Wound Care + Sugar: A Very Sweet Solution

Scoop of SugarWhat would you say if someone told you the fastest way to heal a wound was to pack it with sugar? And what if you lived In the tropics, where infections run rampant and wounds are slow to heal under optimum conditions?

If you are like me, a nurse, at best you would be skeptical and at worst you’d probably think the person was off their rocker. But this is exactly what our vet, Dr. Marco Mora of MediPet Veterinaria, told me to put on our little male basenji’s nasty abrasion. He got it from a terrible accident a week ago last Monday. And when I say nasty, I mean about half the back of his left hind foot was missing, tendons and bone exposed, and penetrating through two of his toes. A gaping hole.

All I could think of when Mora suggested a sugar treatment for a pus infected abrasion was a giant magnet for flies and bacteria, but he assured me this would not be the case. “You are going to be doing the treatment and you are going to see just how effective it is,” he said.

Before I agreed to this, I did some quick research. Chacho’s foot needed rapid treatment; there was no time to waste. Ah, the Inter-webs and their infinite search possibilities.

The method goes back 4000 years to the Egyptians who, it turns out, used honey to treat battle wounds. In fact, according to this New York Times article, the sugar system only fell out of favor with the advent of modern antibiotics.

It seems the sweet stuff has several things going for it.

• It covers the wound completely, protecting it from flies and other external pests

• It is highly osmotic. Hold on. I know this sounds technical, but think about it. Have you ever left sugar out on the counter by accident and found in the morning it had turned to a puddle of water? This is because it absorbs water from the atmosphere. Anything that has a higher osmolarity pulls fluid from a substance that has a lower osmolarity. What does this mean for wound healing? It means that the sugar (or honey) pulls fluid from, not only the wound, but also organisms that might infect that wound, making it a natural bactericidal.

• As stated above, it pulls fluid, reduces swelling, dries the wound, which in turn promotes healing by attracting macrophages—our body’s good guys who come to clean up an area when alerted to a break in the skin, or any infection.

• It increases epithelial tissue growth, i.e. meat and skin.

• It provides a cellular energy source. Growth

According to one site I visited there are negatives, and I suppose to be impartial I will list these here:

• Granulated sugar must be 1 cm thick and be bandaged. No drawback so far.

• Because of the osmolality, the treatment can result in dehydration, protein and electrolyte imbalance. Okay, this is worth looking into.

• The bandages should be changed twice daily to keep the osmolality gradient. Fine.

Well, after four days the chasm in my dog’s hind foot has closed to about two-thirds the size of the original injury. (Photos—before and after— are discreetly placed at the end of this post for those who can stomach this sort of thing).

I have noticed Chacho is a bit constipated. That may be due to dehydration, but it could also be because he is taking Tramadol® for pain, twice a day before dressing changes. Anyone who has ever taken an opiate pain reliever knows that constipation is part of the package. I doubt a basenji would eat prunes, so I just offer him water frequently. I am also feeding him a high-protein dry dog food mixed with cooked and ground chicken parts (home made). I think I will buy him some electrolyte supplements, which would augment any losses he might suffer from the treatment. It would also benefit his fractured bone on the other hind leg. (It was a major accident).

He is healing, bright as a button—even dealing well with the somewhat Elizabethan collar the vet placed to keep him from chewing on the wound. I think he will recover to walk and run again, if not exactly like before, at least a good imitation of that cocky trot he had.

Here is the recipe for his treatment:
2% Betadine (povidone iodine) diluted to half strength with sterile water (this is important, because undiluted, the iodine will actually damage the tissues)
White table sugar— about a teaspoon on a 4 x 4 gauze dressing
4 x 4 gauze dressings
Gauze wrap
Coban® wrap

After carefully rinsing his wound with sterile water (I’m using sodium chloride I got from the vet), I spray betadine on the open wound.  I place about a teaspoon of white sugar on a sterile 4 x 4, spray it with betadine until it is well saturated, and carefully wrap it around the injured area. Then I wrap the leg with gauze, and cover with another wrap of Coban to protect it from feces, urine, and dirt. It also keeps him from chewing on the dressings.

We do this twice a day.

He is an okay patient; I’ve had worse. Although, I have to admit, no wuss in the ER ever bit me. He has done it twice now. But I know he didn’t mean to; it is all very confusing, he is scared, vulnerable, and it HURTS.


Wound on 09 March 2013

Wound on 09 March 2013



Four days later, 12 March 2013

Wound on 12 March 2013


lateral view












17 March 2013




Notice the pink around the wound as it begins to grow derma.



And here, 12 April, after one month of treatment, Chacho’s foot almost completely healed,  skin fully formed and the hair has grown back on his leg.


Image 3
















Other references:


Livestrong: How to Use Sugar to Heal Wounds

Ferrier’s Journal- Sound Hooves-Sugardine

Mold and Mildew: Part of the Unholy Trinity of the Tropics

mold-spore1Several years ago I complained to a neighbor about the mold and mildew blight of the tropics. He announced –confidently– that he didn’t have mold at his house. Mind you his house is just down the road from ours. Not to be sexist, but I immediately had two thoughts: Wow, you must not be a very thorough housekeeper, and, Whoa, your house is even darker than mine, because obviously you cannot see it. Regardless of my neighbor’s verdict, we have battled the Unholy Trinity of mold, mildew and rot while living here these past 25 years.

