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San José, Costa Rica

Fireworks: I heard the news today, and Oh, Boy
This column was published Dec. 28, 2001

This is the time of the year when talk is about resolutions. I have a superstition that New Yearís resolutions are seldom kept, so I seldom make them. Iím not going to talk about resolutions because other things have been on my mind. I have been having some heretical thoughts about "Americaís New War."

It all started because of the news and fireworks. Costa Ricans seem to love fireworks and this past month there has been a lot of them celebrating the coming of Christmas, birthdays, what have you. Usually they are explosions followed by pretty displays, but sometimes there is just an explosion. 

At any rate, the other day, after about seven large pops went off (which sounded like gunshots to me); I went downstairs to check with Dani, our caretaker, about what was happening. He told me not to worry; it was only a fireworks celebration of something. Going upstairs, I realized that I had become jumpy from the noises. 

Although there is the security here that an explosion is nothing to be afraid of, the explosion itself is nerve wracking. My nerves were becoming frayed. This fact made me think of the news of the constant bombing of Afghanistan. How have the people there endured all of our bombing? How many nervous breakdowns, I wondered, have occurred, just from the sporadic but constant racket? Does anybody care? 

First of all, Iím confused. I thought our goal was to find and punish bin Laden and other al Queda terrorists. To this end the U.S bombed and conquered the Taliban, a fierce but frazzled army that has been fighting for 20 years. 

The various military analysts on TV are talking about our great success. It seems to me to be very much like a posse hunting for Jesse James and his gang, by burning down his family home, and killing everyone there except Jesse and his boys, who had left, therefore not getting him either "dead OR alive." Perhaps, as Mr. Bush has said, he has "slithered into Pakistan." 

Frankly, I find these phrases less than presidential. Nor do I find the adjective "evil" to be helpful. (I am beginning to think that there is a directive that all members of the administration have to use the word "evil" at least two times during any press conference when they are referring to Osama bin Laden.) Evil is such a nebulous word. In a way, "evil" like "beauty" is in the eye of the beholder" ó 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

in this case, in the eye of the believer. "Dangerous" would be a more action-enabling word, in my opinion, and bin Laden is dangerous and should be stopped.

Speaking of evil and morality. I have heard Mr. Bush say words to the effect that God is on our side in our fight against the Taliban and bin Laden. On an historical news program, there was Brezinsky, President Carterís man giving a pep talk to the Taliban forces when the cold war was still hot, and they were our allies because they were fighting the Russians. He told them they would win because God was on their side. God, it seems, is as fickle as Hillary Clinton is about ball teams. 

Then I watched an interview of a former ambassador from Iraq. It concerned whether our next target should be Iraq because of that other "evil" man, Saddam Hussein. During the interview the ambassador acknowledged that Saddam does has anthrax because the U.S. gave it to him. I assume we did this when the U.S. supported him in his war with Iran. But I canít understand why. 

The gentleman concluded that "That is history, and we have to think of the future." History ó thatís what yesterdayís news is. And if we donít read it and remember it, how will we learn how to better approach the future? The history of this war began before Sept. 11, and I am afraid will continue through the next year and beyond.

The good news is that, thanks to the search for bin Laden, Afghanistan is no longer ruled by fanatics and the children may have a chance if the West doesnít desert them and their ravaged country once again. But Afghanistan is a country of tribes, just as America was once, and I, for one, would not know how to turn it into a nation of people. I wish the peacemakers luck.

So those are my concerns. Iím sure they are not politically correct, so now I am changing my mind and making a New Yearís resolution not to talk about the war again. Or maybe I should just resolve not to watch the news. Oh boy. 

Finding your way in the a-mazing Central Market in San José
This column was published Cec. 21, 2001

I have always loved mazes. I used to pencil  through the ones on the comic page of the Sunday  paper and would draw them myself. I was  determined to go through a maze when I visited  England (but didnít). If you wonder, as I did, if  the word amaze is derived from maze, it is. The  original meaning of amaze was "bewildered."

Now, when I feel an urge to experience a maze, I  visit the Central Mercado between Avenida  Central and Avenida 1. It is a covered city block  of narrow alleys with many turns, lined with  kiosks overflowing with goods.

You can probably find anything you want in the  Central Market. All of the expected things, of  course, like meats, chicken, fish, produce and  dozens of "sodas" (not soft drinks, but tiny  restaurants) featuring cheap food. 

You can find turtle eggs, sewing thread and yarn,  spices and herbs, medicinal and otherwise,  handbags and back packs, luggage, paper plates  and real flowers, leather goods, dishes and  kitchen utensils, Christmas ornaments and Swiss  Army knives, shoes, and now, even a beauty  shop. How to find them is another matter. So far I  have found no signs or anything to tell you where  you are. But then, if the city doesnít label its  streets, why bother with its alleys, all safely  within the confines of a building?

I needed some black pepper in "granos" and some  vanilla beans. I also bought some "bomba." I  learned of it from my friend, Lillian, after I  commented on how tasty the sauce on the  chicken was at a luncheon. Lillian hates it. She  says her maid says it is used to cover the taste of  bad meat. According to Lillian, it is also used to  bolster the flavor of tamales when the broth is  weak.. Itís a mixture of fifteen ingredients,  including garlic, cumin, onion, cilantro, bay leaf,  thyme, oregano, and different peppers, and  bullion. It usually is layered in a plastic bag and  looks like different colored sand. Quite pretty. If I  donít like it, Iíll just display it.

I play a game with myself in the mercado. (My  status as an adult is sometimes tenuous.) I spot  something I want in a particular kiosk, then  wander off and away, then after I am completely  lost, I try to find the kiosk again. This time it was  a small bottle of mint flavoring. Eventually I did  find it. 

I also went in search of the beauty shop Darrylle  had told me about. His haircut looked good to me  and it cost only a thousand colones. It took longer  to find the beauty shop, which looks clean and  new (which it is, being less than two months old).  Menís haircuts are 1,000 colones womenís 1,200  ($3.50). I stopped getting my haircut  professionally several years ago, after yet  another person sheared me. I decided I could do  as bad a job, for free. And I have. 

