Happier House Garden

Costa Rica Cost of Living Update: A Thousand Bougainvillea Plants—Free when your husband is a lunatic

The weather has been beautiful in Costa Rica with the perfect mix of rain and sunshine. We have amazing lightning shows at night, with claps of thunder so loud it rattles the windows. Mornings begin with misty clouds drifting across the hilltops; temperatures so cool it feels like I’m still living in the mountains.

I think often about my time in Grecia, where this whole journey started. Rob and I didn’t know what to expect when we moved to Costa Rica. The idea was risky, ridiculous, and romantic. Little did I know, it was the beginning of something great

Below is a chapter from Happier Than A Billionaire: The Sequel. It chronicles the move to the beach and the beginning of our next adventure, one which included a truck full of plants.

Rob knew we would have a garden one day. He has a way of seeing into our future.


And Away We Go…


I feel sad dropping our friends off at the airport. They are going back to their home in the states, while I’m uplifting mine to move to the coast. It would be nice to stay in Grecia for a few more years, but Rob is right. We have to do something with this property, and these decisions are too difficult to do so far away. At least I had the trip of a lifetime with my friends, seeing things I used to only dream about.

It turns out Scott was right; the problem with the wheel was a ball bearing. We dropped the car off at our mechanic and he had it fixed by the end of the day. I’m glad I won’t have to worry about the wheel flying off the car while we are moving to Tamarindo.

Despite all my budget fears, it turns out living at the beach will only increase our expenses by a couple hundred dollars. There are a lot more fun things to do there, and I predict I’ll be spending more on those outdoor activities. I might even learn how to surf. It would be embarrassing to not try while living in the surfing mecca of the world.

I calculate our budget will be between twelve and fourteen thousand dollars a year, the exact amount my friend pays in real estate tax for a nice house in New Jersey. How can I ever move back to the states again? Now I might just have a stroke when I pay thirteen dollars to cross over the Verrazano Bridge. Add the Goethals Bridge at twelve dollars, and a thirty-minute drive from my family’s house in New Jersey to Rob’s family in Brooklyn will cost us twenty-five dollars in tolls. I rarely see a toll in Costa Rica, and if there is one, it is never more than a couple dollars.

On my last trip back home, I noticed I got a ticket in a parking lot, and I couldn’t imagine why. I had plenty of time on the meter and ended up sitting in the car searching the ticket for some explanation. I finally found it. I got a thirty-five dollar ticket for backing into a space. I couldn’t wrap my head around why this action was so problematic. Had there been a wave of people getting maimed by runaway backing cars? If that was the case, if a person pulled in head-on, wouldn’t they eventually have to back out anyway? I paid the ticket, hoping my money went to the salary of a police officer or teacher. But what bugged me the most was that feeling that everything was monitored. That I couldn’t even back into a space without getting fined. It’s too stressful living that way.

Planning another move also means planning the logistics of hauling our possessions across the country. Rob hears about an affordable mover from the Kansas couple who used to live next door. They moved out so they can be closer to town, but now they are close to all the traffic and congestion as well. I don’t think they are any happier living there than next door to us on the mountaintop. But being closer to town has its advantages; at least you don’t have to drive twenty minutes just to pay some bills. I would rather deal with the drive than live around a lot of people again. I’m enjoying having some space between us and the neighbors, and I don’t have to worry about anyone seeing Rob watering the plants in his underwear.

When we meet the driver a week before the move, we notice he only has a medium-sized flatbed truck. Rob thinks we can fit all our stuff on it since we don’t have any furniture. However, Rob always underestimates how much stuff we own. He also underestimates our credit card bill, always forgetting that he just purchased one hundred dollars in plastic for a greenhouse or fifty dollars’ worth of fertilizer for the tomatoes.

My husband’s garden — the one that was to make us self-reliant when the end of the world came and marauders roamed the earth — cost us a fortune. The greenhouse that he spent hundreds of dollars building ultimately blew down the mountain in a windstorm while we were away for Christmas. Francisco, the caretaker’s son, was paid to watch the house and make sure the greenhouse door was always closed. If it was left open, a gust a wind could certainly set it airborne.