Our house, which we built with our bare hands, is constructed from two types of wood, Laurel and Kashá, both of which resist rot… and termites— Oh, I forgot, there’s another pestilence, but I’ll leave that for another post.

The mold/ mildew matter was a huge issue for me, and if I had it to do over, I would not have built a wooden house. It’s gorgeous, mind you, but, like a wooden sailboat, the upkeep is constant, washing, sanding, and revarnishing to keep that beautiful wooden look. Like a lot of boat people I was inclined to let the wood go gray in the elements, but my husband is a putterer and likes to keep things shipshape.

I’ve tried all manner of things on the black mold that tends to congregate where the sun shines on the house. And, I’ve also noted that most of it grows on the floor and bottom four or five feet of the walls; anywhere where moisture levels are higher.

Then there is this about mold from the Mold Remediation Information website:

 Mold (sometimes spelled ‘mould’) is a type of fungi of which there are well over 100,000 species. The original thought that molds feed on decaying leaves and wood is only the beginning. Mold will consume anything organic if you add water or moisture: all plant products such as wood and paper which includes paper, drywall, furniture, clothes, flowers (dead or dried); all dead animal products such as house dust, leather, old meat, dog (and cat) feces. Mold tends not to grow on concrete, plastics and resins, glass, ceramic tile unless there is an abundance of dust covering it and good moisture conditions. It is molds digestive result (excrement) that emits a gas that emits that ‘moldy’ smell. Some molds release gas that has been proven toxic.

Molds are a microscopic multi-cellular organism that for years were thought to be plants, even though they consume other organic matter. Then it was discover that molds lack that important plant ingredient, chlorophyll. This discovery has solidly placed mold outside both the plant and animal kingdom. The exact classification of mold has proven to be very elusive to scientists. Considering strange facts such as: mold does not have a stomach, can live dormant for hundreds of years and has been proven in tests to actually have a rudimentary intelligence. It is clear we are dealing with a very curious link in the Earths biota.

We do not have access to the sorts of remediation they recommend as we live at the end of the road in a very rural area. I’m not even sure there are these sorts of services in Costa Rica. I have forged ahead on my own trying to beat the fungi at its own game. It would seem that the artist, Cecilia Caride, either lives in the tropics or has first-hand knowledge of the plague of that paradise. I found the piece quite humorous.Black mold

For a while I used a Clorox and water mix as that seemed to be the accepted method among the expats. No difference. Then I found Parson’s ammonia in a store in San José and we used a diluted mix for several years. It cut the mold alright, but unless the washer rinsed it off (with the rinse water and sponges I always supplied), the mold began to grow off the soap scum. I’ve had any number of locals hired for the cleaning process and no one seemed to need that rinse water changed, no matter how many times I reminded them.

Then, last year I visited my daughter in Australia. She and her husband, like many of the younger generation, are adamant about protecting the environment. For instance, I soon discovered there were no shampoos in the shower. When I asked what she washed her hair with, she said, Vinegar. In fact, that is what they use for, not only their hair, but all their household cleaning. In passing she also said, If you ever have a mold stain in your clothes, soak it in white vinegar.

Well, this was news to me. On returning home to Punta Uva, I put it to use. Not only does the vinegar strip the mold, it retards the growth by changing the PH. Even my newest house cleaner is impressed. When I first suggested it to him, he was skeptical. But after several months of wiping things down with a white vinegar soaked rag, he sees the difference. Yesterday I actually saw him go into the kitchen and get the vinegar to apply it to his rag.  And  the beauty here,  it does not need a rinsing.

I am also using apple cider vinegar to rinse my hair and wash my face. It has cut back on the tropical crud that tends to live on my scalp and gather on my eyelids and behind my ears.

I’m buying the stuff by the gallon.

Post note: Because this post has received so many hits I’ve added a few resource links for those interested.

Spotless: Room-By-Room Solutions to Domestic Disasters by Sharon Lush


DIY Baking Soda Shampoo & Apple Cider Vinegar Conditioner – 100% Green & Effective! March 10, 2012 by Sara @ My Merry Messy Life


Hackers, Bots, Bluehost, and Me

HackersLast week was the hacker week from hell. First, I got an email notice from my web hosting service, Bluehost: “Your website has been shut down due to violations of the terms of service agreement.” WTF?

Next, I went to my website and discovered, sure enough, it no longer existed. This prompted an international phone call and a conversation with the terms of service folks at Bluehost. They muttered to themselves more than to me as they looked through the files of my account. “It appears you have malware files on your website,” they said. “We’re putting a file in your Bluehost account so you can look at it and identify any malware files. It’s called malware.txt. After you have cleared out the suspicious files we will reinstate your blog.”

