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HomeCosta RicaCosta Rica Expat Living: Language and Culture at the Hardware Store

Costa Rica Expat Living: Language and Culture at the Hardware Store

Of the many frustrating, funny, difficult, and wonderful situations one encounters in the daily life of being an expat in Costa Rica, two items that are frequently at the top of list are difficulty managing your adopted second language and properly maneuvering through the inefficiencies of attempting to successfully complete mundane day-to-day activities in Ticolandia.

The first item is obvious. The job of learning new noises to make that describe everything in the whole world that are nothing like the noises you’ve been making your whole life is really hard. You have to memorize new vocabulary along with a different sentence structure and then properly spit it all out at the same time while somebody is looking at you, waiting for you to make sense. Learning a second language is difficult.

The second item isn’t as obvious. I didn’t exactly realize it while growing from a baby to a 28-year-old in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but many things in the States are very efficient. If you want to open a bank account, you click on a few items on your computer or maybe you are actually forced to talk to a human bank teller for less than five minutes and boom, you have a bank account. Do you want to set up a new cable or internet account?

No problem, it’s done in a few minutes from the comfort of home. In contrast, getting the little things done in Costa Rica is never smooth. Bank accounts require every official document you have acquired since birth, all signed by an attorney. Getting cable or internet working properly requires at least six people, ten phone calls and no less than three failed attempts at the company’s physical store location. The best way I can describe it is a quote from a bumper sticker that I saw shortly after moving to Costa Rica.  It said “Costa Rica, we make easy hard.”

Not two days ago I encountered a situation that made me collide head on with both of these items. My bathroom sink was leaking.

My wife informed me that the pipes under the bathroom sink were leaking every time she turned the water on. After a quick inspection, it was obvious that the pipe leading from the drain needed to be tightened and the leak should stop. I applied some slight pressure with a wrench and immediately exploded the little metal ring I was tightening. I now had a hardware store adventure on my hands.

Throughout my time in Costa Rica, I had learned to avoid hardware stores at all costs. The reason for this is that most hardware stores keep their entire inventory behind the counter, not allowing for browsing, forcing the customer to ask an attendant for the item that they require. For those of us speaking Spanish as a second language, this is like a Spanish test that is nearly impossible to pass. What’s the name for the pipe that’s attached to the bottom of the drain of a bathroom sink? Nobody knows.

But, I had a trick up my sleeve. There’s a tiny hardware store not 15 minutes from my house that actually has shelves that you can walk around and search for the item of your interest without having to display your lackluster Spanish speaking skills.

I arrive at said tiny hardware store, and I’m immediately greeted by a kind-faced attendant who asks how he can help me find the item I’m looking for. I’ll tell you, in English, exactly what I told him in SpanishOk. My bathroom sink. The little metal thing with holes where the water leaves. Underneath, there’s a tube. Water is leaving the tube. There’s a thing, like a screw, but I broke the screw and water is leaving the tube. I need a new one.

After looking at me like a teacher watching a student struggling to read a book report out loud, he nodded his head and gestured to follow him. He took me down a thin aisle, grabbed a little box, popped it open, and displayed a new drain for my sink complete with the drainpipe and the “screw” that tightens the whole situation so water doesn’t leak all over the place. Boom! Language test passed.

Now, the inefficiency raises its ugly head. As we walk to the counter and he taps away at his computer, a slight frown grows across his kind face. There’s something wrong with my drain’s code in the system. The code says that it’s something that it’s obviously not. He calls his coworker over, who agrees that something is wrong and they discuss it for a while.

They play with the computer for a bit and then eventually call somebody, a manager I guess, who should be able to solve the problem. My guy describes the whole situation to the phone person and after a few minutes they agree upon some kind of code that allows us all to move forward with our lives.

I figure I’m in the clear and try to hand him my credit card. He puts up his hands in protest and calls over to a person I haven’t met yet and tells me that she’ll help me. She makes her way over to a cash register that is in a separate tiny room for some reason and takes my card through the window into her tiny room and runs my card.

I receive my receipt and look around for my bathroom drain. While paying, my drain has been taken to a separate desk across the store. I go to retrieve my drain, but yet another lady that I haven’t met yet won’t give it to me. She needs to inspect the receipt that I received from the lady in the tiny cash register room. She stamps it a few times and hands me my drain. I’ve done it!

The pride that I feel while sitting in my truck, driving the short distance back to my house is palpable. I successfully used my Spanish, and I bought the part! I returned home, leaned under the bathroom sink, put my new drain into place, tightened the screw with a wrench so it wouldn’t leak, applied a little too much pressure, and exploded the screw for a second time.

Unbelievably, it was time to return to the hardware store.

About the Author

Vincent Losasso, founder of Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring, is a biologist who works with camera traps throughout Costa Rica. Learn more about his projects on facebook or instagram. You can also email him at:

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