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Even paradise has its problems
This column was published Nov. 29

I was talking with my new friend, Willa. We were sitting in her car which was gridlocked with other cars somewhere near the toll booth on the autopista. Willa was talking through a white doctor’s mask. I was talking from behind my hand. 

Both of us were trying not to breathe in too much of the fumes from the cars. Her Tico driver, Olman, seemed immune. Willa is terrified of driving in the city, so she hires Olman to drive her places. He is one of those rare drivers who doesn’t think his passengers must lurch at every turn and stop to appreciate his driving.

The subject of our conversation was life in Costa Rica, which also included how to understand Ticos. We were in agreement that it was the duty of expats in whatever country they had chosen to learn to adapt to the customs of that country. We also agreed that wasn’t always easy to do. It is my contention that because Costa Ricans look a lot like Americans (many of both of our ancestors come from Europe), we make the erroneous assumption that they think and act like us. That is where the trouble begins. 

Some people will argue that in the final analysis, we are all alike, world over, because people want the same thing: love, security, understanding, peace, etc., the really important things in life. My response is: Perhaps, but the routes we take to get what we want are often very different, and this can be what causes misunderstandings and hostility. It is the journey we must pay attention to.

Willa’s comment that living in Costa Rica was very stressful surprised me. It is the last adjective I would use describing life here in peaceful Costa Rica. Then she pointed out that peaceful is not necessarily synonymous with quiet. The noise level here is far greater than that in the States. That, I admitted, is true.

If it is not the barking dogs, its the car alarm that goes on all night, And if not the alarm, it is the booming music. And in San Jose, the street venders are calling out their wares over the honking horns and other traffic noises.

I won’t even go into the noises in the country. I am getting used to it. But we both have earplugs.

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Willa was lamenting the fact that she no longer can tell whether the person she is dealing with is being helpful and sincere or setting her up. Willa builds houses. My solution to many possible pitfalls is to own nothing and to not carry on a complicated business. She has also been through the classical experience of having someone not call to confirm a tentative meeting as agreed upon. Then have the person simply show up. When she gently reprimanded him, he didn’t respond by apologizing (as expected in the States); he just seemed hurt, or maybe insulted. She couldn’t be sure. 

I told her about the couple (the story was told to me first hand) who invited a Costa Rican couple to dinner at 7 on Friday night. They, of course, were ready by 7 but their guests did not arrive. By 9 p.m. they still had not arrived nor had they called, so the would-be hosts decided to eat. The next evening, they were eating the leftovers when their doorbell rang. It was the Tico couple with a mother-in-law in tow. 

“Oh, dear,” said the hostess. “Our invitation was for last night.” 

“We know,” replied the Tico guest, “But my mother arrived unexpectedly last night and we couldn’t make it. So we decided to come tonight, and bring her!” (like wasn’t that a good idea!) 

The American hosts, needless to say, were nonplussed.

We both finally agreed that an important thing to remember (especially as you are saying to yourself for the 10th time “That doesn’t make sense.”) is that there is logic and there is logic. Not everybody comes to the same conclusion by the same steps. And the cultures that have a different logic from your culture, have managed to exist just as long.

We also agreed that in spite of everything, this Thanksgiving we were thankful to be here.

Do I appreciate my good friend 24-7? Absolutely! 
This column was published Nov. 22, 2002

I have been having problems with my computer. I started getting these messages that my online program was 95 percent filled. That quickly moved to 99 percent before I could figure out what this all meant. 

I had a mental image of my little computer getting red and swelling up like those people in the commercials for anti-gas pills. I knew I had to do something. I erased everything in sight, and nothing changed. Then a friend explained I had to empty my wastebasket. The upshot was I lost all my mail, and I have not been able to respond to some readers. 

So, if the person who asked about an assisted living facility would write me again, I will give him what information I have. And if the person who sent the article about the new anti-Semitism would resend it (but not as an attachment which I seem unable to either save or open), I will read it. And if anyone else has not heard from me and expected to, please write again.

Now that I have taken care of admitting my ignorance, I will proceed. I once worked for a company whose advertising manager would invent a word and use it, then watch (or better, listen) as the word was picked up by others. He told me it was a way of judging his influence over people. President Bush has shown his influence by the number of people who are now using the word “terror” instead of the more appropriate word, “terrorism.” I’ve been told he had trouble pronouncing “terrorism.” Maybe he did it on purpose so that he can wage a war against everything that scares us, even the bogeyman in the closet.

Now I am waiting for his entire administration to start pronouncing “nuclear” as “nucular,” which he seems to prefer. There are other words that, although not invented, get used and picked up until they become meaningless. Like what, you ask?

