Monday, February 25, 2013

Baby Matteus Has Arrived!

He's here! He's finally here! Our baby boy, Matteus (ma-TAY-us), arrived on Friday afternoon. He was 20.5 inches long and weighed 7 lbs 4 oz.

We wanted to share some pics from our first days together. Enjoy!

Fresh out of the oven (leaves sold separately!)
Eyes wide open! Will they stay blue like Daddy's?
That's my boy!
Snuggling with Momma (who's happy, but a little loopy from the meds!)
Riding home from the hospital
Enjoying the soothing sounds of his first rain shower!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Laughing on the Outside, but Crying on the Inside: Tico Car Mechanics

Posted by Jim

We've already re-christened our car. Its new nickname is "Leaks."

Ever since we brought it home, I've noticed the sickeningly sweet smell of engine coolant emanating from somewhere under the hood. Normally, I can't smell a mad skunk from 3 feet away, but somehow I can detect burning coolant within a 3-mile radius. For weeks, I searched the engine compartment for the leak, but until last week its location eluded me. Unfortunately, once I did find the leak, it progressed at an alarming rate. One of the tanks on the radiator was developing an enormous crack that promised to fail catastrophically at the moment that Natalie was in labor and needed to get to a hospital, stat. Without the tools to replace the radiator, it was time to try my luck with a Costa Rican auto mechanic.
Someone recommended a guy in the next town over who spoke a little English, so I figured I'd bring the car to his shop before our radiator exploded (we still had 4 days til the baby was due, after all!) I told him that I wanted a new radiator, but he insisted that he could replace the leaky tank for less than half of the cost. I paused. I’d come in determined to buy a new radiator, but the man’s earnest plea to save my money won over my cash-strapped wallet. I agreed. He promised the radiator would be fixed the next day, so we shook on it and I took a taxi home.

[Natalie's note: "I can fix that" and "it'll be done tomorrow" are generally regarded as pleasantries, not promises, in Costa Rica. In other words, people would rather appear polite and helpful than tell you, "you're screwed."]

The next day, the mechanic called me just as promised. “Buenas. Comó  está? The radiator is fixed, but the head gasket is bad.” Ok, good, wait, what?! The situation had escalated from a minor part replacement to major engine work. He said, "I saw air bubbles in the radiator when the engine was running. It means your head gasket is no good." I told him,"Don't do anything. The engine is still under warranty from the dealer. I'm coming to get it right now!"

When I arrived at the shop and looked at the radiator tank, I felt a little sick. I was expecting a cheap plastic part, but what I saw was even more underwhelming. An optimistic person would call the work "custom" or even "hand crafted." I called it “craptacular.” It appeared that they had scrounged up random pieces of sheet metal (missing street signs?), bent them into the rough shape of a radiator tank, and brazed them together. The "new" tank, and everything around it, was dripping with copious amounts of black spray paint to give it that "factory-fresh" look. It was ugly and shoddy, but I convinced myself that if it didn't leak, then I didn't care. 

The mechanic wanted to show me the air bubbles he'd seen in the radiator from the bad head gasket, so he fired the engine up and… nothing. No bubbles. We let the engine run and warm up, but still no bubbles. Finally he said, "Oh, I guess it was just air stuck in the cooling system and not the head gasket after all." If you're not familiar with the implications of misdiagnosing someone's head gasket, imagine a a doctor telling a patient that he has cancer and then saying, “Nevermind, it was just gas.” I was simultaneously annoyed and relieved by the flippant misdiagnosis. Confident the problem was "solved," he put the radiator cap back on and sealed up the system.

We were standing in front of the car watching the engine run (as men do), when suddenly a geyser shot forth from the craptacular radiator tank sending a 4-foot stream of coolant into the air. As it rained down upon us, the mechanic’s young daughter ran over and started splashing around like she was playing in a lawn sprinkler. The situation was so absurd that I started laughing. Not a real laugh (and certainly not a happy laugh), but that awkward kind of laugh that ends in sobbing. The guy said, "I can fix that. I'll call you tomorrow." 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Buying an Overpriced Car in Costa Rica

Posted by Jim

Before we moved to Costa Rica, we knew that we wanted to own a car here. At first, we researched buying a car in the United States and driving it down, but between the import taxes (up to 80% of the value determined by the government!), travel expenses (border crossings, gas, food, lodging, etc.), and the time (at least 10 days), we decided that it would be better to buy a car once we were in Costa Rica. While we know some Spanish, being able to say, "Where is the bathroom?" and, "Yes, I would like another beer, please." wasn't going to help us in this situation. We searched on the internet and found a couple who helps gringos like us find and purchase cars. We sent them an email describing what we were looking for, and they located a number of cars at local dealerships that met our needs.

On a Wednesday morning, we were picked up by our Tica helper. Our first stop was a tiny little dealership that had a number of early-2000 vintage Hyundai Accents that were fresh off the boat from Korea. Everything down to the warnings on the sideview mirrors was written in indecipherable Korean characters. We took the first car out for a spin to see how we liked it. Bad clutch, bad brakes, the steering wheel shook, and half the cylinders cut out under load. For a car like this in the U.S., I would have offered $500 and made the seller buy me lunch and a beer.

The next 5 cars we drove were not much better. Whenever I pointed out a problem to the salesman, the answer was always the same, "No problem! We'll fix that. No charge." There was something about the way he said it that didn't make me feel good. Perhaps it was because he also told me, "the brakes squeal because they're new," and, "the clutch barely engages because it's adjusted for personal preference." I think that the exact moment I stopped trusting him was when he promised that the air bags would still deploy in an accident, contrary to the position taken by the steadily illuminated warning lamp on the dash.

We visited a second dealership and their cars were just as bad, but shinier. Bad clutch, broken speedometer, check engine light, bad CV joints, and so on. I peeked into the mechanics' area, where I saw a transmission laying open in the dirt, half-filled with feral dog urine. This was likely the "new" transmission that the salesman promised for the car that I had just complained about... you know, the one that wouldn't stay in gear. Many people recommend buying cars that are recently imported to Costa Rica ("for inscription") because they haven't been exposed to the bad roads. Perhaps more importantly, newly imported cars haven't been exposed to the bad mechanics. At this point, I was getting pretty discouraged. I was on the verge of pulling Natalie aside and suggesting that we reconsider the idea of getting a car at all if these were the only options.

Respite finally came at the third dealership, where we found a 2002 Hyundai Elantra fresh from the United States. It wasn't beautiful by any definition, but, by this point, to say that we had lowered our expectations was a gross understatement. On the test drive, it felt like a normal car. It accelerated, stopped, stayed in gear, and went in a straight line. Amazing! Pure automotive genius! We drove a few other cars (12 in all), and finally settled on the Elantra. Curious why the car had been deported from the U.S., we ran a CARFAX report to check its title history. Thankfully, it came back clean (enough). After working out a deal to have a few things fixed, we settled on a price just under $8,000 USD! Remember those import taxes I mentioned? They're nearly $3,000 USD for a car that's over 10 years old!

Our "new" car has four wheels and goes forwards and backwards! Brilliant!
Before we could take the car home, we had to wait until the international money transfer cleared, papers were signed, government paperwork was filed by an attorney, inspections were performed, taxes were paid, insurance coverage was obtained, and plates were issued. Two weeks after selecting a car, we finally drove our prize home. I've since nicknamed the car "bad connection" for all of the wonky electrical issues. If you're in Costa Rica and you see a car with the headlights flashing with the blinkers, that's us. Please wave.