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

NICARAGUA - PART 2

The beach in San Juan del Sur is fine for strolling, having seaside cocktails, or watching stunning sunsets while feasting on the catch of the day.  However, for those that like an undeveloped shoreline, crashing surf, and endless stretches of abandoned sand, you’ll need to take a trip out of town.  Both North and South of the main harbor are a plethora of beaches with conditions and surroundings to satiate all tastes.  If you’re the type for wading calm pools of warm turquoise sea with white coral sand beach, or tearing a board across ripping curls of waves bashing a dirty, rock-laden cove, and anything in between, the West coast of Nicaragua has it.  I went for a beach just north of town.  Just about anywhere in San Juan you can set up a combo trip.  Many of the surf shops have options to be picked up at your hotel and dropped off at whichever location you choose and picked up again at a designated time.  Considering that we tend to travel light on these visa renewals, the tour guides and surf shops have thought of everything.  Not only can you get you transport set up, but you can rent a la carte your beach accessories and amenities on the spot as part of the package.  I went for the transportation with beach chair, boogie board, cooler with a midway stop to fill it with ice and beer.  This was all too easy, and about $20.

After a 20 minute ride up the main highway we took a louie and started down a bumpy gravel road back toward the coast.  We were inundated with jungle scenery yet again; howler monkeys could be heard in the thick, spider monkeys hanging from branches looking decidedly unimpressed with our passing.  The way began to open revealing the sound of the ocean beating the land.  There was a small thatched roof bar/restaurant, and a near empty beach.  The driver helped me with my things and confirmed with a nod, “a las quatro, verdad?”  I smiled and acknowledged my 4 o’clock pickup and cracked my first beer (it’s OK at 9am when you’re on vacation, wake up a 5am, and are in bed by 8pm).  Swimming was a bit treacherous at this locale.  The riptide was evident and the sea angrily sucked its visitors outward, only to roll them back in with each cresting wave.  This was clearly a place where venturing beyond where I could firmly plant my feet was unadvisable.  Considering there are no lifeguards, or other humans for that matter, almost drowning was not on the agenda today.  I spent the day sipping beers, cooling off in the ocean, walking for miles up and down the beach.  I stopped into the little restaurant to enjoy some fresh fish and chat a bit with the bartender.  It was simply perfect, pristine, and a much needed disconnect from the grind of San Jose.

Packing up my belongings and jumping in the truck back to town, I realized that I hadn’t booked nearly enough time in Nicaragua.  Fortunately, I planned to stay in Central America for much longer than initially intended.  This meant that another trip to Nicaragua was not only inevitable, it would be necessary.  With Granada, Ometepe, the Corn Islands, and more beckoning, I felt that my relationship with this strange land was only at the first-date, just kissed stage.  As the great Las Vegas performers always leave the audience wanting more, I couldn’t wait to hear the encore and get back to my hotel to start planning to buy my next ticket to see this magic show again.

I made my way back to another seaside restaurant to watch the sunset over a jalapeno steak dinner and contemplated that this would be my first, but certainly not my last, trip to a strange little slice of heaven so poetically hidden from all who dare not chance a bumpy jungle ride into the unknown.  

 

FOR SOME, THAT END COMES FAR TOO SOON

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.

 

PANAMA - PART 1 OF 3

My first ‘border run’ was certainly not without peril or adventure.  At that time I was floating about on a tourist visa.  This is the typical 90-day period granted to many upon entry to Costa Rica.  Built into the life of an ESL teacher without work permits (I have one now, thankfully) is the raw fact that you need to exit the country every 90 days for no less than 72hrs in order to reenter and renew your tourist status.  This is otherwise referred to as a ‘visa run’.  

Having the choice of what was then the scary unknown country I’ve only heard bad things about on the news (Nicaragua) or the other place I’ve heard less bad things about on the news (Panama), my heading was set due south.  I learned of a magical place called Bocas del Toro.  An archipelago whose waters are blue, seafood is plentiful, and things are reasonably priced.  A jewel set in paradise.  As with any hidden treasure, one must pass a series of long and difficult tests along an arduous journey.  Mine began as with any in Costa Rica worth taking – before dawn.  I made my way to the Terminal del Caribe in San Jose in order to jump on the 6am bus heading to the border at Changuinola.  

This was a 6hr trek that took me once again over the mountains, down the east coast, past Cahuita and endless banana plantations to a final stop in a shanty, hot little border town.  Getting off the bus meant being accosted by a swarm of ‘assistants’ offering to carry your bags and help you get to Panama for a nominal fee.  As this was my first trip I looked a man in the eye who seemed trustworthy and said that he can help, but I’ll carry my own bag, thank you.  He walked with me down a gravel road surrounded by a wide variety of fellow tourists.  These would soon become a familiar demographic of folks from elderly men, to dreadlocked hippies, to scared 21-year-old girls from something like Colorado taking their gap year and hoping to beef up their resume or earn some bragging rights when they get home to mom and dad.  

