Archives for category: Costa Rica




Upon arrival at my daughter, Kelly’s new second home, I encounter scenic mountain views, fresh air, and initially, solitude. I hear rustling leaves, chirping birds and the burbling of a babbling brook. The hubbub surrounding her primary home in Brooklyn recedes. So, too, does the effect on my lower back of the as-good-as-possible three-hour drive. But is this purely paradise? Not exactly — within twenty-four hours, Kelly introduces me to the pool man, the pest man, the tree man, the lawn care man, the general maintenance man, the generator repairman and the tractor repairman. (Apologies for the anachronistic-seeming gender designations, but it is what it is.) All these men knew Kelly would be arriving, except for the last two; they came in response to the maintenance man’s call informing them that repairs were needed. Rest assured, they all have their hands out for payment.




My wife and I once owned a second home. For added degree of difficulty it was in Costa Rica, a Spanish-speaking country 2,800 miles south of our then-New Jersey home. How we came to own such a property is a long story. In brief, an opportunity arose in 2003 to obtain something special. For the price of a garage in northern Jersey, we bought an acre lot atop a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Every time we thought about our acquisition, the part of the brain devoted to happy things fired neurons. We planned to build a house. We interviewed builders. We contemplated sunsets.

By early 2004 our project commenced. We’d hired a husband-wife team who’d moved to Costa Rica from California a decade earlier, herein referred to as “Tim” and “Lisa.” Tim was the builder and Lisa the designer, decorator and landscaper. We embraced several of her dream concepts that no one had before, namely: an interior garden to separate the living room from the master bedroom; a waterfall in the family room; and, a roof line that appeared to be floating above clerestory windows.

When Tim faxed photographs of the cleared lot before we even owned the property, we were thrilled.  We wondered how he had achieved this feat.   Was it pure trespassing?   Was it bribery of local officials? We chose to consider it extreme efficiency. Things are a little looser than in New Jersey, to say the least.

Each month, roughly in conjunction with the timing of our wire transfers, Tim sent photographic updates. To my surprise, construction proceeded on time and on budget. The story of our house in Playa Hermosa is NOT a horror story about being ripped off in a real estate scam. (Luckily, we turned down opportunities to invest in, among other things, a marina “guaranteed to be completed by 2005” which still does not exist. We also turned down a share of a teak plantation that might break even by 2040).

Our experience of second home ownership, initially so exciting, is a litany of little irritants, the “death by a thousand cuts,” that gradually erodes enthusiasm.  It is said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Indeed, once completed, our house could have appeared on the cover of “Architectural Digest.” But it contained plumbing and electrical systems seemingly completed by trial and error.

The infinity pool, achingly beautiful as it led one’s eyes straight to the ocean beyond, leaked in myriad ways. Was it the plumbing? Cracks in the liner? In the tile? The pool man suggested the daily loss of a foot of water might indicate we were in a “special evaporation zone.” In eighteen months of ownership, the mystery never resolved.

We received a faxed picture of mold forming under the roof during the rainy season. “$1,000 should do the removal,” wrote our property manager. Another email told us about the irrigation system prone to being run over by the lawnmower. “Don’t worry,” wrote the manager. “It’s only a few hundred…every few months.” The front gate, a wrought-iron creation by a local artist, looked beautiful. If only it operated without repair for more than a few months at a time.

And the staff, oh, the staff. It included: one property manager, two rental agents; a succession of lawn companies; a “weed man;” two pool-related teams, one to maintain the water quality and one for structural matters; a “gate man;” a cleaning crew; and, an irrigation manager. If only it included an irritation manager.




For a year or so, we experienced our adventure as originally planned. We visited often, hosted friends and family, and reveled in how different it was from our humdrum existences at home. But the sheer weight of aggravation and complication wore us down. To defray costs we occasionally rented the house to strangers.   After damages wrought by a large percentage of such people my outlook soured. For years afterwards, I referred to tenants as “a lower form of humanity.” Only time and large security deposits eventually restored my mood.

