Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Costa Rica is experiencing one of the rainiest years in 40 years. In the last few weeks, there have been road washouts, bridge closures, and landslides all over the country. Many people are currently in shelters because of water or mud damage to their homes.
We’ve been fortunate in that regard. We had some serious erosion, but the house and driveway were not affected at all.

Last Wednesday morning around 6:00, we lost power and phone. We weren’t surprised, since we’d received over 4.8 inches of rain the day before and 5.05 inches the day before that. As you approach our house, on the left side of the driveway the rain was too much for several old trees, whose roots weren’t strong enough to hold, so we lost all the trees. They just slid down the steep hill onto the road below and beyond, taking part of the hill and the power lines with them. There was so much water going down the road, that many of the trees and mud were washed all the way down to the corner into the power pole there.

Sadly, those trees were loaded with orchids, bromeliads, and philodendron. Collie has retrieved a few orchids and paddle ferns. Most of the trees are over another steep embankment and not accessible.

Our engineer, Juan Carlos and Norm walked partway down the public road below us to assess

the damage and come up with a plan to stop further damage on the main area between our driveway and the road below. We were afraid that we’re going to need to build retaining walls and re grade. The mud was so thick in spots that they had to steady each other as they pulled their feet out of the sucking mud!
Thanks to Juan Carlos for the "before photos":

Fortunately, remedial work wasn’t as extensive as we thought it was going to be. We’ve decided on using a bioengineering solution, using vetiver plants instead of walls. Vetiver is a grass like plant that has been used internationally in Africa, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Australia, California and other places to mitigate disastrous situations and to stabilize land for agricultural purposes.

The Vetiver grass can grow to roots 3-4 meters (yards) long in a year. The stems are stiff and erect, therefore the plants can resist dislodgment by strong water currents. Because they trap nutrients, an area of vetiver plantings can also contribute to growth of other volunteer plants. See more here: /

Mario, our part time gardener and two of his cousins spent a day clearing and re-sloping the area damaged by the slide, getting ready for planting. We hired a backhoe to clear away the mud and debris on the road below.

On Friday we ordered 1300 Vetiver plants which I was able to pickup on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday, Mario and his cousin Wilfreo planted the slope. We have another 500 plants on order that I’ll pick up today. We also have several hundred slips of a similar plant that Mario and his cousin prepared for us.

Those are from their farms and we’ll use them on other areas that are more stable. Because we don’t know if their plant is the same species we are not using it on the landslide area. The difference is in the length of the root system. They are both excellent but one has much longer roots.

The excessive rains are predicted to continue this green season and to also extend through November. That is 2 weeks longer than usual. Today is our fourth day without rain (so far) and the reprieve is a welcome relief for everyone. We received 4 inches on Saturday afternoon after the bank was re-sloped and it didn’t erode any further. The dry days allowed Mario and Wilfreo to put in 10 hour days on Monday and Tuesday. It took those two full days to plant the slope.

The weather has allowed for road clearing across the area and the placement of Bailey bridges across some of the washed out roads. It would be a huge relief for everyone if the predictions for excess rain over the next 2 months prove wrong. In the meantime we are working to anticipate any additional problems.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Medical Emergency---a Friend’s Experience

A couple of weeks ago we received a call from a friend telling us that his wife had not felt well all day and had just vomited what looked like blood. Since Collie is a nurse, he wanted to know if they should go to the hospital, or wait until morning. Collie advised immediate evaluation at our local hospital’s emergency room.

When they arrived at the hospital her blood pressure was only 84/54 and she was looking “pretty ashen”. The triage nurse assured them she would be seen by the MD immediately. Since they are not yet members of the national health care insurance system (CAJA), he used her passport number to register her which only took minutes to collect her name, passport number, phone number, and place of residence.

In less than 5 minutes she was evaluated by the MD who immediately admitted her for observation, intravenous fluids, lab work, and nasogastric tube to monitor for continued bleeding. The plan was to have the gastroenterologist perform a diagnostic endoscope in the morning, unless the bleeding did not stop. Then an emergency scoping would be done.