The first lesson was that there are 2 time zones to consider.  As Costa Rica doesn’t recognize daylight savings time, this meant that it was noon on one side, and 11am on the other.  Well, the 2 people working immigration in Costa Rica take lunch at noon.  The 2 people working immigration in Panama do the same – immediately after those in Costa Rica.  So a 2hr wait in 95 degree humidity was on the table that day.  Eventually I was sidestepped and waddled through each tedious little line, in and out of hot and cold boxes and windows, to where I was allowed to start walking across a 100-year-old bridge that spanned the river separating the two nations.  

Surrounded by more people who had sacks of goods balanced on their heads, rugged farmers with rubber boots and machetes, children of all ages offering to do anything for “one dollar?”, I gazed through the beams of the rickety old bridge into the murky waters below.  I finally met at the halfway point a brass placard adorning the words Panama – Costa Rica.  I started singing the chorus of Van Halen’s Panama in my head and set foot in my second Latin American country.  Little did I know that this would be my first of seven times to this part of the isthmus…

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THINGS DO INDEED CHANGE

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I was a smoker for 20 years.  Even as I write this at age 36, that is hard to believe.  However, every time I do the math it checks out.  When I was first picked up at the airport in San Jose by my roommates, they had an assortment of goodies waiting for me at home.  Riding in an overstuffed cab from the airport, through La Aurora, San Joaquin, and eventually San Lorenzo was a path through backstreets and barrios that I would soon come to know all too well.  It was nightfall, and I remember the wind blowing in through the window of the cab, the palm trees periodically waving as if to say hello, and the steel bars around all the houses.  Tin roofs, dimly lit narrow roads, everything connected with no definitions of town borders, no road signs to speak of.  It was all so foreign.  Upon arrival at the house, I got the tour and almost in a bragging fashion showed how much studio equipment I was able to get on the plane.  We relaxed on the front porch where I was given my first cold can of Imperial and 20 pack of Delta Light cigarettes.  As any smoker will attest, the flavor of what you are going to smoke can make or break a location.  When I drew on that first cigarette and sipped that sweet brew, I knew that it would be a long time before I would walk away from something that cost less than $1 per pack.  As I type this now I think two things: 1) I’m glad I quit.  2) I stopped spelling flavor with a “u”.  Things do indeed change.

BEWILDERMENT: PARA LLEVAR, PORFA.

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At Christmastime in Canada for a handful of years leading up to my move to Central America, you could go to any of our local supermarkets and buy a six pack of Coca Cola in small, glass bottles à la the original Coke.  One of the pleasant surprises for me in Costa Rica was the ubiquity of this format in almost every pulperia (convenience store) on practically every street.  To add to my bewilderment, you have the option of chugging the coke on the spot, paying the deposit on the bottle para llevar (to go, and not common), or have it poured into a small plastic baggie and tied off.  You may want to reread that last sentence, but I assure you it is without error.  It was at that moment that the pounding heat of the molten hammer in the sky combined with my already dumbfounded struggles with trying to linguistically decipher the 3 aforementioned options presented to me by the cashier that I truly felt that I was on another part of this planet.  I spent a good deal of time walking and hiking in the area of San Lorenzo and San Joaquin.  I took note of the rhythm of the culture if you will.  What was the pace of the people?  How did they interact and acknowledge me?  How many of them had beverages in bags?  Adjusting to a super early sunset (5:30pm!), staring longingly at the mountains to be conquered in the distance, and gorging myself endlessly on little bottles of Coke and fried chicken infused a now long-standing love of el campo (the countryside) and the small towns of Costa Rica.  A dormant volcano awaits a capital city to be explored, and a job interview to be had. All of this and more weeks before we would even be considered a candidate for Internet access.  I knew I was into something good.

 

IT'S THE JOURNEY THAT COUNTS

My first volcano was Barva.  Resting high atop a range that I now gaze upon out my studio window on the other side of the Central Valley, there sit two lagoons that were once ancient craters.  To think they sculpted the landscape and foothills of Heredia so long ago still are part of my meditations in the mountains (another blog post).  This first venture was a combination of events that etched themselves well into my psyche and began forming the new neural pathways that I consider habit now.  For example, the rise before dawn to take the cold-seated bus ride, the line at the bakery while deciphering which mysteries await inside their warm pastries, the knowing that today’s shivering in shorts will soon turn to sweating and panting.  We took our second bus to the foothills of the volcano where I learned we had 6 kilometers of hiking uphill ahead to reach the lagoon and national park.  We set about the hike where I experienced my first hitch in the back of a pickup truck with wooden box, rusty cab, and rough-and-tumble Ticos at the wheel.  This open air lift up the mountain was what would be the first of many thumbs-out rides to be taken here in Pura Vida.  