Well, let’s take “appreciate,” another Bushism. He appreciates everybody for everything for showing up or doing anything. It’s as if his Mother never taught him to say a simple “Thank you.”

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Another word is “absolutely.” Bush didn’t start this, but now everybody on TV when asked a question, doesn’t say. simply, “Yes.” Or even “right,” or “I’d be happy to.” They respond with “Absolutely!” Like “Will you show us how this works?” “Absolutely,” responds the guest. This positive extreme is wearing me out. 

Then there are two overused phrases that seem to have emerged since 9-11. One is “twenty-four seven.” I had to think about that the first time I heard it. Ah, yes, the firemen were working 24-7 to clean up the terrible mess on 9-11. Some company is working 24-7 to improve its product. The government, of course, is doing everything 24-7. To my mind, the only thing we do twenty-four hours a day seven days a week is stay alive. 

At first it was impressive as an exaggerated expression for emphasis. Now it is as commonplace as “forty hours a week.” And finally we have the phrase “My good friend.” This is used mostly by politicians as they refer to another politician (usually of a different party) with whom they are about to disagree. 

Come on, guys, a friend is somebody special, a good friend even more so, and you are insulting those words. Nobody believes you. It does remind me of the phrase “my great and good friend” that Frank Sinatra use to use as a euphemism for the lady he was currently sleeping with. For some reason I like that one, maybe because nothing better has come along.

Remember the movie “Mary Poppins” and “Supercalifrajalisticexpialidocious?” That was not in the book, I am sure, because if it were I would have used it every chance I got. I was kind of an obnoxious know-it-all kid. 

Anyway, we have a great substitute for that word. If someone asks you how things are, answer simply, “Pura vida!” It says it all. 

What I did on my vacation (from politics)
This column was published Nov. 15, 2002

I have not been sulking in my apartment since the election. I turned off my TV at 8:30 on election night, convinced the Republicans would be the winners. The general consensus seems to be that the Democrats forgot that a platform is not only something you stand on, but also something you stand for.

Actually what I have been doing mainly is hanging out sometimes with friends, mostly with myself, and the ants. I’m not talking about the tiny sugar ants, they are always with me. They appear in droves when I drop a crumb or leave a stain on my counter. They clean up and disappear.

I am talking about the big black ones that appear only at night in my bedroom. I usually carry moths and even spiders out to my balcony  to send them on their way, so I cannot believe the cruelty of which I am capable when it comes to ants. (But heavens forbid that I should end a sentence in a preposition).

With all this talk about war, I have been inspired to come up with a more interesting way to kill these ants that race about erratically and seemingly without purpose. I have turned an old book (a paperback) into a bomb.  I aim and drop it on my target. If I miss, I let him live otherwise he is one more dead ant. I just leave him there because I have discovered that ants come back for their dead and wounded and take them home to their hill or wherever they live. I find this very touching.

My friend Ellen once told me that I was better at hanging out than anyone she knew. Ellen seldom hangs out. We met over twenty years ago when she was teaching Political Science at San Jose State and had just become the new coordinator of the Womens Studies Program. She hired me as her part-time secretary while I was in graduate  school. She is the only person I know who actually handles a piece of paper once and sends it along its way.

One summer we went to Greece together and she got the idea for a Womens Studies Institute, a summer study program.  My contribution to that was to say, “Good idea, Ellen, go for it.”

Two summers later The first Institute met on the Island of Mytilini, and I had the pleasure and fun of being a member of her staff. After she left San Jose State, Ellen joined the State Department to become a diplomat in Greece. (Among the tests she had to pass was one where she was given a

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

stack of mail and told to sort and do something with it. They couldn’t believe it when she finished in half the expected time.)

From there she went to the United Nations (can’t remember what she did with them). She left the U.N. to become a Dean at the University of Hawaii in Hilo. Having done that, she and her husband, Jim, moved to Northern California, where Ellen has since written two novels. In between she 
has somehow managed to be there not only for me when I needed her, but for other friends too.

She was the one who orchestrated my stay in the hospital when I had 
breast cancer. I remember Ellen’s career because I have visited her in just about every place she has gone.  We have played scrabble on the beaches of Crete, Hawaii, and Costa Rica, aboard airplanes and boats.

When I first visited Costa Rica to see if I wanted to live here, she came with me on one of my trips. It is the only time I have visited both the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts on the same day. We came at Christmas time even though I told her I had read that it was almost impossible to get reservations at the beaches. 

Undaunted, we rented a car and drove to Tamarindo where we managed to find lodgings with some acquaintances of mine. When we arrived on the East Coast we had no reservations and it was the middle of the afternoon.  Using her powers of persuasion, Ellen talked them into putting us up in their conference room. We spent two nights sleeping on cots in front of 100 folding chairs.