But if you go there looking for the beauty shop,  enter the market from Avenida 1 between two  fish markets facing the street. Be careful going up  the two stairs that greet you. They look like they  have been eaten away by large rats. I didnít  notice that when I was leaving and turned my  ankle, and went flying flat, for the third time in  six months. I donít think I have become clumsier,  the walkways and sidewalks are treacherous. Iíve  decided to look on the positive side of these little  exercises. (I call them my sidewalk greetings). 

Each time I seem to land full force on one hand to  catch my fall. The other hand is usually fiercely  clutching my handbag. I am always picked up  quicker than I wish by at least six hands that put  me back on my feet whether I want to be there  or not. 

I have discovered that I would prefer to lie there  a moment and collect my thoughts, but I seem to  be an embarrassment to everyone, because there  I am upright, like the rest of the world, although  a bit dazed. Dazed in a maze, in this case. 

The positive side of this is I have now labeled my  pitched falls my "osteoporosis tests." If I havenít  broken my wrist, Iím still in good shape. Iím still  in good shape. 

How to give laughter and joy for Christmas
This column was published Dec. 14, 2001

Since Living in Costa Rica, I have become a morning person. Many people who move here do. It is partly because the sun rises and sets between 5:30 and 6 every morning and every evening and partly because mornings in the city are so beautiful. That is why I found myself last week watching one of my favorite movies on TV. 

I usually turn on the TV to the news channel and listen to it while I putter around and drink my coffee. But lately the news is so depressing and repetitive I can do without it. Ever since the coverage of the Gary Condit story, I have been working on a logo for CNN. It is a drawing of a man beating a dead horse. Iíve been watching movies lately.

"La Novicia Rebelde" (the Rebellious Novitiate) began at 6:30 and I decided to watch the whole thing for about the fifth time. "The Sound of Music," which is our name for this Academy Award winner, is the favorite of a lot of people. I hear there are some showings in theaters where the audience gets to sing along with the Von Trappe family. 

The movie has everything, including a group of young brats rescued by music from growing up to be spoiled adults (Music has turned many lives that might have been mediocre or worse into great successes. I often think of Quincy Jonesí story, and, of course, there are the Beatles and probably even Mozart, without music, would have grown up to be a precocious twit.) 

And there are two of my favorite plots ó the Cinderella story (feminist version) and what I call the Good Earth plot, two people who donít seem to like each other, through exposure, fall in love. On top of all that, there is Julie Andrews, who not only has a glorious voice, but one of the most charming personalities on the silver screen. I am still mad at Hollywood for not casting her in both "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady." Both movies lacked her voice and her sense of fun.

At any rate, it was a very enjoyable morning.

I have also, in the past couple of weeks, gotten to see my two other favorite movies. "The Gods Must be Crazy" (closely translated into "Los Dioses Deben Estar Locos," and "The In-laws," more freely translated as "No Disparan, Soy Dentista." In the 

Living in Costa Rica

 . . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

latter, this ("Donít shoot, Iím a dentist.") is what Alan Arkin says to two hit men, and could say to a half dozen other bad guys who are out to kill him, thanks to the future father-in-law of his daughter, Peter Falk. 

I laugh helplessly every time I see this movie, and even when I think about it. Alan Arkin is the perfect terrified foil for the crazy-seeming Falk who claims to be with the CIA. The two go on an outrageous adventure ending up in front of a firing squad of a Central American dictator who acts as a ventriloquist for his talking hand. 

The smog filled, traffic clogged time-clocked community of Johannesburg, South Africa, doesnít look any more inviting than the barren existence of the water-scarce vastness of the Kalahari where the Bushmen live in "The Gods Must Be Crazy." On to their land falls an empty coke bottle, thrown from an airplane. 

At first it is a wonderful tool with many uses, then, the Kalahari find themselves fighting over a possession and getting angry with one another for the first time in their lives, So one of the tribal fathers decides to go to the ends of the earth and give it back to the gods who must have dropped it. His journey runs him into an endearing biologist who becomes a clumsy oaf in front of women (especially the new schoolteacher), and some marauding rebels from another African country. All of the characters in this movie (except the marauding rebels) are lovable, even the fire extinguishing rhinoceros. 

I am not a big moviegoer, so I am sure there are other great movies I have missed, but all of these are very satisfying. I am writing about them because I think if you want to give a gift of joy and laughter, these would make wonderful Christmas gifts that hold up time after time.

Science goes back to future or catches up with past
This column was published Dec. 7, 2001

When I went back to college in the 70s, one of my fellow classmates in anthropology kept going on about a new concept in the social sciences called "the systems theory." I had no idea what he was talking about. It seemed to have something to do with computers and networking. 

I listened enrapt, but I have a totally unscientific mind, and the closest I could get was Einsteinís Theory of Relativity, thinking he was talking about how everything was related. Later, when there was much talk about new paradigms, I remembered my friend and what he claimed was a new way of looking at the world via systems.

Some time later I went to a lecture by the author of the Tao of Physics and listened to Fritjof Capra talk about a new way of viewing things scientifically. Instead of looking at a unit, like an atom and trying to analyze it and figure out its function, physics was beginning to look at that unit in relation to other units and its surroundings. You could only tell something about something by its interaction with other somethings. Everything was part of a system. This was the new concept. No more looking at isolated atoms.

More of this came home to me when I was helping Chinese students practice their English. One of them, a doctor, told me how Chinese medicine was different from Western medicine. One of the 
differences was they did not look at the various organs of the body as separate entities to, but rather as parts of a system; thus they consider the 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

kidneys and the lungs and the heart all as part of one system and treat them as such. Chinese medicine, as a result, is more apt to look at the entire unwell person, not just a diseased liver.

And then last Sunday I was listening to Jan Hoffman of The New York Times on C-Span talk about the Timesí running obituaries of all of the people who were killed in the Twin Towers disaster. She said that when she called family members to ask about the life of the person who had been killed, they never talked about the job he or she did, they talked only about that personís relationship to others, their role as father, mother, friend, child or loved one. They never mentioned the victimís work, only about what he/she meant to others.

In a way, I thought, scientific societies have come full circle. Most traditional societies, and certainly Costa Rican society, have always known (and not forgotten) how important systems are, systems like the family and a group of friends, or a neighborhood. The poets also have long known this: "No man is an island," John Donne said it simply.

