Face-to-Face with Poverty…Vaya con dios

Poverty in Nicaragua Courtesy: www.adamcohn.com

Last night, in Costa Rica, Heide and I came face-to-face with true poverty…and it broke our hearts.

Growing up, I had little idea that we weren’t wealthy.  But looking back on my childhood, I realize my brother and I grew up in a loving but poor family by USA standards.  We didn’t have the fanciest clothes, a color TV, lots of toys, or the latest model cars.  We didn’t have much money to spend (although we conned Mom into buy a set of Compton’s Encyclopedias–on time payments of course!) and just didn’t seem to have many of the “things” other kids had.  But we had our parents, a roof over our heads, and food in our bellies.

Over the past 40 years, I have worked with impoverished kids in some of the poorest cities of Connecticut and Pennsylvania such as Hartford, Bridgeport, Harrisburg, Steelton, Reading, and Phildadelphia.  I have seen much in the way of inner city poverty in their schools and communities.  But most of the kids and families I came in contact with (not all mind you) were in school, had homes to go to afterward even though one or both parents might not be present.  Until last night, I had not seen primitive, rural poverty.

One of the common practices here in Costa Rica is hitchhiking.  In an earlier post, I wrote about our experience of picking up a young lady and giving her a ride home to Portegolpe.  Another day, we were driving out of Tamarindo on our way back to Playa Flamingo and a young, very pregnant lady had just missed the bus and was standing in the 95+ degree heat.  How could we pass a pregnant women and leave her standing there?  Our consciences wouldn’t let us drive on so we stopped to pick her up (for the record, she was not packing a machete).  We had a delightful conversation in broken English (her) and very broken Spanish (us).  It was fun.  She had a job in a grocery store, was doing well by Costa Rica standards and was heading home from work.

However…last evening we came face-to-face with true poverty and the realization sunk in that I and all my friends and family (yes, you!) live privileged lives by comparison.  We were headed to a really nice, upscale restaurant looking forward to a delicious Italian dinner about 20 miles away–we’d been there before and it was perhaps the best meal we had in Costa Rica so we considered a repeat performance mandatory.  But as we were leaving Playa Flamingo, we passed a women hitchhiking with two small children–a little girl (10 years old) and a baby (1 year old). We couldn’t resist.  When we stopped, they literally ran to catch up to our car so we wouldn’t drive off.  This was about 6:00 PM local time, just around sunset.

They looked absolutely exhausted and were carrying nothing–no suitcase or pack but only the clothes on their backs.  By way of our broken “Spanglish,” the mother told us they live on the “frontier” of Nicaragua just over the boarder with “no casa” (house).  Her and her five children (the older ones were still back in Nicaragua) live in a make-shift shelter eking out an existence.  She and her two youngest had been walking for three days from Nicaragua trying to get to family living in Limón, a city on the east coast of Costa Rica, in search of help and to find work.  They didn’t appear to have passports so they likely sneaked across the boarder into Costa Rica, as many Nicas do, in search of a better life.   They were trying to get to San Jose (the capital) in the hope of finding transportation to the east coast.

My best guess is that they had already walked and hitchhiked some 200 miles to get to where we picked them up in Playa Flamingo.  They came down the coast to avoid the attention of police along the main roads.  With more than 270 miles to go to reach Limon, a daunting trip still lies before them.  They were tired, hungry, had no Pampers for the baby, and looked like they were going to have a rough night at the least and a very hard next few days.  In the course of our conversation, Heide said to the mother quietly, “Le ayudamas” (We help.) and gave me a nudge and questioning look (RIGHT?).  I was already discretely digging out my wallet.

We took them to the small town of Huacas where there is a bus stop that could take them on their way to San Jose and found a soda (small roadside restaurant) that was still open at that hour in the hope they could get something to eat.  As they got of the car, I gave the mother all the money I had in my wallet (¢80,000 colones…about $160 USD).  Considering the per capita income in Nicaragua is about $275 US per month, I had handed her a small Nicaraguan fortune.

As they exited the car, Heide said, “Vaya con dios.” (Go with God) and the mother replied, “Te bendiga” (bless you) with tears in her eyes.  They went straight to the soda for something to eat.  I hope they used some of the money for Pampers, baby food, and a good night’s sleep.  I wish them well on their journey.

Vaya con dios, indeed.


Facts about Nicaragua

Economic Development

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America. The World Food Program estimates that more than 40 percent of the rural population lives in poverty and about half of Nicaraguan workers are unemployed.

Economic Development

The country’s vulnerability to natural disasters has slowed economic growth.

Food & Agriculture

The World Food Program estimates that in some areas, more than 40 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.


While an estimated 93 percent of children enroll in primary school, many children do not finish school because they must work to help support their families.



In Search of a Local Bar…away from the tourists

Highlight of HuacasI’ve been trying to connect with more Ticos and fewer tourists but to no avail.  In a desperate attempt to pop open a cold one and chat with the locals, I decided to go looking for a bar in the nearest “non-tourist” town, Huacas.  I took off this morning in my rental car in search of adventure.  The “main” street in Huacas is actually Route 155 which takes you toward the airport in Liberia.  There are a few shops, a pharmacy, pizza joint and sodas (small family run restaurants) and the traffic is pretty busy there.

I turned off the main road onto a side street, and I use the term “street” loosely, that took me back into the residential area of Huacas.  True to form, there is a soccer field, a school, and a Catholic church.   I suspected my trip would be doomed when I spotted the sign hanging on the building (see above). However, the community is dirt poor.  And I do mean dirt.  The streets, the yards around the houses, even the soccer field is mostly dirt.  Every time a car goes by, it kicks up a cloud of dust that must infiltrate every single window, door, nook, and crannie in the town.  Although the life expectancy of Ticos is better than ours in the USA (79.32 years vs 78.64 years in the USA), I have little doubt that Ticos die of respiratory diseases from breathing all that dust–what we anthracite region folks might think of as “brown lung.”  Most of the homes I saw in Huacas are run down and not well maintained.  They are open air (i.e., no air conditioning) with windows and doors wide open.  Most had bars on the windows, doors, and some porches.  I saw padlocks hanging on many.

I gave up my search for a local hangout in Huacas as the couple I saw didn’t look too inviting, particularly for non-Spanish speaking Gringos.  I ended the morning with breakfast at a very nice little soda on the main road called Soda el Guanacaste.  I continue to be amazed at the cleanliness of these little places…including those that look run down as you drive by.  Even the bathrooms are typically spotless.  They may be worn, but they are clean.  Even though my search for a “non-touristy” hangout didn’t pan out, I had a delicious omelet and Costa Rican coffee.  Doesn’t get much better.


Shirley (we think that’s what she said), Gustavo, and Eddie

On Friday (viernes for those of us so fluent in Spanish–NOT), we were exploring the nooks and crannies on the side roads near Playa Flamingo.  I’ve passed signs pointing to Flamingo Towers more than a dozen times in the past few weeks but have not veered off the beaten path to see what it looked like.  I turned onto the dirt road with no “Towers” in sight…a big risk in Costa Rica!

Roads in Costa Rica are mostly a series of potholes tied together with dirt.  Once off the “main” road, all manner of adventures await–monkeys, coatis, birds, lizards, and an occasional herd of cattle casually walking down the road in front of you.  As we bounced from pothole to pothole, thankfully with four wheel drive, we headed uphill at about a 45 degree angle.  Convinced we were about to meet Crocodile Dundee coming out of the woods, we crested the hill to see an absolutely spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and a beautiful complex of condos in the middle of nowhere.  It was about a 1-2 kilometer drive up hill.  It was afternoon under clear skies and the hot sun about 650 miles north of the equator was a temperature approaching Fahrenheit 457.

We drove around the buildings, snapped a few pictures, and admired the view some more.  We were struck by the location and the opulence in the middle of a third world country.  For a mere $400,000 (USD) or so, you too could own a piece of paradise.  I’m not sure what the folks do for a living who own these “vacation” homes, but they certainly weren’t university professors.  These make owning a boat look cheap.

As we started the long, bumpy trek down the mountain side (felt like we were rappelling with a car strapped on our asses), a young (30ish) Tica came out of the building and started walking down the road.  We waved as we passed and received a pleasant Tica smile and wave in return as we continued on our way.  Heide said, “Should we pick her up and give her a ride down the hill?”

Being a USA American (Estados Unidos de América), my mother beat into me that you never pick up strangers along the road.  She would eloquently describe how I would be hacked into small pieces and left in a ditch for the buzzards while the perps made off with the poor excuse for a pickup truck my brother and I drove in high school.  However, with Heide as protection, it seemed like a good idea and fairly safe–there were no machete in sight and the Tica didn’t look the least bit threatening.  It seems fairly commonplace in Costa Rica for the locals to hitch rides, patiently wait along the road for the next bus, and/or simply walk to their destination.

I said, “You’ll need to ask her.” Heide’s Spanish is better than mine !  The Tica happily agreed.  She spoke only a few words of English; we only a few words of Spanish…a match made in heaven.  Through much pointing, grunting, and monosyllabic vocabulary, we established that she was heading down the hill to catch the bus to Huacas (the “H” is silent), a small town whose claim to fame appears to be that it’s where you turn to go to Tamarindo–a bustling beach town hot spot for surfers and beach goers.  It turns out she was going to change buses there meaning wait along the side of the road in the heat for the next bus that would take her home to the even smaller village of Portogolpe.  I figure it had to take her 30 minutes plus just to walk down the hill, then about an hour or more in non-air conditioned bus rides to get home.  And…she’s been doing this for the past six years.

We had a very nice conversation in what amounts to SPANGLISH (Adam Sandler would be proud) but we thoroughly enjoyed her company, the ride and the chance to talk with a native Costa Rican who wasn’t in the tourist trade.  She told us about her grandmother (we think!), her children (ages 7 and 15), and when we arrived in Portogolpe, she invited us to meet her husband, Gustavo, and oldest son, Eddie (the younger was still in school).  The village, while quite poor, consists of a few streets with rows of typical Tico houses (i.e., no A/C) but all seemed very clean and maintained.  I suspect the residents have a sense of pride in their homes and community and it seems like a nice place to go watch a soccer game.

A taxi driver once told us that every Tico community has five things: (1) a Catholic church, (2) a soccer field, (3) a school, (4) a bar, and (5) a police station–usually next to the bar!  I’m not sure the taxi driver was correct that all communities have all five, but the soccer field, school, and church were evident in Portogolpe.

I wish I knew more Spanish.  It would have been fun to crack open a few cold Imperials (Costa Rican beer) and chat about life in Costa Rica with folks who aren’t tourists.


Bored in Paradise ???

At El Coconut Beach ClubBelieve it or not, I’m bored.  So is Heide.  In the land of beautiful sunsets over the Pacific, spectacular beaches with gently sloping fine sand, and all the sunshine you could ever want, I have managed to find a rut and get stuck in it.  Deep down, I know I should be pitied.

The daily routine starts with a pot of Costa Rican coffee…perhaps some of the finest in the world.  We’ve been sampling a few different varieties in search of the perfect brand to stuff our suitcase with on the way home.   Next, I check email and sort through the half-dozen messages in my inbox (what a pleasant change from the 150-200 per day I got while working).  That takes about 5 minutes since they are mostly advertisements about Travelsmith clothing deals or Viagra.  After making breakfast or heading to the local morning hot spot, Marie’s Restaurant, to let them do the cooking for me, I spend a little time pondering deep thoughts.  My thoughts have begun to wander to redoing the kitchen counters, finishing the workshop and man cave in the basement, and completing the interior remodeling on the boat.  Kind of sick, isn’t it?

On some mornings, I give our son Mark a call for an update on his, Eileen’s and Thomas’s worlds; I periodically give my brother Jim a call for a Michigan update.  A walk on the beach and/or swim in the pool completes the morning ritual by about 9:00 AM.  By this time of the day, the temperature outside is already climbing to that on the surface of the sun.  I expect to see solar flares coming off the beach any day now.  Consequently, it’s time to run for the air conditioning, which by the way, Ticos don’t seem to bother with.  In spite of the intense afternoon heat (mid-90s F), I have yet to see a Tico sweat.  It really is starting to piss me off as I am pouring sweat like Seabiscuit after kicking War Admiral’s ass.  Breathing makes me work up a sweat and air conditioned restaurants, stores, and malls are non-existent.

