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Costa Rica Part IV: Otto Apuy, Artista

In Which I Befriend Otto Apuy, one of Costa Rica’s Leading Artists.

During my week in San José, my dental appointments are almost always in the afternoon, so I spend the mornings by the pool talking to the other turisimas dental. One day everyone else happens to have early appointments, and I find myself on my own. I decide to visit the Museo de Arte Costariccense, which is just a short walk from the hotel, through La Sabana Parque. This park was previously  home to San José’s airport, and the building in which the museum is now located housed the gates to incoming and outgoing flights. Costa Rica’s flying needs outgrew the space, and the airport is now located several miles away. (In the photo of the park, below, you can see its previous incarnation as a runway.)


The small, two-story museum is currently exhibiting the work of just one artist, Otto Apuy, who works in a variety of media, primarily painting and multimedia installations. I’m delighted by the latter, most of which are whimsical. The museum even has a small permanent collection of miniatures, one of my favorite things in the world. Unfortunately, nothing is identified by name, only numbers, so I don’t have a clue what some of the more abstract pieces are about. After browsing through the whole exhibit, I ask someone in the office if they have a brochure to go with the show.

Nobody speaks English, but, much to my surprise, they lead me to a man standing with a group of people and introduce him as none other than the artist, Otto Apuy. Maybe it’s my dazzling new teeth, but Señor Apuy takes an immediate liking to me, and offers to guide me on a tour of his life’s work. I’m thrilled.

It turns out he’s also a writer, and when I tell him I am too, he gives me a signed copy of one of his books (in Spanish, though I confessed I only understand un pequito. When I tell him my name, his face lights up: his wife’s name is Marcy. We amble through the museum, stopping now and then when I ask a question about a piece of work or when he wants to tell me something about it.

Under the impression that I’m spending time with a modern-day Pollack or Dali (not for the substance of the work but their prominence as artists), I feel like I’ve hit some artistic jackpot. Back at the hotel I immediately go to the computer room and Google Otto Apuy, who’d told me his work has been exhibited in New York and Boston. Unfortunately, I find no evidence of this; as far as I can tell, Señor Apuy is well-known in Costa Rica – and only in Costa Rica.

Nonetheless, my compadres at the hotel are duly impressed when I tell them the story. Christian, the hotel’s receptionist and all-around troubleshooter, translates the inscription Apuy wrote in the book he gave me – not only can’t I understand the Spanish, but his handwriting is nearly inscrutable. It says something like “With affection and friendship…”

Unlike in North American museums, picture-taking is permitted.

The photo on bottom right is of a permanent outdoor sculpture titled Tres Mujeres. The rest are by Otto Apuy.

Burning Forest


Costa Rica Part III

Part III: In Search of Pura Vida

A week after leaving Costa Rica, any shred of Pura Vida I managed to pick up is gone, except for one small moment each morning, when I savor my first mouthful of Costa Rican coffee. It is a breed apart from Maxwell House, or even Peets and other upscale versions. It’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. How do Costa Ricans produce such heavenly nectar? Could it be a manifestation of their famous Pura Vida?

Pura vida literally means Pura = pure and vida = life, but “Pure life” in Spanish would be “Vida pura” instead, so the real meaning is closer to “plenty of life”, “full of life”, “this is living!”, “going great”, “real living”, “Awesome!” or “cool!” It can be used both as a greeting and a farewell, to express satisfaction, to politely express indifference when describing something or even to say “thank you” or “you’re welcome”. The phrase has become universally known in Costa Rica and it has been used by many Costa Ricans (and expatriates) since 1956. 

Because the phrase is used for such a wide range of situations, it can seem slippery, elusive –  especially to a Gringo like me. Having heard more than enough New Age rhetoric in my life, I automatically dismiss anything that comes remotely close to mindless babble. But my friends Kat and Layne, whose intelligence I respect, use Pura Vida all the time, so I try to get a handle on it.

Ask six people what Pura Vida means and you’re likely to get six different answers. Laid back. Pure life. Spiritual. Well-being. Satisfaction. Home. The list goes on. 

