Tuesday, August 10, 2010

So You Think You Want To Refi?

So mortgage rates are low and you think you want to refi, huh?

I've got excellent credit and I've got loads of equity in my home. A decent income doesn't hurt either. With all that going for me I assumed it would be a snap like it was a year ago when I refinanced. I was wrong.

I started by sending my mortgage broker two years worth of tax returns, copies of W-2's, three months of bank statements for both of our accounts, broker statements, social security card copies, driver's license copies, our homeowner's insurance policy, a copy of parts of our living trust and a recent mortgage payment statement.

Next came the appraisal which turned out just fine and meant that our loan would be for 56% of the value of our house. One would think that any lender would be thrilled that we had so much equity, and that may have been the case except that the underwriters then got involved.

For those of you who don't know what an underwriter is, he/she is the person working for either the lender or, in my case, the mortgage broker. Their job is to review all the paperwork, ensure that your loan will give the lender warm fuzzies, and then find ways to not approve the loan.

The first bizarre request was for me to remove a tree in my front yard. The tree is approximately 12 feet high and is shaped like a half-moon. Why it grows at an angle is beyond me but it was like that when we bought the house 10 years ago and, aside from growing a little, it hasn't done much of anything other than lean. And what is most puzzling is that it doesn't lean towards the house.

What were they worried about? Would it suddenly spin on its trunk and throw itself at the front window? Would it leap out of the ground, hurtle eight feet from where it's planted onto the house and wrestle the chimney off the roof? This is the tree that our neighborhood calls the "Doctor Seuss tree" because of its comical shape. Doctor Seuss, not Stephen King!

As a compromise the underwriter suggested anchoring it to the ground with wire and a tree stake. I suggested the underwriter anchor a brain to himself which must have hit home because he dropped the tree removal requirement.

The next issue was our pool. I know what you're thinking: "What could be at issue with the pool? Cracks? Proximity to the house? Loose diving board?"

Think simple and think like a moron. They questioned the water!

We have a motorized pool cover that was closed when the appraiser came out. Naturally the appraiser took pictures of everything including the pool. Because she actually had a brain she didn't ask us to open the cover but she was rational and the underwriter was not. They wanted more pictures with the pool cover open, requiring that the appraiser come over again and take more pictures.

I can't quite imagine what they were thinking. It's not as if a lack of water would reduce the value of our home "appreciably" (refinancing joke). But what did they think was under the cover? A tar pit? A meth lab? 40 marijuana plants? An illegal pre-school? A naked man floating on his back?

So somewhere in my lender's archives along with all of my loan information is a picture of a middle-aged naked man floating on his back in a pool, flipping the bird to the camera.

Everything was good and we had two weeks left in which to close the loan or lose the super rate we were getting. Finally all the roadblocks were out of the way and the mortgage broker assured us that it would be clear sailing from here on out.

Except for the other issue. A few years ago my father-in-law passed away and left my mother-in-law to deal with her own financial affairs. My father-in-law was a bright man and recognized that 1) it would be difficult for his sheltered wife to suddenly step into a role that he had handled for them for 50 years and 2) that it would be doubly difficult considering my mother-in-law has early stage Alzheimers. So he wrote into his living trust that my sister-in-law and I would become co-trustees if a doctor determined that his wife couldn't handle it. That was good for family affairs but bad for my refi.

"Why are you the co-trustee," the underwriter asked. "Are you obligated on her mortgage loan?"

I explained the situation and told him that a trustee who has not signed the note as an individual is not obligated. And I was only listed on the deed as an addressee: "Marc Bloom, co-trustee of the blah, blah, blah Family Trust."

So the underwriter wanted a statement explaining it. Then he wanted another statement elaborating on the first statement. Then he wanted a copy of the note proving that I hadn't signed it. Who has a copy of somebody else's loan? He might as well have asked me for a copy of Obama's blood test (sorry, different subject). Heck, it didn't show on my credit report and it didn't show on any of my mother-in-law's mortgage data. You would think that would be enough to prove it. But I never got any word on whether or not my explanations satisfied them because they were still looking for more reasons to turn me down. I should have told them how many of my clients have me listed as co-trustee. That would have made plenty of steam come out of the underwriter's head.

Next the underwriter wanted certain pages from my in-laws' trust to prove I was a successor trustee. Then they wanted a note from my mother-in-law's doctor as to her incapacity. Then they wanted proof that my father-in-law was dead. Rather than exhume the body I went with a copy of the death certificate just for convenience. But if he had been cremated I would have simply taken a picture of an ashtray.

Well, the "lock" (the rate from the lender is only guaranteed for a specific length of time) on my super rate expired before closing and my mortgage broker had to pay to extend it so he's not happy. So I sat and waited to see what the underwriter would say. I was told that the lender has been involved in some of the controversy but to what exent these frivolous questions came from them I couldn't say. So, for a while, nobody knew if I was going to be approved.

Finally the underwriter and the lender ran out of reasons to turn me down and on the evening of the next rate lock expiration the notary showed up to have us sign docs. There were mistakes everywhere (including our address on one of the documents) but I assured my wife that it was still okay to sign which elicited the look she gave me when I came home drunk from a bachelor party a few years ago. I guess quality control goes out the window when you're facing a deadline.

