If It's 2 pm It Must Be Raining in Costa Rica
Rain at our outdoor classroom, mangos growing in someone’s yard, random flower on my walk to school.
I am in the Central American country of Costa Rica, which is located north of Panama (where the canal is) and south of Nicaragua which is currently undergoing political strife and violence. It has the Caribbean Sea on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. At its most narrow point, it is 75 miles across and it is 288 miles long (the distance from Dallas to Galveston).
I wanted to use this blog to talk about my experiences and my emotions on becoming an expat. Oddly, living here doesn’t “feel” as “foreign” as I thought it would. Perhaps it is because the first month, I was in class with 19 other English speaking students. Maybe it is because the language barrier isn’t as big a deal as I thought it would be. I seem to be able to make myself understood through various sounds and gestures and other physical antics. Maybe it is because all of my electronics, phone, computers, etc. continue to work fine. My friends are available by phone using Whatsapp and wifi. Facebook functions, email works fine (though Yahoo news is always in Spanish and about Latin interests, so I have a lot of soccer news). People drive cars, motorcycles, bicycles, they jog, go to the gym, shop at small malls and have a variety of restaurants. Most of my life is not much different than it was in the states, maybe the emotional realities will hit later, maybe not.
So, I will share some of the things I’ve noticed as being different from what I am used to. I’ve only been “in country” for two months and I haven’t traveled around the country so I don’t pretend to be a Costa Rican expert. I also don’t want any of my comments to be perceived as judgments, they are only observations. This country belongs to the Costa Ricans, I am just a visitor who hopes to become a permanent resident. They haven’t built a wall to keep out immigrants so here I am, filling a job that is only done by native English speakers, providing an educational component that many Costa Ricans desire. Many of the things I’m going to discuss exist because Costa Rica is a poor country and the local and national governments have a small tax base and have to prioritize where they spend their tax revenues.
The first thing I noticed is that there are very very few street signs and no addresses as we have in the states. Addresses here are based on landmarks. The language school I attended uses the Bank of Costa Rica office that is located 50 meters away. The university where I teach uses a Kentucky Fried Chicken 100 meters away as its landmark. Since there is more than one KFC in Costa Rica, they use the city, district, and neighborhood to zero in on the location. So how does the mail system work? Well, I haven’t figured it out yet. I don’t see mailboxes at the houses or apartments. There is a postal system, but I haven’t found anyone who uses it. I suppose if I needed to mail something, I would go to a post office and figure it out. I asked the 10 students in my class if they receive or send mail and they stared blankly at me as if I had lost my mind.
Google Maps and other mapping programs work in CR, sometimes they seem a bit iffy, so it is not unusual for me to be wandering around lost when I am out. If you ask someone you meet on the street, what street or avenue we are on, don’t expect them to know. That just isn’t how it is done in CR. Streets stop unexpectedly and then start again several blocks over. They may change their name or number suddenly. In downtown San Jose at the intersection of 1st street and 1st avenue, avenues to the north are given odd numbers, to south, even numbers, to the west are even numbered streets and to the east odd numbered streets. So if you are looking for 16th street and find yourself between 15th & 17th you have a long way to go to get to the right place. That isn’t really a big deal because since there are so few street signs you are never sure of the name or number of the street you are on anyway.
I’ve been driving for over 50 years, but I haven’t driven a car in two months. I get around by Uber, taxi, or my feet, mostly my feet. Uber works pretty well because you get to put in your destination (it knows your location) and even if your driver doesn’t speak a word of English, he or she knows where to take you. Taxis don’t have that system so if I take a cab I need to have my destination written in as much detail as possible (because my best Spanish pronunciation only draws only blank looks). Taxis are also more expensive, so naturally last month there were two days of protest when taxis blocked traffic on some of the major roadways demanding that Uber be banned. Somehow the people of Costa Rica (and most of the other Central & South American countries) live their lives without house numbers and street signs and don’t seem to be interested in changing it, though some business people I have spoken with think it needs to be modernized.
The weather is superb. It does rain almost every day, but that is something you prepare for, like Texas heat. In San Jose the high temperatures range from 73-78° and the lows at night from 59-65°, all…. year….. round. At least that’s what the internet says, we will see. Because of the moderate temperatures there is very little air conditioning or heating. Windows stay open, doors stay open. You will find climate control in modern buildings (like KFC or Subway or office buildings). Costa Ricans call this season winter. Technically since they are north of the equator, it should be summer, but they seem to associate the rainy season with winter. They call November through February summer, though I can’t find any big temperature changes during those months, just a lessening of the rain. But I haven’t lived through their “summer” yet so we will deal with it in a few months.
Though CR is a small country it has several different micro-climates. This is because of the large bodies of water on each side of it and the volcanic mountains which cause some dramatic changes in elevation. The only climate I have experienced so far is the central valley. San Jose sits in the central valley. It is a bowl surrounded by volcanic mountains. When you can get a clear view, there are mountains visible and nearby in all directions. As best as I can tell the city has expanded, through suburbs and small communities, throughout the whole valley and as high as possible up the sides of the mountains. If you can find an elevated viewing area the scene is wonderful both during the day and at night.
A few fast facts. Costa Rica has 6 active volcanoes and 61 dormant or extinct ones. Earthquakes are not uncommon, I have experienced a 4.7 one recently. You can drink the water in Costa Rica though maybe not on the Caribbean side of the country. The citizens of CR are very proud that you can drink their tap water. They are also proud that they don’t have a military. In 1948, after a civil war, the winning side decided that money spent on a military could be better used in providing health care, education, and public services and they abolished the military. That was a pretty bold move since Costa Rica is surrounded by countries with traditional strongman leaders who use their military to control their own citizens, maintain power and infringe on their neighbors. People have told me that Canada has agreed to act in their defense if necessary, though I can’t find anything to support that.
Hot water is rare. My condo and the home I stayed in for a while do not have hot water heaters. For showers, they have an electrical device attached to the shower head which heats the water as it flows through it. It looks like a sure way to electrocute yourself, but it does provide hot water. Elsewhere in the house, there is only cold water. I’m sure these things vary with a family’s income, but the places I’ve been would be middle class. I haven’t seen a bathtub since I’ve been here. One doesn’t flush toilet paper down the toilet, it goes in a small, covered wastebasket by the toilet.
Many times the police ride around in their extended cab Toyota Tacoma’s with their blinking lights on. I don’t know why but am told they use the siren in a real emergency. You are a pedestrian at your own risk. You do not have the right of way ever. There are so few police that traffic laws are ignored. There is so much traffic, that if you aren’t somewhat aggressive, you will be sitting wanting to merge into traffic forever and causing a backup of irritated people in line behind you. When driving one must be very alert because there is no telling what the other driver is going to do. The drivers have a system of communicating with their horns. Short beeps let you know they are there or they are allowing you to merge in. Long beeps mean, “The light turned green one second ago why are you still sitting here”. When walking one must also be very alert. This is not a nanny society. If there is a 3X3 foot hole in the sidewalk you are supposed to be smart enough to not fall into it. The sidewalks are not pedestrian friendly and one must watch closely. I would like to look into their legal system regarding liability claims. Either the attorneys won’t or can’t work on a contingency basis or the liability laws have a lot of common sense built into them.
Enough for now. Every day for the last two weeks, I have at some point thought about how fortunate I am to be living here. We will see how I'm feeling next month.