How Not to Pack for 9 Months in Central America

Zapote Travel Blog

 › entry 2 of 2 › view all entries
This is our language school in Zapote, San Jose, Costa Rica. It is built to look like a boombox. I do not know why this is so.
When moving to Central America for nine months, you need to make certain sacrifices. It begins when you pack--forced to squint into that humid future while sucking on a Jamba Juice is a difficult task. Then, once you arrive, you are forced into even tougher decisions. You know, the ones that may or may not haunt you for your entire trip, and even life afterward. Knowing this to be the case, I did some soul searching our first week in Costa Rica and finally decided what had to be done. I approached my wife hesitantly, unsure about how to drop such a bomb on her, and our marriage, and our new life abroad.

“Honey, guess what?” I said, my voice an anxious plea. “I’m not going to play Mafia Wars anymore.”

Alisa hardly looked up from the computer long enough to smirk and say, “Wow, honey, that’s damn impressive.
Cisco Systems Wireless Router In Costa Rica we are faced with a growing evil: American Cultura Computadora.

“Yeah, I know it’s going to be hard, but I figure I need to enjoy life here a little more, maybe get out of the apartment one of these days.”


We then logged on to Skype to chat face to face with her parents, who are a double-click away in the Bay Area.

While preparing for our nine-month foray into Central and South America, I used a familiar incantation to guide me: Be Prepared. Yes, I figured that if anyone could survive a rough trip through lawless foreign countries it would be the Boy Scouts of America.

Yeah, I know what you’re saying. Costa Rica isn’t lawless. In fact, it’s just the Latino version of the United States. Costa Rica is like the brown baby adopted by rich white actors (that is if rich white actors adopted Latino kids, which they don’t).

So check this out for lawlessness: In Costa Rica, if you get caught driving drunk it’s a forty dollar fine. I know, pretty ridiculous, right? But that’s not it, it’s waaaaaay better than that. After issuing your ticket, the cops let you get back in the car and continue driving to your destination! I know, I know, now you’re probably thinking the same thing I am.


But the crime in Costa Rica isn’t all fun and games. ATMs now close at nine because there have recently been too many “Millionaire Drives.” That is when you are temporarily kidnapped and forced to pull out as much money as your bank allows from every ATM along the avenida until your dinero dries up.

Even adopted babies throw tantrums it seems.

Anyways, when packing for this trip, I looked to The Boy Scouts of America and their world famous slogan as my northern star. I knew I could follow their shining example of what a man should be in the dark jungles of the heathens. And I wasn’t just following their beacon of light because I enjoy beige-green clothing combinations and retain an affinity for knot-tying. Just the opposite in fact.

I joined the Boy Scouts as a wee lad of thirteen and along with my friend Chad, sang my merry way to Camp Wente. Once there, I realized I didn’t know how to be a Boy Scout, and earned only one badge by cheating. It was the badge for knot-tying, and when the tester wasn’t looking, which was often because Boy Scouts don’t cheat, I gave my rope to Chad and quietly asked him to show me an example of each knot. I quit The Boy Scouts the day I got home. I had been a Boy Scout for less than a week.

So it wasn’t a love of dust and all-male entertainment that pointed me to The Boy Scouts to prepare me for my trip to Central America. Chad, who eventually became an Eagle Scout, had just returned from four months in Central America without so much as a swine’s flu, let alone a human’s flu. He even had a Jesus beard and hair, which exuded a mysterious spirituality he may have picked up abroad, along with the smell.

And so it was Chad, or Chato as the Latinos call him, and his Eagle-Scout status in The Boy Scouts of America to whom I looked for guidance and be-preparedness.

So this is what I packed:

-My iPhone. I planned on using it exclusively for our Skype account, so I can make wireless internet calls to cell phones back home for a few cents a minute. It also has a million other apps I don’t need or use but might want to show off to shirtless natives with bones in their noses.

-A MacBook. It has wireless internet, Skype, and, well, everything - it’s a laptop. It would ensure hours of staring at a blinking screen. At the time of packing, I still had Mafia Wars on the mind, unaware of the changes about to take place.

-A Kindle. This is the device that has replaced books. In the States you wirelessly download books from Amazon, who invented it, so you can carry around as many books as you want without the weight.

-A new Canon digital camera with video capability. Because of the video we decided not to bring the camcorder. It was a tough call.

-A Flash Drive. A small, lightweight way to back things up, especially the photos we planned on taking while simultaneously being chased by Jaguars and angry indigenous warriors because we had kidnapped the former’s cub and looted a priceless ceremonial golden skull from a booby-trapped tomb from the latter.

-An iPod, even though my iPhone also has the exact same playlist. We figured this way we could both have one to listen to instead of the screeching repetition of each other’s voices.

