Originally published by Mango Musings in May 2021

The circle of life so often depicted on the National Geographic Channel happens daily in Costa Rica. Toucans rob other birds’ nests and devour their little ones. Despite their reputation as herbivores, iguanas eat baby mice. Crocodiles consume people and iguanas. Ants line up with their grocery carts on my patio and take away my beautiful flora. Of the 200 mammalian species here, half are bats that nosh on insects. But the most dangerous predator of all, as I have learned on several occasions, is the ATM.


Banking in Costa Rica. The process of using an Automatic Teller Machine appears straightforward. Here in Costa Rica, after standing in line, innocents enter a kiosk that houses the ATM. Once inside, after your card enters into the slot and is “read,” a series of prompts appear on the screen with questions such as whether you prefer English or Spanish and the kind of account you hold. Next you are directed to enter your PIN. That accomplished, you punch in the desired amount in colones or dollars and if you require a receipt. The ATM warns that a fee “may” be imposed or with some ATMs, the ransom required is automatically revealed. Simple, right? 


Recently, I did a successful transaction, being rewarded with the colones that I immediately deposited in my purse. Unfortunately, I foolishly decided to tempt fate and do a second withdrawal of funds. Maybe I was distracted by the new feature of a Latina Alexa who was repeating the prompts in a language remotely resembling English. Maybe it was the nanosecond limit required to retrieve and then reinsert the card before beginning a new transaction. Perhaps it was payback for some horrible sin in my past. Here’s what happened in real time to my debit card.


No prompts appear after I insert the card for a second withdrawal. The lady speaking Croatian is silent. No matter how many times I punch CANCELAR, nothing happens. Nada. Nada. Nada. The hungry ATM has devoured the lifeline to fund my opulent lifestyle.


In horror, I exit to inform the queue outside of my plight, shouting, “¡Perdi mi tarjeta! ¡Perdi mi tarjeta!” The folks in line feign sympathy about one of the numerous inconveniences that comprise the landscape. They direct me to go to the bank that owns and operates this ATM. I make my way to the center of town.


Currently, Costa Rica is experiencing a Dickensian “worst of times.” The retrieval of lost cards by the guards who regularly service the ATM is no longer a daily occurrence. The lockdown in the Central Valley of Costa Rica is due to having more COVID-19 cases than hospital beds. Both religious and non-religious are to blame. Some families over-celebrated Semana Santa (Holy Week) with huge gatherings. Others continue to hold parties that resemble nightclubs when shown on television as the policia round up the offenders. Added to this is a gruelingly slow vaccination process. 


With newly imposed health restrictions, only essential services are provided, banks belonging to that category. The bank, when I arrive, has lines branching out in two directions. The guard saves me the wait, saying to return on Friday, the day the ATM is emptied of what I assume to be a butt load of credit and debit cards. Alas, it is only Monday!

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The week passes. On Friday, naïve and wide-eyed, I take my place in line outside the bank. I have memorized the health routine. Once inside, I will have my temperature taken and I must wash my hands (the last time in a sink practically over the urinal), take off my mask momentarily for the camera before donning it again, snatch a number and sit in a chair, six feet from the client ahead of me.


Perdi mi tarjeta,” has become my mantra. I repeat it to the guarda who instructs me to return on Monday. The ATM that must be brimming by now with snatched cards will not be emptied until after the weekend. Already, I can picture the offending ATM, smiling with glee as it noshes on the plastic.


Time advances. It is Monday. The line winds around the side of the bank. Even so, a younger person instructs me to go to the front door since I am an adulta mayor (old fart). This time, I actually manage to get inside and to speak to a live person. She makes several phone calls and instructs me to …  wait for it … return tomorrow, but not too early. I try to extract a promise from her that my card will be at the bank 24 hours from now. Laughing at the ludicrous request, she says that she would not and could not commit to so rash an assurance.


It is Tuesday, a week since the mishap with the ATM. By now, the security guard and I are practically family, making me worry about his method of taking my temperature. He ushers me inside for the requisite health protocols. I take a number and wait. 


Costa Rica has schooled me well in the art of putting your life on hold. The teller or post office employee or cashier will engage in banter with the client who proceeds you. Easily a half-hour could pass. Sometimes an hour. When it is your turn, you too will be the recipient of that good will. Seven years of standing in hundreds of lines has taught me that gratification is never instantaneous. When it comes, which it did as the bank teller handed me my debit card, still chuckling about me trying to get her to commit to a timeline for its arrival, I resisted jumping across the barrier and hugging her. 


Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Adopt the pace of Nature: Her secret is patience.” I wish Ralph would have added not to push your luck if you complete one transaction at an ATM. 

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