The T-Word

There are no scary photos in this blog, I promise.

The year was 1962. I was 6 years old. My cousins (ages 8 and 5) and I were sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes glued to the black-and-white TV set at my house, watching the James Bond movie,  “Dr. No”. In one of the scenes Bond is laying in a bed and you see something moving up his body under the sheets. That something turned out to be a tarantula (henceforth to be referred to as the t-word). When the hideous thing finally emerges from under the sheets, Bond waits until the monster crawls off his body, and then, in typical heroic fashion, beats the thing to death. The scene was scary enough in its own but, at that age, I probably would have survived the fright and forgot about the scene in time. Except – my  older cousin Norman (evil child that he was) decided, at that precise moment, to tickle the hairs on the back of my neck with his fingers. I swear I shot 2 feet up off the floor and thus began my life-long bout with arachnophobia. I was so traumatized by the fact that the t-word might have actually been in our house and crawling on my neck, that I never recovered from the terror. The sight of any spider, except for the teeniest tiniest ones, were enough to induce a panic attack. But the t-word remained my nemesis, to the point that I can’t even say the whole word, because of the horrific images it conjures up. As a matter of fact, I can’t believe I even spelled it out at the beginning of this story, but I couldn’t leave you guessing as to what the t-word is.

Fortunately, living in New York City, one doesn’t have to worry about encountering any t-words. Nevertheless, I still had nightmares about the t-word, and if I had ever seen one in the house, I probably would have moved immediately. Don’t laugh – I have a friend who packed up everything and moved out of an apartment because she saw a “m-word” (rhymes with “house”). I don’t want to write the word in case she is reading this blog (I don’t want to be guilty of adding to anyone’s trauma).  I did encounter some medium-size spiders in Queens, but fortunately the maintenance men at my co-op were more than happy to come over and dispense with the offenders (probably the highlight of their work-day). However, I never worried about the t-word, figuring my chances of actually seeing one were slim to none. And indeed, months, even years, could go by without any fear of the t-word raising up.

Then, a client of mine moved to Arizona; his yard backed up against a nature reserve. He talked about the t-words that he frequently found on his property. I made a mental note to never step foot in the state of Arizona.

Fast forward to Costa Rica. You know how they say “Ignorance is bliss”. You know what else is bliss? Selective reasoning. I knew there would be a variety of creepy-crawlies here, but somehow my brain managed to convince itself that our chances of coming across the worst of them was also slim to none. Plus, all the t-words and other similar critters were likely to be in the heart of the deepest, darkest jungle – certainly nowhere we would EVER venture.

HAH! Nothing could be further from the truth. But, in all honesty, I’m kind of glad we didn’t really dwell on the subject of what aliens we might encounter, because then we might have chickened out and not made the move. And realistically, the scary encounters are few and far between, and eventually you do learn to cope (with most of them).

The first town we lived in, we only saw really tiny spiders, nothing that the duct-taped flyswatter couldn’t handle. Plus, we have geckos in the house (a.k.a. Border Patrol) and they keep the spider population way down. But then we moved to somewhere a tad more remote. A neighbor mentioned a “Brazilian spider” (I was too afraid to Google it for a photo and I don’t suggest you do, either). Okay, it sounded to be about 6 inches wide, but so what, it wasn’t the t-word.

Another closer neighbor freaked out after he saw a rather large spider in his driveway. But he used the s-word, not the t-word, so again, I didn’t give it a second thought. Plus, his house was down the street, and what did I think – that it wouldn’t walk down the block to my house? Yep, that’s exactly what I thought.

I only ever heard one guy mention the t-word “that ran across his foot”. I remember my eyes glazing over and my brain completely tuning out the rest of the conversation, so disturbed was I to actually hear the t-word. Later, when we had gone our separate ways, and my brain resumed functioning, I was able to rationalize that he lived in a rather remote area, not like us.

And once, when Gary and I were driving on a paved road, we saw something rather large in the middle of the road. Now, that’s not uncommon, since wildlife is always around, so we are used to seeing iguanas, snakes, etc. either squished or crossing. But this thing was HUGE – must have been at least a foot across — clearly a spider. Gary and I both just turned and looked at each other, our eyes wide as saucers. Neither of us could speak; neither of us wanted to make any comment.  Selective reasoning at work: that thing was so enormous, it must be one-of-a-kind anomaly, never to be seen again. And if you don’t say anything and give it a name, maybe you really didn’t see it. (Yeah, right).

After 3 years of no personal encounters with the t-word, I began to believe we were safe. So, imagine my surprise, when one night on the back deck, what was that in the shadows, on the wall????  Something large, round, hairy, multi-legged, black – okay, I can’t even go on with the description. My first thought was to grab my camera and take a photo. But, if I took a picture, then that would have been irrefutable proof that it was indeed the t-word. If I don’t take a picture, then perhaps it might not really exist. (Selective reasoning at its best). So I did the next best thing – picked up the garden hose and blasted it off the wall, into the darkness of the shrubs. There – now it doesn’t exist anymore. Hah! Aren’t I clever?

Except the monster survived the water blast and made an appearance two days later. Fortunately (for me, not it) – on its back, legs up in the air, against the wall by the front of the house. Some other predator had solved my problem for me!!! Still, it was disgusting to look at, and I found I couldn’t even properly look at it. So revolting.

Anyway, the gardeners came by the next day. I thought – good, when they cut the grass, they’ll see it and pick it up. But noooooooooooo – we now have nicely cut grass and trimmed bushes, but THEY LEFT THE T-WORD THERE. Aaaaaarrrrggggghhhhhhh!! It’s about a foot away from the front garden hose, and every time I turn on the hose, I have to avert my eyes, so I don’t gag at the sight of that thing. Hopefully, some other predator – I’d even welcome a snake at this point – will come back and just eat it. Ugh – there goes my appetite. I hope you’re faring better than I am, at this point.

It’s been very traumatic, to say the least. I am consoling myself: It could have been worse – it could have been in the house. But then I would have just had a heart attack, and that would be the end of that. Fortunately, the dogs seem to be able to sniff out anything that moves (although they didn’t see the t-word).  I make sure, whenever I am outside, that they are close to me.