Three days later I received an e-mail from the mortgage broker asking me to sign a profit & loss statement that I submitted to them a month earlier. Without it the loan would be denied. Why didn't they know this when I gave it to them in the first place? What next? Will I be required to send them a picture of my dog before the first payment is due?

So, if you think that solid credit, good equity and a decent income is all that's required to refi then I want some of what you're smoking. Prepare yourself to be frustrated and for the process to occupy more of your time than ever before. You'll be answering questions that you consider inane and you may be answering them more than once.

STOP THE PRESSES! I was supposed to close on Tuesday, fund on Wednesday and have a small refund check hit the mail today but something else has cropped up. Can you guess what it is? The cashier's check bounced? No. We are already in default on the new loan? No. Okay, I'm going to flip all the cards and just tell you: I am on the FBI's Terrorist Watch List. Not me, Marc H. Bloom, but apparently somebody with the name "Marc Bloom."

When I got the call from my mortgage broker's office advising me that my secret identity had finally been uncovered I thought they were just messing with me. But it was no joke.

"You know that it's 'Bloom', not 'Boom,' right?" I asked her.

"Yes, we know," she responded timidly.

"Was it the driver's license picture of me wearing a keffiyeh?" (Arab headdress)


"I thought I put 'CPA' down as my occupation on the application. Did I accidentally misspell it and write 'terrorist?'"


Can you believe it? I can't. And my wife laughed her head off when I told her. It is rather comical when you step back and look at it but I would imagine that some people would fail to find the humor in it.

Obviously I am not a terrorist and the lender finally cleared me (after a few threats). I closed yesterday and everything seems to be fine although I haven't received my refund check yet, however there's no reason I shouldn't get it but the way this thing has gone I wouldn't be surprised if my name is misspelled or the decimal is in the wrong spot (two places to the right would be preferred).

Sadly, the new financial environment in this country makes it virtually impossible to smoothly conduct any kind of credit business. And when you throw in a skeptical, paranoid, bozo of an underwriter and a skeptical lender you can bet your butt that not only will you have to jump through hoops but you'll have to prove that the hoops aren't those magical rings that Criss Angel uses.

(Note to underwriter: I am calling off the fatwa.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Costa Rica

I think I can safely say I'm the only person in Costa Rica wearing a Los Angeles Kings cap. But then there aren't a lot of Kings hockey fans in the world. Heck, there aren't many of us in Los Angeles besides my daughter and me but this isn't about that--it's about where the hat has been.
During the early summer of 2009 my wife, Robyn, was pressing me for a vacation destination during my 16 year old daughter's Christmas break. Since we like tropical locations I threw out Belize and Costa Rica, then didn't think anything more about it. But Robyn did and before I knew it she had a tentative Costa Rican itinerary planned, including activities that all three of us--especially Jamie--would enjoy.

And so it was planned and so it became.

Quite honestly I wasn't thrilled with the choice. My perception of Costa Rica was that it was a Third World country rife with crime, bugs and unsanitary conditions. And it was Spanish speaking which conjures up the worst of Mexico. But I was wrong in a big way.

The following is a travelogue of our trip from San Jose (the capital) to the La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano area, to Manuel Antonio (on the Pacific Coast side) and back to San Jose. Along the way I'll try to keep you entertained as you trace our fumbling steps through what may very well be the most eco-friendly country in the world.

So please put your seat backs in a full and upright position, stow your tray tables and prepare to enjoy.

There's nothing worse than starting your vacation on New Years' Day with a flight scheduled for 7:30 AM. At our age an early bedtime is no problem but when your 16 year old daughter is involved you have to expect her to be a little cranky. But Jamie was a trooper (a zombie trooper but a trooper nonetheless). She was ready to go on time and barely said anything during the 30 minute trip from Valencia to Burbank Airport (sorry, "Bob Hope Airport").

Sitting at the front of the plane has it's benefits but until they close the damn door it's like sitting in the front of a refrigerator. What I thought was a comical request to close the door was met with an icy stare from the flight attendant. I couldn't tell if the "icy" was due to her lack of a sense of humor or the temperature but I got the message and decided to keep further comments to myself.

Our flight stopped in Dallas where we would have four hours of layover with which to sample the fine dining and shopping opportunities within the terminals. We found that standard directions at DFW are generally given in terms of "Brookstones" because it seemed like they were everywhere. Example: "Where can I get a cup of coffee?" "Well, you go down to that Brookstone, turn right, go about 40 feet and turn left again at the Brookstone. You should see it after you turn the corner, right across from the Brookstone."

You think I'm kidding? Then next time you're at DFW use the men's room next to Gate A11. There's a Brookstone inside, right next to the urinals. There's nothing like a foot massage while you pee.

Jamie and I spent much of our four hours profiling the passengers in the terminal; "creeper," "female suicide bomber," "Urkel," "side-saddle cowboy." Up to this point Robyn had only kissed one dog but we knew there would be many more to come.

