’t continue with the cold showers, so we got a newspaper and started looking at more apartment ads. We took our deep breath, and were just about to make some calls, when our landlady says she is sending someone the next morning to change the tank – WOW! Unheard of! We let a glimmer of hope through, and delayed our calls…

Sunday, December 14, 2008

December 14, 2008 - Sunday in the Park with Friends

Today we caught up with some more friends! We met Norman, Isabel, and Nico in La Sabana park – Nico is now 2 years old! He didn’t quite remember us, but we didn’t scare him either :-).

We hadn’t been to La Sabana park before, just ridden buses past it, so it was nice to experience the park as well.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

December 13, 2008 - Festival de la Luz

Today is for celebrating! We have an apartment with a guest room, a set of warm blankets, and a parade with a friend!

Linda drove out to our side of things (she was our guest-room guinea pig :-D) – we went out to lunch at Machu Picchu (a Peruvian restaurant near our apartment), showed her around our neighbourhood a bit, then caught the bus into San José for the Festival de la Luz!

The Festival de la Luz is an evening parade with lighted floats and bands. It starts at 6:00 with a fireworks show.

And Santa arrives on a moto!

For us, it started at 5:30 with a light drizzle :-(. By 6:00, it was raining! We were soaked, and already tired of standing – we were at the end of the parade route, and knew that the parade would last several hours. So – we took a vote and left early. We watched the fireworks as we walked back to our bus, and watched the parade on the television as we dried off at an Italian restaurant (the pizza is good, and so is the pesto fettuccini). We did have some fun tho – “look at all that rain! I think that’s sleet, isn’t it?”

One thing that was so surprising – at least until you think about the culture – is that a 9-year old girl was sitting, waiting for the parade to start, and her father said “let’s go, there is a lot of rain” – and she went! Without a *bit* of complaining! Maybe she was miserable sitting there, but she didn’t show it. And parades are such a big thing for kids. Still, you see so few spoiled kids here.

Next year, we’re thinking we’ll try for a party room on the route – do the parade thing the grown-up (spoiled?) way…

Friday, December 12, 2008

December 12, 2008 - The Elusive Hypermás

Today we are on a mission – go to Hypermás, price some items, and get one of those hand-carts for bringing home groceries. Doesn’t sound like too much, does it? HAH!

Step #1 – find the right bus. Well, already we are hosed. We knew the Hypermás was in Curridabat (a nearby town), and we new the buses went right by our main street (1/2 a block a way). We also (almost) knew that we should be able to see Hypermás from the road. So, we go out and look – we get on the Curridabat bus, and start looking out the windows. No Hypermás. We’re at the end of the line, in Tirrases. No Hypermás. We ask the bus driver (who is very kind) – he says that “the muchacho” will drive us. When we ask “the muchacho” how much, he say c3,000 – yikes! Are you kidding!? We just got off a c250 bus (not the turnip truck, you know). So, we find out from more bus driver conversations that we need to take the same bus back to the main road, then take a different bus (one headed for Tres Ríos), and that will get us to Hypermás. Only we don’t quite absorb the bit about the second bus… So, we get the return bus, the other kind driver tells us where to get off, and we do. We walk around a lot, looking for The Elusive Hypermás. Finally, we compare notes about what we heard, and ask a group of people sitting at a bus stop – they confirm that we need to catch the next Tres Ríos bus. Ahhh – we *do* see Hypermás from the road, and the bus driver stops and points it out for us. We climb the grassy knoll, cross the pista (the freeway), and we’re there!

Step #2 – look for stuff. Not too bad – this is basically a really big store, full of groceries on one side, and housewares and sporting goods on the other. Some of the prices (@ approximately c550 per dollar):
- 21” TV c92,000
- Tico semi-automatic clothes washer c164,000 (this is 20” wide, and so would fit through our 26” pila doorway)
- Weight set c61,000
- Plates c390
We decided to buy a coverlet (king size, c25,000) – San Pedro nights are just a bit on the cool side for me; even three of our (thin) blankets weren’t warm enough. We also saw (amazing, since I had been looking for this *all* last year) foam mattress tops (the egg-crate kind) for about c7,000 (twin).

Step #3 – buy grocery cart. Hmmm – not a one in sight. We looked for one of these all last year, and finally (at the end of our stay, of course) someone said that Hypermás and Cemaco had them. Well, Hypermás does not! We finally asked the nice lady, and she said “try Cemaco” :-D. We went back and asked her what the right word was for the item, and she didn’t know – she said maybe “carrito” or “carretillo.”

Step #4 – get home. This wasn’t so bad at least. The nice lady pointed out the direction of the bus stop, and we went. Caught a likely-looking bus, and got off just a couple of blocks from our apartment.

Step #5 – relax!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

December 11, 2008 - Moving Day # 2

We finished our move today :-D.

We spent our last morning in our apartotel, finished our breakfast food, got our small remnants of suitcases together, and got a taxi to our new apartment. This was our first taxi ride since coming back (not counting the airport taxi on arrival). The base rate is now c470 – the few blocks ended up at c650. But at least we didn’t have to cross the circunvalación (this is the freeway-like, *very* busy street that circles San José) lugging suitcases!

I measured our apartment, just for curiosity’s sake – it is 525 square feet plus a 65 square-foot pila. Quite a bit smaller than our 1600 square-foot house in California!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

December 10, 2008 - Moving Day # 1

Today is Moving Day (well, day #1 anyway)!

While Rick went to the apartment to meet with the landlady, I went to meet our Taxi de Carga and move our stuff from our friend’s house. I caught the San Pedro bus into San José, then walked the pedestrian mall (the section of downtown that is open to pedestrians only) towards the Alajuela bus terminal. I had checked on my map, and the terminus was just a couple of blocks past the end of the pedestrian section. So, I didn’t worry about counting blocks, looking for landmarks, etc – all the things you normally do. Well! Lucky me – the pedestrian mall had been extended – it went a few blocks further, and so (of course) did I. Arg! I walked about 10 minutes longer, past the hospital (a veeery long block), and finally asked an Alajuela-San-José bus driver where the terminus was (it was a StationWagon bus). He started to tell me, but then said to just hop on and he would take me – whoo hooo! I did just what I had seen so many others do – I got on, but didn’t cross the bar (the light bar that counts passengers). We went *all* the way back to the end of the pedestrian mall, and turned one block. Geez. He pulled into the StationWagon terminus, and pointed to the directo bus – I thanked him (profusely!). The tough thing is that I needed the Tuasa directo bus – its terminus in Alajuela is just a few blocks from where I was to meet Arturo (our moving guy). The StationWagon terminus was *quite* a few blocks more. So, I ducked around a bus (out of sight of my so kind driver), and walked a block to the Tuasa bus. The bus left shortly, and I got to Alajuela with no problem (bus fare is now about c425). I walked to the Palí, but I was earlier than planned, so I bought some snacks for later. When I called Arturo, he picked me up and explained that there was *another* Palí – he was expecting me there :-(. I still don’t know where this is…

We drove to Bodegas (a small town between Grecia and Alajuela), and loaded up the truck. It looked like everything was well-padded and tied down, but at the end of the day, our bedframes got pretty dinged up – paint scratched off and some connections bent. Some of the bolts had come out, and we lost a nut – but Arturo had a replacement (and a wrench), so we at least got them working again.

It took us less than an hour and a half to drive to our apartment (including a stop in Los Yoses to pick up our monster suitcases from the apartotel), then just a short time (certainly less than an hour) to unload and set up.

Apartments in Costa Rica are not usually clean when you move in – often you can get the keys a day or two ahead and clean it yourself, but we had forgotten this. Besides, we were in a hurry to get into our own place :-D. So, we were very happy to unload some storage bags and find cleaning supplies! We had expected that our friend would use these, but she knew we would use them right away – she was soooo right! We spent some time doing a little bit of cleaning – we still don’t have a new broom or mop, so we were somewhat limited. But! we got the living room set up, bathroom necessities available, and the beds made – what more do you really need? The kitchen can wait for tomorrow!