Hitting the midway point and jumping out of the cab, I was simply struck by what I could only describe as the “shire”.  I was surrounded by lush, dense vegetation, vines up and down every tree, rolling green hills that surely contained magical beings – it was another world.  As with many trips in Costa Rica the lagoons were not nearly as significant to me as the journey itself.  There grew in me over the coming months a great comfort knowing that the wild jungle is only a bumpy bus ride away, any time I want.  It’s a trip I would take often.

 

SOMETIMES OUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE THE LONGEST LASTING

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Having only been in Costa Rica for a few short weeks, my virgin trip to the coast was an unlikely one by tourist standards.  I went to a little sleepy Caribbean town on the East coast called Cahuita.  A few kilometers south of the port town, Limon, this location holds a special place in my heart to this day and remains one my favorite (secret) destinations in Costa Rica.  North of the ever-popular Puerto Viejo, this often-skipped little community hosts some of my favorite cuisine, a stunning national park, pristine beach and all the character you’d expect from a community inhabited (and technically owned) by 3rd generation Jamaican immigrants.  

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The 3-4hr bus ride over the mountains and through Braulio Carrillo National Park is feast for the senses unto itself.   When you depart the terminal in San Jose for the first time, you truly have no idea what wonders await on this, at times, treacherous bus ride.  You really get an immediate sense of how both tiny and vast this country is.  Jumping off at your destination and looking around unsure if you’ve really arrived is a puzzled expression I would adorn frequently in my journeys.  Letting the turquois blue bath-warm ocean wrap around you, eating $8 lobsters in spicy Creole sauce, sipping a seemingly bottomless daiquiri, with monkeys off all sorts throwing freshly eaten almond pits at you make you really stop and take stock of where on this big blue ball we sit.  I relished this day, for my next stop was my job interview…

I WAS NOW OFFICIALLY POOR, UNDEREMPLOYED, AND HAPPY AS A PIG IN S&*%.

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I truly felt like I was in way over my head the moment I entered Forum, Santa Ana for my first job interview in Costa Rica.  Having traveled a bit and taken a month to at least begin to wrap my head around my new surroundings, I nervously prepared for an interview with a multinational language company called inlingua.

Sporting my new tie and pants recently purchased at Hipermas (Walmart) and an exponentially dwindling sense of direction, I stumbled out of my house at 6am.  Though I had extensive business and teaching experience, I definitely would have slotted myself in the rookie column when it came to corporate English classes in such a setting.

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  Almost as if I was shell-shocked from the tin roofs, dirt roads, and barbed-wire fences I’d become accustomed to, the Forum was a stark contrast in not only construction and aesthetic appeal, but the sense security and serenity.  Walking past the fountain along SIDEWALKS (not common here) I ogled the company names on brass placards, HP, Oracle, Earnst & Young, Chiquita Brands, on and on.  There betwixt a sea of fortune 500 companies was inlingua, Costa Rica.  I was truly intimidated, overwhelmed, and certain I’d be laughed out of the interview.  Quite the opposite occurred as I underwent a 30min grilling from the President and Academic Manager.  With poise and preparation I presented myself as a serious contender not only for a position, but a long-term employee of a growing organization.   With that, I was hired!  For a mere 10hrs/wk of guaranteed work at a rate of $7/hr I was now officially poor, underemployed, and happy as a pig in s&*%.  My first class would be the following Monday and it was one that set the tone for the next 5 years of my life.

 

THIS WEEK IN COSTA RICA: GOOD MORNING, SUNSHINE

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I wake up fairly early by North American standards.  Once you become accustomed to the sunrise/set times being as they are here in Costa Rica, you soon appreciate that the natural cycles that surround you are better greeted with acceptance rather than resistance.  This is true in every sense of living in this country, but particularly important when speaking of morning.  Ticos are loud.  Ticos are especially loud at 6am.  Sleeping in means that I allow my cats to wake me up at around 5:20am.  Work days can start at 4.  To some this may seem shockingly early.   However, considering the sun sets before 6pm, and like an old man whose tapioca pudding cup is wrung clean with his tiny spoon after Matlock, I’m out of my slippers and in bed before 10pm.  The sunrises here are spectacular; those living on the West coast will attest better than I to the splendor of the sunsets.  As I gently sip my fresh cup of Tarrazu region dark roast (freshly ground by burr grinder), gaze across my kitchen counter upon a perpetually full bowl of papaya, banana, pineapple, etc., I contemplate every morning that I am truly blessed to be welcomed in such a country rich with opportunity.  I’ve come to love mornings, among many other things Costa Rica has only begun to reveal to me.  What will you come to love?

