Sunday, September 23, 2018

Life With the Windows Open
September 22, 2018

I was born in Texas in 1950.  I didn’t live in a house with air conditioning until I was in High School.  I honestly don’t know how we managed. The Texas Summers are brutal. I think the biggest change I’ve noticed since coming to Costa Rica is not the language or the culture, but the lack of air conditioning and heating. So far the temperature variation in a day is no more than 20° from 60-80° F.  Most days, I expect a high of about 78 and a low at night of about 64. I understand that is pretty much constant all year long.
          I’m only referring to the Central Valley, San Jose area. Costa Rica is a very small country (about the size of West Virginia), but it has 5 (I’ve also read 12) different micro-climates, so there are areas that are not as comfortable. I don’t know what the lifestyle of the wealthy is like, but it seems as though most homes and businesses live with the windows open.
          I live in a condominium complex with 15 units around a central courtyard (pictured above, in fact, the large window you see is in my bedroom). One would think that it would be a cacophony of sound with all the windows open, but surprisingly, it is quiet most of the time. I seldom hear a TV, unless soccer finals of some sort are being played, then the whole country is tuned in. I average several miles a day of walking through neighborhoods and the city and there is something endearing about life inside of the buildings spilling over onto the sidewalk.
There is the house on the corner which often has the smell of marijuana drifting out of it. Some houses always have music playing, though not blaring. One afternoon, I passed the sounds of a mature man doing his warm-up vocal scales with piano. Who, why, all unanswered. In our complex, a month ago, several teenage girls were singing some interesting harmonies. The harmonies reminded me that Spain was once part of a Muslim empire and much of the culture can still be traced to that influence. One played the guitar and there were maybe 3 voices. They sang the same song over and over and then listened to themselves on a recording. I assumed they were practicing for some performance and as to be expected with teenage girls, the music was often interrupted by giggles and laughter. Someone nearby has guitar lessons each Thursday afternoon and when school started there was a new sound of occasional flute practice. A quarter of a mile away is a high school with a large soccer (naturally) field attached. Each weekday when there is no rain, I can hear the band practicing and marching around the field. Drum lines seem especially popular for soccer games, celebrations, and protests.  Costa Rica is filled with the sounds of life and with the windows open we all get to share in it.

Friday, August 3, 2018

If It's 2 pm It Must Be Raining in Costa Rica 
August 3, 2018


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.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

July 3,2018

July 3, 2018

The language school, the view to the North and South, and our outdoor classroom.

In July of 2017, I could have never connected the dots of my life, in any way possible, that would have found me living in Costa Rica in July of 2018. This journey began in October of 2017 with a knock on the door of my 40-year-old mobile home which sat on an acre of land both of which I had inherited from my parents. The person knocking on the door was a landman (actually a very nice lady) for a gas pipeline company, telling me that their company wanted to run a pipeline straight through my mobile home and that there could be no structures within 100 yards of it.

Now for the most part, that sounds like striking gold, but there are always complications. You know, the genie gives you 3 wishes but somehow it never works out quite right. The first problem is that pipelines in Texas are considered public utilities. That means that they have the right of eminent domain and that in turn means they only have to give you what your property is worth, the appraised value. They usually give you more than that to stay out of court, but nevertheless, it is a little like negotiating with a gun to your head. The other downside, is that my cost of living at that location was extraordinarily low. That was important to me since, for a myriad of reasons, I was going to be trying to live the rest of my life only on my social security income in retirement. That wouldn’t have been easy, but I probably could have done it. The other downside was that to move the mobile home and set it up as it was on my property was going to cost me around $30,000 to $35,000. After thinking about it, that seemed like a lot of money to be investing in a 40-year-old mobile home.