The last time Ellen came to Costa Rica was to celebrate our birthdays in January. She was born on my fifteenth birthday, and I consider her the best present I ever got.

At the moment, as I study the night habits of the large black ants that are invading  my apartment, Ellen is preparing to go to Indonesia for six months on a Fullbright to teach. I guess her last name isn’t Boneparth for nothing. (as in Napoleon)

Help, the country’s going to pot
This column appeared Oct. 25, 2002

Doctors in a number of states in the U.S. are recommending marijuana to their patients. Especially for those who are undergoing debilitating treatment for cancer and other diseases or those with glaucoma and other chronic illnesses and for people who are dying. 

In a number of states, it is legal to use marijuana for medical reasons. Many years ago when I was being treated for cancer, I smoked pot to help me cope with the side effects of the chemotherapy and the dehumanizing process of radiation.

Not only did it minimize the nausea, it helped me mentally and emotionally to handle the situation. I could even laugh with my friends at the ironies of the human condition.

I didn’t take what I was going through personally. For a while scientists in the U.S. were trying to isolate the ingredient in marijuana that reduced nausea so that patients could be treated for that without getting high. This says a lot about the American method of medicine: which evidently trains its doctors to treat the symptoms and illness (or the diseased organ) and ignore the whole patient. 

It calls to mind a telling scene from a movie about the unconventional doctor called Patch. He enters a childrens cancer ward where all of the kids are lying quietly in bed, looking like they are in comas. He begins clowning around and soon the children were sitting up, laughing gleefully. He leaves as a nurse enters and she immediately shushes them all and gets them back to lying down and behaving like proper patients.

Now the U.S. federal government, under the religiously inspired leadership of Attorney General John Ashcroft, is going after medical marijuana. They are confiscating supplies, burning the crops and threatening to arrest people. This, in spite of the fact that it is legal in these states. Their argument is that medical marijuana is the first step in an attempt to make it legal. Or that it is an addictive drug with dangerous side effects. 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

I have met more people who were addicted to prescription tranquilizers and painkillers than to marijuana. And if you watch the drug ads on TV, you begin to realize that some of the side effects are worse than the problem the drug is treating. The upshot of continuing to keep marijuana illegal is that it has hampered any real research into its medicinal qualities. It has also made the growing of hemp for other very useful purposes impossible.

In spite of the growing sentiment that marijuana is a soft drug, that it is the least dangerous of all drugs, the U.S. war on drugs seems to be centering most of its battles on marijuana. Marijuana is a threat to the American way of life in that it causes people to be laid back and uncompetitive, (and happy as long as they have enough munchies), some very un-American qualities. 

Now the U.S. government is carrying its war to Costa Rica. It is supposed to be fighting all kinds of drugs, but it is easier to get the pot growers who are, in most cases, poor and defenseless farmers who find a greater return on their labor cultivating pot. 

I dont know what the current punishment for possession is in Costa Rice is, but I do know there are many people in prison in the States for the nonviolent crime of having small amounts of grass. I suppose I could have gone to prison myself.

I would like to see Costa Rica decriminalize marijuana, but there are some problems. In this land of peace, pura vida, beautiful scenery and friendly people, not to mention ideal climate (and given the unhappy circumstances in the U.S.), if pot were made legal, too many tourists might never leave. 
Then we would have overcrowding and all of the problems that come with that. 

The confusion of a topsy turvy world
This column was published Oct. 18, 2002

The world has gone topsy turvy.  A Republican voted against the resolution to give President Bush a free hand to preemptively attack Iraq. Many of the so-called liberal (liberal seems to mean war is not a solution) Democratic senators voted FOR the resolution.  The CIA and the Russian president agree that Iraq is not an imminent threat. The Bush administration knows differently.  The U.S. fears that Iraq is a threat to peace. The rest of the world seems to fear that the greatest threat to peace is the United States. 

Officials on the East Coast are looking for ways to communicate with the serial sniper, who has become a terrorist, but the administration dismisses out of hand any desire on the part of Saddam to communicate.  (My friend Ron points out that one of the first things police try to do with kidnappers and hostage takers, etc. is to negotiate, but when the stakes are even higher, we refuse to negotiate with terrorists.) 

Time and again the president has said that this is a different kind of war, and he is right, yet we are planning to engage in a traditional war of bombing and invasion. In the administration’s attempt to find the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, they are minimizing the presence of Al Qaeda operatives in other Arab countries.

Meanwhile, the peaceful, tourist mecca of Bali is the latest target of the Al Qaeda terrorists.  I have thought all along that no terrorists would ever attack Costa Rica.  Now, for the first time, I am beginning to think even Costa Rica is not safe.  The terrorists seem to have developed a blood lust, an addiction, if you will.

