Sunday, August 9, 2009

Parque de Diversiones

Naimah’s birthday is tomorrow. To celebrate the occasion, we wanted to do something special so we went to a great amusement park in San José called Parque de Diversiones. The kids had a fantastic time.

All of the pictures can be found here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Golden orb-weavers

If you don’t like snakes, you have to do your best to get over that fear in Costa Rica. The same goes for spiders in this area of the world because there are many of them. I have been taking pictures of all of the insects and arachnids that we come across so that we can search on the Internet in order to figure out what we have actually seen. The unofficial roles and responsibilities in our family: the kids find the creatures, I “ooh and aah” and snap some photos, and Mélanie steers clear when they are extra big.

The kids discovered an especially large spider last weekend:

It is a golden orb-weaver and it is very impressive when you see it up close. I explained to Gabriel that the tensile strength of its web is much stronger than steel – hence the reason why Spiderman’s web is so strong (there is no better way to make these things click than when I use a superhero reference).

Speaking of Spiderman… Gabriel prepared a little daypack by himself before we headed out this morning for a daytrip. Neither myself nor Mélanie checked before we left to see what he had packed (I figured it might just be some toys). When we came home and opened it after the kids had gone to sleep, we discovered that he had packed some Spiderman costumes (I guess in case he ran into trouble out on the Costa Rican streets and needed to quickly change into his alter ego).

Copyright Laws Don’t Seem To Apply Here

We have yet to find a video rental place that rents legal copies of DVDs. This country is flooded with bootleg videos.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

135 Species of Snakes

In Costa Rica, there are 135 species of snakes, and only 17 are known to be venomous. Experts state that the different venomous snakes found in Costa Rica are not exactly easy to find, and that most of the snakes in Costa Rica are nocturnal and usually just rest up during the day. These facts don’t make Mélanie feel any better especially after she came across this when sweeping outside our bathroom:

A snake had decided to squeeze itself through a tiny hole in the stone wall that circles our house in order to molt. Mélanie is quite scared of snakes and getting direct confirmation that at least one of the 135 species in Costa Rica likes to hang out at our house doesn’t help matters. (Although I found it fascinating that snakes can climb vertical surfaces like our stone walls.)

Pouring salt on the wound, the first thing that Léah reported when she came home, “Jésus, a boy in my school, got bitten by a snake today”. You should have seen Mélanie’s face.

In a panic, Mélanie spoke to one of the gardeners working nearby to allay her fears. His response? “You shouldn’t worry about the snakes; it’s the scorpions that are dangerous.” Oh great, those molt in our clothes drawers!

Monday, August 3, 2009

“This is where the pig tail twisted”

“Aquí fue donde la chancha torcío el rabo” is a Costa Rican expression which literally translates to, “this is where the pig tail twisted”; however, the equivalent expression in English would be, “here is where the crap hit the fan”. In general, our experience has been positive but the last week has had some real rough spots.

It hasn’t been a complete breeze with the kids at school because we still take a deep breath each morning and hope that all will go well with our 2 younger ones. This morning went smoothly but we are realistic that we have to take each day at a time. No doubt there will be good days and bad days.

After we believed that our car situation was behind us last week, we started planning a road trip for the weekend and even thought to leave right after school/work on Friday. One important thing about a road trip: the car needs to actually start. Sadly for us, our new-used car decided not to start on Friday morning, or Friday night, or even Saturday morning. I had to call roadside assistance for a tow truck and it was very difficult just to explain our whereabouts when the person on the other end of the phone only spoke Spanish. When the tow truck finally found me 2 hours later, it was a bizarre experience (to say the least) coordinating a compression-start of the car with someone who didn’t speak a word of English.

When we finally got the issues with our car resolved midday  Saturday, we headed an hour west of us to Playa Hermosa to see the ISA World Surfing Games which can be described as the “Olympics of surfing”. We hadn’t made a reservation at a hotel and we regretted it when it took us a few hours to find somewhere to stay. The kids were amazingly patient in the car as we stopped at literally every single hotel to ask if they had a room. We did finally find a place before it got dark and made sure that it at least had a pool to reward the kids. The accommodation was way more than we had hoped to spend but we didn’t really have a choice – we weren’t exactly going to sleep 5 of us in our old truck. Everything was starting to seem much brighter this morning. We had just come back from a great overnight stay on the coast where we saw some world class surfing, and our 3 kids were happy when we dropped them off at school this morning. Both Mélanie and I were feeling pretty positive… until we got a message from our real estate agent that we have to be out of the house that we are staying in at the beginning of September. This is the same guy who has been telling us that it won’t be a problem for us to stay as long as we want. So now we are stuck with the possibility of not having a place to stay in 5 weeks. We wouldn’t be so stressed about it if there were many other options in this area but unfortunately, the rental market is so dry here right now. It was such a struggle finding our current place before we left on our trip (actually, we only confirmed it a week before we left) and now we are back to square one.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Buying a Car in Costa Rica

Buying a car is considered to be one of life’s big stresses; take this fact and add a different country with different laws and a different language, and you have the recipe for a nightmare. For the last few days, it has been truly a “growth” experience (a different adjective would be suitable but offensive to some) trying to buy a car - a used one to make it even more challenging.

