What I Learned in Costa Rica
As our sabbatical is coming to a close, my wife has expressed the desire to offer her own perspective on this experience. Instead of detailing it in 17 posts, she has summarized it in 1. Therein lies the difference between a lawyer and an engineer. So, without further adieu, I give you the thoughts of guest writer, Ms. Heather Brent.
I can’t believe it’s been almost a year that I have lived in Costa Rica. We spent so long talking about it and planning it, and now it’s almost over. Wow. In short, it has been nothing less than amazing. And por dicha, overwhelmingly positive. I feel like each of us has grown in so many ways. We all feel very fortunate to have had this life-enriching sabbatical together.
Throughout my time here, I have been compiling a mental list of items I’ve learned to appreciate. I’m not talking about the obvious ones you would expect: the beach, constant sunshine, or amazing wildlife. I’ve learned to value simple things that I took for granted, or just never really thought about, because we’re fairly spoiled in the U.S. In no particular order, following is a summary of 10 things I’ve learned to appreciate in Costa Rica.
Whether it is used to power your car or power your building, energy is expensive here. Or put more accurately, energy costs in Costa Rica what it actually should cost to make people more aware of how precious and limited it really is. Gasoline is ridiculously expensive by American standards. Because the price is fixed by the government, the cost is the same at every gas station. It ranges from 600-800 colones/liter, which converted to U.S. units is about $4.50-$5.50 per gallon.
Likewise, electricity is also expensive. The U.S. average residential retail rate for electricity in March 2015 was $0.12/kilowatt-hour (kWh). Allegedly, the Costa Rican average rate is about the same as Alaska, around $0.19/kWh. But, looking at our bill, we pay an average of $0.30/kWh, which is closer to what Hawaiians pay. Because of the way electricity rates are structured, in which you pay a lower rate for lower consumption and then step up to increased rates for each higher tier of electricity usage, our effective rate is a reflection of our high electricity consumption (damn that energy-hogging hot water tank!). Despite our best efforts, we use a lot of electricity AND it’s expensive.
Do you know what happens when energy costs are high (besides resulting wars in the Middle East)? People learn to really appreciate it. In Costa Rica, fewer people have cars because cars are expensive to purchase and operate. Instead, more people ride bikes and take taxis and buses. In addition, very few locals use clothes dryers (they air dry in the sun) or ovens (they use stove-top heating devices instead), and they do not have air conditioning. Yes, you read that correctly. In a land of frequent 90-100 degrees days with constant humidity, most people do not have air conditioning. The only air conditioned restaurants on either coast are American-owned/American style. And unless you want to have a $1,000 per month home electric bill, then you learn to go without air conditioning for most of the time and save it for sleeping. It really puts things into perspective and makes you think about your own energy consumption.
2. ELECTRICITY OUTAGES
Yes, electricity is expensive so you try to use less of it, but there are also frequent power outages to consider. By frequent, I mean daily. By daily, I mean a few times a day. They are usually brief, but enough to cause damage to electronic equipment due to the inevitable power surges. I have heard that the outages used to last a lot longer. Because we don’t run our air conditioning very much (see point #1 above), it does not cause us great distress unless it disrupts the internet service, which does happen. Maybe if we all used less electricity, perhaps there would be fewer power outages?
Do you know what is more important than electricity? Water and indoor plumbing. For various reasons, our water goes out a lot, too. I thought it was because of our proximity to a bridge that was being replaced or from the occasional construction in our neighborhood. But I’ve talked to enough people (and witnessed it first-hand around town) to find out that it happens periodically to everyone in Costa Rica, for a slew of reasons. Needless to say, it’s very inconvenient to go to wash a load of laundry or, worse, to try to take a shower, only to find out that your water has been turned off with no warning. We’ve learned to cope by storing numerous 2-liter bottles of water to use for hand-washing and showers. And when you need to take 2-3 showers every day, you really learn to appreciate what it means to be able to turn on a faucet at any time and get clean. Ah…modern conveniences. We usually do not appreciate them as much as we should.
