Friday, March 28, 2008

Crab Crunch

The Costanera is a stretch of highway that runs from Dominical to Palmar Sur, about 40 kilometers south of us. In a country renowned for having the worst roads in all of Central America, the Costanera is the exception to the rule. It is a beautiful two-lane American-quality road running along the coast that exposes a traveler to glimpses of the most beautiful blue water beaches in the world.

The beaches and coastlines of Costa Rica cannot be privately owned. The are all supposed to be public, so if you can find a way to reach the water, its yours to enjoy.

Every February the spectacular Costanera become a scene of death, devastation and carnage in which thousands of lives are lost. These unsuspecting lives are crushed out of mortal existence by cars traveling the highway after dark. It's a terrible nighttime battle between cars and crabs.

Halloween crabs are nocturnal land crabs that live in the jungle throughout Central America. They are adept tree climbers at night and live in underground boroughs during the day. Although they live in the jungle, they have to travel across the road to reproduce and lay their eggs on the beach. Where we live, their mass reproductive frenzy, thank heavens, seems to be limited in to the month of February. Honestly, folks, I have a hard time killing an ant and believe me there are a lot of ants around here. Killing a spider is almost sacrilegious for me, but crushing cute little crabs on the highway is devastating.

Imagine if you will Bill and I traveling down the road. If you’ve ever driven with him, you know his driving style can be described as aggressive at best. It’s safe and controlled, but usually on the fast side. This does not fair well for crabs trying to cross the road. Nor does fare well for his wife.

Bill’s driving along and I scare the pants off him by shouting, "There’s one!"

He replies, "I see it," and swerves out of the way. Disaster and carnage are averted.

The problem is that the little creatures travel in packs. Where there is one, there are soon whole bunches of them. Here is where the roller coaster ride begins. I’m shouting, "There’s one! .. There’s one! Did you see him? To the left! To the right! On the center line!" Bill is swerving all over the road in the middle of the night to avoid the crabs. Crunch!

"I’m trying, Tica." He says. I know that he is.

Swerve. Swerve. "Missed him!" "Missed him!" Crunch! Crunch! "Ooh! Ouch!" Swash. Swerve. "That was close. Missed him!"

Sometimes to spite all our efforts, the little guys just seem to line up right under the wheels, Crunch, crunch, crunch! Right in a row. Then there are the startled and confused crabs that won’t stay put so we swerve around them. Instead, they dodge right under the Junglemobile’s wheels. Crunch, once more.

Pretty soon I can’t take it anymore. I’m not doing the crabs or Bill any good by yelling, shouting and getting all excited. The crab splat on the road is too much for me. More than once I’ve put my hands over my eyes and said, "I can’t look anymore!"

At which point, I’ve got my eyes tightly closed in the passenger seat as Bill is driving down the road dodging the crabs without a lookout. Then I start with, "Is it over yet? Is it over? Can I look? Tell me when it’s over!"
I’m pretty sure Bill lets me hang on cringing a little longer before he finally says, "OK. You can open your eyes, until next time…."

When the whole carnage repeats itself with the next troop of horny crustaceans.

After writing this, a local Tica told me a sad commentary about the Halloween crab. Ten years ago there used to be many more crabs. At that time they were so thick, there was no way to dodge them. Whether the decline in numbers is due to man’s encroachment into their jungle habitat, the increased use of the Costanera highway or something else, it would be a shame to loose these colorful creatures.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We're Connected

One of the biggest and most important challenges that we've faced since we've arrived is getting Internet connection on the property. We find that we do not miss the television or stereo, but not being connected at our leisure to the Internet is a real hardship for us as well as other non-Ticos here. Even as I write this blog, I miss the Internet. My content would be a lot richer if I could research some of the topics that I'm writing about. So far our Internet has been solely used for Bill's work.

Speaking of Bill working, below is a picture of Bill in his first on-site office. It is an OK set up for him except for the fire ants occasionally biting his sandaled feet. The picture is taken looking up at one of the higher plantels on the upper ridge. On the property we can get a good Internet connection just about everywhere except the cabins. That's why Bill was working on an upper plantel. His view from this office is superb and he is in the shade almost all day.