 

THIS WEEK IN COSTA RICA: CAN I GET BACON?

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Prior to making the big move almost six years ago from Toronto, Canada to San Jose, Costa Rica, I had two friends who then decided that coming to Pura Vida and teaching English was also what their destiny held.  They found a house for rent on Craigslist in a small town called San Lorenzo de Flores in the sleepy bedroom province of Heredia.  After a Skype meeting with the property managers and a couple PayPal transfers, we all had first and last paid on a home in a foreign land.  As I had to finish some business and tie up loose ends in Canada, I flew down exactly one month after them.  This turned out to be the smartest thing I could have done and only serves to show me the value coming in this radio show.  Having the chance to speak to people I trusted about their initial reactions and experiences lowered the culture shock factor considerably.  The first question I recall asking was, “can I get bacon?”  Yes, these are the questions that you could find on blogs and websites with some savvy Googling or expat forums.  But what they may not tell you is the answer is yes, but…  I’m here to fill in rest.  

TOAD SIZE, PEANUT BUTTER, AND SCALES

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I spent about a month talking on Skype with my friends in Costa Rica about everything and anything you could imagine.  The size of the toads, what the weather was really like, where you can go shopping and for what, the taste of the beer, the cost of peanut butter (that’s another posting).  All these little conversations and superficial questions were key components to preparing me for the move.  This rang especially true when considering that to pack.  At that time (early 2006) I had been running a successful recording studio, was doing some audio editing work for radio stations and started a weekly indie music podcast.  These and other projects I had going on were ones that I wanted to continue doing in addition to teaching English.  Yes, the dream of “office anywhere” is still one is tweak and refine today.   The quandary at that point was how much studio gear vs. clothing and basics I could fit into what was then a 70lb per bag (2) allotment  by the airline (remember the good old days?).  After buying a couple different portable mixing desks and packing/weighing about 30 times, I finally put together a trip’s worth of equipment to still qualify myself as an engineer.  I decided to buy almost all of my “work clothes” upon arrival.  From there it was a matter of getting on a plane and being practically unemployed for the first time in 17 years, in a country where I had nothing but an interview and $40 in the bank...

WHAT DO YOU PLAN ON LEAVING BEHIND?

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I flew into Costa Rica on April 11th, 2006.  It was later in the evening that I arrived and a day that I’ll likely not forget. Not for strange events or life-altering epiphanies.  Rather a sense, though I’d traveled extensively before, that this was the first time I actually went anywhere.  I took the connection in Miami (MIA) from Toronto (YYZ) to the now all-too-familiar San Jose (SJO).  (Unbeknownst to me at that time, airport codes would later become part of a nomenclature for my business operations)  What made this journey memorable was not repacking my bags twice at the check in counter, not noting the gradual yet obvious change in weather with a short stop in Miami, but the unusual sensation that came over me flying into the Central Valley of Costa Rica for the first time and looking down upon the twinkling orange lights that lined the roads, towns and cities.  In some arrogant, silently muttered phrase, I stared into this unknown world and whispered to myself, “I will conquer you”.  The intent of my declaration is lost in its inane phrasing; however the principle behind it still stands.  I wanted to prove to myself, without the support of a first-world safety net, that I could get on the ground and carve out a path that was truly mine.  No money, no job, no knowledge of the language or culture, nothing.  It was just me with sheer ignorance and determination as my carryon.  What are you planning to bring with you?  What I learned is a better question is: What do you plan on leaving behind?

I REALLY FEEL LIKE I WANT TO LIVE ON THE BEACH

There comes a time in every expat’s tenure when the question of belonging arises.  Not just in the sense of wondering if I fit in to the culture and country, but more a feeling that you are being tested.  I often like to refer to “hitting the eject button” as the decision taken by many to pack it in an go home.  In six plus years of living in Costa Rica I’ve seen my share of friends come and go.  I’ve had over 150 teachers under my direct employ, met countless retirees and entrepreneurs, and can safely say that I’ve watched more than 85% of them return home eventually.  This is not a failure rate.  Something so oversimplified would be insulting to those whose life choices are both personal and complex.  Rather its more attune to people perhaps having found, or not, what they were expecting here – not only in Costa Rica, but within themselves.  Businesses folding, teachers and writers not earning enough to survive, social factors, retirees simply getting fed up, and more are broad strokes that shouldn’t be made to paint so many detailed works.

The bigger challenges that we sometimes face here in Costa Rica aren’t as simple as cost of living, the language barrier, or immigration.  It is often a matter of trying to define what “home” is and means to you.  When I fly to Canada I feel now like a visitor. So much so that I actually need to buy travel insurance from Blue Cross to enter my native land with socialized healthcare!  I’m questioned at immigration, I am shocked by the width (and often presence of) sidewalks, and the prices make me recoil in fear.  “How can anyone afford to live here?”,  I ask. I feel like a tourist with an extensive background knowledge of Canadian culture and language.  Like a long-time student of French taking their first trip to France I get to stretch the legs and run around a bit and take theory into practice.  This is in no way a description of home. 

Home is arriving at SJO and recognizing the mountain ranges.  Home is smelling the air, hearing Spanish, and feeling comfortable.  Home is getting into the cab and knowing every bend in the road while you chat with the driver and await the inevitable statement, “Oh, you’ve been here too long.”  (they use too as so here) Home is everyone on the street waiving and belting out “adios!” as you walk up to your apartment. 

What begs to be addressed here may be whether I’ve simply played the record so long that the groove is now well-worn.  Patterns and predictability are in part what define our level of comfort.  We feel a sense of control over our environment and act in ways that outcomes have certainty.  It’s easy to budget, plan, and be lulled into that false sense of security that comes with developing community relationships and friendships.  It gets too easy, and you’re not afraid of much anymore.

This is a meandering post, but such is my current state.  Being in the midst of a major career shift brings a natural dose of doubt and anxiety.  However, I find myself presented with options and compelled to face questions that perhaps should have been addressed long ago.  What makes me happy?  What do I really want to do?  These lie beyond simple spreadsheets to calculate costs and feasibility. 

At times it feels as if you’ve been kicked out of the nest.  When are we clinging and when are we fighting for what we want?  Big questions.  Patience and trust that things are being handled is the only path for now. 

Lately, I really feel like I want to live on the beach.  Huh.

 

I AM A RUNNER.

It’s a lot easier to define what we are not than examine who we are.  Until today I proudly declared that I am not a runner.  Somewhere in the first third of a 10K race at Boston Scientific in Alejuela, Costa Rica I had to refresh some of my characteristics.  With Alpina Water and Powerade banners marking the course, runners dressed in such fluorescent garb as to resemble what I can only guess were supposed to be pylons, and emergency services standing by, I embarked on the first few trots of what would soon unfold as simply remarkable.  The question that crossed my mind was, “can a country be a reasonable catalyst for change?”  There’s a saying in Costa Rica among the expat community that foreigners here are either running toward or from something.  I like to think the former in my case, but I do see a great number of folks making the leap as a reason to jump-start change in their lives. 

Costa Rica has all the ingredients in place to allow one to become introspective, health-conscious, and develop a greater sense of patience and tolerance.  I can only speak for myself, but one year ago I quit smoking, lost about 25 pounds, and am now a radio host blogging about running 10K races.  I’ve started meditating, yoga, I speak Spanish, and have developed some of the deepest relationships I’ve ever known.  I smile more, I listen better, and I feel a greater sense that I am connected to something bigger than me and that what I do matters.  Now, this may simply be the literary dribbling of 37-year-old in the throes of divorce, or I’m still on the runners high and full of fresh fruit.  But I feel there’s something more to this. 

I do not advocate moving to another country just to get healthy or ‘find yourself’.  There’s a great tale of a guru who is sitting in his favorite spot in the center of a small village.  A man comes up to him, introduces himself and explains that he’s just moved to this village.  He asks, “What’s this place like?”  The guru responds, “What was it like where you are from?”  The man replies, “It was awful!  The people were rude, the crime was horrific, and there was corruption and hatred everywhere.  I hated it!  That’s why I moved!  So, what’s this place like?”  The guru quietly answers, “Well, funny that you say that.  The people here are rude, there is terrible crime, and there is corruption and hatred everywhere.”  Saddened and defeated the man shrugged and moved on.  Later that day a lovely young woman came by the guru and passed a gentle smile.  She said, “Hello.  My name is Assaya and I’m new in town.  What’s it like here?”  The guru replied, “Well, what was it like where you are from?”  She said, “Oh, it was wonderful!  People were so friendly, everyone knew each other, there were lots of activities to do, and I really felt like I belonged.”  The guru smiled and said, “It’s exactly like that here too.  Welcome.” 

The notion that you take your community and your experience with you is no secret.  Change the way you look at your home and your home will change.  Change the way you look at yourself, and you will change too.  Before I moved to Costa Rica I knew that it would be perfect.  Not because I did a lot of research.  Not because I’d heard from so many expats that this was a magical paradise.  Because I brought with me the perfection that we all seek.  It took some running, some introspection, and a little bit of patience to learn that Iam a runner and this was my first race of many- moreover it is never crowded along the extra mile.

 

THEN THERE’S MONDAY

For me, the pitter-patter of raindrops on leaves is one of the most soothing parts of my day – depending.  When you consider that I’ve chosen to live in a tropical rainforest, it should come as a surprise to few that celebrating the rain, and all it entails, is a healthy part of living a balanced, realistic lifestyle in Costa Rica.  I say ‘realistic’ as there are a select few who term the rainy season as “winter”.  That word carries connotations of a bleak, grey time where one must hunker down into their fortress and hide from the dark, cold spell cast upon the land for seemingly endless month after month.  I, for one, choose to see that the natural beauty and scenery that I enjoy every day is nourished by this daily watering and made green and lush such that you can actually smell the gratitude of a jungle thirsting for this gift. 

As a Canadian, winter is bred into me.  My very DNA seems to anticipate seasonal change and craves the variety that comes with it.  The rainy season here does not quite fit the bill as defined by such distinct seasons as the four enjoyed in my home province of southwestern Ontario.  However, I’ll take what I can get and the daily dose of rain for 8 months will suit just fine.  Frozen blasts of wind, ‘snotcicles”, scraping your windshield, shoveling your walk twice a day, sliding your car into the ditch, breaking your ass on a slippery sidewalk – these were only the tip of the iceberg.  I do miss these, as annoying as they sound.  Costa Rica’s rainy season provides similar nuisances, but with a twist.  Saying earlier that the rain is a soothing part of my day depends on where I am, or moreover where I’m heading, to define the parameters within which I consider it pleasant.  A gentle sprinkling on a Sunday afternoon just kissing your head as you arrive at your doorstep, laden with groceries from the local market, is a Norman Rockwellesque moments painted with smiles and fain panic.  We and giggle as we enter our homes to change our shirts and put on a cup of hot tea, setting the stage for the rain on the roof to lull us into a lazy afternoon nap.  Pretty, no? 

Then there’s Monday.  You wake up early and put on your work duds.  You head out to the office or to visit a client, umbrella in tow.  Your morning is productive, you’re in the zone, and the sun beams down upon you with its approving warmth.  Be not mistaken, though.  That warm light in which the nation basks is simply heating the ground and setting the stage for the 1pm show – and you’re in it.  One or two drops turn into millions in a matter of seconds.  The bus stop (if there is one) provides little shelter, and no matter how sturdy and glorious that umbrella felt when tested under the fluorescent lights of the local Wal-Mart it will give you no protection from the splash-up of the rain hitting the ground so hard that it bounces onto your freshly pressed pants.  When the bus arrives there is that window of time where you need to fish through your pocket for change, balance your umbrella, and hold your bag, somehow stepping into the overcrowded tin can.  The next skill is to somehow lower your shield as you enter the bus without being hit by the enemy fire falling from the sky.  You pass your fare, twist and shake the rainstick, wipe your brow, and grease up to go elbow to elbow with your fellow soaked compatriots.  It’s standing room only at this time of day as you hear the steel tube cutting its way through lake-sized puddles, windows steamed opaque, breath of the passengers somehow hotter than you recall, only to eventually pull your string and signal that this is my stop.  The doors swing open and you gaze down to find the driver has indeed stopped beside a racing pool of water over which you must leap, or dive into.  Choosing to leap and open your umbrella at the same time, hoping the door doesn’t close on you midway, you stick your landing and cringe as you speed to the alcove or lobby of your destination.  Funny how when you arrive and utter “que feo” to anyone in earshot that you don’t realize you are a few decibels louder than need be as the pounding of the rain has dampened your hearing and raised voice to compensate.  Upon entering the client’s office you discover that the air conditioning has been blasting all day like an arctic front aimed at your wet back.  The squeaking sound of your waterlogged shoes, the shirt coldly sticking to your torso, the dirty bottoms of your once clean pants, and general malaise that now has settled across your brow is provided little comfort in line for the hand dryer in the men’s room.  Let’s hope there’s coffee.

It’s always a tradeoff.  They key is timing.  Though many of us cannot avoid when we need to travel, careful planning and coordination of your day can mean the difference between using the rain to mask tears or sorrow, or of joy.  I’m feeling sleepy.  Perhaps I’ll take a nap. 

 

I’M NOT JUDGING. I JUST FEEL LESS JUDGED.

Only the most arrogant blogger would dare sit at a keyboard and begin to peck out a posting on the meaning of Easter in the middle of the holiest of holidays, while living as a foreigner in a Catholic country.  Hi!  My name is Corey.  Here we go. 

I have to admit that I’m of a chocolate bunny,PAAS egg kit, and plastic Easter hay-lined pastel basket background.    My family has never been particularly religious.  Though Anglican by default, I don’t actually recall going to church – ever.  I’m told I was baptized and I understand that is good.  However, it is only in adulthood and in personal explorations of my soul that I begin to appreciate the significance and sacrifice Jesus made, the meaning of the holiday, and its traditions.  Though I am a fan of Christ’s teachings and firmly believe that heaven would be here on earth now were we to all follow in his path, I’m not rock solid when it comes to acknowledging the resurrection.  However, faith is a journey and I’m certainly not one to rule things out.  What matters more to me at this juncture is what kind of man would be so sure in his convictions that he would opt to be tortured and crucified rather than take what would have been infinite opportunities to flee and live out a quiet life in the desert with a handful of devotees.  Jesus had it pretty good.  Nice following, firm grasp of the secrets of heaven, seemingly endless supply of seafood, and a set of suggestions for living that would make even the Buddha say, “hmmm”.  The cat was leading a pretty enviable life with some serious perspective. 

I went to the grocery store where I knew I couldn’t buy alcohol yesterday.  In Costa Rica the country goes “dry” during specific religious holidays or political elections.  Now, I do appreciate that I’m to give something up at this time.  Anyone who knows me well would say that I adore depriving myself of material things.  But when the government says that you can’t buy liquor on a week-long holiday where most just go and party on the beach anyways seems a bit out of touch.  Far be it for me to suggest that the government and church are not in synch with society.  Now that would be arrogant.  But wrapping beer coolers in black plastic and taping them off with yellow “municipalidad” stickers seems a bit much. Shouldn’t we be able to choose whether to drink or not?  Actually, to buy it or not is more to the point.

Look, I don’t have a point here, really.  What I am trying to grapple with is what Easter means to the residents of Costa Rica on the whole and how it may differ from my little basket of plastic hay and chocolate rabbits.  Stocking up on as much booze as can fit in your car and speeding off to Guanacaste for beach and BBQ just doesn’t seem very Eastery to me.  I’m not judging. I just feel less judged.  Remember the rabbit that clucked and laid cream eggs?  Ya.  That was cool. 

 

IT’S OFTEN ABOUT BALANCE

I went to the beach last weekend and what happened is what always does.  I reach the ocean, smell the air, peel off my socks and shoes and say to whomever is in earshot, “why don’t I do this more often”?  Living in the Central Valley, though far enough away from the city to still be surrounded by nature, I tend to lose sight of the greater beauty and opportunities to be experienced here in Costa Rica.  Living in Canada, we would all look forward to those summer months when we could easily find an excuse to pack up the car and head to the beach, park, or campsite.  Where I’m from, the great lakes are rimmed with superb beaches.  I would spend endless summers having campfires on the shore of Lake Huron.  Friends and I would take a sea kayak miles out into the water.  The sound of the oars dipping into the water, the gentle bobbing over waves, and the stars painting they sky viewed by us that night and our ancestors thousands of nights ago were the stuff of deep contemplation and sparks of fiery conversations.  Something primal happens to many of us when we get close to water.

What I don’t do enough, and vow to this year, is get to the beach.  I will find my way to Jaco at least once per month.  Balance is something that must be sought when living and working in Costa Rica.  Too much beach time, golf, eating out can cause one to become lazy and out of touch.  Too much work and living on the grid can make one disconnect with the very reason one moved to Pura Vida in the first place.  As I do more work in a virtual office, start moving much of the company I work for toward web-based operations, and continue to freelance via the Internet, I see that the opportunity to perhaps relocate is nearly upon me.  Where logistics are not so much of an issue, lifestyle is.  In Costa Rica where you live can, in a sense, can define your lifestyle.  Living on the coast immediately means a change in temperature and humidity.  It’s hotter and more humid a sea level.  Currently, I live a few thousand feet up in the cool, quiet mountains surrounding Santa Ana.  But what’s more is the way it affects everything you do.  You can become lethargic in that heat.  You can be influenced by expats and retirees who do not need to do anything, so why should you?  Environment is but one of many factors.

Appreciating that this entry is a meandering piece that only reflects the conflicted thoughts I’m currently having, I will make the first step to go frequently.  My parents have a lakefront cottage.  They love to visit but would never choose to live there full time.  I’m sensing that may be true for me.  Perhaps I need only to rent a small shack on the coast and spend a few days a week there.  It’s often about balance.  The question it naturally leads to is: Should I buy a car to get to my shack?

 

WANDERING IS THEIR DESTINATION, BEWILDERMENT THEIR GUIDE.

