Holiday Tidings, Year-end Ruminations About Living in Costa Rica

Published: December 25th 2005
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It is hard to believe that I have been living here in Costa Rica for six months already. Who would have thought that at this time last year, I would be living in this developing country paradise “south of the border.” A year ago I wasn’t working, figuring out where to go, what to do—essentially trying to determine what my next move would be. I had some good options but none of the places in the United States I could have moved to motivated me very much. Even the jobs offered to me did not do much for me. I think I had enough of working for some big company, making faceless shareholders rich. So, I am here, and it is my home until somewhere else, something else, or someone else motivates me. Not that I am leaving any time soon.

There are a lot of good things that I’ve discovered about Costa Rica while living here these first six months. First and foremost, what comes to mind are the people I have met here. Almost every Tico or Tica I’ve met has been helpful and friendly, genuinely expresses a desire to know more about me, and always appears trustworthy. Ticos, unlike those from some other Central American countries, do not seem to want to leave here. That’s a good think I think because it says something strong about the country, its people, the way of life here and perhaps something about the government, well, maybe not so much on that score!

I also love the fact that it is a slower pace of life here. People don’t seem to be inpatient. If they have to wait an hour at the bank (which is often the case), so be it. If it takes a week for a repairman to get something done, well, that’s life.

Living in a country where national pride is pervasive but not in a fascist, dangerous sense makes this a special place. While Costa Rica is a small landmass situated between two oceans and covering well less than one percent of the world’s land, it boasts at least five percent of the world’s plant species, owing to its rich terra and dozen or so different microclimates. I wouldn’t say Ticos are inherently naturalists, but they are fiercely proud of their flora and fauna. And why wouldn’t they be? Here I am on a lazy Tuesday afternoon sitting in front of my house as the sun hovers low over the western sky dotted with a few wispy cumulus clouds, with only the sounds of nature to remind me that I am not asleep. I am amazed actually at the complexity of the mountains that make up my front yard. They crisscross in an indiscernible pattern, some hills crossing in front, others behind. Some mountains are dotted with large trees in various shades of green, others with hints of yellow. Then there are green valleys, devoid of trees but instead covered with plush grasses and fields of sugarcane nearly ready for harvest. While there isn’t a pre-determined pattern to the trees and bushes speckled among the mountaintops, hillsides and valleys, somehow they fit just perfectly within this vast landscape. Honestly, it gets me thinking about the forces of nature and perhaps some Godly or other spiritual involvement in their creation. Of course, I realize that an historic—actually prehistoric—combination of the oceans on both sides of the country and volcanic and related seismic activity, all had a hand in creating what I claim as my front yard. Certainly, I believe in evolution and the physical and natural
Guest having massage "al fresco"Guest having massage "al fresco"Guest having massage "al fresco"
forces that created the earth and its inhabitants of all kinds. But then again, one has to wonder about the perfection of nature and particularly, its beauty, and question whether some spiritual being or perhaps a society or planet of creatures much more intelligent than us had a role in creating all of this wonderful scenery that ceases to amaze me. And Costa Rica, particularly where I live, is one of these wonders. I seem to have gotten a bit off track however the beauty of this place is another good thing about living here.

Another good thing I’ve discovered is not only the locals I’ve met but also our guests. I always learn something new from them and given my insidious desire to travel, and even already being well traveled, I’ve discovered new places I might like visit someday, given time and resources. I also recently learned a bit about Canadian politics and their take on Americans from a mother and son who stayed with us for a few days. I learned from a couple and their daughter both the joy and sorrow of leaving the land of opportunity (the U.S.) to move here, perhaps—hopefully—where new opportunities await
The source of the perfume smellThe source of the perfume smellThe source of the perfume smell

Finally found the plant in the yard with the flowers that generate a wonderful perfume smell throughout the yard.
them. An old, and certainly wise man taught me that life is not about what you ARE in it, but what you DO in life. Whether you are doing something worthwhile for yourself—if it makes you learn and grow—or are doing something for others, that is what matters most. I knew this lesson inherently when I lived in the U.S. and had a career and all of that, but who had time for that kind of introspection? Now that I am running a fairly simple business and can take long breaks during the day if I so choose, I have the time to think about such things.

I cannot say with certainty what I like most about this country but it is an amalgamation of things for sure. The people, their culture, their seemingly inherent happiness and their genuinely friendly attitude towards foreigners, are among my top choices. However, if I was forced into naming one thing that I liked best about Costa Rica I would tell anyone who asked that it is what I have yet to discover about this wonderful place. It is what comes next—tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year—that intrigues me the most and what I look forward to by living here.

There are of course a few things you learn about living in a new place that are less than good—things that sadden you, things that annoy you, things that just make one’s day a little more strenuous than one may want, and things you wouldn’t know before moving. For example, I recently picked up a friend at the airport. This was a Tuesday in the middle of the day. The road from San Ramon (the nearest “big town” near me) to the airport, the InterAmerican highway, is a decent road by Costa Rican standards with some parts of the road even having two lanes in each direction, particularly on hills, thank God. It is also one of the most traveled roads in Costa Rica with holiday makers heading to the Pacific coast and all nature of goods being shipped back and forth between the ports and San Jose by truck. However, on this particular Tuesday there was some sort of bike race originating north and west of San Ramon and going at least to the airport where I got off the road. So, of course, I was right behind the leaders of the pack going a cool 25 miles per hour all the way to the airport. Even worse, cars and trucks going in the opposite direction were completely stopped in some places. I found myself being annoyed about this because my plan was to stop at Denny’s (my guilty pleasure) and have lunch before meeting my friend and I left for the airport early in order to do so. Well, as it turns out, her plane was over two hours late so I had plenty of time for lunch. I got to thinking though about this slow lurch to the airport. I was thinking how in the middle of the day on a very important business route during the onslaught of the tourist season, and also at a time when Ticos hit the road to visit family, why would there be a bike race? What were they thinking!?! It seemed nonsensical to me! I later learned that this is a good time of the year for such a race because the trade winds change and allow for good weather from the Caribbean coast all the way to the Pacific coast. The more I thought about it the more my displeasure about it subsided. I mean really so it added an hour to my trip. Did it really make a big difference in my life? No, not really. This is what Costa Rica has/seems to have done to me—my time here has made me step back and put things in perspective, and I’m lucky to be able to do so at relatively young age. Sure, I could do this type of introspection in other countries but this is where I live now.

There are other daily annoyances related to living here including visiting the bank and waiting in long queues to conduct simple transactions, or being frustrated over the generally slow pace of business. But again, compared to people who live on a daily basis hand- to-mouth, I cannot, and should not complain.

It has certainly been a transitional year moving from a relatively cushy life with a nice home, a terrific group of friends and relatively more conveniences, to a place, while beautiful, involving adapting to a new culture, making new friends, getting into a new routine—a new life really—and of course, learning another language. Adapting to a new culture has not been as difficult as I once thought. It is a matter of learning to live life like a local in terms of where to bank, when and how to travel, where to find the best produce, things like that. I’d like to think I’ve adapted fairly well, at least on a basic level. However, becoming totally immersed in a new culture, or more importantly, really being of a new culture is something different altogether. As a foreigner in Costa Rica, I will certainly be part of the community; a patron in a restaurant, a shopper at the town market and so forth, though as a non-native it is likely I will not pick up all of the cultural nuances of being Costa Rican. I will surely learn about them but those perspectives, outlooks, views of the world and many other things as seen through a Costa Rican’s eyes cannot become inherent in me. This may be an obvious statement but it is important as a way of rationalizing what to expect when one travels to or lives in a foreign country. I recall telling someone before I moved here that I wanted to “live like a Costa Rican” (mostly in an economic sense, at the time) but the fact is, I live as an American in Costa Rica. I read a great book several years ago called “Hard Travel to Sacred Places,” by Rudolph Wurltzer, about essentially how to get the most out of visiting some of the most historic, grand, beautiful and oftentimes religious places in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma). Reading this book taught me that unless one is steeped in the history of a place, reared in its mist, it is difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand it in a meaningful, deep way. The best we can do is to try to understand our surroundings, particularly the cultural activities that have become part of the history of a place and somehow relate to it given our own life experiences. This is what I am attempting to do in Costa Rica. What is the meaning of a festival? What does it mean to its people? And, as I learn about these cultural activities and experiences, what do they mean to me? It strikes me that I shouldn’t do this only here, but wherever I live. It unquestionably makes living in a new place more real; not just a superficial existence from day to day.