When we came back from the states, the once pleasant drive up our mountain resembled a grizzly plane crash.

“Was there an accident up here?” I asked as we followed a trail of PVC pipe, plastic sheeting, and dead tomato plants.

“Son of a… I swear, I’m going to kill him!” screamed Rob.

For the investment of over five hundred dollars in materials and dozens of hours in sweaty Italian labor, I figured each one of those tomatoes cost us around four dollars. Not the best rate of return, but at least we have a freezer full of tomato sauce for the zombie apocalypse.

On the day of the move, the driver shows up to our house at five in the morning. Within a half hour, Rob has filled most of the truck with his plants and gardening supplies. Like Steve Martin in The Jerk, every time I think he is done, he grabs something else, “I don’t need this or this. Just this bougainvillea plant… and this bag of fertilizer. The bougainvillea plant and the bag of fertilizer and that’s all I need… and this remote control. The bougainvillea plant, the bag of fertilizer, and the remote control, and that’s all I need.” Now the truck is full and we look like we’re off to landscape the Four Seasons hotel. Most of my stuff gets shoved in the back of our SUV, next to the kitty litter and dog food.

Over the past year, our house became ground zero for Rob’s Botanical Gardens masterpiece. He wants to use all the shrubs and flowers that he has grown on the mountain for our property by the beach. I think this is a bit premature. How can you landscape a lot that doesn’t have a house on it? Or even building plans that show where the house might go? But he is too excited to listen to any of my recommendations and continues to grow as many things as he can.

Rob can be manic in his enthusiasm for more shrubs, often pulling over to the side of the road to snip a few more clippings of a bush he hasn’t found yet. It seems he is replacing his humongous aquarium and coral garden he spent years trying to grow back home with an actual plant garden that can’t be confined by the dimensions of a tank. He might end up landscaping clear to Nicaragua if I don’t put the brakes on it every so often. And when I say putting the brakes on it, I mean sitting alone in the car while Rob disappears into a field for a half hour scrounging for more plants.

Now, a guy shows up weekly at our house with a trunk full of plant inventory. I have no idea how he found out about Rob, but he shows up like clockwork every week. He pops open his trunk with the same kind of secrecy a guy in Manhattan does when opening his trench coat to reveal the thousand dollar Rolex he’ll sell you for twenty bucks. It’s fascinating that this salesman already pegged my Brooklyn-born husband for someone willing to buy anything out of the back of a vehicle.

“You’ve never bought anything out of a trunk before?” Rob asks.

“No Rob, can’t say I have.”

“You mean to tell me people didn’t pull up in front of your house and pop open their trunk?”


“Okay, so where did you buy your furniture?”

“Somebody had furniture in their trunk?”

“No, they pulled up in a truck, but it was the same idea. You go outside, see what you like, and they drag it up the few flights into your apartment.”

“But how do you know it’s not stolen?”

“Why do you think everything sold out of the back of a truck is stolen? Sometimes, it’s just easier to do business that way. Low overhead.” There’s no use arguing with Rob; I’ve been listening to his wacky explanations for years.

A couple months after we met, Rob took me on a date which involved driving down Brooklyn’s popular 86th street in the middle of December. He showed me every location where Saturday Night Fever was filmed, including the infamous scene where John Travolta swaggered down the street holding a paint can. Rob borrowed his mother’s car and drove around Bensonhurst, giving me his Hollywood tour with the windows down. Every time I tried to roll mine up to prevent from freezing to death, he would reach over me and roll it back down. What I didn’t know — but found out years later — was the junky car had a deadly exhaust leak and we would have died from carbon monoxide poisoning if there was no ventilation. I can still remember his silly excuses as he reached across me, lowering the window.

“I love the sounds of Brooklyn in the winter. If you keep the windows down, you’ll hear the trains going over our heads. Check that corner out. That’s where Steven Seagal threw a guy over a fruit stand in Out For Justice.”

“That’s great Rob, but it’s twenty-five degrees out and I’m really getting cold,” I’d say raising the window again. “And what’s that, a prison?”

