Friday, June 19, 2015

Counting Colones - The Operation

When we first arrived in Costa Rica 2 years ago, we landed in Atenas with a short window to find a home, living out of hotels with 2 kids and our suitcases.  We settled on a 2500 sq ft modern home in a gated community.  Wow, it was lovely and for only $900 per month, we thought it was a steal. Soon our cargo container arrived and we could call our new home, home. We learned the money system quickly. After all, it is not that hard to double everything. The math is easy. 450 mil colones is about $900 per month. 4 mil colones is about $8, get it? To be exact, you can look at the current exchange rate on your smart phone and haggle prices. I like CoinMill.com for an up to date conversion, but basically the rate is usually around 535 colones per $1 US.  So when we went grocery shopping, we quickly realized that the food that is bad for you like pizza, cokes, cheese and ice cream are imported and very expensive, but the food that is good for you like fruit and vegetables are very inexpensive. The sign for a block of cheddar was about 5800 colones. Yep, that's 10 bucks! We learned to start appreciating the finer things in life, as in fewer and further between. It was not that we were paying more for anything, but all imported and processed items are the same price as we paid in Texas.  A growing family of 4 eats plenty of both, but we were learning lessons daily how to eat on a Tico budget not a Texan belly. 


Living in Texas, our food bills were huge since we loved to cook. We ate quite well and it showed. We shopped recklessly and purchased extravagant gifts for friends and family. Christmas was insane and our kids were spoiled by everyone, including Mom and Dad. We ordered anything and everything on the internet and spending was out of hand. However, for many Costa Ricans, especially in our neighborhood, the thought of giving more than one gift for a baby shower, birthday or Christmas is considered extravagant, spoiling and unnecessary. We went to one of our best Tica friend's baby shower and gave her 3 outfits and she couldn't believe it, wanting to give 2 of them back. She told us that in Costa Rica, it is proper to give 1 gift. The bigger, the better! But not here and since the children grow up this way, they are happy with less. Our kids are adapting. Having no maternity insurance in Texas, our childbirths were also huge. Each childbirth was around $10,000 US because most insurance companies do not offer maternity coverage.  Our childbirth here was 2.500.000.00 colones ($5,000 US) and included a tubal ligation. We were in a huge culture shock in Costa Rica and it has taken 2 years to evaluate all the differences and accept the changes.


A year later, we moved out of the expensive, modern, glass house in Atenas into a comfortable house in the mountains of Grecia with a huge yard.  Our home is half the price of the Atenas home.  Our kids also have several friends now along the street, a big difference from the fancy gated community we moved from. Our new home is not as modern, nor is it as expensive, but it is just right for us now. Basically we have been able to cut our expenses in half, twice.  Living in Atenas, we cut our expenses in half from our life in the states.  Living in Grecia, we have cut our expenses in half again. We opened a Jerky business and things are going well.  We have many Tico friends and we have learned several tips on how to shop, when to shop, where to shop and how to stretch our meats and cheeses and how to spot local fruits growing wild - great for kids, keeps them out of our apples. 


We have learned how to get a brake job and where to purchase our ingredients for our business. All of these tips came from the locals. We also learned never to drink the clear liquor that Ticos are famous for sharing. It is their form of moonshine and it burns your insides...for days. We also learned where to go with our kids. We made a pact when we moved here to take the kids somewhere fun at least once per month. Museums, beaches, hiking, parks, waterfalls, and volcanoes. All are free or at least very inexpensive if you bring all your food and drinks, coolers and chairs, even tents. This is what makes us feel like a local. We do not go to the most touristy spots, we often are the only gringos at some of the places we have found. We have also learned that most of the Tico population do not travel or visit much of their extraordinary country at all. Some of our friends who have a car travel a bit, but most of our neighbors do not have a car, nor much time off work and do not travel often. Bus rides can be long, so they keep to their mountain. Let us be clear, there are plenty of affluent Ticos and plenty of metropolitan areas around San Jose and those locals do travel and have nice cars. We are specifically talking about our neighbors and experiences. 


