Thursday, December 1, 2011

Costa Rica

It rained the whole time.

Other than that, it was fine.

Oh, except that right before we left, we discovered a dear relative has prostate cancer, and just before we came back, the State of New York extracted $1700 from our bank accounts, to pay a tax bill from 2007 that I didn’t even know existed.

But otherwise, the vacation was great.

Here are some things you should know about Costa Rica:

1. Most everyone speaks some degree of English, and there are English-language TV channels.

2. Central and South American plumbing is…let’s call it inadequate. You can’t flush toilet paper, it will clog up the antiquated plumbing. It’s only designed to dispose of, you know, human wastes. So you have to wipe, and then deposit the used toilet paper in a wastebasket next to the toilet. (It goes without saying you can’t flush anything else, like feminine products or tissues or anything.) It also goes without saying that the contents of the wastebasket don’t really bear close examination.

When I told my husband that, he thought I was joking. He’s still convinced it’s all an elaborate prank on Americans.

3. The dry season is January through April. The rest of the year, it will rain at least once a day. Sometimes it will rain for two weeks straight and flood everything. Not little-bitty drizzly rain, either—that tropical rain, where it doesn’t so much rain as the skies just open up and vomit water.

4. The roads are dreadful. And all the bridges are one-lane.

5. But the animals are fun: I saw all kinds of birds and lizards, monkeys, even some caimans.

We arrived toward the end of rainy season, and spent most of our time at Arenal Nayara, a fancy-pants resort in the mountains, overlooking Arenal Volcano. Which is all very well and good, but we never got a clear view of the entire volcano, thanks to the rain and fog. In fact, the only times we saw the sun were when we took a day trip to a wildlife refuge near the Nicaraguan border, and in San Jose on the day we left. That’s it.

So there was no sitting in the sun, and we only broke out our bathing suits once. At least it was warm.

The resort was very nice, if overpriced. Each room is actually a private hut, with its own Jacuzzi, hammock, outdoor shower, and view of the volcano. Of course, no one bothered to inform me that we wouldn’t actually be able to see the volcano, it being rainy season and all. There were full amenities, great landscaping, and a swim-up bar. Everyone was very helpful, there were pool boys to take your order at the outdoor hot tubs, there was full cable, free wi-fi, and free calls to the US.

But they nickel-and-dimed us for everything else—and at US prices, not at Costa Rican prices. Want water with your dinner? Flat or sparkling, $5 US a bottle, no tap water option. Want a massage at the spa? They start at $80 US. Want a bottle of wine at the wine bar? That’s $28 US for a bottle of Yellow Tail. (YELLOW TAIL. And that was the cheapest wine available. The rest of the wine options were South American, overpriced, and frankly no better than plonk.) Want transportation to and from the airport? $120 each way in a private van, no van-sharing option available. Breakfast was included (thank God) but dinner was at least $35 a person, with no booze. We never paid less than $100 for dinner, and I’m positive there weren’t any locals coming up the mountainside to eat $100 US dinners. The food was good, but it wasn’t $100 good.

Also, they were super-sneaky when it came to drinks: the drink menu listed most drinks at $6, but that didn’t include obligatory tax or 10% service charge, and the bartenders would never tell you what the house liquor was. There were several times when we’d order, say, a margarita, and the bartender would hold up a random bottle of tequila and say, “OK?” If you said OK back, chances were excellent you’d just ordered yourself a $26 margarita. You had to specify, “House is fine,” or else they’d automatically upsell you the expensive stuff. Caution: the local Costa Rican rum was apparently the expensive stuff, which we didn’t discover until we got our bill at the end of our stay. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where the local stuff WASN’T the house option. I don’t mind being asked if I have a preference for booze, but I really mind not being told what things cost up front.

