Banking, Haircuts, Cell Phone, Some Philosophy Too

Published: July 13th 2005
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While I was told this by many people before arriving in Costa Rica, you have to experience it to know it and, that is this: Living in a foreign country is much different than being a tourist in one. Sounds obvious, but until you do it, you just don’t know what is in store for you. So, today’s blog entry is devoted to some of the routine things one does in a foreign country to get things done.

First, several of you have asked about our adopted dog, Jack. Well, despite our best efforts, Jack is a roamer. He left over a week ago and we have not seen him since. I’m afraid he’s with a new owner, or worse. If the dog situation gets resolved, I will let you know. LATE BREAKING UPDATE: Jack was spotted up at our friend Joanna’s house tonight. He has not made his way to our house, but at least we know he’s alive!!

Speaking of animals, a somewhat amusing thing happened yesterday. I was moving our two horses, Gringo and Amigo, from their field behind our house to their field next to our house. Gringo, who is much more friendly when he wants his food, happily followed me up the dirt road to the field as I shook his pail, for which I was going to fill with the food we keep in the garage. Amigo, the much more frightened of the two, stayed put and I decided I’d deal with him after Gringo. So, I have Gringo in the new field and I decided at that point I’d go to the garage, get their food, let Gringo eat and then deal with Amigo. Well, Gringo followed me all the way into the garage! I called Beth, and there she found me in the garage with a large horse by my side sniffing first at the birdcage—I swear all the birds turned white—then at the container stored with his food! I wish I had my camera for that! I’ll try it again and snap a picture.

Back to the mundane tasks incumbent in living here….

Opening a bank account is a half-day ordeal. I decided I would open an account with Banco Nacional, because it is government-owned and one’s money is most secure there, not to mention insured (though there is some debate about that). I met Chris Lopez in the loan department, the only English speaking staff member. He’s helped all of the gringos here. He also likes to drink cervezas at my local watering hole, so we had that in common. He happily set me up with the right people. However, you just don’t simply open an account. You need paperwork, and more paperwork! You must be a resident, and if you are not (I’m not yet), you need to have an official corporation and the paperwork that goes with it, a document from an attorney saying you are the owner of the corporation and can act on its behalf, and two letters of reference. It appeared I had everything that was needed. So, I sat for about an hour and watched the clerk type, yes, type on a typewriter, all of my banking documents. She must have typed up 15 different documents, all in Spanish, and I simply signed everything. However, every time she made a mistake, she had to use the old “correcto” tape! So, I gave her a check I had, written on Banco Nacional, that I received at closing on my house here, and I was all set, so I thought. The next day, I get a call saying my corporate documents are not correct, and I need this and that, and the other thing, blah blah blah. Therefore, they have my money but until I get the documents I need from San Jose, I’m in limbo. Thank God I can access my funds in the U.S. with my ATM card!

The result of being in limbo with my local bank account is that every time I have to pay a worker/contractor, I need to get cash. Not a big deal but the ATM I use (not all of the ATM machines here work with my card) only spits out 5,000 colones notes (about $10 USD) so if I have to pay a contractor say $500 for some work, just think about that!

It’ll be about four months before we can get cell phones. We need cell phones. First, we only have the one phone line at the B&B and if we are on the phone or using the Internet (yes, it is dial-up access with a modem for now), callers cannot get through. Second, it is just smart to have one when we are away from the house. Well, I was told even before getting here that getting a cell phone is not a problem. The problem is, however, is that there are no lines available currently. Our hopes were raised in San Jose when my computer repair guy told me there were well over 6,000 lines now available and all we had to do was go to “ICE,” the government-monopoly telecom company and get some lines. So back in San Ramon, of course we are told there no lines available until October. So we wait—uggh!

Finding your way around isn’t easy. While San Ramon is a very small town, it still seems like a day-long event just to go the 5 km to downtown and run a few errands. Getting there is no problem as we’ve figured that out. However, finding a particular shop, or remembering how to get to the post office, is a major chore. Because there are no street signs, you have to remember what a store or office is near. “300 meters east of the church,” or “200 meters north of the school” (the high school in San Ramon is called “George Washington High School!”). Well, after a while one gets used to it. At least now I generally know how to get to the post office, supermarket, computer store and Internet café (when needed). I also know where a few decent restaurants are, so I’m learning.

In other news….

I am trying hard to live like a Tico. This means, eating at home most nights, not buying any new clothes or gadgets, and generally trying to adapt to a simple, less materialistic life. So far it has been going fairly well. The only luxury I have besides Internet access and microwave popcorn, is DirecTV satellite. It “conveyed” with the house anyways and it is good for guests. It is the same (almost) as in the states so I can catch up on the news via CNN, watch one of the 10 or so movie channels, or generally just channel surf when I do not feel like doing much else. That’s the thing about Costa Rica, and in particular our location, it is very conducive to doing nothing. Some days I just sit on one of the hammocks and take in the incredible views while reading a book. Other days I just walk the property and “chat” with the horses, birds and chickens—and even the neighbors once in a while!

