This past weekend I had occasion to be with four good buddies, formerly of Key West, now of Costa Rica. New expats all. Meet Dean, Perry, Jack and Kiki. I’ve known Dean and Perry for almost 20 years. Kiki I’ve known for a little over four. I’m pretty sure I’ve met her boyfriend Jack before. They lived up the keys, plus he travels for work. Travels as in he’s gone for two years at a time… one of those jobs.
Kiki and Jack now live in the Southern Pacific region of Costa Rica, south of Manuel Antonio. They’ve been here just a few months longer than us, so almost two years. They’ve made a life here in Costa Rica in just a short time, lots of friends, a business. Dean lives part-time in Jaco, part-time in Key West. He plans to settle here full-time, eventually.
Perry moved here a couple of months ago, but he’s going back. "It’s too isolated," he says. He’s right. Isolated, it is. Particularly after living in a little town for over half your life where you know everyone, everyone knows you. In fact, EVERYONE knows EVERYTHING about EVERYBODY else. You think you’d hate that, but it’s comforting in an odd way. Nature of the beast, I guess.
Coming from a familiar environment to suddenly being a stranger in a strange land is THE trouble with expat-ism. Surviving the first couple of years is extremely difficult. Difficult in ways we could never imagine or have prepared for. It’s estimated that 40% of expats go home within two years of arrival. I can believe it.
Here’s the trouble in a nutshell: everything, every single solitary thing about life here is different. Everything, everything, everything. Language. Signs. Roads. No addresses. Paying bills. Ice cream. Catsup. All the food. The energy. Sunrise and sunset. Efficiency. Driving. Merging. Hours of operation. Poverty. Money. Banking. Developing patience. How the ticos do everything, how they approach life, is completely different. Language is the biggest hurdle. If you speak Spanish, you have a fighting chance. But then there’s everything else.
Last night, as I talked to Perry about his decision to go back, I realized Hal and the boys and I had compelling forces shoving us through the culture shock.
1. For starters – and I hate to keep beating a dead horse – but we could not afford to stay where we were without huge effort. Something had to give. I mean, we could‘ve. But the truth is we just didn’t have the heart. And we’d be living on our credit cards like everyone in the real estate business who stayed is doing now… Or waitressing. I’m hoping that horse is dead and buried.
We considered moving to Fibonacci Acres, our "farm" in north Florida which consisted of the world’s most poorly constructed mobile home on 10 acres waaaaaaay out in the middle of nowhere. Right. Like I’m going to move there. Heck, if we were going to start over, why not start over in an exotic locale?
2. Besides, we were only coming here for a year. You can do anything for a year.
3. We were desperate to escape where we were. A dying real estate market, four hurricanes in a row with Wilma as the final blow. iBASTANTE! [bah-STAHN-tay, enough] We’d been talking for awhile about taking off for a year to a foreign land. We were ready for a change. You know that feeling: "I need something but I don’t know what." We had it big time.
4. And we had four of us. Isolated, yes, but never alone. You always have bastante for Hearts. True, we got pretty darned sick of each other sometimes. Since we’ve always home-schooled and worked at home, we are used to being together all the time. But the first few months here, not really knowing anyone at all except our landlord, took All-The-Time to a whole new level.
Those four items: needing an affordable place to live, "it’s only for a year," desperate and together, got us through that first unbelievable year. And then we fell deeply in love with Costa Rica and our quality of life here. Who knew that would happen? There were moments that first year when it didn’t seem possible…
Is it forever? After the changes my life has seen the past two years, I can’t venture a guess. We have a three year lease, 200lbs of family photos to sort through (which will take at least three years), awaiting the arrival of ten 40lb bags of books sometime in the next six to eight weeks. We’ll be here at least till then.
The up-side to the trouble with expat-ism is that, once you’ve overcome the hurdle of culture shock, once you’ve discovered that the U.S. is NOT the be all and end all… the whole world opens up. For now, Costa Rica is home base. But there are 244 other countries in the world… 24 of them Spanish speaking. Well, 23, if you take out Venezuela. Still, so many opportunities. And still so much time.
Your last paragraph is one of the most interesting. A couple of weeks ago, we had a guest here at Casa S. She and her husband decided to try a year of life overseas somewhere almost thirty years ago. Since that time, they’ve lived in eleven different countries, each for somewhere between a year and a half and two years. She speaks seven languages besides English, all relatively fluently, and intererestingly interchangeably (which sometimes makes her conversation slightly hard to follow). Her only comment, “This expat life, once you start, you either love it or hate it, and you either go back, or you just keep going.” It had me already start thinking about where might be next! Maybe Casa S will become a moveable feast…
Maybe I could get a job with you….? I’m a really good waitress. Just a thought! But I have the feeling that Costa Rica could be home base forever, but that we may not have moved for the last time. Who knows?
You might have to arm-wrestle Henry for the waiter/waitress job…
We came here to CR (my husband and I) for similiar reasons (and different). We’ve now been here just under two years. Mostly we moved here from San Diego to experience a very different kind of life- neither better nor worse- as we had it great in San Diego. We loved our house, jobs, friends, family nearby…financially it wasn’t bad, but it was tight.
Mostly we moved here for the opportunity of an adventure, NOW- versus waiting for the “right” time or retirement. We are in our late 30’s, mid-40’s.
But you are so right on- re: the experience of living here and the adjustment of it all. I think it is imperative to learn the language, the best you can at a comfortable pace- but learn it. Get involved, run a business, make friends, and volunteer in your community. Then- you either love it or you don’t- but it’s not for lack of trying. Costa Rica does NOT reach out to you and welcome you and help you adjust when you move here! It just does not. But if you reach out to what is available in Costa Rica to you- CR and the Ticos come to you and life is rich. We definitely love it here. Finally- what really communicated to me, that you wrote, is the trouble with a move like this. The whole world opens up and then you realize you can live anywhere, anyhow practically. It’s almost scary. But very cool. The whole world opens up. Yes- it really, really does. Great post!
An expat told me a few months ago – I had called her hoping to get our homeschooled kids together – that no one would really warm up to me until we’d been here two years. That so many expats return before then, nobody wanted to open up to us until we were definitely going to be here. I guess I don’t blame them… but kind of a double edged sword for us trying to make a new life!!!