Whoa. Malware files? How would I know a malware file from a bien-ware file? And how do I find this file you have put into my Bluehost account? Obviously, I had a lot to learn about a) my Bluehost files, b) malware and hacking, and c) what to do to protect myself in the future.

But, first I wanted my blog back. The Terms of Service people sent me over to Technical Assistance and we looked at the malware.txt file together and established that the problem was a corrupted theme.

So, here is my first piece of advice, do not upload free WordPress themes. You get what you pay for, as they say, and sometimes when you do not pay, you get a lot more than you bargained for.

After deleting all the theme contents, Bluehost activated my blog again. The site was up for three hours, more or less, then I got messages from Facebook friends telling me it was down again. More international phone calls.

This time Technical Assistance told me more than half my WordPress scripts were missing or altered in some way. As the man poked around in my files he advised me to brush up on security. “How comfortable are you with WordPress at this point, would you say?” Not good enough, obviously. “Well,” he said, “I don’t feel good about keeping this website up and running with its current configuration.”

We discussed the options. Not many. Then he uninstalled WordPress, sending my eight-year-old blog, all of its 170 plus posts, comments, photos, and files off into the ozone. As he was doing this he explained the new hackers of today are mostly Bots, a shortened term for robots, or servers, that endlessly probe sites looking for weakness. “They will often change scripts and codes so that visitors to your site are automatically redirected to another site.” Vigara sales or penis enlargement sites came to mind, although the most frequent spammers I see are selling Gucci bags, probably knockoffs. “Any usernames or passwords the Bot collects are gravy for the hackers. They love to get a password because people very often use the same one or similar combinations.”

Then he sent me a couple of emails with security suggestions which I will now share with you.


• First, back up your blog and database on a regular basis. Fortunately I had already done this and it saved my blog from virtually vaporizing. We were able to reinstall WordPress and bring my blog back from the great beyond— with a few fits and starts all the posts, comments, tags, links, and photos were saved to live another day. In the Bluehost C-Panel under “Files” find “Site Backup and Restore Basic.” There you can program Bluehost to backup the site and the database on a regular schedule.

• Install a security plugin to WordPress. The techie mavens at Bluehost suggested Better WP Security. I have installed it, changed all the recommended settings to either blue or green, indicating heightened security. The red links show vulnerability. The nice thing about Better WP Security, they warn you if changing certain settings will interfere with themes. So far it has locked out at least 20 people trying to log on as admin to my account. I am regularly notified by email about updated files and plugins so I can check to make sure I was doing the edits, not someone in, say, St. Petersburg, Russia—nothing against Russians in general, but that’s where the ISP originated that I blocked permanently for abusing login rules.

Akismet, of course. This plugin scans and blocks spammers from posting on the blog. I had this amazing plugin before the mass attack, and over the five years with WordPress, it has blocked some 75,000 spam comments. I call that a working plugin!

• Read about security and the issue. I cannot stress this enough. I learned so much from the Bluehost people and the links they sent. There are sites that will auto-scan your website for malware and it’s free (of course ongoing, increased security is a monthly fee, but a quick scan costs nothing).

Try one of these two:

Clearing House

Stop Bad Ware

Other suggestions Bluehost sent me:

Recommended Themes:

Weaver II

I have Thesis Theme, which is secure and safe. It also costs money.

Recommended Plugins:

All in one Favicon
Better WP Security
Blog Copyright (by BTE)
Google XML Sitemaps
Page Comments Off Please
Send From
Strictly Auto Tags
Sucuri Security – SiteCheck Malware Scanner
TentBlogger 404 Repair
Theme My Login
WordPress SEO by Yoast
WP Smush.it

Increase Speed and Efficiency of WordPress

Occasionally when your site gets a large number of simultaneous visitors the site could appear down due to the overwhelming number of php processes running on the server. There are a couple of ways that you can combat this. You can install a caching plugin, like W3 Total Cache, or Super Cache. I have found these to sometimes slow a WordPress Site down even more, and when I have gone to remove them I have found that I had to rebuild my websites. Another option is to make use of a service like CloudFlare. My sites have access to CloudFlare through my hosting at HostMonster. CloudFlare provides the same type of caching as the caching plugins.

I will add, here, that I signed up for Cloudflare and had all manner of issues with 404 error messages. Not sure what was causing it, but I signed off that service for now.

WordPress like all database driven websites is vulnerable to attack through vulnerabilities in the code. Since WordPress will always have vulnerabilities it is important to keep WordPress, the plugins you use, and themes updated, and your passwords secure. One part of securing a password is to use a strong password (8-12 characters long with at least 1 uppercase letter, lowercase letter, number, and symbol). I have Data Guardian which has a password generator which I can copy and paste. No need for keystrokes for the hacker to follow.

Steps to Secure a Site

Remove files you are not familiar with.
Keep code updated
Remove unused scripts
Monitor file permissions
Hide configuration files
In the php.ini file make the following changes:
Set ‘register_globals’ to Off.
Set ‘display_error’ to 0 or Off. (You might ask, but I found my ‘register_globals’ and ‘display_error’ were already set as recommended. You could ask your web hosting service what their policy is.)

