Meet Mario

My neighbor Mario robbed my house but gave me a new life. For that, he has a permanent place in my heart… and now on my blog. (For a picture of Mario and an update on his latest hit, click here.)

I fled Los Angeles for tropical Costa Rica last August, but it took a bit longer than I originally thought to take the LA out of the Angelena. And it took the surprise of, the morning after my house got robbed and ransacked, finding the neighborhood twerp at the local grocery store — rocking my women’s sneakers.

After a thrilling, luxurious six-week “vacation” in a mostly American suburb outside of Playas del Coco, my biggest frustration was feeling removed from the “real” (so cliche, but you know what I mean) Costa Rica. My four-bedroom house with ocean views was a nicer place than I could’ve ever imagined living in at that time, almost a year after I lost my job, started the freelance struggle and exhausted my savings. But I wanted the real deal.

So I moved suddenly to the heart of Coco, into a darling house about the size of an SUV. And then disaster struck: Day four, I came home from a dinner of fried plaintains and ceviche to find my little home completely ransacked. My beloved Mac PowerBook was gone, and every book, paper and piece of clothing was strewn on the floor, an obvious attempt to find my passport, which I’d hidden so well that even I couldn’t find it at first. Muddy footprints covered the place.

After a long night of drinking and crying, my brand-spanking new friends drove me the 30 minutes to the nearest O.I.J. (F.B.I.-ish) station. It was simple enough: the robber had left his sandals under the hole in the wall he’d climbed through after pushing in the AC unit (there were bars on all the windows and three locks on the door, including an iron gate)  — and taken my computer, external hard drive, expensive power tools, favorite necklace, and two pairs of women’s sneakers.


The drama had barely begun.

Zip-lining in the now famous Nikes.

On the way back into town, we stopped by the local supermarket to buy some beer and then wait at my house all day for O.I.J. Strangely giddy after our somehow empowering visit to the investigator’s office, we pulled into the tiny parking lot of Luperon. And who was lazily sitting outside reading the newspaper? The local thief — in my woman’s Nikes!

We were all over the place, squealing, backing up the car, whipping out cell phones. One of my friends jumped out to wait on the other side of him in case he ran, the other one called her Tico husband to call the police. Helpless, I hid behind my police report, trying not to be seen.

The cops arrived a short minute or two later and brought him down to the station. We had caught the neighborhood thief! In the small town of 3000, word spread within the hour that he was finally behind bars. We laughed and jumped up and down, too jittery and emotional to even think straight. He, of course, told cops that they were his shoes; I produced photos of me zip lining in that very pair. I really thought we had him.

I did eventually get my sneakers back, although he was out of custody the next day. (No fingerprints were found at my house, and him wearing my shoes 15 hours after the robbery wasn’t enough for a search warrant. Mario wears socks on his hands instead of gloves, because who sells gloves in the tropics? To fit through the small space, he often covers his skinny little beanpole body with oil. Slippery.) My computer and external hard drive, which carried years’ worth of photos, email accounts from past jobs, writing files, a book proposal… were long gone. But I wear my Nikes almost every day, often running by his house in the morning with some of the neighborhood dogs, waving, “Hi, Mario!” Because I do, actually, have a lot to thank him for.

Before he stormed into my house, I had been living in Costa Rica with no phone, car or TV, only my computer, which I used to write stories for my work at magazines and email friends, and also to Skype my loved ones. Suddenly, I was stripped of even that. But I had gained a spot in the community — my neighbors started speaking to me in Spanish, others congratulated me on catching Mario, and I bonded with my new friends who jumped at the chance to help their new neighbor.

Would near strangers have helped me so graciously and generously in any of the other places I’ve lived? I’m not sure – but the fact that they did here added at least six months to my planned three-month Costa Rican sabbatical. So, Mario, you suck, but thank you.