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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Living in Costa Rica Without a Car

I think that every newly arrived expat to Costa Rica should be required to be without a vehicle for two years. This will force them to use the taxis and buses and therefore interact with the Costa Ricans and pick up a lot of Spanish, not to mention Tico friends.

Well, that's what we have been doing for the almost two years we have been living here and I would not have missed this for anything. We have amassed an amazing network of taxi drivers who know us and look after us. In Atenas, our first call is to Mario/Jorge - one or the other might be driving their taxi at any time. If they are busy, they call somebody for us (probably Diego), or we call Diego ourselves. If Diego cannot make it, he calls his friend and so on. Somebody always shows up at our gate to pick us up, even if I haven't quite understood what they are saying.

I try to organize as many appointments as possible on one day when using a taxi. Recently, our schedule was as follows: depart Atenas, take our cat to her vet in Santa Ana (Ticos call it "Santana") for blood work and leave her there overnight; stop at ARCR (Association of Residents of Costa Rica) in San José to get our mail; go to my doctor's appointment at CIMA (North American style hospital) in Escazu; have a nice lunch in the same area; go to PriceSmart (similar to Costco and next to CIMA) and stock up on meat, etc., so I can make slow cooker meals that then go into the freezer for meals later in the month. We don't shop that often at PriceSmart as I prefer to shop locally and support our town but, if we are close to one, then I will take advantage and buy a few things in bulk.

So, to begin with, I phoned Diego and asked him to pick us up (in my Spanglish) to take our cat (gata = female cat) to the vet in Santa Ana. Since he has done this run for us numerous times in the past, this was fairly easy. I just had to indicate the day and time of pickup. And that worked out as Diego showed up at our gate at the appointed time. His taxi is immaculate with the air conditioning on and he provides Spanish newspapers for us to try and read. I can read the grocery ads.

Then Lance did a stellar job directing Diego to the ARCR office in San José. I wish I could always remember the Spanish words for "left" and "right" ... I think "straight ahead" is "directo". Picked up our mail, then onwards to CIMA for my doctor's appointment, where Diego dropped us off.

When we go to Escazu, we have another taxi driver in San José who knows us and will drive us back to Atenas.

If we had our own vehicle, it would probably sit unused a good deal of the time. We're no longer commuting back and forth to jobs in the big city. We can always rent a car if we want to take some trips around the country. With taxis, we can go out for dinner, have a bottle of wine or a couple of drinks and not worry about having to drive home in the dark, and possibly in the rain, on poorly marked roads.

Then there is the cost factor in owning a vehicle. We estimate our vehicle and operating expenses in Vancouver, B.C., were about $700 CAD per month. Our taxi usage expense here in Costa Rica is about half that amount.

Will we ever purchase a vehicle here? Perhaps, perhaps not.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Scruffy the Costa Rican Dog

I have written about Scruffy in previous posts. He showed up on our road one day, seemingly lost and disoriented. He bunked in with our neighbours across the way for a while. He would also show up at our place and our neighbors behind us. We all fed him. Over time, he acquired the name "Scruffy" and it suits him. He is some sort of terrier mix, with wiry hair and very odd leg bone structure. He will never win Best of Show at the Westminster Dog Show in New York but he would get first prize for personality. Scruffy is the brightest little dog, very well mannered, and has appointed himself protector of the properties around us.

But he really attached himself to our neighbours that live up above us on the hill. Rose Mary is Scruffy's main gal. Husband Tony says he has nothing to do with it, but we know he likes Scruffy a lot. Scruffy visits us every day and cat Genny gets along with her new buddy very well.

One day Scruffy appeared at our house sporting a spiffy red bandana. Then next time he was wearing a blue one. Then came a collar. Eventually that collar broke, and Scruffy appeared at our house the other day wearing a blue bandana, a new blue collar and a blue ID tag with his name, his address and contact information for him.

This is irrefutable proof that Scruffy is not our dog - he now has a forever home with Rose Mary and Tony.

"If the collar proclaims, you cannot disclaim".

Scruffy and His New Gear
The Proof Positive


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

At Juan Santamaría Airport

Today we went to SJO (Juan Santamaría Airport) in Alajuela to pick up our neighbours who had been visiting relatives in Texas.

Here are a few photos taken in and outside of SJO.

TACA airplane at SJO
Oxcart Display at SJO
Oxcart Display at SJO, showing coffee beans



Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Tropical Storm

This is a video I made during late afternoon yesterday, when we experienced a thunder storm for about 50 minutes. Afternoon rains, which may or may not be accompanied by thunder and lightning, are a common occurrence during our green season. The green season runs from about April to October/November.