The upside to this: Now that I have actually encountered the t-word, it’s not as bad as I expected.  Okay – I did think about something moving up under the sheets in bed last night, but the thought only lasted for a few seconds, as I pulled Mister Chan closer. Plus, now I can convince myself – it will probably be another 3 years before we see another one.

It’s still Pura Vida! And since I promised no scary pictures, we will leave you with this pretty one.



Cheryl, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. Please feel free to share our blog with anyone considering a move to Costa Rica. We are happy to share ALL our experiences with them.





The Music of Our Lives

Yesterday, a friend and I were discussing the musical influence of our mothers in our childhood. We talked about those huge pipe organs and pianos, and what an important part music played throughout our lives.

In remembrance of Toots (my mom) on Mother’s Day, here’s an excerpt from Affectionately, Toots…..

“My mother was an extremely accomplished classical pianist. The Wissner baby grand was her 18th birthday present from her father. On the Saturdays when she taught lessons, there was a steady stream of children who played upstairs with me while waiting their turn for their lesson. A one-hour music lesson was $3.00. My father actually paid my mother for my lessons.

Over the years, dozens of children became skilled pianists under my mother’s tutelage. I, alas, was not one of them. I inherited none of my mother’s skill or musical talent – only a passion that more often than not ended up in utter frustration. When my mother played the piano, it got up and danced around the room. As soon as I touched the keyboard, I swear I heard it groan in anticipated despair. Mom would push me to practice more – promising that if I persisted, I too could coax magic from the ivory keys. It never happened.

In a last desperate attempt, my mother selected Lost Happiness from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words for the Piano”. It was the most moving and beautiful piano work I have ever heard, even to this day. I was determined to master it and I practiced and practiced and practiced – to no avail. Eventually, I gave up trying and resigned myself to the fact that I would never play it like she did.

Shortly afterward,  I came to believe that my musical ineptitude might extend only to the piano and that because I truly enjoyed music, perhaps I could master another instrument. At age 13, I informed Toots that I wanted to play the guitar. Off we went to Sam Ash, where we bought a guitar and a how-to book. I think the guitar cost $15.00. I tried to play it two or three times, after which its only purpose in my room was to collect dust. I actually hid it under my bed hoping my mother wouldn’t see it and ask me how I was coming along with my practice. I needn’t have worried – not once did she ask me how I was doing with my guitar lessons.

A year later, I asked her for a violin, thinking I would do better on that instrument. Instead, she bought me a beautiful purple enamel violin pin, which I wear and treasure to this day. She said nothing when she handed me the box. She didn’t have to. I knew this was her way of saying she wasn’t going to buy me any more instruments. I don’t think we discussed my musical ability – or lack of it – ever again.

violin pin

Mom did her own practicing at least one hour each day. Sometimes, when I came home from school, I would tiptoe quietly into the dining room so as not to disturb her. I would sit and do my homework while she played, her fingers flying effortlessly over the keys. Although she hardly acknowledged my presence in the room, when she knew I was there, she always ended her practice with “Lost Happiness”, knowing that it was my favorite. She renamed it “Cheryl’s Song”.

From then on, at every recital and performance, she always included “Cheryl’s Song” in her repertoire.

I have very few regrets in life; but one is that I never made a recording of my mother playing this piece. It has unfortunately lived up to its name and become a “Lost Happiness” for me. ”


Toots – Someday, we will make sweet music together in heaven…..


Good for another year!!

Today was our appointment to renew our temporary residency for one more year. Our previous residency was good for two years, due to expire this July. We were advised to start the renewal process 2-3 months in advance, so there’s no gap between the expiration date on our current residency cards (“cedulas”) and the effective date of the new cards.

The trouble began over a month ago, just trying to get an appointment. One of the government-sponsored banks, Banco de Costa Rica, is where you have to go to renew. Last time we did the first application for the cards, we went to the local bank here in Tamarindo and paid the government fees. So, last month, we went back to that bank to try to begin the renewal process, with the instructions given to us by our immigration consultant, Laura Gutierrez. She had handled our initial application, which was much more complicated. But, for the renewal, she said it was fairly simple and we could do it ourselves.  I had even written out in Spanish “We need an appointment so that we can renew our residency”, and slid it under the glass to the teller. He looked at it – he must have understood it since it was in Spanish – then shook his head – shoved the paper back to me – and shrugged his shoulders. Thinking maybe I was the crazy one, I turned around and asked Gary “Isn’t this the same bank we came two years ago to pay?” Gary nodded, so I turned back to the teller, and said “This is the bank we came to two years ago to pay.” He asked me to wait, went into a back room, and came back about 5 minutes later. He handed me a piece of paper with a website address and said I had to book my appointment online. Okay. So home we went. I tried accessing the website, and found a few pages referencing the cedulas, but couldn’t figure out how exactly how to make the appointment. So I went back to Laura, and asked her to please make an appointment for us. It even took her a few days, but finally she got through, and told us we were booked for 10:00 am on May 2nd. She also forwarded us the email confirmation of the appointments — they had spelled our last name wrong — but she said that wouldn’t be a problem.

I knew which documents we needed, so I spent the greater part of the month combing through every folder we had, with all our important papers. You name it – we have it. Utility payments, monthly bank statements, anything to do with the house purchase, every piece of paper having to do with our initial immigration application and follow-up, health insurance payments — all from 2016. Plus our passports and copies of EVERY page of our passports.

The requirements were:

  • prove you have lived in the country for at least 4 months of the year. That was easy – we haven’t left Costa Rica since we arrived here 3 years ago, except for one quick border run to Nicaragua.
  • proof that you have been receiving minimum $2500/month deposited in a local bank and using that money for your living expenses
  • show current payments to the CAJA (Costa Rican Social Security) for health insurance payments – we had those receipts; have been paying monthly.
  • proof that you will continue to receive $2500/month for the next year.

This last requirement had proven to be the most difficult when we were still in New York. The Costa Rican government wanted proof of an annuity that will pay out at least $2500/month. We went to several banks while still in New York and none of them had annuities that would start to pay out immediately. Plus none of them would write a letter stating that they would send us $2500/month. We finally found a sympathetic bank manager at a large bank on Madison Avenue in New York. She was willing to write the required letter just on the promise that we would deposit the money in a new account there. Unfortunately, she’s no longer with the bank, and over the phone, our attempts at getting a similar letter were meeting with no success.