Remember to confirm all user inputs. Items on Forms, in URLS and so on. Remember to make use of access Control. Keep users away from admin areas, and other places they do not need to be.

For this I created a CAPTCHA form for people trying to log in as admin, which is no longer called “admin” but a personalized name. The plugin I use, SI CAPTCHA Anti-Spam, can lock someone out for a time after three attempts. I quit using Si Captcha because the hackers (sigh) changed the code and ultimately blocked me from signing into my own website. Bluehost got me back in, but what a pain. I now use the WordPress CAPTCHA plugin.

Make use of .htaccess to block known bad users, or the IP ranges of countries that you do not want accessing your website. Better WP Security is able to add some black list ips to your .htaccess. You can also make use of some free services create code for the .htaccess file to block access to certain countries. This may be useful if you see attacks coming mostly from certain countries and you do not need traffic from those countries this can be a useful tool to protect your site.

Actually, Better WP Security plugin does this for you. Once they send you a notice of abuse, you can copy the ISP and put it on a Ban Users list. I know the hackers like to move around and we cannot foil them 100% of the time, but I’m working on it!

Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 3.44.28 PM

I cannot say enough good things about the people at Bluehost. They were polite, helpful, and did not treat me like the complete idiot I am sure they thought I was. If you are looking for a web hosting service for your website, look no further. Bluehost is the one.

So, I hope some or all of this helps you. I am so grateful for a wonderful team over at Bluehost, and that I had the sense to back up my files and database. I do keep all my posts in my Scrivener project titled Blog Posts, but the idea of reposting 170 plus posts was daunting.

Bottom line: Back it up! Lock it down!

Photos credit: Hackers Release Data-Stealing Program to Push Google to Plug Holes …phandroid.com

Squatting, It’s Not a Yoga Position


squatters-in-costa-rica-1I swore I wouldn’t post anything on my blog about squatters and squatting until our interminable legal case has been tried and a verdict rendered, but I couldn’t help myself this morning, and besides our case may outlive the Dickens’ Jarndyce v Jarndyce so I might as well forge ahead.

Squatting in Costa Rica is a national sport. Of our five neighbors, three are actively involved in the  activity, two directly with us.

The idea stems from something called adverse possession and grew from an egalitarian constitutional law when Costa Rica formed its fledgling democracy in 1949. The squatter laws were designed to allow poor landless farmers to settle and work unoccupied land and claim it for themselves. The idea— good in theory— was to prevent oligarchic forces from holding large tracts of land leaving the majority of the population scratching out a living as landless laborers.

Known here as “precaristas,” squatters can begin to acquire rights to the land in as little as three months. After a year, they can take proof of occupancy to the titling agency, the Agriculture Development Institute (IDA), and have the land declared in conflict. If that happens, IDA can force the previous landowner to sell the land to the precaristas.

All this is well and good; everyone deserves to have a place to live. However, as land values have increased and the population has grown, developers have entered the arena and hired professional squatters to camp out on people’s land, eventually forcing a sale at a reduced rate. It is a nasty business.

But that is really not what I was going to write about. It appears the behavior of squatting is creeping north, like killer bees, or perhaps the United States is becoming Latin American, not only in minority demographics but also in attitude.

Here is the flip-side of the squatter argument as it relates to one Andre “Loki Boy” Barbosa, a Brazilian who has recently occupied a vacant mansion in Boca Raton, Florida. You can read about it here but essentially he moved into a vacant 2.5 million dollar mansion, a foreclosure property owned by The Bank of America.mansion-squatter

Apparently Florida has an adverse possession law on the books, and on December 26th Loki Boy turned on the lights and declared he was in possession of the property. The police have been unable to legally remove him and, according to news reports, he is within his rights to be in the house. The neighbors are fit to be tied.

But here is the interesting part. It turns out that Bank of America has kept this particular house off the market to artificially drive up housing prices in a weak market. With fewer houses of this calibre actively for sale, the theory goes, the bank is driving the real estate market and the so-called housing recovery. Here is an interesting website talking about the phony recovery and all the houses that are now stashed in the wings, a method known as foreclosure stuffing. The banks, who got a minor wrist slap for their part in the robo-foreclosures of the housing debacle, it appears are now manipulating the rebound. Meanwhile they are leaving houses vacant.

The New Oligarchs.

So hats off, Loki Boy. It has certainly brought to light some very ugly things about the “housing recovery.”

Sadly, today’s news reports he has been issued an eviction order.

Our squatters? In 2009 we obtained a restraining order from the agricultural court and are currently mired in the legal process, which could be described as a workout at your local gym. Like any good session on a  Nautilus machine, the undertaking stresses the body and mind just to the breaking point before relinquishing enough satisfaction to bring us back for another round.

Attacked by Gusanos!

“Edible: Good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.” —Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary)

AlienFor those of you who read this blog and live in northern urban centers, the tropics might sound romantic, exotic, and even a little bit like paradise, especially if it’s 20 degrees where you live right now. But there are things that are more than a little creepy about living in the latitudes close to the equator.

