"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.
Related: Exploring Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula
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.
Between the heat, the yoga, and the surfing, Nosara seems to be a magnetic vortex of calories, and I’ve often told friends visiting down here, “Today is the day you will eat the most food you’ve ever eaten in your entire life.”
This presupposes that you’re going to be eating a whole lot of food today, and even more food tomorrow. After several months of this cycle, my 4:30 a.m. breakfast generally consists of two to three bowls of granola, a hearty meal in and of itself—made even heartier in that I’ve started cutting my almond milk with coconut milk, and because there are 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. breakfasts to follow, and also because I’ve only just finished “deakfast,” the meal I’ve inserted between dinner and breakfast to tide me over.
Alas, procuring food is another adventure unto itself. On my side of town, you buy most of your groceries from one of two mini-markets, or the liquor store, each of which is vaguely interchangeable (there seems to be a greater selection of produce at the liquor store) and rather small—which isn’t all that bad, considering the terminal at Nosara’s airstrip is about the size of your average 7-Eleven. On one of my brisk afternoon walks, I’ll purchase red wine and mopping-up liquid at one store, a loaf of bread, a stick of butter, and a bag of rice at the other, and a few carrots at the liquor store. And somehow—somehow—this shall become dinner.
When without an ATV (or a friend with an ATV) to zip along Nosara’s dusty dirt roads, I tend toward doing most of my shopping at Organico, not just because its refrigerator case has the one commodity most prized among New Yorkers—prepared foods—but also because the owner, Fritz, has been down here for a good long while. He’s a former executive-type from D.C.—Nosarians tend to ask few questions about peoples’ pasts—though you wouldn’t know it from the looks of him, as he now seems to live the life often idealized in a Jimmy Buffett song, and dispenses wisdom about the goings-on around town, how to take care of your allergies, or where to find items not readily available in his store.
Fresh produce comes from the aptly named Fruit Truck, which sounds a whole lot more exotic and colorful than it is. The Fruit Truck is, quite literally, a flatbed truck that comes to town several times a week, dark and hot, into which you climb, finding a central aisle flanked by two rows of crates filled with mangoes, cabbages, beets, and plantains. Though utilitarian in its layout, to be sure, the Fruit Truck is essential to daily living around here. It is not to be confused with the specialty Mango Truck, Pineapple Truck, Hammock Truck, Wicker Rocking-Chair Truck, or especially the Fish Truck, from whence, as the name would suggest, we get our fish.
On Tuesday mornings, an organic market takes place on an abandoned lot near the beach. Those who haven’t placed an order have to get there early. Under the shade of a thatched roof of browning palm leaves, the scene is like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot (sans racehorses) for surfers and yogis, each seeking some fresh honey, organic coffee, or that Holy Grail of vegetables—kale.
Those lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of an ATV, and can manage unscathed against the potholes and dust, often submit to the temptation of the Super Nosara, located just near the airstrip. Perhaps the largest store this side of Nicoya, the Super Nosara seems to be constructed from the remnants of an old cargo hangar. Before I’d ever been, based on word of mouth alone, I had wild fantasies of this place. The Super Nosara, I thought, where all my hopes and dreams would come true.
In retrospect, however, a more apt motto might be, The Super Nosara: More of the usual, in bigger containers, for a dollar or two less. The store does have its benefits, namely, that you can buy housewares there, which, in their communal uniformity, still lend an element of surprise when placed in a home. A resident might have repainted, refurbished, added another wing, or installed a helicopter landing pad to their home, and guests will tend toward the kitchen, take a startled look beside the sink, and, between sips of chilled red wine from coffee mugs and mayonnaise jars, excitedly ask, “Is that a new dish rack??”
There is, of course, a solution that the very dear friend who introduced me to Nosara once proposed: to eat each and every meal at a restaurant. The ur-restaurants of Nosara’s dining are the Gilded Iguana and Café de Paris, in that they were, for a good long while, the only two restaurants down here. A long-term resident fondly recalls how, back in the day, the Gilded Iguana had a very high bar-top, so that travelers on horseback wouldn’t have to dismount in order to get a drink.
My friend, however, was specifically referring to the dining room at the Harmony Hotel (pictured). They (frequently) have Wi-Fi! And (sometimes) fish tacos! And (invariably) their own dish-racks! And their own supply of kale! Though the food is excellent, the costs of this can soon add up.
After morning yoga practice, I enjoy having my (second) breakfast at the Beach Dog Café. They like to play Bob Marley, and I usually get the banana pancakes. (They’ll add chocolate chips if you ask them very nicely.) These days, I try to pick a table closer to the center of the restaurant, because, apparently, there have been reports of a nine-foot boa constrictor loose somewhere in the vicinity, and it’s all fun and games till you lose a leg (or a pet) to a boa constrictor.
For lunch, I tend toward Robin's Café and Ice Cream. They serve breakfast all day, in case your first three breakfasts weren’t enough, and their wraps and sandwiches make for a wonderful post-breakfast lunch, and all of the food is made from scratch. Robin is, in fact, an actual person—and, in fact, an ordained Zen Buddhist nun—who makes the homemade ice cream, which, having been sampled, would prove a decadent temptation to even a Trappist monk. Standing guard at the front of the café’s patio is Robin’s very adorable dog, Betty. You may pet Betty, but only if she seems willing, and only if you ask Robin first.
The Harbor Reef has its Taco Tuesdays; Marlin Bill’s has burgers on the menu and American football on the television; and Kaya Sol and Pacifico Azul offer up good Costa Rican fare. A well-timed late-afternoon walk on the beach lets you catch the spectacular sunsets at La Luna, where you can eat tuna that was caught sometime before you started your stroll.
If I’m out for dinner, you’ll usually find me at a tin-roofed structure just off the main road. This is Il Basilico, perhaps my favorite restaurant in Nosara. With its gravel floor, tables made from the cross sections of insanely large trees, and a proper brick pizza-oven, it’s a congregating point on Saturdays for a large swath of the surf-yoga population. I’m fairly convinced that the Focaccia Chandy, named after the proprietor and constructed of mozzarella, olives, and avocado, is addictive, it’s that good. And what’s more, they’re open late (read: past 8:30 p.m.).
But eating at one of Nosara’s restaurants can prove prohibitive in time, and doesn’t guarantee anything. There is no magical third-party supplier to the town’s dining establishments. For the most part, they get their food where we get our food, and they, too, will sometimes run out of ingredients—sometimes bafflingly random ones, like avocados, when there might be any number of trees containing ripe and harvestable multiples of the aforementioned fruit within your direct line of vision. The thought begins to cross your mind that you could have cooked some variation of this meal in your one pot and/or pan, without having to schlep back, after dark, to the comfort of your own home.
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.