After 6 years of living in Pura Vida I’ve noted that there is one piece of advice that you can thread through anyone’s tapestry woven of expat success stories: simplify.  Not in the way pseudo-Zen Buddhist office junkies clean off their desks and auto-hide their taskbars, nor in the sense of sewing shut the pockets of your pants to force you to rethink what you “need” to carry with you.  I speak here of seeking a quality of life higher than that which we left behind by lowering our expectations and revisiting what we feel we require to be happy. 

I find myself surrounded by individuals that I forlornly need to categorize.  One such column into which many I’ve fitted would be “Grumpy Gringo”.  There is no shoehorn required to slide them into place.  Sadly, for these souls there is no end to the infinite rise in cost of living, expanding disdain for their Tico neighbors, and never a realization that they have indeed moved to another part of the world where things are simply different.  In contrast I have slotted those that I choose to spend more time with in the “Que Sera, Sera” column.  These expats feel a sense of connectedness to everything and everyone around them.  They float effortlessly through a life wherein events, desires, and projects just seem to go their way – eventually, somehow.  They have an enormous, blissful trust placed in the way things just seem to work out if you step aside sometimes and allow them to unfold.  They communicate easily with the locals and receive kisses and smiles when they pass.  They fret not of the future, nor do they dwell on the past.  They greet each sunrise with the wonder and gratitude of a child, and sing as birds before the dawn knowing that the sun will indeed rise.  They bid the sunset farewell and ask not for another day, for the one they live now is beyond anything they could possibly expect. 

I’m coming to appreciate that the separating factor between all these well-intentioned folks may be ‘simplicity.’  The latter of the two expats I encounter seem to need very little to be happy.  They aren’t fidgeting about their iPhones looking for their next distraction.  They certainly aren’t mulling around Multiplaza toting shopping bags full of more trinkets and garments to fill their air-conditioned condos.  And they positively are not ordering a second bottle of Romanée Conti whilst pushing their appetizers around the plate, on a plate, on a charger plate.  They are, however, to be found at the farmer’s market early in the morning chatting with the kind woman peddling papaya learning which is ripe today and which will be ripe in three more.   They are to be seen walking up the mountainside at dawn to see if you can catch a faint glimpse of the ocean when the sun bathes the valley just so.  They are quite often found strolling down the beach at sunset, allowing the surf to gently caress their feet, tilting their head and staring past the breakers dreaming of the wonders that lay on the other side of that vast, sparkling ocean.  They are still children.  Wandering is their destination, bewilderment their guide.

 

THE SMELL

Being from Canada, southwestern Ontario to be specific, meant enjoying four distinct seasons.  After eight months of living a mere 8 degrees north of the equator, my internal barometer was clearly out of whack.  I recall in some of my early English classes that students would query about various elements of living in a frozen, white landscape for 5 months of the year.  I remember distinctly a session where my memory took me to a time when I was about 10 years old.  It was Halloween and my mother was loading the dishwasher after treating me to one of my favorite dinners – pancakes and mini sizzler sausages from Schneiders.  What struck me at that moment was how vividly I remember the smell of fall.  Yes, the smell.  There’s a very distinct moment when something in the air changes and your very being says, “Ah yes!  Autumn!”  Anyone from that latitude can close their eyes now, take a deep breath, and recall the aroma of the leaves, the crisp breeze, and the knowing that the season had just changed.  I described to my students that very moment, and the one that also comes for winter, spring, and summer.  The same can be said for Costa Rica.  There is a moment when the rain falls in just such a way that the jungle and greenery opens and releases a welcoming perfume into the air that announces the introduction to the season.  Equally, there’s a certain evening every December when the wind blows just so and you feel it in your very core that the summer has arrived and you can safely hang your umbrella in the closet. 

After my visit for Christmas in Canada in 2006, I flew back to the heart of great weather in Costa Rica.  Though I’d later become a greater fan of the rainy season, there is nothing quite like January in Pura Vida.  Leaving Canada became easier the second time around, but arriving in Costa Rica had a little surprise for me that pulls up the corners of my mouth every time I think of it.  Landing in San Jose and strolling off the plane I took a first short, then deep breath.  The smell.  It wasn’t just the smell of summer in Costa Rica, the cool breeze so starkly contrasting the frigid temperature felt hours earlier in Toronto, or fresh air after spending hours sealed in a metal tube with a few hundred strangers’ exhalations.  It was an emotional response that traveled with the scent into my lungs that had a one-of-a-kind quality.  I actually felt like I was back home.  Incredibly, and almost with a sense of guilt that I’d abandoned my native land, I had no choice but to embrace this sensation.  After 6 years of living in Costa Rica, countless plane rides in and out, the smell is the same today.  I’m right where I belong until my nose tells me otherwise.  

 

FOR SOME, THAT END COMES FAR TOO SOON

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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