San José

Spending my first Costa Rican week in the capital city of San José so as to be close to daily dental appointments, however, made finding the essence of Pura Vida even more challenging. The primary business of San José appears to be automotive. Everywhere you look you see a service station, repair shop, dealership, parts store, and every other conceivable service to sustain moving vehicles. While public transportation is excellent throughout Costa Rica, it doesn’t appear to be reducing car traffic much at all. Gas prices are in the $5 per gallon range, which likewise doesn’t discourage its purchase – although one can survive car-less in CR, and many Ticos do.

Between the noise and air pollution, San José feels as stressful and rushed as my life back home – maybe even more, since here cars take precedence over pedestrians — leading me to wonder if Pura Vida is the same old bullshit as  New Age and other similar rhetoric. When I tell this to Layne, he’s offended.

Bullshit or not, I advise anyone visiting Costa Rica to get out of San José as fast as is humanly possible. Just as Times Square isn’t all there is to New York, and Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t all of San Francisco, San José does not represent all of Costa Rica!

The Costa Rican Countryside

Sitting in Kat and Layne’s backyard in Atenas, about an hour out of San José, I feel the way I used to when I lived in New York and went upstate for days at a time: profoundly relieved. The only sounds here come from the time-challenged roosters, the many birds, and an occasional monkey. The air is clean and breathable. Shades of green predominate as far as the eye can see. Here, I think, I will surely find Pura Vida.

Atenas advertises itself as having El major clima del mundo. The climate is pretty good, I guess – if what you love is heat and humidity. I don’t.

Kat and Layne don’t own a car, so we go everywhere on the buses, which stop wherever someone stands waiting, for instance, right at the end of the driveway! We ride up and down the treacherously winding mountain road that connects their house to the small lively town of Atenas.  To some tourists and ex-pats riding the bus is an adventure; to me it isn’t far off my life in Oakland – except that here everyone rides the bus, not just the poorest of the poor.

One of my favorite things in Costa Rica is the taxicabs: they’re everywhere, both in city and country, wherever a person’s likely to need one, like at bus stations and supermarkets. Now, this is very different from Oaktown; in fact, it’s like New York City, only cheaper. For three or four bucks –  no tip; they’re
not customary – a cab took me from the supermarket to my hotel, without the driver grumbling that it was too short a ride. Like everyone else in CR, when I thanked him he said, “Con mucho gusto (The pleasure is mine).”

Kat and Layne are real “people people,” interested in absolutely everyone who crosses their path.  The large ex-pat community in Costa Rica offers them plenty of opportunity to indulge in their love of humans, and they entertain three or four times a week. Kat’s a fantastic cook and charming hostess, and Layne is talented at keeping conversations going, pushing them deeper and further. Thus, I meet a fair number of American ex-pats.

Some are here for the reputed Pura Vida, some to follow their destinies, spiritual and otherwise. Others are here simply because in CR they can afford to retire and live fairly decently, something they cannot do in America. They’ve been typically resourceful here, organizing organic food co-ops and informal lending libraries of books in English, or joining in activities to save the planet. The majority are pleasant and friendly, and most are of the Democratic or liberal persuasion. They seem to be nicer to one another here than at home – maybe it’s because they need each other more.

With the ex-pat community growing by leaps and bounds, Costa Rica is changing and will change even more in the coming years. The Ticos welcome this influx of Gringos, with their money and willingness to spend it, and bend over backwards to accommodate North American needs. The stores import foodstuffs Ticos never heard of and/or wouldn’t dream of spending money on, like tonic water and many soy products; when Kat asked for tahini at one of the mercados, they began to stock up on it. The Tico diet consists of beans and rice, homemade tortillas, a little bit of cheese, fruit from the trees in their own back yards – and, of course, coffee. (M&Ms, however, appear to be extremely popular!)

La Playa

We rent a car and drive down the coast to spend a day at Playa Doña Ana, a public beach where monkeys wait for us to feed them bananas, snatching them out of our hands when offered. We regret not having brought dog and cat food for a few very thin dogs and cats that also live here. The water’s sparkling blue and cold; they tell me it’s usually much warmer. (For more on the monkeys, who peed all over Layne’s glasses, read Kat’s Costa Rican blog.)