Then, I found another website that said, if you couldn’t get the bank letter, you could show your W-2 earnings statement from the previous year, proving that you earned enough money to continue supporting yourself here. So, armed with practically every receipt and document in hand, we went to the bank for our 10:00 am interview.

First, we had to stop by our bank to hit the ATM for cash to pay the government fees – I was expecting it to be about $125 USD per person. But the bank only had small bills in the ATM, and wouldn’t give me a large amount of money. Forget it – let’s just go to the Banco de Costa Rica, and I’ll use their ATM. Except, they would only let me take out about $150 at a time – so I had to do three transactions to get about $400 in colones.

Then, inside the bank. The guard at the door greeted us, looked briefly inside my bag, wanded us, and waved us inside. I said we were there to renew our cedulas, and he motioned for us to stand on the side as he checked our names off a list. May 1st was a holiday in Costa Rica – Labor Day – so as a result, today the bank was packed; standing room only. After about 20 minutes, he told another young man standing near us to go to window 6, and then that we should follow him.

We waited patiently on line while the young man in front of us was processed. He had a folder with exactly 4 pieces of paper; he was done in 15 minutes. Then it was our turn – with a total of 6 folders with 400 pieces of paper. First sentence out of the bank employee’s mouth – I had no clue what he said. After he repeated it three times, I finally understood he was asking for some paper that came with our appointment confirmation. I managed to blurt out that someone had made the appointment for us, and all she sent was the email that said to show up at 10:00 am. I handed him our cedulas, and then waited for the next bombshell to fall. Sure enough, he rattled on, asking for some bank paper. I pulled out the folder with all our monthly bank statements – I had even highlighted every month’s incoming wire transfer in blue to make it easier for him to see. But noooooooo – he wasn’t interested in going through a stack of statements. He kept asking for the document that said we would still be getting $2500/month. I tried to sidetrack him by talking about the house we had purchased, but he wasn’t in the least bit interested. Then he turned his computer screen to me — he had used Google Translate (my lifesaver!) to explain that he wanted a letter from our bank. I tried to tell him that I couldn’t get a letter from the bank in New York, but I could show him that every month we had deposited more than the minimum requirement in the bank here; I had statements from the bank in New York showing the wire transfers and I had statements from our local bank with the deposits. But Mr. No-Way was adamant and wouldn’t budge. Said he wouldn’t process our renewal applications and slid our cedulas back across the desk to us. I sat there, stunned – just staring at the cedulas, lost for words.

And then just like that – a million thoughts raced through my head – we’ll have to sell the house – where will we move – so many people were praying for us – how could this happen. And then I felt Gary’s hand on my back, and it was like I snapped back to reality. I knew this was where we were meant to be, and that, no matter how many obstacles were in our way – yes, including you Mr. No-Way – at the end of the day, this was all going to work out in our favor.

Meanwhile, Mr. No-Way never even asked to see our passports to see how long we have actually stayed in the country. We could have not even met the minimum residency requirements, but as long as the money was coming in, that wasn’t important.

I had known for months that this last point was going to be a problem. Plus, I had seen information that said, in lieu of the bank letter, there were other documents that would satisfy. So I had hoped that with the other overwhelming documentation we did have, they would have overlooked that one requirement. As a matter of fact, Laura had mentioned that usually they don’t even ask for the bank letter. Hah! I had to get the one bank employee that was a stickler for details.

I put my head in my hands and leaned forward on the desk.  I think tears actually almost came to my eyes, and in my best Spanish, I pleaded “Please, we live here all the time. Costa Rica is our home. What can you do to help us?” I knew Gary was praying behind me, and I had asked all our friends earlier to pray for us today — for “such a time as this”. Finally,  Mr. No-Way picked up the phone and had a quick conversation with someone. He typed on his keyboard, and turned the screen to me again – using Google Translate, he said he would process our applications, but we had to get a letter from our local bank in Costa Rica that said we had been receiving $2500/month for the last two years. Oh – sure – we can get that. I said we’ll go to the bank and bring it right now. Mr. No-Way said, as long as you bring it back in 5 days, it will be okay. But we weren’t taking any chances; besides, our bank was only 3 blocks away.

Mr. No-way got busy xeroxing our cedulas and receipts. We paid a total of 160,000 colones – which was about $265 – for both of us. That included the government fees, the new cards, and the delivery to the local post office. Then he handed us our application papers with our new photos and date when the cards would be ready.

In the blistering heat (Santa Cruz is the hottest city!!), we walked the 3 blocks back to our bank. Again – praying that we would be able to get the letter we needed. I walked up to the service desk and, lo and behold, the ONE bank employee who speaks English was there. We recognized her from three years ago when we opened our bank account. I was so relieved to see her, I could have leaped over her desk and hugged her. I explained what we needed, she said okay no problem, and asked for my passport and cedula. We chatted about our new house and area while she typed. Then she said, I can only say that you have been receiving these funds for the last six months, because that’s as far back as I can see on your account. “Oh, really??? – well I just happen to have every bank statement since 2016” and I whipped out that folder – and showed her all the statements. She took the time to go through every one and was satisfied — my little blue highlighter marks had not gone unheeded, after all! I wish I could find a florist that could deliver flowers to her!!!

In no time at all, the letter was done and we were on our way back to the Banco de Costa Rica. Of course, now praying that Mr. No-Way will accept the letter from the bank.

When we got there, three other people were being processed. Gary thought we might be able to just walk up to the window and hand Mr. No-Way the letter. But I wasn’t willing to risk him putting it down somewhere and then losing it, or getting it mixed up with someone else’s application, and thought it wise to just wait our turn. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait that long. We went up to the window, handed him the letter, and waited with bated breath will he read it. Finally, he picked his head up, looked at us, smiled and said “Listo” (“ready”).

That “Listo” was the sweetest word I have heard in a very long time.

Today’s process is good for one year. Then, next year, an even more complicated process — changing our status from temporary residents to permanent residents. But Laura will help us with that, and hopefully, everything will go smoothly.

