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Making a MacGyver in Costa Rica

The 1980s TV action hero lives on – as a metaphor for creative adaptation.

Photo illustration by Jacob Turcotte

“We will make a MacGyver,” Julio says after I have broken the second glass coffee carafe in a month.

Here in Pacific northwest Costa Rica, I am surprised to hear a reference to the ’80s television protagonist famous for escaping sticky situations with items scrounged from his pocket or immediate vicinity. I imagine the blond-mulleted man from my childhood and a bubble gum-paper clip-duct tape repair.

Standing on a chair, Julio pulls down an old carafe from a shelf. Seated on the coffeemaker base, it doesn’t make contact with the funnel. It is too short. In the corner Julio finds another carafe, and though it doesn’t fit perfectly, it’s tall enough to trigger the coffee’s release from the cone-shaped reservoir above.

“That’s a MacGyver,” he says.

The lesson is one he teaches in a Spanish class designed for gringos living in Costa Rica. When I ask why they need to know what a “MacGyver” is, Julio says it’s part of the culture. “We don’t throw things out; we repair them. It’s difficult to buy things here. It’s a question of social consciousness, ecological consciousness. It’s better to repair something than to consume more.”

Before long I overhear “hacer un MacGyver” around town, at the hardware store or among colleagues, and I begin using it myself. I receive a text message: “We have a MacGyver for the laundry....” Julio has sent a photo of a pole holding up clothes on hangers. The pole is a broom handle and a paint roller extension screwed together and balanced between furniture.

I remember the first time I made a MacGyver. Our dog had been running away, and we don’t have a fence. Dali wants to be outside, but I can’t find a rope. So I connect a couple of leashes and attach them to the tree.

“Look at my MacGyver!” I say to Julio.

He high-fives me.

A cooler becomes a bedside table, a piece of driftwood a planter. Rather than throw out my sweat-stained running clothes that never lose that smell, I cut them into cleaning rags. A plank on the side of the road becomes a garden shelf.

When I think about what I have learned in Costa Rica, this is top of mind. I moved to Costa Rica to be with my partner and to teach English in an international school. I also went for the beaches, for the yoga, and to learn Spanish. What I didn’t expect was to learn a new ecological awareness.

The school where I teach avoids single-use items. Students bring water bottles and wash plates and forks after lunch. Faculty use mugs for the rich coffee we consume. Banana leaves are plates at potlucks and school functions. The town landfill is not far from campus, and students pick up trash from the street that hasn’t found its way to the facility. 

“Do you have any bulletin boards?” I ask the school’s business manager two days before classes start. He is the kind of guy who can solve any problem.

“No, but you could place an order for one. It might take a month to get here,” he said.

It’s challenging to live here, I think to myself. I remember how I would make several trips to a discount store before each school year for baskets and bins, signs and organizers.

Meanwhile, either the wheels in his head were turning or he saw the disappointment on my face. He adds: “I have an idea. We have some old whiteboards. Sometimes the back of the boards have cork.”

Later that day he comes to my classroom with two damaged whiteboards. Their backs are cardboard, not cork, but we still make a MacGyver. I cover them with paper, and no one is the wiser. I post class schedules and quotes like one from Eric Roth’s adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story: “It’s never too late ... to be whoever you want to be.... We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it.

“I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.”

I realize that I have shifted my mind into invention mode. I am a problem-
solver – creative, adapting. Rather than lamenting a loss of convenience, I am enjoying freedom from the need to run out and buy something new to fix a problem.

With a sense of accomplishment from my newest MacGyver, I am ready for the school year to begin.

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