Mornings will be sunny, with the clouds moving in sometime in the afternoon. The rain, if we get it, may not last very long, an hour or so. October/November will be the rainiest months. We get periods of a couple of weeks during July and August that are called veranilla or little summer, when we experience no rain.

Costa Rica has many, many microcosms of weather. This is what we experience at our home in Vista Atenas.



Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tuffy Update

Remember Tuffy? He's the cat who moved uninvited into our Cloverdale, B.C., house about six months before we moved to Costa Rica. We became attached to him and he to us so we did not want to just abandon him when we left.

We were bringing our cat, Genny, with us but had no wish to bring a second cat. To the rescue - my niece and her husband in Toronto, Ontario. We air shipped Tuffy to them and he adopted them as his own in no time.

An interesting aside to the Tuffy story - we were convinced Tuffy was female but it turned out he was not!

Here is a recent photo of Tuffy living the very good life in Toronto, Ontario. Thank you, Stephanie and Dave.

Photography: S.J. Kalinowski



Monday, May 13, 2013

Saturday Morning in Atenas

Last Saturday, we had breakfast at El Balcón del Café y Bistro, the cafe on the second floor at Atenas Centro. The meals are delicious, the prices reasonable and the owner, Melani, and her staff are so friendly. This time I chose the Tico breakfast - eggs, plantain, gallo pinto, local cheese, coffee and juice.

It's very nice to sit at a table by the balcony railing and watch the activity in the town below. You never know what you will see.

Boyeros and their oxen team.

You can't judge a book by its' cover and a building by its' exterior here. What's important is what and who are inside.

This is the best place to have appliances, etc., repaired. Ask for Gustavio.
Gollo - appliances, motorbikes and all sorts of things for sale here.
El Rayo, the "colone store" as I call it.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tax Aggravations - One Mistake After the Other

This may be of more interest to Canadian expats than those from other countries. Nevertheless, it points to some bureaucratic issues which may not be unique to Canada.

For most people in Canada, the annual deadline for filing a tax return is April 30th. This is a bit more gracious than the April 15th deadline imposed by Uncle Sam in the USA.

In February, I received by mail the 2012 tax return package from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) . This gave me lots of time until April 30th.

Mistake #1: Without looking, I simply assumed the CRA package would include all the required forms for both the federal and provincial components of income tax. These components are interrelated and one cannot be completed without the other. They both get filed with the feds in the same place at the same time.

Mistake #2: Expecting that I would owe money, I was in no hurry to look at the forms - let alone go through the wretched task of filling them out. I decided that mañana would be soon enough. But, one mañana led to another mañana, and so on and so forth.

Around April 20th, I finally bit the bullet and opened the CRA package. Over the next few days (at on-again, off-again pace), I successfully navigated through most of the federal forms, then turned my attention to the provincial forms. In short order, I was compelled to stand back and say, “oh @$#&%!”. They gave me the wrong provincial forms. The federal forms were correct but the provincial forms were not. With absolutely no reason for doing so, they gave me the forms for Ontario instead of British Columbia. I have not lived in Ontario for more than thirty years. Oh well, the federal government at work.

With little more than a week to go, there was no time to ask CRA to send the right forms - they would just put them in the mail. Luckily, I was able to locate and retrieve the right forms on the Internet. Everything was ready to go on April 24th - or so I thought.

Mistakes #3: Off to FedEx in San José to courier my tax return to Canada. Unfortunately, while filling out the waybill, another “oh @$#&%!” moment arose. The return address provided by CRA was a post office box address in Ottawa - not a physical address. Problem: FedEx will not accept packages addressed to a post office address in Canada unless you also provide a telephone number. I did not have a telephone number at hand. Even if I did, its use likely would have been a joke. A call from FedEx to CRA probably would have gone something like this:

Bienvenue à l'Agence du revenu du Canada. Pour le service en français, s'il vous plaît appuyez sur un. Pour le service en anglais, s'il vous plaît appuyez sur deux.

followed by:

Welcome to the Canada Revenue Agency. For service in French, please press one. For service in English, please press two.

... and on and on through several levels of automated options and holds before speaking to a real live person.

In short order, I could imagine FedEx giving up and hanging up (and rightfully so) - then contacting me to supply a physical address. Meanwhile, the April 30th deadline would have come and gone.