We are still working on getting reliable Internet in the cabins that are located in what I like to call the fish bowl. It's a concave dip looking out to sea in which the cabins, pool and garden are located at the bottom of the dip. Kind of explains the bad connect here. This morning Bill, who is very resourceful and never gives up, finally succeeded in getting Internet to the cabins. Below is a picture of his highly technical and complicated system.

Please keep in mind Bill is the techno geek, not me, but I'll try to explain how it works. What you are looking at is my Internet compatible cell phone in a white plastic bag attached to a bamboo pole that has been hoisted as high as he can get it into a dormant tree beside the cabins. From there, a wireless bluetooth connection from his computer picks up the Internet signal from the telephone in the bag. The connection speed is about 120 kbps. Hey, don't laugh. It works. Around here, we're learning to be highly resourceful with limited resources. (Bill wants you to know that he has already modified the system by adding an extension cord to keep the cell phone powered up all day.)

Resources around here sometimes come from the most unexpected places. Then there are places that you would expect to find resources and they aren't available. It's all part of the serendipity of Costa Rica and the roll-with-it attitude that you must have to live here. Don't expect that anything will happen in a hurry. If it does, count your blessings and be very happy. Case in point was the whole process of getting the phone and then the Internet service from ICE, currently Costa Rica's power and telecommunications monopoly.

Living Here Tip - Buying Cell Phones in Costa Rica (with a story for friends)

In order to get cell phone service in Costa Rica, you have to deal with 1) the cell phone vendor 2) ICE, the government service provider. Don't expect the vendor to know the service provider's policies, rules and service packages. Our experience is that the vendor can sell you any hardware you want for communication, but you better check with ICE before hand. Find out if ICE offers compatible service and what the bureaucratic process is to do what you want. If you don't do things ICE's way, you're hosed.

For example, when we bought our first phone a year plus ago, the vendors would happily sell us a GSM cell phone. What they wouldn't tell us was that ICE had no GSM lines available. If we had bought the phone, we wouldn't have been able to use it until a year or so later. That was then. Last week ICE recently added a digit to all phone numbers, doubling the amount of lines available, so hopefully lack of phone lines won't be a barrier to communication any longer.

ICE really is improving and making things easier all the time. However, there are some crazy hoops that you still have to jump through. You can't just buy the phone, take it to ICE and activate it. If you thought that - Dumb gringo!

To get a cellular phone, first you should go to ICE and get a numero de solicitation or a solicitation number. Depending on the efficiency of the person who helps you, you might even have to go through the extra step of waiting a week for them to call you back with a solicitation number. Once you have the solicitation number, guess what you do? If you guessed WAIT LONGER, you're right! You have to wait another 2 two 3 weeks before the solicitation number is processed and comes up in their computer system and they can work with it.

While you are waiting for your number to come up, is a good time to purchase the phone. Be sure to get one that has the features you need. We needed a GSM, Internet and bluetooth compatible phone. We paid 80,000 colones or about $160 for our phone. We had to walk all over San Isidro to find such a deal, visiting about ten stores before we found it. Tip to the frugal - in Costa Rica you'll often find the same chain store within sight and walking distance of each other, but don't count on same prices between branches. Most stores were offering phones for 160,000 colones to 240,00 colones. That's a high price of $480 for a cell phone! While it seems a lot by US standard, the actual service plan from ICE is very reasonable. For our basic phone, unlimited within country calling its under $5 per month.

So you've go your phone. KEEP THE RECEIPT! In Costa Rica they will often ask what name to put on the receipt. The name should be the same name as person who got the solicitation number. One you have the phone and you've waited out the solicitation, you're ready for the ICE office. Bring a lot of patience and the following: (subject to change at any time)

1) Original and copy of resident ID.
2) Original and copy of a the cell phone purchase receipt. (ICE will not accept a foreign purchased phone. You have to purchase and present an invoice for a phone purchased in the country.)
3) An electricity or water bill from the country (Any legitimate in-country bill will do. Borrow a friend's if you don't have one yet.)
4) You're phone must be charged when you bring it to ICE
5) 12,500 colones in Costa Rican cash

Chances are you'll wait and wait in line at ICE before getting up to the counter, but it's not such a bad thing. During that time, you'll meet a lot of other trapped and confused gringos who don't know what they are doing either. It's a good place to meet new people and make friends. I think we spent about 45 minutes sitting in the air-conditioned office, during that time we met several of our new neighbors. Since we don't have AC in the cabin, it was a treat to be so cool for a while. On the other side of the coin, sometimes you can wait an hour to get up to the counter, only to find out you're missing something. At which point you'll sulk away from counter in anger and frustration, realizing that you'll have to come back and wait in line to attempt the same feat again.