Upon returning from completing the admitting paperwork, our friend had some challenges in finding out what was going on with her. Fortunately the patient is fluent in Spanish, so when finally he was able to see her, she was able to tell her husband what the plan was. She already looked much better after getting some IV fluids on board. They had explained to her that continued bleeding might require transfusion (s). That wasn’t necessary. They were also prepared to send her to San Jose if a different level of care was required.

He went home and returned to the hospital the next morning. Some other friends met him there. Trying to find out where she was was challenging. After checking various stations one “tough nurse shook the facts loose” and found her right where she was the night before in the observation area. They were advised that they couldn't see her because she was getting a test done and to come back in about 1 hour. Upon their return a new receptionist was on duty and told them that visiting hours were over. Their friend had to “strong arm the receptionist” to let him get in to see her. She looked much better, was still on saline drip, nasogastric tube gone since the bleeding stopped during the night; and she was waiting to get the scope done. She had a shower and was feeling better. No timetable for the scope, just "soon".

The gastroenterologist scoped her about 11 AM and found erosive gastritis and the bleeding had already stopped. She was deemed ready for discharge with prescriptions for a proton pump inhibitor and antacids and advice to decrease acidic foods and return for lab work.

Then they tried to pay the bill. Apparently there isn’t a system of a charge slip detailing the procedure codes and supplies which can be then compared to a charge master sheet to compile a bill. No one seemed to know what to charge. They experienced a “run around” during which they were shuffled back and forth. Finally they just had to tell the cashier which services were received, who still didn’t know what to charge. At last (about an hour later) the supervisor arrived and upon hearing the services told the cashier that the “private pay” charges would be 103,000 colones (Approximately $200). This bill included the emergency MD evaluation, overnight in the observation area, IVs, three prescriptions, Gastroenterologist evaluation and gastroscope procedure, lab work including the follow-up labs. Their friend suggested that it is common with private pay patients to just leave, let the hospital sort out the bill, and they will call you by phone to come pay the bill later. But they decided to stay and take care of it. They had to wait for the prescriptions anyway which was about a 2 hour wait at the CAJA pharmacy. So, shortly after getting the hospital bill paid, they were able to pick up the meds and head home.

In summary, she was well cared for without any delay. The treatment was appropriate for a medical emergency. She was stabilized, observed, and had a diagnostic procedure. She is getting follow-up care this week, which is likely to include some additional diagnostics. What I find to be different is the level of communication. It is probably more like medicine was years ago in the USA; the MD just told people what was wrong and what the treatment was. There wasn’t much if any dialogue about options for treatment or the patient’s wishes. Here explanations are not offered, but upon questioning, information is forthcoming. I don’t think the culture is as demanding of the medical staff as we are in the USA. The concept of partnership between a patient and physician has not entered the consciousness of the culture.

The lack of well defined systems and a customer service culture were only evident after the emergency was over. The actual wait times and customer service levels vary greatly across the system. We’ve heard of ridiculous wait times for screening procedures at some facilities, yet here in San Ramon wait times are about what I’ve experienced in the states or in some cases remarkably less. One of my friends here feels that the service provided by the CAJA isn’t much different from what she (she is a RN also) experienced in the Seattle area. I have nearly always worked for organizations that excel at customer service and provide high quality care, so I have high standards. The system here isn’t perfect. We have the option of seeking care or second opinions outside of the system for which we would pay out of pocket. The CAJA costs about $45/month for two of us. That includes everything without any co-pays. There is no way we could have retired early and stayed in the US. Even with a subsidized retiree medical through my former employer, the cost would have been prohibitive.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Almost 12 Feet so Far

We're in the middle of an especially wet “Green Season”. This month, we’ve had several days with over 4” of rain in 24 hrs. The road system is taking a real beating with numerous road washouts and bridge closures throughout the country. So far this month, we’ve had 30.77 inches of rain, bringing the total for the year to 141 inches (11 ft, 9 inches)

Click on this link for a video of one example of of last week’s road damage posted by Fernando Obando.