-An iPod speaker system to take to the beach. It is lightweight and runs on eight batteries. I packed 32 just to make sure we wouldn’t ever have a lull in women-demeaning lyrics and have to listen to the ocean.

-Earphones for each iPod, plus a backup. Obviously. In fact, all the plugs and wires and converters, and power packs take up an entire pouch in my travel pack. I’m finding the untangling to be a little like tying knots, but backwards, which is ironically the one thing I learned how to do in the Scouts after Chato tied each perfect knot.

Thus prepared, my wife and I moved to Costa Rica. The Boy Scouts would have been proud.

Opening the heavy wooden door to our apartment, Alisa and I giggled endlessly at what we found. Our apartment has wireless internet, as well as another computer to keep our laptop company. The power plugs in Costa Rica are the same as the USA, which is great. Thus blessed, Alisa and I set up the apartment to look exactly like our last one back in Oakland. The only thing missing is the gun-shots in the night, and the screams. So now we can both sit at the computer and make sure our latest BeJeweled score hasn’t been topped while “liking” when someone comes home and makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Then the improbable happened.

I was car-jacking an off-duty police officer who had refused bribe money from Agostino Cleto , my boss, when I thought to myself, Wait a second, that could be me getting car-jacked, blindfolded and driven around to every Banco de Costa Rica, wondering how in the world I would get together the money they were asking to return my iPhone, hoping against hope I wouldn’t get pieces of it in the mail.

It was that thought alone which prompted the amazing Mafia Wars declaration to my wife—once I realized just how much our lives have been disfigured by the hunched over, squinting eyes of American computadora cultura.

Convincing Alisa was difficult at first.

“Honey, I see a sickness. It’s like a virus, and its made its way deep inside me.”

“Just reboot it. I know it’s a PC, but everything should be fine. Even PCs work sometimes.”

“Look at me dammit! This isn’t about the computer, it’s about me, and you, and our lives.”

“What are you talking about, dear? Look, if you really want to keep playing Mafia Wars, then just do it, I didn’t really care in the first place.”

“I don’t want to play Mafia Wars. I want to LIVE! My God honey, look at us. Look at your posture. Look at this dark room. We’re in Central America and look at how we live. We have everything: Cell phones, computers, sandals that open beer bottles, a television in every room, we even have a maid!”

Alisa was looking at me now with a strange little look on her face, the computer screen forgotten.

“We can even drink the water for Chrissake! What kind of backward Central American experience are we having where the water doesn’t make us piss out of our asses?”

And the truth of it dawned on Alisa’s face as if lit up by golden showers from the sun we never see. We had moved abroad to experience adventure, but had arrived to find the same dismal existence we had run from. Gone were our thoughts of stealing baby Jaguar cubs. Gone were our aspirations of tomb-raiding. We had unwittingly created an all-too-familiar cocoon—one from which we would never escape. We would never change into that beautiful blue Costa Rican mariposa.

“Oh my God, sweetie, you’re right. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. This…this thing—“ she said, slamming the laptop shut, “has possessed the both of us. Let’s get out of here and live.”

And with that we leapt from the cave and into the fat raindrops of a Costa Rican Octubre. We walked the neighborhood. We talked to the locals. We breathed in the hot air of a humid earth. The clouds were finally receding and we could see a sliver of blue on the horizon.

Yet even with our minds bent on adventure, there was not much to be had on that first day. Costa Rica was booming, the people were happy, and Zapote had neither drunk drivers, nor ATM machines where we could speak loud English. Dismayed, Alisa and I needed nourishment. It was getting dark, and everyone says not to stay out after dark. We decided to have dinner in that dangerous dusk at a questionable taco stand where it looked like we might get some Typhoid.

“What do we order?” I whispered in the night.

“The meat, that’s the most dangerous. You get the al pastor, I’ll order the bisteck rare.”

“Look at this coke, it comes in a bottle. That’s different, isn’t it?” I asked, taking a sip. “And it tastes different too. Wow, its way different than the Coke at home. Here, try it.”

Alisa took a sip. “It is different. Jeez. I think I like it better. Anything different is better, right? Anything different is change.”

I took it back and examined the label, appreciating every Spanish word, every fizz in the humidity, every minute difference from the aluminum of the states. Then I came to one sentence in English. “The Coca-Cola Company, Bottled 2001.”

“Ahora vivimos,” I murmured, taking another, much larger sip. “Now we’re living.”
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Getting off the plane Alisa and I couldn’t have been more relieved; we had 5 months of language learning to look forward to in the lush green land of the Ticos: Costa Rica. As bleary as our eyes were after Traveling Day, we were still able to flash grateful smiles to my friend Jeff, an American living in Costa Rica, who had agreed to pick us up at the airport and house us that first night. The humidity met as at the threshold as we left San Jose International Airport, walking through the double doors to a crescendo of cab drivers vying for attention. Ignoring them I found Jeff and gave the little man a big hug, our first in many years.