Watch out! The women are on the march here
This column appeared Nov. 30, 2001

I was in the Cleveland Store last Friday and saw a T-shirt that said: "Take Back the Night." It reminded me of all the women who marched in protest against the dangers they face when they venture out at night. The T-shirt was far too large for me. The woman who wore that, I thought, at least could defend herself. The most help women have gotten over the years is the advice not to go out alone at night. 

Years ago I was on a task force organized to solve the problem of street prostitution in downtown San Jose, California. There were a number of suggested solutions, all aimed at greater punishment of the prostitutes, like harassing them when they appeared on the street or giving them longer jail sentences. 

Finally I suggested that instead of harassing the supply, go after the demand and harass any man who was on the street without a woman. Without a market, the prostitutes would go away, I said, and I pointed out that that would also reduce the attacks on women who were out at night alone. I expected kudos from the other task force members, most of whom were men, for my free market capitalistic solution. Instead, my idea was greeted with derisive laughter and indignation at the very idea of restricting menís freedom of movement.

Leaving the Cleveland store, I walked to Avenida Segunda. There was a march getting organized. Costa Rican women were protesting the violence against them, mostly domestic violence. 

Homemade signs said: "The women of Costa Rica wish to live without violence." A contingency of women from Golfito was there with a sign that said: "To live without violence is a right." Two women carried a sign saying, "Lesbians against Violence." All of these signs were, of course, in Spanish. 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

There was a group of school children, another of policewomen. There were old women and young. Most of the women looked poor, but not all. Their faces had something in common, a personal knowledge of what they were protesting, I thought. I had to fight back the tears when I thought of what they all had been through to be here. 

When I saw one woman dragging a roughly made cross, I began foraging for my hanky. She was also carrying a very heavy looking backpack. Actually, what saved me from tears was my first and rather irreverent thought, which was of Ginger Rogers, who not only had to dance as well as Fred Astaire, she had to do it backwards, and in high heels. 

Still, I wondered how much good this march would do? Are women any safer on the street at night? Maybe they never will be, but in the U.S. there are many more shelters for abused women than there used to be and the laws have become more favorable. At the moment there are only two shelters for abused women in all of Costa Rica, but slowly the laws are changing, and with each march, women will gain courage from each other. 

I donít know what the woman with the cross meant her message to be, but the message I got was that women have not been given just a cross to bear, but a backpack to boot. Fortunately, we have the strength and endurance to carry both.

Everyone should have someone at Thanksgiving
This column was published Nov. 23, 2001

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I like it because itís one holiday that seems to have no axe to grind; that is, itís just about sharing food and being glad to be alive. I have had some wonderful Thanksgivings in my life, and the best ones included having at the table someone who otherwise would have been alone. Thanksgiving is a time to bring in orphans and share.

This year Iím very lucky, Iím having Thanksgiving with Jean and Rich. But my first Thanksgiving in Costa Rica was a pretty sad affair. I had not been here long, felt I didnít know anyone well enough to invite to a Thanksgiving dinner, nor was I invited. I was feeling pretty lonely and sorry for myself. So I did what I used to do as a child when my world was not going well ó I went to bed, hoping that tomorrow would be better.

On this particular Thanksgiving I was living in a small apartment in Sabanilla, and I crawled into bed as soon as it was dark. I actually went to sleep but was awakened around nine oíclock by the thumping of a drum and the strumming of a bass. Somewhere nearby someone was having a party or playing one very loud CD. Earplugs werenít working. Besides I was hungry. I had gone to bed without supper. I really wanted a turkey dinner, but it was my own fault. I hadnít done anything to get one.

Sleep was out of the question. I remembered that casinos had recently opened in San José. Many years ago I worked as a keno runner in a Lake Tahoe casino. They are great places to go and just hang out. People are there, and a woman alone at night has no problems. I dressed and walked across the road to the bus stop, conveniently close. In no time I was going skyward in the elevator to the 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

17th floor of the Holiday Inn to the Aurola Casino, one of the first casinos to open in San José. I walked over to the roulette table and stood for a moment watching a lone young woman play. 

"Come join me," she invited. "Maybe we can gang up on this croupier." 

Soon we were chatting away and having a good time in spite of our losing. Iíve forgotten her name, so I will call her Pricilla. She was from Santa Barbara, California. After a short while, her companion came over from the rummy table. Pricilla introduced us. I shall call him Miles. We confessed that we were losing but having a good time. He said, "Well, Iíve just won nearly $400. Time to quit and have dinner." I began to say my goodbyes. Pricilla asked me if I had had dinner. No, I confessed, I had not.

"Please wonít you join us for dinner if we can get something like dinner at this hour"

I said I would be delighted to, and the three of us went into the dining room, on the same floor as the casino. There on the menu was a complete Thanksgiving dinner, which they were still serving. Costa Rican restaurants had just begun to attempt American-style Thanksgiving dinners, so it was not the best I have ever eaten, but it was one of the best Thanksgivings I remember. 

One way to overcome the fear of flying and not use scotch
This column was published Nov. 16, 2001

My sister, Annetta, sent me a column from the Toledo Blade by Tom Ensign lamenting his difficulties with air travel. In spite of having insurance, he had trouble getting a refund when he had to cancel his flight to California. I recently traveled from here to California and back, having to change my flight schedule, and Continental gave me no problem. They couldnít have been nicer. And I didnít have mishap insurance. 

Twenty-five years ago I suffered from a crippling fear of flying ó the kind that necessitated a double scotch even at 8:00 in the morning in order to board the plane. Finally I got tired of arriving at my destination with a hangover and decided I had to do something if I was going to continue to fly. I did finally come upon a cure.

Back in those days they had machines in the airports where you could buy flight insurance on the spot, mail a copy to the recipient and a copy to the insurance company. I had regular insurance for family through my credit card, but I would buy an extra $50,000 policy and send it to a casual friend, someone who would never expect it. 