We put the house on the market and sold in October 2006 for a windfall profit. What geniuses we appeared to be! The worldwide real estate market sputtered to a standstill shortly thereafter. But we weren’t clairvoyant, just exhausted.

Kelly is still in the glow of new second home ownership. We hope it never wanes. But experience sometimes outweighs hope. For my part, I now enjoy visiting OTHER people’s second homes.







I’m the envy of several toddlers in the airport waiting area. My canary yellow blow-up floatie features pictures of animals and birds and draws their attention like cotton candy. “Look,” says a little girl, tugging at her mother’s arm. “That man has a ducky.” Indeed, I’m a spectacle as I ease down on the donut-shaped toy and try to relax. I smile at the girl, and wish I could explain the reason for my use of an object so much more appropriate for her.



Merely sitting seems a major accomplishment to me, nearly three weeks after a lovely but routine vacation in Costa Rica became a trip I’ll remember for life. Emergency hemorrhoid surgery has that effect.

Is there a worse location on the human body to undergo surgery than the rectum? It’s possible, but I think this is certainly up there in the top two or three.
“How did this happen?” people ask. “Did you know you had a problem?”
Well, yes, a doctor warned a few years ago, during a colonoscopy (now WAY down the list of unpleasant medical procedures, in my opinion) that I had internal hemorrhoids that “someday” might become “inflamed.” He suggested I raise my fiber intake and prescribed a fiber-rich breakfast cereal that looked like worms used to attract birds. I don’t know what real bird food tastes like, but it couldn’t be worse.
I ate the cereal for a few months and tried to be more attentive to water intake.



But, like the fight against crime, inertia set in. The longer I went without an incident, the harder it became to remain vigilant. For occasional bouts of irritation, such products as Preparation-H provided relief. I figured I was simply experiencing a condition that millions of people deal with regularly. In volcanic terms, I considered myself at risk of a minor lava flow. When I awoke in agony the day after Thanksgiving in Playa de Coco, however, my situation resembled the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s.


San Rafael Hospital in Liberia Costa Rica

I arrived at the emergency room at the private San Rafael Clinic in Liberia, Costa Rica, after riding for fifty bumpy minutes flat on my chest on the passenger side of a Honda Civic. In Costa Rica, health care is available to every citizen in public hospitals. However, for an emergency situation involving a foreigner, the best chance for prompt treatment is at a private clinic. The doctor on staff looked at my “situation” and immediately concluded what my wife, Katie, and I already knew from a quick Internet search; “stage four” external hemorrhoids require surgery. He checked the schedule and told us, in Spanglish, that the surgeon would arrive at 4:00 p.m.
“That’s five hours from now,” said Katie. “This is an emergency.”
The doctor shrugged, at first, but agreed to call the surgeon on his cellphone and explain the situation. Apparently, he must have conveyed he had a “Gringo with a credit card in distress,” because the surgeon agreed to arrive in fifteen minutes. Fifteen became fifty, but the doctor, in jeans and a tee shirt, bustled in. He spoke no English and bore a striking resemblance to El Chapo.
“So this is where he’s hiding,” I whispered to Katie.
I naively thought the doctor would commence treatment immediately, but he pointed out I needed to “prep” for the surgery and that I should go home to do so. He prescribed the same preparation as for a colonoscopy and Katie went to three different pharmacies outside the clinic to obtain the necessary meds, along with eight bottles of Gatorade to mask their terrible taste.



She also satisfied the front desk that our debit card would cover the $5,000 cost of the surgery. Apparently, if you cannot pay up-front, you will not be treated. Never having used the card for more than expenditures measured in the hundreds, we had no idea what our limit was. To our relief, it was sufficient. I rode back to the condo on my tummy and tried NOT to contemplate the meaning of life and death.