“What’s up dawwwwggggg?” I said in my usual high-pitched crescendo.

“Man, it’s good to see you Matty! Long time.”

Jeff gave my wife a hug and kiss on the cheek, and we were introduced to his new wife’s sister, who had come along for the ride.

Jeff had warned us online that his house was in the ghetto, but we weren’t worried because he said it was “a nice ghetto.” We found that to be true.

Upon arrival, his new wife of three months, Margie, was already preparing carne asada, arroz, and a side salad for a noontime lunch. Margie is a tall, dark-skinned jewel of the country whose heart and genuine kindness I hope to find more of during our travels. I soon found out we had something in common.

Alisa and I are taking a year off from nursing and teaching, respectively, to live abroad and learn Spanish. We will spend the first three months in Costa Rica studying Spanish five days a week at three different sites. Then we'll travel around to the neighboring Nicaragua and Panama, before flying to Peru in February. In Peru Alisa plans on doing some volunteer nursing for a large part of the three months we plan on spending there before heading home in June. Alisa knows a good amount of Spanish. I know nothing.

During lunch Jeff revealed they planned on moving to live in the United States, and Margie was enrolled in English classes to prepare herself. Her shy smile at first made me think she must be brand new to English. She didn’t say much during lunch, and Jeff and I spent the half hour catching up in fast English.

Jeff had to go off to work, so Alisa and I decided to take a nap after the flight which even then seemed like it had been a bad dream (even though neither of us got any sleep). When we awoke, we were greeted by Margie, in quiet English at first. But as we began to sit and talk and get ready to go to dinner, it turned out Margie was quite advanced. In fact, she was better at English than Alisa was at Spanish, and Alisa is pretty darn good.

We went to a seafood restaurant without a name. It just said “Bienvenidos” in neon lights. It seems like every restaurant is called “Bienvenidos” in Costa Rica. None of them have names, they just have a neon light that proclaims that one glorious word. That is one of the few words I now know the meaning of. Thank you repetition.

Margie’s sister had once again joined us for dinner, and the four of us drank Daiquiris and Margaritas in what turned out to be a very linguistic conversation. It turns out Margie’s sister is also studying English, so as we queried them about the menu, and the meaning of “pulpo”, they gleefully asked us questions about English. We learned that Costa Ricans respond to greetings with “Pura Vida,” and use the more formal “Usted” instead of the familiar “Tu.” I nodded and pretended like I knew what they were talking about. I’m getting very good at that.

Feeling we needed to prepare Margie for her upcoming big move to Northern California, Alisa and I decided to let her in on a regional secret.

“You see all this seafood on my plate, Margie?” The girls had forced me to order my Paella in Spanish to the waiter, and it had arrived in a mound almost as tall as the Arenal Volcano. “In the Bay Area, you would say this is ‘hella seafood.’”

“Helle?” She responded.

“Hella,” Alisa said. “Like ‘hell’ with an ‘a.’”


“That’s it,” I encouraged her. “Just use that for everything and you’ll be fine. You can say, I’m hella hot, I’m hella tired, it just means there’s a lot of it. Mucho.”

“Hella, okay.”

Just then, Jeff sent Margie a text from work (yes, they text here like crazy), asking her how things were going. We collaborated on a return text that said “Eveything is hella good.”

Jeff’s next text said, “Hahahahahahahaha.” He had moved to the Bay Area from Costa Rica when he was ten. He’s only been back in Hatillo for a couple years.

We couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome in such a warm country. We stayed the night in our own room and awoke to another home-cooked traditional breakfast of eggs, gallo pinto, and cheese that almost made me vomit. Margie’s cooking had nothing to do with it, I just have issues with cheeses and cream in Central America. They seem to either be moldy or curdled. I’ve never tasted the appeal.

Alisa and I were picked up at noon by a teacher from our language school who took us to our new three bedroom apartment in Zapote, a comfortable ten minutes from Jeff and Margie. It is a block from the school, which oddly enough is built to look like a boombox. Seriously. They built it to look like a boombox. And it does look just like a boombox.

Once inside our apartment, Alisa and I examined the pleasant, all-tile interior indicative of Central America (I assume for coolness and lack of mildew). We unlocked our cozy room in Number 2. Barely able to hide our excitement, we unpacked our overtly large travel-packs (hers weighs twice as much as mine, which obviously means we switch when it comes time to carry them).

“Damit, we don’t have hangers,” I noticed.