San Jose-The capital of Costa Rica and generally the entry point for flights directly from the U.S. There are some nice areas of the city but they're found in the suburbs interspersed among the many poorer areas.

We were told in no uncertain terms to stick with the red Medallion cabs as they were licensed, regulated and safe. Hopefully we'd be able to spot the Doubletree shuttle bus and eliminate the need to trust a cab but after a few minutes we started to wonder.

A local in some kind of uniform asked if we needed a cab but we told him who we were waiting for. He laughed. "They no come this late," he stated but we weren't to be deterred. He stood next to me, watching me out of the corner of his eye, knowing that we would soon give in. The red cabs came and went and came again--but no Doubletree vans--until finally we decided to give in and trust him. He grabbed the bags and walked us into the parking garage.

Robyn and I looked at each other. Why would a cab be in the parking garage? The answer: it wasn't. He led us to an unmarked van and started to load our baggage. Robyn and I looked at each other again, this time with a little more trepidation but how could we back out now without offending him and the eight thugs waiting to rape and rob us in some dark alley? Heck, we were in the land of jungles and determined to live life on the edge so we let him kidnap us.

15 minutes later he dropped us at the Doubletree without so much as a threat. Relieved at surviving our harrowing ride, we checked in and Robyn and Jamie hit the free internet cafe in the hotel because so much must have happened since we left THAT MORNING. I watched the Laker game. Hell, we could have simply stayed home.

The Doubletree was nice but the breakfast buffet was hardly worth the $14 per person (including 13% tax and a mandatory 10% tip that is added to every food service bill in the country).

Jamie, already sick of hanging around airport terminals was none too pleased we'd be doing it again at a tiny airport in Pavas (a suburb of San Jose). Luckily our take-off was right on time (15 minutes late) and our puddle-jumper wobbled into the air and puttered towards La Fortuna. After a disappointingly smooth half hour flight over the verdant Costa Rican landscape we swung down into the valley and landed smoothly in La Fortuna.

La Fortuna-A small town in the shadow of Arenal, an active volcano. La Fortuna is a one-street town with about a dozen restaurants and a handful of activities companies. The resorts are all found between the town and the volcano.

Coquie was our driver and pointed out a restaurant he recommended (and claimed to own). He zipped through town and pulled off the "highway" (I use the term loosely) and onto a gravel road that wound up and down through the hills for what seemed to be a half hour. Just before the entrance to the hotel he stopped the van and pointed to the top of a tree along side the road where we snapped a couple pictures of an animatronic two-toed sloth hanging upside down. We hadn't even gotten to the hotel and already we had seen almost-wildlife!

Robyn did good! The Springs Resort is heaven on earth, an imposing compound perched on a hillside with the Arenal Volcano smoking a few miles away across the valley. No sooner had we walked in than we were greeted by an employee with orange juice/passion fruit drinks, Jamie's new favorite drink.

The main building is a massive five-story behemoth with three restaurants, a series of about six pools connected by waterfalls and four or five hot pools with their varying temperatures clearly posted. The resort's rooms are below the main building and require a bit of a hike down so many stairs and ramps that even this CPA refused to count them.

Our second floor suite was enormous with a picture-perfect view of the volcano framed in every window. Robyn and I had a pedestal king with an LCD TV mounted on the wall above the huge window, a bathroom that was as large as my first apartment (including a sound system) and a balcony with the obligatory table and two chairs, two rockers and two hammocks. Jamie's room had twin beds, her own bathroom and her own LCD TV. The smile on her face said it all. It could only have been better if we had the outdoor Jacuzzis like the first floor guests had but it was good enough.

From our balcony we could watch hawks and vultures circling high overhead, birds and butterflies flitting around. But mostly we could soak up the ambiance of the countryside spread out below us in all directions and watch the clouds playing peek-a-boo with the volcano.

The resort property is vast with a series of volcano-heated mineral springs dotting a hill alongside the resort. At the bottom of the property is an exotic cat sanctuary, reachable by either golf-cart, horseback or by the dreaded walk. Unfortunately for the resort owner, Joey, the cone of the volcano partially collapsed in 2008 and shifted the visible trickle of lava from the hotel side to the Lake Arenal side thereby depriving 95% of the resorts from seeing anything other than smoke. Can you say "refund?"I wouldn't be surprised if some day there's a run on dynamite in La Fortuna and a shift in the way the lava flows.

Lunch that day consisted of two burgers, a quesadilla and two thimble-sized tropical drinks for $67. We should have gotten umbrellas in our drinks for that price but that's what you get at a 5-star resort that's 20 minutes from town. Oh, and lots of ants and mosquitoes which were complimentary.

Dinner was pretty and dark with the only light coming from inside our table. The food was good but I'll be damned if we got what we ordered. Their website should have warned us that miner's helmets were needed if you actually wanted to see what you were eating.

Our first day at The Springs and all we had done was walk a lot and eat two expensive meals. Tiring stuff. But the next day would get our adrenaline pumping.