We keep being asking to hold two conflicting ideas in mind: We are asked to believe simultaneously that the main desire of Saddam Hussein is to stay alive and in power, but that he wouldn’t hesitate to

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

bomb us if and when he gets a nuclear bomb, knowing that we would pulverize him and his country. 

We know that Saddam’s secular Islam is anathema to Bin Laden, but we are asked to believe they wouldn’t hesitate to become allies. The administration seems to most fear weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. So far the terrorists have managed to cause incredible damage, both emotionally and financially, with very low-cost, low technology, low risk methods, I wonder why they would spend the time and money necessary to develop other methods.

And whatever happened to Osama Bin Laden, the guy we were going to get  "dead or alive"?  Our focus on Iraq reminds me of that story of the guy searching under a streetlight.  A passerby asked him what was the matter and he said he had lost his watch.  The passerby started to help him and asked, "Did you lose it around here?"  The first fellow said, "No, but the light is better here."

However, I could be totally wrong.  (And not for the first time.)  There are so many people jumping on the war wagon who do believe that we must act now, they must know something I don’t know.  I just wish they’d tell me so I could stop thinking about all of this and go back to enjoying my retirement.

Meanwhile, I wish Dr. Oscar Arias would visit Saddam and convince him that being without a military is not such a bad idea. 

Some guidelines on how to live a happy life
This column was published Oct. 11, 2002

When people have asked me if I am happy living here, I have said that it is easy to be content in Costa Rica. And quite possible to experience moments of joy, but that happiness is an individual matter. Recently there was a conference of positive psychologists and one of them — Dr. Martin Seligman — was being interviewed on Voice of America.

Some time ago Dr. Seligman said he realized that most of psychology deals with hang-ups and habits and what makes us miserable. (Have you ever noted that each decade seems to have its pet disorder? Like, whatever happened to the Oedipal Complex, to Multiple Personalities?) Psychology was all about correcting what was wrong, not about scientifically studying what makes for positive people and institutions. He decided there was something useful to learn from exploring what it is that makes people happy. That is one of those ideas that, if you are like me, when you hear it you say, "Of course!" 

During the interview (and answering questions from people from all over the world), he mentioned some interesting findings: 

 — People in the East and Middle and Far East are happier than those in the West. 

 — People in traditional societies that emphasize family and relationships tend to be happier than people in the more modern world. 

 — Poor people, unless they are abjectly poor, are not necessarily less happy than rich people. (It was found that after a couple of years, people who had won the lottery were emotionally in the same boat they had been before winning.)

 — The highest rates of suicide are in Japan, the U.S. and Austria. (I grew up thinking it was Norway and Sweden.)

 — Fundamentalists of all stripes are happier than agnostics. (Oh dear.) When you think about it, it makes sense because Fundamentalists are so sure they are right they don’t suffer from a Hamlet complex or worry about what life is all about. They know.

 — Curing clinical depression does not make a person happy. It puts the person back to zero, so to speak. Becoming a happy person involves 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

something more. That something more has been compressed into three ways of living that lead to happiness.

First, there is the pleasant life — This is enjoying the pleasures of life and having the skills and means to amplify and share them. This includes things like travel, yoga, working out, enjoying cruises, just having fun.

Then there's the good life — This life is one that is involved in pursuing some endeavor that so totally captures the mind that one becomes part of the process — or flow, as psychologist call it. In a way it is time out of mind, when time stands still because one is lost in what one is doing. This includes creative activities like writing or painting or doing research or cooking to name a few. Actually, any activity that you get lost in. 

And finally, the meaningful life — This is the life led by people who attach themselves to something larger than themselves, a charity, religion, political movement, devoting oneself to helping others. The "do-gooders" and Mother Theresas of the world are in this category.

It seemed to me, listening to Dr. Seligman, that something these three ways of living have in common is living in the present. Positive psychology stresses that showing children their strengths is what develops an exemplary child and future adult. If you want to find out what your strengths are, click on www.authentichappiness.org and take the test.

Steve Martin said, "It's funny how important the weather becomes as you get older." I must agree. But to my surprise, Dr. Seligman says that weather and climate have little to do with happiness (however light is important to people who suffer from depression, and I think nice weather lifts the spirit).

Fortunately, Costa Rica, besides having a most desirable climate and lots of light, has plenty of opportunities to live any one of these happy lives.

The return of the native — but don't drink the water
This column was published Oct. 4, 2002

Here I am back in my old apartment (where I have been all along but a lot of people don1t seem to know that). When my landlords assured me my rent would not be raised, I decided not move to Moravia. 

