As I come close to my one-year anniversary living in Costa Rica (June 4, or 5, I forget exactly) I again find myself being introspective. I ask myself a number of questions such as: “How would I characterize my first year here?” “Am I happy living here?” “Did I accomplish the goals I set for myself in the first year?” “What would I have done differently looking back at the last twelve months?” “What will I do during the next year?” I am sure there are many other questions I could ask myself if I thought about it a bit longer.
I won’t answer all of the aforementioned questions in this blog entry for fear of driving many of you away (I’ll save it for my “one-year anniversary blog entry!). However, I will try to answer one question, and I think the most important question one needs to ask oneself, no matter the place or situation. I also get asked this question frequently by guests, particularly those guests considering retirement here. That question is: “Am I happy living here?” My short answer to guests is “yes.” But of course, this is not a question that deserves a short answer. However, like everyone, even in Costa Rica, I find myself short on time so I provide the easy answer. For oneself, and in fact, for one’s self preservation, though, it is important to examine this question thoroughly I think, particularly when moving to a foreign country, and one where things may work differently (and more slowly!). I also think it is important to answer this question before moving here and to re-assess frequently after being here for a while.
Most people who have moved here figure out how to purchase or build a house, buy a car, find the supermarket, learn some Spanish, etc.—these are issues with a learning curve that most people can manage to travel fairly well. The larger issue then becomes after you’ve done all of the routine things, are you happy?
Being happy depends on what you want, how you want to live and I think most importantly, the people in your life in the situation you’ve found yourself in. Moving to Costa Rica such that in most cases, you won’t have many friends at first, and won’t know the language right away, is a big step. It takes a certain type of person. It takes a person who can build networks socially (and sometimes, professionally). It most definitely takes a person who can adapt to a new culture—actually, live in the culture—and gain insight and rewards from it. It also takes a person willing to give back to the culture by sharing his or her own experiences with the local people and being open to helping them, just as the newcomer is bound to need a lot of help from the locals, particularly when just starting out.
I’ve often marveled at some of my new friends and neighbors and how they’ve adapted to their new lives here. They’ve built thriving businesses, gotten involved in social or community activities, provide a valuable service to tourists, retirees, and even locals, and all the while, seem to find time to enjoy the beauty and charm that is Costa Rica. How do they do it?
I think many of them work very hard at what they’ve chosen to do but I see very few of them doing things here they don’t want to be doing. I am not sure if that is by making a measured choice or they just happened to luck into something they really enjoy. Whatever the reason, many of the successful, still-working ex-pats here seem to have one thing in common: they’ve found their niche in life.
The longer I live here, the more I think it is all about finding one’s niche to be happy. In the states in particular, we often find ourselves in a particular job or career field and find it hard to get out. We either like the regular paycheck, find it too hard to switch careers, or more generally, don’t want to give up the things our current career brings us: job security, a nice home, food and clothing for the children, etc. Finding the right niche, particularly in a work-related situation, often brings more heartache than many people are willing to take on.
Moving to a place like Costa Rica, you have to be willing to take some risks in order to be successful—to find that niche—and to be happy. There are not any regular, paying jobs here that you can get (in fact, as a foreigner you generally cannot work as an employee anyways); you won’t find very many ready-made social networks that you’ll feel comfortable in at first, at least not like the kind you can find in the states (I’m still looking for a local softball league!); and, most of your life-long friends live far away and are not likely to make the leap of faith you’ve made.
So, to be happy, particularly as a foreigner living in Costa Rica, I believe it takes above all, finding that niche that makes you happy, and being open to letting your new surroundings, new ways of doing things, and in fact, a new culture, become a part of your life. If you continue to do the things you’ve done in the past—those things that defined your life in the U.S. or elsewhere—you’re unlikely to be happy here. While our demons tend to follow us everywhere, it is important, as I’ve learned, to at least try and rid yourself of them here, because it will be harder to be happy here if you bring what bogged you down in your former life, to your new life here. I cannot say I’ve achieved this completely but I’ve made great strides in the last year.
