Water, water everywhere

It’s been smooth sailing (relatively) as Leslie and I head for Europe the old-fashioned way — by ship. One of those random thoughts I’ve had on this trip is about people like my ancestor John Rogers who left his home in Laugharne, Wales, in 1635 and sailed west to find his fortune in Surrey County, Virginia.

He sailed on a ship called George. I’m sure it was quite small, probably less than one-quarter the size of Celebrity’s Reflection, and I’ll bet the North Atlantic waves bounced that little ship around fairly well. We started out in five- to eight-foot waves, but for the last two days and nights it’s been more like 11- to 18-foot waves. The captain promises that will change tomorrow. This is a huge ship, but there are some big waves out there that sometimes make passengers (crew, too) walk like drunken sailors. So far, my motion-sickness patch is working perfectly.

I doubt my ancestor’s ship had a huge international crew, as this one does, to serve the passengers and meet all their needs. I’m willing to bet the facilities were quite limited: No pool, no library, no fitness center or jogging track, no shore excursion options, and likely no restaurants. In some cases, passengers on 17th century ships sailing to and from the New World had to bring their own food for the journey, which could take a month or longer. Our ship has 15 different restaurants, and we’ll be in Europe in less than two weeks. Plus, we have all the amenities mentioned — and then some.

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Our stateroom on Deck 9.

It’s quite possible John Rogers didn’t have a private stateroom with his own bath, and he most certainly didn’t get room service for any meals. We not only have a nice stateroom, we opted for one with a king-size bed and a private veranda, from which we can see the Atlantic Ocean — and nothing else. A few days ago we had breakfast on our veranda, which seemed decadent. But we’ll just ignore that and do it again soon.

There’s a pool and a solarium, with deck chairs and lounges on all the upper decks. Leslie and I have both gotten haircuts, and she’s made use of something called “The Persian Garden” several times. They have a room full of tiled chaise-like loungers that are heated. Great place to meditate or nap. Crew members are from many different countries. We’ve been served by crew from Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Malaysia, St. Lucia and South Africa. They all smile and say “good morning,” and they do a great job.

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Great view from our veranda. We’ve only seen two or three other ships on the horizon, and those were very far away. This is our normal view. Look at the color of that water. No, it doesn’t get boring.

If we had a complaint it would be that we are required to reset our watches one hour ahead almost every night during the passage. That means we lose an hour of sleep, but it also means we gradually adjust to European time. I think we have one more “spring forward” to put us seven hours ahead of Chicago time. We’ll be in that time zone until we head back to the U.S. in mid-July.

Celebrity tries to keep the passengers entertained. There’s a show every night in Reflection Theater and musicians perform at various spots around the ship, mostly near the bars. There are games, lectures and special sales in the many shops that line Decks 3 and 4. Leslie and I enjoyed a wine tasting a few days ago. We tried reds and whites from the U.S., Austria, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. A few were just okay, but two or three of them are now on our list of, “buy this wine whenever you can find it.”

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Fellow wine lovers sample a Spanish red blend and a terrific Austrian riesling. This event was quite popular.

It’s interesting that many of our fellow passengers are from Europe. We met a lovely British couple at dinner a few nights ago, and we’ve encountered people from Canada, France and Italy. That gave me a second weird thought: I wonder how many of these folks are just going home from a long vacation and they’re afraid of flying? Hmmm.

Not much else to relate. I’ll try  to post again after we’ve visited our first port, which is Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Ciao!

 

Costa Rica misses the cut

While Costa Rica has a lot going for it, the downsides overshadow the positives for Leslie and me. The land of Pura Vida is no longer on the list of places we’ll consider living. It’s a close call, but we think Mexico is still in the lead.

On the plus side, Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The mountains are lush and green, and there’s an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. We didn’t get to see much of it because we didn’t do any of the touristy things, such as jungle treks and zip lines. Areas like the Central Valley and Lake Arenal have a nice climate with warm days and cool nights. The humidity in those places is relatively low. Beach towns are definitely out. Too hot, too humid.

There are a number of things we like about Costa Rica in general. It’s a politically stable country that just elected, by a fairly large margin, a center-left president who has great plans for his country. There has been no standing army since 1948, the 90 percent literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, there’s a growing middle class, and Costa Rica takes care of the environment. For example, almost 100 percent of the electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar.

But electricity is expensive, and the overall cost of living is only slightly lower than in the U.S., In some cases it’s on a par with North American and European countries. We’re looking for a place where our money goes a little farther.