Monday, August 30, 2010

San Ramon Procession of the Saints

Each year the Patronales San Ramon includes the procession of the Saints. Each of communities which are part of San Ramon, bring their Saints to the church. The tradition is over 100 years old. Each is beautifully decorated with flowers, accompanied by members of the individual communities, often with marching musicians. It is a very festive day, many businesses are closed and school is optional.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

San Ramon Ox Cart Parade

This morning, we went to the ox-cart parade which is part of the annual celebration off the Patron Saint of San Ramón

The crowd was 3 & 4 deep along the way. There's an amazing variety of carts, from utilitarian working carts to beautiful works of art here's a sample.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sanitizing the Water System

Last week we undertook the annual task of servicing and cleaning the communal water system. The work started early in the morning (6:30) when workmen drained and scrubbed and treated the catchment tank at the spring about 100 meters lower down the hill from our property. After the tank refilled, they added chlorine to shock treat the system. They then moved to the three large buried storage tanks up the hill from us and repeated the operation there.

Water from the tank at the spring is automatically pumped to these three tanks, and we normally get our water directly from these tanks. There’s enough of an elevation difference to give us excellent water pressure just from gravity. We also have a 700 gallon storage tank under our garage floor. If there’s a problem with the main system, we can pump water from this tank so that the house and casita always have water. Since we’ve been here, the pump controls at the spring have failed and have needed to be repaired. We were glad to have the back-up tank in our house.

While they were cleaning the three tanks, our gardener Mario climbed down and cleaned our backup tank. Once clean water was flowing throughout the system, we rinsed the chlorine from the tank, refilled.

The spring gives us delicious pure water, and just to be sure, we periodically have it tested at a local lab. Additionally, we treat all water that comes into the house and casita. When all the tanks and pipes were rinsed of chlorine, I changed the three stage particle filter, carbon filter, and replaced the bulb on the ultraviolet treatment unit. The ultraviolet system may be overkill, but it insures that our water is always clean and safe should the spring system somehow become contaminated.

It’s an all day process, but there’s nothing more important than clean water!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Jimmy: Artist, Ironworker

Today I picked up a pair of new bedside tables for the casita. We’d been using some wood tables, but they were too low for the reading lamps. I asked Jimmy Rodriguez to build a couple taller ones and he really came through for us again. Jimmy has built all or our custom ironwork including all of our light fixtures, bar stools, mirror frames, towel bars, curtain rods, and casita shelving.
He’s a delightful young man to do business with, and we’re always happy to recommend him to anyone who needs metal work done.

Here are a few photos:

The new bedside tables, Jimmy (with with the shaved head) and two of his workers, and some of the work that he’s done for us.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Green Season

The “green” (rainy) season is here this month. Most days have been clear and sunny in the morning, with rain in the afternoons. So far this month, we’ve had 19.48 inches of rain, bringing the total for the year to 51.06 inches. It doesn’t seem like that much rain. In the Pacific Northwest, we got about 36 inches a year, but in was cloudy and rainy all winter. Seemed like we never saw the sun for weeks on end. Here, we have sun almost every morning, so we can usually be outside every morning. And when it rains, it RAINS! Yesterday afternoon, for example, it was beautiful all morning we got 3.72 inches in about 2 ½ hours, then it cleared up for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

In the green season the views are sharper. The Nicoya Peninsula and the Islands in the Gulf of Nicoya are much more defined. At night, the lights along the Coast and East towards San Jose are much brighter.

This is the perfect time to transplant new plants, and we’ve been taking advantage of that. So far, we’ve been on three buying trips. And have come home with about 350 plants and trees. That is a lot of plants and has made a big difference. We probably could easily put that many more in the ground though!

Our neighbor Eric has planted over 10,000 trees on his properties to restore them to native landscapes. Much of the property that we purchased from him has benefited from his work. He introduced us to a nursery man who specializes in native plants for reforestation and conservation. He is very knowledgeable regarding the altitude, moisture, and light requirements for the trees he sells. We bought over 100 small trees from him. 50 are similar to the Benjamin Figs we know as indoor trees. We have planted them as a windbreak because of the dense foliage. We also bought 20 Eucalyptus deglupta for the gorgeous green, khaki, brown and orange peeling (“rainbow”) bark. The remaining trees are aquacatillo (mountain avocado), soapberry, bottlebrush and others all for attracting birds.