“No, it’s my high school. Hey, take a look. It’s L&B’s pizzeria. It’s a landmark, you’re gonna want to smell that real Italian pizza,” he’d suggest while rolling the window back down.

“Could you put the heat on at least?”

“Hmm… that’s temporarily not working. All the more reason to snuggle, right?”

Rob was flat broke back then, and if I remember correctly, we had to share a slice of pizza that day. But my husband had a burning desire to get what he wanted no matter what the obstacles were. And carbon monoxide poisoning was not going to keep him from landing the woman who he already knew was going to be his wife. A girl he wanted to make sure remained conscious for the wedding. After all, an asphyxiated wife is no fun on the honeymoon.

I watch Rob squeeze what’s left of our things in the moving truck. Amazingly, even with the plants, he makes room for the rest of our junk. Everything looks like it is going to topple over, but we have to get a jump-start on the day before morning rush hour hits. The driver is not particularly happy; he thought this was going to be an easy job and has just found out there is a lot more work than expected. There’s nothing we can do now but instruct him to follow us. Or at least we try to. I don’t know the word “follow” in Spanish so Rob does his typical charades to get the point across.

Unfortunately, the Pan American highway is not a smooth straight road. Our first leg is filled with sharp switchbacks with nowhere to safely pass. A fact our mover ignores by brazenly passing us on a blind curve.

“He doesn’t even know where our house is, why is he passing?” I ask.

We watch as the man takes off down the road. We try to pass the car in front but it is too dangerous; it’s not worth the risk. We see too many accidents of people trying to pass on these ridges.

I thought there might be a good possibility of this happening. We don’t have a clue who this guy is, and for all we know he could be selling our stuff out of the back of his truck. We go down the laundry list of what was on board: our scooter, guitar, all my clothes, and other assorted items. Luckily, my computer and pets are safe with us. After getting over the shock, I realize it is not the biggest deal. I try to convince myself it is a fresh start, that this will lighten my load once again. But with each curve, Rob has his eyes peeled; he wants his guitar back.

This situation is made worse by the fact that my cat crapped in his pet carrier five minutes into the drive. I don’t want to reach around and open the carrier door fearing my cat will leap out. Because of the awful smell, we have all the windows open and can’t use the air conditioner. Just like our romantic 86th Street date, we’re driving around with the windows down to avoid another cloud of unpleasant fumes. At least these don’t have the potential to kill me, however nauseating they are.

After an hour, we spot the truck in the far corner of a restaurant parking lot. The man is leaning on the side eating an apple. He isn’t even surprised we found him. I’m still unclear of the man’s motives, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt. Rob doesn’t look so forgiving. The rest of the way we spend most of our time watching the truck in the rear-view mirror. Rob won’t allow him to pass us again.

“I think we’re okay now, Rob. He’s not getting around us.”

“We just have to stay on top of this guy, I don’t trust him. How much longer do we have?”

“At least four more hours.” Knowing my husband, he is going to be glancing in his rear-view mirror every ten seconds for the rest of the ride. “You know, once we’re all settled in I was thinking about putting my writing together in a book. I’m calling it Happier Than A Billionaire, the same name as the blog. Maybe even try to get it published. What do you think?”

“Sure, why not. What’s the first step to making it happen?”

“I guess I have to send query letters to literary agents. If they like what I have they can pitch it to publishers. Now I just have to figure out how to write a query letter.”

“I’m all for it. As long as you don’t make me sound like a giant ape, it could be a lot of fun.”

“Of course. You always have final say in editing.” I feel fairly confident Rob will not edit any of my stories because I haven’t seen him pick up a book since college. He’s not the reading kind, so I’m not worried about it. He’ll never know what I’ll eventually put in the book.

As we continue to our new home, my mind is lost in the possibilities for my future as a writer. I’m already making mental lists of all the things I need to do to make that dream attainable. I begin to get a strange sensation that if I keep an optimistic spirit something incredible might happen. That feeling quickly dissipates, replaced by a whiff of cat poop. But for a moment, I feel like a door has opened for me. I just need to figure out how to walk through it.