All told, I left San Pedro at 10:15, and we were cleaned up and out for coffee and a snack by 3:30. The trip totalled c185 (bus) + c425 (bus) + c1500 (moving snacks) + c50,000 (mover).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cinema in Costa Rica!

We just got back from the movies! We saw James Bond – Quantum of Solace. If you don’t know, it is largely set in Bolivia (a Spanish-speaking country – remember that, it’s important…).

We got there a bit earlier than we needed to – it started at 6:40, and we were in our seats by 6:30 (us and another couple). At 6:40 on the dot, the lights dimmed, commercials were aired, more people came in… Reminded me of going to the movies in small-town USA (we once arrived a few minutes into the pre-movie commercial, and they offered to re-start it for us – can you see that happening now? Anywhere?). The price was reasonable - c1800, or about $3.25 each. I think the last time I saw a movie in California, it was $10 (and it was a matinee).

An e-friend (you know who you are) tells me that there is a cine in Curridabat where they bring your dinner and wine orders to your plush seat - just like a restaurant, but with big-screen entertainment - Now that sounds too good to be true!

Most live-action movies in Costa Rica are in the original language (usually English), with Spanish subtitles. Note that most *cartoon* movies are in Spanish. Sooo, if you really want to know if your Spanish is up to snuff, go see a movie in Costa Rica that is set in a Spanish-speaking country – like Bolivia… You will find that whenever the characters speak Italian, French, Spanish, or whatever-not-English, the usual I-depend-on-them-but-not-for-long English subtitles are (you guessed it) not *there!* They continue with the Spanish ones - *except* when the characters are speaking Spanish – then NONE!

I suggest starting with an action-adventure movie, where dialog isn’t really all that important anyway. This is in no way meant to slam these movies, which I like – they’re fun!

Festival de la Luz

This Saturday is the annual Festival de la Luz in San José!
Things are starting to ramp up for it - here is an article from Inside Costa Rica:

The Festival is an evening parade of lights down the main drag of the city - the city center is shut down to traffic for hours before.

San Jose Banco National Central

Yesterday we picked up our new bank cards! As we left, we made sure that the building we *thought* was the central Banco National really was the right one :-). (it was – the really tall building near the Mercado Central) We took the San Pedro bus to the terminus, then hopped on the cementerio bus to our bank. We went to customer service on the second floor, saw the line, and said “hmmm, let’s come back after lunch.” So, we walked down the pedestrian boulevard looking for cheap eats. These are amazingly difficult to find! We finally found a soda (cafeteria style) tucked in the back of a panaderia – after that, lunch was *fast!*

We got back to the bank, got our ticket, and sat down to wait. Well, I saw our number come up, and then – boom! – it went right past us! I looked around (with a good, confused look on my face – really, who could help it?), and the woman sitting next to me asked what was wrong? Well, she explained that they were only on the black numbers, and I had a green number – arg! I still had a *hundred* people in front of me! But then – I can *not* get over how *nice* people are here! – she handed me a black number! Said it was for me! She had two, and only needed one. (Note to self – next time, get two numbers and do the same for someone else.)

We had completely forgotten about getting a ticket first, then going to lunch. Another thing to remember…

So instead of god knows how long, we only spent an hour (including lunch) waiting. Then we spent 15 minutes getting our brand new bank cards – this is the branch of the bank that stamps the cards from blanks. We could have waited a couple more days and gotten them from our local branch, but we had no other good way to get cash. We immediately checked them at the ATM in the lobby of the bank – success!

Afterwards, we decided to see just how long a walk it was back to our San Pedro bus – not bad at all! The pedestrian boulevard goes all the way East to the bus terminus, and is an easy walk. It looks long on the map – but is only 6 short blocks, with lots to see on the way. We found a Pop’s (yummy ice cream) right before the end – did we stop? Of course!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Our Local Supermarket

I can’t *believe* our new “local supermarket” is the Auto-Mercado! This is *the* most expensive market around – it mainly carries high-end, hard-to-find products. The best example of this is a scant double-handful of cherries – you won’t believe this – is $25 (TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS)!

So, we didn’t buy cherries… We did ok – got some breakfast basics for about the same (if you count inflation) as in Alajuela. Skipped the $40 scotch too.

And after we move into our new apartment - yay! - we'll be closer to others - Más x Menos and another.

To be fair, Auto-Mercado is a great place to go when you have a yen for something you can’t find easily. They probably have it, and you can survive another few months :-D.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

House Hunting – Success!

House-hunting this time was much easier than last year in Alajuela! This is partly due to all those lessons we learned from our previous attempts, and partly because the economy is not so strong.

Last year, we were staying in Alajuela, and we started looking for an apartment or house in San Pedro. Since San Pedro is on the other side of the capital city from where we were staying, it was difficult to even know where to start looking. So lesson #1 – stay near where you want to live while you look. We were also looking exclusively for a furnished place. Even after we gave up on San Pedro, we found it very difficult to find a furnished place – so, lesson #2 – go for unfurnished if necessary, and buy the basics. We tried craigslist (online) and La Nación (a newspaper), but without exception, the advertised apartments were rented by the time we called – even on the same day! So, we started walking around the neighbourhoods asking people in the street about unoccupied apartments or houses; we looked for posts in ICE offices, internet cafes, and pulperias (small grocery stores). We put the word out to anyone who would listen, and finally found an apartment. Lesson #3 – walk around and ask *everyone* - don’t rely exclusively on advertisements.

This year, we stayed in Apartotel Los Yoses ( - we booked a week (lesson #1). Yesterday, while walking around the neighborhood, we went into two hostels to ask about housing. We decided to reserve a room at one of them ( for the following week, just in case. We asked (lesson #3) at the coffee shop in the mall, we asked the bank guard, we asked at the lunch counter down the street… I even posted for help on my favorite forums. The hostel folks pointed us in one direction, and on the way, we talked to the street guard. He kindly called his boss, who drove down, picked us up, and showed us his apartment for rent in Los Yoses. It was nice! 2 bedrooms, 1 ½ baths, Living room, dining room, kitchen, pila (laundry patio), and a maid’s room / bathroom. Unfurnished (lesson #2), for $400/month. The only real problem is that he required a year’s lease – and we aren’t certain enough of our plans to commit to that. So, when we got back to our hotel, we got out La Nación and Al Día and started calling. We got through to a couple of places, and made an appointment for today to see one.

Today, Paulina came by to pick us up and showed us an apartment in San Pedro – it is about a block off the main road, close to UCR, close to the outlet mall, close to… pretty much everything we need :-D. It is partly-furnished (lesson #2), has 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, kitchen, living room, and pila. Short-term is no problem, and the rent is $400/month – we look around the apartment some more, Paulina drives us around the neighborhood, pointing out grocery stores, dance classes, bus stops, the Monge, restaurants, etc. As she drops us off at our hotel, we say we’ll take it! Woo hoo! We move on Wednesday!

Now – to work! And play some – the James Bond movie is still playing at the mall…

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Unexpected Tasks – What Did You Expect?

I don’t think we really have “unexpected tasks” anymore – we pretty much expect that there will be things that we have to do (tasks) that we didn’t think we’d have to deal with (unexpected).

Friday (our first full day in Costa Rica) was full of these things. The first thing you always have to deal with in a new place is getting oriented. This one was pretty easy – we are right across the street from Mall San Pedro – we had been there before on a previous trip. This time, we found the pedestrian signal light – the *safe* way to cross the street.