Everyone has to live with mold in some way. Either you clean it out of your bathroom or you have to deal with mold growth from damp basements and such. But when you live in a hot, humid environment where it’s too expensive to constantly run air conditioning or dehumidifiers, you quickly learn that mold grows EVERYWHERE. We find it inside our kitchen cabinets (on the wooden doors and shelves), on leather belts and shoes, and even on clothes in the closet that we don’t wear very often. In the U.S., I would often re-hang a pair of pants or a skirt that I had only worn briefly. If you do that in a tropical environment, mold will grow anywhere that touched your skin. Even if you don’t see it, you will smell that familiar musty smell and be forced to wash that garment again before you can wear it. Never before have I been so keenly aware of living among tiny organisms that I cannot see.
Do you know what else grows quickly in this environment? Viruses, bacteria, and germs that make you sick. We foolishly thought that when we came here, we would escape some of the illnesses that we were used to getting every winter in Pittsburgh. After all, no one would be cooped up in an air-tight building while those pesky germs flourished during the change of seasons. Man, were we wrong. Despite the fact that we’ve never been so well-rested, less-stressed, and better-fed, we still got sick. A lot. No doubt that some of it is because we have a small child in school who graciously brings home every germ that he comes in contact with. But it has proven to me, rather empirically, that what really matters when it comes to catching illnesses is exposure. We have been exposed to things here that we never built up a resistance to in Pittsburgh. And we’ve gotten really sick.
Not only did we get colds, stomach bugs, and the flu, but we have also been susceptible to skin infections, which are common here. As Jamie told in a humorous way in a previous blogpost, Atticus got a small cut on his finger, which we immediately cleaned like we do at home: washing, Neosporin, and a band aid. A few days later, he had a raging infection in his fingers that required serious medical attention and antibiotics. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you ask most doctors), pharmacies are big here and it’s commonplace to just stop in and ask the pharmacist for assistance. The pharmacist we visit is knowledgeable, inexpensive, and no appointment is necessary. I have a new respect for having easy access to good medical care.
Jamie has written ad-nauseum about owning and driving cars in Costa Rica, but I have to include them again for my complete list. The high import fees on vehicles results in pushing the cost of new cars up to 200% higher than the same new car in the U.S. As a result, most people here drive used cars. I don’t mean cars that are 3-5 years old that still look new. I mean OLD cars. It is not at all uncommon to see cars on the road that are 15, 20, or even 30 years old. This is the land of bionic cars with an endless life span. I think this place is the reason that the U.S. required the “Cash for Clunkers” cars to be flattened so that they wouldn’t be shipped overseas. And how does this impact daily life? Just as you would imagine it would. It’s a pain in the ass. Because it is a constant battle to keep your car running smoothly, you get to know your mechanic really well. When you drive down the road (especially strenuous mountain roads), it’s not uncommon to pass countless broken down cars with the hood open and people gathered around looking concerned. In every day conversations with your friends, it is pretty routine to hear, “well, my car is broken down right now so …” It is just part of life here. As crazy as it might seem, and despite the fact that you might yearn for having a nice, shiny new car with a warranty, you learn to really appreciate the archaic car you have and being able to get around at all. I even find myself patting the dashboard and talking to our car like I would an old, beloved pet. Nice, Bessie.
7. TOO MUCH STUFF
When you are shopping in the U.S. at a mall or a grocery store, do you ever look around and think, “Who needs all this stuff?” The answer, of course, is “nobody”. I thought that before coming to Costa Rica, and I REALLY think that now. We are lucky enough to live in a town that has everything you need (though it might be expensive and cause you to question whether you do really need it) and plenty that you don’t need, as well. But it is still a STARK contrast to just about any city in the U.S. It has made me appreciate a simpler life. Whether it’s clothes, processed/gimmicky food, or cable channels, I’ve realized that it is just stuff. It’s used to fill a void when you can’t get outside and really enjoy life. To be healthy and happy, we all need to try for simpler life. It’s become a cliché, but it is still something to strive for.
