This Week in Costa Rica

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This Week in Costa Rica is a weekly, online radio program and podcast by US expat, Dan Stevens


It was the wad of money that blew my mind when I returned home for Christmas.  It was the Christmas of 2006 that really started to put things in perspective for me, and money was indeed a central theme.  Having struggled tremendously with my finances for the first 8 months of being a professional ESL teacher in Costa Rica I could only email my family and almost pathetically inform them that if they wanted to see me this year a plane ticket would have to be my gift.  I wasn’t even half-joking.  After scraping rent together month after month, actually paying attention to the time that paychecks were deposited in my account to extrapolate long-term predictable patterns, and treating the occasional trip to Subway as Charlie might his Christmas Wonka bar, there was a snowball’s chance in hell of me ponying up for a return flight to the tundra.  With bottom lip well-extended, cap firmly in hand, and a keen ability to send pathos through computer keys when scribing to the folks, I managed my slot in the silver bird ready to scream toward the aurora.  Now, how the hell was I going to afford presents?

That year was the first where I developed a new budgetary technique whereby I would pay all of my obligations, put enough food in the pantry to last to the airport, and spread every remaining dollar to my name on the freshly made bed.  From there I would work backwards from the time I would return to Costa Rica and mentally imagine every spending scenario, literally taking money off the bed and putting it into a jar to mock spending it.  At the end of running this stress test on my finances, I would have an average that I could subtract 20% contingency from and finally use for Christmas gifts.  I’m serious.  So, there lay before me in all its glory the stupendously meek total of $80.  I then had to count family members and begin to rank them in order of; who do I love most, who do I owe money to, who doesn’t care, and who is too young to notice this gift is a cheap piece of shit.  It is remarkable how being poor during the holidays is oddly therapeutic in the manner it compels you to assess the strength and health of your family connections.  But, I digress.  With list in hand, and family satisfactorily pigeonholed, I was ready to set off to the local souvenir shop.

Visiting home was somewhat unremarkable, but much needed.  There’s nothing like seeing family.  Though I’d traveled for periods of time as a musician, and at times simply forgot to call for months on end, this was by far the longest spatial separation I’d had from family and friends.  What wasremarkable was day one at home and sort of the point of this posting.  My mother wanted me to go to the grocery store and pick up a few things.  She reached into her purse and pulled out a couple of 50 and 100 dollar bills.  She then rhymed off a few ‘must-haves’ and ‘don’t-forgets’ and concluded with, “grab whatever you’d like to have around for yourself”.  My jaw was on the floor.  I was fixated on the money like a bum on the street had seen a 12-slice pizza with the works fall from the sky.  My mind raced with how many situations would have been easier back in Costa Rica with that “kind of money”.  The notion of going to a massive supermarket to buy “whatever I want” and come back with change that represented 100 bus rides to the office, or, my God, several trips to Subway.  It sank in.  I’m poor.  I’m an ass.  I’d taken so goddamn much for granted that I needed to stop and take stock that every petty complaint I’d had, every bitch and moan over what I didn’t have and “needed”, every word uttered from my selfish little mouth was the insipid cry of a spoiled brat.  What arrogance.  What foolish sense of entitlement I’d developed.  After watching my Mom reach into her purse for decades and pull out wads of money I realized at that moment, for the first time, that it came from somewhere and it has an end.  For some, that end comes far too soon.  For me, it couldn't have come soon enough.


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