The next day we drive to Jaco, a tourist town full of upscale hotels and gambling casinos, bars with American names, and a fairly substantial hooker population. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, and several conduct business from the poolside bar at the hotel where we eat lunch. Nobody hassles them or treats them like pariahs; Layne tells me he and Kat have spent hours at the bar, befriending the working girls by buying them rounds.

As soon as we hit the beach, the skies open up and rain pours down, so we retreat to the covered walkway of the hotel to watch the storm.

Tourist Activities

I don’t have time, or even much inclination, for any of the day tours CR offers: zip-lining through the rain forest, driving up to active volcanoes, a trip to gawk at an ancient tribe. (Someone at La Sabana hotel went zip-lining, and while she said it was fantastic, it took her two full days to recover.) On our own we visit a butterfly farm, and a small portion of the rain forest. We stop at a roadside souvenir stand where I nearly break the bank, what with all the great stuff at low prices. Later on I regret not having bought more.

My favorite aspect of Costa Rica, other than the taxicabs, is the people. They’re physically gorgeous, at least the younger ones, and extremely kind. They’re never impatient when I fumble with collones; sometimes they laugh, but there’s affection in their laughter.  Despite my ridiculous Spanish, no one ridicules me. Once, wanting a light for my cigarette, I asked a teenage boy for “la luz” – which I realized too late means lamp, or electric light. He just stared, uncomprehending, until I realized my gaffe and said “Fumar,” at which point he pulled a book of matches out of  his pocket. I am not exaggerating when I say Ticos were universally kind to me. They seem to be genuinely happy. Is this Pura Vida? I still don’t have a clue.

It is only on the flight home that I experience my moment of Pura Vida enlightenment. It occurs when I walk up the aisle to use the lavatory, and find the door blocked by a large man chatting with one of the stewardesses. Gently I tap him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, I’d like to use the bathroom.”

“So who’s stopping you?” Maybe he’s trying to be funny, but there’s an edge of contempt in his voice. My heart sinks and I think, “Oh no, this again.” For the two-plus weeks I spent in Costa Rica, nobody, but nobody, spoke like this to me or to each other. Not once did I see anyone argue about who was first in line, or who wasn’t fast enough at the cash register. I hadn’t even seen anyone roll their eyes at someone’s behavior.

Welcome back to America.

Still to Come:

Part IV: In which I befriend one of Costa Rica’s leading artists.

(As stated from the get-go, these topics are subject to change on a whim, and it looks like Part IV will be my final entry.)

Costa Rica Part II

View of San José from the Museum of Jade

Image via Wikipedia

Part II: Costa Rica Will Make You Beautiful

Except for she of the blotchy face, I haven’t run into any plastic surgery patients at La Sabana, but Deedee met lots of them at her dentist’s office. It turns out that they don’t stay in the same hotels as we do, but in upscale recovery centers staffed by medical personnel.

(Photo: Central San Jose)

We Go For a Consultation

Deedee’s been thinking of having “work done” to remove a few acne scars and evidence of having lived 64 years. EJ is curious to hear what improvements a plastic surgeon might advise for her face; I can’t see how it can possibly be improved. My own visage is an aging wreck, but even if I could afford it, I don’t think I’d go under the knife for vanity’s sake. Still, no way would I pass up this opportunity to gather material on the topic. Thus, the three of us set off , taking our lives in our hands on the insanely busy streets and wide avenues of San José (Costa Rican traffic, I kid you not, has the right-of-way over pedestrians).

Walk-ins are welcome at the clinic recommended by Deedee’s dental compadres. Located in a swanky, pristine office building stuck in between the more typical ramshackle houses and businesses in CR, the practice is run by a mother-son team. Stacked on the waiting room table are dozens of Marie Clare magazines whose glossy covers show women with deep luscious cleavage. Cynic that I am, I can’t help but think they’ve been strategically placed as a lure or advertising gimmick.

Deedee is seen by the son part of the surgical team, who, like almost all young Tico men, is utterly gorgeous. I get stuck with the madre. Dr.Lieberman (yes, she’s Jewish; there’s a sizable contingent of Costa Rican Jews; while riding through the countryside I even spotted a synagogue), is around my age (65), and has a face that’d frighten Queen Victoria’s horses. Gravity has attacked her with a vengeance: she’s a walking commercial of what lies ahead for women who don’t take immediate surgical action, with her sagging jowls and skin discolorations.