Gary’s take on the experience: He feels like every business transaction we have had to go through – immigration, banking, utilities – the “powers-that-be” make it seem like they are doing you a favor. He thinks Mr. No-Way could have told us, right from the beginning, “Well, since you don’t have that paper, we’ll accept this one”. It wasn’t until we were visibly upset and practically pleading that he offered us an alternative. It’s like they know we are at their mercy, even though we are paying dearly for the privilege to live in this country. me with CR flag

What the experience did provide: Deep empathy for immigrants everywhere, holding their breath, hoping that they will have somewhere to call “home” for the foreseeable future.

gary spiritual gangster

Breathing a huge sigh of relief today,

Gary, Cheryl, Kaia and Mister Chan




Todos somos “americanos”

Puede que muchos de ustedes no recuerden la Crisis de las Malvinas, pero en 1982, Estados Unidos se encontró “entre una roca y un lugar difícil”, por así decirlo. ¿Apoyar a Inglaterra? ¿Apoya a Argentina? ¿Arriesgar la ira de cualquiera? La mayoría de los países de América Latina, América del Sur y Europa pensaron que los Estados Unidos deberían ocuparse de sus propios asuntos. Y a pesar de que Estados Unidos intentó adoptar una postura neutral (¿existe realmente algo así?), comenzó una época de antiamericanismo. Recuerdo esto claramente, porque un amigo y yo viajamos a Italia poco después de la crisis. Al no querer ser identificados como estadounidenses, llevamos prendedores de bandera canadiense en nuestra solapa y nos hicimos pasar por canadienses en todas partes (¿a quién no les gustan los canadienses?)

canadian lapel pin

Este viaje fue memorable por otra razón; a pesar de mis extensos viajes anteriores, fue mi primera exposición al “estadounidense feo”. Mi amigo y yo estábamos sentados en un café histórico en la Plaza de San Marcos en Venecia, disfrutando de una taza de café y pasteles. El mobiliario era antiguo, la iluminación tenue, un aire de sofisticación rodeaba la cafetería. Los clientes se sentaban en silencio, saboreando su café. Los camareros con camisas y delantales cegadoramente almidonados y blancos se movían alrededor, vertiendo recambios de hermosas jarras plateadas. Luego, de la nada, un fuerte acento estadounidense atravesó el ambiente tranquilo, “ETHEL – ¿QUIERES VER LA CHINA? ¿HAS VISTO ALGUNA VEZ ALGO TAN BONITO?” La cabeza de todos giró para ver la fuente del arrebato, una de un grupo de damas de cabello blanco, (vistiendo lo que solíamos llamar “vestidos de casa”, carteras enormes y bolsas de compras desbordadas) – gritándole a una de sus amigas en otra mesa. Nos encogimos, observando la reacción de todos los demás ante el chillido ofensivo: los camareros se miraban unos a otros, los europeos se reían en silencio. Tan embarazoso. Las mejillas de mi amiga comenzaron a enrojecerse, hasta que me incliné y le susurré “No te preocupes, piensan que somos canadienses”. El estallido desató al resto del grupo, gritando en voz alta y deseando a cada pequeña cosa. Cuando la “horda” finalmente hizo su ruidosa salida, fue como si pudieras incluso escuchar las paredes suspirar con alivio.

venetian cafe

Desde ese episodio, me acordé de recordar que, cuando esté en otro país, debería pasar tranquilamente, discretamente, con suerte, dejando una buena impresión de quién soy. Lamentablemente, hemos seguido encontrando al “americano feo” en todo el mundo.

Y ahora nos encontramos viviendo en otro país, donde el término “americano” significa algo completamente diferente. Cuando se nos pregunta de dónde somos, no podemos decir “América”; Tenemos que decir “Los Estados Unidos”. ¿Por qué? Debido a que los canadienses son americanos, los costarricenses son americanos, los brasileños son americanos, los mexicanos son americanos. Hay América del Norte, América Latina o América Central y América del Sur. De hecho, los 35 países de este hemisferio (¡incluida Cuba!) pertenecen a la Organización de Estados Americanos (OAS). Entonces, fuera de los Estados Unidos, su definición de “americano” tiene que cambiar.

Nos encontramos con muchos expatriados de todo el mundo, principalmente de Estados Unidos, Canadá y Europa. No toma mucho tiempo separar a los intrusos “feos” y rudos de aquellos que se sientan en silencio y tratan de absorber la cultura local. Muchos se mudaron aquí, con la esperanza de simplemente traer las costumbres y actitudes de su país. Pero lo que funcionó en su país de origen puede no funcionar aquí (¡ni debería hacerlo, necesariamente!). No me importa lo alto que hables, no va a hacer que nadie se mueva más rápido. Y al gobierno realmente no le importa lo que piense, o si está o no en desacuerdo con las leyes. Y si realmente no te gusta, como dice un póster de Facebook, “El aeropuerto está a una hora de distancia”.

just do it later“Solo hazlo…mas tarde”

Todos somos visitantes en esta tierra. Nuestra estadía aquí es temporal y fugaz. No importa a dónde vayamos, debemos tratar de poner nuestro mejor pie adelante, dejar atrás la arrogancia y asimilarnos lo más posible. Nadie quiere ser considerado como un “americano feo”.

Pura Vida,

Gary, Cheryl, Kaia y Señor Chan

PD. Nuestra entrevista para renovar nuestra residencia temporal se acerca esta semana. Por favor, ora por nosotros, que todo vaya bien. Gracias !!

We are all “Americans”

Ugly American” is a term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home.  Wikipedia

Many of you may not remember the Falkland Crisis, but in 1982, the United States found itself “between a rock and a hard place”, so to speak. Support England? Support Argentina? Risk the wrath of either? Most countries in Latin/South America and Europe thought the U.S. should mind its own business. And even though the U.S. tried to take a neutral stance (is there really such a thing?), an era of anti-Americanism began. I remember this clearly, because a friend and I traveled to Italy not long after the crisis. Not wanting to be identified as Americans, we wore Canadian flag pins on our lapel, and passed ourselves off as Canadians everywhere (who doesn’t like the Canadians??)