Then when I suggested they remove the wall-to-wall carpet in my bedroom and put in tile, they said they would retile the whole apartment, I accepted even though it meant moving to a one-room apartment in San Pedro while they accomplished this.

Now that I am happily resettled in my newly tiled apartment, which happens to have the best view of the city (in my opinion), I am thinking about going back to the States — at least for a short time.

People who think about coming to Costa Rica worry about different things.  Some worry about how safe they will be from crime and earthquakes.
Some worry that they won’t be able to drink the water or that they will get some tropical disease like malaria.

Some have worried that they will be caught in the middle of a political coup or guerrilla warfare. My mother worried about snakes. Nobody has mentioned being worried about the traffic

Thinking about all of this, I realize that I have some concerns about going back to the States. I love eggs. I eat them just about every day in one form or another, and I even prepare recipes with raw eggs. We don’t have a problem with salmonella here, but they do in the States.

I am also worried about e-coli, but not so much because I seldom eat beef, and almost never eat in fast food restaurants. I worry that I will have to drink bottled water. Then there is the West Nile Virus. I am allergic to mosquito bites as it is.

Just recently I heard that there were two cases of malaria in some eastern state (fortunately, I will be going to California). And there are all of those forest fires AND the traffic. Air pollution and traffic I can get here.

Then there is the possibility of war looming.  In response to my column about a war with Saddam Hussein, I got two questioning letters:

David Shear of Pompano Beach, Florida wrote, "Are you out of your mind? No proof, maybe you should watch TV more! Those dead Kurdish babies clutching their mothers, I suppose you think the Holocaust never happened. It’s liberals like you that make the world UNSAFE with your naive, stick-your-head-in-the-sand mentality.  Get real, lady. I dare you to print this, you won't."

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

R.M. Hays of San Joaquin Delflores, Heredia wrote, "Ms. Stuart what more proof do you want when the demonic Hussein gases his own people and it was documented on film."

I responded to Mr. Shear: "I was not referring to Saddam’s gassing of the Kurdish people of Iraq when I talked of accusations that have not been backed up by fact.  We have long known about this terrible act — it occurred during the war between Iraq and Iran in the 80’s.

"Nor do I doubt that Saddam has anthrax — we gave it to him.  I suppose the U.S. was not as appalled by the use of gas then because we were supporting Saddam at the time. My understanding is that Saddam’s excuse was that the Kurds were aiding and abetting the Iranians.

"In a way, the Kurds are to Saddam what the Palestinians are to Sharon. Unfortunately, innocent Palestinians are killed each time Sharon tries to find his terrorists.

"Terrible atrocities occur during wars.  I don’t know whether is it more horrible to die from gas poisoning, radiation from a bomb, machine guns, or friendly fire.

However they die, innocent people are killed in wars.  That is why I am against war as a solution.

"I know there are people who, knowing that Bush and Rumsfeld are honorable men, believe them when they talk of the imminent threat.  I think we need more proof that Saddam is harboring Al-Qaeda, that Saddam has threatened the United States, or is close to having a nuclear bomb.

"Attacking Iraq means many more innocent people dead. I think the number of liberals like me against the war is growing."

Unmollified, Mr. Shear replied: "Lady, freedom has a price. Why have you chosen to live in Costa Rica? Because it’s a country with a democracy! So far, Costa Rica has been spared from a Muslim populace. Heaven help you if they decide to settle there. This is a pagan religion, and there is no negotiating. So enjoy your little bubble now. Because you are truly clueless on world politics."

Maybe Mr. Shear is right.  I should stay in Costa Rica and enjoy my little bubble while I can.

The war drums: Finally I can’t take it anymore 
This column was published Sept. 27, 2002

The war drums are deafening, drowning out the voices for peace and containment. When a German leader gets reelected by talking against war and an American president raises his approval ratings by talking of nothing BUT war, I get depressed. And when I have heard enough accusations about the demonic Saddam Hussein that are never backed up with proof, I despair. 

And when the president of the U.S. says "We must go to war to keep the peace," and a Democratic candidate for the Senate says the U.S. will pay for the war by "growing the economy," I begin to wonder if along with Alice, they have all fallen down the rabbit hole. Thoroughly depressed, I followed the advice of Dr. Andrew Weil and turned off my TV.

I decided to go see a movie instead. And since I haven’t been sleeping well lately, figured I could relate to "Insomnia." I might even get some useful hints. The movie was showing at the Variedades. Fortunately, I had put some earplugs in my purse and had a sweater with me. I like this movie house, but it tends to keep both the air conditioning and sound up high.

"Insomnia" is about a cop who once manufactured evidence to catch a criminal he is convinced was guilty. The cop is played by Al Pacino, whose impersonation of someone who has not slept for a week had me suffering from acute sleep deprivation. The antagonist is a brilliant but crazy killer (a miscast Robin Williams) who has something on the cop. 