In our case, I got up to counter only to find out that my solicitation numbers hadn't come up yet and was told I should come back in a few days. I'm panicked thinking, "Bill really needs Internet. I have to use my charm. I'm too old to flirt, but I do have a charming smile." My smile coupled with much begging and pleading on behalf of my husband must have made the phone guy take pity on us. He made a few phone calls and a few computer entries. Was I almost done? "Of course," he informed me. He had it all set up, only I had to do one more thing - go to the bank and pay the 12,500 colones or $25 activation fee, then come back and bring the cancelled receipt. Then he would activate the SIM card in my phone so I could use it.

What? Why did they tell me to bring the money to ICE if they couldn't accept payment? What kind of line is at the bank? When I come back to ICE do I have to wait in line again? These were the questions that went through my gringa mind as all of this craziness is happening. But I don't dare ask them. Like the Tica that I am, I smile and patiently do as I'm told.

So we hop in the car and drive to the bank. It turns out the line at the bank was nonexistent. No problem there, but when I get back to ICE, there is a longer line than before. Once again, I'm stuck at ICE for social hour. After only a half-hour it's my turn. Phone guy takes the phone, activates it, hands it back to me and says it works, but where won't be any Internet till 3pm in the afternoon. Aarrgh! Then Bill chimes in, "What's the user name and password to access the Internet?" The guy gives us a deer in the headlight look and insists that there isn't one. It was probably a translation problem, or maybe he was thinking, "Gringos, just take the phone and the Internet will magically appear at 3 PM." I figured why press the point. Bill's smart. He'll figure it out.

Needless to say, the Internet didn't miraculously work, but very often in Costa Rica kindness from strangers works miracles. The next afternoon, since the Internet didn't work, Bill had to go to an Internet cafe to work. After work he stopped by the appliance store from which we had bought all our appliances. Keep in mind we didn't buy our phone there, but they do sell them. The place was empty except for Bill and the manager, who gave Bill ICE's Internet user name and password. Why the ICE phone guy didn't know that crucial information the day before, we'll never know. Together it took the manager and Bill about 45 minutes to get Internet on our phone working.

Here's my shameless plug for resulting from an act of unexpected kindness: Importadora Monge in Uvita, Costa Rica.

So we had Internet on the phone, but only in certain areas of the property and not at the cabin. Stalwart Bill is not giving up. In the morning, I was on the phone with the company who was delivering our bamboo furniture. Bill screams at me to have them throw in a really long piece of bamboo that he intends to use as an antenna. You've seen the picture of the pole they brought to us all the way down the mountain sticking out from behind the deliver truck. Our cost: $0

Another shameless plug for the best company that I have worked with in Costa Rica so far:

Sur Bambu in Pedregosito, P.Z.-They make beautiful bamboo furniture at reasonable prices and they offer exceptional customer service through Roy.

Serendipity Tico Style

To summarize the unique process of us getting connected:

It took the determination, perseverance and technical astuteness of Bill. The charm, patience and language skills of Carmen. ICE and the cell phone vendor. As well as help from individuals working at a furniture manufacturer and an appliance store. It's serendipity Tico style!

As I publish this post I'm grateful to all participants.

Signing of at sunset, TicaGringa

Monday, March 24, 2008

How do we start landscaping?

It's a little overwhelming living on 41 acres of tropical jungle. Our goal is to leave most of it alone and let the forest regrow and recover, perhaps planting a few tropical hardwoods down in the lowlands. However, on the ridges of Solrisa's homesites, my goal is to create a parklike setting with lookouts and gardens that everyone in the community and our neighbors can enjoy. It's a tall order since I have the vision, but no knowledge of tropical gardening.

I purchased a book called Tropical Plants of Costa Rica by Willow Zuchowski. It's helped me identify plants that will grow in this area. I've created a list and given it to a local nursery or vivero. Next week I hope to get a landscaping plan back from the vivero.

In the mean time, it's driving me crazy not having any plants to play with around the cabins. As you can see, I am surrounded by red dirt. They are still doing construction on the other cabin and we've just finished excavating for a small swimming pool. With more construction to come, it's doubtful that the cabins will be surrounded by lush tropical greenery anytime in the next few months. This is a shame since we really need some privacy plantings around the cabins.