As I white-knuckled through the take-off (the time I had learned was the most dangerous), I began my little fantasy. The plane was going to crash. That was a given, and I ran through that scenario quickly. Then my thoughts jumped to my friend going to the mailbox and discovering he or she was the recipient of $50,000 they never expected. I savored the thrill they would experience, the total surprise that it was I who was their benefactor. Then I thought about all the things this person was going to do with this wonderful windfall. A trip, a new house ($50,000 was a lot of money back then), some realization of a dream. I was responsible, and I was going to be remembered for a long, long time. 

Once the plane was leveled at cruising speed, I was practically euphoric. When the pilot announced we were about to land (a very dangerous time, so of course, we were going to crash), I went back into my daydream. 

Usually the result of these flights was a telephone call from that friend to ask me if I had made a 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

mistake or something. When I explained my motive, they usually said, "Anytime, happy to be of service ó you nut."

With time I no longer needed to take out the insurance policy. Perhaps I had been conditioned to expect the plane to land, perhaps it was because many people confessed they had mixed feelings about my safe arrival. Whatever, it worked and I no longer am afraid of flying, even today.

However, I dislike flying intensely. Trains and ships are much more civilized. Train stations are usually in the middle of the city. You walk out, and youíre there. Ships make up for their location by the fanfare of boarding. I love dining on a train, and even on a ship, even though I may toss my meal later. Flying has only one advantage: speed, and sometimes I wonder at that, when you add up the hours before and after the flight.

First I must travel to the airport (naturally, out of town) and be there two hours beforehand, then walk, with luggage for sometimes six city blocks, to get to my gate. Then I am wedged into a narrow seat (how do people who weigh thirty pounds more than I fit?) 

By the time I have finished my meal and am sitting there trapped by my tray like a toddler in a highchair, I feel like throwing a tantrum. I guess some people do. So far I have heard of no road rage on trains or ships. I keep hoping someone will wise up and 1) start building a transcontinental railroad from here to Alaska and south to Chile, and 2) reinstate travel by ship. Once you could. 

My neighbor, Denyse, has crossed the ocean thirty times by ship. She has nothing but fond memories of those trips. Today we have forgotten that getting there is half the fun. Thatís really what life is about, isnít it? 

A well-deserved retreat into the pages of books
This column was published Nov. 9

Iíve been in the United States, which means I have been visiting my daughter, which means I have been surrounded by books. We share a love of books; the main difference being that she loves to buy new books and I love to buy old books. 

When I come to visit, we always make a visit to Vromanís, her favorite bookstore, and she always takes me to at least one used book store where I can look for an old gem. 

On the table next to my bed there is a stack of books she either thinks I would like or that I should read. This time I found the latest issue of "The American Scholar." (My favorite essayist is Joseph Epstein who used to be the editor of that magazine.) 

The books include, "Strong Women Stay Slim," (sheís been trying for years to get me to do aerobics), "20 Minute Yoga Workouts" (Iíve been trying for years to get her interested in yoga); "God has 99 Names", a report on the contentious Middle East by Judith Miller, "Inside the CIA." So I can find out how much or how little they really have been screwing up. And for my further reading pleasure, thereís "Walkiní the Dog," a Mosley mystery, and a medical thriller, "The Patient" by Michael Palmer, as well as a charming novelette about a shop girl by Steve Martin.

The fact that there is also a nice large TV in my room precludes the possibility of my getting through this stack in a two-week visit. But I do enjoy the experience of waking up to them, of simply holding them and running my hands over their smooth glassy covers and opening them to read a page or two to get a sense of the writing. I will probably finish two.

Downstairs I like to browse in their library ó the only room so far that has not been finished in this new (albeit old) house of theirs ó so there are hundreds of books stacked here and there that donít fit into the current shelves. 

Tom, my son-in-law, is a history buff, and on one 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

side of the room I can read titles from "The Twelve Caesars" to Tom Brokawís "The Greatest Generation," and probably every book ever written by and about Winston Churchill (They named their first dog, a female, Winston). I think Tom is really a history professor masquerading as a very successful lawyer.

On the shelves in the living room are wonderful tomes like an encyclopedia of the brain that tells me everything I ever asked about the limbic system or "The Oxford Companion to the Mind," and a book of personal essays (in that one I read Epsteinís "I like a Gershwin Tune," a delightful essay on the music he grew up with, music written when lyrics were a bit more sophisticated).

In my daughterís office are all the books that would interest a writer, reference books and dictionaries, writersí markets, plus books about and by women and a number of choice novels. Even the family room has books on the coffee table. One tells you how to do things many of us have forgotten how to, like set a proper table or dance the waltz. And, of course, thereís a large bookcase in the kitchen just for cookbooks, many now on vegetarian cooking. 

So I have many havens I can retreat to and lose myself when the news gets too depressing or confusing, and I get tired of trying to figure things out (like when is a weapon evil, or better yet, when is it not? And should innocent people on either side be willing to die for a greater good?) Then Iíll happily retreat to the pages of something like, "Trans-Sister Radio," a novel by Chris Bohjalian about a transexual who becomes a lesbian, which is also on my bed table. My mind can deal with that.

Retirement is even better here in small pond Costa Rica
This column was published Nov. 2, 2001

Unexpected Gifts 

When they retire, most people probably are able to involve themselves in a hobby they have long had (like growing roses or repairing furniture). But I have never been a hobby person.

The only hobby I ever had was making up Double Crostics, something few people have ever heard of and even fewer ever want to solve. Given free time, I am a game player ó especially games like charades, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuits. Reading is such an important part of my life I don't consider it a pastime. 

One of the surprising rewards of living in Costa Rica has been being able to return to the things I loved doing years ago ó like writing a column for a newspaper and acting, both of which I did when I was in college. Off and on through the years, I have acted in little theater Ggroups (and once was part owner of a legitimate theater in Hollywood), have written for newsletters and even wrote a health column for women. But all of that was many years ago. I didn't expect to get back to these things when I retired. 

I moved to Costa Rica pretty much the way I have made any of my past 50 or so moves: I threw myself into the new pond to see if I could swim. Once here, recovering from job burnout and becoming adjusted to a new culture, making new friends and getting settled took time and energy, but when I finally raised my nose above water, I realized I could act (not in the theater sense) instead of react. 

Making friends in Costa Rica has been easier than in any of the cities I have lived in before, in part because the foreigners who live here are already preselected. We all have in common the desire and willingness to try a new culture, to venture into a bit of the unknown. And then, because Costa Rica is really a small town, you dare to try something that might have intimidated you in your own country. 