I don’t even spend money on haircuts. Not that I have tons of hair. In fact, I talked Beth into cutting my hair using the nifty hair cutting kit I bought in Washington. So, two Saturdays ago in the midst of another exciting weekend (yea, right!), I her cut my hair way back as I like it these days. She picked it up quickly so I told her if she ever needed to earn extra income she could become a hair stylist down in San Ramon! Haircuts, for men at least, are cheap here--$2 or $3 at most—but $2 or $3 is a beer or two so it is worth having her do it!

We have a brand new….


Yes, we finally have our own car. It’s red 1991 Izusu Trooper, V6 engine, 4x4, complete with tinted windows. It’s built like a brick sh*t house for sure. It even has dual exhaust pipes, a real man’s car. I love it!

Funny, purchasing the car was much easier than paying my bill at the hardware store. I simply wired the money to the seller’s bank account from my own account online, he had his lawyers draw up the legal papers and two days later the car was ours.

We had rented a car for the last three weeks and it was mucho expensive. We also learned not to rent a car at the San Jose airport. There, they charge you 12% airport tax.

Having a car here certainly brings a sense of freedom and certainly enables my tendency to roam—just like Jack (I suspect he and may get in similar sorts of trouble too). I actually love running errands, being the big man around San Ramon so to speak. Today, for example, I finalized opening my bank account. Yes, it took about four hours over two days. “You need more paperwork.” Your attorney needs to give you….” So, as of today, I have access to online banking in Costa Rica, have a genuine Banco Nacional debit card, usable at dozens of ATM machines throughout the country, however only in Costa Rica. Thank God, I have my U.S. account! Chris Lopez, the English-speaking bank there treated me very well, even showing me how to transfer money to another person—to him. LOL! We transfer 1 colones or about .002 cents to him today and he prompted transferred the same amount back to me. I respect an honest guy.

Back to the new car, we went on Monday to pick it up at about 4pm in a driving rainstorm, with our neighbor Fernando. There we are sitting in the office of the seller, with Fernando, me and Beth. The seller read the entire agreement out loud in Spanish (I knew it was MY car when I heard her bungle my last name several times). During the reading, I turned to Beth and whispered, “I think we’re married now.”

Oh, when we left to pick up the car, the power went out at our house/community. Apparently, a truck knocked over an electric pole on the main road near our house. So, there we went, leaving the cleaning lady and four workers behind, assuming the power would not be out for long. At the time we did not know how long the power would be out.

When we returned from the car purchase oddessy three hours later, the lights were on but the main road by our house was blocked, so the road crew fixing the power lines let the cars go around the blocked area through our little dirt road that passes our house. We pulled in with several cars in tow and found our guests outside taking it all in. They said they were holding a flashlight while our workers put up walls, etc., in the dark! Thank God they took it all in stride. It has not been an easy transition, taking over this business for sure, particularly while we are trying to upgrade the place.

I do not think running a B&B that is “well-oiled” is that hard. We’re not there quite yet. Beth’s kitchen, for example, is not where she needs it to be. We did put up a metal shelving unit this week and that makes access to our kitchen stuff more convenient and in a few weeks we’ll have a new table for her to prepare food on, but for now it certainly is not an optimal situation. She’s managing well with what she has to work with though.

One of the things I have learned quickly is that you cannot escape, whether in Washington, DC, Costa Rica, or anywhere else, is the politics of the community in which you live. Just like back on “S” Street in DC, even in our quaint, picture-perfect area, everyone talks about everyone else. Some people won’t go to a party “so and so” will be at, or “He’s done this,” and “She’s done that….” The big question is, however, “What are they saying about me!”

I think it is important to avoid the politics if you can and one of the keys to enjoying life here is to relax and take things in stride. Some of us are better at this than others. I’m trying. For me, it makes no sense to be in an environment like this and feel anxious, worried, etc. I came here to make a little money, have a simpler, less hurried life, and of course, stay healthy. So, if things don’t go perfectly, I will not let it get to me. One screw up by a contractor, or even more likely, by me, is not the end of the world. Why am I discussing all this? Well, because I see the people who have been moving here, or will move here soon, and some are cut out for it, and well, in my judgment, I can tell the ones who won’t make it. You have to be willing to give up some conveniences, be rest assured that things will take longer to get done here than in the states and most certainly know that things won’t go according to plan every time. However, the payoff is a great life, less hassle than in the U.S, and even a chance to make an okay living. It is the small things here that make it great: Lying in the hammock on a Tuesday afternoon, feeding the horses, and just taking pleasure in the things many of us missed out on day in and day out in the U.S. Not everyone does this well. For me, I am learning to relax and to take the time to learn a new way of life.

I’ll contrast this life with the fact that I’ll be in the U.S. for about a month starting next week to have some minor surgery, see friends and take care of some personal business. I’ll be in New York, DC and other points currently unknown, so it’ll be interesting to see how I “re-adapt” to being back in the U.S. I’ll tell you about that in my next entry in a week or so.

Pura Vida!



30th August 2005

Great Blog!
Thanks for a great blog. I was in CR for 9 days this summer and fell in love with the country and people (coming back next year and hope to swing by the "finca" to check out Beth's yummy cooking). Your blog makes me feel like I am still there. I also plan on moving there someday. Keep up the great blog! Hope your surgery went well. ¡Pura vida!
9th September 2005

Nice read
Hi Andrew, I read your journal. Actually I've read it several times. I haven't seen anymore journals from you. Hope you are doing fine, and hope to read more from you soon!

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