One of the things that I would like to do is utilize, propagate and transplant native and ornamental plants already growing on the property. The picture above is me right before trekking around the property to find some suitable species. Not climatized yet, I find that it is so hot that my exploration is limited to early morning hours before 9am.

My first day yielded two finds.

Bromeliads from a fallen tree branch

A Verbenaceae or Lanatana camara or red sage which I dug out from the middle of the road and transplanted into the fish. A rather pretty find for the handsome fish, I think. In the wild this plant will usually grow into a 1 or 2 meter shub. We will see how it fares in the fish for a while. There is a wild red sage growing just below the cabin and we can testify that it does attract lovely butterflies.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Princess and the Pea

There is a fairytale that tells of a princess who was so delicate that she could feel the bump of a pea under a hundred mattresses. That fairytale princess must not have been a Tica. Our experience indicates that it is unlikely that there even exists a hundred queen mattresses in Costa Rica.

Bill and I are not even close to being royalty, but we did need a queen mattress to replace our make-do airbed, which was kind of like sleeping on a half-filled waterbed. We couldn’t cuddle in the middle because our weight needed to be evenly spaced on each side of the bed to keep the mattress flat. Any movement out of bed by either of us would cause a squeaky tsunami-like airwave and a tired flop into bed would practically launch the other sleeping partner into the ionosphere. Needless to say, the airbed was not working as well as we had hoped.

Our nearest big city is San Esidro de General which is about a forty-five minute drive away. Surely a city with several appliance and furniture store chains would have a mattress that we could pick up. Once again, how misguided we were to give ourselves only a few hours to find and pick up a mattress and several other things on our long shopping list. In Costa Rica, we’ve learned you should never expect to do things urgently. Sometimes even the simplest things require extraordinary patience and time.
Colchon (with an accent over the 2nd O) is the Spanish word for mattress

We should have known that we were going to have problems at the first and biggest store that we went to. The smiling and helpful sales clerk said that they had colchones and lead us to a forgotten corner of the store, which had a few tons of mattresses, stacked up in the corner. Things were looking good until he told us that none of them were queen sized. It turns out that Ticos prefer king or full mattresses. Queen sized mattresses are almost non-existent.

We needed one today, Bill informed him. No problem, the smiling and helpful sales clerk got on the telephone to try and locate a queen mattress for us. As so often happens in Costa Rica, the clerk disappeared from sight, to make some telephone calls on our behalf while we’re left standing around the store wondering how long its going to take. More often than not, the clerk comes back to tell you he can’t get what you want, as was the case here. Since you can no longer help us, "Can you recommend someplace else in town that might have queen mattresses?" we asked. At which point, the sales clerk ceases to be smiling and helpful. He’s probably lived in the town all his life and yet can’t tell us another store in town that sells mattresses.

It turns out there are a lot of stores that sell mattresses, just not queen mattresses, and we probably visited every one of them. Every time Bill was told they could special order a mattress and it would be here in a week or two, he became a man possessed and headed for another area of town. All of this was on foot, as I struggled to keep up with him. I should also mention that we were both carrying around twelve pound laptops on our shoulders, which got heavier as the afternoon wore on.

We were not sleeping on the rocket launcher air mattress another night. The stores we went to kept getting smaller, less catering to gringos and started becoming not much more than holes in the wall. Holes in the wall sometimes yield surprising treasures though. Finally, we were led up a dark, rickety flight of stairs to the last remaining queen mattress in San Isidro de General.

We bought it, strapped it to the Junglemobile with a little help and headed home for a restful night's sleep.


It’s a great orthopedic mattress. Sleeps fine and firm.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jungle Greetings

On Sunday afternoon, we arrived at our jungle cabins. They are cute, charming and look out to beautiful views of the ocean and jungle. We couldn't be more happy with them. We even have our own staff. We were met on arrival by Lionel, our butler – a tarantula with a three inch wide leg span. We said hello then gently dismissed him from service by escorting him through the gaping hole in wall, that will one day be our front door, and tossing him off the balcony.

