My job involves spending time not only in and around our two field stations, but also working at the Puerto Jimenez office. Even with the addition of functional internet to both Cerro Osa and Piro (!), there are meetings and errands and relationships to attend to that need to happen in town. I had grand illusions of negotiating a rental stipend as part of my hiring package, but my soon-t0-be-new boss basically said – um, nope. you can stay in the back of the office or you can rent your own space. “Back of the office” being a perfectly adequate little room with two mediocre beds and, until a month ago, lacy crimson curtains that were more bordello than NGO. Now i’m nothing if not flexible about my living situations, but I’m also not a 24 year old intern anymore….i decided it was worth a few hundred bucks a month to give myself some distance from the office in the evenings.
“Some distance” in Puerto Jimenez, of course, is relative. My fabulous new digs are maybe 200 meters down the road, behind the bakery. 2nd floor. I had visions of a perfect little cottage with a fruit tree garden and well-made wooden furniture, all for $150 a month…but after a few afternoons spent wandering Jimenez in search of rental units, I lowered my expectations to “walls meet ceiling around bedrooms and bathroom” and “no obvious pools of stagnant water”. (Please, no comments about that very clean and temporary puddle you might see in the photo!) And in the end, I am one of those suckers who sees LOTS of windows and LIGHT and a BALCONY and TWO bedrooms and chooses to overlook the fact that it’s kind of dirty, has no furnishings whatsoever, and the walls are made of drywall. (To be clear: lots of interior walls these days are drywall…but there’s usually something else too, at least on the outside! in my new apartamento, i can peer through the nail holes right onto my neighbor’s tin roof.)
I continue to be happy with my decision, as I picture the plants and hammocks and artisanal furniture that will soon populate my new space. But for the last week i’ve been scrubbing the walls to rid them of grunge from former tenants, and trying to make it liveable with the most basic appliances and necessities. This entailed a trip to one of Costa Rica’s lesser-known but most-visited tourist destinations, El Deposito, the duty-free shopping mecca across Golfo Dulce from Puerto Jimenez. I’m told that well over half the tourism in Golfito – a geographically blessed but relatively grim port town that was once United Fruit Company’s banana shipping headquarters – consists of economically aspirational Tico shoppers who come to stock up on appliances and alcohol.
El Deposito is a complex of over 50 little storefronts dedicated to selling Korean refrigerators, American kitchenware, Caribbean liquor, and Chinese everything. The place is run by an association of regional governments in southern Costa Rica, and there are a whole set of elaborate rules and official card-issuing schemes established to limit purchases within a certain time period, ensure you stay overnight, etc. An individual can only buy 12 bottles of liquor every six months for example, only spend up to $1000, etc. Of course, the rules have spawned an equally elaborate system of rule-bypassing, in which everyone participates. In my case, a colleague gave me the cell phone number of a contact – el Zorro – who would run the show for a $20 comission. Since I didn’t have an official card, I needed someone who did. Zorro’s business – and there were many like him, easily identifiable by their comfortable lurking in the middle of the complex – was to find local people, pay for them to get an official card, then have one of his associates drag this person around to sign off on a bunch of purchases that I would pay for and take home. These latter identity-loaners were equally identifiable, sitting around looking uncomfortable on concrete benches while appliances they’d never be able to afford were paraded by every few minutes.
Zorro sold me the identity of a mildly attractive young man named Mauricio, who turned out to be a former bull riding professional now living on his family’s farm near Golfito and who was friends with Zorro’s assistant (the latter a hair gel enthusiast whose slang was basically beyond my comprehension). As a proper gringa, i felt guilty for being able to afford things that Mauricio couldn’t, so i tried to compensate by chatting him up and probably giving him a completely mistaken impression about my interest in his career prospects on the Tico rodeo circuit. We survived the discomfort and I came out with a mini fridge, a range top, basic kitchenware, fan, coffeemaker, etc, and a case of decent wine at half the price of the Puerto Jimenez supermercado (where Frontera merlot is pretty much the go-to, sigh). I tried to buy some good rum as gifts for my colleagues but Mauricio’s liquor quota had apparently already been signed away earlier in the morning.
After my trip to El Deposito, Citibank decided I was making strange and unlikely purchases, and shut down my ATM card. I therefore had to finish the day by buying a mattress on credit back in Puerto Jimenez from the slightly lecherous gentleman whose furniture store is next to the bakery. But I slept in my own new apartmento!