We woke to the clearest view of the volcano yet and actually saw the top a couple times. After a quick breakfast we boarded a van with eight Austrians and two New York single women for a 30-minute ride to a zip-lining canopy tour. Along the way we passed a family of coatimundis and about 60 people crowded around them on the side of the road. For those of you who don't know a coatimundi, it's not a cat and not a dog. It's not a raccoon and not a meerkat. But it's kind of like all of them with a little anteater thrown in. Look it up and tell me I'm wrong. Oh, and besides eating small rodents, fruit and lizards, they apparently also like Cheetos (Wikipedia confirmed it).

A few minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of the canopy tour and watched a dazed group of tourists in zip-gear walking back to the office.

Okay, I'll admit I wasn't having second thoughts about zip-lining once I saw what it was. It was more like third and fourth thoughts.

I had pictured a lazy clothesline stretched between two trees or, perhaps more familiar to most of you, that yellow rope set-up in a Gymboree or My Gym where your child grabs two handles and some college girl pushes him or her across the room while all the mommies and daddies clap. But after seeing what I was in store for I was sure I was going to share something with your children when it was over and that something would require a diaper change.

As I stood there in my safety equipment I overheard a doofus of a man raving about what a rush it was. I say "doofus" because this guy was the poster boy for what happens when you get dropped on your head too many times--a couple missing teeth, hair like a troll doll, shorts that would have been appropriate in the nut-hugger era of the 70's and a t-shirt that said "I'm with 'sputid'." Far be it from me to be encouraged by a near "re-re" (ask a teenager) but if he could do it without choking on his helmet then I had to try it. Besides, Jamie was already accusing me of pussing out.

We took a gondola to the top of the course and the guides kept us distracted with a narrative of the native flora; "tree, tree, bush, tree, bird, another tree...." Well, you get the idea. But what he said really didn't matter because we could see what we were in for and I wasn't looking forward to it.

Here's the set-up: A cable was strung between two metal platforms and anchored, hopefully, to something secure. The first two spans were short and low and you could see them from the observation platform at the top of the gondola ride. The first two spans were meant to bolster your confidence and let you get the hang of it. But from that same platform you could also see the third span and THAT sight was as scary as the sound of your doctor snapping on his rubber glove during your physical exam. I could already feel something warm and wet trickling down my leg.

One of the New York girls had already talked herself out of it by the time we got out of the gondola and the cute Austrian girl was torn between curling up in the fetal position and simply throwing up, neither of which helped me much.

Okay. First crossing. 20 feet, 8 feet off the ground and 10 miles per hour. The guide trussed me up in a testicle-squeezing harness, laced the pulley onto the cable, hooked the harness to the pulley and attached the safety carabiner for good measure. I sat back and let the harness support me, lifted my legs, crossed my feet and slid across to the other side. Hey. That wasn't so bad!

The next one was just as easy and I was feeling pretty cocky as I stood on the next platform and waited my turn. Jamie took off and sailed across followed by Robyn, both of them thrilled at what lay before them. The guide, knowing we were together, stared at me with that "come hither" look and knew that my bowels were in the process of running through most of the knots a Boy Scout learns. He smiled and said "your turn, Daddy."

I put on my best John Wayne face, sidled up to the ramp, let him strap me in and waited for Robyn to clear the other side. And it took a while for her to make it because, unlike the first two spans, this one was a 45 second ride at 55 miles per hour across a canyon whose floor was 600 feet below us. This was some serious shit. Ironically, that's what was in my shorts too.

Remembering the guide's instructions I sat back, lifted my legs as high as I could, crossed my feet and kissed my ass goodbye. The guide held me there waiting for Robyn to either make it to the other side or plummet to her death. He started counting from backwards from five, got to four then released me. As I sailed away I caught an upside down view of his devilish grin, looking much like Lucy when she pulls the football away from Charlie Brown as he's about to kick it.

Now there's a tradition among European zip-liners that I learned from one of the Austrian girls and that was to yell "SCHEISSE, MOMMMMMMMMIE!" which I did with perfect German inflection.

By the time I was 10 feet into the ride the fear disappeared and I sailed across the chasm with my eyes focused on the platform on the other side, the whine of the cable and the wind in my ears the only sounds. What a rush!!! The re-re was right!! And I was the sputid one!!

Flying towards the other platform I wasn't sure what I should do. The guide behind me had said the guide ahead would wave his hands or rock the cable as a signal for when to spread my legs to slow myself down but he was just standing there. If I slowed too soon I'd come up short and have to pull myself hand over hand to the platform. And if I did it too late there was a chance I'd be picking up the 5-7 split in my version of Austrian bowling.

I opted for slowing myself later and came slamming into the rope stopper that halted my progress rather quickly and made my vasectomy completely superfluous. But it was over and I had made it with clean shorts.

We stood there waiting to see if either the New Yorker or Austrian cutie were going to come too and saw the guide take off with Cutie nestled in front of him. Since he was bringing up the rear we figured the New Yorker had opted out but as he whizzed closer to us we could see that there were six legs coming at us and I knew from Jamie's anatomy class that Austrians and Ticos (Costa Ricans) only have two. Sure enough, riding on his back was the New Yorker. And the guide was smiling.