“Yeah, but those would have been awkward to pack, and more weight to carry around.” Alisa responded. I held back from saying “You mean more weight for me to carry around.” How could you be snide to your wife on a day like this?

We then went to check out the roommate situation.

Because Alisa and I are a couple, our language program had told us over the phone that our roommates would be singles, no doubt for purposes of overcrowding and drama. One door was wide open, and we could see a white towel laid out on the bed much like ours had had.

“No one there, I guess,” Alisa said.

The other, closer room was closed. A noise was coming from the inside. We knocked lightly to no avail. After examining what was supposed to be a laundry room, but was empty of everything but the white tile, we found we could see inside our neighbor’s room through a window. The shades were not drawn. We could see from our respectful distance, cheeks and noses smooshed up against the glass, that the noise was coming from the television. Each room has a tv. The weird thing was that there was a folded white towel on the foot of the bed also, and nothing else in the room indicated someone lived in there. Just the bare desk, made bed, and closed closet doors.

“Maybe it’s a ghost,” Alisa wondered aloud.

“El ghost?” I asked, laughingly. I like to guess at how words are said in Spanish, but usually I just end up adding “el” or “la” to it.

“Fantasma,” Alisa corrected.

“Tuanis,” I said, showing off the Costa Rican word for “cool.”

We walked around Zapote and had a nice dinner of tacos in a Soda down the street. Not knowing if you are supposed to tip, we handed the waiter 600 Colones on our way out. Judging by his surprised but polite laughter, we figured we probably weren’t supposed to tip. He had laughed as if thinking in his head, “Ah, you must be Americans.” He still took the money though.

After arriving back at our new apartamento, our rain jackets wet from their first good bombardment (the thunder here is LOUD), I decided to examine the open room for hangers. On the desk were a few papers and folders, as if someone had forgotten them. But then I turned around to find a picture of a man framed on the end table by the head of the bed.

“Hey babe,” I yelled. “I think some guy might live here.”

“Oh yeah?” Alisa entered the room.

“Look, his picture’s on the bedstand.”

“Well, lets look.” She then opened the closet to reveal shelves of makeup, sunglasses, shampoos, scarves and bracelets. The next door revealed rows of women’s clothing hung up by color.

“Oh shit,” we both said. “Lets get out of here.” And we left what was obviously someone’s room, laughing at how stupid we were to think a guy would have a picture of himself on his own bedstand.

“Its his girlfriend, obviously.” Alisa observed. “And she has a picture of him.”

But as night fell at six o’clock, and the rain continued to intermittently fall in fat drops, the roommate with the open door didn’t show, and the television continued to scream rather loudly from the room with the fantasma.

“God, that’s getting on my nerves,” Alisa finally said. “Do you think we could tell them about it tomorrow and have someone come and turn it off? I bet you the maid was just watching it while cleaning up and forgot to turn it off. No one’s in there.”

“Do you want me to break in and do it?” I asked politely.

“Can you?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. “I grew up in Hayward.”

And with that, I took Alisa’s new laminated school ID for class which would start the next day and worked it in-between the door and the frame, and with a pop the dark room opened. I turned the television off, then proceeded to examine the desk drawer, which was empty.

“Doesn’t look like anyone’s here!” I called to Alisa, who was reading in the living room. “Everything’s empty but—HEY!”

“What is it?”

“Hangers!” I called out. And it was true. The only thing left behind by the previous tenant, or the ghost, were three hangers suspended in silence in the last closet door. I locked the door behind me and emerged with my treasure. “Sweet, check it out.”

“Good job, baby.”

And so here we are. We start school tomorrow. We’re in Costa Rica. Finally. We sit around and imagine the different scenarios as to why our non-existent roommate would leave her door wide open and unlocked. Alisa thinks she must have gone somewhere for the weekend and will arrive in the middle of the night. I think she is the mistress of the director at our language school who puts her up for free because the apartment is always empty.

We’ve been in Costa Rica for two days. School starts tomorrow. Alisa's ready for Spanish Literature, and I'm ready to start pronouncing my name right. And we're pretty much settled in, even though we're scared to go into the wide open door of our roommate, but have broken into the haunted room and ransacked it for hangers. We hope someone materializes soon so we can practice more Spanish, whether they be real or fantasma.
ecallihan says:
Planning a similar move soon, so I'm curious as to how it's going down there? Hope y'all are doing well!
Posted on: Nov 08, 2009
travelman727 says:
Great blog! Congrats on taking the big step :-D
Posted on: Oct 16, 2009
This is our language school in Zap…
This is our language school in Za…
Cisco Systems Wireless Router
In …
Cisco Systems Wireless Router In…
340 km (211 miles) traveled
Sponsored Links
photo by: mateoamaral