Brief Reflections on Living 8 Years, 10 months, in Costa Rica

This time next week I’ll be on the ground in Florida, my new home for the immediate future. I’ll be moving into a new apartment, acclimating my Tico cat to life in the USA, and seeing my parents for a couple days. It’s been stressful coordinating all the plans necessary to move back to the USA, but I think it’s time for me to go.

While I was sifting through 8 years worth of accumulated papers and souvenirs, I happened to find my first plane ticket to Costa Rica dated January 4th, 2004. It seemed like yesterday: my parents driving me to JFK Airport in the early morning hours to catch the first flight off to San Jose. I had a new job opportunity but I was also terrified because I would be leaving the USA for an extended period of time. I didn’t do a semester abroad at college so I thought this would be my chance to travel while I was still young. After all, if it didn’t work out, I could hop on the next flight home and pickup where I left off.

Somehow, a plan to live abroad for 8 months turned into an 8 year saga characterized by many amazing sights; interesting new experiences; unparalleled natural beauty; some upsetting times; some depressing times; some lonely times; a different culture; life in the fast lane; lots of partying; lots of drinking; and new friendships from a different group of people representing various walks of life. Most importantly, I think more than anything, my time in Costa Rica helped me mature and become a little more street smart. Spending nearly 1/3 of your life in another country is an eye-opening experience to say the least, and when I step on the plane next week bound for Florida, I’ll be arriving in the USA a little older, wiser, and perhaps a better adult.

Brief Reflections on Living 8 Years, 10 Months, in Costa Rica
(in no particular order)