For the next half hour or so we traversed the ravine, zipping from station to station and moving lower and lower, all but the two girls enjoying ourselves. And no, the two girls refused to fly solo on any of the rides, instead forcing the guide to play momma baboon to two pewling babettes.

Jamie & Robyn pretty much threw themselves into it, relishing the thrill but it only took me 10 seconds to love it as much as they did--$66 per person (kids $52) well worth it.

For future reference we discovered that Skytrek (our company) was the only one to brake the riders. The other companies use an archaic system by which the rider stops himself by gripping the cable with a thick leather glove. Sounds like too much work to me and when you're doing 50 mph you don't want to be in control of your own fate.

We cabbed it from the resort and had dinner in la Fortuna at Las Brasitas, a lively place with decent food at a decent price. Jamie laughed a lot at seeing her dad a little tipsy and was delighted to find a brownie with ice cream on the dessert menu. Nothing to write home about but----wait. I guess I am writing home about it so it must have been okay. I think we were overcharged but after two beers it was hard to tell. (Two beers make me write in a choppy manner. My normal flowing style will return once I sober up.)

On the way back we had a great cabbie who entertained us with his constant chatter. We never got his name but he got ours: "Family."

"Family! Look. An anteater!" he shouted on a pitch black stretch of the treacherous gravel road. And sure enough, on the road from the highway to the resort there was an anteater trotting along in a ditch on the side. The driver stopped the car, backed up, instructed Jamie to grab his flashlight from the back then told us to hop out. By then the creature had disappeared into the brush but our driver hopped up onto a dirt ledge, determined to find it. I was just about to remind him that snakes were nocturnal and that Costa Rica was home to 23 venomous snakes including the deadly Fer de Lance when he aborted his mission and we returned to the car.

The next morning we had our last breakfast at the resort and ran into the Austrians, finding them to be much more talkative than they were the day before. The father invited us to visit Austria some day, citing the ability to smoke anywhere, including restaurants. I wasn't aware that the Austrian Tourist Board's slogan was "The land of frauleins, tar and nicotine."

We bid a fond farewell to The Springs Resort and hopped in a van with Francisco for a five-hour drive to Manuel Antonio. As we had hoped it wasn't half as bad as it could have been although Francisco seemed to think that identifying farm products would be interesting for us: papaya, mango, banana, plantain, yucca, rice. Over and over again he pointed out the damn trees to the point where we started to recognize them and mouth the words along with him.

The drive was leisurely, passing through small Tico towns and weaving through the mountains. We stopped for delicious empanadas (don't tell my mother about the flies on them) and made a short visit to a bridge that crossed a river that was home to about a dozen crocodiles basking below us.

In hindsight the flight would have taken about a half hour and cost about the same as the drive but you never know when Alex Trebek is going to ask you to identify a dwarf mango tree.

Manuel Antonio-an upscale beach town on the Pacific side of the country. It consists primarily of restaurants and hotels but there's a huge national park on the south side of town. The nearest regional airport is at Quepos, 15 minutes away.

Arriving at the Gaia Hotel (not pronounced "Gay-a" or "Gee-ya" but "Guy-ya") we were dropped at the main gate at the bottom of the hill and loaded into a golf cart for the short ride up the winding road to Reception. Along the way we passed three iguanas and began to get excited that this would be fun. But, upon getting to the hotel itself we were a bit disappointed at first glance. After the luxury and sheer size of The Springs anything was bound to be a let-down.

But far be it from a spoiled Jewish family to pre-judge. We would give it some time and then be bummed out.

After a quick tour of the property (more freakin' steps to climb) we were shown to our "suite" (two more flights of steps) which was a far cry from the splendor of The Springs: two rooms and about enough room to swing an iguana if you kept your elbows tight to your body and the iguana was a baby. Jamie's face said it all and she moped for the next two hours. Even the private rooftop terrace with what we thought was going to be a plunge pool but turned out to be a one inch deep blue-painted rectangle of water. Talk about deceptive web site pictures. Oh, and did I mention it was up a flight of stairs?

Dejected, we decided to brave the small nature reserve on the hotel property but aborted it within a few minutes when we heard the insects laughing at us through the dense, humid air. With a long uphill walk ahead of us we made for the driveway in the hope of flagging down one of the many golf carts and sure enough we saw one. The driver whizzed by us with a smile and an "hola" (Spanish for "suck it up gringos") and continued on his merry way. All we had to do was ask him for a ride but we were too embarrassed to admit that a little hike was too much for us.

Jamie flip-flopped ahead of us, no doubt disgusted by our wussiness, leaving Robyn and me to huff and puff up the hill by ourselves. But near the top of the drive we spotted a sloth lazing in a tree. Because we were familiar with sloth-calling we made a variety of noises to try and attract its attention, finally getting him to look down at us during the chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody (sloths are huge Freddie Mercury fans). He smirked at us as if to say "hola idiots," then laid his head down again.

So this is a boutique hotel? They should spell "boutique" "boo-tique."