canadian lapel pin

This trip was memorable for another reason; despite my previous extensive travels, it was my first exposure to the “ugly American”.  My friend and I were sitting at a historic cafe on St. Mark’s Square in Venice, enjoying a cup of coffee and pastries. The furniture was antique, the lighting subdued, an air of sophistication surrounded the cafe. Patrons sat quietly, savoring their coffee. Waiters in crisply starched blindingly-white shirts and aprons hovered around, pouring refills from beautiful silver pitchers. Then, out of nowhere, a screeching loud American mid-west accent pierced the quiet atmosphere – “ETHEL – WOULD YOU LOOK AT THE CHINA. HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANYTHING SO PURTY?”  Everyone’s head swiveled to see the source of the outburst – one of a group of white-haired ladies – (wearing what we used to call “house-dresses”, carrying huge pocketbooks and overflowing shopping bags) – yelling over to one of her friends at another table. We cringed, watching everyone else’s reaction to the offensive screech: the waiters glancing at each other, the Europeans quietly snickering. So embarrassing. My friend’s cheeks started to redden, until I leaned over and whispered to her “Don’t worry – they think we’re Canadian.”  The outburst set off the rest of the group, loudly ooh-ing and aah-ing at every little thing. When the “horde” finally made their noisy exit, it was like you could even hear the walls sighing with relief.venetian cafe

Ever since that episode, I made it a point to remember that, when in another country, I should pass through quietly, unobtrusively, hopefully leaving behind a good impression of who I am. Sadly,  we have continued to encounter the “ugly American” all over the world.

And now we find ourselves living in another country, where the term “American” means something completely different. When we are asked where we are from, we can’t say “America”; we have to say “Los Estados Unidos”. Why? Because Canadians are Americans, Costa Ricans are Americans, Brazilians are Americans, Mexicans are Americans. There’s North America, Latin or Central America, and South America.  As a matter of fact, all 35 countries in this hemisphere (including Cuba!) belong to the OAS – Organization of American States. So, outside of the USA, your definition of “American” has to change. 


We come across a lot of expats here from all over the world, mostly the USA, Canada, and Western Europe. It doesn’t take long to separate the rambunctious “ugly” intruders from those who sit back quietly and try to absorb the local culture. Many moved here, hoping to just bring their homeland customs and attitudes with them. But what worked in their home country may not work here (nor should it, necessarily!) . I don’t care how loud you talk, it’s not going to make anyone here move any faster. And the government doesn’t really care what you think, or whether or not you disagree with the laws. And if you really don’t like it, as one Facebook poster put it nicely, “The airport is an hour away”.

just do it later

We are all visitors on this Earth. Our sojourn here is a temporary and fleeting one. No matter where we go, we should try to put our best foot forward, leave the arrogance behind and assimilate as much as possible. No one wants to be thought of as an “ugly American”.

Pura Vida,

Gary, Cheryl, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. Our interview to renew our temporary residency is coming up this week. Please pray for us, that all goes smoothly. Gracias!!





“What have we learned?”

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty.”

BILLY WILDER, attributed, Wit and Wisdom of the Moviemakers

One of my former co-workers used to always say “What have we learned?” whenever neither Plan A nor Plan B worked. Simple enough statement, but it was enough to make me realize that sometimes we don’t take the time to fully understand the consequences of our actions or decisions.

Moving to Costa Rica was a one-way trip for us; that much we knew for sure. And we had done literally years of research before moving here, so we knew pretty much what to expect. Or did we???  No matter how much we thought we were prepared for, there were still a lot of surprises — most of them, pleasant; others, less so; some, quite interesting.

Friendly morning visitors

You can’t plan for everything, but it pays to do your homework. In hindsight, I think we did a pretty good job researching, so our expectations were very realistic, and we haven’t been taken completely by surprise too often, although that does happen now and then.

So we thought it appropriate, on the advent of our 3-year anniversary of moving here, to take stock of some of the lessons we have learned.

What have we learned?

  • “Mañana” does NOT mean tomorrow — it means “at some unspecified point in the future”. This really annoys Gary, but I was used to “soon come” attitude from spending so much time in Jamaica, so I figure, it will happen/they will show up/it will get fixed eventually.
  • Closely following along that line: Anticipation leads to disappointment.
  • Rosetta Stone lied – There’s no such thing as “Latin American Spanish” – There’s Costa Rican Spanish (closest is Colombian Spanish), but there’s also Guanacaste Spanish (the area where we live), plus the Nicaraguans and Hondurans have a slightly different accent, some words are different. etc.  For months, I’ve been using “mofeta” for “skunk” – wondering why the workers looked at me like I had two heads. Turns out nobody here even uses that word — it’s “zorrillo” for skunk here.
  • Not to be busy all the time. It’s okay to just sit  – NO phone in hand – and listen to the birds, dragonflies, horses, cows and monkeys.

gary in hammockRelaxing at the Azul Ocean Club, Playa Azul

  • That charades works well here when you don’t know the Spanish word.
  • We really can do without a lot of “things” . We once went 8 months without a regular 2-slice toaster – none in stock anywhere. Oh – except for one a friend found about 2 hours from here for $90. I said – forget it – for that price, it should not only toast, but cook the whole meal!
  • How to be inventive – if you can’t buy it, make it!
  • To co-exist with the exotic wildlife here, whether we like it or not.

iguanaNeighbor sun-bathing in the yard

  • Watching the monkeys swinging in the trees is more entertaining than watching sports on TV.
  • How to tell different types of snakes apart (so we know which are venomous) – still working on this.
  • It’s not the end of the world if the electric or water is shut off for a while. No electricity?? Get out a good book or head to the pool with our little battery-operated music player. No water?? We keep plenty of bottled on hand. We’re almost at the end of the dry season now, so water rationing is in effect. Between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm every day, the water is cut off. It’s not as inconvenient as you think.
  • How to keep farmer’s hours – up at 4:30 am – 5:00 am in the morning, in bed by 8:30 – 9:00 pm.
  • To appreciate the really little things in life. A neighbor bought me a battery-operated pencil sharpener — It was the greatest gift — like Christmas in April.

pencil sharpener

  • Money doesn’t buy happiness — we always said that, but now we really KNOW it to be true. A lot of unhappy people in the world with lots of money, but no peace. Sad to say, a lot of the unhappy people here are ex-pats who thought they could bring their home culture, ways of thinking, and needs with them here, and poof – they could just re-create the life they had, but here in a country with better weather. Those are the people we shy away from; their negative attitudes towards anything Costa Rican or unfamiliar just drag everyone down.
  • More cooking from scratch – prepared foods we took for granted aren’t readily available here, and when they are, you pay an arm and a leg for them. Here, if I can find a choice of 3 brands of pasta sauce in one store, that’s extraordinary. Plus, I make/bake all our desserts, since most of the store-bought and home-made products are made with lard, and we don’t care for the taste.