I’ve come prepared with questions so she’ll believe I’m for real, and ask about liposuction for my several chins. She shakes her head sadly and tells me she can do it, but I won’t be happy with the result: “You need a facelift,” she baldly states. What about just getting rid of these lines? I ask, pointing to the space above my upper lip, which collapsed, as I knew it would, after all the upper teeth were removed. Again, Dr. L. says she could fill in the lines with metacril  for a mere $450, but insists, growing visibly impatient, “You need a facelift.” To lighten things up, I laugh and say I’m that hideous? Instead of laughing, though, Dr. L. sneers. “Do you feel bad?” she asks, her voice devoid of compassion.Well, yeah, a little. Her sneer deepens and she shrugs her shoulders as if to say, “Sorry, lady, I’m just being honest: you look like holy hell.”

If I were the kind of woman whose satisfactions and sense of purpose depended on my beauty, the kind who cared more about my looks than my brains and other facts of life, I surely would’ve been devastated. Since I am not, I was pissed off. I’m outta here! I throw Dr. L. a dirty look, open the door, and knock on the office next to hers to tell DeeDee  I’m leaving; to my surprise her face is being injected with something or other, despite my advice and her earlier decision to do nothing right now, as it’s an hour before her dental appointment. I don’t know what happened to EJ, but I have to get away from this place and that cold nasty bitch of a “doctor”.

Later on I learn that EJ, like Deedee, was seen by the charming male half of the surgical team, who pointed out wrinkles she didn’t even know she had, “here, and here, and here.” She too apparently needs a facelift. She says she got “a bad vibe” from the place as soon as she walked in. As for Deedee’s treatment, I can discern no difference in her face other than a bit of puffiness in the cheeks.

Facelift = $3000
Recovery time: 12 days, with stitches removed from several locations, at intervals.

Walking In the Rain Forest

Coming Soon:

Part III: In Search of Pura Vida

Costa Rica In 5 Parts

Post-dental work, outside Butterfly Farm

Part I: Turisma Dental y Medical

EJ (all names have been changed) has been coming to Costa Rica for seven years and has nine dental implants to show for it. At $800 a pop you might think she’s spent a small fortune, but considering that implants go for as much as three grand apiece in the States, EJ’s were a bargain. At 69, she’s absolutely stunning, with long platinum hair and the taut, milky skin you sometimes see on women from Great Britain, where she was born; she now lives in Colorado.

DeeDee, like me, is here for the first time, attending to various crowns, bridges and other dental issues. A world traveler and fanatical ballroom dancer, she’s been to dentists (and ballrooms) all over the U.S. as well as in Argentina. She’s hoping her Costa Rican practitioner lives up to his online reputation.

As for me, after spending most of my barely “disposable” income and every windfall I’ve ever gotten on my rotten teeth, I came to Costa Rica for the grand finale — a lower denture — at approximately a third of the cost estimated by my very talented and wealthy Emeryville dentist.

In addition to lower prices, Costa Rican dentists, most of whom were trained in the States, seem to be outdistancing their U.S. brethren, offering options I never even heard of, for instance, a technique involving implants and abutments to keep dentures from slipping while eating or talking. The one tooth I had pulled in CR was a far less painful and bloody experience than my previous extractions (and there have been many: for more of my sordid dental history see Dental Adventures. With good tooth genes I have not been blessed.)

The Gringo guests at La Sabana Apartotel where I’m staying, particularly the women, spend the time in between appointments poolside, swapping dental war stories. Deedee, like me, is a native New Yorker; EJ complains that we talk too fast, as she whips her head back and forth to follow our verbal volleys. In New York we call it “participatory listening.”

La Sabana Hotel, San José, CR

Reality Check

Mid-week a journalist checks into the hotel, sets up her laptop at a table by the pool, and proceeds to immerse herself in work. Deedee, who talks to absolutely everyone (everyone who speaks English,that is) finds out her name is Sue, she’s from Canada, and she’s writing a story on dental tourism in Costa Rica. She’s researched many Costa Rican dentists individually, so we surround her, anxiously calling out the names of our respective guys. The only info she has on mine is that he’s not a specialist in any one particular field (which he doesn’t claim to be). She comes up empty on EJ’s dentist, but Deedee’s turns out to lack all credibility among Ticos (native Costa Ricans), has generated a trail of lawsuits all over the globe, and some of the claims on his website are outright lies.