About noon, we start thinking about lunch (no different than at home) and try to come up with a new place to eat.  As it turns out, there are relatively few options in Playa Flamingo and we’ve tried them all.  It took us three days to actually find the new place we wanted to try: El Coconut Beach Club.  I saw advertisements in The Howler magazine (named for the local monkeys) and saw signs along the road.  Street addresses and house numbers are nonexistent here as are route numbers and road signs.  If you don’t know where you’re going, you shouldn’t be on that road to begin with…

By the time we are finished lunch, it is time to drink about three gallons of water to replenish body fluids and plan my afternoon nap.  I always tell Heide that I’m going to lay down for a while and read my Kindle but she knows the real truth.  About an hour and a half later, I’m done “reading” and it’s time to start thinking about dinner.

After watching the sunset over the Pacific, dinner is usually out somewhere…e.g., The Beach House (Marianne bubbles while telling us about “sock coffee”), Flamingo Hotel’s Arenas Restaurant (where Orlando gives us Spanish pronunciation lessons and a history lesson about coffee), or Angelina’s (everyone there knows my name–excellent pizza).  After a few drinks at dinner, I’m ready to head back to the condo for an evening on the balcony listening to the surf crash below, drinking some scotch and smoking a fine Cuban cigar (bought a box out of some guy’s backpack on the beach in Tamarindo–I’m sure they aren’t counterfeit !!!).

Let’s recap:  Costa Rican morning coffee, walk on the beach, lunch, a nap, dinner, scotch and a cigar.  I am so bored.  I have to try to find some things to do….seriously.

Wildfires…Costa Rica Style

Wildfires at NightThe hills all around us in Playa Flamingo Costa Rica have been slowly burning over the past several days.  For two days or so, the smoke was wafting our way and we smelled it in the air.  But as the fires got farther away we could only see the smoke.  Wildfires here in Costa Rica are not like the roaring wildfires of California.  Rather, like the lifestyle in Costa Rica, they appear laid back and slowly the ground-level brush is burning.  The tree trunks seem hardly blackened by the passing fire.  Many plant stalks seem unharmed.

At first, we were alarmed as the sky was filled with smoke.  The fires aren’t fast moving but rather a slow, smoldering burn producing copious amounts of smoke.  I’m not sure how they get started here.  Certainly not lightning as there hasn’t been a drop of rain in Playa Flamingo since we arrived on February 1.  I suspect they start accidentally from burning leaves or cigarette butts carelessly tossed out of car windows.

I was talking with a very patient lady from England in the Maxi Pali store (one of Walmart’s contributions to Costa Rica) in Santa Cruz a few days ago.  I was puzzled why the fires aren’t put out.  She told me that residents are troubled by them but the small towns simply do not have the manpower to fight the numerous fires.  She and her husband live in a typical Tico house in a very rural area.  They regularly have wildfires outside of their house and she said the fire trucks come every single time within 5 minutes.  The fire trucks only have to come out if the fire is near housing or National Parks.

Pole 1We have tried to explore the area and have made frequent trips from Playa Flamingo to Huacas and Tamarindo.  On the road to Tamarindo we noticed a field burning around the base of a telephone pole.  The next day, the pole had completely burnt off at the base and what was left was hanging from wires above.  We thought surely someone would see it and extinguish the fire before it reached the wires.  The road is patrolled regularly by the local police and all it would have taken is a bottle of water to put it out.  Apparently, no one really cared.  As you can see in the photo on the right, two days later the pole was still smoldering (look closely at the base and you can see the smoke).

Pole 5On an drive the following day, we passed the pole yet again.  It was continuing it’s slow burn.  Much to our astonishment, all that was left was a small nubbin–the pole had burned all the way up to the wires with only about 2 feet left.  Out of curiosity, Heide and I went cruising again yesterday and there is nothing left but the bracket !!!  The pole is completely gone and nothing but an ash heap on the ground.  The wires appear to be unharmed.  The bracket is ready for a replacement pole.

The lifestyle in Costa Rica is restfully laid back.  Apparently even the loss of a telephone pole does not cause anyone to spring into action.

In their defense, I didn’t stop to put it out either.  I may be becoming an honorary Tico !

Addendum:  And then there was nothing left but the bracket !!!

The Bracket