My life in Costa Rica has always been a remarkable and unique experience, however, never did I suspect when moving to Costa Rica in 1980 how different the next forty years of my life would be.
I didn’t expect paradise as some do; I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But I also knew living in a foreign country would stretch my horizons and reshape me. Whenever we make a move from what’s familiar it challenges us to change and I am addicted to both relocating and change.
My dad was a traveling salesman, so my wanderlust must be part of my genetic heritage. After leaving home at sixteen, I traveled continuously from one end of the US to the other, changing locations every couple of months as was common among young people in the sixties. Habitual relocation became an integral part of my formation and my mode of learning.
After my first child, my stays extended to a year, but invariably the itch would always return. Vacationing was a waste of time and money because I’d usually go home, pack, and return. Eventually, whenever a new place attracted me, I’d simply move there. Geographic contrasts were appealing and lead me to exotic places like Mexico, St. Thomas, Key West, and Guatemala. I always found diverse ways of making a living like driving a Hanson cab in New York City, yacht maintenance in Palm Beach, jewelry making in New Orleans, and conducting tours in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Housing arrangements ranged from a thatched-roofed beach hut to a Manhattan apartment, from living on a boat in the Outer Banks to traveling the Southwest while living in an RV.
When I decided to move to Costa Rica, I found out it had everything my wanderlust craved: bustling city life, peaceful small towns, beaches, lush mountains, or steamy jungles in the south and arid climate in the north. The cultures are as diversified as the terrain with Hispanic and Caribbean cultures, nine Indigenous groups, and thousands of Central and South American transplants, not to mention the gringo expats composed of anyone whose native language isn’t Spanish.
Although customs differ with the demographics, certain cultural norms remain the same. The following information was obtained through my blindly navigating my way through the culture and learning from my mistakes.
A. DEVELOP PATIENCE
- Waiting in lines: Costarricans wait in lines for hours, and when I was younger, these waits were torturous, but as a senior, I bypass the lines to the preferential window. At banks or government buildings, I always bring my cane. However, in situations where waiting is necessary, I’ve developed patience by practicing meditation for the duration.
- Traffic: Avoid driving into urban areas 7am-10am or out 3pm-6pm and don’t get agitated in traffic, especially if you have high blood pressure. To let off steam, find an Oldies station on the radio, turn up the volume and sing really loudly or honk: everyone else does.
B. AVOID OR RESOLVE CONFLICT
- Never raise your voice: Practice developing an inner observer that notices your physical signs just before an outburst, and then monitor your tone when you speak. Costarricans react very negatively to even the slightest raising of your voice, and whatever you wanted to get across, won’t.
- Use the word “Malentendido”: Translated this means terrible misunderstanding. It is used to ease conflict or apologize. (Lo siento por el malentendido)
- Name Calling: Don’t do it. Once done, it can’t be taken back, and most Costarricans take this very personally and will not forget or forgive.
C. POLITE PERSISTENCE
- A Costa Rican says they can’t do it; but it often means, don’t want to; it’s too much trouble or I have other plans. Be politely persistent which often wears them down, especially if you are a sweet older person. This applies to repair people, medical appointments, domestic workers, and even the occasional bureaucrat.
- You leave a message, but they don’t call back keep calling.
- When in a tough situation, conveniently forget you speak Spanish.
D. USE AGE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
- Busses: People usually relinquish their seats, but if not, get proactive. Stand over the handicapped seats, point to the sign then politely ask anyone who is not a senior, pregnant, or handicapped to give you their seat.
Ask for help boarding or getting off the bus. People often offer to let you board first and usually are very helpful, especially with loading your bags.
E. ENLIST “CREATIVE STORYTELLING”
- Non-Confrontation: Foreigners often become frustrated with what they think is Tico lying. He said he’d fix the sink but doesn’t show up; she isn’t responsible for the broken vase; the cat did it, or a price was agreed upon, but later, they swear you heard wrong. This is a cultural norm in a non-confrontational society. They avoid conflict through storytelling.
- Creative Storytelling: This can be used to advantage, especially by seniors.
a. While taking care of a house in the mountains with a freezer full of food, a transformer blew. I told ICE I was on a breathing machine, and they fixed it in thirty minutes. It was the only house connected to that transformer.
b. I was told only the family was allowed to see my friend just admitted with an emergency to the hospital, I said I was her sister.
c. Whenever I miss an appointment, I have an array of creative excuses, including my memory failed or my non-existent husband forgot to tell me.
Apart from becoming an adapt story teller, the most valuable gift of living in Costa Rica has been developing introspection. I figure out what happened, what was my part in it, and how I could have done things differently.
Older and wiser is now my motto.