"Easy" Living in Costa Rica
You slowly grow used to the substitutions and searches, and start to categorize accordingly. There are the things that you can purchase down here, but tend to be wildly expensive when imported, or just-not-the-same when you make do. Take, for instance, peanut butter. You have a choice between a jar of Jif peanut butter, which sometimes used to run almost $11, or a jar of the generic brand, which tastes oddly akin to wartime surplus, but costs only $2, or the organic, homemade jars, which are definitely good, but, again, cost close to $10.
And then there are extension cables, things that you can purchase and aren’t too expensive, but require a whole lot of searching, if not counterintuitive logic, to find. I once filed a story a day and a half late because I had to procure the very same object—part of my continuing mission to seek out a good Wi-Fi connection within power-cord distance of a functioning electrical outlet (please reread the third paragraph). Having walked to every store on the three-store circuit, in a baffling twist of fate, I finally found an extension cable at the liquor store.
There are the things that, once you’ve broken, you’re going to have to channel your inner MacGyver and rebuild by yourself, such as headphones. After going through the third of three pairs of them, I spent an afternoon disassembling the earbuds on the healthiest set, used a shaving razor to remove the plastic, and then grafted the wires back again. And I’m convinced this would have worked, had it not been for the only available brand of Super Glue, which, based on its binding abilities, should perhaps be called Okay Glue.
This leads directly into the Duct Tape category. I learned the importance of duct tape, and especially of having some with you at all times, during my time on an archaeological dig in southern Italy, where it was used for everything short of elective surgery. You may never have used duct tape in your entire life, but when you need it, you really need it, and you won’t be able to find it. In the jungle, machetes and EpiPens fall into the Duct Tape category, too, as the situation requiring their usage becomes immediately apparent, though one must possess a special sort of wisdom to know when one should fix, when one should stick, and when one should cut.
For the most part, I’ve given up on finding anything that I don’t already have, assuming that it’d take far too much time. That which you need, you must grow, or build, or make. To add to the sensation that you’re some latter-day Professor on Gilligan’s Island, there are three things that seem to be readily available at any time of year: used surfboards, used yoga mats, and coconut oil.
Indeed, you learn to do a surprising lot of things with coconut oil, things that good common sense and everything-your-mother-taught-you would dictate otherwise. You can use it as a moisturizer, hair conditioner, shaving cream, mouthwash, toothpaste, sunscreen, and as a cure-all for acne, indigestion, sunburns, rashes, athlete’s foot, and jungle-induced skin rot not-otherwise-specified. Yoga mats, either in their undivided entireties or cut into parts with the machete you undoubtedly now own, can double as pillows, mattresses, blankets, pot holders, or knee/ankle/wrist guards for when driving to the Super Nosara (pictured) on the back of an ATV, though you’ll need some duct tape to secure them in place.
The surfboards could make for great ironing boards, in the unlikely event that you would ever need to iron something down here, or could track down an iron, for that matter. You can prop a long board up on bricks for an amazing coffee table, take two of them to craft his-n-her headboards for your bed, or, less originally, use one to ride upon the waves while standing upright (i.e., surf).
People do frequently gather their belongings to leave this place, and when they do, they often sell their useful stuff to the Nosara Resale. Thus, at that usually tearful moment when they come over to say their goodbyes, they tend to carry along everything they weren’t able to sell to the Nosara Resale—more often than not, a few half-empty bags of rice, and several near-empty bottles of sunscreen. I suppose the impulse of this has to do with not wanting to say goodbye, that if their stuff is still here, they, in some small way, are still part of the community, even when they are gone.
The process of returning to the outside world has long proven a challenge for anyone who’s spent a good deal of time down here, to suddenly find yourself standing in a train terminal with more people than you’ve seen in a month, none of whom stop and say “Namaste” or “Pura vida” as they walk past, to be in a shower from which water flows liberally, in vast quantities, at any hour of the day. You have moments of finding yourself overcome by simple things—the sliced cucumbers at the salad bar at Whole Foods, the variety of Gummi Worms at the deli, of which there are three on your block. Essentially, you are surrounded by stuff—so much stuff, everything that you craved and longed for, built and bartered for, to be found in great multiples, in multiple locations, for reasonable prices, all around you.