One of them is the bug situation. I’ve written about our battles with fleas and ants before. And until now I have prided myself on my resilient health and ability to ward off parasites that might make Job have second thoughts about the goodness and justice of his chosen God.

I learned early on to check my skin regularly living in this sauna-like climate. I have caught a couple of fungal infections in the bud this way, and I regularly clean my ears with Q-Tips to avoid what a friend once described as “mushrooms in my ears.”

But the other night I finished my shower and was drying off when I noticed a slight twinge when the towel ran across my left scapula. I reached over my shoulder with my right hand and felt a bump. It was definitely a bump, but I could also sense that there was something soft under my skin. I could move it around a bit and traced out something about a half-inch long and fat like a worm. Yes, I said A Worm!

I had my husband look but he wasn’t much help because it was dark and he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Even though he could not see a hole in the skin, I was sure I’d been infected by a particularly nasty little pest—the torsalo.

These larvae—or maggots if you prefer, although I don’t—are the young of the bot fly, a stout bodied, hairy fly prevalent in the tropics. They lay their eggs on the backs of mosquitoes and other bitingibotfly001p4 insects. I cannot even imagine how that transfer takes place, but this is what the science books tell me, and I’m willing to believe it. (Here is a link to an Animal Planet video about their life cycle.)

Once the egg is attached to the mosquito it rides around until the mosquito lands on a warm-blooded victim, in this case me. The egg falls off and hatches due to higher temperature, and the larva then burrows into the skin through a pore or a hair follicle. Once inside it begins to grow.

Interestingly enough, the torsalo secretes an antibiotic to protect itself and its environment so the area surrounding it—me—is actually quite clean.

You can read an incredible story of a scientist named Jerry who, while studying in the tropics, became infected with one of these torsalo.

According to e-How, the Internet source for everything, you can follow these suggestions:

◦ 1 Apply superglue to the bite. This closes off the air hole so that the bot fly maggots cannot easily breathe. When they come up for air they stick to the super glue. Pull back the glue after it dries, and you will have maggots sticking to it.

◦ 2 Cover the hole with a small cotton ball soaked in heavy camphor oil. Tape it down and wait 8 hours. When you pull up the tape, a bot fly maggot comes out.

◦ 3 Soak in a tub of hot water and Epsom salt for 45 minutes. This will slowly kill the maggots who come to the surface to breathe.

◦ 4 Rub pine tar on the bites and bandage the skin. Remove it in 2 days and the bot fly maggots should come out on the bandage.

◦ 5 Slather on petroleum jelly. When the maggot sticks his head out to breathe, let it die, and then pull it out in one swift movement.

◦ 6 Leave the bot fly maggot alone. It will complete its cycle of life and fall out by itself.

There is also a seventh option not mentioned here. Strap a piece of meat to the blow-hole and wait for the larva to migrate upwards searching for air. Then, when the maggot enters the meat, simply remove the bait with the contained maggot. This is apparently what one of Jerry’s scientist companions did.

The idea of going to bed with a piece of beef strapped to my shoulder-blade was far from appetizing, and what if lightning struck and the basenjis whined and ended up in our bed for companionship—a common occurrence. I’m sure it would take them exactly five seconds to track down the “treatment” and try to remove it.

Suggestion number six is exactly what Jerry did. After realizing he had in fact been infected with a bot fly larva, he felt responsible and simply watched the bump grow, and hatched his own personal bot fly. Not me. For one thing the bump made me itch and according to the chapter about Jerry’s maggot, the area becomes quite sore just before the birth. I’ve given birth to two children and do not feel another is necessary. Thank you.

I used the camphor method, taping a glob of mentholated rubbing compound on the bump for three days. That did it. There is still a form under the skin but it is hard now—dead—and my body is going about its business cleaning up the site. So far, no infection, but it will take a few days I’m sure for the macrophages in my system to devour the bot fly larva. Turn about is fair play.

For those of you who cannot get enough of this, here is a YouTube video of a torsalo removal.

Hand Gestures, Costa Rican Style

Title photoToday, on our return from marketing, I saw a man on a bicycle greet a friend. As they passed, one gave the other the standard non-verbal Costa Rican howdy-do, a raised arm, in a sort of reverse chopping motion, a flick of the wrist, and the index finger snapped forward. It’s fluid and concise. If you have lived in Costa Rica long enough, you will recognize it as, “Hi, I’m headed this way to do some things.” If he had held his index finger up and rotated it in a small circle he would have meant, “I’m not going far and I’ll be right back.”

I thought about all the hand gestures we have learned since living here, and it occurred to me that many of them probably resulted from distant communications, opposite ends of a pasture, for example, or perhaps from fishing boat to fishing boat.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few. They are good to know and can keep you from using your own culture’s signals, which can get you into trouble in certain situations, and I’ll speak to that a little later.

I looked online for drawings and photos which will aid you in the challenge. Thanks to The Guardian and Acclaim Images.