Dinner was at La Cantina, supposedly a Tico BBQ joint but the only BBQ on the menu was ribs which Jamie had. During dinner Robyn stepped outside for a "breath of fresh air" (euphemism alert!!!) and hooked up with "Chicago Billy," a wandering hippiesque moving company owner who was bumming around Costa Rica looking for a haircut. When they shook hands Jamie and I could see the sparks flying. Amor was in the air. Or was it bug spray?

After a less than wonderful, sweltering dessert (us, not the dessert) we retired to our room and spent the next few minutes betting on which ants would make it the length of Jamie's bed first, then turned in early. Tomorrow would be better, wouldn't it?

Animal question: Do beetles count as animals if they're big enough to make noise when they walk?

We had a complimentary breakfast this morning which was actually pretty good. Funny how at this hotel the breakfast was free but the bottled water was $7.50 including tax and that damn 10% tip. We were hoping to have the chocolate waffles but the waffle iron was broken. And that would be the case for our entire trip. I was beginning to think they stopped serving waffles altogether and just didn't want to re-print the menus.

By the way converting dollars to colones (the local currency, not an intestinal bug) is pretty easy. Just multiply the dollar amount by 6, 450, 277 and add an "R." And just about everything here is 3,000 colones; a cab ride to town, a bottle of water at the local market, a joint---I mean "Daddy's medicine." With 3,000 apparently being the most common charge there is no 3,000 bill.

They've got a 1,000 bill called a "rojo" for it's red color, a 2,000 which is green with a hammerhead shark on it called "dos rojos," a 5,000 called a "toucan" because it's got a toucan on it. Why it's not called a "cinco rojos" is beyond me but I think they're just screwing with us. This stuff makes absolutely no sense.

With the current exchange rate at about 550 colones to the dollar the simple way to convert is to drop the zeroes from the colones, mutliply by two and subtract 10%. So using 5,000 colones as an example, drop the zeroes (5), multiply by 2 (10) and subtract 10% (the answer is $9.00 US). For those of you who doubted me and grabbed your calculators you've already discovered that $9.00 translates to 4,950 colones. Big deal. Pat yourselves on your anal retentive backs.

And every time I exchanged dollars I ended up with between 20 & 50 colon coins which do nothing but ensure that we'll be over the weight limit when we fly back to San Jose. Currently I have 62 coins in my pocket which means 1) I scare the local animals as I walk around and 2) my shorts fall down without me using my hands. I just suck in my stomach and they hit the floor sounding like a slot machine paying off.

After a visit to the bank, market and pharmacy (coin count now 73) we boarded a van that took us to the town next door--Quepos--for a catamaran tour for 3 1/2 hours of dolphin-watching and snorkeling. There were plenty of brown boobies (the bird kind), jigging flab (Swedish girls that were built like Saabs) and a couple of thongs (not the shoes). I'm betting that Robyn has already deleted THOSE pictures from the camera. One of the thongs belonged to a Latina mother of three, something that appalled Jamie but I found surprisingly pleasant.

We did some "borkeling" (boring snorkeling), met a few nice people, saw no dolphins and spent most of the time watching Robyn talk to every man on the boat, including the Swedish guy who was traveling with his girlfriend and four other young girls (Viagra is over the counter here and cheap). It was only day five and already her dance card was full. Thank goodness she doesn't dance.

Among the guests was a paraplegic guy from Texas with his dad, a couple of New Yorkers who had just become engaged, and a couple of newlyweds from San Antonio. The paraplegic, John was quite remarkable and refused to let his disability deter him. He had already been zip-lining in his wheelchair and went snorkeling with us. What an inspiration.

Back at the hotel we trudged up the stairs to our room, pausing to jump 10 feet in the air when a grasshopper the size of a Volkswagen slammed into the wall. I tried to get a picture but it was too big to fit in the frame so I passed on the shot. After all, how do you explain to someone that they're looking at a photo of the left hindquarters of a grasshopper?

Dinner was okay. We started out going for tapas at Salsipuedes but they were closed so we rode a little farther (still only 3,000 colones) and checked out El Avion, the restaurant built around the fuselage of a plane shot down by the Sandanistas but the menu was a little too limited. With very little else around and not wanting to spend another 3,000 colones we crossed the road and had a nice Italian meal at Gato Negro where the waiter undercharged me. I called it to his attention which undoubtedly shocked him and then tipped him heavily at Jamie's insistence. And when I say "heavily" I mean it. 2,400 colones above the 10% mandatory tip and most of it in coins. Who knew you could eat dinner in Coast Rica and lose four pounds?

Oh, one neat thing about the Gaia Hotel. Every so often they do this cool light show where all the lights in our room go out for a few seconds, then come back on just as suddenly. They must like us a lot because ours was the only room that had this feature.

By now the hotel was beginning to grow on us. Had we started our vacation here instead of at The Springs we would have been blown away by the friendly, exceptional service and more appreciative of the unique, clean, modern design of the place. We discussed it and agreed that The Gaia was nice after all.

After a quick breakfast in our room we climbed the maze of stairs to Reception and caught one of the golf carts down the drive to the main gate. The valets loaded us up with towels and bid us "Buenos dias" as we boarded our bus for our white water rafting adventure.