I cannot help but gloat just a little: when I told Deedee that my dentist charges slightly more for implants than hers, she tried to convince me to switch (in the midst of treatment no less!). Deedee is one of those people that habitually offers advice based on what she considers her own superior choices, a fairly common personality trait that never fails to make me crazy.

The Red-Faced Lady in the Big Floppy Hat

One guest at La Sabana intrigues the rest of us: her face is marked by grotesque red blotches, lines and blisters; she wears a big floppy hat and stays out of the sun. One day DeeDee waylays her and gets the scoop: she’s had laser skin treatment to clear up old acne scars, discolorations and other imperfections. Cost: a bargain basement $1300.

Backyard View from Friends’ Home in Atenas, CR

Dr. Alberto Meza looks more like he stepped out of a movie set than a dentist’s office. He speaks perfect English and performs perfect work on my mouth. His office driver, José, picks me up and returns me to my hotel for each and every appointment. Cost for my new bottom teeth: $805.

Caveat: I did not opt for the implant/abutment system that would hold the dentures tight: the cost, despite being so much lower than in the U.S., was prohibitive; however, should I decide to get the work done at some future date, Dr. Meza assured me he can still do it. All in all, I am pleased with his work. (For the first time in my life I can smile without being embarrassed.)

After a week in San José — which I advise visitors to get out of as soon as possible — I’m off to stay with my friends Kat and Layne in their 2-bedroom house in the small town of Atenas. It’s an hour’s bus ride; Layne comes to escort me, worried I’ll get lost if I go alone. Having discovered my grasp of the Spanish language is much worse than I’d thought, I’m grateful for his solicitude.

Coming Soon (Topics liable to change on a whim):

Part II: Costa Rica Will Make You Gorgeous
Part III: In Search of Pura Vida
Part IV: Otto Apuy, Costa Rican Artist
Part V: Coming Home

Other writing about my Costa Rican adventure can be found on Kat Sunlove’s blog, Fabulista de Costa Rica.

Still Here

I’m Still Here….

As my idol Barbra Streisand sings, “Good times/bad times/sometimes a kick in the rear/but I’m here.” Just because I haven’t been recording my life for posterity doesn’t mean my life isnt still happening….or so I tell myself. I do wonder about that sometimes. In any case, since my last post – Labor Day! more than a month ago! – I finished ghosting Connecting With The IN Crowd, which was published with my name under the boss’s, so I guess I’m not a ghost anymore; I went to a Book Launch at the St. Francis Hotel with it and my novel  Halfway to the Stars; I started another ghost gig; made plans to go to Costa Rica next month; and, as always, watched the world go by.

Yankees Still Playing….

In the world of baseball/Yankees, Jeter made his 3000th hit, Rivera made his 600th save, Posada was publicly humiliated and just as publicly resurrected; pitchers had meltdowns and freeze-ups; and at this moment the Division Series are in progress. Moneyball hit the screen and I still haven’t seen it – I hope to today. Billy Beane now thinks he’s as hot as Brad Pitt, and on the basis of the movie he’s been making the rounds on the financial speaker circuit — which should tell you something about sabermetrics and his baseball philosophy. Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s can apparently rot in hell as far as he’s concerned. Time for a new manager? It was time for a new manager at least three years ago!

And The Kids Are In The Street!

We seem to be in the throes of revolution, and I don’t mean Arab Spring. Wall Street protests are spawning demonstrations all over the country. They’re finding their platforms as they gather, making it up as they go along. This is, I think, for real: first of all, Karl Marx said that capitalism would implode on itself when it was no longer working. Secondly, all my life I’ve heard that the way to foment revolution is to let things get so bad the country hits bottom. And finally, electing someone we thought would make a difference, then being bitterly betrayed by him, showed people it’s the system, not who’s in charge of it, that has to change. So here we are. I wonder if this movement is strong enough to go the distance, or if the government, media, and corporations will find a way to defeat it. So far, it’s still here.