Now that the rainy season has hit, we have seen our business slow down dramatically. Visiting with friends and neighbors, the slow season is felt by everyone. During these rainy months, money is tight and we are finding other ways to compensate for the drop in business. We started smoking bacon and selling it to restaurants. We also smoke pork shoulders. Additionally, we are reinventing our Jerky to offer a smaller size bag to make it more affordable to consumers. Even with all the exciting prospecting of new business ventures, I suddenly hit rock bottom, literally. I started having horrible pains in my stomach and after a few episodes we began the expensive task of diagnosing gallstones. We have an excellent doctor in Grecia and he was quick to pinpoint the problems, but after sonograms and labwork, an operation was apparent. Now we are faced with finding the right doctor to perform surgery. Each consultation is 45 mil colones ($90 US). This might not have been much money back in Texas, but here, this feeds our family for 1 week. Because of the painful attacks, I was on heavy muscle relaxers for 2 weeks, not easy when raising 3 small children. Matt was wonderful during this stressful time.  He reached out to his band mates, friends and family to find a doctor to perform the procedure and any and all advice. With support from our family, we knew we needed to have the procedure to remove the gall bladder and stones as quickly as possible because the sonogram showed if one of the stones worked down into the pancreatic duct, it could turn into pancreatic infection; a major, life threatening attack. With 3 small kids and a growing business, we could not wait around and take the chance of waiting for our residency approval, which would afford us the opportunity to utilize the very good social CAJA system. 


We quickly decided on a doctor in Cartago who was highly recommended by a friend. Cartago is a 2+ hour drive from Grecia, but after our 2+ hour consultation with Dr. Baizán, we were pleased with his plan and consideration. In the United States, you would be lucky to talk to a surgeon for more than 5 minutes. Dr. Baizán is a laproscopic surgeon and does the entire operation inside his clinic. His staff and nurses were friendly and clear, even speaking a little English. Dr. Baizán speaks excellent English and never made us feel rushed or unimportant. It was a pleasure to be in his clinic and the cost of the procedure, while overwhelming at the time in our lives, was a fraction of what the cost would be in the states. Our operation appointment was at 4pm on a Thursday. Matt waited patiently as they performed the operation. After the procedure, Dr. Baizán gave us clear instructions on postoperative care at home; rather than an expensive 3 day stay in a hospital, another example of self reliance and personal responsibility, which we have found to be a big part of the culture here. Part of the reason the CAJA social system works here is all the doctors and surgeons work for the CAJA during the day and work their private practices at night and weekends. This could have been the same surgeon if I had CAJA, but since we could not wait, we had a choice of using him privately. It is reassuring knowing you are in good care in a socialized medical system, with equality among the doctors. 


With the best at home male nurse/chef/husband and the best chicken soup, I have fully recovered. Nurse Matt not only nursed me back to health, but he also kept our children alive. Luckily, as word spread about my operation, he had help with the baby. Sofia's Padrina (Godmother) kept her for a few days while Matt held the fort down. We had our follow up visit to Cartago and Dr. Baizán told us how much he loved our jerky and what a pleasure it was for him to meet and be of service to us. We highly recommend him and his clinic, and I am certain he highly recommends our jerky, since he could not stop talking about it:)

Before moving to Costa Rica, it would have never crossed our minds that we could be so happy with living on and with so much less. Living the simple and slower life, we value our experiences more than our materialistic things of the past. Now that we have immersed ourselves in the culture, the pounds have been shedding and the true meaning of Pura Vida, the Pura Life has taken hold and now, the thought of returning to a life of tension and excess is unfathomable. Even with the stress of slow season and an operation, we are looking forward to being happy. Since we have been out of pocket for over a month, we definitely owe our kids some much needed family adventure time...where should we go?

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