About one year ago, our family moved to Costa Rica from downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. The decision was difficult, and it was an enormous task for my husband and I to move three children, one dog and one cat, by suitcase, to a foreign country. This wasn’t a flippant decision, mind you. It came after pining to get out of the US, and eight years of month-long expeditions all over Costa Rica to find just the right spot to settle. The year 2012 was spent entirely on working our asses off, paying off debts, packing and planning our exodus. When our friends were worrying about the world ending in December, 2012, we were looking forward to our lives beginning.
I felt sure, as sure as I could be, that this was the right decision. Its funny how thinking through something and actually experiencing something, can be so entirely different.
When we arrived last January, there was a brief sigh of relief. We made it! We actually did it! WOW! We chose a very rural pueblo in the mountains, where there was a small extpat community, a small school and epic views of the jungle. The air is so clean and fresh. The food is so pure. Every time we came across a Tico, we were met with a smile and a wave. It was almost Twilight Zone-ish how perfect it all seemed. “Where is the Shadow of this place? Every place has a Shadow!” I insisted. But I was only met with shrugs from neighbors.
And we settled into a humble, rental house and got into daily life in Costa Rica. We sent the kids off to the local school, and went about our lives. After the first week of school, the 10 year old twins came home and announced, “This place sucks. This school sucks. The other kids bully us. We want to go home!” Before we moved to Costa Rica, they had attended a wonderful public charter school that focused on the arts. The kids had excelled there, and they were missing it terribly.
“I know it’s hard guys, but as soon as you speak Spanish, it will get better. Give it some time. Don’t give up. This is your new home now”
But as the days settled into weeks, and weeks into months, I found myself beginning to question this dream into which we had leapt feet-first. I started to find myself in deep doldrums of introspection. This gave way to depression. With my usual external validators from my home culture stripped away from me, I felt disoriented and sad.
And kids never did feel better about school. The bullying didn’t stop. We spoke to the maestra at least a half dozen times, and again she would just shrug off our concern and remind the kids to bring their pencils, and say, “Kids just bully each other.”
I began to see that school in Costa Rica is about compliance. This culture is very socialistic. Learning to get along, not stand out, and go with the flow is how you do well here. We talked ourselves into the quirkiness that the school was randomly cancelled, that times of classes changed every day without warning, and the kids spent more time in class eating, saluting the flag and brushing their teeth than learning math and reading.
And mind you, I don’t disagree that this way may be a better than our competitive, dog-eat-dog culture in the north. Competing, individualism and bold self expression are shunned in Costa Rica. Our children, having grown up in the most individualistic culture in the world, and having even more individualistic parents, could not figure out how to survive in school. And that combined with the fact that centuries of horrendous Latin America foreign policy by the US has bred animosity toward gringos. The kids could feel the bias against them. But Martin and I just kept urging them to stick with it., “You can’t just give up the minute it gets hard!”
In general, Ticos are very deferential and non-confrontational. I have never once seen a Tico yelling or act stern, even to their own children. They are a very happy people. Many studies show them to be some of the longest living, joyful people on the planet. We, gringos, see that, appreciate that, and want that for ourselves. So we move here, seeking to create that experience. But having that comes with the need to be wrapped and raised in the culture, womb-to-tomb. It is incredibly difficult to come from the competitive, results-oriented culture of the USA and merge into the community-based, process-oriented system in Costa Rica.
That being said however, if you are a sensitive or observant person, as you dig deeper and live here awhile, you get the sense that underneath that smile and “Buenos Dias!”, there might be a reservoir of resentment toward you as a foreigner. It isn’t from every Tico, but I feel it from many. It comes from the fact that in general, gringos have wealth and options, and the Ticos do not. They are working their asses off in their own country for a pittance for rich foreigners. No matter how nice and friendly, this socio-economic difference is there. And in my opinion, anyone who denies it, is kidding themselves.