The only solution for the so-called "good guy" is to kill the killer. The ending is the only ending possible, but not before some innocent people are dead. I left the movie still depressed. Was this the world writ small? Was "The Sound of Music" showing anywhere?

What could I do to lift my spirits? Like Candide, I could go home and cultivate my own little garden and ignore the rest of the world. My kitchen is my garden. Would I get bored? Would I get fat?

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Then my friend Bill White came to my rescue. He was entertaining at lunch maestro Per Brevig, guest conductor of our national symphony next Sunday, and I was invited. At lunch were a group of other music lovers as well as one of the writers currently at the colony. All were interesting and delightful people.

Through the years I have been an onlooker as Bill conceived of the idea of an artists colony, built studios and got it up and running. 

The colony was established not only to honor his children, Julia and David, but also to offer writers, composers and painters an opportunity to work in an environment where peace is pervasive and war is not an option.

Along with lunches for visiting conductors, Bill is now having gatherings to meet and say farewell to the various artists and experience some of their work. 

These gatherings are becoming regular salons. I have dreamed about having an ongoing salon after reading a biography of Madame Germaine de Stael. A writer and thinker in her own right, Germain de Stael became famous for her gatherings of other expatriate intellectuals, first in Switzerland where she fled during the political turmoil in France in the 1790s, then in Paris, eventually in exile because of her criticism of Napoleon. (What do the French say? "The more things change, the more they stay the same.") 

But how nice it would be to devote myself to attending gatherings of interesting people who will talk about what they are doing, about literature and art, morals and religion, about the way of the world. 

Oh dear, the way of the world must include politics. 

War is not the only Hell: There are others
This column was published Sept. 20, 2002

The conversation began when Anabel read an editorial by Dr. Oscar Arias in the Nación (Costa Rica’s leading Spanish-language newspaper). In it, he says that terrorism is not the only threat to the world. There are the threats of illiteracy, environmental degradation and hunger that should be addressed. 

From there we talked about the unbelievable suffering that people endure, and Sandy mentioned a movie about the Holocaust and the fact that her husband couldn’t bear to watch it. Then we began talking about the different people of the world who have faced terrible adversity with bravery and courage, even stoicism. 

As we mentioned different people, Anabel said, rather sadly, that Costa Ricans did not have the stamina, nor the solidarity and strength to withstand disaster, to undergo really hard times. There is a saying in Costa Rica that a disaster or scandal will last only 15 days. After that, it is forgotten.

We talked about the German Jews during the reign of Hitler, Russia under Stalin, of the blacks in South Africa during apartheid, of the people of Ethiopia, Uganda and other countries of Africa, of the Chileans when Pinochet was in power, of Iraq with Saddam Hussein and even those before him, the suffering of Argentineans during the time of the Disappeared — the list seemed endless. And I began to realize something.

"War is indeed hell," as some general said, but the truly prolonged suffering of different peoples has not been due to wars between countries as much as it is due to the cruel leadership of a people’s own government. In all of the groups we brought up, it was the leaders of their own countries that had caused their misery. We went on to add El Salvador and countries that engaged in civil war, like Nicaragua, Spain and the United States, of despotic regimes like Guatemala. Talking about the other countries of Central America, I found an answer to comfort Anabel.

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

The governments of Costa Rica have not been less corrupt financially than other countries, but this country’s leaders, for the most part, have not combined institutionalized cruelty with corruption. The people of Costa Rica have not had a history of oppression and suffering. Spain pretty much neglected this mountainous little possession that had no gold. When Spain withdrew its despotic rule of Central America, Costa Ricans were simply notified that they were free.

This is not to say that there has never been suffering and war here. The poor of all societies have always suffered (and generally speaking so have women). A civil war erupted in 1948 when compromise between the different factions was impossible. This war was as bloody and vicious as any civil war. The difference is its brevity. President Picado had no stomach for this war because among the young rebels were people he knew — former students and sons of friends. It started March 10, 1948, and on April 13, 1948, peace negotiations began.

Given its history, it is doubtful that Ticos will ever be called upon to prove their mettle through politically inspired suffering. In fact, a recent survey has shown that the majority of Ticos are quite content with their lot. (It must be said that their lot includes almost perfect weather and gorgeous scenery). 

Now this realization on my part that there are cruel regimes does not mean that I favor war to end them. War, to my mind is never a solution, and besides, some leaders start wars just to get people to focus on something other than their suffering.