I had the good luck to work with the cast and crew of "Ten Little Indians," the Little Theater Groupís latest production. Our ages ranged from 17 to 74, 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

and we were a wonderfully compatible group. We 
came from at least five countries, including Costa Rica. Most of us had lived in more than one country, in places as far flung as the Canadian Arctic, New Zealand and Africa. 

Everyone seemed to have lived singularly interesting lives. Yet, those of us who were retired agreed that this was the best time of our lives. This has given me something to think about lately. Although being retired is a happy condition in itself, living in Costa Rica has a great deal to do with our sense of well-being.

I've been thinking about what I have here: a beautiful and peaceful country unlikely to be threatened by another world power, large or small, a host country whose citizens are gracious and charming, a climate that requires no air conditioning or heating, a great variety of good food at reasonable prices. These are all conditions that contribute to the good life. 

Having solved the problem of bureaucratic red tape and other frustrations by simply not owning anything except essentials, I am generally unhassled by the minutiae of living. Here, I am free of the subtle pressure to be a consumer. (I am eternally grateful that no Fifth Avenue window dresser has come here to work on window displays in San Jose.) I have the time and opportunity to make and enjoy friends. How does that song go? . . . "Iíve got the sun in the morning . . ." 

If I want to, in one day I can watch the sun dawn over the Atlantic and watch it sink into the Pacific at sunset. It is very easy to be content in Costa Rica. 

Can we dare to do something new this time?
This column was published Oct. 26, 2001

The military has a saying, "Don't prepare to fight the last war." That indeed was what G. Bush & Co. was doing when the administration kept insisting a missile defense shield was necessary to defend against a likely attack from a rogue (and well-heeled) nation that was willing to risk mutual destruction. That was a variation on the Cold War. 

Now our ritual bombing of Kabul, a city already decimated by war, continues in this vein. About the only thing left standing in Afghanistan is its people. The last thing we wanted to do was kill them in our attacks because that would weaken both our tenuous alliances with other countries and our claim that we are not fighting Muslims. 

Unfortunately, that has already happened, if we are to believe the reports from Afghanistan. The tragedy of all of this is that neither our bombing war nor our pursuit of bin Laden, either as a criminal or a war lord, is going to work ó not if we are to believe history. 

Our history lessons come from Vietnam and even our own Revolutionary War. (the parallels to both are several) and Israel. Our Revolutionary soldiers hid in the woods and fired upon rows of English soldiers marching in red uniforms. The British complained that we were not fighting fairly. The colonists ignored their complaints and won their independence. 

Our goal of routing out terrorism and defeating it once and for all will be as successful as the Israelis have been. For all their harsh punishment of terrorists, have they diminished the threat one iota? The most we can hope for is to kill the present terrorists and be prepared for the children who will grow up to avenge their fathers. 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

One of the saddest and most frightening things I have heard about the present situation is that most of the founding members of the Taliban are the orphans of the war against Russia. Orphans grow up with no one to love them and no one to teach them to love. They have nothing to lose. That is fertile ground for mass murderers. And this coming conflict is going to ó has already ó produced more orphans on both sides. They are our future. 

As quixotic as it may seem, the only solution seems to be to talk, to listen, to negotiate. I hear everyone saying there is no negotiating with either the Taliban or bin Laden. They can say the same about the U.S. George Bush has said that nothing is negotiable: Turn over bin Laden and his lieutenants and his camps or else. Maybe if Bush can back down, so will they. 

What I do know is that we are not fighting for land. What we must do is win the minds and hearts of bin Ladin's followers (he is a lost cause). We are not going to do that by bombing them into a living hell. We have tried to drop food packages as well as bombs, but our compassionate aid is not reaching them, either because our bombs are, or the Taliban is getting most of it.   There is another saying that goes: If you keep doing what you have always done, you will keep getting the results you have always gotten. Violence begets violence. We know the results. Why not dare to do something new? 

Writing about the bad things in Costa Rica important, too
This column was published 19 October 2001
Taxista advice 

I had a chatty taxi driver the other day. I couldnít believe my luck when he stopped at the light on Avenida Segunda next to the National Theater in a downpour. I was grateful, and I told him so.

By the time we were halfway home he knew I was here alone, had two children in the States and wrote about Costa Rica for A.M. Costa Rica. When he asked what I wrote about, I  told him about the city, the parks, the ferias, the kindness of the Costa Rican people. After a bit he said, "Yes, but you must also write about the bad things, too, or tourists will come here expecting only good things and get into trouble and never want to come back." 

So, Señor Taxista, here are some of the bad things ó well, maybe. Tourists want to know  about the beaches and the rain and cloud forests (in case you wondered, a cloud forest is just a rain forest with an altitude), and hotels and stuff outside the city. And it is true when my friends say I am a "city girl" (a figure of speech), I would be as happy spending time in the seven greatest cities in the world as I would gazing at the seven wonders of the natural  world . . . well, nearly. 

Let me start by saying that one of the more unfortunate things to happen in Costa Rica was President Jose Maria Figueresí announcement upon becoming president, that if rich Americans, et al., could afford to spend $700 to come to Costa Rica, they could afford to pay $15 to see its wonderful national parks. 

Granted, the fees to enter the national parks was  ridiculously low, but $15 for each? I winced when I heard this because I knew what would happen. Every small hotel owner, every pension and bed-and-breakfast owner ó  everybody in the tourist business ó thought, "If they can pay $15 to see a park, they can pay more than the $20 (or whatever nice low price) they are paying for what I have." 

And prices went up all over Costa Rica, without a concomitant rise in the quality of service, 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Justin, a street child, mugs for the camera
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

accommodations or product. Suddenly, Costa Rica 
was no longer the reasonable destination of natural wonders and beautiful people. 

The only thing that went down was the number of  tourists who came to visit. It took a few years and a change in policy to recover from that, but prices, I think, are still too high. (Although with the world situation the way it is now,  and hearing that the government is suggesting that hotels lower their prices, I suggest you negotiate.)