A half hour later and after transferring into a rumbling four-wheel drive van we left the main highway and bumped along a dirt road past rows and rows of African Palms which are harvested for their palm oil. Every so often the photographer would lean out the window and rip something off a tree or bush that hugged the road, then pass it back to our guide.

Welcome to the popular Tico game show "So You Think You Can Smell!" The rules are easy. Grab a leaf or a pod from the guide, mash it in your hand when appropriate and try to guess what it is.

Mint? I said holding a pod of tiny red seeds.

"No. Paprika," answered the guide with a laugh. "Rub it with your finger."

So now I had a red finger and no Wash 'n Dries in my emergency cylinder.

Next came a series of leaves.


"No. Anise. It's like licorice."

Next a piece of something that looked like bark.

"Mint!" I said emphatically.

He looked at me warily. "No. Cinnamon."

Another leaf.

"Ah, now this is mint."

"No. Citronella."

By now I was having too much fun and both he and I knew what I was going to say as I held the lemon grass under my nose.


He just shook his head and scowled.

By then I was holding all of the samples and wasn't about to stuff them in my pockets like some white-skinned composter. I gestured towards the window and held my hand near the opening, receiving a nod from the guide near me.

No sooner had I tossed the crap out the window that BOTH guides yelled "NO!!" They were screwing with me of course but I must admit I had visions of roasting on a spit in some village for violating their local jungle laws. Little did I know that there was more to come.

A stop for a drink at a local village and we were back on the road bumping higher into the mountains, eventually coming to a bridge that spanned the mighty Watchamacallit River in all of its three-foot depth glory roaring past us with the ferocity of a bunny eating lettuce.

The rafts were inflated, the gear handed out and the safety instructions given: "Do what I say and don't fall out." Yeah. Sure.

These guys know every inch of the river, every stone, every boulder, every nuance and every place in which you can maneuver the raft in such a way as to dump any one, two or three of its riders.

The little eddy that carried the raft forward, backward and back into the current without any paddling or steering was cute as was the bus driver routine our guide performed complete with sound effects and an invisible steering wheel. The five-foot drop over a boulder that dumped me out of the raft was not.

In I went but my safety training took over and I stretched out my legs in front of me, turned to face downriver, held my paddle in my right hand and flipped off the guide with my left.

He reeled me in, hoisted me into the raft by my life vest and dumped me in the raft like a flounder but there were no hard feelings. The water was pleasant enough and I was really enjoying the entire experience.

After the next "incident" our guide and lifeguard Jonathan's pixie smile seemed mocking. By the third time I could see he was really enjoying it. As I went over the side the fourth time I caught an upside down view of his face and I could swear he was mouthing the word "mint." I was pissed and I told him so.

The rest of the rafting trip was more like It's a Small World at Disneyland (without those scary Russian dolls near the end of the ride) with Jonathan steering away from the more ominous rocks. His sullen expression told me he felt bad so I tried to make nice and encouraged him to regain the sadistic glee he had exhibited earlier but my outburst had apparently deflated him. Perhaps he thought it would affect the generous tip that he got anyway but I think he was genuinely concerned that he had ruined the day for me.

All in all black and blue water rafting was loads of fun---and tiring. Man was not meant to spend two hours perched on the side of a rubber raft with his legs folded beneath him like a pretzel. As I hobbled up the bank to the bus my body agreed.

We boarded the bus and groaned our way back to the village for a chicken lunch where I discovered star fruit juice. Guess why it's called "star fruit" but you'd better not say "because it looks like Angelina Jolie?" Delicious---the juice and Angelina. Just don't tell my mother that I ate and drank questionably prepared food in a village in the middle of the jungle.

Final tally: I "went swimming" four times, Robyn three times (once knocked in by me) and Jamie three times (once knocked in by me and once when Jonathan decided to throw her in).

Animal sightings: A yellow snake dancing at the edge of the river trying to get up on the rocks, wild horses, a few birds and tons of butterflies. Oh, and monkeys back at the hotel.

This was my last chance to really see a lot of monkeys so we took a shuttle over to the national park and took a tour with the guide from the hotel. Without him we would have easily missed half of the creatures and that would have been a shame. Grasshoppers, butterflies, spiders, bats, lizards, sloths, raccoons, birds, crabs and monkeys were in abundance and glued in place to make them easier to see.

Obviously the raccoons, howler monkeys and white-headed Capuchin monkeys were the easiest to spot but everything else was either camouflaged or hidden away in some distant crook of a tree or behind a leaf. The Capuchins near at the beach end of the park were especially entertaining, chasing each other through the trees and on the ground not five feet from us and effortlessly leaping from branch to branch with gravity-defying ease. One of the tourists from another group was kind enough to point out that one of the Capuchins was grooming another's genitals (he put it in crasser terms) and felt compelled to keep shouting "Look. He's cleaning the other one's b_lls," lest anyone in the park miss the announcement. Damn uncouth Americans.