Other downsides include:

  • There are no street addresses. We talked with a Canadian who rents a box at the post office to get mail. If he knows a package is coming, he calls the UPS or DHL delivery driver to meet them somewhere. Crazy.
  • And you get directions that assume you know where you are: “We’re 200 meters south of Pops Ice Cream.” Thanks — now where the heck is Pops?!?!
  • Even the highways are not very well marked. We used Waze and Google Maps on our two trips around the country and still got lost in places.
  • Driving is hideous. In cities and towns, you have to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists who just dart into traffic. In rural hilly areas, the twists and turns force me to slow down while the locals just barrel ahead. We saw several near-accidents from drivers passing against a double-yellow line.

Finally, we just don’t have good feelings for Costa Rica like we have for Spain and Mexico. The people are friendly, and there are a lot of ex-pats in the area to socialize with. But neither of us has developed warm fuzzies for this country.

So Costa Rica is off the list as a place to retire. But we would like to come back someday as tourists to do some of those things we passed on while we were here. Also, Horizon Church — the nondenominational we’ve been attending in Jacó — is building a new church. The walls are up already and the plans look terrific. We would love to see it after they have moved in, and reconnect with our new friends there.

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Our last look at Costa Rica — a Pacific sunset. Hasta luego!

Now we’re taking a short break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was back on Feb. 6. Has it really been 25 years? Doesn’t seem like it. We are marking this auspicious occasion by taking a two-week cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome. While Italy is not really on our list of places to live in retirement, we’re taking this opportunity to visit Naples, Rome and Florence to see the historical sites and museums — places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the coliseum in Rome.

After Italy, we’ll move on to France, the last place (maybe) on our list of possible places to live. We’ve rented an apartment in the historic center of Montpelier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon area, for six weeks. Leslie is looking forward to finding a French cooking class, and I relish the idea of sipping cafe au lait at little French bistros.

We’ll be back in Chicago’s western suburbs by July 12. Then we have a decision to make.

Next post will be from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — IF we have decent wi-fi on the ship!

Ciao!

 

So what’s the cost of living in Costa Rica?

As we get ready to leave the land of pura vida, it’s time to talk dinero. If we choose to retire to Costa Rica, what would our cost of living be? It’s a key issue for us and always an inexact science.

Costa Rica’s currency is the colon. The current exchange rate is 566.795 colones to one U.S. dollar. So when you see something priced at 3,000 colones, that’s just a shade over five bucks. The guy at the airport car rental place called it “Monopoly money.”

Simply put, Costa Rica is not cheap. Eating out in restaurants, for example, costs us only slightly less than what we might pay in the U.S., and in some cases about the same. Last night we had steak and barbecued ribs at one of this town’s nicest spots, and it was slightly over $80 including wine and dessert. But last week we visited an excellent Thai/Balinese restaurant a short walk from our condo. Leslie had pad thai and I had Balinese beef stew. With lovely chicken spring rolls and two glasses of wine, we paid 27,400 colones — $48.34.

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Pineapples at the farmers market. Very sweet!

But we have most meals at home, buying groceries and cooking. As in Mexico, the food bargains are at Jacó’s Friday morning farmers market, where roughly $30 USD buys us a bag full of amazing fruits and vegetables. We bought a pineapple that was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. Great tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans and avocados. Most of the produce is local, but some comes from other Latin American countries, such as the apples from Chile.

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Stalls at the Friday farmers market. Not a big market, but some very nice produce.

We’ve shopped mainly at two grocery stores, and remember this is only for Jacó. We haven’t bought food anywhere else and prices might be different in other areas. Maxi Pali is a Costa Rican chain owned, I’m told, by Wal-Mart. It’s just down the street from our condo, and prices are lower than some of the other local stores. Here’s a sample:

  • fresh orange juice, 64 oz., $6.26.
  • 15 large eggs, $2.81.
  • local chorizo, three links, $1.50.
  • mayo, 14.1 oz., $1.98.
  • oatmeal, 42 oz., $2.21.
  • white onions, 20.8 oz., $1.41.

The more Americanized option is called Auto Mercado. It’s about a five-minute drive down the main highway in the Plaza Herradura shopping center. Prices are a little higher, but we can find things like gluten-free bread and pasta, and their wine selection seems to be the best. We got one of our U.S. favorites, Apothic Red, but it was $17.81 a bottle and we usually pay $7. Of course here, it’s imported! Here’s some of what we bought:

  • six limes, $2.50.
  • Costa Rican coffee, 12 oz., $7.59.
  • Ritz crackers, 9.14 oz., $2.71.
  • seedless red grapes, 28.7 oz., $8.75.
  • gluten-free pasta, 8.8 oz., $1.42
  • head of Boston lettuce, $.97.