(Note: my thanks to the family Biesanz’ "The Costa Ricans" for helping me with history) 

A  column with a little help from my friends 
This column was published Sept. 13, 2002

I am delighted to hear from readers. Some of you are under the impression that I know a lot about Costa Rica. Now that I think about it, I guess the title of this column would imply that. The fact is, I don’t know nearly what one would expect after living here 10 years. Apropos of that, I want to share what my readers know.

Roland Shanklin has a recommendation for a lawyer: She is Ericka Montoya. Roland writes, "I've known her for many years. She's young, enthusiastic, honest, and, can you believe, writes everything down and always gets back to me. She speaks excellent English. You can call her at work (276-6891) or on her cell phone (395-0500)."

Evelyn Dodero has some food recommendations: "In San Ramon, across the street from PALI is a small arcade that has a little fish market on the right hand side. Sandra makes a delicious fresh cheviche. I love it. Large is 400 colones and small is 300 colones. In the same clean colorful arcade is Soda Gaby’s with good food at good prices. This is REAL Costa Rica, a nice side trip for folks going to Zarcero or San Carlos. It is small but interesting." 

I have no idea where San Ramon is, so you see 
how little I know about Costa Rica. Regarding what people take home from Costa Rica, Bonnie Hano says "I don't agree about the new smoked tuna. Even though it's not nearly as good as the large cans with the picante, it is still good, and I am hoarding mine. But I did use a can last week for pasta for the two of us and really, Jo, it was awfully good." (I feel obligated to add that I gave her that recipe.)

She also takes back Costa Rican cinnamon. She says, "The stuff we get here (California) doesn't compare. I also bring albahaca (dried basil). It's cheap and has a wonderful basil flavor. Los Patitos Black Pepper, both peppercorns and ground, is better than any I've tasted except maybe what is sometimes found in specialty stores." (I will add that you could stock your spice cabinet very cheaply here. And most of the spices and herbs 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

come in small packets so they won1t lose their potency before you use them.)

I also heard from two readers about Lizano sauce. I can’t find their letters now, but Marco said I failed to mention it. It was his tactful way of telling me I had spelled it Lisano. And there were some guaro lovers who regret not taking back a case of the stuff. Evidently guaro is the local legal moonshine. It is made from cane sugar. My editor can tell you more about that than I can.

Then there are the pet peeves. Remember the habit Ticos have of honking as soon as the light has changed? Shirley Yamada told me a story that still has me chuckling: She assures me this really happened, "My husband recently drove up to a red light. Another car pulled up in the lane next to him. When the light turned green, the man honked, and he was the first in line. He had automatically honked — at himself!"

Annetta Kaufman is still upset about being a clutterer. Another problem she has, she says, is doing too many things at once — and that leads to clutter. I never thought of the connection. I always have half a dozen unfinished activities going on at once. People who do that I call "jugglers," and those who finish one chore and go on to the next, are "beeliners." I wasn’t surprised that I, too, am a juggler. It must be in the genes because Annetta is my sister. The gene must skip a generation because my mother and my daughter, Lesley definitely are not clutterers.

Thank you, everybody who contributed to this column. I must go now and finish making breakfast, put the laundry in the spinner, and finish putting my stuff away in my newly tiled, newly painted, newly clean apartment. I am so happy to be back home! 

Small wonders and other speculations
This column was published Sept. 6, 2002

I have no television. I've been staying in this tiny apartment while my own is being beautified, and the television stopped working. All I get is snow. This would not bother a lot of people (some people hate television, and with good reason), but I am a political junkie and I love C-Span and Sunday mornings I watch all of the talking heads and pundits and interviews. 

Like the rooster who thinks he brings up the sun, I am sure the political world can't get along without my watching and worrying. 

Obviously I have not been doing a very good job. And now, out of contact, I can only wonder and ask some questions, most of which don't have any answers. I wonder if the U.S.'s repeated accusation that Saddam used chemical weapons against "his own people" should be included as part of the rationale for getting the guy. We did not stop supporting him when he used chemical weapons against Iran. He was our ally then. 

Which makes me wonder if this makes any of our current allies a little nervous. Panama and Noriega were allies once. So were Bin Laden and the Taliban. Maybe the policy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend is not such a good idea. The United States has a habit of giving weapons to its allies and then finding them being used against it. Bush seems to have gotten himself between Iraq and a hard place. 

Hardly anyone else thinks attacking Iraq is a good idea (except for a few gung ho "Bushies" (which someone else called them) who have never experienced war and a few politicians from both parties who think they are being patriotic. I wonder if the real reason Bush wants to attack is simply because he is so frustrated with being unable to find a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Jews in Israel. 

