"Easy" Living in Costa Rica
Outages, shortages, peanut butter, and duct tape: The trials and tribulations of life in a small jungle town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
Sometime in mid-April, at around 5 p.m., take off your clothes and grab a towel and head to the bathroom, step into the shower and turn the knob, and you’ll be met all at once with an odd spluttering of water, followed by an ominous hiss of air. This is because there has been no rain here since November, and the water cisterns have been running lower and lower for the past several weeks, and whoever’s in charge is now rationing the precious liquid resources that supply the jungle town that, for these past several months, I have called home.
Logic might dictate that a round-the-clock system-wide reduction in pressure would allow would-be showerers to avoid the daytime hoarding of water into six-liter jugs, placed in refrigerators and by bathrooms to drink, to bathe, to flush the toilet. Alas, this logic does not seem to work here. They (whoever “they” may be) have decided that from an hour before sunset until an hour after sunrise, certain houses, in certain neighborhoods of Nosara, will be without water during the most terrifically, apocalyptically hot time of year, a situation speculated upon in juice bars and at markets, among talk of dengue outbreaks and home burglaries, with sentences whose grammatical structures always seem to involve some combination of I heard and they, including but not limited to: “I’ve heard that they’ve only been rationing water to homes in the K-Section,” or, “I hear they’re working on the tanks at night, which is why they’re doing system-wide shutdowns,” or, “I’m hearing that they cut the water because so-and-so didn’t pay his water donation.”
But such talk does little good, as this isn’t the only utility oddity. If you hear somebody screaming from the K-Section of Guiones, it shall be I, on account of the electricity, which certainly isn’t as regular as electricity ought to be. There’s that momentary flickering of lights, and the mad dash to save the document I’ve yet to name anything other than “Document 1,” and those stupid, stupid moments when I’ve stood too far away from my laptop—dust and humidity having long since felled its battery—and have lost many an hour of work, including several drafts of this very essay, to the ether. At times like these, I like to picture an iguana chewing through an electrical wire. This, to a large extent, is what keeps the yelling from a transition into throwing.
Air-conditioning is a precious commodity, too, one that can sometimes double your rent in electrical charges—if and when you can find an air-conditioning unit, presupposing the electricity is working in the first place. And I’ll hardly even mention the do-it-yourself Wi-Fi connections that often devolve into multiday choose-your-own-adventure games of SIM cards and USB routers and the subsequent lost afternoons spent wandering around your home an inch at a time on a divining mission to figure out where the signal is strongest just so you can conduct Google searches—the signal’s too weak to actually open the links—leading you to the assumption that it’d be faster to transmit your emails by carrier pigeon because even at the best of times there seems to be almost no discernible connection from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., whenever it’s raining, whenever it’s too cloudy, or whenever it’s too dusty, and also during the summer months when—and I’m quoting a technician on this—the jungle becomes too lush, because dense greenery seems to block the signal, even when you have the router affixed to the top of a lamp that is on top of a chair that is on top of another chair, set up in the part of the house farthest from the mountains yet closest to the nearest town, which you’d use Google maps to confirm, except that this—again—would require Wi-Fi, the thing you so desire in the first place. Consequently, you have no earthly idea how you’re (read: I’m) going to file this article, if you’ll have the electricity to do so, and all you know is that while some people are still watering the gardens—if not dirt roads—in front of their homes, you have to sneak down to the ocean with a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo in order to bathe, given that you haven’t run out of shampoo already.
A long-term resident of this town suggested that the unofficial motto for expats be: Where living this easy has never been so difficult. Indeed, existence somewhat off the grid—electrical, telephone, and otherwise—lends itself to a whole slew of minor, though sometimes major, challenges with regard to many things, but especially when it comes to outages, shortages, peanut butter, and duct tape—very regular things that elsewhere appear to be a given. Even as I write this, how I long for a replacement shower curtain, some Murine eyedrops, and a bag of Peanut Butter M&Ms. This is not to say that these things aren’t available. You can find whatever you want here (certain restrictions may apply), though the exact quantity and quality of the product, not to mention the duration of the search, remain variable, with little discernible rhyme or reason to any results thereof.
In a place where most everything—every canned good, loaf of bread, ceiling tile, and washing machine—is transported in the back of a truck on a two-hour drive across largely unpaved roads, the business of procuring and maintaining your stuff can be a bit complicated, and is often conducted by word of mouth. As the outside world has grown accustomed to Amazon or UPS, long-term residents learn to become reliant on two aptly titled Facebook pages, “Nosara Classified Ads” and “Traveling to/from Nosara.” Those who post on the former page—using Spanish and English interchangeably—advertise real estate, housing rentals, cars from the mid-1980s to early-1990s, ATVs, mountain bikes, motorbikes, pets that have been lost, pets that have been found, pets for adoption, pet sitters, babysitters, house sitters—essentially, each and every thing that you need to find only once, and seldom ever again. The “to/from” page is far more obvious, with those needing rides to (or, as the page indicates, from) Liberia and San José, or those wanting company on a trip to Nicaragua for a visa run. It allows a sneak peek into people’s comings and goings (e.g., if your yoga instructor might be able to Sherpa back your preferred brand of face wash from the States).
To be sure, this system is not the height of efficiency. It seems as though nobody here has a complete set of cutlery, towels, or bedding, and people tend to use mugs and glasses interchangeably, serving tea in wine glasses and Merlot in coffee mugs, depending on what they have readily available. It’s one of the only places where some parties seem to be BYOC (Bring Your Own Cup), and a cooking knife that can slice through a tomato without sawing is a highly prized possession.
Some people try to work around the system, or to help others do the same, such as the friend who once offered to send me the shampoo I use—in the shower mostly, though in the ocean sometimes. Oh, how I laughed. And where did he think he was going to mail it to? To the third dirt road past the patch of jungle to the left of the really thick patch of jungle? I’ve been here for the better part of six months, and I still have no specific idea of how to describe where I am.
Over time, Nosarians develop peculiarities when it comes to their belongings. To be sure, I am no exception. For instance, I now collect jars. Glass jars. Of all shapes and sizes. Ones that previously contained mayonnaise or jam. I like to look at them in a gleaming row and think proudly to myself, with a deep sense of satisfaction, that I sure have collected a whole lot of jars. You can use them as wine glasses (or coffee mugs, depending on your mug situation), to store small objects (leftovers, seashells, receipts), or to capture scorpions—pretty much anything that your wildest, unbridled fantasies about a solid cylindrical container could hold. If somebody asks to borrow one of my jars to, say, mix salad dressing, there’s a moment’s hesitance as I weigh whether or not this person is jar-worthy. Could there be another, potentially more important use for this jar? What happens if I need this jar at some later date and I’ve just given said jar away? It’s starting to become a problem.