We filled the pickup with over 200 plants from one of the big nurseries, mostly for ground cover. We have some Flax, a variegated Iris like plant, Society chives, Mexican heather, a maroon grass, and lantana.

We made another visit to the Else Kientzler gardens this past week. I brought them banana bread to thank them for the Elephant ears they gave me last trip. Of course they offered more and who could refuse. They had 5 or 6 varieties of ipomoea or sweet potato vine for sale. We bought over 40. They are beautiful shades of bright green and maroons. They make a great ground cover.

Besides planting the new purchases, we’ve been re-arranging many of the plants we have. We can see what has thrived and what needs a new spot with less sun or more moisture. I have one bank of yellow walking iris, a variegated ground cover and some yellow lantana that are doing well in very bad soil. I have just finished adding more of the iris starts to fill it in. No sense in trying to make something else work there! I continue to stick cuttings of anything and everything in the ground to see what takes. I have lots of coleus and impatiens. I have also tried rooting some tree and bushes with some success.

Mario, the man who helps us with our gardening one day a week, has been coming with his cousin for about 12 hours each per week (rains permitting). They’ve prepared the ground and done all the planting. Part of the ground prep included working in chicken manure. We bought 80 huge bags a couple of months ago. Much of the ground is hard and clay like, so working the manure in has made a big difference. Of course the weeds love it!

We got a new Toro lawnmower from the states. It’s self propelled, so Norm has been using it to get our grass in shape. Most folks here use string trimmers to cut their grass, and that’s how Mario’s been cutting ours. But the string trimmers throw debris everywhere and really scalp the grass; short and ugly. With the mower, our grass is starting to look like a lawn.

A couple of months ago I was walking by an area along our trail. I see that spot every morning while walking the dog. Well it was covered with orchids. They opened overnight. With the end of the dry season, many orchids bloomed. We continue to find a few in bloom.

One of the trees between the house and the casita has been home to several nesting birds. At least one pair of Tropical Kingbirds and a pair of Blue-grey tanagers have nests. We have seen some predator birds hanging around too. A few emerald toucanets have been stalking. And one day we were surprised to see a Swallow tailed kite land next to the tanager nest. Wish we had a photo of the huge wing sticking out of the branches. It didn’t get anything, but we do see them cruising over the trees on the hunt.

We are continuing our Spanish lessons, although separately.
Norm is much better than me! We love our teacher; she is a delight and tailors the lessons to our needs.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Scored on plants atElse Kientzler Botanical Garden

Saturday we visited the Else Kientzler Botanical Garden in Sarchi which is less 45 minutes from our house.The last time we were there with brothers Michael and John they mentioned the festival this weekend and that they would have plants for sale. We were there an hour or so before the crowds. When I asked about the kinds of plants for sale, I mentioned that I was hoping they would have the Elephant ears for sale ((Colocasia Esculenta Black Magic). He said “oh, they grow very fast, we’ll dig some up for you”!

They gave me 8 or more of the black ones and another 6 or so of the green and purple ones, pretty good sized bulbs.

My friend mentioned that she likes pampas grass, so they gave us several starts of that as well.

We also bought cleome, Mexican heather, portulaca, and a green/gold ground cover and some airy white flowering plants---18 plants for about $12-13.

He also told me to “steal” cuttings from the coleus I like.

He is the manager and has remembered us the last few times we’ve been there. It was about 95 degrees there today, we are so happy to live on our cool mountain. We were sweltering at 10 am.

I took lots of pictures. Enjoy the slidshow!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New Driver's Licenses!

Yesterday was an interesting day. Our CR driver’s licenses were due expire at the end of the April. Fortunately there’s an office here in San Ramon where we can renew. We had to get our first licenses in San Jose and two years ago, I posted a long article on the blog here telling THAT story.