It has been said time and again that Saddam's main interest is staying in power. Trying to unseat him insures that he will use whatever weapons he 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

has to stay alive, and he will use them on Israel. We know he has anthrax because the U.S. gave it to him. And Israel has the bomb, and Sharon will use it on Iraq. And pretty soon there won't be any Middle East, and then Mr. Bush won't have to deal with a peace process.

Recently I heard one of the generals involved in the Gulf War say that Saddam Hussein was deterred then from using weapons of mass destruction because we told him that we had bigger and better weapons of mass destruction than he and if he used even one, we would clobber him. Why, I wonder, don't we continue to use that strategy? It worked for Reagan with Russia. And we knew they had the bomb. Is it because some people think the only way to peace is through war? 

Would so many Americans be in favor of war with Iraq if the draft were back and their sons and daughters, not just a 'professional army' would be fighting? And if the draft were reinstated, how many would be deferred because they're overweight? I wonder when The University for Peace here in Costa Rica will be up and running and able to bring in and educate some war hawks on how to find peace through peace. 

I am harping on this subject because I think war is never an answer. Call me a dreamer. It is easy to be one when you live in a country that hasn't had an army or a war (or enemies) since 1948.

Of course, I haven't watched the news all week so maybe the problem has been solved without my even being there. Well, cockadoodledo. 

The little things that we bring back and forth
This column was published Aug. 30, 2002

My friend Grady is back in town. I asked him if it was miserable flying and going through security. He said no, but he returned to the States last time the Customs officer was a bit taken aback when he found dozens of packets of peanuts in his suitcase.

 "You’re bringing peanuts back to the States?" He asked suspiciously. Grady informed him that you could not get lemon flavored salted peanuts or chili flavored peanuts in the States. That got us to talking about other things that people take back to their countries from Costa Rica (aside from the typical souvenirs, of course).

 On my early trips back and forth between here and the States I would bring all kinds of things to Costa Rica ? Marukan seasoned vinegar, chocolate chips, Feta cheese. Shoes. Things like that. Now Costa Rica has most of these things ? albeit expensive chocolate chips and sort of imitation feta cheese. But there are shoe stores in every block. And I remember saying that when I could find herring in sour cream here I would become a resident. I am a resident.

Now, like Grady, I find myself taking things TO the States (although he is still bringing Starbucks decaf coffee here). One time I saw a woman filling her supermarket cart with bottles of vanilla.

It is not pure vanilla although you can buy that in the Central Market. I asked her if she did a lot of baking. She said, no, her friends in Germany loved the vanilla here so she always took back a supply.

 Grady knows someone who takes back ‘6 0z tubs of Axion soap. He claims it is the best stuff for washing dishes and other things. I agree and have thought about taking some back to my sister who always has a little dish of soapy water in her sink for quick washing up. Of course, lots of people take back coffee, not just the Britt’s coffee for export. It is good and it is also expensive. Some people go to First Avenue behind the Central Market and buy freshly roasted Volio coffee to take home. It is not gift warpped; it comes in brown paper bags. It is cheap and good.

 Of course, everyone takes Lisano sauce back. Mavis told me her son, Rick took a bunch of bottles back to his home in Corning New York, then discovered the local grocery store carried it!
I always go back with several boxes of Gallito’s Milan mint-filled chocolates. My daughter, like I, 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

has become addicted to them. In my opinion they are the best chocolates in Costa Rica for the money (aside from my fudge sauce, of course).

I used to take cans of Sardimar’s smoked tuna when they had the large cans in boxes. Since they have reduced the size and they no longer contain filets, it is not nearly as good ? not worth carrying back to the States. I e-mailed them lamenting this, I got a quick answer from the General Manager, I believe it was, who told me that soon the large cans would be available in the United States. He thought this would please me. It didn’t. It reminded one of the problems with globalization and free trade. All the best products from a country are exported.

 Back in the 60s when I moved to Florida from New York I was dismayed to discover that the fruit in the supermarkets wasn’t nearly as good as what I got in New York. And I was in citrus country! Then I noticed the fruit was getting better. I learned that the Governor of Florida had decreed that some of the prize fruit should be sold in the State. Not because of me and other residents, but because the tourists were complaining. When I first came to Costa Rica fish and seafood were very reasonable. Now shrimp is outrageously expensive here ? most of it being exported.

The way the world operates now, if you have lots of money and live in one of the world’s big cities, you can get the best of anything for a price. Some years ago there was a truck strike in California and the tomato growers couldn’t get their tomatoes to the canneries. They didn’t want them to rot so they sold them locally, some in farmers’ markets and some to the people who came directly to their farms. Customers got some good tomatoes and the farmers discovered they made more money and had more fun selling directly than they did loading their tomatoes on trucks.

There should be a clause in all these free trade agreements that a country must keep ten percent of whatever product it exports for its own people at local prices.

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