Our first problem to deal with was money – we had left our small stash of colones in the states, as well as our single Costa Rican bank card. We had some dollars, but not a lot. And we had no breakfast. We cross to the mall, find several ATMs, but none are working for us. We find our bank, but it isn’t open until 1:00. We’re a bit cranky – no food, surrounded by restaurants! We finally decided to charge a sandwich – who’s picky at this point? Well, really, who’s *thinking* at this point! We go back to our hotel, ask about other banks, and find out that (duh!) there were several other banks in the mall. Shoot! We go back, change all our dollars to colones at a different bank, have a nice conversation with the bank guard about English, Spanish, and apartment-hunting, get some *wonderful* coffee, and decide to just wait until our bank opens.

We’re in line at 10 minutes till 1:00, and only have a short wait to see our banking expert. We should have thought of this before, but as it turns out, this was a more necessary trip than we thought! We needed to get a new bank card to replace the one left behind. But, because we got new passports, the number changed. Because the number changed, we had to update our account reference. So, we got all that taken care of – and I even got my own card this time :-D. It is amazing how much paperwork this sort of thing takes – we spent over an hour at the desk, and our guy was typing and stamping the entire time! It is a Friday, and so we can pick up our new cards on Monday (if we go to the central office. We would wait until Wednesday if we wanted to pick them up at the local branch). Meanwhile, we can’t do any transactions (online or in line) until we get our new cards. Contrast this a bit with our situation in Alajuela last year – the ATM ate our card, and the guy inside got us money using our passport. We got a new card in roughly the same amount of time.

Next stop – lunch (seems like we’re eating all the time!), then catch some buses to ARCR on the other side of town. *This* was *great!* We had planned to find out more about the bus system through San Jose – it seems so complicated, especially when you are coming from another city, and need to get to the other side of San Jose. Well, we took two buses, and it was *easy!* I think I’ll have to post separately about the details.

We got to ARCR about 3:30, and signed up for AeroCasillas so we can get mail forwarded from the states. Then we got the ball rolling on looking for an apartment.

We took the same 2 buses back to our hotel, and relaxed a bit – contacted some friends, got on the internet. It felt good to get so much accomplished, even if some of it was not on our original list :-)

Still Moving…

After a lovely week of visiting family and finalizing our address changes, shopping, re-packing, and doing all those infinitely-added-to list of thing to do, we are ready (almost!) to fly to Costa Rica.

We got up at 4 a.m., and threw the last items in our bags. Then (arg!) we weighed the final bag – 54 pounds! 4 pounds over! We hurriedly decide we don’t really need that toiletry bag, this item can go in carry-on, and that shirt can pad the banjo. We now have 3 bags at 50 lbs, one at 70 lbs, 2 max-sized carry-ons, a banjo, another carry-on, and a medical equipment bag that doesn’t count. Plus, we have coats and an umbrella (these count either). Are we the ugly travellers now, or what!?

We leave by 5:15, and notice the temperature is 36 degrees – okay! Time to start thinking about warm Costa Rica!

We get to the San Francisco airport in good time – 3 hours almost to the minute. We unload the car and say goodbye to Mom and Brother. We still don’t know when we will return, so it was a bit more difficult this time.

Well! So we get to the counter – no line! But (BUT!) OMG… I could have *sworn* I read the website correctly, but it must have been wishful thinking – San Jose (Costa Rica) flights don’t allow *overweight* bags! This is now (barely) peak season, so only 2 checked bags each, and only 50 lbs each bag. ARG! We sort through the heavy bag, looking for small, heavy items – succeed in pulling out 20 pounds, and re-distribute in carry-ons. I cannot get my sling bag zipped. Too bad. It’s going. (oh, soooo ugly!)

In all this chaos, we now can’t find our baggies of liquids. At least the line in security is also not bad – we keep telling people they can go around us – they didn’t seem too PO’d. We finally find one baggy – we figured we must have left the other one at the house. We proceed. We have to:
- take off shoes
- take out 2 laptops
- take out the CPAP
- take out the DVD player. Yes, we brought it – padded with 4 pounds of clothes :-)
- take out the baggy of liquids
- go back through the beep-beep machine, empty pockets…
Then we get to do the reverse! People *really* love us now, and it’s only gonna get better.

So, we get to our gate, relax, get some juice and a bit of food. Rick starts to look for his pack of important papers, and *CAN’T FIND THEM* - we’ve now used up our quota of panic. We find the USA cell phone and Mom’s cell phone number – call. They pull off the road and look – they find. They are 50 minutes away, and our flight boards in just about that amount of time. So – plan B. We’ll deal with all this later…

Now we get to make more friends – carrying on all that *stuff!* Some anxiety later, we are safely ensconced in our seats, “stuff” stowed. This time we fly through Houston, Texas – never done it before. Houston is *lovely* from the air! Trees all over the place, river and delta gleaming in the sunlight. The airport has *got* to have the longest taxi distance in the world! But our connecting flight is not very far, and there is a food court in between. After a little more anxiety, we again get all our stuff stowed, and away we went!

Got into the San Jose airport with no problem, about 10:00 pm. Went through the resident’s line at immigration and showed our old passports with the residency stamp, our copy of our cedula renewal appointment, and my cedula. Rick’s cedula is in the “pack of important papers,” but all the other documents we had seemed to suffice. We got our entry stamps in our new passports, and we’re off to collect our many suitcases!

What a line! We had no problem finding suitcases, but had to wait for 2 carts for them. Then the line for customs was all the way to the back of the baggage claim area – I stopped looking at the time… The lovely customs lady came down the line collecting our customs papers, we got all our bags through the viewing machine, and rolled on – no one seemed to be checking any bags other than that. So, pretty smooth.

We got our taxi to Los Yoses ($30). I had looked into using Interbus – it was advertised as $7 each to San Jose, but we would only be allowed one bag each. (something for others to keep in mind tho – you just need to reserve it 72 hrs ahead). Our taxi driver knew right where the hotel was – thankfully, since I had emailed for directions, but not yet received them (they were in my inbox when I checked it the next day – from the hotel - LOL).

Got checked in, and conked out a bit after midnight (75 degrees)…

On the Move Again!

We’re on the move again! This time, we packed up the house in California, and got it ready to rent out. We have been splitting our time for the past 3 years between California and Costa Rica, but keeping our base in California. Now it’s time to switch the pattern!

Our saga (this time) started a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving – our decision date for leaving or staying a while longer arrived, and it looked like the best thing to do was to go. So *bam!* we had to get crackin’ – we had already made plans to visit with my family for Thanksgiving, so that became our deadline for moving out of the house. We contacted a rental agent and set up the transfer of everything, got a moving van, and packed, packed, packed! Dad and Brother drove down early on “the day” and then we all spent SEVEN (7!) hours loading the van and finishing the packing. We finally got down to only a couple of “I don’t know” boxes (you know, those things that you just don’t know what to do with, so you toss them in a box, tape it up, and deal with it later). We had already had a couple of donation pick-ups earlier in the week, and couldn’t set up a final one (nor a final “large” garbage pick-up). So, we also had to load up quite a bit of stuff that we donated in my family’s town. It’s amazing what 13+ years of nooks and crannies can accumulate!

We finally got loaded, and took a small break before taping up the “final bathroom box” and heading out. This is now Tuesday evening of Thanksgiving week – and peak rush hour. We were a bit apprehensive, but it turned out that there was only an extra hour on the entire trip – a total of 4 hours driving, with the first hour and a half in stop-and-go traffic. I was driving the (26 foot) van, and noticed what could have been either really rough road, or really bad tire. So, I pulled off and checked – Dad was right behind me (yay! I’m not really alone!), and all the tires were good. Now to get back on the freeway – ouch! Can’t go back the way I came off – get directions, run up a curb. what fun…

Safe and sound at my folks’ home – we unload just what we need for the night and conk out. The next morning, we start unloading – a couple of hours to fill the carport and 2 rooms of Mom and Dad’s house with boxes of stuff (weren’t *they* happy!), then a few more unloading at the storage shed. Got the van gassed up and returned (one more check on the list!).