chocolate chip cookies

  • Try more of the local brands, which are just fine and half the price of the imported goods.
  • That the “thing” (spiders) that I feared the most turned out not to be that scary, after all, in comparison to other “things” (locusts).
  • Buy and eat more fresh vegetables and fruit – I actually tried the vegetarian regime for a week, but just couldn’t do it (No fish??? No way!!).  Still, we have cut down substantially on red meat and we do feel like we are eating healthier.

market produceBounty from the local weekly open-air market

  • Plan our shopping trips so that we get everything we need in one trip, especially towards the end of  the rainy season, when the roads are soooooo bad. We don’t have potholes, we have craters and trenches.
  • Not to take anything for granted; life is precious and every day is a treasure.
  • Get used to the sun rising and setting the same time every day, all year round — between 5:30-6:00 am and 5:30-6:15 pm.
  • Slow down (neither of us have worn a watch in the entire time we have been here). We can sit on the beach and sip smoothies and munch on snacks for hours.

our feet at the Westin.jpgRelaxing in a cabana at the Westin Playa Conchal

  • Be able to live without the newest gadgets/appliances. Although, when shopping for appliances for our new house, we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the brands we could get, e.g. LG washer/dryer. Of course, you only have a choice of 2 or 3 brands at the most, at any one store (and they are all probably last-year’s models), but still, we were happy with the selection.
  • More natural, home-made remedies for ailments. Can’t find Excedrin Migraine here, so I use an inhaler with essential oils of marjoram, peppermint, lavender, basil and jojoba – and that does the trick, if I catch the migraine early.
  • Drive slowly – one eye on the road, the other eye on the look-out for wildlife trying to cross the road. A co-pilot helps here. Whoever sits in the front passenger seat is on “animal patrol”.

cows in the roadYou can’t be in a hurry here….these guys will move when they feel like it.

  • When we see something we want, we have to buy it, because next week it won’t be there (out of stock, not carried any more, etc).  And then best to buy 3 or 4 at a time, just so we’ll always have it.
  • Always shake out out shoes and clothes before putting them on, just in case any creepy-crawlies decided to snuggle up inside.
  • Always keep the shower drains covered. We got lax about this recently, and last night Gary found a long, skinny snake in the bathroom. Half-asleep, he thought it was a belt on the floor until it started to move. Fortunately, it slithered back down the drain.
  • Not to get crazy about the currency fluctuation between the U.S. dollar and the colones. Sometimes, it’s in our favor, sometimes it’s not. Over the course of a year, it all balances out in the end.

costa rican money

  • Eggs are sold by weight, not size. So every carton will have a mixture of small, medium and jumbo eggs. I love it – when I’m cooking and a recipe calls for an egg of a certain size, I’m sure to find it in one carton.

eggs in carton

  • Seems like nobody gets snail mail, except for us. (A big thank you to those of you who send us cards and notes – much appreciated!!!)  When the mailman does come, he’s on bicycle and ours is the only mail he’s carrying. It can take 2-3 months for a letter and up to 6 months for a package to get to us — but when it does, it’s a wonderful surprise!!
  • That giving back to the community is the greatest feeling – teaching martial arts and English is so much fun.
  • Soccer – we still don’t know all the rules; we just root for the Costa Rican team all the time.
  • The cost of living (groceries, utilities) is not as inexpensive as we thought it would be. But the quality of life – slower pace, cleaner air, better food – more than makes up for it, and you can’t put a price-tag on that. And we are living – by choice – on the “Gold Coast”. If we lived in the Central Valley, we’d have access to way more goods and everything would be less expensive, but we found the area “too busy” for us to consider living there. A once-a-year-stock-up shopping trip there is sufficient.

What do we miss?

  • Our friends and family, of course (too many pictures to post).
  • Chinese food delivery – (Although another company, Perfect Burgers CR, does home delivery in the rainy season – they are the best burgers we have EVER eaten).
  • Getting really dressed up to go out. Here, tank tops, shorts and flip-flops are the norm of the day.
  • Ease of getting martial arts equipment (thank you Brian, for schlepping things from Canada for us).
  • 3-hour lunches at Dani’s pizza with my gal-pals
  • Access to free music like Pandora or Spotify
  • Gary misses bowling and the camaraderie of his league buddies.
  • Being able to find ANYTHING at Home Depot – We can drive over an hour to the nearest equivalent store here, and either they don’t stock the simplest things or they are sold out. Here, sold out means you have to wait for the next shipment to come in, and that can literally be a slow boat from China.
  • Being able to talk on the phone anywhere, anytime – Right now, we have to be home to use the wi-fi, although more and more public spots are offering wi-fi service
  • We can’t get all the foods we love; I am desperately missing all my favorite Jamaican foods – jerk chicken/pork, tamarind balls, curried goat, and breadfruit –  but we have had the most delicious meals in the local restaurants – the best seafood, freshest fruit drinks, yummy healthy snacks. Gary has even found great sushi.

shrimp lunchLunch at the Beach House Grill, Andaz Papagayo Resort

  • Gary’s martial arts swords – we should have brought them. We exchanged swords as wedding gifts, and his was too long to fit into any of the suitcases we brought down. But the others would have fit, along with the nice display racks.

red room martial arts

  • Browsing through Barnes and Nobles bookstores and libraries. We have one tiny bookstore in town, although he does carry a good selection.
  • Smooth, paved roads — although now that we think of it, the Long Island Expressway and the Van Wyck Expressway were both full of potholes.
  • Our martial arts team demonstrations at the annual Protravel Christmas Party for over 500 sick children and their families

protvl xmas party martial arts

  • Sunday brunch at Nick’s Bistro in Forest Hills
  • Dr. Hauschka’s After-Sun face cream – I’ve tried similar products here, but none as good as his.
  • The Chinese pharmacy on Mott Street in Chinatown
  • Doesn’t feel like Christmas here, without the cold and snow. Some homes hang up outdoor decorations, but it’s just not the same.
  • Annual Action Martial Arts week-end in Atlantic City with Gary’s students and meeting old friends, other grandmasters, learning new techniques
  • Some TV shows. We get an out-of-the-USA version of Netflix, so not as current and complete as we are used to. We’re always a season behind on shows and movies. But you can find a lot of programs on YouTube, and we find other ways to entertain ourselves.
  • Wii Fit – should have brought the board with us. Our luggage was already grossly overweight – another 5 lbs would not have mattered anyway.
  • Our son, Jerome

jerome and gary at beach


What don’t we miss?

