THE COUNTRY DENTIST


If you're in Guanacaste and you have a problem with a tooth, I can tell you where to go. You take a left at Disco Bar Trejos.

If it's the dry season, you drive through the dusty riverbed on the left. If it's rainy season and the river is high, you hold your breath and drive over this sketchy, crumbling, barely-wide-enough-for-a-vehicle bridge.

Once you reach the door to Dr. Orlando's dental practice, you must ring the doorbell to get in. Moments after the doorbell sounds, you hear a loud click as Dr. Orlando opens the lock. You step in to find yourself in a tiny waiting room the size of a walk-in closet. There is no need for a larger waiting room, since Dr. Orlando is the most efficient dentist on the planet. He has no use for a hygienist or a secretary. If you walk in the door at 3:00 to get a filling, most often you'll find yourself squinting your way back out into the sunlight by 3:20.

Dr. Orlando works so quickly that the first time he filled my tooth I figured the filling would only last a couple months, since the procedure had been performed in such a phenomenally short time. Numerous fillings, a crown, and a root canal later, I know better; Dr. Orlando's work is as good as any dental work I've ever had, it costs roughly 1/10 of what it does in the U.S., and it takes a fraction of the time you'd expect to spend in a dentist's chair. Just before we moved here, I had an old crown glued back on, with a warning that the glue probably wouldn't hold for very long. Glueing my old crown back on set me back $125. Soon after we got here it fell off again and I had an entirely new crown made for $120. Dr. Orlando confided that he doesn't believe in the common practice of ticos ripping off gringos because they're all rich. He charges gringos the lowest prices possible to have their teeth fixed. The local ticos can only afford to have them pulled.

Dental work, medical care, and cigarettes are three of the last great bargains in Costa Rica.

Dr. Orlando (Orlando is his first name, but when I asked how to pronounce his last name I was told to call him simply Dr. Orlando) is not from around here. Born in 1945, he grew up in San Jose. His first wife and child were killed in an earthquake in Nicaragua. After completing the last of his education in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Dr. Orlando returned to Costa Rica, remarried, and lost no time creating a new family, cranking out ten more children.

Orlando retired from practicing and teaching dentistry in San Jose in 2008. He has asthma and his doctor told him to get out of the smoggy city and move to the beach. He'd vacationed in our area long before electricity made it to the beach (sometime in the '90s) and opted to make a clean break from San Jose by moving to one of the quietest places he knew of. He no longer suffers from asthma.

He loves it here. The posters seen from his dental chair display some of the many reasons why:

With money you can buy a clock but not time, medicine but not health, a house but not a home, etc. Sitting in a dentist's chair with a gaping mouth full of what have you affords a wonderful opportunity to contemplate such matters. With light American jazz playing in the background, Orlando whistles his way through your procedure and you're up and out of there before you know it.

When Bill's father was here a few years ago, along with driving through rivers, he most enjoyed having his tooth pulled by Dr. Orlando. He went back to Florida and told everyone he knew about his $20 extraction that took less than ten minutes. Just like the good old days.

We were happy to learn that there's far more to Dr. Orlando than fillings, extractions and cheesy sentiments. A few years ago when I told him about driving Bill to Nicoya, two hours away, for 23 stitches in his hand, I was admonished for not bringing Bill to the dentist to get his hand sewn up. Orlando told me he can do all kinds of other useful procedures besides dentistry. Since we have no doctor or clinic in our area, Orlando's the man to call in an emergency. He'll stitch up whatever needs stitching and offers a broad range of first aid tactics to get you through until you can make it to the closest hospital, which is in Nicoya. Aside from first aid, the dentist is happy to help with everyday procedures such as the removal of ingrown toenails. When Bill had such excruciating knee pain that I couldn't even get him down to the truck to bring him to the hospital, I ran over to Dr.Orlando's (about 25 minutes away) and picked up a syringe of pain medicine. One time he was even called upon to deliver a baby, which he did with no problem.

Perhaps Dr. Orlando's most incredible story involves the time he was working on his roof and noticed a vehicle pulling up to his house. Someone got out of the car and rang the doorbell. When there was no response, one of the strangers hoisted himself up over the top of the outside wall, where he was momentarily draped over the ridge while he scrambled to get the rest of his body into the compound. A dentist's office can be a popular spot for snatching prescription drugs.

The many hours Orlando had spent training his enormous dogs to guard his house had come to fruition. He watched from the roof as the would-be thief sprang back from the wall, leaving three of his fingers on the ground inside the wall. The intruder got back in the car and took off, while Dr. Orlando got down from his roof and called his lawyer, who advised him to take a lot of pictures and save the fingers, in case the robber came back to sue him because his dog had bitten part of his hand off. Dr. Orlando nonchalantly related to me that after several months went by, he brought his jar of fingers down to the beach and buried them.

Pura vida.