Moving to CR: Dispatch 5


I am more than a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t driven here yet. I think I can handle the traffic in San Ramon, the speed bumps (“reductor” here in CR, for reductor de velocidad), stray dogs, and people walking on the side of the road on the road we take through Los Angeles Sur to get to San Ramon. But our driveway is fairly steep, you need some speed in order to make it up to the top, and just as you get to the top, you need to slow down to take the bump at the correct place between the differing angles of the driveway and dirt road so you don’t “bottom out.”

I’m short enough that even though in most circumstances I can see just fine, because of the angle of the driveway, I cannot see it. And added to that, there’s a pretty good hill on one side of the driveway, so if you get off the driveway into the softer grass, it would be difficult to get the car back onto the driveway. The place where the car gets parked is also at a 90° angle from the driveway and there’s not a lot of room to turn around (and the hill alongside gets steeper). Sounds intimidating, but it’s really not much different from thousands of other driveways in CR. There’s a second driveway up above, which Paul initially used without incident. Unlike our lower, steeper driveway, the upper driveway consists of two concrete tracks, each a bit wider than a vehicle wheel. Not a problem if you’re exactly on it. Paul discovered, unfortunately, that if you make a slight miscalculation, you wind up with three wheels on the concrete tracks and one wheel in the air. After having to have a neighbor help pull the car out once and putting a loose concrete block below the airborne wheel beneath it on a second occasion a day or two later, he’s parked below ever since.

Some driveways are perfect:  paved, nearly flat, wide (so it’s easy to turn around), and with good visibility of the road. Most, however, are much more like ours, but may be even steeper, dirt (and very muddy when it rains). There may be no way to turn around once you get to the house, and the driveway may be both very narrow and winding. So in the scheme of things, we have a very good driveway, although that doesn’t actually make it any easier to navigate if you’re not familiar with driving to and from the house. Of course our neighbors across the street and next door both have flat, wide, easy-to-turn-around-in driveways. I keep trying to remind myself that the terrain is different in each of these places, but that doesn’t prevent me from wishing our driveway were flatter and wider.

I’ve been thinking about how to solve the problem. We cannot do anything about the angle at the top of the driveway because it would cost a fortune to rebuild it and the angle also serves to channel the water from the frequent downpours here. I believe there may be a solution of sorts regarding visibility: putting something in along the driveway that won’t grow into the driveway to make it even narrower, nor out into the grassy area, making it harder for Chico to mow.

The solution I thought of was to ask Chico if he could cut some bamboo from our neighbor’s bamboo patch (forest is more like it), about 2 meters long, maybe 14 or 16 poles. He’d cut off some bamboo for a banister going down the stairs to the lower yard, and thought that would be the right diameter, but I asked for them to be a little smaller. I told him in bad Spanish how I wanted them staggered (and even showed him the word in the dictionary), then, because he didn’t understand, showed him what I was talking about. Ah, he said, zig zag! (Who knew?) So a few days later, he had 13 bamboo poles that he’d cut. He cleaned them, scraping off all the mold, and what I didn’t realize is how gorgeous they are:  each one different, striped with green, dark spots, plain: I can imagine an art project with them. Paul put several coats of varnish on them, and they were even more beautiful. In a few days, Chico will put them in the ground next to the driveway, and we’ll see how that works out. If nothing else, we’ll have some gorgeous bamboo poles marking the driveway, but if the bamboo poles work, I’ll be driving here before long. Only nine of the poles were used, so the remainder will be used in other projects. Sturdy, lightweight, and durable, the bamboo poles are very versatile.

People living here have told us that materials (concrete, steel rebar, and other construction supplies) are expensive, but labor is not. We see this in municipal projects and other projects every day. It’s quite surprising to watch projects up close and see what workers are able to accomplish with little more than a shovel. When we lived in the cabinas, we watched workers clean out a culvert and line it with concrete. In the US, it would be constructed with backhoes and other heavy equipment, putting in those very large diameter concrete pipes, which are great so long as the volume of water doesn’t exceed their capacity. Here in CR, the culvert was fairly deep and U-shaped, but the top of the U was about twice as wide (or wider) than at the bottom. It will carry a lot of water! And in the rainy season, every bit of that capacity will be needed. Workers cleaned out the culvert, widened it, flattened the bottom of the ditch, then mixed their concrete, spread it out and scraped and shoveled until it was smooth. They did a great job, and the torrents of rain will be contained nicely.

Our neighbor is having a retaining wall constructed next to the road, which will serve two purposes:  to flatten the slope of his lawn, making it easier to mow, and to help keep the dust down when cars drive by in the dry season. Aside from the delivery van delivering the mountain of supplies required for the project and the cement mixer on site, everything is being done by hand. Mauricio, the superintendent, and two or three workers are doing what is truly a masterful job on this wall. The trench for the foundation for the wall is ramrod straight, and the concrete blocks and rebar look very well-constructed, all of it done using mostly hand tools!


The wall is now completed, save for the final coat of paint. Right now, it’s painted a light blue, which is quite attractive, though it doesn’t match the house or other fences near the house (house is almost a mustard yellow; other concrete fences, wind breaks, and retaining walls are a sort of red-purple). The light blue is evidently primer for the concrete wall, and it will receive its final coat of paint in a few days ,when the weather is warmer and drier.