While these things were going on in the background, I had worked myself out of a job at my good friend’s financial planning business. That didn’t worry me too much because I had reacquired all of my investment certifications and licenses. With my experience and the boatload of initials behind my name (CFP,CLU,ChFC,CFS,RHU etc) I was confident that I would find another job. But times have changed. In the new electronic world of job hunting, everything is computerized and impersonal. You are, at least in the large companies who can afford such things, an electronic piece of paper along with thousands of others sorted, filed, and rejected with never a minute of eye to eye contact. I also underestimated the age discrimination. 100 applications later, I was still looking for a job.

So if you have a fixed income and can’t find a job in your field, what do you do? Move someplace where the cost of living is lower or become a greeter at Walmart. At first, I was thinking of living in Colombia or Ecuador and acting like a retired person with very little income. But if I could make a little money working, that would make life better, but what could I do?  Wait, I have a degree in English! Yeah, that piece of paper that has never been of any practical value to me. So I started researching English as a Second Language (ESL) certifications and came to believe that the one that would offer me the most recognition and opportunity was the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). It is recognized all over the world. Unfortunately, I found out that I couldn’t teach all over the world because almost all of the Asian countries have a very low retirement age that I had long since passed. The same went for the European Union countries. Central and South American countries don’t have those restrictions.

The course I needed for the certification was offered in a number of places in the U.S., in other countries, and online. I figured why not go South, take the course and be on the first leg of my journey. So after coming to an agreement with the pipeline company, I started plotting this expedition. Becoming an ex-patriot (no political connotations) seemed like the best option that I had for living some semblance of a comfortable retirement. So over the next three months I sold, donated, gave away or threw away, everything I owned except for 2 suitcases, an overhead bag, a backpack stuffed with electronics and a few boxes of keepsakes, which I stored at a friend’s house. There is a story that the explorer Hernan Cortes, upon arriving in the new world, burned his ships so there would be no temptation to go back to Spain. I did the much the same thing. In reality, I could always go back to the U.S., but I wouldn’t have much of a life if I did.

On June 1, I arrived in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, and began a certification class the following Monday, in Barva, one of the suburbs. There were eventually 20 people in my class. We started with 16 but received four more students a couple of weeks later, who had been taking the course in Nicaragua, but fled the rioting and political unrest currently sweeping that country. There was one other senior citizen and the next oldest person was 32 and then they ranged down to 20 years old. There were 5 guys and 15 ladies. 14 of the ladies were less than 29 years old. The normal person who teaches English abroad is a young person who wants to travel and have an adventure for six months or a year then go back to real life. I was old enough to be their grandfather, I hate to travel, and I was looking to relocate permanently. Those things made me a bit of an odd duck. For those of you who are always bitching and moaning about the millennials and other young people, you should have seen these students. Though I frequently referred to them as “the children” to my friends, this was the largest group of smart, talented, adventurous people I have been with since my short foray into law school. I would have been proud to have claimed any of them as my child and I am proud now to call many of them my friends. Any one of them could run circles around most of the people I know. They had no trouble excelling beyond my talents. I was lucky to get an acceptable grade in the course, which ended up being one of the most intense classroom experiences I have ever encountered.

I’m going to end this post by saying that it looks like I am going to stay in Costa Rica. It is more expensive than many of the Latin American countries, but it has a lot of advantages that I will go into at a later date. I had my first job interview on Monday, July 2, at Universidad Politécnica Internacional. It is a private university with about 900 students who are all required to speak English when they graduate and have to meet certain government standards. I walked out of the interview with a job and an ego boost that I haven’t had in a while. The conversational English teaching jobs don’t pay particularly well by U.S. standards and one may not get very many hours per week, so it is not unusual in this occupation to have to string together a group of income producing endeavors. We will see how that works out for me.

In my next blog, I will talk a bit about my experiences in Costa Rica thus far and my impressions of life abroad. It is a beautiful country and a different way of life and in many ways, it is a real hoot. In the month I have been here I have become infatuated with it. I can’t call it love yet, because most of my time has been spent in class, but it has my attention. Oh yeah, my ability to speak Spanish upon arriving was limited to; una cerveza por favor and donde está la biblioteca, one of which has been useful, the other, not so much.