Spanish-gestures-part-1-S-001This one is ubiquitous. I used it just last week when I tried to do some banking. The place was so jammed with leftover Christmas vacationers that I turned and left without completing my transaction. As I headed out the door, a woman was approaching the bank. I gathered all the fingers on my right hand, raised them, made a pinching motion, and shook my hand a bit. She groaned but went in anyway. But she knew, because I forewarned her, the place was full of people.

Only once, we saw this signal used with the man’s hand stretched out in front. The driver of the car looked directly at us and insistently opened and closed the fingers in a kind of snapping motion. We had no idea what the hell he was trying to tell us, and besides we were concentrating on turning left, cross traffic, to pull into a restaurant parking lot. The same lot he had just pulled out of. When we finally parked, we discovered the restaurant was dark and padlocked. Ah, he was telling us, “It’s closed.”

This one, as you can image, is used to describe how skinny a person is, or perhaps how virile a man is. No further description needed.TD-blog-Spanish-Gestures_4


Here are a few more:

The fist is closed with thumb and index finger held up to form a small space like a “C” and means “ahorita,” surely one of the most loosely translated terms in history of languages. Theoretically, ahorita means “right now,” or, more accurately, “in a minute.” But ahorita can stretch into hours, and the time frame is entirely in the mind of the person using it. Here is a nice explanation of the conflicting meanings of the word.

AhoritaThis same hand gesture means “give me a little chance” and is sometimes seen on an arm extended out a driver’s window, the driver hoping you will fall back in the crush of traffic so he can wedge his car in front of yours.


That’s the polite version.

The more insistent signal, a favorite among taxistas, is the same arm extended out the window, but the arm hangs down by the side of the door. The driver then stiffens the arm and shows you his entire palm, fingers tightly together, and Stopbegins gesturing as though pushing you back. This says, “Beware, because I am coming over into your lane, like it or not.”


Here is where your own culture can get you in trouble. Americans use the one finger “come here” gesture, like the one pictured, but in Costa Rica this means, “I think you are sexy, and I want to get to know you in a carnal way.”


Bad come hereTo ask someone to come over and speak to you, the signal is almost the reverse. Rotate the hand so fingers point down and then use four fingers together in a brushing motion toward yourself. It’s very subtle and much more self-effacing.

But one of my favorites, and sadly I could not find a suitable photo or drawing– it would need YouTube– is used when no further assistance will be offered you, because… really, it is beyond the control of the person to help. In fact, it may be assumed the powers of the universe have conspired to block your path. Nothing to be done. Sorry.

It is our version of the shoulder shrug, but Costa Ricans, being who they are, have made it so much more expressive, and it shows the receiver just how futile it all is.

So, pull both hands up to your chest, the standard stick’um up position, palms facing outward.

Now, the next steps have to happen simultaneously and with practice you can really put some drama into it. Rotate the palms up and outward (It can’t be helped). Shrug your shoulders (Really, it’s not my fault). Now frown slightly (I’ve tried my best, but the universe says it can’t be done).

I see this gesture far more than I’d like.

When all else fails, the middle finger is far and away the most international sign. My husband has given it to some of those taxistas who bully their way around in city traffic. It’s not advised, though.

So you can practice those and next time I will tell you a bit about my current problem. Gusanos

Truck Trouble for the New Year

Jeep ComancheOur truck is 26 years old. It is a Jeep pickup and one tough vehicle. In fact, it’s the oldest vehicle still operating down here on this Atlantic coast, a place with punishing salt air that plays havoc with metal and all things electrical.

Or, I should say, it was operating until the Saturday before New Year’s Eve.

We’d gone off to the local Farmer’s Market, collected organic vegetables, milk, cheese, eggs, and some homemade tofu, some of the best I’ve ever eaten, by the way.

Once finished there, we jumped in the truck and went to the local hardware store, a few kilometers out-of-town, where my husband bought some motor oil. From there we stopped at a couple of grocery stores for sundry items on the way home. All fine. The last stop had me buying a bottle of bubbly for our New Year’s Eve toast.

Once I had the bottle of Cleto Chiarli Brut de Noir Rosé, I jumped in the truck and my husband turned the key. It turned over—ruh..ruh..ruh..ruh..ruh—but would not start. He turned the key off. Tried it again. Same thing. Ruh..ruh..ruh..ruh.

In Costa Rica there is nothing men like better than to help with car problems. Everyone suddenly becomes a resident expert, and it is not unusual to find a broken-down vehicle with four of five men who have stopped to offer their opinion. Sometimes—no, often—it is less than a help and can cause more problems than you started with. But that day a retired mechanic happened to be shopping and sauntered over for a look. He observed the motor while my husband tinkered and said, “I don’t like to touch too much, but it seems like you don’t have any power from the coil. I think it’s the coil (bobina). It could be the coil…or maybe a fuse.” He then offered us a tow home. When he delivered us to our door and the truck, safely in the garage, he gave me the name and telephone number of a mechanic who specializes in electrical problems. “If it is electrical, Johnny can fix it.”

My husband is a gifted mechanic of the Macgyver variety and he is the only reason the Jeep is still alive at all, but it’s hard to fix anything without the parts. Anyway, I’ve listened to the same sound, the ruh..ruh..ruh..ruh, pretty much every day since, but at least I haven’t heard the dreaded ruh..ruh…ruh…….ruh………..ru……………ru of a dying battery.

