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!