We thought we needed to go on a border run before our 90-day visa expired on 29/10, so I made arrangements for us to go on a package trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama, 32 km from the border with Costa Rica on the Caribbean Sea. (Summary of a long story:  turns out that we didn’t need to go after all, but decided to keep our reservation, anyway.)

The airplane was tiny, a DeHavilland DHC 6, which carries 19 passengers. It was a very noisy, but short flight, just 50 minutes from San Jose to Bocas. Because the plane was not pressurized, it flew low above the countryside, and the scenery was spectacular:  first passing over the city of San Jose (at around 500,000, smaller than Seattle or Vancouver, BC, and completely dwarfed by places like Phoenix, LA, or Mexico City), but which seemed so large because we were flying so low over it and it took so long to do so. Not much later, we saw isolated communities here and there on the slopes of impossibly steep mountainsides; ridge upon ridge of mountains that were fairly high, but, this being the tropics, not a single one had any snow whatsoever. We did pass over or very near the highest mountain in Costa Rica, Mt Chirripó (12,530′). We also passed over flatter areas, where there were vast tracts of land being farmed, mostly in sugar cane or bananas. Here and there, as we flew slightly south and then east, I tried to identify what we were flying over. I didn’t think to bring a map, so never did quite figure it out. Suddenly there was the coast and breakers, and it became obvious:  the Caribbean!

We landed at Bocas right on time, and the lower elevation – sea level instead of 4000′ – really hit us:  it was hot and it was humid! The package deal was for two full days (land at 0830 on Tuesday and depart at 0900 on Thursday) and we both wondered how we’d cope with the heat, but the day we landed turned out to be the hotter of the two days and the hotel had excellent air conditioning. A lot of people really like Bocas. It’s a slightly down-at-the-heels beach town, with that tropical Caribbean ambiance. The first day we wandered around the town and had the best Indian food we’ve had since having dinner at Maharajah’s in West Seattle. 

The second day we signed up for one of those package snorkeling/birdwatching-boat-tour-around-the-island trips. We stopped several times, first at a rather dark and rickety windowless store for snacks and bottled water, then at a beach where we could swim and buy lunch and souvenirs. (Lunch was about what you might expect.) We went to a place called Bird Island (Isla Pajaros, pronounced EEs-la PAH-ha-ros), which was wonderful, with birds the likes of which we’d never seen before, and eroded arches covered with vegetation. After we got back to the hotel, the man who arranged the tour told us that Bird Island is his favorite place for snorkeling, but I had to tell him that it was too rough to stop and do any snorkeling there that day. It turns out that the tropical storm and later hurricane named Sandy was churning things up.

All in all, we enjoyed our trip, though are not in a hurry to rush back. Several people we talked to while we were all waiting to fly back to CR had travelled all over Panama and suggested going to Panama City for its history and to Boquete, which is in Panama’s highlands, for its beauty. At some point we may do so, but there is so much else to see elsewhere in Central America and in South America, it may be a while before we manage to go back to Panama.



It hardly seems possible that we’ve been here for three months. Paul has been extremely busy with consulting work and I’ve been teaching, ”facilitating,” an English conversation class with some adult students. They have impressive English skills for being at an intermediate level, and we’ve had some wide-ranging discussions, ranging from the major earthquake on 5/9 that shook most of the country that Wednesday prior to the first class, to government inefficiency, to illegal immigration in CR and in the US, to a real shocker of a comment made by a high school teacher who sometimes attends. He told us that a gringo had told him that American high school students are well-behaved and listen to their teachers! It was hard to convince him that perhaps the other gringo was pulling his leg. Oh, misinformation ….. The first day of class, I pointed out that all of them spoke better English than I did Spanish. All of them can express complex ideas in English. Me? I can express the ideas of a 2-year old, maybe.

For both of us, Spanish continues to be both a source of frustration and one of some pride when one of us actually understands something in the real world where people speak at normal speed. And it’s interesting what I understand that Paul doesn’t and vice versa. It’s rarely the same thing! And there are so many times when neither of us quite gets it. Sometimes I feel as if I’m just on the verge of understanding, and on other occasions, I understand absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, those are often, though not always, the times when Paul understands not a word, either. If people would only speak   s l o w l y   for us poor recent arrivals. (I’ve said this before, but please think about this when you meet someone in the US whose English may not be the best.)

When we return to CR at the beginning of April, I’ve talked to Paul about doing one of those one- or two-week Spanish immersion classes. A couple we know from the cabinas is taking a class in Heredia (ay-RED-ee-ah), about 45 minutes away from San Ramon. The institution they attend also has an immersion program. Both of us will likely forget a lot of what Spanish we’ve both worked so hard to learn during the more than three months we’ll be away from CR when we’ll be aboard “Dragon’s Wing.” Other than Puerto Rico and Cuba, in most of the Bahamas, where we hope to head to in December, most of the people speak English. Pimsleur tapes and Spanish-language books and other learning tools are all well and good, but nothing really substitutes for being in a Spanish-speaking country speaking and hearing Spanish. Doing an immersion program when we return should help jump-start our skills and maybe help retrieve some of that lost language.