We’ve gotten some meats at these stores, but we’ve also gotten great cuts at a lower price from El Rodeo, a carneceria just off the main street through town that was recommended by our new friend Lisa. She also guided us to a relatively new pescedaria where we got a little over 2.2 pounds of fresh mahi-mahi for just under $9. I think we made three meals off that fish.

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Not a great picture, but this is Jaco Bay Premium Towers where we’ve lived the past month. You could score a 2/2 here for under $300,000, but it’s pretty crowded on weekends. Yes, that’s a paraglider between the towers.

Moving on to real estate (all prices in USD), and I’ve tried to find properties in all three areas featured in this blog. I did not look in San Jose, although the San Jose neighborhood of Escazu (ess-kah-ZU) and the suburb of Alajuela (allah-WAY-la) are prime for North Americans to buy or rent. And please remember, we haven’t actually looked at any of these properties — I’ve just done a lot of research, either on the internet or by checking listings posted in real estate company windows.

Jacó is a beach town that’s known for surfing and partying.  A 2/2 at one end of the beach with amazing ocean views is listed for $389,000. Pretty good for ocean view. Don’t need a view of the Pacific? Here’s a nice 2/2 condo with a short walk to the beach for only $227,000. On the high end, a stand-alone villa for $1.2 million. Rentals are available, but it appears the focus is on short-term vacation rentals. I did find a 2/2 in central Jaco for $1,000 a month, but it’s not close to the beach. Right on the beach, in nearby Playa Hermosa, there’s a 2/1 for $2,000 a month.

Atenas isn’t near a beach, but the mountain views from this Central Valley village can be stunning. Here’s a 2/2 with two 1/1 casitas on the property for $699,999. And there’s a more moderately-priced option, a 3/2 in Grecia for $178,500. As for long-term rentals, I found a couple of nice 2/1 properties just outside Atenas running from $1,200 to $1,400 a month.

Prices are lower in the area around Lake Arenal. You can even get amazing views for a bargain price. Like this new 3/2 in a gated community with lake views for only $169,000. If you’re on a tight budget and you don’t need to see the lake, there’s this 2/1 renovated house in the village for just $89,000, and you can walk to many stores and restaurants. I had to work hard to find a high-dollar property but here it is, just reduced to $995,000. It’s a 3/3.5 with a garden shower and an infinity pool with waterfalls! Area rental prices are low, too, running around $500 a month. I found a 3/3 with volcano and lake views for $800 a month on a six-month lease. From a price standpoint, Arenal wins.

So does that mean we’re moving to Costa Rica? The answer is in the next post!

Pura Vida!

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Good stuff at the Jaco farmers market. And this photo was taken late in the morning, so everything had been picked over. Still some nice produce.

 

The Central Valley

Costa Rica advertises its Central Valley as having “the best climate in the world.” We’ve heard that about other places, too, so we had to check it out. The valley encompasses most of the country’s interior, and includes several national parks. This week, Leslie and I visited the Central Valley towns of Atenas, Grecia and Sarchi. We spent most of our time in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which — you guessed it — is named for Athens, Greece.

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One of the main streets in Atenas.

Best climate? Depends on how you define “best.” One definition is a place where temperature and humidity are relatively constant throughout the year. However, it was unseasonably hot the few days we were there — in the low 90s F. with overnight lows in the upper 60s. Our Canadian host at the bed and breakfast where we stayed told us many North Americans leave Costa Rica at this time of year because it is hotter. Humidity is lower in the valley than at the beach, of course, but it still felt humid. So maybe it’s not “the best” climate.

Another thing that changes very little is sunrise and sunset. This area is so close to the equator, these events happen at roughly the same time every day. And there is no daylight saving time.

We also heard horror stories about Costa Rica’s rainy season, which is in the fall and is not limited to the Central Valley. Apparently there are deluges almost every day, and while they don’t last long they cause brief flooding in some places. Areas without paved roads have bigger problems. We noticed that streets in Costa Rican towns have drainage gutters built into the roadsides. They are made of concrete and some are at least six to eight inches wide and eight or nine inches deep. You’ve got to be careful when walking or you might break an ankle if you step into one, and very careful when parking or your car will drop off into the ditch.