On my last trip to New York, on one of my first days back, I had such a moment at one of those Air-Conditioned Cathedrals of Things—some Duane Reade on 10th Avenue. It was the middle of the morning and the store was empty. I had the entire place to myself. I picked up a basket, for I knew that’s what I was supposed to do, and took a few steps. There I stood, frozen.
I was like a doe-eyed child who was stepping into Disney’s Epcot Center for the very first time. Somehow, I had landed in the hair-coloring aisle. What was I doing in the hair-coloring aisle, an aisle dedicated solely to the coloration of hair? No matter. Perhaps I needed something there. Or, perhaps somebody I knew needed something there. Or, perhaps one of us would, at some later date I couldn’t quite predict, need something that could be purchased in the hair-coloring aisle. Or, perhaps if I purchased the right item in the hair-coloring aisle, I could use it at that unspecified later date to barter for something that I or somebody I knew did need. But what color would be most useful? Auburn? Strawberry Blonde? Something between the two?
Such were my thoughts as I wandered the store, assessing the nature and value, item by item, of just about everything. These thoughts eventually dulled—there was no situation whereby I would need hair coloring, no matter what the color—and I exited the Duane Reade a good while later with a pack of razor blades and several bars of soap.
As my trip wore on, I started to calculate the time I used to spend on subways and in taxis, to eat the latest artisanal macro-raw-vegan-French-fusion bibimbap in the kitchen of some transformational secret artists’ loft (typically, a fifth-floor walk-up) in outer, outer Bushwick. Was this not the same, in some microcosmic way, as hauling across dirt roads to the other part of town in order to buy a bag of rice and some beans, or wading through the organic market on Tuesday mornings for beets, carrots, and pineapples? I began to think of all the wonderful things that came with this journey—the homemade ice cream at Robin’s (be sure to pet her dog, Betty), or the papaya flax smoothies at the Harmony Juice Bar, served out of the mason jars I so know and love, or the banana cider vinegar and dehydrated pineapples at Franklyn's, or David Englander’s raw chocolate, or the curiously, wonderfully satisfying pizzas at Il Basilico, or Debra Rich’s freshly baked sea-salt brownies, or J. P.’s freshly squeezed Jungle Juices, or Karl Spaeth’s spicy (and, of course, probiotic) Temple of the White Dog ginger beer.
When I returned to Nosara, I had the good fortune of being in a house that had a downstairs studio apartment, for living in that apartment was a woman named Marcelina, originally from Germany, who worked in town as a chef—based on her lentil-and-yucca casserole alone, she is one of the finest chefs in Nosara.
In the small kitchen of her basement apartment, she kept a food dehydrator, and a juicing machine, and a glass bottle collection perhaps rivaling that of a bottling plant. Unplugged and sitting off to the side was a full-size range stove, which she had brought with her, just in case she needed it. She maintained a rusted blue 1983 Toyota Tercel station wagon that was missing a significant portion of the inside passenger-side door.
She had recently taken up the habit of collecting the stalks from pineapples and rooting them in old yogurt containers. Several of the stalks had already taken root and were being dutifully planted by the staircase, though they would not bear fruit for a good long time. Cheerfully, Marcelina explained that she didn’t like to waste things, and that, with the small effort it took to plant them, the owners of the house would have their very own organic pineapple farm in just a few short years.
One night, while sitting on the porch, I explained to her the peanut butter dilemma, and the next night, she showed up with a bag of freshly chopped peanuts, which we proceeded to roast in the oven, and then grind in a blender. We tried several spoonfuls, added some sea salt and local honey to taste. I even went so far as to offer up one of my glass jars, which most certainly can count “storing peanut butter” as a glass jar’s many functions.
I suppose that it does take a lot of stamina and patience for an individual to go this far off the grid for so long a time. But one of my close friends down here once suggested that all a person needs to flourish in this place is to be alive, and be a good human being, and the rest will naturally follow. Over these past few months, I’ve noticed that in being these two things, you tend to form an unwitting community with those around you, those other good and alive human beings who’ve decided to build a part of their lives down here, because part of that life requires you to invest, if not restore, your trust in others, to cultivate your faith that even without, you can still make do, and after a while, you start to realize you probably didn’t need that much of anything in the first place. Except duct tape. You can never have enough duct tape. But other than that, everything is going to be wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.