Another unfortunate (unfortunate is too tame a word ó tragic is better) turn of events is the  increase in the number of homeless children on the streets. This, too, involves the government action, or lack of it. With the withdrawal of money for the Salvation Army shelters, some 200 children were simply dumped onto the streets. 

If you walk in San Jose early in the morning, you will see the youngsters, not in groups, but in lonely, and probably hungry, isolation, huddled in doorways or under cardboard near trash, waking up from a nightmare night. It is scary when a country gives up on its children.

Apropos of childrenís shelters: I thought one very regrettable statement was made by the manager of the refuge when a government representative commented that it was smelly and not very clean. Major John Mowers said that they didnít want to make the accommodation "so nice that kids donít care about improving their situation." (Quoted in Tico Times, July 6,  2001). 

Most of these kids have moved from abusive unloving (and probably dirt-poor) homes to the streets and then the shelter. What is there in their life as a model to inspire a move to, say, a one-bedroom apartment with a jacuzzi? You should give them the best you can so they learn to be comfortable in nice surroundings and to want to take care of it, and dream of duplicating or making it even better. This is not to criticize what Major Mowers was doing. I applaud that. I am sure he regrets that statement.

Well, I have come to the end of my column and I havenít really responded to the advice of my kind taxista. I would have asked him to give me some ideas, but by then we had arrived home and he had a living to make in the rain and I wanted to dry off in my apartment.  Maybe next time.

The times they are achanging: 200 new motorcycles for police
This column ran Oct. 12, 2001

Shortly after I first came to Costa Rica, I was downtown on Avenida Segunda right after a football game which Costa Rica had won. I was trying to find my bus stop. People were filling the street, celebrating, yelling, drinking beer, congratulating each other. Cars could not move; people could barely move. I looked around. Not a policeman in sight. Where, I shouted at someone, are the police? I wanted order, although I had to admit, no one was acting in a threatening manner; nothing was getting out of hand.

Someone shrugged. "The police have to celebrate, too," he said.

This was before police had uniforms, so who could tell? Costa Rica had no army and didnít want its police force to get any ideas by giving them guns and letting them wear uniforms.

Iíve never forgotten the positive energy I felt, the lack of hostility, even in a big crowd. Usually a walk downtown cheers me up. Especially when I am blue, the combination of the exercise and the benign bustle of people lifts my spirits. But the other day, for the first time, being downtown depressed me. I had been feeling fine before I walked onto Avenida Central.

First I encountered six brown garbed police persons standing in a circle talking to each other. I thought, no, no, you should be looking out for the pedestrians. I walked farther along the Avenue and beheld dozens of police in spanking new blue uniforms and, beyond them, row after row of blue motorcycles, also spanking new. They filled two blocks of Avenida Central. 

I asked one of the uniformed finest what was this all about? (I have always found the police here most willing to inform lowly civilians about what is going on. When the Nicaraguan Embassy was taken hostage some years ago, the police standing outside the yellow tape surrounding it, were most forthcoming in keeping me up to date as I stopped on my way downtown). 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Now I was informed that the police department had just received 200 new motorcycles. My heart sank. Are there enough police to fill those motorcycles, I asked? Oh yes, he allowed. But they are all on foot now. My heart sank further. No more walking patrols, even if they often seemed to be talking to each other, they were there and visible and I felt safer with them around. I counted five new buses. Big buses, complete with metal mesh windows. But we have so much traffic now, I said, how will these buses and motorcycles fit in the streets? He smiled reassuringly. Thatís why we also have some Vespas and smaller motor bikes, he said. Arggh! 

Every one of the newly uniformed police also had a shiny new helmet. I want them to be safe, but how can they see much with those helmets and visors? And if they see anything, like a street mugger, can they just dump their motorcycle and give chase on foot? 

I tried to look pleased. There was even a clown twisting balloons in various shapes to help celebrate. I was becoming depressed. Then, following some signal which I missed, the blue garbed police mounted their shiny blue motorcycles and revved them ready to go. 

In a few moments our lovely car-free promenade was filled with blue smoke and a bad smell. Pedestrians, including myself, covered their faces, some with the necks of their tee shirts, others with their hands. Would these motorcycles, I wondered, be allowed to go up and down this mall on a regular basis? 

The one thing I did not ask the other day was who paid for all these new buses and motorcycles ó and uniforms? 

Here's a great rediscovery of an elegant French restaurant
This column first was published Oct. 5. 2001

Although French restaurants seem to have gone out of vogue with the advent of nouveau cuisine and food lite, two of the best and oldest restaurants in San Jose are French. One of them is Le Chandelier.

I discovered the Chandelier only a couple of months ago, long after it moved from Paseo Colon to Los Yoses (or San Pedro, depending how you look at it). I have eaten there four times only. It is not within my price range for a regular event. But if you want a special treat (or have plenty of money) I highly recommend it. 

The restaurant has been in business for over 13 years, under the management of Swiss owner Claudio DuBuis. Its  present location, 100 meters west and 100 south of the I.C.E. building in San Pedro, once must have been a very elegant and very large private home. 

I counted six small dining rooms (one for non-smokers), each elegant and cozy where diners  might be the only ones there. (Like dining at home with your own butler and chef). The menu is not extensive, but includes  fish, seafood and meats, and each day there are specials. 

I had the best time there when I went with my friend Avery. We ordered their special caesar salad (it has bacon and mushrooms) to share and then the salmon grille zaballon de campagne y hongos (4,850 colons), each bite of which is a sensuous  experience. 

The sauce is light and seductive. Avery ordered one of the specials, langostinos, which were around 10,000 colons. We shared. All main courses include potatoes and julienned vegetables as well as a further side dish of vegetables, and their special homemade bread. In short, you get a lot for your money. 

Their wine list is extensive, including wines from France, Chile, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. I chose our wine: a Baron de  Rothschild Merlot, which was the least expensive and lovely at 6,700 colones. I eschewed the most expensive at 152,475  colons. 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Didnít even bother to write it down for further reference.

What I found so amazing about Le Chandelier is that there are also three large salones de fiestas for special parties of up to 100 and the restaurant is a lunch stop for busloads of tourists who are efficiently welcomed and fed (usually a salad, a main course of fish, meat or chicken and dessert with tea or wine) for about $12 each. 