Solution (I thought): Three or four blocks down the street from FedEx on Paseo Colón, we found a Wendy’s outlet (yes, the norteamericanos Wendy’s). The front door advertised WiFi. So we went in, bought some frosties, and tried to connect with CRA using my iPad. Unfortunately, the ability to connect repeatably failed. More @$#&%!. So, while in Wendy’s and enjoying our frosties, we looked for any other working WiFi “hotspots” that might be nearby. Lo and behold, a Quiznos outlet appeared on the screen - and its Internet connection worked (yes, the norteamericanos Quiznos).

Through Quiznos, I got a physical address for CRA in Ottawa, went back to FedEx, and used that address on the FedEx waybill. The package was delivered the next day.

Mistake #4: One more time, “@$#&%!”. It turns out that the address I used for CRA via Quiznos was a local office address for persons living in the Ottawa region of Canada. It was not the address for the “International Tax Services Office”. Problem: If it took more then three business days for the local Ottawa CRA office to deliver the package to the International Office, I have to wonder whether my tax return will be considered as having been filed by April 30th. Time will tell.

Mistake #5: This mistake threads through all of the above mistakes. Because I procrastinated, I was obliged to send my tax return to CRA via FedEx. Mistakes 2, 3 and 4 would not have arisen had I promptly dealt with the CRA package provided to me in February. FedEx would have been out of the loop. Nevertheless, the cost of using FedEx was minor - but it was not trivial. It amounted to the cost of a three or four star dinner in Costa Rica.

Mistake #6: Incredibly, it has now been suggested to me that my deadline for filing a tax return might not have been April 30th. Because I am self-employed with my artwork, the deadline might be June 15th under the screwy rules in Canada. So, even if I did not complete everything by April 30th, there may be no consequence. Again, only time will tell.

Lesson learned: Unless you are absolutely sure that you do not owe money to the revenuers in whatever country might be of concern, then do not delay looking at forms, completing the forms, and filing a tax return at the earliest opportunity.

Note from Diana: This blog post was created by my husband, Lance. I dunno, is it just me, or do you detect some finger wagging admonishment here?


Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Bounty That Is Costa Rica

Before moving to Costa Rica, we lived our lives in various provinces of Canada, ending up in southern coastal British Columbia which, compared to the rest of Canada, is nirvana in my opinion. Temperate climate, mild winters with rain instead of snow (although we would experience snow now and again), early springs (February), fantastic and really fresh seafood all year around, and a wonderful selection of fresh fruits and vegetables when in season. Still, a lot of produce was imported.

Here in Costa Rica, the selection of fresh fruits and vegetables is continuous. Everything has it's season, as in Canada, so some things are available only at certain times of the year. But I can always, always, all year, buy fat red tomatoes, enormous green onions, green beans, chubby spicy radishes, lettuce, cabbage, bananas, plantains, strawberries, cucumbers and on it goes and all grown in Costa Rica.

We have our own banana trees, an enormous mango tree, an orange tree, and also herbs, tomato and sweet peppers that I have planted just because I enjoy doing so. Right now, the mango tree is throwing off hundreds of beautiful mangoes. Our neighbor dried a dozen of our bananas for us, so I have a nice bag of banana chips to snack on. Once the bounty starts, it is difficult to use everything. We give a lot of it away. Our mango tree overhangs the road, so often Ticos driving a truck will stop underneath a big branch and take what they can reach .... they are more then welcome to it. It's a shame for anything to go to waste. Birds, and I also suspect other creatures we never see, also enjoy the fruit. Last year we had toucans in the mango tree.

Orange juice from our oranges
Two kinds of basil


Tarragon (with the yellow flowers)


Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Costa Rica always has nice surprises for us.

A Tica just arrived at our gate, carrying a bucket and the contents covered with a dish towel. She removed the towel and revealed her treasures - tamales that she made herself and was selling for just one mil (1,000 colones).

Costa Rican tamales differ from the Mexican tamales, which are small and wrapped in corn husks. Tamales here are the perfect size for a light dinner and are wrapped in banana leaves. They are labor intensive to make, taking up to two days, and are usually made at Christmas.

They are wrapped with string in a pair, called a piña, and boiled for about an hour to cook. I can reheat them by boiling for a short while. We will appreciate the labor of love by our Tica lady as we enjoy our tamales with a cup of coffee.


Labor Day

Today, May 1, 2013, is Labor Day, or dia de los Trabajadores, in Costa Rica. Most countries in the world celebrate Labor Day on May 1st.

In Costa Rica, it is a national holiday for workers country wide, with banks and government offices closed. There will be parades and a Presidential speech to Congress.