Thanksgiving day, we spent sorting through boxes for re-packing and donating – then took a truck load over to donate, and a few more items to storage. Whew! got the rooms (mostly) cleared in time for the family dinner on Friday. The stress level is going *down!*

Now we have a week to finish our “to do” list :-)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

High Tech in Costa Rica

So I'm a geek at heart. I get a little excited when I read about cutting edge technology. And when it happens to coincide with Costa Rica, well! I think I need to get a fainting couch :-D.

Costa Rica's favorite technical son is Franklin Chang, the ASTRONAUT. But wait! Costa Rica doesn't *have* a space program, does it?!? Nope (not yet). Franklin Chang emigrated from Costa Rica to the United States. He became a USA citizen, a NASA astronaut, and flew seven missions (he is tied for first place for the most missions). Because of *him,* Costa Rica changed its citizenship laws** to allow for dual citizenship - otherwise, he would have had to give up his Costa Rican citizenship, which would have been just too sad for everyone.

Since retiring from NASA, he has been focused on his plasma engine development company, Ad Astra Rocket, which is located in Texas and Costa Rica.

PBS interviewed him, and you can see the video of it here - definitely worth watching:

And the technical news that got me started? Plasma engines! Ad Astra announced a successful test - love those milestones :-)

A note on names, if you are not familiar with the Spanish convention - A person (e.g., Franklin Chang Díaz) has two last names, the primary is his father's primary last name (Chang), and the secondary is his mother's primary last name (Díaz). Women do not change their names when they marry, but may alternatively be known as "de [husband's primary last name]" (de Chang). So, when you see the name "Franklin Chang Díaz" in Costa Rica, it is the same as "Franklin Chang" or "Franklin Chang D." This can cause confusion for emigres (in both directions). In the United States, he kept both names by hyphenating, and is "Franklin Chang-Diaz."

** For more on changing citizenship laws, see Michael Jones-Correa, "Why Immigrants Want Dual Citizenship."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Our Current Address?!?

Since we've been splitting our time between California and Costa Rica, we don't have a permanent address in Costa Rica. Occasionally, an address is required - our driver's license, cédula, bank, and Caja all use a "current" address. Because we weren't living in a house at the time (or wherever we *were* living, we knew we wouldn't be there long), we gave the address of ARCR (Association of Residents of Costa Rica, where we are members). We figured that when we do settle into a place year-round, then we would update our address. Well, now I'm not so sure that is going to be ok.

There is a new law in Costa Rica that requires addresses to be kept current - people have a year to get them updated in the civil registry, then have to keep them updated. The purpose of the law is so that people can be served with legal papers - as in a civil suit. If people can't be served, they don't have to show up in court. And if enough time lapses, the suit is dropped. You can see why the law was changed...

So how does this affect us (and others like us)? Probably this - Every time we move to Costa Rica, we need to update our address in the civil registry as soon as we find a place to live (we do this at least once each year). Then, when we move away - when we don't have an address in Costa Rica - we make sure our address is listed as ARCR. They will always know how to reach us. Possibly this - we keep our address as ARCR, since they *will* know how to reach us, no matter where we live.

I guess figuring this out is all part of living the nomadic life :-D

Thursday, October 30, 2008

This Just In - Brrrrr!

The news from Costa Rica today is "Cold Spell for the next 2 Days"

Just what is "cold" anyway? For folks in San José, cold = a high of 22 degrees Celsius (71.6 F)

Consider that "normal" highs for late October (the rainiest and coldest month) are 26-28 C (79 - 82.5 F).

I remember our homestay hostess in Sámara saying that San José was coooold - she showed us a sheepskin jacket she had just for SJ trips. This was told to us in February, in the middle of a 90+ F day...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another Reason to Love Costa Rica

Do we *really* need another reason to love Costa Rica?

Well, why not? We have so many *big* reasons, how 'bout a smallish one :-D

Costa Rica does not change their clocks twice a year to accommodate daylight savings time! Of course, it makes sense not to, as the country lies just 10 degrees North of the equator. Sunrise and sunset pretty much happen at the same time year-round. Why mess with perfection?

I've always detested one thing about spring in the states - losing that hour of sleep when we change the clocks. Now there's a new reason to be wary. A new study reports that heart-attack risks go way up for the three business days following the spring "sleep deprivation." It is more pronounced for women, and for people under 65.

Pura Vida!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Serious About Soccer...

There can be no doubt about it - Costa Rica is serious about their soccer! When it comes up against political corruption, soccer gets the action.

Earlier this year, Costa Rica broke with Taiwan, and officially supported China instead. China has been using its financial muscle to pull other counties to its side in its fight to stop Taiwan from being recognized as a separate country - China still claims Taiwan as part of its republic. Costa Rica succumbed after decades of supporting Taiwan. There was a lot of under the table action going on - money going this way and that.

Specifically, China bought bonds that were used to replace the soccer stadium in San Jose. This is the Saprissas' home stadium, and this is the team that most often represents Costa Rica in international tournaments. So, a lot is at stake. The old stadium was torn down in May, and construction on the new stadium was to begin in November.

Earlier this month, the scandal hit the fan - the public found out about the table. Politicians were embarrassed, and a suit went to the constitutional court to stop the construction. The court ordered a stop while they reviewed the suit. This is when soccer fans said "whoa! wait a minute! We went from an old stadium to a hole in the ground! We need our soccer!" (ok, technically, they said "futbol") There were marches. There were news articles. There were phone calls...

Then the constitutional court broke a record (well, maybe - I don't really know if they did, but this was *fast*). What usually takes 3 months, took less than 2 weeks. The court voted *unanimously* to continue construction!

Costa Rican soccer wins the day!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hot Water? Only in the Shower...

A lot of people are surprised when they come to Costa Rica and find that the only hot water is in the shower. This can require some mental adjustments, especially if you are used to washing clothes and dishes in hot water. Most people's first thought is "gross!" how do you get anything clean!?

For me, washing clothes in cold water is nothing new - we did it this way my entire life. It saves energy, and doesn't make much difference in the cleanliness.

Dishwashing was an entirely different story though. It took me a while to get over that icky feeling of washing dirty dishes in cold water. True, the soap in Costa Rica is specially formulated for cold water, and the dishes *look* clean, but what about germs? Could 4 million Costa Ricans be wrong? Well, guess what I just found - a study :D.

The FDA recommends washing dishes in 110 degree F soapy water, rinsing, then soaking in sanitizer. Ohio State University researchers added bacteria to dishes with dried-on food, and found that these dishes washed in soapy room-temperature water, rinsed, and then weakly sanitized with ammonium-based chemicals achieved FDA-acceptable results.

However, dishes that were especially difficult to get clean were forks, because food stuck to the tines. Also, milk-coated glasses hung onto the bacteria more than any other food.

Recommendations from the study were to
1) spend extra cleaning time on forks
2) wash dishes right away before food dries - this saves washing time and gets rid of problematic places where bacteria might be able to survive washing and drying

My added recommendation is to rinse and/or soak dishes if you can't wash right away - this keeps the food from drying on the dishes.

Of course, some people go whole hog and get a hot-water heater connected to a dishwasher...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Comparing Medical Care for Pain and End-Of-Life

I just saw a report that graded the United States on how we are doing taking care of people when we are seriously ill and dying. There is a whole specialty in medicine for this, called Palliative Care. It focuses on relief of the pain and other symptoms of serious illness.

We are not doing too well. The entire United States earned a "C" and several states completely failed! This got me thinking - how is this graded? and how does it compare to other countries, specifically to Costa Rica?