  • Police sirens, fire engines and car alarms blaring all the time
  • Homeless people in Manhattan (including the man who threw back at me everything I tried to give him, including clothes and food). In the three years we’ve been here, we’ve seen only one homeless man sitting in the street.
  • Not being able to see all the stars in the sky at night
  • Bus commute to work – 1 1/2 hours in the morning, sometimes longer going home
  • Cold weather and snow (if it gets below 75 here, we get goose-bumps)
  • Having to drive an hour to Long Beach. Now we are only 10 minutes away.


  • Monthly visits to the doctor for pain meds for Gary’s back and paying out-of-pocket for everything, since health insurance for self-employed people was too exorbitant.
  • Pigeons constantly pooping on our windowsill and front yard. It’s so much nicer watching the flocks of wild parakeets flying by every morning and at dusk.
  • Skyscrapers, tall buildings, malls. We went to the new Wal-Mart that opened up about an hour from us. We were inside for less than 10 minutes; Gary turned to me and said “I feel like I’m back on Long Island” – we high-tailed it out of there and have never gone back. They really didn’t have that many items that we needed/wanted, anyway.
  • Watching sports on TV – somehow, the sunrise/sunset is so much more captivating. And we did find a quiet, local sports bar where we can watch pretty much anything, plus play ping-pong, pool, puzzles, cards, horseshoes, board games, etc.



What do we hate about Costa Rica?

  • The locusts. Death to the locusts.
  • Toads – we don’t mind them, but they are toxic to the dogs.
  • Creepy-crawlies in the house; don’t mind them outside, but inside is another thing altogether. Some are seasonal; others annoy us all year round. Some are pretty; others are downright bizarre.

alien beetle

And of course, no place is truly paradise. Every country, including Costa Rica, has its share of crime, government corruption, police officers bribery, etc. Here, most of the crime is petty thievery – the “haves” showing off in front of the “have-nots” make themselves prime targets; for them, we have little sympathy. A murder here is front-page news and talked about for months; we are shocked, until we remember that we came from a city where we didn’t even hear about all the murders/assaults/thefts; they were so frequent and commonplace. Dealing with the bureaucracy can be frustrating. All the roadblocks we encountered during our journey here – opening a bank account, applying for residency, getting healthcare – were frustrating, mostly due to our lack of fluent Spanish. But then, we remembered the difficulty we had in New York with Social Security, finding a bank account that would meet the requirements for Costa Rica, the ineptitude of the police department staff taking our fingerprints, etc. – the same bureaucracy issues were there, as well. Other experiences, like getting a Costa Rican driver’s license, were pretty easy. Banking here is easier, once you’ve convinced the bank that all your income isn’t coming from selling drugs.

What’s next?

  • More exploring of Costa Rica. We still haven’t been to the Caribbean side, the Osa Peninsula, or the volcano to the north of us – all on our bucket list.
  • Getting more involved with the local community and charitable organizations, such as those that provide free education and activities to both youth and adults.
  • We need to become fluent in Spanish. “Uno mas”, “listo” and “bueno” will only get you but so far.

language cards


Besides, at the end of the day, all you really need is to sit back and put your feet up, a best buddy and a ball to play with, and the great outdoors.

kaia and mister chan with soccer ball

Pura Vida,

Gary, Cheryl, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. Please feel free to share our blog with anyone you know who might be considering a move to Costa Rica. We are happy to share our experiences with them.

Words I Should Have Learned

“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It’s no secret – my struggle in learning Spanish, and this isn’t my first blog on the subject. Spanish is the 8th language I am studying – and by far, the most difficult; even Dutch was easier! I really have no idea why I am having such a hard time with this language; maybe it has something to do with the cobwebs accumulating in my brain over the years. Anyway, I plod on – mastering lists of new vocabulary words every month, studying rules of grammar, watching Spanish movies, reading my Tica friends’ posts on Facebook, even reading books in Spanish – the latest, Obama’s autobiography. I think I understood maybe 50% of it….but just maybe. Who knows?

obamas book

Ask me about astronomy or camping or spices or body parts – I can remember all those words. Still, I’m encountering situations where, despite my extensive vocabulary, I’m at a loss for the correct words.  This has led to quite a few embarrassing and/or humorous, but mostly frustrating, situations.

There was the day I met my Spanish teacher’s parents. I wasn’t prepared for meeting them — I was meeting Jonatan (my fantastic Spanish teacher for two years) at our friend’s hotel for my weekly lesson – and he mentioned his parents were staying there on vacation. Just so happened, they were having breakfast, and as we passed them – Jonatan introduced me. Brain freeze set in — and all I could muster was “Oh, sus padres!” (Oh, your parents!).  Struggling to remember “Encantado de conocerlos” (Pleased to meet you), my tongue twisted itself into a pretzel and some gurgling sound, completely unintelligible, came out of my mouth, much to my dismay. I just stood there like a blithering idiot; I could not get my brain to engage with my mouth, no matter how hard I tried. I finally mumbled “Enjoy your vacation” in English and slithered away, like a despondent dog with its tail between its legs. Worse, the look on Jonatan’s face — I was more embarrassed for him — his parents must have been thinking – “This is the student he has been teaching for two years???? And she can’t say ANYTHING???”  This definitely ranked as one of the top 5 “Most mortifying moments” of my life.

Another term I should have studied but didn’t: “llanta desinflada” (flat tire). You think I would have learned this, especially after the third time it happened. Fortunately, when your car limps into a repair place rolling on its rim, few words are necessary. To spare myself the embarrassment of not understanding anything, we even pay our mechanic to take our car to the annual inspection. I barely know car parts in English — now I have to know them in another language???? Come to think of it, I don’t know them in ANY other language I have studied.


