Adventures in Moving

“I would like to have this,” stated the foreman of the crew charged with packing our possessions.

I stood across from him in my kitchen. Between us on the counter sat the item in question—a small portable speaker my family and I used to listen to music while we cooked.

His statement, like the majority of those spoken in Costa Rica, was in Spanish. I not-so-affectionally call myself “Marshall Two-Times” as it’s often necessary for me to hear something stated in Spanish twice before it finds traction in my brain.

Sure that I had misheard, I asked, “Can you say that again?”

The foreman pointed directly to the speaker and said, “I’ll take that with me tonight so we can play music at our hotel.”

He stated his desire so clearly and effortlessly that I almost nodded to the logic before I reassembled the statement in English. 

“Well…no. That’s our speaker. We’re going to use it tonight.”

My patience with this curious mover was wearing thin. He’d already made it clear that he wanted to take the box of half-full liquor bottles with him. We weren’t allowed to ship them—which he clearly knew—and I’d already promised them to a friend. Over the course of the morning the foreman had lifted up the box of bottles several times and semi-jokingly said he was going to put it in the cab of the moving truck.

He smiled, stared again at the speaker, then shrugged and said, “We’ll see.”

Several pointed replies came to mind, but I weighed my need to reply to his veiled threat of future ownership against the fact that I needed this man and his team to do a decent job of packing and loading our goods. The last thing our departure from Costa Rica needed was another complication.

“Yes,” I said evenly, “we’ll see.”

The foreman slapped his thigh in acknowledgement of his wit, winked and then pointed at the box of liquor bottles sitting on the floor as he went to rejoin his crew.

My level of annoyance, which I reached via a combination of the foreman’s queries and my own inability to speak Spanish beyond a third-grade level, was tempered by a small pang of guilt. I could have let him borrow the speaker. It likely would have been a nice diversion for the moving crew as they spent the night in the meager accommodations the moving company had secured. He could bring the speaker back when they returned to finish loading their truck in the morning.

I shook my head to physically dislodge that idea. In my four years in Central America I’d met a lot of nice people. One of the most popular mantras used by the nicest of folks was, “Never pay in advance.” This axiom was only slightly more popular than the runner-up, “Don’t loan anything you ever want to see again.” 

Once upon a time I broke with convention and agreed to pay in advance for a hard-to-find part for the Malloper. I spent the next couple of years bumping into the mechanic, who was all smiles and handshakes. He volunteered each time that a year or two was a long time to wait for a part for a car that I no longer owned, felt really bad about the fact that he’d failed to return to my house or answer a phone call, and promised that he was going to get that money back to me really soon.

I talked with another Tico mechanic who was a friend of mine about the situation and he rolled his eyes. The offender was apparently well known for running off with people’s money. My friend, for reasons still a bit fuzzy, had actually referred me to the no-gooder when he was too busy to help. I don’t think my friend felt any remorse about it as he—correctly—pointed out that I had messed things up by paying in advance.

In this conversation I called the guy who’d run off with my money a ladrón (thief). My friend, who had just listed all of the various people who had been ripped off by the bad mechanic, winced and replied, “We don’t use that word. Here we would say that the guy who ran off with your money is irresponsible.”

“Irresponsible?” I replied, trying to apply that word to the situation. Thing #2 is irresponsible. That adjective must carry a lot more clout in Spanish.

Related: until fairly recently the charge of defamation in Costa Rica involved a jail sentence in addition to whatever financial penalties applied. This was true even when the comment involved was true. The imprisonment portion of the equation is no longer a given, but you’re asking for trouble if you speak the truth about bad people in public. This is further support for the notion that it’s best to avoid these complications altogether by refusing to pay in advance or loaning anything to anyone.

Back amongst the moving boxes, I looked out the window to see the four members of the moving crew walking slowly through our garden. They had announced that they were on a break a few minutes before and went to the porch to consume the drinks and snacks we’d left for them.

The impromptu tour of the garden was a new wrinkle. The men shuffled along, pointing and conferring with one another. None of them struck me as the gardening type and, based on the punishment they had inflicted upon the guest bathroom, I was fairly certain that fruits and vegetables were not staples of their diet. I went back to working on my inventory worksheet.

A few minutes later the foreman stuck his head in the door and asked, “Can we have your tomatoes?”

Per usual, it took me a moment to process the query. My family and I were staying in our house for two weeks after these items were moved out and would be using the furniture and other items we were leaving behind for the benefit of the family who would be renting it. I had donated piles of things to various families around town and I knew of several (including my own) who could use the fruits and vegetables from our garden—but wearied of the battle with the smiling foreman before me.

“Yes,” I said, “please take any of the ripe ones you want.”

I got an even bigger smile in return along with a thumbs-up before the foreman trotted back to the garden with the good news.

Later on that afternoon another break was declared. The movers filed off to the patio while I made last minute additions to some open boxes. A few minutes later I snuck a glance out to the garden. The men were not there but were instead standing in a circle around our pond. I stocked the pond with tilapia donated by my mechanic friend and a school of the larger fish typically sunned themselves close to the surface.

I watched the men, who pointed excitedly at the fish. Building the pond was my favorite of the projects I’d tackled and I swelled (even more than usual) with an extra bit of pride whenever I saw someone enjoying it.

My euphoria ended two minutes later when the foreman appeared in the doorway and asked, “Do you have any fishing rods?”

I suppose my shock at this question kept me from saying several things that came to mind. It kept me from saying anything.

The foreman, sensing an opening, added, “Or maybe a net?”

Fresh off the recent victory in the tomato battle, he smiled with anticipation of a positive response and even gave a quick nod of encouragement. 

I don’t recall saying anything but the look on my face must have been dark because the foreman stopped smiling and slowly backed away. When he disappeared from view I continued to stare at the space he had occupied and thought about my options. I had asked upfront how what appeared to be a day’s worth of work could take the three days the moving company had allotted. I now understood.

Towards the end of the day, the foreman was packing items in my garage and called out to me with a question. I met him in the garage and saw that the rough piles of items I had laid out for packing were now sorted out into smaller groups. All of my better quality hand tools were now grouped together. It was to this pile that the foreman pointed and said, “How much do you want for this?”

I bit my lip, shook my head and walked away.

Later in the afternoon, the foreman announced that they were tired and would return in the morning. I thanked everyone and gave a short wave to their truck. A few minutes later my back door opened part way and the foreman stuck his head in, “I almost forgot,” he said, “where’s my speaker?”

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