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The drainage on this Atenas street is sloping toward the curb, and you can see the yellow walkway just to the right of the white car. Some drainage ditches are more squared-off.

We found Atenas to be fairly small (5,000 population, I think), with some very nice homes near the center of town. We talked with a young woman from the U.S. who lives with her husband and daughter on a nearby mountaintop. They can actually see the Pacific Ocean from their 6,000-foot perch. There’s a sizable gringo population, but it’s not as obvious as some Mexican towns, particularly Ajijic. We met some other ex-pats at a small cafe and learned there are men’s and women’s groups that meet weekly, so a new resident would have to get connected through those two social groups. A downside for us is the lack of a faith community. The closest English-speaking Protestant church is in a San Jose suburb.

Atenas sits at about 2,200 feet, while Grecia (GREH-see-ah), the largest of the three cities we visited, is slightly higher at 3,270 feet. That makes sense, because we thought it was just a bit cooler in Grecia. Sarchi is only 1,000 feet above sea level, and is a center for Costa Rican crafts. Furniture manufacturing is huge in Sarchi. We saw lots of places selling furniture.

So the Central Valley has some good things going for it, and a few things not so good. Leslie and I might consider coming back to spend more time here. To be continued.

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A common sight in the Central Valley is clouds hugging the mountaintops in the distance. I took this from the car window just outside Sarchi.

Finally, some fun facts about Costa Rica in general:

  • This country has no standing army. There are local and national police, of course, but Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948.
  • Life expectancy in Costa Rica is about 79 years. That’s among the highest in the world. The Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast is one of the world’s seven Blue Zones, where people often live past 100 years.
  • The World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica’s health care system as the 36th best in the world. That’s one notch ahead of the United States (France and Italy top the list).
  • Costa Rica is the world’s unofficial hummingbird capital — home to 52 species of hummers.
  • There are five active volcanos in Costa Rica.

That’s it for now. Last post from Costa Rica coming soon, then it’s time to return to Europe. Time flies!

Happy Easter, and Pura Vida!

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This bus in Grecia is typical of Costa Rican public transportation. The buses here are much newer and nicer than those  in the Mexican towns where we lived.

Livin’ in the land of ‘Pura Vida’

Leslie and I finally made it to Costa Rica last week. This is a beautiful country, with a number of national parks and wildlife preserves. The national motto is, Pura Vida, which means “pure life,” or “simple life.” It’s more than just a saying or a greeting, it’s a way of life. This site gives you a brief explanation.

We’re living in the beach town of Jacó (ha-KOH) on the central Pacific coast. It’s a fairly small town, geared to touristas, very much like Playa del Carmen was in Mexico. It’s hot and humid, so we would probably not choose it as a place to live in retirement. But we rented a car so we could get to other parts of Costa Rica. Our original plan was to spend all of February in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which is at about 2,000 feet elevation in the Central Valley. A long-weekend trip there, where the climate is probably more amenable, is in the works.

Driving in Jacó, and in most of Costa Rica, is difficult. There are a ton of bicycles on the road, some of which are motorized. Plus, pedestrians  like to cross the street pretty much anywhere they like, since there are few actual street corners. Looking for a parking place is also a challenge. On our first full day here, we were searching like crazy for a particular restaurant that was highly rated on Trip Advisor. Couldn’t find the restaurant OR a parking place.

When I finally spotted a place to park, I was so hungry and frustrated I just dragged Leslie into the first place that looked like there was food available — a hole in the wall. Well, actually there were no walls. Just some tables and chairs and a bar. Fortunately, we had stumbled onto a traditional Costa Rican soda. This was our first taste of Costa Rican food. We both ordered casado, which is a plate with salad, rice and beans, fried plantain, and choice of meats (chicken, beef, pork or fish). Nothing fancy, but it all tasted great!

One rather challenging thing about Costa Rica is that they do not have addresses or street signs. For example, here’s the “address” for the church we attended Sunday, right from their website: “Horizon Church is located 200 meters south of Pops Road on the Costanera (main highway) in front of Auto Tica.” Now, Pops Road is NOT the actual street name, and it is NOT marked — you have to know that it’s the road that runs past Helados Pops, or Pops Ice Cream Shop. See? Challenging. 

More on Costa Rica once we’ve seen a bit more of it! I’ll leave you with a shot of the beach I jogged on this morning.

Pura Vida!