For once we had a leisurely afternoon, swimming in the multi-level pool and eating a mortgage payment's worth of lunch (a burger and two drinks for $35). I'll never complain again when 7-Eleven hikes their Slurpee price a dime.

While in the pool we met Nadine from Maryland and her son Josh. Nadine is a cowboy photographer (?) and Josh is a 20 year old college student and bionic boy who has broken nearly every bone in his body. Strangely Jamie gravitated towards Josh and spent a good part of the afternoon smiling sweetly and laughing with him. And he's Jewish!!! They exchanged e-mail addresses, phone numbers, Facebook accounts and promissory rings, planned a two-month backpacking trip through Europe and put a down payment on a house.

They were so nice that we delayed going to dinner to coincide with their reservation and ended up seeing them in the hotel resturant. Naturally, because we're such friendly Californians, we asked them to join us and had a rollicking good time laughing and talking movie trivia. It was the perfect way to spend our last night at the hotel. More importantly we didn't embarass Jamie.

The only downer was when Josh commented that I looked like Donald Sutherland. Donald Sutherland? He's 74 for cripes sake!!!! I guess that wasn't quite as bad as the zip-line guide saying the same thing. No Hanukkah cards for either one of them this year.

Jamie and I had breakfast (still no waffle iron) while Robyn was getting a massage, then Jamie joined her while I went to pack. On the way to the room I stopped by Reception only to find out that check-out time way 11:00 AM. Guess what time it was? Right. 11:00. So guess who had to finish the packing? Was it one of the three Diegos who worked at the hotel? No. Was it one of the three Christians? No. It was the only Marc.

I slammed it all together and finished just as the girls returned to the room but now we had 90 minutes to kill before the shuttle ride to the airport so we went where the A/C was---the computer room. We checked our e-mail and watched a couple of large iguanas climbing in the trees just outside the window.

We also met a lovely South African couple who wanted to travel to the U.S. to visit the cereal aisle of our supermarkets. They told us there were only three cereals sold in South Africa but I think they were pulling our legs.

Then it was time to go but first the Jewish Santa in a sweaty tank top had to pass out the tips to the guys working that day.

From Quepos we flew back to San Jose, getting our last low-altitude look at how beautiful Costa Rica was and feeling a little sad that the adventure and exhilarating part of our trip was over.

We checked in to the Grano de Oro Hotel, a converted Victorian house near downtown that was overpriced, had hard beds and no water pressure. Just what we wanted on our last night.

Not having done any shopping we hoofed it a dozen blocks to the downtown shopping area, specifically the Mercado Central, a maze of tiny stalls inside a large building that offered everything from coffee beans to t-shirts to raw beef and poultry to trinkets and artwork. Picture a flea market.....with fleas.

Almost no one spoke English but it didn't matter. We had gotten down to the essence of Tico culture---yes, to the very bowels of local life and boy did it smell like it!

After picking up a t-shirt and two kilos of cocoa beans for Robyn's sister we allowed a kind policeman to hail us a cab to take us back to the hotel. It took him a good 10 minutes to do so but we appreciated his effort. The cabbie was especially chatty (as are they all) and suggested a couple of restaurants that sounded TOO authentic so we let him talk us into a place near the hotel that he frequents.

It turned out to be the Costa Rican version of Johnny Rocket's so we figured we were fairly safe. Robyn ordered for us and made it very clear that Jamie and I wanted plain burgers with nothing on them except "orange" cheese. Imagine my joy when the server brought us gouda burgers with ham and MAYO.

Now those of you who know me are aware that I don't eat condiments of any kind: mustard, relish, mayo, ketchup---nothing! So you can imagine how I was feeling. Normally I would send it back but when you're in a foreign country you don't want to risk some fry cook spitting in your replacement food (I'm okay with American saliva, though).

So I smiled and proceeded to scrub the mayo out of every crevice and off of every food surface I could find. True, people were staring at me strangely as the pile of paper towels grew in front of me but it was my right as an American to embarass the hell out of myself.

Rather than walk the three blocks to the hotel we heeded the advice of the greasy spoon manager and blew the $2 for a cab. We immediately changed into our PJ's and said our prayers ("Dear father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Please keep our stomachs safe from parasites and spare us from diarhea on the flight home. Amen.")

Boring! Shuttle to the airport, flight to Dallas, a walk through three Brookstones, flight to Dallas and on to Burbank. 12 hours of smelly carpets and crappy airline food and we were home.

Before the trip if someone said "Costa Rica" I didn't have much of an opinion one way or the other. But after spending a week there I can safely say that it's a beautiful and wonderful country and I can now appreciate the allure.

Besides the animals, activities and the landscapes the greatest asset of the country is its people. The cynic in me would say their attitudes towards visitors are money driven as their economy relies heavily on tourism. But even the Tico on the street is friendly and helpful.

Environmentally they are also far ahead of the rest of the world with conservation and "green living" a national priority. It's no wonder the New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranks Costa Rica number one in the world in terms of happiness and ecological footprint.

Having been to over a dozen Caribbean islands as well as Fiji and Hawaii I think I can safely say that Costa Rica tops my list of tropical destinations.

Pura vida!!!