When you are sitting in one of the charming dining rooms enjoying exquisite service and superlative food, you donít expect such a big operation, but rather a small boutique type restaurant, which it evidently started out as and has managed to keep that quality.

Another charming thing about a restaurant like Le Chandelier (and Costa Rica) was the incident before we entered. A car was  blocking my ability to get on to the sidewalk in front. After the car had moved, the gentleman who had gotten out of it waited for me to go into the restaurant first, so that he could apologize (in perfect English) for delaying my entry. 

He looked familiar, so when we were seated, I asked our waiter who he was. The charming gentleman turned out to be former President of  Costa Rica, Sr. Rafael Angel Calderone Fournier.

Le Chandelier is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, Dinner only on Saturdays and closed on Sunday. You can phone them at 225-3980 (but donít be afraid to go there without a reservation).

A funny thing happened on the way to the theater
This column was first published Sept. 28, 2001

This is a true story. At any rate, Say, the charming young man who told me this story, said it was true. Actually, he said, "I donít even know you, why would I lie to you?" A question with many interesting ramifications.

The story came about as we were both eating Angie Theologosí delicious bocas at the exhibition of her husband, Jimís, lively paintings. Which is to say, we were standing on the mezzanine floor of the Centro Cultural in Los Yoses. 

I was explaining to Say how to get to the Little Theatre in Bello Horizonte where the LTG is presenting Agathe Christieís "Ten Little Indians" (which, by the way, opens tonight at 7:30 and runs for three weekends).

"You know where Los Anonos is?" I asked. He nodded. "Well, you go over the bridge ó the suicide bridge ó on the old road to Escazu." Then I blushed and apologized for my insensitive comment. Say is a Tico.

"Thatís all right," he assured me. "We call it that, too." Say, it turned out, is an emergency management technician ó a rescue worker. We both agreed that there are times when you make jokes and laugh in order not to cry. He told me that one night his crew was called out on a report that someone had jumped from that bridge. When they arrived, they saw a man lying on the rock below ó the "target rock," they called it, because that is where the unfortunate people usually landed. They looked down from the bridge before heading down and saw that the person was moving. He was still alive!

They hurried down and got to the rock, and there was this man sitting there holding his wrist. "My wrist hurts," he said.

The stunned crew examined him, had him stand up. He seemed to be perfectly fine except for a broken wrist.

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

"Did you go off the bridge?" they asked.

He said that he had, but that on his way down, a gust of wind came and lifted him up and he had floated the last six meters or so. "My wrist hurts," he complained again. He seemed unimpressed with his miraculous trip.

The crew helped him back up to the bridge where an ambulance and the police were waiting. There, the police informed him that after his broken wrist had been attended to, he was under arrest. Attempting suicide is against the law in Costa Rica, as it is in some other countries. It would be interesting to attend his trial, I thought. With his luck, he would get off because there were no witnesses, and who would know if he jumped or was just testing some scientific phenomenon?

That was the story that Say told me. Now I wonder if perhaps it isnít just part of a folklore known as "Urban Legend." And maybe saying "Why would I lie to you, I donít even know you?" is the Tico way of letting you know your leg is being pulled.

However, the truth is "Ten Little Indians" does open tonight, and the best way to get to the theater from San Jose is over the Los Anonos bridge and take the first left into Bello Horizonte, go to the dogleg intersection and take the left leg, go about two blocks. 

On your right behind the gate is a pink house with the letters BROWN LTG over the garage door. And you can still enjoy Jimís paintings at the Centro Cultural, but Angieís bocas are all gone.

If the world were according to Stuart
(This column was published Aug. 31, 2001)

Humans are definitely not the end of the evolutionary line. If we were, we would have four  arms, not just two. 

I think of this every time I have to put down my two bags of groceries in order to turn the key and the knob of my door simultaneously. 

Even before we came down from the trees (assuming we were ever up in the trees) life would have been easier with four arms. I thought about this again the other day when I was downtown and saw a man carrying a brief case, trying to talk on a cell phone and open an umbrella. 

Speaking of cell  phones, drivers on cell phones would not be such a hazard to others if they had four arms. Come to think of it, a Lamarckian could argue that the ubiquitous use of cell phones will  promote the advent of a human species with four arms.

Joy would be added to life. Just think of the din of appreciation that would follow a  performance of our wonderful National Orchestra. (Just imagine a piano concerto!) If she had  had four arms, the Smothers Brothers mother could have hugged both of them at the same  time, and avoided all that sibling rivalry. As a matter of fact, all mothers could use four  arms. How often has a mother said, "Youíll have to wait, I only have two hands, you know."  Hugging might become an art form. 

If we had four arms, we could be a lot more efficient.. Ticos could wash their hands and  brush their teeth at the same time during lunch hour (and maybe the rest of us would pick  up the habit). Politicians would be able to shake twice as many hands during their campaigns  ó or would they be shaking hands and reaching into our pockets at the same time? 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

A traffic  policeman could direct all four corners at once. A surgeon would not have to say, "Scalpel,  please." He/she could get it him/herself. (The English language isnít perfect, either). Roulette players could place twice as many bets before the croupier calls "no mas apuestos. Manos afueras!" Croupiers could gather the chips faster (we could all lose money faster). Bridge  players could sort their cards much faster and thus get more games in on a rainy afternoon.

I could be typing this and eating my lunch at the same time.

Of course, there is always a downside to great ideas. Having four arms would be of absolutely  no use to soccer players (who might even argue that four legs would be more desirable), but  think of all the other sports having four arms would benefit. Learning which arm to put in a sweater first would take twice as long. President Bush would have even more problems with pledging allegiance to his flag, and pickpockets would probably flourish even more than they  do today..

Like all great ideas, this one is not entirely new. The Hindus, perhaps having seen the future, have their god Shiva, who is often depicted with four arms. Of course, Shiva also has a  third eye. Iíll have to think about the advantages of that and get back to you.

Jo Stuart discusses being smart on the street
(This column was published Sept. 7, 2001)

Street Smart

I am not. But having been pickpocketed three times, having had a necklace ripped from my neck and having heard the stories of other peopleís misfortunes on the streets of San José, I have learned a few things. 