We had to wait for the holidays to come to a close, but last Wednesday I called a Jeep parts house in the capital.

Costa Rica has the most amazing system for dealing with rural living and distant needs. It’s called the encomienda, or courier service. You can order a part, pay the amount into the business’ bank account, and they will send it by courier, in our case La Costa, a truck transport service. Central de Repuestos promised delivery of the new coil the following day.

Thursday afternoon I jumped on my bike, one I haven’t ridden in a very long time, I might add. Ten kilometers to town and I was feeling good, surprised at how easy the ride was. I waited for three hours only to be told that La Costa had mechanical problems—is it epidemic?— and would not be arriving as planned until deep in the night. I went home.

The next day I called. Yes, the truck arrived and my package was there. Back on the bike, and this time there was the beginnings of soreness on those sit bones. But I got the part and made it to and from Puerto Viejo. That was 40 kilometers in two days. I might begin this as a new year’s exercise program.

My husband put the new coil in the Jeep. Ruh..ruh..ruh..ruh.

The mechanic, Johnny, is coming on Monday.

Thoughts On Memoir and Angles of Repose

Angle of Repose

Finding the angle of repose, that easy place where story flows

is no easy task.

First, pour your heart out on the page

until a pile forms— sufficient text for a memoir, say.

(Example: if the memoir has 360 pages, write M=360)

Using a life span and brutal honesty, measure the amount of truth versus myth you have created, and divide M by half (most probably).

M ÷ 2 = 180

Edit and rewrite to create that desired book-length document.

Remember, the steeper the slope the more likely the pile is to slough off, slipping until…eventually we find that angle

where the story stands and the truth prevails.

Advent, Aguinaldos, Honest Mistakes, and 12-Step Reminders

Gas pumpWe finally got a long-awaited appointment with the Agrarian Court justices in Limón two weeks before Christmas. We needed to discuss our case. It’s a long story, the subject of a memoir, actually, but you cannot write a memoir while you are still living the events. So, for the moment, it’s just life. I will say, though, that the case has been long, fraying more than a nerve or two along the way.

Aware it was the Christmas season, and that means more than St. Nick and Walmart Black Fridays, I reminded myself to stay calm, to listen politely to what they had to say, and reflect on the Advent season— a season of expectant waiting and, one hopes, of patience.

I was surprisingly composed. Well, there was the moment when I held my hand up to our lawyer, leaned forward in my chair, and addressed the judges directly— I hoped, with all the intensity I felt. I was polite but explicit about my complaints and said we deserved a trial without any more delays. We had, in fact, paid for a trial.

I know how corrupt that must sound to those of you uninitiated to the Costa Rican courts, but here, and God only knows how this came about—perhaps a deterrent?— the plaintiff is required to pay for the courtroom costs, the clerk’s fees, lunch, gas for their vehicle, and any other sundries that might arise. In any event, I patted myself on the back for being tolerant and reasonably patient. We were in by 7:30 AM and out by 9. We accomplished what we came for.

I had a few errands to run, but quickly discovered the first part of December was not a time to do anything involving groceries.

It may have been the Advent season, but it was also the season of the Aguinaldo, The Christmas Bonus. Every year in December employees in Costa Rica receive one month’s salary on top of their usual wages. So, for instance, if the worker receives $500.00 per month, every December he will receive $1000.00. There is a Byzantine actuarial formula that calculates the employer’s and employee’s contribution over the year, but, bottom line, it pretty much guarantees an economic boom at Christmas.

In any event, the grocery store was full of women with money in their pockets, and they were shopping like a hurricane was coming. I quickly abbreviated my shopping list because the meat counter was a futbol match riot of black women chatting it up, arms flailing,  five and six deep the entire 20-foot length of the counter. I had no idea where the ticket dispenser was or even if it had any numbers left, so I just grabbed a few essential things from the aisles and spent twenty minutes at check out.

We headed home and stopped outside Puerto Viejo at the Hone Creek gasolinera.

Lleno con super, por favor,” my husband said, and the attendant dutifully plugged the hose nozzle into the truck. We waited amid the usual gas fumes, and then I heard it click off. The tank was full. I was lost in thought, congratulating myself about being home early, perhaps even taking the dogs for a walk, when the attendant came to the window. My husband handed him our credit card.

No incendio el motor. Tengo un pequeño problema,” the attendant said and walked off to the office. Alan had not understood the Spanish and was about to start the truck.

“Wait,” I said. “He said don’t start it. There’s some problem.”

The attendant came back a few minutes later and said, “I made a mistake and filled your truck with diesel. We need to pull your tank and clean it.”

I’d pretty much used up my daily allotment of unruffled-ness. I took a deep breath, got out of the steaming truck, and slouched against a gas pump reading a book on my iPhone’s Kindle app. In due course we became aware that the error was not really the attendant’s fault but instead that of the tanker delivery men. They were the ones who emptied the diesel into the super holding tank. Still, our attendant informed us, the boss of the gas station insisted it was his fault.