I was deflated by the time we arrived back at the Clinic the next day. I hadn’t eaten food in nearly 36 hours. Sleep had been fitful, the “prep” had literally drained me, and the pain was unrelenting. In kindness, everyone in the waiting room offered me seats, but the one thing I absolutely could not do was sit. After twenty minutes that seemed like five hours, I heard my name and stumbled into the elevator, faint and sweating. An orderly, who I thought might help me, looked more scared than I.        Eventually, he and Katie helped me balance on one knee for the ride up to the surgical ward.
Upon arriving in the operating room, a diffident nurse tried and failed to attach an IV three times, each attempt more painful than the previous one. Flustered, she apparently called a picador from the local bullfighting arena because a large male strode into the room and jabbed a needle into my arm with no difficulty whatsoever, then strode out with a look of “nothing to it.” I lost consciousness immediately.
I awoke hours later, after the surgery, in my hospital room. Katie sat on a sofa across from my bed. I knew I was alive and, of course, that’s supposed to be good. However, the sensations I felt from head-to-toe were less than life affirming.
“How did this happen?” I asked, generally, specifically and miserably.

Nature has provided duplicates for many functions. For instance, we have two arms, two legs, two eyes, etc. If one doesn’t work, we get by, to some extent, with the other. But nature has not provided any back up for the functions performed by the rectum. What goes in eventually comes out and, after hemorrhoid surgery and its attendant stitches and staples and scarring, there is a tremendous disincentive to go to the bathroom. When something does come out, for the first seven-ten days after surgery, the sensation is positively medieval. Think broken glass. If you’re a woman, think childbirth. Of course, each individual event does not approach the magnitude of childbirth, but childbirth is not a several-times-a-day activity.
We assembled a selection of painkillers and creams and wipes, along with applicators and measuring devices. For the first time in many decades I experienced diaper rash; I’d forgotten how unpleasant it could be. I’ll skip the rest of the blood and gore that dominated the first ten days after surgery. Let’s say it’s enough to make a person change his entire diet to avoid ever doing this again. In addition, Katie and I achieved levels of intimacy neither desired nor desirable. To put the best possible spin on it, I learned everything there is to know about certain anatomy I’d always taken for granted.


On the tenth day, we returned to the clinic for a follow-up. The surgeon grasped the situation, literally, and declared me to be progressing properly. Through the hospital administrator who’d volunteered to translate, he reiterated that full recovery would take three more weeks. He continued the ban on swimming and added specific bans on dairy, meat and, generally, “anything else that might cause constipation.” He prescribed several more creams to salve the pain and good, old Desitin for the diaper rash.
Back at the condo, a virtual convention of Canadian healthcare workers in the pool helpfully offered advice. A pharmacist from Quebec translated the painkillers and regulated my dosages; a nurse from Prince Edward Island formulated a dietary plan; and, a pair of paramedics from Alberta encouraged me to walk, stretch and make initial efforts to sit. Our neighbor from Calgary helped us score the bright yellow blow-up donut from a souvenir shop.


I resumed walking at a normal pace and even sleeping almost normally. Other functions were still painful but not torturous anymore. By Day 19, we planned to travel home to North Carolina via American Airlines. At the airport, when we tried to check in, the attendant demanded a doctor’s note. Apparently, to fly internationally after surgery one is supposed to present such a note twenty-four hours ahead, and no one had told us. But Katie persisted and, through the magic of cellphones and email, the necessary documents were provided. It only took fifty agonizing minutes. And that takes me up to where this story began, in the lounge, making the three-year-olds jealous.


Another week has passed. I sat without my donut for nearly half an hour today. My fiber intake is off the charts. My water intake rivals the Titanic’s. Sleep is pretty good, except for disposing of the water. The rash is nearly gone. I see the end of the tunnel. May this never happen again.