Other words I should have learned: screwdriver, pipe, roof tiles, and anything else to do with house repair. We have a great crew of workmen here in our development — always friendly and willing to help. Unfortunately, none of them speak a word of English. And household tools, appliances, electrical wiring and other hardware were not on the top of my “Lists of words I must know”. So, whenever we need a repair, before I even utter a word, the Spanish language part of my brain is already looking for a nook to crawl into and hide. Add to that, most of them now think I am fluent in Spanish (no idea why???), so everything comes out of their Nicaraguan / Honduran / Costa Rican mouths at lightning speed, at which point, my eyes glaze over, my hearing tunes out completely, and my brain refuses to even contemplate translating. More than once, I have responded with an “Okay” and a silly grin, completely oblivious to what I have agreed to.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, our water pipes were being connected to the new water treatment system on the property. I noticed the men were gathered outside our house, so I went to greet them. “Hola, como estan?” — okay, that part went well. And then one of them went off on me — explaining something about the water — waving a length of pipe in his hand. I heard the words “agua” and “servicio” in there, and concluded that they were working on the water and we wouldn’t have service for a while. Okay, no problem. I come back inside and tell Gary that the men are working on the pipes and the water will be shut off for a while.

After about 15 minutes, the doorbell rings. It’s one of the men, again ranting 100 mph about “agua” and “servicio”. Concerned that this might more of a major problem, I try to ask how long will the water be out; the reply something about “tarde”, but I wasn’t sure if that was “este tarde” (this afternoon) or “mas tarde” (later). Okay, I close the door, go back in and tell Gary I have no idea what the workman said; I don’t know how long the water will be out. I hear the heavy sigh and know what Gary is thinking: ‘All this time she spends studying and she still doesn’t understand these men’.

15 minutes later, the doorbell rings again. One of the men, crazily grinning, has his smartphone out — and lo and behold, he has a translator — he shows me his phone – whatever he has written in Spanish “bajar el servicio” is translated as “lower the water service”. Ah, okay. Again, I smile and close the door. And again, I say to Gary, I think the service will be out for longer than they thought. No reply is forthcoming, which I know means ‘That’s what she thinks they said, but it’s probably not right’. But Gary is a patient and forgiving man, so all I hear is the heavy sigh and nothing else.

10 minutes later, the doorbell rings again. Now the workman is practically yelling at me “Servicio, servicio”, and then the light bulb goes on – some people use “servicio” to mean the bathroom, even though that’s not the word I normally use. So I say “baño?” “Si, si”. Now I’m totally clueless – does he want to use the bathroom???? – so I invite him in. He walks into the bathroom and flushes the toilet, waits and then flushes it again. He looks at me, repeating “bajar el servicio”. Ooooooohhhhhh – lower the water service — he meant “flush the toilet”. Part of me wants to yell “Well, why didn’t you say so???” and the other part of me is again so embarrassed that we wasted the better part of an hour for something as simple as flushing the toilet twice to clear the water line. We all laughed about that, although I suspect their laughter was more at my ignorance than anything else.

This week, we needed a light bulb changed in the bedroom, but the ceiling is so high, our stepladder doesn’t reach. So I asked one of the workmen if he “tiene una escalera?” (Do you have a ladder?) and showed him the bulb. I was only expecting either “Si” or “No” – not the 5-minute long explanation that ensued. No clue what he said. Meanwhile, Gary is looking at me to translate, so at that point, I made it up – Yes, he’s getting a ladder and he’ll change the bulb. Fortunately, that turned out to be correct. Yipppeeee – one right!!!

Another story: We seem to be the only house in this development that gets mail, albeit rarely. And none of the houses have numbers. So we had a lady make a plaque that said “Casa 38” which we figured we would hang up so the mailman would be able to find us. We got the plaque but it was plain brown, no color. So our security guard is very handy, always crafting little tables and chairs. I gave it to him and asked him to paint the letters and numbers, and lacquer it for us. He’s now had that plaque for close to a month. Every time I ask him about it, he takes off at not 100, but 200 mph – I catch the words “vacaciones” (vacation) and “pintura” (paint) somewhere in there, but I can’t make out anything else. Every time I say “Despacio, despacio, por favor” (Slower, slower, please), he speaks faster. Gary wonders if he is waiting for us to give him money to buy the paint, but I don’t think that’s it. Then again, who knows??  We figure we’ll get the plaque back in about six months, if ever. I’m too embarrassed to ask him again.

Most Ticos are forgiving of my mistakes, and patiently correct me, which I don’t mind at all. After all, there’s Spanish, and then there’s Costa Rican Spanish, which is closer to the Spanish spoken in Colombia as opposed to Puerto Rico, Mexico, etc. And then just not Costa Rican Spanish, but the lingo spoken here in Guanacaste, which is a slightly different accent and some words than what’s spoken in the Central Valley and other parts of the country.

A few are rather rude about my errors, though, and of course, my first thought is to blurt out “How’s your English?” But I hold my tongue; I am, after all, on their turf. Sometimes I confuse my French and Italian and Spanish. Trying to be respectful, I once called our primary care physician “Dottore”, at which he snapped (rather rudely, I might add) that “dottore” was Italian, not Spanish. Now I don’t address him at all (I’ll show you!). A member of a mariachi band rebuked me for wishing them “Buenas noches” while the sun was still in the sky. I hadn’t realized that was such a serious cultural faux pax. I won’t make that mistake again. But those incidents are thankfully rare.

Any ad you see that tells you can be up and running, fully conversant, in 15 minutes or 30 days, is ridiculous. You may be able to string some words together in a few sentences, but you won’t be able to understand half of what is said to you. Think of us native English speakers — and how different words and accents are in the same country, depending on where you travel. Spanish is no different.

I could go on and on, but you get the drift.  My father, in his seemingly infinite wisdom, when I was a teenager, had asked me “Why don’t you learn a useful language like Spanish?” But nooooooooo – my mom spoke French to me, all my children’s books were in French and I had visions of grandeur parading around Paris someday. Of course, now I wish I had heeded his words — who knew that I would need Spanish someday???

spanish lessons

Anyway, for several years, my mantra of “Someday” was that we would end up living in Costa Rica. Now that we are here (and loving it!) my new “Someday” is that I’ll be fluent in Spanish……Wish me luck!!!!

Pura Vida!

Cheryl, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. If you know any friends who are interested in Costa Rica, please give them the link to our blog. We are happy to share our experiences with anyone searching for “Pure Life”.