First of all, I advise everyone to do what I did not do: report it to the police. Like most other people, I figured it would be useless because the police couldn't do anything, and it would just take a lot of futile time and paperwork. However, according to the theory of critical mass, with all of us reporting our misfortunes, the police might decide that it would be more interesting to go after the perps than to process more paperwork. 

And now some cautionary advice: Women should clutch their purses firmly, and if it is a shoulder bag, if possible hang it across your chest. Men, never carry your wallets in your back pockets. Beware if someone in front of you "accidentally" drops his/her backpack or whatever they are carrying. Immediately clutch your handbag or wallet. 

His cohort is behind you ready to rob you in the

confusion. Men, beware of an attractive woman who seems to want your attention. While the two of you are smiling at each other and otherwise occupied, her partner in crime is going for your wallet. And you all probably know about the spot on your jacket ploy. If somebody "accidentally" spills something on you, before they can begin to wipe it off, run. 

For women, if you are in a crowded bus and a young man becomes charmingly chummy and chats with you, make sure your purse is zipped up. He is after whatís in it. And he is very clever at removing a wallet without your knowing it. 

I would love to witness the modern day version of Faginís School for Pickpockets. They are getting better and better at it. Muggers are different. Carolyn, who is pretty streetwise, insists that muggers are, in fact, very stupid. So, she says, what you should do is ask them a question and, while they are figuring out the answer, you run. 

If they have a weapon, she says you should throw your wallet as far as you can and, while they are going after it, you run. She may be right, I have bought another wallet to carry for throwing, but the only question I can think of so far is

"Excuse me, but when do you get off work?" 

Second-hand terrorism is a danger, too
(This column ran Sept. 14, 2001)

Black Smoke Tuesday

Tuesday morning when I got up at 6 a.m. I decided for the first time in several months, not to watch the news. Instead, I turned to C-Span where a program on the environment was in progress. The CEO of some big company in Texas had become an environmentalist and was explaining the dangers of our way of life. I remember he said that we eat only three times a day and breathe thousands of times. Yet we are more concerned about what goes in our stomachs than what goes in our lungs. If we continue to pollute our air, he said, we are headed for extinction. 

Just then a friend called and said, "Are you watching the news?" I turned to CNN and began watching the horror unfold. When I saw people trying to protect their lungs from the dust, smoke and debris of the decimated Trade Center, I couldn't help thinking about the environmentalistís words. War of any kind is bad for the lungs. 

Sometime during the morning I surfed through various channels - mainly foreign language stations - to see what they were covering. All of them were reporting on the tragedy unfolding in New York. Then I clicked on the food channel. There was 

Molto Mario cooking and explaining Italian dishes as only he can. I thought about the phrase, "comfort food." I  wanted to keep watching Mario, to just pretend that there was nothing more important on the TV than learning a recipe. 

I wanted to find the comfort I always seem to find watching people cook. It is curious that of all our basic needs, only food is associated with the adjective "comfort." There is no such phrase as "comfort air," or "comfort sex" or "comfort sleep." 

I switched back to a channel with the repeated image of the World Trade Tower collapsing in a cloud of killer dust and debris and thought that many people would find great comfort in a bit of fresh air. I hoped that there would be many more who survived and that evening, would be able to eat mashed potatoes, or spaghetti sauce, or a taco, or a hamburger, or peanut butter or chocolate - whatever would comfort them.

In the afternoon I returned to the food channel. Instead of the happy picture of a capable cook making delicious looking food, there were these words on a black background: "Due to the nature of todayís tragic events, Food Network is suspending programming. Our thoughts go out to the victims and their family." So do mine.

A tumble on a bus highlights how life changes 
This column was published Sept. 21, 2001

What doesn't kill you . . . .

The other day I visited my friend Bill in the Clinica Biblica. Among other things, we talked about how life can change in a flash. One minute you are a relatively secure on the merry-go-round of your life, and the next, youíre out on the floor, tossed from a horse, or hit by a car, and life becomes a roller-coaster with you painfully aware of your new vulnerability.

I left him with those cheerful thoughts and hurried toward Avenida 10, arriving at the corner at the same time as the Sabana Cementerio bus. I waved, not believing the bus driver would stop, but he did, and I climbed on, thanking him. 

I had taken two steps when suddenly the bus lurched forward with such force I went flying backwards, off my feet and out of my shoes, landing on the hump next to the driver, then down the stairs, head first. Several pairs of arms were grabbling me, attempting to put me upright.

"Cuidado, cuidado," I cried, sure something was broken and that pulling me up was not a good idea. But pull me up, they did and put me in a seat vacated by a young woman who was my main rescuer. She was gathering up the various things that had spilled from my purse, which I was more concerned about than my underwear. I became aware that the bus was moving at a tremendous speed. 

Just then the bus swerved from Avenida 10 onto Calle 5. The movement caused a spasm of pain and I could hear myself whimpering. I tried to sit up straight and show some dignity and whimpered again from another stab of pain. 

Suddenly we pulled to a thumping stop in front of the Caja. Heís won whatever race he was running, I thought. With some effort I stood up, preparing to leave. I searched in my wallet for bus fare, and 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

proffered it to the driver (just like we tip the hairdresser who has just made a mess of our hair). 

The driver waved the money away and told me to sit down. He said he would let me off at San Juan de Dios Hospital. The passengers became a chorus insisting I go to the hospital and make a denuncio. The driver wrote down his name and bus number so I could report him. I told the solicitous crowd that I would go to my own clinic. That satisfied everyone, and painfully I began to get off. A kind Chinese gentleman rushed forward to help me.

I sat down on the bus stop bench in a daze. I marveled at how clearly I seemed to remember every second on the bus. And, aside from the bad luck of having boarded the bus in the first place, how lucky I was! I had hit the soft part of my back, not my spine or my head. Nothing seemed to be broken.

Somewhat giddy, I hailed a taxi and headed home and soon to bed. The next day I felt a lot worse so my friend and neighbor, Darrylle, took me to Calderone hospital where I explained my situation. (In the States by now, I probably would have been explaining it to a lawyer.) 

In a short time I was called to a room labeled "Consultorio de Choque." In less than an hour I was examined, x-rayed, given a prescription for pain and inflammation and on my way. I would walk for a while, I decided. Thatís what the old me would have done.