For the first decade of my life, my haircuts took place at a local barbershop called “Dom’s.” Dom wore thick glasses though the ironic possibilities of his poor eyesight didn’t occur to me at the time. Early on, trying to avoid visits to Dom provoked ridiculous tantrums on my part. I professed to hate the itchiness of newly cut hair on my shoulders and neck. And I was uncomfortable due to Dom’s repeated complaints about the difficulty of cutting my hair.

“He’s got two holes in his head.   It’s hard to work around,” said Dom.

“You mean cowlicks?” asked my mother.

“Yes, I call them holes,” said Dom.

I didn’t realize the “holes” were two places in the back and top of my head where whorls circled. Most people have one such area, which is centered; when little, I had two and, because of Dom, I feared I had actual holes in my skull.

Dom was busy and did not accept appointments so I always had to wait. Therefore, I endured the fact that nearly all the adults in the waiting area smoked and the place reeked with an eye and nose-stinging stench. Adding to my discomfort, Dom’s selection of magazines featured racy covers, which embarrassed me at six or seven, sitting beside my mother. I literally couldn’t imagine what sorts of pictures were inside. By my teenage years, when I’d go to Dom’s alone, I could at least imagine the pictures, and I was curious, but I still couldn’t make myself look inside amidst a bunch of strangers.


By the time I went away to college, in the mid-1970’s, hair cutting had given way to hair “styling.”   Salons for men, and coed establishments were common. Vidal Sassoon, a hairstylist, for instance, was a household name and ubiquitous on television and in print. When I returned home on break and learned that Dom had retired, to my amazement, I missed the familiarity of his shop and the predictable results.

At my older siblings’ urgings, I reluctantly accompanied my brother, David, to several different stylists over the years. Unlike Dom, in his white smock, these stylists wore huge jewelry, purple or blue hair and bizarre outfits. Getting a haircut was like visiting a fashion show, but not one to my liking.

Although, by the standards of the day, my hair wasn’t long it still topped out several inches above my skull. Inevitably, these stylists urged me to have “STYLE.” They dismissed the cut I’d been wearing since childhood, which included a part on the left side, and hair trimmed around, not over, my ears. Some wanted it to be longer; some wanted bangs and longer sideburns. All wanted to do away with the part.

“Your waves are special,” said one female stylist. “People would pay to have waves like these.”

“I guess I’m lucky,” I said, unimpressed.

“Can I tease them out?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure what “teasing out” involved, but my answer was “No.”

Never knowing what the end result would be, I always tensed in a stylist’s chair, and my taciturn tone stifled most discussions. While my hair length shifted modestly through the decades, my cut never changed. Effectively, the only difference between Dom’s cuts in the 60’s and stylists’ cuts in the 70’s and early 80’s was the price, by several magnitudes. Luckily, as long as I was in college or law school, I enjoyed an almost total parental subsidy.


I’d absentmindedly failed to get a haircut in the weeks leading up to our recent trip to Costa Rica. I knew that before we returned home, we were slated to attend a wedding in San Francisco. To describe conditions as humid in Playa de Coco would be understatement and the messiness of my hair was obvious. Accordingly, I agreed that a haircut in Costa Rica was in order – my wife, Katie, thought this was a simple matter. She didn’t know my hair-related history housed some anxieties.

Once I’d agreed to have my hair cut in Costa Rica, the issue became “where?” The barbershop in the small downtown area sits between several bodegas and a restaurant. When I passed by the first several times, thinking I might just pop in for ten minutes and get it over with, there were crowds of men hanging out. The television showed soccer games and the men sat around drinking beer and cheering. Worse even than cigarettes, the smell of cigars wafted through the air. I just couldn’t make myself walk in.

The days passed and Katie kept reminding me of my need for a haircut, even though seeing the mirror should have been sufficient. One day, we ran into a local friend, Lupita. She mentioned taking her son to get a haircut.

“Where does he go?” asked Katie.

“To a wonderful woman,” said Lupita.

“Where’s her shop?” asked Katie.

“In her house,” said Lupita.

“Would she do Stuart’s?” asked Katie.