Well, the grading website ( references the Journal of Palliative Medicine, which is only available by subscription, so I can't judge the methodology. But the summary of the methodology looks extremely tailored - it excludes small hospitals, facilities for psychiatric treatment, chronic care, rehabilitation, ENT, pediatrics, and federally controlled facilities. What's left? (Setting aside the nature of studies, even ones you could drive a truck through. Maybe that's too harsh? it is a professional journal, after all.) I looked at the results and looked for what I could compare. I came away with the fact that it is difficult enough to find consistency from state to state. There are no numbers or factors I could see that I could use to compare to another country.

So, I looked for a world report (, and found one from Help the Hospices and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) from 2006.

This study looks like it is done every year. It categorizes countries around the world by their approach to palliative care.
The four groups are:
1) no known hospice-palliative care activity
2) capacity building activity (but no service yet)
3) countries with localized provision of hospice-palliative care, and
4) countries where hospice and palliative care activities are approaching integration with the wider health system. (defined further at the bottom of this post)

Both the USA and Costa Rica are in Group 4, and so are at the highest level defined. Now, if the USA is not doing too well, but it is at the highest level, it is clear that the world as a whole has a long row to hoe.

Here is a brief history of palliative care for each country:

In the USA, the Connecticut Hospice provided the first home care service for the dying in 1974. The forerunner of the National Hospice and Palliative care organization (NHPCO) was founded in 1978. Reimbursement for hospice patients through the Medicare program was enacted in 1983, and by 2005, NHPCO estimated that 1.2 million patients were being cared for nationwide within hospice programs. To find a report for a specific state:

Costa Rica is a small country with an established health system committed to providing good quality care at a reasonable price to every citizen. With a government-sponsored network of 29 hospitals and more than 250 clinics throughout the country, the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) has primary responsibility for providing low cost health services to its 4 million inhabitants. The Clinic for Pain and Palliative Care was established in the Calderón Guardia Hospital in the early 1990s and later became recognized as the National Center for Pain Control and Palliative Care (1999). A national pain control and palliative care policy was adopted in 2001.

The report compares several factors in evaluating the level of the country - Human Development Index, Crude Death Rates, Gross Domestic Product, and Ratio of services to population.

The human development index (HDI) gives a multiple measure of a country’s development, based on: longevity, knowledge, and standard of living. There is a strong association between palliative care and human development, as 83% of Group 4 countries have a high index (1-57), and another 14% with a medium index (58-145).
HDI rank / index:
Costa Rica = 47
USA = 10

2006 Crude Death Rates (CDR) are the total number of deaths per thousand persons which occur in the same year. These ranged from 3.7 to 13.4 among Group 4 countries. The correlation between CDR and palliative care is difficult to state, since the ranges for the groups overlap, and CDR is under-reported. However, the study states that the countries with the lowest CDR in Group 4 are distinctly lower than those in the other groups.
Costa Rica = 3.8
USA = 8.4

Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is indicative of a country’s wealth; it is the market value of the total final output of goods and services produced in a country over a specific period. There appears to be no relationship between a country’s wealth (GDP per capita) and palliative care development, since high and low income countries are represented in each of the four groups of countries.

The comparison of the ratio of palliative care services to population, and rank in the Americas, shows little difference between the two, especially given the wide range around the world.
Costa Rica (ranked 5th) = 26 services => 166 per 1000
USA (ranked 4th) = 4000 services => 75 per 1000

Studies are interesting in that they try to level the playing field and give an objective look at an issue. These usually involve numbers and statistics. However, the cultural effect, especially on the field of medicine, is stripped. To balance this, think of the differences between a visit to your doctor in the states and to your doctor in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican doctor is trained (culturally and medically) to put you at ease. If you are in pain, you get the pain taken care of, *then* deal with fixing things. Caring for the patient as a person, and showing that you care is a natural part of the Costa Rican medical profession. It seems to me then that palliative care is regarded as just another normal part of medical training. It would seem a little strange to have a specialty just for this. But in the USA culture, where doctors are pushed towards spending less time with patients, and tackling illnesses as an entity separate from the patient, this specialty makes sense. It addresses the built-in lack in treating the patient as a whole in the states.

--- Some more details ---
World Health Organization interviewed Dr. Isaias G. Salas-Herrera, chief of the National Pain and Palliative Care Center, in San Jose, and his assistant Dr. Rigoberto Monestel. They discuss Costa Rica's national policy for pain control and palliative care.
The national health policy is here (in Spanish)
Note that you can enter this URL in Google's translation tool to read it in English:

Group 4 activities are defined further as:

(breakdown of "Capacity Building" as in Group 2)
• Presence of sensitized personnel
• Expressions of interest with key organizations (eg APCA, HAU, IAHPC, Hospice Information)
• Links established (international) with service providers
• Conference participation
• Visits to hospice-palliative care organizations
• Education and training (visiting teams)
• External training courses undertaken
• Preparation of a strategy for service development
• Lobbying: policymakers/ health ministries

(breakdown of "Localized Activities" as in Group 3)
• Critical mass of activists in one or more locations
• Service established – often linked to home care
• Local awareness/ support
• Sources of funding established (though may be heavily donor dependent and relatively isolated from one another, with little impact on wider health policy)
• Morphine available
• Some training undertaken by the hospice organization

(additional activities specific to Group 4)
• Critical mass of activists countrywide
• Range of providers and service types
• Broad awareness of palliative care
• Measure of integration with mainstream service providers
• Impact on policy
• Established education centers
• Academic links
• Research undertaken
• National Association

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Rain = 1, Electricity = 0

Talk about deja vu!

Last night, we got our first rain of the season in California. Finally! I know, friends in Costa Rica are sick of rain, and there is still Rainiest-month-October to get through.

So, we're just getting ready for bed, the rain has started, and BLINK! The electricity goes out! It's out for *hours!* Where are we again? *Not* Costa Rica?!?

Lost? You're Not Alone

We all have those moments where we feel like we need to take a moment and get oriented. We get off the bus in a new town, look around, feel an urge to look at our map, compass, GPS, whatever. For most people, this is the extent of it. You get your bearings, and off you go. Maybe you circle the block once, but you get where you need to go.

If you click on the "navigation" label, you will see pretty much how my process works - it can be a lot of fun.

But there are those who simply will never be able to find their way around. They are the perennially lost. We joke about it, but a new study shows that there is a developmental brain disorder that is the root cause of this disability. Researchers have "documented the first case of a patient who, without apparent brain damage or cognitive impairment, is unable to orient within any environment."

"When moving through an environment – familiar or not – a person creates a mental representation of the environment, called a cognitive map. It is the ability to "create" and "read" these cognitive maps that enables a person to navigate by following a route without getting lost."

The inability to create these cognitive maps causes this "topographical disorientation."

There is a website specifically designed to inform people about orientation skills and to reach others who experience topographical disorientation, GettingLost

Friday, October 3, 2008

High Anxiety

High Anxiety - no, not the movie :D
Just life lately...

Perhaps it's because this is the longest we've been away from Costa Rica. Maybe life in the states is starting to overcome our "tranquilo" gained in Costa Rica. Who knows?

In our quest to return, we've had change after change after change. We first thought we *had* to be back in September. This is the month that our residency expires, and we thought we had to renew then. So, all our plans revolved around that requirement. We had to figure out how to renew my driver's license - no problem, just change my address. But we also had to solve how we were going to vote - BIG problem - leaving too early for "early voting" and no knowledge about voting from abroad. Turns out you can vote from abroad fairly easily for the federal ballot; still not sure how (or if) you can vote in state elections.

But, as the month drew near, and we started to find out more about the changing laws, we discovered that no, we in fact did not have to be there in that month. Instead, we had to *call* in that month to get an appointment for renewing our residency.