Men came and crawled under our truck. Men left. Nobody did anything about the problem. I thought of the episode of Breaking Bad we watched a couple of nights earlier. What had Walter said to Jesse? Ah, yeah, “I don’t think murder is part of your 12-step program.”

I suggested they get a hose and siphon the diesel. Two hours later, arguing in turn with each man about how they could not remove our gas tank while it was full, I’d had enough. I stomped over to a gas pump equipped with a water and air hose, turned the water off at the source, disconnected the hose, walked it back over to our truck, and threw the snake coil of red hose in front of the mechanic.

“Please siphon the diesel so we can leave.”

He did. Twenty minutes later, the job was done. Then the dilemma. We could pay for the original amount of fuel we received, some thirty buck’s worth. That was fine, but it would leave the attendant paying for the mistake, surely ruining his Christmas. The amount to fill the tank again, after siphoning off the diesel-gas mixture, was about $100.00. Not wanting to appear to be assbag expats, we put the entire error— $130.00— on our credit card.

The attendant was more than grateful. I smiled, because holding on to anger takes so much more effort than letting go.

“Consider it your Aguinaldo,” I said, “and merry Christmas.”

WNFIN, Dredging Up the Past, and Baking Literary Cakes


“Writing or making anything—a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake—has self-respect in it. You’re working. You’re trying. You’re not lying down on the ground, having given up.”

~ Sharon Olds


UnderwoodNo5I have never done NaNo before, the national novel writing challenge that encourages people to write a novel in a month. I’d poo-poo’d it in the past, thinking it was not applicable to nonfiction, but then I ran across Nina Amir‘s website and facebook page, Writing Nonfiction in November (WNFIN). I decided to give it a try.

Right off the bat I will tell you that I failed to gain the requisite 50,000 word count that NaNo sets as a pass/ fail benchmark, but I succeeded in so many other ways.

An idea for a memoir has been with me for some time now. It niggles at me and I’ve poked around its edges and written about it in essays and journals over the years. Mostly I have day-dreamt  but this month I set about really exploring it.

Before the month began I used  Scrivener to lay out a series of scenes that I could remember from the timeframe I would be writing about. And, by the way, if you don’t know about Scrivener, do find out. It is far and away the best writing program on the market. Anyway, once I had the scenes, I made notes about each one so I had a vague roadmap to guide me along the way.

And then__BANG!__ The gun sounded on November first, and I was off for 30-straight days of writing.

The interesting and unanticipated thing that happened to me with this memoir, is what I thought it was about is not necessarily what it really is about. As I wrote, one thought would jar another, and I found myself adding  unexpected scenes to my project. Not to say that the scenes I had were not relevant, just that there was another story wanting to surface.

Not long after this revelation, I ran across a wonderful Paris Review interview with Mary Karr, poet and author of Liar’s ClubCherry, and Lit. In the interview Karr talks about how it took her so long to uncover the real conflict in Lit while she was writing it.

 “A book is never about what I think going in. At first I thought it was about romances I’d had, and it just wasn’t. I kept being drawn to material that focused on my separating from my mother and reconnecting with her—the psychological implications of that. But I couldn’t imagine writing a therapy book. It just felt so Pat Conroy, very Prince of Tides.

 “It was about being Odysseus—having to leave home to find home. It’s about making peace with Mother to become a mother.”

My point, exactly. She also said that nothing is wasted and not to be afraid to throw it all out (or in my case put it in a file I call “unused scenes”) and start over or with a new angle.

Being so thoroughly engrossed in those years for a month was hard—it was not the easiest time in my life—and there were days when I could not face it.

Here is where I think writing memoir, and writing, say, a novel, are different for a 30-day challenge. The emotional strain of reviewing those years was a ghostly affair, and the longer I spent with those emotions inside my head, the more I relived the psychological aspects of that time. I found it paid to take time off from it so I could look back with an objective eye. Or, to quote Michael Martone, “The memoir’s problem is that it needs to find, to narrate a kind of death in order to make sense of life. I think of it, the constructed death, as a parentheses, an artificial parentheses, that the writer must draw around a life, or this part of life, to be able to stand outside of it and see it for what it is and isn’t.” This may be the hardest, and the thing that will require the craft of rewriting until it is right.

At one point I found myself asking in frustration, How can a person possibly practice Zen and write memoir? They are antithetical. The answer I came up with was to delve in but give myself frequent breaks. Oddly, it was in those breaks that new memories would pop up. I began carrying my iPhone everywhere so I could dictate a scene I’d remembered.

It’s hard work, is what it is.

So, I ended up with 30,000 words, more than I had when I started the project. I know that I am a lean writer, not a wordy writer, so I feel there is a bony skeleton now on which to hang the meat of this memoir. I found threads that I hadn’t noticed before, and gathered up material for a work in progress. And a work in progress is what it is.

I never expected to complete a manuscript in thirty days, but I learned a lot about myself and I certainly learned a lot about what this memoir wants to be about.

Oh, and there’s no law preventing me from continuing this project in December…