Of course, there are many sides to the story, and an infinite set of realities. We would go to the Feria on Thursdays, where Marcos, the organic veggie farmer was genuinely warm and kind. Our housekeeper, Jaqui laughed and played with our kids with such love and warmth, she has became part of our family. Farmers and friends everywhere waving and greeting with cheek-kisses and hugs. And our relationship with our town’s gringo community was deepening. Many brunch’s at the local cafe were filled with laughter with expats. Morning trail runs were epically stunning. Dinner with friends, kids playing and laughing filled me with joy. All of it added sweetness to our time here.
But as the months wore on, I couldn’t resolve the doubt in my mind. In our little village, gringos were being robbed, and it only underscored the economic chasm I had been feeling. At night, the feeling was the worst. I missed my family in Utah. I missed my therapy office and clients. I missed my gym. I missed just being able to go to Whole Foods, or order sexy boots on Amazon and have them shipped to my house the next day. I missed the change of seasons.
Giving voice to my doubts to my husband, Martin only brought up his own. Rather than commiserate, he initially erupted in anger at my naming the doubt he himself was feeling. We chalked up my agitation to culture shock, or peri-menopause, adrenal fatigue, or maybe I am just crazy….unable to embrace the simple joy of living in paradise. He would look at me sternly and say, “We have worked so hard to get here. It took us YEARS to get here. We are not turning back!”
But no matter how long I meditated, how long I journaled, how long I trail ran in this gorgeous paradise, I never felt better. I felt as though, as beautiful and idyllic this place is, there is not enough for me here. My brain was not being stimulated. I was beginning to feel like a jungle cat in the zoo, pacing back and forth at the fence line wearing down the grass to dirt. Gnawing on my own paws. How is it possible to show up in paradise and be so unhappy?!
We went to the States in July to prepare our house to sell. We stayed in it, and it brought back all the happy memories of living there. I realized there was so much I hadn’t appreciated before because we were working feverishly to escape it. I begged Martin not to sell the house, to move back to Utah. “There is no going back,” he said, “We are at the pinnacle of culture shock. Hang in there, Babe.”
I talked myself into Costa Rica…the rightness of it. I denied my gut instincts and pushed the doubt down deep inside my soul. In the week we put the house on the market, I became horribly ill. A psychosomatic representation of all that doubt I had swallowed. “You’ll feel better, Babe, when we get back to Costa Rica.” Martin said. But his concern was starting to grow. Even though his words didn’t express it, I could see his own doubt percolating to the surface.
And he was right, I did feel better physically. The return to clean air and food, and lots of rest was very nourishing. We came back to our little pueblo and back to our monotonous rhythm. I awoke in the mornings to a myriad of bird calls, delicious coffee and a leisurely day spread out before me, and asked myself how on earth this couldn’t be enough for me? The pure environment, smiles and friends filled up the sadness…at least for awhile.
But then two small events brought out not only my decision to leave paradise, but Martin’s as well, to the surface.
The first event was when we were traveling in Costa Rica, our housekeeper stayed at the house. One night, someone entered the house to rob us. Our dog and Jaqui ran downstairs and chased him out before anything was taken. Our guess was maybe in this tiny, one-road pueblo, one of those smiles and waves was also noting that we were leaving town. The car wasn’t in the driveway, so the thief suspected the house was empty. We have almost nothing worth stealing (in my opinion, perhaps not in theirs). No TV, no expensive electronics except the computer. But this gave me a terrible feeling that we stick out like sore thumbs. We are a target just because we are gringos, and all gringos are perceived as wealthy.
The second incident was regarding the school. One day, our eldest son came home sobbing so hard, he couldn’t catch his breath. He is an incredibly sensitive, gentle child and I couldn’t imagine what had happened. His twin sister told us the course of events as I tried to calm him down. The kids had final exams and we told them they probably wouldn’t need their textbooks because the last time they didn’t use them. After exams, the maestra told them all to open their science books. Our son didn’t bring his of course. The teacher became angry and forced him to sit in front of the class, doing nothing (akin to the dunce-cap days of yore in the USA) for two entire hours. As he sat there, he began to cry. Being a machismo culture, the boys in the class began to taunt him. The only English they know was “Fuck you.” which they chanted over and over. The maestra did nothing to stop this. Our son became so distraught that he began banging his head over and over on the table. The teacher then accused him of damaging school property. At this point, hysterical and frustrated, he stormed out of the classroom and ran home, and his sister followed.