So, on to our next change. We had heard that appointments were taking one or two months from the time people called. Therefore, we expected something in November (give or take). Well, this solved the license and voting problems, but added a few others.

By this time, our passports had gotten a bit close to the expiration date, and so we sent them off to get renewed (I know, I can hear the teeth-sucking all the way from here). So we enlist the help of ARCR - great group, highly recommended. They tell us all about what we need to have ready for renewal - including (guess what) our passports! Unngggh. All we could say was that we expect them back by November. Well, so they put off getting an appointment, we get anxious because we *know* we need to call *in* September (and September is running out). But then (whew) Rick's passport comes. His new one. Not his old one - the one with all our entry/exit stamps - the one that proves we met our residency requirement. PANIC! Deep breath. Read the insert that says the old one will come separately. Wait on pins and needles. We got the old one in a couple more days. Whew! So now we ask if we could get the appointment - Rick has his passport, and mine should be coming any day now (after all, they were mailed only a couple of days apart). Well, ok - we got an appointment. BUT. It is *not* in November! It is in *February!*


Welcome back to California - medical bills!

Welcome back to California - here are your medical bills - yikes!

We had a busy week going to dentists and doctors. I will say right up front, I would not even consider going to any other dentist or doctor in the states - ours are great! However, this is a pure illustration of the differences in the cost of health care between California and Costa Rica.

Cost for a thorough teeth-cleaning, exam, and x-rays:
California = $255
Costa Rica = $90

Cost for a filling - composite:
California = $250 (plus $115 for happy gas and topical numbing, 'cause I'm a baby)
Costa Rica = $50 (as reported by Saratica)

The same week, Rick went to the Doctor for a sinus problem, and came away with three prescriptions for almost $300. We're waiting for the bill from the Doctor, but I am sure it will be over $100. The last time we saw a Doctor in Costa Rica, the office visit was $12.

And people wonder why medical tourism is taking off...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

August 24, 2008 - Movies in Costa Rica, by Costa Ricans

Making movies is one of the things we hope to pursue in Costa Rica, so it is fantastic to see that this Costa Rican independent film – El Camino – has won awards and is now in theatres!

Written and directed by Costa Rican Ishtar Yasin G., it won awards and accolades at the Berlin Film Festival, the Guadalajara Mexican Film Festival, and the Switzerland film festival.

It is the story of two young Nicaraguan children, and their voyage to Costa Rica looking for their mother.

You can read more about it in Inside Costa Rica.

You can see a preview here on You Tube.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Soy Tico - YouTube

How fabulous is *this!* The ARCR forum has a thread on Costa Rican music, and Paul (thanks!) provided a YouTube link to my absolute *favorite* song - since our first visit!

Soy Tico, by Carlos Guzman

You can see my previous post on this song, and an attempt to translate it, here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

February 2007 Trip (delayed post - yikes!)

Well, no *wonder* I couldn't find any information on our trip to Monteverde (and picking up our *Cédulas*!) on my blog - it's not *posted*! I seem to recall that we were having trouble with the internet on that trip, so I saved it as a draft email. You know how well *that* works - lost until I decide to do some spring cleaning...

As they say, better late than never. Here is my (detailed, sorry) trip report for our fourth trip to Costa Rica - we made the trip in February 2007, specifically to pick up our Cédulas :D, and added some sight-seeing into the bargain.

2/8/07 (Thursday)
We were able to change our return flight - easy, and no charge :)
The flight was uneventful (only a little late, and a reasonably short layover), and we got in the "citizen" (and resident) line at immigration instead of the "tourist" line. Both lines were long, so there was no real advantage this time. Our bags were waiting for us, instead of the other way around, and both guitars made it unscathed. When we got the airport taxi this time, I stayed out of sight with our bags, and Rick ordered the taxi - $3 instead of the $4 charged last time.
On to Vida Tropical; more people to meet!

More bank problems!?!? Didn't I say I was an optimist?
We tried to get money out of our bank's ATM, and it ate the card...
We walked inside, and stood in the wrong line for a couple of minutes, then Rick looked around - found the right place. The bank guy said someone had reported the card stolen. We could either get a new card today in San Jose, or a new card Monday in Alajuela - we elected to wait. Then (yay!!) he asked if we wanted money out of the account, and then got it for us. This was fabulous, since the line to the teller was looooong.
On to the pharmacy - got some of Rick's scripts, but I forgot to bring the box for mine with us, so I couldn't remember the name.
We confirmed that our immigration appointment is on the 19th, so we have a week to do something semi-touristy.
Massage for me on Friday night - no chiropractor, unfortunately.

2/10/07 (Saturday)
Ahhh - these mornin's were made for drinkin'!
We went to see Joe today in Grecia, and Jim (from Vida Tropical and CR forums) joined us. We had a taxi take us to the bus stop, since we had 2 guitars with us - Joe is keeping them for us until we move there. We brought chocolate and whiskey as thanks - inevitably, we opened both pretty quickly; drinking in the morning again!
We went to a late lunch (~2:30), then drove to Linda's lot in Bodegas, near Tacares (I always mix up the name of this town with the Tecate beer). She has a "storage shed" nearly built, and plans for a small house. The "storage shed" is the biggest you can build without a permit, and has 3 windows with great views, a bathroom, electricity... (can you say guest house?)
Since we were half way back to Alajuela by now, Joe took us all the way back to Vida Tropical, and stopped in for a little visit with everyone.
He is going to Cahuita (on the Caribbean coast) soon - we'll have to bug him for a trip report.
When we got back to VT, we arranged to stay near Monteverde for a few
days - it is a rain forest park about 4 hours drive north. The town we will stay in is between 2 reserves. Monteverde (the town) started as a Quaker community. We're leaving our plans fluid this time - if we find we want to leave Monteverde early, we can...

2/11/07 (Sunday)
We looked a bit for a museum or other point-of-interest, but (it *is* Sunday) all were closed. Heard there was an orchestra playing in Alajuela's central park, but it got "trumped" by a small job faire. We sat around the park talking and people-watching. I lost myself a few times watching the white cathedral and green trees against the blue blue sky - ahhh. This was interrupted here and there with a trip to the pharmacy and the ice cream store (all the drugs you need, and *so* close!).
We got my scripts, and some sunscreen to replace the one we "lost" at the airport security gate (you just gotta figure that you're gonna lose *something* you packed in the wrong bag).
Something learned: this pharmacy didn't stock the dosage that Rick takes, but the one we went to on Friday did - so, if one pharmacy doesn't have something you need, keep trying others.

2/12/07 (Monday)
We got to see the chiropractor! And we got appointments for the day before we fly out as well :)
After the chiropractor, we got back to the Vida Tropical and did laundry; then Soda Palmaras for lunch and on to the bank. We got our bank card - it is now *gold* and is an international version - oooohhh.
Back to VT and our massage - ahh.

2/13/07 (Tues)
Left for Santa Elena / Monteverde this morning - got a taxi to the "Garden Court," then Interbus. It was on time (even a little early), and nearly full - everyone going to Santa Elena, so we didn't have to change buses. The last 45 minutes of the trip is all on dirt and gravel (and pothole) roads; the road follows a ridge (up and up and up), and changes from one side to the other - so everyone gets a chance at vertigo.
Santa Elena is *very* dusty; our hotel is about 3 blocks up a very steep hill from the main part of town. We go into town for lunch, but one trip per day is enough - we feast on snackbars and nuts for dinner.
We are at "Cabinas Don Taco" - don't ask me about the name... It is the *one* place that I got the blank (arrogant?) stare when I asked for a simple towel in Spanish. Most people are happy to have you try Spanish, and happy to help you with words.

2/14/07 (Wed)
Santa Elena actually gets *cold* at night! At 6:00 am, it is 64 degrees F (inside). Since the showers are nothing to write home about (hmmm), we save them for afternoons. We get breakfast at the hotel, and catch the 8:30 bus to the Santa Elena Reserve, about 6 km uphill (more dust and potholes) :).
It is suddenly *cool*! and *green*! Rick shows our residency paperwork, and we pay the resident's rate - $3 instead of $15 - nice! We take off on the shortest route; it is supposed to take 45 minutes, but we stop every few feet to gawk and take pictures. So, about two hours later, we get back on the bus to town. Others on the bus took a different route, and saw more wildlife (including wild Quetzals).
Back in town, we grab lunch and hit the supermarket for dinner supplies.

2/15/07 (Thurs)
Today's the day! We spent part of the morning on a "nature" tram (another resident's discount), and the rest of the day in town, then fell off a tall sidewalk - at least it is over; our once-per-trip accident is over (and it's Rick's turn).
We make it back to the hotel, but realize that Rick cannot make that trip again, let alone enjoy a hike in the reserve. So, we decide to see if we can leave tomorrow.

2/16/07 (Friday)
We enlisted the help of the hotel folks, and got reservation on the afternoon Interbus to Alajuela. They also called the Santamaria hotel for us - we were already booked there for Sunday and Monday, and they were able to add today and tomorrow for us.
While we were waiting for the bus, a couple dropped in and asked about a room. While one was checking out the room, we talked to the other - we told him about the shower (not very reliable), the beds (ok, not great), the noise from the town, and that it was $45. When the clerk came back, he said it was $50 - our guy said "not $45?" and the clerk said "ok" - hmmm.
We got the 1:30 interbus back to Alajuela - about an hour left on the drive, and the bus overheated (there were a lot of overheated cars on the road, as it climbs up the mountains from the beaches to the meseta central). We waited about 45 minutes, and also refilled the radiator from a nearby sprinkler, and we were off again.

2/17/07 (Saturday)
Rick and I go to a great Italian restaurant in Alajuela - Cugini, near the Cathedral.
We had "Brachiole" - it is a Sicilian dish - and yummy!
We're staying in the Hotel Santamaria (VT was full). BUT! we met the owner's wife (Rosaria) just now, and it turns out they live 5 houses down from VT - she *recognized* me - fun fun fun. We had a lovely conversation in Spanish.

Italian again tonight - can't get enough! Leaving the restaurant, we see Norman and Greg, and tell them about Joe.

2/19/07 (Monday)
We get our Cedulas today! And then some!
6:45 am - out the door and to the bus to San Jose - what a long line!
7:50 - at ARCR, ready for our appointment with immigration. Sindy takes a bunch of us over; on the way, she tells us it could take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours, depending on how long it takes to find our files. She has had an assistant holding our place in line, so it isn't long before we get our files checked and in the system. Then on to get our pictures and fingerprints taken for our cards. After a few more "waits" we have our Cedulas! Sindy has gone back to ARCR for another batch of new residents, and none of us can remember how to get back. We pile in the car, and drive around San Jose for a half an hour before finally finding our way back - I'm navigating (back-seat driving?), with a compass and a map.
11:15 - we're finally eating breakfast/lunch! We'd had no chance to eat before now, so we're a bit cranky.

1:00 - back to ARCR to get our driver's licenses. We pay about $40 for help, and hop in a taxi w/ Alfredo. First stop is a "Doctor's office" where we pay $20 and they fill out a health form. We take that across the street and start the driver's license process. The first stop is closed for lunch until 2:00 (it closes at 2:30), so we wait... The woman comes back and checks our documents (health forms, copies of our California driver's licenses, and copies of our cedulas), stamps them, and we go to the next line. This is considerably shorter than when we first got there (Since no one could proceed without the first check), so this is pretty fast. They ask for our address and phone number (Alfredo gives them the ARCR info). Then we go to the "pay" window - drop another $16 and get our receipt. Then to the "picture" line - here's where we get to sit (many of the lines in Costa Rica are rows of chairs - it's like musical chairs without the music). At the front of the line, we get our pictures and fingerprints taken and then they produce the card. We sign for it, and we're done!

We catch the Alajuela bus towards the Hospital Mexico (see these posts for why Joe is in the hospital), and ask the driver to tell us when we get there. He says he will, but... Of course, we miss the stop. We get off on the next stop - fortunately not too far, walk back and on to the Hospital. The hospital is like a circus, so we ask for help at an information window. They can't find Joe for quite a while, but finally tell us he is still in emergency. At about 4:00, the nurse leads us downstairs, and we wave to Joe through the window. She tells us to wait for the Doctor; it should be about 20 minutes. Well, about 4:30, we walk back to where we saw Joe, and the security guard shoos us into a waiting room - we have to wait for visiting hours at 5:00. Linda is there right before visiting hours start - she's been through this before; we give Joe's name, and they let us see him one at a time for about 5 minutes. He seems ok - he has a full face oxygen mask on, and can't talk without taking it off - we're just there to let him know we are looking out for him.
5:15 - we're back on the bus to Alajuela; it's rush hour, so we don't get to the last stop for another hour.
Boy, are we tired! We have our leftovers and conk out.

2/20/07 (Tuesday)
Yesterday was so busy, we decide to take it easy today. We put off going to ICE about the phone, and just plan to visit Joe. We caught the 11:00 bus, and got off at the correct stop for Hospital Mexico. As we got off the bus, a very nice lady helped us cross the "muy peligroso" street. She just grasped my hand, and we followed when she crossed. I am finding that this is so typical - so many helpful citizens. I felt like a Boy Scout in reverse :)
At the hospital, we go directly to the emergency waiting room (doesn't that sound like an oxymoron?), and wait for 12:00 visiting time. Linda appears, and we queue up. Then we find out that Joe is no longer in the emergency room (why didn't we check on this before?). We run around for a few minutes, then Rick asks the right guy - we have Joe's bed number, but (of course) visiting hours for the wards don't start until 2:00. So, Linda drives us all into San Jose, and we go to ARCR to get our hands held. Annabel is very nice - she talks to us a lot, and we feel a bit better about the situation. The hospital will not release Joe just to get him out of the way (what were we thinking?!?).
We grab a bite to eat, then head back to the hospital. My navigation skills are excellent - I was always able to point to the correct turn-off as we passed it :).
At the hospital, we get in the line for the 6th floor visitors just before 2:00 (we're about the 4th group). Well... The people who run the visiting center don't even show up until 3:00 - by this time, I'm sitting down, and Rick and Linda are very tired of standing. To accommodate the long lines, the hospital folks had opened the doors to the outside. It was very strange seeing all these people zip up jackets and pull up their hoods against the breeze. It had to be 74 degrees! I guess it is all what you're used to.
We got to see Joe one at a time, but there was no time-limit. He was *much* better! He gulped down the yogurt drink I brought (he probably wasn't supposed to have it tho). He had a better oxygen system - no full-face mask, so he could talk easier without reducing his oxygen. He told us about the other patients in the room (there were 6 beds in the room). He said he was going to write a "report" on his experience, but essentially, he is very happy with the care he is getting at the public hospital (all covered by his $36/month insurance).
Linda drives us all back to Jalapeño's in Alajuela, then Rick and I catch a taxi to the Chiropractor's office for our 5:00 appointment. Well, I don't get cracked until 7:00, and Rick is pretty upset that we had to wait so long. But my back is so much better, I'm glad we didn't give up and leave (She also didn't charge us for the visit, and apologized profusely).
But by the time we get back to Jalapeño's, Linda has eaten and is gone - we'll have to catch up with her the next time. We closed the place down with scotch and camaraderie.