Working for oneself is different…but rewarding
I get many emails from people asking about how I moved from having a (seemingly) cushy corporate career to a “less than corporate career” in Costa Rica, running a B&B. I usually respond in several ways but often I describe my desire to leave the “rat race,” do something more meaningful, etc. But desire is one thing, facing the reality of trying to make ends meet is another thing. And, it isn’t for everyone. I had no idea before I moved, frankly, if living here and trying to make it on my own was for me. I didn’t take a one of those psychological tests to determine what kind of person I am and what my “skill set is” nor did I make a very detailed plan (though I had many checklists!). Maybe I should have had an in-depth plan or maybe it doesn’t matter. Still more time is required I think. I decided, though, that the worst thing that could happen is that if I completely blew my bank account, I could move back to the U.S., stay with one of my friends or family, and start over again. So far, fortunately, I am not facing that prospect.
What I did know, however, is that having a background in the travel industry made the transition from the corporate world of large (generally money-losing) airlines to running a B&B would enable me to take advantage of what I learned about the industry, what people want in booking travel, and what they expect once they arrive at their destination (unfortunately, in today’s world of modern air travel, it is no longer about the “trip,” rather getting to where you need to go in very modest comfort). However, knowing something about a particular field or business isn’t enough.
The scariest aspect of moving from the corporate world to this new world of mine is giving up the regular paycheck. In my corporate life, whether I had a productive day or not, whether I closed a deal or not, and whether I even came to work or not, I still got a nice paycheck without fail every two weeks. I could bank on it. Luckily, living in Costa Rica is fairly inexpensive so I’m working to support a much more modest lifestyle. However, you have to be confident in your abilities and have a positive outlook on life in order to make it here. If you are the type of person, who, on a bad day, will just pull the covers over your head and stay in bed all day, you are unlikely to be successful here or happy.
Working for oneself, which I hadn’t done prior to moving to Costa Rica, is certainly different. You only have yourself to rely on to earn a living. That means picking a business that will sustain the type of lifestyle you want, doing something that makes you happy (read the previous section again) and being prepared to work hard in it (and probably losing money at first) in order to achieve your goals. It also means making sacrifices you may not have made working for someone else. For example, in the B&B business, customers often want to take a vacation over time periods that include a major holiday such as Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years. That means for me, working on those days. Other sacrifices include being “on” when perhaps you don’t want to be, such as when you have a cold. It also can mean working doubly hard over one time period to ensure there is money to cover expenses when the business is typically slow (at least in this business).
However, having almost 25 years to go until retirement (at which time I could live well on social security—assuming it still exists then—and savings), some people think I’m crazy for doing this at my relatively young age. However, I asked myself over a year ago, that when I die, do I want to my obituary to read that “Andrew was VP of blah, blah, blah….?” Who cares! Life is really about what you do now to be happy (and to have a life beyond work in which you can survive relatively well), what difference you are making in life, and what you accomplish that is good and honorable. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t think there is much more to it!
Beth: “He was overzealous with the weed whacker….”
Sometimes Beth will make a statement that just puts me in stitches. I occasionally do this as well but the weed whacker statement hit my funny bone hard. The statement struck me partially because of the statement itself and partially because we often find ourselves saying things here we just never dreamed we’d say in our former lives in the U.S., either to each other or even only in our heads. It is always situational such as the time several months ago there was a large animal in our front yard, and not being able to see it clearly, I asked Beth, “Is that a cow or a horse in the yard?” Who would have thought I’d ever be asking that question in my lifetime.
I am not sure why it is, but we seem to get into amusing situations (generally at our own expense) more often than we would have when we lived in the U.S. I think it is due to the fact that we live in an environment outside of what we knew, read: going from a city to the country, and that when you are dealing with natural forces such as bad rains, scorching sunlight, runaway horses and dogs and more, for us transplanted city folks, you just have to expect some interesting, if not highly ridiculous situations. Like anything, go with the flow, and all will be okay!
That’s it for now! Thanks for reading!
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