I encouraged him to write a letter to the teacher to defend himself and help him feel more empowered. He wrote a beautiful letter, first empathizing with her experience, and then explain his own. The ending sentence was a request that she please try to understand his experience and protect him from the bullying. We then translated the letter into Spanish and brought it to her the next morning. With his father at his side, he presented the letter to the maestra. She read it without expression, grunted and handed it back to him. Tears began to stream down his cheeks. “Kids bully.” she said, flatly, “You forgot your toothbrush yesterday. Don’t forget it again.”
I don’t feel the teacher was abusive, as we might be tempted to believe in relation to our culture. I think she was trying to help our son be part of the group. She wanted to help him by breaking what she perceived as a spoiled, insolent spirit down in order to comply with what the group is doing. This is how you succeed in life here.
But for us, that was the final straw. Something opened up for Martin that he had been suppressing all the year before. Martin couldn’t deny his doubt any longer and it all bubbled to the surface at once. He said, “The kids aren’t going back to that school.”
We talked for days about what to do. Should we go back? Is it culture shock? Should we homeschool? Are we going to give up this dream after so much work to get here? Are we basing a decision on a couple of little circumstances that do not indicate what the rest of our experience will be like in Costa Rica? In that week, I received an email from the kids’ school principal in the States. She invited them to return if we ever chose to move back to Utah. It almost felt like a sign.
After much introspection and discussion and another three week trip to Utah, we decided to move back. “Back into the belly of the beast!” Martin announced.
I don’t feel those two events were entirely what made us decide to move back to Utah. But they were small tipping points on a much bigger scale. And there are so many wonderful things about Costa Rica, that I feel it is likely we will spend a lot of time here over the coming years. I do feel if we chose to stay, the culture shock would diminish and I trust we would find ways to thrive here. Many gringos love it in Costa Rica and would never dream of going back into “Babylon”.
Archetypally, it feels like we are being expelled out of Eden. If only I could have stayed naive to the yearnings of worldly things. If I turned a blind eye to the complexity of western culture, and to asserting my individuality, I could happily stay in Eden. But my very nature is to question, and to seek. The serpent kept slithering into my dreamworld, whispering to me in my sleep. And I spoke with the serpent about all these doubts I was having. And like Eve did to Adam, I rose the inherent doubt within Martin to the surface. I try to console myself that although we will leave Eden, nothing makes me forget what it was like to live there. We carry that seed of Eden within ourselves and the experience will forever be in me.
What is obvious to me after this experience is, I need to finally embrace that I am a North American, and I will never be anything else. I love the infrastructure of the States. I love the convenience, the ability to work doing what I love. I love the stimulation, the educational system for my kids. And I love the individualism. It is the only thing I know how to be.
But I also love Costa Rica. I love the nature, the friends, the tranquility. Costa Rica will also always be a second home to me. And just as we feel about home, I am conflicted….there are things I resent and react against too.
The challenge becomes, can I embrace this tension of opposites? Can I hold enough space in my emotional mind that neither place is Utopia, and each place has a Shadow? Can I realize that Eden was an illusion, a projection, because in order to live in Eden, I would have to become something which I am not.
I don’t regret a moment of this crazy adventure either. It has all been worth it. Every member of our family discovered the mettle we are made of. We are all grateful for the abundance and love we have. We all know ourselves and one another much better now. I have finally made peace with who I truly am. No apologies or trying to be different. This is it. I am not going to change. Work with what I’ve got, and make the second half of this adventure as juicy and rich as possible.
More than anything, I have gratitude for the opportunity to try it all. My life has been rich with adventure and diversity. I wouldn’t change a thing. And who knows, maybe after a year in the crazy USA, I’ll want to come back. And that’s ok too.