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The volcanic-black-sand beach north of Jaco. Big waves. Lots of surfing farther south.

 

UPDATE 5, last in a series!

Gotta give credit to James, the American Airlines agent who re-booked our cancelled trip to Costa Rica at no additional cost! We’re all set to fly from San Diego to San Jose on Tuesday, March 13, and get this show back on the road where it belongs.

Leslie has almost fully recovered from the ordeal that landed her in the hospital last month. Many thanks to the nurses and other staff at Sharp Urgent Care and Sharp Memorial Hospital, especially those in the Emergency Department and Acute Care 7-West. We deeply appreciate Dr. Watt, who runs a great ER; Dr. Ghafourian, the incredible hospital-based internist; and Dr. Bench, the skilled surgeon who removed Leslie’s gall bladder.

Our extended time in San Diego has been terrific because we’ve been with our daughter Stephanie for a little over a month. We’ve been to some excellent East Village restaurants and Stephanie has enjoyed quite a few home-cooked meals.

Leslie and I have also had time to talk about the rest of the journey. We plan to be tourists in Italy for a few weeks, then live in southern France for six weeks or so. But now we think there may be time to sneak in a few weeks in Portugal, which wasn’t on our initial list but sounds like it’s worth a look. The original plan was to return to the Chicago area in the summer to see family and friends, as well as several physicians, and decide where we will live from now on. That may still happen, but we’re also re-thinking Uruguay. We might just head down there in November and December to check it out, and push decision-making to January 2019. We’re nothing if not flexible!

Next post from Jacó, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

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The downside to leaving is saying good-bye to Lewis (right) and Piper.

UPDATE 4

Good news! Leslie saw her surgeon today (Thursday, Feb. 27) for a follow-up. He says she is “good to go.” Her recovery is actually a bit ahead of schedule, as he sees it. She’s really looking forward to a glass of wine with dinner tonight!

Now we can reschedule our Costa Rica trip and get this show back on the road. It’s just a matter of working with the airline to find a good date for heading south, and I will do that soon. We have accommodations lined up beginning March 10, so we’ll be shooting for something between now and March 9.

I’ll post when we have a departure date. Thanks again for your prayers!

 

UPDATE 3

Leslie was pretty out-of-it the day after her gall bladder removal, but she was better the second day and is making steady progress. There was some minor pain at first, which we expected, but after the second day she did not need the prescribed pain pills. She’s being a bit more careful about meals now, but we were already following a fairly low-fat diet so there won’t be any dramatic changes.

She has a follow-up appointment with Dr. Bench on Tuesday, Feb. 27. That’s when we’ll know how quickly we can resume our search for a place to retire.

Thanks to all who posted comments, especially those who’ve already been through this process and had the surgery. It was comforting to hear from you. Leslie and I appreciate your support and prayers.

Next post after the medical follow-up!

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One of the big benefits of living in San Diego County: On a Saturday afternoon in mid-February, we were able to join these folks and their best friends at the Del Mar Dog Beach. We had no dog, so we just enjoyed watching. The good people who now own our former Westmont home probably had to shovel snow.

UPDATE 2

Tuesday, Feb. 13. Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, but Leslie has already given up her gall bladder for Lent.

The surgery went about as expected. Dr. Bench used a robot to remove her gall bladder laparoscopically. The procedure took about 45 minutes. He said the gall bladder definitely needed to come out, since there were some gallstones still in there waiting to drift out and cause more problems. After she spent a couple of hours in recovery, Stephanie and I brought her home. Full recovery in about two weeks.

In that time, we will work on getting back on track. We should be in Costa Rica by March 10, maybe sooner if everything falls into place.

Thanks for all your prayers. More to come…

 

UPDATE

In the last post I said Leslie was tentatively scheduled for surgery on Saturday, Feb. 3. Didn’t happen. Her surgeon, Dr. Bench, didn’t like her test results, He preferred to wait until she recovered more fully from acute pancreatitis, which is what landed her in the hospital. And by the way, Dr. Bench was busy saving someone’s life in the ER for most of Saturday morning.

So Leslie was released from Sharp Memorial Hospital on Sunday, Feb. 4.  We’re bunking with our daughter Stephanie temporarily. Leslie’s gall bladder removal is now set for Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 13. If there’s no further delay, we should be able to resume our travels in early March.

Another update post-surgery…

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With Leslie out of the hospital, we were able to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary Feb. 6 at Bluewater Boathouse Grill on Coronado Island. She looks great, doesn’t she?