8. GOOD FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
This is probably one of my favorite things about Costa Rica. In a country the size of West Virginia with a year-round growing season, everything that is grown in Costa Rica is considered local. Nothing except expensive imported provisions (that we avoid) is shipped very far. The result is that food tastes good. Tomatoes taste like tomatoes – all year long. Strawberries are not on steroids, but instead taste good and are red all the way through. You go to a farmers’ market or produce stand and you can just smell all of the ripe fruits and vegetables. Sure, the bread and cheese suck here, but we probably should eat less bread and cheese anyway. Meat is expensive, so we consume less of it. Essentially, we eat what is available and fresh: lots of fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs, fresh fish, and rice & beans. And we are so much healthier for it.
We have made some amazing, life-long friends here, partly because we have had time to cultivate friendships. With the laid-back, Pura Vida lifestyle comes time for birthday parties and dinners with friends. Jamie and I both have some great friends in the U.S., too, but we’ve neglected them and they probably don’t like us anymore. We were both so caught up in our own little worlds, totally stressed out and sleep-deprived, that we rarely even made time for each other, much less for friends. This experience in Costa Rica has taught me so many things, and one of the most important is how much loved ones, both family and friends, enrich your life and make it worth living. I don’t want to lose that lesson when we return to our normal working existences in the U.S.
10. LIFE IN A VACATION DESTINATION IS NOT NECESSARILY A VACATION
Let me start this one with a caveat. I am not complaining about my life AT ALL. This entry is mostly to answer the question that people would often ask me about our time here: What do you do all day? Jamie and I are both high-energy people who feel compelled to achieve…something. But when we began this sabbatical, I would tell people who asked me that question that I was going to sit on the beach and drink all day. Well, not surprisingly, I don’t really do that. In fact, I haven’t even done that once. No, really, it’s true. Sure, I might have one cocktail (I make a yummy margarita!) or cerveza while I walk to the beach to see the sunset. But we still don’t feel like we deserve to just be on vacation all the time, so that’s not how we act.
The “accomplishment” might be a blogpost, home-school lesson plan, workout, studying Spanish, or visiting a local sight, but we still manage to keep ourselves pretty busy. The only time that we really feel like we are “on vacation” is when we have people visit us and we host their vacation. Honestly, it’s too expensive to zip-line and take boat tours and activities like that all of the time. So the result is that you fashion some sort of routine into your life here, and you don’t really feel like you are on a constant vacation. I think it’s important to appreciate this point if you are ever planning a sabbatical. I have realized that what makes a vacation feel like a vacation is less about the sun and sand, and more about your attitude and being able to kick back and totally tune out your responsibilities, wherever you are. That being said, if you ever get the opportunity to live in a vacation destination, whether you are working or not, take it!
When I read back through my list, it sounds a little like I’ve been deprived, and that’s why I learned to appreciate things like running water and electricity. On the contrary, my life has been greatly enhanced. I will miss this place so much. We have learned to appreciate a simple life filled with beach walks and hikes in the mountains. We enjoy dinners out with friends, while the kids enjoy playing with each other and not eating. We love seeing iguanas and lizards scampering around and hearing scarlet macaws fly overhead. We stop and look at the bugs and flowers. Green is everywhere.
We’ve all heard the vague phrase “Save the Rainforest”, but now I REALLY understand what that means and how incredibly valuable these ecosystems are to our planet. Trust me, they are worth saving. Here, the sun is brighter and hotter, the sky is bigger, the green is greener, and the air is filled with more oxygen (or so it seems). The people are nicer and happier because they know they live in paradise. The inconveniences you deal with merely make you appreciate everything more. It’s a pretty amazing world we live in, if you can get outside and enjoy it. I’m delighted we’ve done just that.