This all makes me sound like a crank, I know. It actually was a very nice vacation—we got away, and spent five unbroken days with each other, with no work, gaming, computers or phones to intrude. Costa Rica is a beautiful country, even with the rain, and we’re definitely planning to go back at some point (to one of the coasts this time, rather than the mountains). And even though the food was overpriced, it was good. I ate my weight in ceviche and fried plantains.

I’m just cranky because the GODDAMN F*CKING STATE OF NEW YORK STOLE $1700 OF MY MONEY WITHOUT WARNING ME. WHILE I WAS OUT OF THE COUNTRY AND COULDN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Which meant all our vacation cash had to go to pay our rent for next month, and then the vacation had to be charged to a credit card, which makes me exceptionally cranky because the whole point of the vacation was that we could pay cash for it.

Right before the road trip in 2009, I got a bill from the IRS informing me that I’d filed my 2007 taxes improperly and I owed over $3000. (Some paperwork apparently never got mailed to me, so I never included it.) I freaked out, called them, and worked out a payment plan to pay it back. I finally managed to pay off the last of it this year.

Yesterday, while dealing with the IRS and the State of New York, I was told that in the fine print of that original bill, I was supposed to contact the State of New York MYSELF within 90 days so that my state tax return could be reworked. Naturally I never saw that provision, it being buried in the fine print, and no one at the IRS bothered to point that out to me. When I never contacted NY, they reworked my tax return themselves, and have been sending bills for said tax return to my old address in California—which never got forwarded to me, because I haven’t lived there for over a year. When they never heard from me, they issued a tax levy on my accounts, which meant the bank had to empty various savings accounts and send them $1700 on my behalf.

Now, let’s recap. They were sending bills to my California address, but I never got anything while I lived there, which meant they’ve only been trying to contact me within the last year. For a tax bill that’s now four years old. And yes, my address has changed, but my PHONE NUMBER AND EMAIL ADDRESS ARE EXACTLY THE SAME. Also, clearly they had no trouble digging up my current bank account information, so why couldn’t they be bothered to, you know, maybe CALL ME AND TELL ME I OWED THEM $1700?

I spent all morning on the phone yesterday, trying to figure out what happened when and what I could do about it. Short answer: I’m screwed. That money’s gone.

So now we have less than $500 left in emergency money, on an already tight budget, with Christmas coming up. Good times.

I wanted my husband to have an upscale vacation. By myself, I was always perfectly happy to stay in the local illegal Craigslist B&B and wander through the bars and restaurants the locals frequented. That way, I could spend my money on one or two really nice four-star dinners and museum admissions and the like. But I figured he’d want to be eased into international travel, which is why we opted for an expensive resort in the mountains—nothing to do but relax and be pampered, right? With no worries about being robbed in our sleep or getting Montezuma’s Revenge from the water. So, we had the upscale vacation, and thanks to the extra food and beverage charges, paid through the nose for it. Which I wouldn’t even mind, if it hadn’t been for that unexpected tax bill.

So, the moral of the story is: don’t bother with the upscale resorts. Stay in the cheap hotel, eat with the locals, really get to know the country. I can hang out with English-speaking white people at home for free, I don’t need to pay extra to do that somewhere else.

Also, be sure to have a healthy emergency fund, no matter what.

And what does this mean for you, dear readers? I'm not entirely sure yet, to be honest. We'll be eating out of the pantry all this month, that goes without saying. When our budget gets tight, food expenditures are the first to be chopped. My CSA is over, so I won't have any fun new CSA vegetable recipes to post; I'll be eating the old stand-bys, rice/beans/pasta/soup, and slashing all other expenditures to the bone. (Unplugging things/turning off the lights when we're not using them, turning the heat down to 60, not going out, not buying anything that's not absolutely necessary.)

The good news is that I got a post-Thanksgiving sale turkey at Sam's Club for $6. That's right, a whole turkey for $6.

I popped that right into the freezer. That's our Christmas turkey, for $6.

I did eat some really yummy things while in Costa Rica--more about that tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment