My wife and I rented what we called the “White House” for a year-and-a-half when we first moved to Costa Rica. A sprawling single story, it had five bedrooms all in a row down one side, with kitchen, living room, bathroom etc. going down the other. Large covered patios on either end. It looked like a motel, only missing the “Vacancy” sign. And obviously, all painted bright white. Inside and out with white ceramic tiles on the floor.
We enjoyed living there, as did the numerous family members and friends that rotated through the place during our stay. High in the hills, it had a huge yard complete with fishpond, two mallard ducks, a paddock with horses and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. The one thing the White House lacked was any means of electronic communication. No phone line, no internet, not even cellular coverage. The phone company had neglected this little pueblo of about two-hundred people. The nearest cell signal was back at the highway, a four-kilometer drive over a bumpy dirt road. The entire village was cut off from communication with the outside world.
Maureen and I needed internet for our consulting work, so we found a company which provided service in remote areas and arranged for a satellite dish to be installed on the roof of the White House when we moved in. This was 2007 technology, so the dish was huge. About five or six feet in diameter and horribly expensive. It was slow and unreliable in fair weather and quickly became useless when it started to rain. Although we lived in the rainforest, it was usually sunny and clear in the mornings. So, we tried to schedule any important downloading or uploading for early in the day.
Our little community was home to a mixture of Costa Ricans and North American expatriates. The expats were mostly retirees or seasonal surfers from the US and Canada, a colourful bunch of individuals (putting it politely) from all different walks of life. Some had been around the area for a long time and some, like us, were new additions.
One couple who had recently arrived were Bonnie and Art. This extremely loud and animated couple stopped by for a visit shortly after we moved in. They stood on the front lawn gazing up at the huge dish on the roof. Some neighbours had tv dishes, but this beast was at least four times the size; “What’s that?” asked Art pointing up at the dish. “And please don’t tell me you’re communicating with extra-terrestrials.”
“Satellite dish,” I answered; “We need internet for our work.”
“Must be expensive,” commented Bonnie.
“Yes, it’s crazy expensive, I answered; “But we get unlimited data,” I added attempting to justify our extravagance.
“Do you mind if I bring my laptop around sometime and download my email?” asked Art.
“Be my guest,” I answered, detecting a glare shot my way from Maureen.
When they left, Maureen explained that she was worried they might come and hang around all day surfing the “net” and didn’t want to encourage them. Unfortunately, the genie was out of the bottle and that’s exactly what happened.
It started that very afternoon when they came back with their laptops and sat on our front porch for an hour, downloading and answering emails. We offered them tea and coffee and went about our business. But the next morning Bonnie was back. She showed up by herself and got into a big Skype call. Bonnie was loud under normal circumstances; but when she was on Skype, she got even louder. And she didn’t use a headset so we could hear both sides of the conversation, “Hello, can you hear me? It’s Bonnie calling from Costa Rica.”
“Connie? I don’t know any Connie in Puerto Rico.”
“No, it’s Bonnie. Your sister. Can you hear me? On it went. And it was terribly difficult to ignore. I had created a monster.
Maureen would often do her consulting work from the White House while I would go to our building site or into town to pick up construction supplies. Sometimes, when I got back, she’d say Bonnie had been sitting on the porch all morning yelling at her computer; “They’re having a fight with their building contractor,” or “She’s trying to tell the mechanic how to fix an automatic transmission.”
I hoped it was a novelty that would soon wear off. But it didn’t. Polite hints went unnoticed. One evening, our friend, landlord and next-door neighbour, Barry, came over for dinner. After a couple of glasses of wine, Barry mentioned that it seemed like Bonnie and Art were spending a lot of time visiting. That set Maureen off and she gave Barry an earful of Bonnie stories. She told him it was driving her crazy.
We finished our dinner and were cleaning up when Barry said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about your problem with Bonnie and the internet. I’ve come up with three possible solutions.”
“Let’s hear them,” Maureen said eagerly.
I should mention that Barry is a great guy and does a lot to help a lot of people, but he is what could be described as a blunt New Yorker. Not the least bit shy about saying what’s on his mind and even louder than Bonnie. “The first option, and the one I recommend,” Barry told Maureen, “Is to do what I’ve done in this type of situation. I just say to the person, “I don’t like you and I don’t want you comin’ round here no more!” It works well. People can understand that, and they just stop coming back. Problem solved.”
We both chuckled thinking Barry was joking, but in fact he wasn’t. “Now if you don’t feel comfortable doing that,” he continued, “Option two is to get John to do it for you.”
Feeling just as uncomfortable about this alternative I asked, “What’s the third?”
“The third option is less direct. You just unplug the Wi-Fi when you hear them driving up the road and tell them the internet is down. After a few times, they’ll get the idea and stop coming.”
We thanked Barry for his problem-solving advice and said we’d think it over. We weren’t about to tell Bonnie and Art that we didn’t like them, because we did. We just didn’t want them around so much. And if we’d been perfectly honest with them, we’d have explained that we found their company distracting and we enjoy our privacy. It may have made us look selfish. And perhaps, to a certain extent, we were. But it might have hurt their feelings, though I think it would probably take more than that. So, in the interest of avoiding confrontation, we went with Barry’s option three. I felt terrible about being deceitful, but it was easier than confronting them and telling them the truth.
The logistics of option three, however, were a bit more complicated than we anticipated. Other vehicles would drive up the road and we’d scramble into the house to unplug the Wi-Fi only to find it was someone else passing by. Or we wouldn’t notice them coming and they’d be parked in front of the house and getting out of their car before we raced inside to yank out the plug. But in the end, it took about three or four visits, and the same number of white lies, over the next week and the problem was solved. They stopped coming over and all was back to normal in the White House.
A few years later, the phone company put lines and high-speed internet into every house in the village. At the same time, cellular service was opened to the free market and several companies put up towers close by. Within a year, almost everyone owned a cell phone. The young people, like everywhere else, became social media enthusiasts. More importantly, this updated infrastructure also changed the demographics of the area as many young families from around the world, whose incomes were derived through working from home via internet, started to settle in our community. It’s wasn’t surprising to see a cattle rancher riding by on his horse while talking on his phone. And my feeling of guilt for lying to Bonnie and Art abated as now they were able to Skype to their heart’s content, as loudly as they wanted, in the privacy of their own home.
John Paterson and his wife own and operate a small off-grid nature lodge and coffee farm in Costa Rica. They generate their own electricity with a micro hydro plant and protect 200 acres of rainforest. John enjoys writing and has published two novels and several creative nonfiction essays.