I was musing today on the wide range of possible expectations that we might have when we move to a foreign place and how that ultimately impacts on how much one does (or doesn’t) end up settling happily into Costa Rica.

I think, perhaps, in the past when Americans decided to become expats in a so-called third world country, they knew that they were moving to a place completely unlike “home” and they were prepared for that. I suspect that they still ended up with the usual array of feelings of disorientation and frustration and perhaps even a similar percentage of folks eventually returned to their homeland, but at least they started off with an appropriate expectation of what they were getting themselves into.

It seems that that’s where the more current crop of expats runs the risk of getting themselves into trouble. One reads now so often about places like Costa Rica (or Panama, Ecuador, etc.) and the stories virtually all make it seem that it will be very much like living at home, just a heckuva lot cheaper and probably with much better weather.

I spoke about one teeny-tiny aspect of this in an earlier post, when I was talking about having access to U.S. television here. Clearly, if you were moving to a small village in, say, deepest Africa or in the thick of the Amazonian jungle, you would simply assume you wouldn’t have access to your current TV programs and that would become part of your expectations about life.

Similarly you might expect to have to carry water from far away, eat food almost completely unrecognizable, and go about your daily business of toileting and bathing differently. You wouldn’t be complaining about bad cell phone service, since you wouldn’t be expecting any.

The problem comes in that everything you read leads you to think that life here in Costa Rica will actually be essentially the same as life “back home” — high speed internet is now available in many places, U.S. television comes in through a variety of services, supermarkets such as AutoMercado carry a huge array of imported products (even your smaller local store will have a good many), medical care can be of a comparable quality, and you can even find radio stations playing U.S. “classic rock” to listen to as you drive the car you brought from the states to the Outback Steakhouse or TGI Friday’s for lunch.

Oh my, oh my. This is, indeed, where the trouble starts. These things all lead you down a path of believing that you’re in a sort-of “alternate universe U.S.” where, admittedly they (sometimes) speak a different language, but fundamentally it’s the same. This is a misimpression that will cause an expat much grief and is fundamental to why many end up going home soon after arrival.

It’s just not the same. Plain and simple, and the sooner one realizes this the better. And there’s no reason it should be the same.

The fault is not with Costa Rica in any way at all. The fault is with our expectations. Clearly if I had no expectation of watching U.S. television, then the season premieres of my programs being rained out would have been a non-issue. But since, in fact, we had paid several thousand dollars for a satellite system that had promised to produce said American television, then our expectations were molded accordingly and the rained out programs were really “felt” as a hardship. (Okay, enough about the TV already!)

But that same attitude and experience travels through myriad experiences here. There’s also a reality that many people who write about any of these countries (Costa Rica, Panama, etc. — it’s all the same!) are “selling” the country in one way or another. If nothing else, they’re selling everyone (and perhaps even themselves) on the idea that they made the right move.

And the things they say about how “accessible” all the conveniences of U.S. living are here are at least largely true. It’s just that they’re not completely true, and yet the “qualifiers” don’t seem to get published nearly as often.

Using my earlier list, for example, yes, high speed internet is readily available in many places, but it’s incredibly erratic and will often be out for hours at a time up to several times a week; yes there’s U.S. television but at an extremely high price (at least initially for equipment) and as more-than-adequately described already, will be frequently rained out for half the year; yes Auto-Mercado has a wide array of products but still minimal compared to a well-stocked U.S. store, at very high prices, and likely to be up to an hour’s drive away since they’re only in the larger cities; yes the quality of medical care here can be excellent, but you’ll likely be paying for it out of your own pocket; yes you can get a “taste of home” eating at any number of American chain restaurants, but you better bring a well-padded wallet because they are wildly pricey.

And absolutely none of those “realities” are actually problems, as long as your expectations match.

I know there are some folks who will get on their high horse and have a sharp retort for anything voiced that might be heard as a “complaint” about Costa Rica. The almost universal answer from those folks will be a variation of “well, if you don’t like it, why are you even here?” as though life were really that black and white.

Ironically, of course, some of those same people might rant at length about the problems they perceive in the U.S. and while some choose running away to Costa Rica as their answer, others consider it a perfectly proper American pastime to work (in the U.S.) to change things for the better. But when you come to a foreign country you are likely not to have much opportunity to work for change, and many would even argue that it’s not within our purview to even try.