I think this tome started in regard to the transitional year this has been for me moving to Costa Rica but I seemed to have diverted a bit, getting into a cultural discussion. Culture is part of the transition of course. It has also been an “awakening year” for me. Giving up the 60- or 70-hour work week, getting out of the rather mundane routine and into something that has challenged me on many levels—intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and occasionally physically—has awakened me to ideas and aspirations I rarely thought about. Living a place where the primary focus of one’s life is the outdoors undeniably changes one’s perspective and absolutely how one spends one’s day. It also provides a different outlook on life. You come to better appreciate nature largely because you are living in it, and you adapt to the slower, rural life that is my home and community. You also come to learn, and I am glad I did not learn it too late in life, that there are other ways to earn a living, albeit modest, if you put your mind to it. As I said early on, who would have thought I’d be running a B&B at this stage in my life? Though I have realized that as long as I have air in my lungs, a place to sleep and eat, and in my case, some paper and pens for writing (oh, and a computer too or else I would not be to communicate with all you fine folks!), I really do not need much more in life. I have found that I can adapt to a new place and live more simply; it just takes a bit of persistence, a willingness to try new things and perhaps to throw out some old ideas. And in Costa Rica, this is relatively effortless because of the openness of the people and the fact that people here seem to want to know me. What happens tomorrow or the next day? Well, that is unknown and perhaps something I will write about in a future blog. In fact, I know I will.

Meeting people here and making new friends, while a bit of a challenge given the communication issues, is not impossible, and after six months I am finally getting out and “making the rounds.” Me and a friend now head into San Ramon or other parts of the local area, hitting our new favorite watering holes, usually on the weekends. Don’t get me wrong, this is without doubt not a “Studio 54” type of experience—far from it! What it is, though, is a relaxed night of fun meeting the locals, having drinks and a boca or two (a “boca” is small plate of food, similar to tapas). I find it so relaxed and enjoyable that more often than not, we usually head out around 9pm and don’t return home until 2am, spending a few hours in each place. There is an interesting mix of bars and clubs here, all very welcoming. One bar, located in a town near San Ramon has a decidedly local clientele, the type of place where everyone knows each other. But me and my friend, who is fluent in Spanish, have mixed in well, and we are now welcomed like natives each time we go there. Then, there is what I call the “college bars” in downtown San Ramon. Situated along a two block strip, just off the town square, there is a small array of clubs and bars for the younger set, definitely college age, and I’m sure even some of high school age. I am amazed at the number of young people who seem to come out of nowhere in the evenings, though partly owning to the fact that a branch of the University of Costa Rica is located here and also that San Ramon is the largest town west and north of San Jose until one hits Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. While many view Costa Rica as a very poor, third-world country, and it is fairly poor, the people I’ve met in these downtown bars are well dressed, well spoken and educated, and again, very willing to engage foreigners.

There is also another bar we really like and usually find it to be our final stop of the evening. Called “Las Poetas,” or “The Poets,” it is claimed to be the watering hole for San Ramon’s literary and intellectual crowd. I haven’t quite yet figured out if that is true, but it is definitely a more upscale crowd. Set well up a dirt road high above San Ramon, it provides a terrific view of the town and the valley. I like the mix of people here from couples having an intimate drink in a dark corner, groups of guys and girls having a fun night on the town, others prowling for someone single and available, and still others just there to take part in karaoke. We always meet new people here and inevitably find ourselves in the middle of a large group of people with conversations raging in both English and Spanish on all manner of subjects from the weather to politics and music and the arts. Being here and at the other bars is definitely forcing me to try to comprehend Spanish, and I am finding myself picking up more and more phrases and even communicating a bit in Spanish. I definitely understand the language much better than I speak it! Even though I wrote ad nauseam about culture earlier, I have learned that at least in a bar situation, things here are not all that much different than anywhere else. People go out to be with friends, have a drink or two or three, forget about life’s troubles, and perhaps to meet someone new. To that, one can relate in any language. It is also the case particularly for Costa Ricans of college age that being at home often involves an extended family living in cramped quarters, so getting out is a way to get away from all of that for at least a few hours. So in the end, while there are many cultural differences to comprehend in a living in a new place, there are many similarities too, and that makes us all humans.

Well, it is time to conclude this entry as things are busy around here this holiday season. It has been a great year and I’m very appreciative of the loyal readers following my new life in Costa Rica. I hope you will continue to offer comments and please come on down any time—we’d love to see you! Look for another entry shortly after the start of the New Year.

Happy holidays and have a safe, healthy, and prosperous 2006!

Pura Vida!



26th December 2005

Settling into costarrican life...
Drew, It is alwasy interesting to read of your 'progress' in ticolandia as you continue to become more immersed in the place and ways of the country and its people. I am happy for your writings since, as I approach my retirement your views are helpful in dispelling the occasional second thoughts I have about whether I really should move there or not. I learn a little something new about the culture from each new blog that you post. Thanx! -Paul M. ==
3rd January 2006

Yo, Andy!
An A+ for your efforts, especially in regard to your perceptive remarks about m,y chopsen country. The only problem I have in living here is that I am too darn happy and keep looking around to see who is coming up behind me to take it away. Tom

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