Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Comedy of Errands

Every place has its quirks, which if you live there long enough, you barely even notice. When you move somewhere new, however, the quirkiness is magnified and is a great source of confusion (and humor!). For example, I can just imagine the amusement my
Costa Rican friends would find at the Trader Joe’s in DC, where volume is so high that an employee with a whistle directs cart traffic through the check out line.

Here, an afternoon of errands around town offers its own raw material for a comedy routine. The bank is a prime example (no pun intended). Unlike in the U.S. where you simply stand in line for the cashier, here, you take the first empty seat in a line of chairs. When the person in the first chair is called up for his or her turn, everyone else stands up and moves over one seat. It’s like a grown up version of musical chairs or a practice session for the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The worst is in the afternoon when you have a number of large men in front of you, all of whom have eaten a large plate of rice and beans for lunch.…

Next stop is the post office to check if there’s any mail. We have an actual physical address ( “800 meters west of the school in San Gabriel”), but since mail only gets delivered once a week ~ and only if Jésus the Mail Guy’s motorcycle is working ~. we’ve made it a habit to check as often as possible. We’ve learned that if our mail sits too long in the office, it’s given to a friend or neighbor to pass along. The hitch is that some of our friends don’t have phones or cars, so our mail sits at their houses longer than it takes to fix Jésus’ bike.

Finally, it’s on to the pharmacy. We still haven’t quite figured out how the pharmacy works, but it appears that a prescription isn’t always necessary. I’ve gone in looking for a bottle of regular strength Advil, and have been offered a selection 600 mg pain killers. While this surely has its benefits, you have to be very careful about taking what you’re given. When we first arrived, I went to the pharmacy for birth control pills and was given (and took) a month’s supply of hormone replacement therapy. Talk about an estrogen~induced emotional roller coaster!

After our errands are completed, we leave town on the main street, which on Fridays is an experience on its own. Since local radio and television programming are virtually non~existent, businesses hire pickup trucks outfitted with huge speaker systems to drive slowly through the streets announcing their events and promotions. The drivers use a Mr. Microphone contraption to project their best monster truck voices (“It’s HUGE, HUGE, HUGE!”) to try to get the people’s attention. The truck announcements create a circus~like atmosphere which, combined with a sighting of the creepy clown who stands on the corner making balloon animals, always prompts Luc to exclaim, “Mommy, we’re in a parade!” Parade or no, one thing’s for sure ~ we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore :)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Taking Shape

Petit Paradis is officially taking shape this week, with the arrival of our architect, Boonma Yongprakit. Boonma is originally from Thailand, but we met him four years ago in Boulder, Colorado. Boonma answered an advertisement we had posted on Craig’s List to do some preliminary sketches for our project’s concept paper. We liked his work so much that we hired him to come to Costa Rica in 2005 to design the buildings for our larger (20 bungalow) project. Now that we have scaled things down considerably, Boonma is back again to reconfigure his original plans and add a variety of new design elements.

Some of the new touches are a result of Boonma having spent the last two years in Hong Kong working on resort contracts for a large architectural firm. His job took him throughout Asia, where he was able to visit some of the most beautiful resorts in the world. One of Boonma’s most recent projects was designing the masterplan for the new Four Seasons hotel in Hainan, China. To say that we feel fortunate to have Boonma working on our little Balinese~style project is the understatement of the year. Thanks Craig’s List!

Taking current construction costs in Costa Rica into consideration, it now looks as though our mountain retreat will consist of three separate structures (if all goes as planned). The main building will have a restaurant and an area for nature talks and indoor exploration (with telescopes, exhibits, and library). It will have a separate, private wing, which will serve as our living quarters. Our wing will be separated from the restaurant by a small but elegant infinity~edge swimming pool. In addition to the main building, we will have two bungalows for overnight guests ~ ~ one with one bedroom, and one with two. If there’s anything left at the end of the day, we also plan to construct one or two open~air pavilions for yoga, meditation, or massage services.

Once Boonma finishes his sketches, he and Patrick will spend next week in the office of our Costa Rican architect, who will be in charge of managing the project throughout the construction process. Together, they will transform the sketches into architectural plans, which we will then present to local construction companies for bid. The collaboration is tricky to begin with, but considering a Frenchman will be serving as translator for a Thai~American (with an accent) who speaks no Spanish and a Costa Rican who speaks no English, it’s really a spectacle to behold!

The next challenge we face will be finding a construction company that is capable of building what the plans call for, and finding quality construction materials at a reasonable price. Although we haven’t found many builders who do the quality work we’re looking for, they do exist here and it’s just a matter of finding them. With strength and determination powered by the dream of an outdoor soaking tub and deck overlooking the ocean, LET THE SEARCH BEGIN!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Down Time

So, if you’ve been reading, you might still be wondering how we spend our weekend down-time. If you can imagine what weekends might have been like in a small Iowan town circa 1950, you’re probably pretty close.

First, we spend a lot of time visiting with Costa Rican friends. Having lived here twice before, we have developed some strong friendships in the community. Among the closest are Gerardo, who has worked for us on and off for the past ten years; Luis and Sonja, a carpenter and his wife, who have made almost all of our furniture and who have become like family to us; Warner and Yini, the supermarket manager and his wife, who have been stocking their grocery shelves with items we can’t seem to live without. They have introduced us to their families and friends, showed us the local haunts (the public swimming pool, a tilapia farm with fishing holes), and kindly explained Costa Rican customs and social norms.

The nice thing about Costa Rica is that drop-in visits are not completely frowned-upon. Perhaps it’s because telephones are still not universal, but it’s perfectly acceptable to show up unannounced, shout a few times (no doorbells) until someone comes to the door, and be welcomed with a cup of coffee. Because we live in one of the major coffee producing areas of Costa Rica, a main topic of conversation over coffee is, well, coffee – which direction prices are going, recent fertilizing fads, and how the current weather is affecting the crop.

In addition to our random drop-in visits, we do actually get invitations on occasion. There is a core group of ex-pats here from the U.S., France and Canada who enjoy good food (and drink), and we invite each other over to share anecdotes and advice, talk politics, and just to speak our native languages. Many of these ex-pats have located here for the fabulous birding in the area, and they make up the majority of the San Vito Bird Club. I (Kate) have become a proud member of the SVBC, and I’m slowly learning how to focus my binoculars to tell the difference between a bird and a leaf… The SVBC is involved in a long-term research study on migrant birds, so I have also started learning how to band spindly little avian legs, and where to blow away feathers to find well-hidden private parts.

When we first arrived in July, we were taking weekend road-trips that delivered us from small-town Iowa to the Costa Rican coastal paradise of surfers and sunbathers. It’s about a three-hour drive to the beach -- not because the distance is so far, but because the dirt roads are so crappy. On nice days, the drive is well worth it -- particularly for Luc, who enjoys jumping the waves and digging in the sand. Now that rainy season is upon us and the clouds roll in around noon every day, we’re hunkering down and staying closer to home.

As I’m writing this (on Saturday morning), Patrick and Lucas are out in the driveway in their bathing suits washing the cars. Later today, we’ll go to town to run some errands, and tonight we’ve been invited to a cocktail party with some American friends. We may not be shopping at the mall or eating at trendy restaurants, but we’re enjoying our simple life, developing meaningful relationships and feeling the stress drain out from our heads to our dirty little toes :)