We’re the guests here, as it’s often pointed out. And complaining about your hosts is generally considered to be rude.

The fact is that many Ticos are bothered by the same annoyances as gringos are here. Since they don’t (generally) have the choice to leave, and “fighting back” simply isn’t in the culture, many don’t waste energy complaining. And anyway, they’re not usually the ones writing the books, the blogs, the websites, the magazine and newspaper articles all extolling the virtues of moving to Costa Rica.

(And just to be clear, there are of course some other folks who work hard, too, to present a balanced picture of Costa Rica.  They’re just in the minority!)

And so time goes on and folks continue to get a skewed view of places like Costa Rica — it’s all wonderful or it’s all terrible, and of course it’s neither.

It’s mostly wonderful, with a little bit of terrible (or at least mildly annoying) thrown in for good measure. The more clearly you can come here anticipating that mixture, the more likely you are to genuinely enjoy it, for as long as you might choose to stay.

It seems that it’s the expectations that need to change, far more than the country!

This entry was posted in Cost of Living, Moving back to the U.S., Moving to Costa Rica. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Expectations

  1. Ken says:

    Your TV talk really hit home for me. That was one of the big disappointments for me, as people who were “selling” something led me to believe that I would never know the difference when it came to TV programming. That just isn’t so.

    The first problem was probably innocent, as I don’t believe that the people who sold me my mega-dish honestly knew the difference between HD and rabbit ears. Like you, I spent thousands having this monstrosity installed, but I also had a beautiful new state-of-the-art flat screen mounted in my living room, just waiting to watch anything I wanted in 1080p HD. Not one channel was available in HD period.

    Dish changed their satellite positioning a couple of years later, so I had to make a choice of whether to receive the HD feeds only, or get a larger selection of non-HD channels, or “move” to Pittsburgh and get major networks only, or put up another mega-dish to have some combination of the two. I wasn’t about to pay another bill with a comma in it to get less TV than I really wanted. I also wanted no part of mounting another mega-dish on my condo. One is sufficiently unsightly.

    Because I live in the city, I have more options for internet, and that provides more options for viewing. I came here with an iTunes account, and that means it has a US address. With that I can buy more TV series in HD than I can ever watch, plus rent movies. Paired with my Apple TV, I now go to bed each night with my choice of a large variety of current TV shows in beautiful 720p HD, which is as good as you can get on a 32 inch screen – the size of my bedroom TV.

    I get live NFL, MLB and NHL via the internet, although live streaming is not yet the quality that I want because the internet is inconsistent. Amnet provides enough good quality US television programming for most expats, and I do use that to stay up-to-the-minute on news and some other series.

    Between Dish, Amnet, iTunes and the internet, I don’t suffer at all. If I had it to do over again, I would not buy even one mega-dish. Like you say, it is useless in the rain, and that’s far too often here. It also requires regular adjustment, as the ground has been known to wiggle from time to time here. What little I would have given up to not have the dish would be far offset by the multiple thousands of dollars I have spent. Not to mention that Dish Network doesn’t allow us to have service here, so we have to lie about our true location, plus they are constantly trying to “send a technician” to my home for this or that. I’ve been making excuses for years, but they keep harassing me.

    All of this said, it is not something I would move back north for. I do wish that all the facts had been accurately presented to me before I made big financial decisions, but I have found ways to satisfactorily adapt. Like you say, it was the expectation that resulted in a disappointment.

    • arden says:

      Hi, Ken,

      Yep — I’m with you — DEFINITELY not something I’d move back north for! (But, admittedly, one of life’s little pleasures that we’ll enjoy once we’re there.) Yesterday we were adding up what we spend to keep our basic DISH package, plus what we spend through Sobongo to get the networks package, plus our SKY TV (since we lost so many channels when DISH moved satellites, plus David wants NFL back-up), plus the internet with its crappy and intermittent service and we’ll easily be saving money to have a great system up there with true high-speed internet, television with DVR, and so on. Of course, our cell service will cost us more there (on the other hand, it will actually work!) so, it’s all about trade-offs. But it *is* true that it’s hard to mold one’s expectations accurately if folks won’t tell the truth. So hopefully that’s some of what this blog will do.

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