Up until this point, we have been renting a car. Before we moved to Costa Rica, we even thought that renting might be a potential option for a whole year since the advertised prices from the big rental car companies list monthly rentals as low as $300 a month. Of course, once you contact them, you find out that when you factor in their exorbitant insurance, the price goes up to over $1000 a month. Clearly, renting long-term was not an option.

A small minority of people buy new cars in Costa Rica because they have a 25%-50% premium over what we would pay back in Canada. Most people end up buying used cars and therefore there’s a huge industry bringing old cars from the United States over to Costa Rica. But, even the taxes on used cars are insanely high. Vehicles from zero to 3 years old are assessed over 50% import tax. From 4 to 5 years the rate is over 65% percent. Anything over 6 years old pay a whopping 80%. In the end, even used cars are super-expensive here.

On Saturday, we packed up the kids and headed out to Grecia, a town around 20 minutes from us. Everybody who we asked about buying a car simply told us, “go to Grecia”, but with no further details or information. Nobody ever even told us about a specific dealer in Grecia. For Montrealers, that is like saying, “go to Pointe-Claire”, or for people from Victoria, BC, it is like saying, “go to Duncan”. But, nonetheless, we headed out with the kids and figured we would just find a place.

Once we got to Grecia, we understood what people were talking about. There are many used car lots for the size of the town. Someone in Grecia told us that at last count, there are as many as 21 lots in just a few kilometers. The lots range from professional establishments to others that literally look like someone dumped some cars on the front lawn of a house.

I won’t bore you with the details of the following 5 grueling hours; in the end, we did find a car that we liked and provided them with a deposit of $400 until we could transfer the remainder of the money when the banks opened on Monday.

Now, a little bit about the car that we found. It isn’t really, truly in the car category… it is more like a truck. It fits 7 passengers, and even has a diesel engine. It is a Hyundai Galloper (a popular vehicle in Costa Rica) from 1996 with only 75,000 KM.

We were very happy with our purchase until we reported our score to a friend. “I am sure that the odometer was tempered with”, he stated pretty confidently and explained that the practice of “clocking” was very prevalent in Costa Rica. This news really stung. It had never occurred to us that this would ever be the case since the practice of rolling back an odometer is a federal offense in the US and Canada.

I hit the Internet to research the fraudulent practices that are common in Costa Rica. Some in the used car business in Costa Rica appear to be feeding on the innocent. Used car lots are everywhere. This was not true several years back, so apparently it has been a profitable enterprise for many. The economics are easy enough for shady operators. Buy a salvage vehicle in the United States with gazillions of miles on it, ship it to this country, turn back the odometer, wash it up a bit and sell it to an unsuspecting buyer as almost new. Reading all these details on sites like this one just made me panic more.

We quickly called the bank to ask them to reverse the wire transfer. We didn’t even know if this would be possible once the money left the country, but somehow, they were able to pull the money back out of the bank account in Costa Rica and back into Canada. At this point, we still weren’t 100% sure if we wanted to back out of the transaction (since we weren’t certain that the claims on the car were even true) but we wanted to protect ourselves in any case.

One of our friends in Atenas recommended a mechanic that I was able to bring with me to evaluate the car. How I was able to explain the situation to him and organize the road trip is still a mystery since he doesn’t speak a word of English and my Spanish is really just a few dozen nouns at this point. Despite the language barrier, I was very relieved that the mechanic found the car to be in great shape and based on the condition, didn’t see any reason to suspect that the mileage of the car should be significantly higher.

In the end, we decided to go ahead with the purchase of the vehicle after receiving the good review from the mechanic and the lot that we purchased from, Autos Grecia, really provided amazing  service. They spent a fair number of hours with me at the lawyer’s office to deal with the paperwork and even organized the car insurance for us.

The kids are liking our big truck, especially the ladder on the back!


As some of you know, is Microsoft's search engine (to compete with Google). Today’s picture has a special place in our hearts because Mélanie and I met in Bruges, Belgium 14 years ago.