“Why not?” said Lupita. “We’ll see if she’ll give him an appointment. She’s VERY busy. I’ll call her. She’s an artista.”

“Um,” I say, nervous like in the old days about an appointments-only “artist.”

“Can she just do a simple trim?” I wanted to ask, but Lupita was already on her phone.


The day arrives. I take a taxi to the appointed intersection where pavement ends a gravel path takes over. I look at the map Lupita drew for me. It’s 7:00 a.m., and my appointment is at 7:15, the only time Teresa has available. In fact, as a courtesy to Lupita, she’s fitting me in before the usual starting time.

I walk two blocks on the gravel until it gives way to dirt. After I turn left onto a “side street,” which is really just an alleyway, the dirt is rutted. The yards I pass vary – some are neat and resplendent with lilies and hibiscus. Others are overgrown and appear abandoned. Small houses on both sides vary from neat and finished to tumbledown and half-finished, with rusty rebar sticking out from cinder block foundations. Every property is fenced-in.

Roosters crow. Cows moo. Cicadas scream. With almost no people stirring so early, it’s like walking through a 1930’s movie set for an abandoned Mexican village. I can’t help but wonder: “Will the place be clean?” “I hope I haven’t taken a wrong turn.” “Costa Rica’s not known for kidnappings, right?”

I reach the end of the alley and look left. There, a small wooden sign hanging from a tree limb reads “Teresa” and includes an etching in the shape of a scissors. I approach the gate. A pack of dogs in every size and shape materializes in the yard to welcome me. One has only three legs, but that doesn’t curb his barking.

After a moment, a slight dark-haired woman I judge to be about thirty years old emerges from the cinder-block house, shushes the dogs, and opens the gate. Teresa is pretty but I’m mostly looking at the dogs. She motions for me to follow. In turn, each canine takes a whiff of my legs and regards me suspiciously, looking at me as though thinking: “She saved you this time, but just wait…”

I follow Teresa past rusted car parts, a semi-diapered baby in an older child’s lap, and several chickens to a tiny closet-like opening in the rear. In the small space are a chair, a small sink, a mirror and walls covered with pictures of women with various elaborate hair-dos.

“Sietate,” (sit) says Teresa, smiling shyly.

“Gracias,” I say.

“Habla espanol?” (Do you speak Spanish?), she asks.

“Un poco” (A little), I say. “Muy despacio.” (Very slowly)

Teresa looks at my frizzy head, combs it out to gauge its length and motions with her finger that she sees where I part it on the left. I indicate the length I want around the ears.


Working slowly and carefully, unlike the slam-bam eight-minute cuts I receive in North Carolina at “Clips are Us,” Teresa washes my hair in the tiny basin and massages my entire scalp.  She appears not to believe in electric razors. She trims every hair by hand.   Teresa examines my hair like a jeweler regards a fine diamond.

I’m aware of the passage of time, ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes. A baby cries outside, the rooster crows again, and the dogs greet/scare the next customer. Teresa does not rush.

In labored Spanglish I learn Teresa has five children. They range in age from nineteen to one. I calculate, therefore, that she’s older than my original estimate, but maybe not by much. Her oldest is in college to become a teacher. Teresa has run her shop for five years; each year becomes “mas ocupado.” (busier) She’s proud; she’s confident; she excels at her profession.

After fifty minutes, she finally wields a small mirror and shows me the final product. It’s neat and even and layered just right.   I’ve never been so pleased with a haircut. I won’t need another for months.

When I reach into my pocket, Teresa says: “Tres mil.” (Less than six dollars).

My expression must have conveyed surprise. Teresa appears worried she’s offended me, that the charge is too high. “Menos?” she asks. (Less?)

“No,” I say. “Mas.” (More)

She smiles warmly. “Tres mil,” she repeats.

I give her ten dollars. She appears pleased with the large gratuity in a country where tipping is not assumed. She walks me out safely past the dogs, and I’m delighted with my first international haircut.