Tag Archive for costa rica

No Turning Back

Scintilla #7– What have been the event horizons of your life – the moments from which there is no turning back?

no turn backThere are times in our life when we stand at an intersection and more often than not it requires hindsight to know we were even there. Yogi Bera once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” and perhaps that is the best possible advice. Either way, whatever decision we make will irrevocably affect our lives going forward.

And that hot day in June when my husband said to our lawyer, “Yes. Close his easement,”  it unleashed a series of events that would irrevocably change my life.

It might have been the air conditioner blowing a chilly wind that made me shudder, but it might have been that second sense I developed after years of working the emergency room, that second sense that tells us we ought to proceed with caution.

Whatever else I have learned from what followed, one thing is certain. The next time I am tempted to aggressively engage others in any grand design to make things better or to avoid loss and destruction, I will remember that pivotal moment in the lawyer’s office. Because to win sometimes we lose more than we gain.

What made us think, expatriates in another country, we knew enough or understood enough, to enter into a legal battle over an easement?

I do not know the answer to that. but my husband was convinced he would rather fight than give in to neighbors traipsing across our land.

[This is an excerpt from a memoir. Thanks to the fine people over at The Scintilla Project, I edited this little passage, the moment where there was no turning back.]

If you’d like to take part, follow this link or click on their icon in the right-hand menu.  It’s fun. It’s Scintilla- a fortnight of storytelling.

I Don’t Fly Well, Or Rather, I Don’t Land Well

Hurticaine MitchReturning to Costa Rica in the fall of 1998.

The trip had gone relatively well, as flights go, although the weather was a bit rainy when we arrived in Dallas. We got on an American Airlines flight listed as non-stop from Dallas to Costa Rica. Once we were secured in our seats. the captain came on the intercom and informed us we’d be making a short stop en route. Apparently American considered any flight where passengers could not debark, a non-stop flight.

The flight was a bumpy one but we really didn’t think much about it. It is almost always turbulent around Dallas. We watched a movie and a couple of hours later we heard the announcement to fasten our safety belts, straighten seat backs, and put away all electronics. We were due to land in Guatemala City. They also advised us there was a bit of rain and the landing might be rough.

As we descended out of the pitch-black sky, the turbulence increased. The last pass the flight attendants made through the cabin was far more attentive to seat belts and trash than any I’d experienced before. They clung to the seats to keep their balance, and staggered down the aisle lifting blankets from people’s laps, checking to make sure all seat belts were securely buckled. There were sheets of rain pummeling the sides of the airplane by now.

I had a premonition of doom, but I’m not a very good passenger when it comes to landings anyway. Always the white knuckles.

The airport in Guatemala City is located smack dab in the center of town, or it felt like it. As we approached the runway the rain was so heavy it looked like thousands of bullets streaking past the windows. Out both sides of the plane I could see buildings so close I thought I saw people moving about inside. The plane bucked and heaved wildly, first dropping one wing and then the other. The pilot wrestled to keep the plane level, and–I hoped– on the tarmac. But it was too rough. He pulled up at the last moment just before our wheels touched, and we lifted back into the sky banking off and to the right.

The pilot said something on the intercom that might have been Spanish. It sounded as though he was speaking into a fistful of tissues or a sock, nothing but a garbled buzz. The flight attendants did not repeat his comments in English. I finally realized what he said, because we continued to bank and buck until we were in position to make another stab at a landing. This time was worse than the first. The same buildings flew past at supersonic speed, the rain streaked past, and just before crashing, we were rescued when the pilot pulled up at the last-minute, making the now familiar banking turn. Again the garbled Spanish. The Latin gentleman across the aisle from me  turned and said politely, “He says we are going to try it one more time and if he cannot land we will divert to San Salvador.”

I wanted to shout, Well what the fuck is wrong with doing that right now? 

We did this a total of three times before we bumped and skidded up to the terminal.

All Costa Rica bound passengers were required to stay in their seats while the lucky got off and went about their business. My armpits smelled and my only thought was about abandoning ship. If the landing was this bad, what would takeoff be like?

It turned out it was much easier than the landing and we arrived safe enough in Costa Rica later that night.

Over the next few days I gathered from the papers and TV news that we had just flown through Hurricane Mitch, a hurricane so violent it is remembered all over Latin America as a benchmark for major disaster and loss of life.

Photo credit: Hurricaine Mitch: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA)
National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS)

Storytelling prompts provided by The Scintilla Project. Click here to find out more or click on the icon in the right hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla ’13

Today’s prompt:

1. Being trapped in a confined environment can turn an ordinary experience into a powder keg. Write about a thing that happened to you while you were using transportation; anything from your first school bus ride, to a train or plane, to being in the backseat of the car on a family road trip.

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