We spent an uneasy night sleeping on an airbed while the jungle noises raged around us. The next night was a little easier, because we were able to secure the door hole more effectively. However, not before Sting, the scorpion made an appearance. This happened right as I was reaching to turn off the bedside lamp switch. Sting was on the switch! I jerked my hand back quickly. Sting did not fare as well as Lionel. His exoskeleton was swept unceremoniously off the balcony the next morning after Bill’s speedy execution the previous evening.

A few more things that bugged us around the cabin were the centipedes in the shower and the grasshopper who landed on our new stove. Then there were the opportunistic fire ants that nibbled on Bill’s feet. You really couldn't blame them, because he pulled the not-so-smart move of walking outside after dark, without shoes. What did he expect?

At least none of new neighbors have eaten us yet.

The Arrival

We arrived in Costa Rica late Wednesday night. It’s Friday night now. (Or it was when I wrote this. This is the first time that I've had reliable access to the internet, thus the late post. )So far, everything has gone like clockwork for us, with only a few Costa Rican quirks in the retail sector that surprised us.

In Seattle we passed through our first obstacle at flight check-in. The airline allowed two checked bags per person with a weight limit of 50lbs or less. One-by-one our four suitcases loaded onto the scale. 48 pounds, 47.5 pounds, 49 pounds, 48 pounds. The customer service reps only comment was, "You guys like to live dangerously. Don’t you?" We breathed a sigh of relief and headed to security. No problems there either.
Our arrival in Costa Rica was a breeze. We were worried about what to declare and if our bags were going to be randomly chosen for search. It would be a pain, because we packed so much stuff. We were pretty sure everything we were bringing into the country was a personal good and not subject to taxes, but you never know. It turned out we, mainly me, worried needlessly. I’m pretty sure that I caught the customs guy snoring as our bags went through the x-ray and when we tried to give customs our paperwork, they refused to take it and waved us right through.

A quick cab ride to Guadeloupe and we arrived on my aunt’s doorstep – a friendly smile, hugs to go around and a clean bed awaiting us.

Thursday morning – car shopping.

Cars in Costa Rica are expensive. Very expensive. With taxes and shipping costs, expect to pay at least two times what you would pay in the US for a comparable used car. Unbelievably, you also need a lawyer to do the transaction. It’s not like the US in that the buyer pays the seller, you write a quick bill of sale and the title is transferred with a handshake and a signature.

In Costa Rica, the sale must be registered with the national register or "Registro." A lawyer must write a notarized account of the deal between the buyer and seller and submit the paperwork to the Registro. Here is the funny, or not so funny, part of Costa Rican law, whose nearest equivalent is "buyer beware". Tickets and infractions are attached to the car, not necessarily the person who drives it. Legally, if a car has any liens attached to it that have not been paid, rectified and removed from the Registro by any of the previous owners, the new owner is liable for them. This is weird, but more importantly it has the possibility of being costly for the buyer. In Costa Rica, make sure you have a lawyer when buying a used car.

To spite a minor hiccup with the aforementioned lesson, as of Friday we’re the proud owners of this junglemobile.

Inspecting the merchandise

Another peculiar practice that we discovered in Costa Rica is that some major stores expect you to inspect the merchandise that you buy before you purchase it or before it leaves the store. Case in point. How na├»ve of this gringa to simply place three boxes of dishes in my cart and head for the checkout line (caja). A young Tica who said something that I couldn’t understand with my limited Spanish kindly stopped me. She led a puzzled me back to the dishes. She proceeded to open the boxes that I had in my cart and together we inspected each and every piece for flaws. Forty-five minutes later with about twenty more opened boxes with reject dishes scattered around us; we repacked my original boxes with three complete sets of the least flawed dishes that we could find. All of this with Bill standing around in a complete state of frustration, disbelieve and exasperation.

You may think that this was an isolated case, but the very next store that we visited sold lighting fixtures. Sure enough, after we had made our purchase, before we they carried the merchandise out to our car, they lead us to the inspection area. Each and every boxed good was opened in front of us so we could inspect the goods.

Ticagringa’s Disclaimer

Please remember that I am merely an inquisitive gringa who is trying to learn the laws, customs and practices in a new county. I am an expert on nothing except my own opinions, thoughts and experiences. My observations may or may not be accurate. Conclusions that I drawn from the observations and experiences that I share on this blog should not be interpreted as facts. When living and doing business in Costa Rica you should always do your own research and consult your own team of professionals to guide you.