  1. It’s OK to spend several years after college enjoying yourself as a single adult: there’s no need to rush into marriage and starting a family unless that’s what you really want. Use the vitality of your youth as a catalyst for personal growth before conforming to family or societal expectations.
  2. The USA isn’t right about EVERYTHING. Every country has its strengths and weaknesses, and the idea that the rest of the world believes in “American Exceptionalism” is a false. Costa Rica offers ALL of its naturalized citizens heath care. The cost of seeing a doctor and buying medication is substantially LESS compared to the USA. There are multiple political parties in Costa Rica that all vie for power. During its last presidential election, Costa Rica elected its first female president, Laura Chinchilla Miranda. I hope to see the same pass in the USA one day, too.
  3. The Tico diet is much healthier than the average American’s diet. Yes, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and all other manner of fast food restaurants exist in Costa Rica, but if you eat their traditional foods on a regular basis and live their lifestyle, your health will most likely improve. Rice and beans is served with nearly every meal, but so is avocado, mango, papaya, lean meat, pico de gallo, ceviche, and other seafood. You’ll also walk more in Costa Rica – due in part to the fact that not everything is convenient – but it’s also great low-impact exercise.
  4. Poverty is a global problem. Despite Costa Rica’s more proactive social support system, there is still poverty here, just as there is in much of Central America and parts of the USA. If you’re traveling through the city at night, it’s not uncommon to see people sleeping on cardboard and picking through garbage for food. In most cases, the homeless have mental illness, are drug addicts, or have severe physical impairments that prevent them from doing basic manual labor. These people often have no support outside of soup kitchens, religious based charities, or the occasional handout from a stranger.
  5. Perceived irresponsible behavior is often an act of desperation. During my years at my current apartment, 2 stray kittens have been abandoned on the street corner. I adopted the first one and she’s coming with me to the USA. I had to give the second one to an animal shelter. When these things happen, my blood boils: who would be so selfish and irresponsible that they would abandon a defenseless animal? In reality, people are doing these things because they might be in even more desperate circumstances themselves. People aren’t necessarily shirking their duty to provide for a pet; they’re doing something desperate because they have no other choice. This was a hard pill for me to swallow, because I never experienced this phenomena where I grew up in the USA. The reality is, these things happen all the time and are symptomatic of larger problems.
  6. Walk on the wild side at least once. Being away from my family and its cultural expectations allowed me to do some things that were fun but morally questionable. My first night in Costa Rica, the guys at my new job brought me to a brothel as part of the welcoming package. At first I was in a state of shock, but after a while, it was kind of exciting: beautiful women literally grabbing you and making overt sexual advances. This wasn’t something I was used to, and I am NOT ashamed to admit that I visited prostitutes a couple times and paid for strippers to do just about everything in the champagne room. During my initial months in the country it was really exciting and helped redefine my moral boundaries. Again, when looking at the big picture, girls are working as prostitutes to feed themselves, their children, or their families. Pimping is illegal in Costa Rica so the sex industry is largely voluntary. I don’t plan to visit strippers or prostitutes again in the near future because: 1) I don’t want to pay for sex; 2) I got it out of my system after a few months; and 3) I’d rather not encourage otherwise decent young women to sell their bodies because they have to put food on the table.
  7. Costa Rica has unmatched natural beauty, an amazing assortment of animals, and cool looking bugs. During my 8 years here I traveled around the country visiting some of the most tranquil and beautiful beaches in the world. I saw exotic animals in their natural habitats. I woke up to howler monkeys one morning on the Pacific Coast. I even waged war against a constant flow of various species of ants coming into my apartment for the slightest spec of food. The bugs here mean business. Oh, and be prepared to see the occasional cockroach wander past you. It doesn’t mean you’re living in filth and squalor, it’s just part of living in a tropical environment. Watch out, some of the bugs and spiders are enormous!
  8. The world is definitely more global, but there are still major cultural differences in foreign nations. For example, many of the women I met in Costa Rica were surprised that I WAS NOT married at 30 and DID NOT have any children. Costa Rican women believe a large part of their feminine identity is derived from motherhood. Some women start having kids at 19 or 20. As a result, the country is extremely baby friendly: walk through any mall or large department store and you’ll have no trouble finding a section devoted to infants and toddlers. Costa Rican families are also more tight knit. It’s not uncommon for multiple generations of the same family to live in the same house, since their are no convalescent homes for older relatives and the financial pressures of purchasing a new home are often too great for recently married couples. While this can create stress at home and space issues, I think it is a good thing to keep one’s family close.
  9. Even though you’re in your own little bubble living in a foreign land, people back home in the USA will continue to change. I’ve returned home to celebrate Christmas for each of the past 8 years I’ve lived in Costa Rica. When I left the country in 2004 my family was much like it had been for years growing up, since my youngest brother was still in college. Now, in 2012, my parents are much older. One brother has been married and is now getting divorced. Another brother has come out of the closet as gay. I tend to get stuck in my own routine and compartmentalize my life once I feel like I’m in a good groove. The problem with this modus operandi is that everyone else in your life changes regardless of what you’re up to. If you step out of the daily life of your family for years, expect things to be drastically different when you return.
  10. Respect local customs, even if you think they are backwards. The stereotype of the loud, bossy American tourist is well known around the world. When you act this way in another country, it turns the locals off and in many cases annoys them. When you’re NOT in the USA, you’re playing by different rules. Going to the bank to deposit your paycheck might take 10 minutes in the USA, but in Costa Rica bank wait times can exceed 2 hours. This doesn’t give you permission to barge to the front of the line because you’re American and in a hurry. When on foreign soil, always keep your head down, be humble, be flexible, be open, and most importantly be respectful. 9 out of 10 times, you will get treated the way you act in return. Be a good person and understand that your American Passport doesn’t entitle you to act like an a$$hole.

Was it worth spending 8 years of my life in Costa Rica, away from what I knew as familiar and distant from my family? I’ll be evaluating that in the coming months and years. There were some definite positives and some definite negatives. Ultimately, everything in life is a game of trade offs.

There was a brief shower this evening as I was finishing up my jog. Initially, I rolled my eyes cursing the often quirky weather of San Jose. Then, as I looked across the valley, a large rainbow formed. It was a breathtaking sight. For a moment I felt like Costa Rica was tugging me backwards, as if to say, “Don’t go just yet, look at what you might miss.” In reality, that rainbow signified one of two things: a reminder of what was, or a promise of what will come.

One can be optimistic about the unknown future when there’s hard evidence to back it up. For me, a sudden rainbow on the eve of my departure from a dramatic, unexpected chapter in my life tells me there is still good to come, and good memories I will cherish forever. Pura Vida! 🙂