Anyway, our first stop was at a Doctor’s office to get our medical certificate. There are probably a dozen within a block of the license office that only do these exams. After a cursory exam, we got our forms and to our delight, this office was able to give us the necessary bank receipt for our license fee, saving us a trip to the Bank of CR. The licensing office doesn’t accept any money. We then waited in a queue outside of the license office for about 20 minutes. When we presented our documents at the window, everything was in order, except that we needed copies of our national ID cards. Fortunately, the official let Collie enter and get in the queue to get our pictures taken and sent me down the street to get copies made for 20 cents each. (We have never been in any government office that will make copies). I returned with the copies and joined Collie in a seated waiting area inside where there were about 8-10 people ahead of us. The line moved quickly, and we got our new licenses hot off the hi-tech machine, and had to sign for them in an old fashioned ledger book. Technology in this country is a wonderful study in contrast. The 1950 meets 2010.

From the time that we got to the Dr’s office until we walked out with our new licenses, 2 hours. Total cost for both of us, approximately $100. But the good news is that these new licenses are good for 6 years.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

New art serendipity!

We just acquired a beautiful new painting of parrots for the casita. We’ve been looking for some time now for some nice art for the casita living room, but haven’t seen anything that we liked (and can afford).

Some friends need a new website, and Earl does wonderful art, so we’re bartering. Norm’s building their website in exchange for art. Serendipity!

We’re all thrilled with the trade. The parrots look so much better than the sailing dingy picture that it replaced. Thanks Earl!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Orchids and such

We have been enjoying the orchids in bloom for the last several months.
Our guitite trees, former dead looking branches have come to life, not only with new growth but with the attached orchids.

A friend has helped in identifying them for me.
Besides the orchids on the guitite, we have many on other trees on the property. I am constantly peering into the trees in search of blooms. Some are very tiny and hard to see. I am sure that I have missed many, since they blend with all the other epiphytes. If they aren’t blooming it is very hard to tell (for me) if they are orchids, bromeliad, or some other plant.

We went with friends to Sergio’s off the grid finca (farm) to purchase some Guardia Morada orchids. Sergio’s wife has insisted that they move to a home near family and running water and electricity. So he’s selling his orchids, since leaving them unattended would invite folks to steal them. They are highly prized because of their showy purple blossoms and because they are the national flower. We bought a couple of them and have mounted them in trees here. They only bloom in February.

We have about a month to go before the green season arrives. We are looking forward to doing additional planting. We had 80 large bags of chicken manure delivered a couple of weeks ago and Mario is mixing it into the planted areas.

Django is a big boy at 11 months. He weighs 72 pounds and still very much a puppy. We had to remove all the grass sod in the cats’ and his fenced area, since he was wrecking it with his digging . We have fine gravel now and the cats really like rolling in it. Makes for a better back scratching surface.

I’ve been hoping to grow figs, and have three puny trees. At a Spanish lesson a couple of weeks ago, I asked my teacher if she has ever seen fresh figs at the market. We have received candied figs as a small gift from several Tico friends when they have come to our house. However, I have never seen fresh figs at the farmer’s market. Grettel, our Spanish teacher, said “come with me”. We went across the driveway to her mother in law’s house. Grettel said that her tree is like a machine and produces figs constantly. She also said that they are hard to grow. Grettel’s mother, just about one mile away hasn’t been able to grow them. The tree was loaded and we picked a bag for me. Her mother-in-law had me taste her deliciously cooked figs. They gave me the recipe, so that I could prepare my own. When we returned to the lesson, I asked her if they would ripen, since they were still green. She said that they wouldn’t off the tree. Upon further discussion, I learned that they do not let them ripen. She was astonished to learn of the very short fig season in Seattle and how they are beautifully presented in restaurants in various preparations---grilled or as a fresh dessert. Grettel and her mother-in-law have covered a branch with a bag to keep the birds from eating the figs as they ripen. So, I am dreaming of ripe figs, and there is hope.