2/21/07 (Wednesday)
Flying home today!
The hotel got us an airport taxi for 6:00 am. We were ready early, and the taxi showed up early, so...
We whiz through the lines, and get to Phoenix with no trouble. We had about 1 hour to get our bags, check them through customs, and board our plane to Oakland. Again, no problems - no line at immigration, and our bags were waiting for us by the time we got to them. We even got home in time to return the rental car on the same day! No worries about how to deal with it *and* work tomorrow!

June 1, 2008 - Cookin' with Gas

I had some additional information tucked away - all about gas (propane) kitchen stoves.

We ended up getting a gas stove instead of an electric one (much cheaper start-up costs!). Since we are only here for 4 months this time, we wanted to see if we could get one on loan instead of buying the tank. Well, you can! and you start to find all sorts of people who do gas delivery! Rick was walking around our town, and saw a guy with a truck full of tanks taking one into a house. So he asked him about it - got his card and pricing, and we later used him. (we paid c9,000 for the tank deposit, and about c8,500 for the gas). When we called, he was at our house in less than 15 minutes. And he even connected our new hose to our new gas stove - nice!

BTW (I had to ask our landlady how to work the stove the first time) - the connector to the tank has a flip switch that has to point straight out, then you can light the stove...

Also, we bought the stovetop at an appliance store, then had to get the hose and connector at the ferreteria.

You can also get gas tanks at the supermarket. (cylinder is c18,000, gas is c9,500).

It turned out that we got to keep the tank - the deposit equaled the cost of the tank (ours was used). After almost 4 months of cooking about 2 meals/day, we still had over half the tank full of gas!

For more about our kitchen, see this post.

Friday, May 30, 2008

May 30, 2008 - Latino Recipes

The foods available in Costa Rica definitely inspire experiments - if you click on the "recipe" label on the sidebar, you will see all of mine (the successful ones anyway - my Starfruit Chicken was a complete bust).

At the same time, I'm on the lookout for interesting pre-invented :) recipes. In the next year, I hope to spend some time learning some cooking from Teresita (the mother in our Orosí family) - wow! what a fabulous cook!

But until then, I just keep my eyes open for other possibilities. Here is one I just found - Platillos Latinos - it is a free ebook of heart-healthy traditional Latino recipes. And it is bilingual, so you can learn some Spanish while cooking :D.

Monday, May 19, 2008

May 19, 2008 - Reducing Relocation Stress (link)

Here is a great post on Tips for Reducing Relocation Stress.

May 18, 2008 – “Live Different”

“Having the gumption to live different *and* the sense to let everybody else live different. That’s the hardest thing, hands down.”

I’m reading “Blue Highways – A Journey into America” by William Least Heat-Moon. It’s a travel journal from a 1982 road-trip around the contiguous USA. While it is not a book I will want to read over and over again, it has interesting tidbits of insight into the different cultures around the states. The quote above is from someone living on an island in the Chesapeake Bay.

It struck me that a lot of expats deal with living a different life at one time or another. Sometimes this is the hardest thing, sometimes it is the best thing, and sometimes it is both. It is often what starts a friendship. Every expat is living a life differently – no matter where you come from, you came *from* somewhere else. Your family and childhood friends are usually still there – you, the expat, are different. You, the expat, are living differently. Once you are on the “different” end of living, you relax a little bit about everybody else living a different way – you shake off your hang-ups (at least somewhat) about a homogeneous society. If you live a life many consider odd, or even shocking, why can’t others? It’s kinda freeing.

Of course, every once in a while, you suddenly become aware of another of your follies. You get the “But, wait! So-and-so should…” – then the ahhh – they’re living *their* life, too. Life is getting more relaxing all the time :D.

It is often conversations about these little “ahh” moments that lead from acquaintances to friendships. You start comparing notes with other expats, and before you know it…

Monday, May 12, 2008

May 12, 2008 – Changing Plans

Anyone who has planned anything knows that the result rarely resembles the plan. Even Sci-Fi battle planners have a saying – “All plans are just a starting point; when the battle starts, anything goes.”

Well, our future isn’t exactly a battle, but I laugh when I look at our first plan for retiring and moving to Costa Rica. I still have the timeline on the front page of my notebook. We were going to sell the house before I quit (hah!), store most of our stuff and make perhaps two shipments (that was before we knew the cost), permanently move (live year-round) to Costa Rica by the end of 2007, and finish shipping anything we decided we wanted by the end of 2008. I *did* quit on schedule, but only because I had three different dates as options.

Even before committing it to paper, we went back and forth about shipping stuff. We were going to go with just suitcases and purchase whatever we needed when we got there. We were going to take just a few things. We were going to take our bed. And our double recliner. And our DVDs… I don’t think we’ll really know what we’re taking until we actually do it. Meanwhile, we have some furniture in Costa Rica and some in the states.

We kept putting off selling the house – too much else going on. Probably also some subconscious need to hang on. Well, now it is a nasty time to try selling – foreclosure auctions right and left. So, we’re going to rent it out for a while instead. This decision had probably the most effect on our recent life. Instead of moving completely and immediately to Costa Rica, we have spent most of the last year on two separate long trips. We did get to experience two different ways of living – in a small town (Orosí), and in a large town (Alajuela). But we had to deal with “occupying” two houses in two different countries. This is not for the faint of heart. It is definitely not for us in the long run. At least we don’t have a house in Costa Rica to worry about while we are in the states. The house in the states is a bit easier to watch out for. We have friendly, concerned neighbors; we have family nearby. When our fence blew down in California, our neighbor took care of everything, and my folks drove down just in case. We returned to a dead car battery and some air in the water pipes, but everything else was pretty much ship-shape. Folks who have a house in Costa Rica have to worry about keeping it occupied while they are gone. We just moved out :).

Our thoughts have meandered around the idea of whether to live in Costa Rica year-round or not. At first, it was no question – of course we would! That is the whole idea! Then we started thinking. Uh-oh. More plans fly out the window. Here is another thing that I am sure we won’t really know which we’ll do until we do it. (I had to re-read that sentence twice – yikes!) Since we are rentistas, we will definitely be in Costa Rica for at least 4 months out of each year (this is required in order to maintain that type of residency). That leaves a *lot* of time to explore the rest of the world – or explore more of Costa Rica, of course. We *have* decided (finally) that this year we will be in Costa Rica most or all of the time.

We are still on-plan for our time in Costa Rica. That plan is to live for several months in different places around Costa Rica, looking for just the right place. It is a little crazy, looking for the most perfect piece of paradise *in* paradise. But it is kinda fun too. I think that if we just closed our eyes and pointed at a map of Costa Rica, we’d find a great place to live – we’d be perfectly happy. But neither of us has had the perfect freedom to choose before. The choice has always been made *for* us by jobs, schools, etc – perfectly :(.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

April 13, 2008 – Stop!

Why is it that coming back to the states is so stressful? It used to be that coming home from a vacation engendered a deep sigh of contentment – we had a lovely trip, but home is where you can relax. I suppose part of it is that we are disassociating from our home in California, and embracing more aspects of Costa Rica. Part of it has to be that when we left for Costa Rica, we also left behind some responsibilities – and they were still here when we got back. But I think the biggest factor is that when we are in Costa Rica, we don’t have the same sense of urgency. When we are in California, we put so much pressure on ourselves to get things done, *and* we have to do it on a schedule.

After just 3 weeks back, we were climbing the walls – stressed out, but oddly bored. So we said “stop!” – took a deep breath, and chucked the schedule. After all, our time really *is* our own…

Just to complete our de-stress, we went *dancing!* We met 17 years ago during a ballroom dancing lesson. We finally went back :~?. Not only was it great, I think it may actually have been more fun than the first time.

As for my schedule – it will be a while before I post our review of living in Alajuela. We like to take a bit of time to let our thoughts and impressions settle, anyway.