Archive for the ‘Self discovery’ Category

My friend Mary calls Costa Rica opposite land.

It’s a good description because often the way things are done or happen are completely contrary to the way you’d expect.

For instance, if a Tico has his house for sale and has not had a nibble in a year, he will raise the price rather than lower it. This actually happens, according to my friend Mary’s husband, a local realtor.

These types of contrarian situations can happen anywhere, anytime and always when and where you’d least expect. In some ways, it’s part of what makes living in this developing country so alluring because life and the little things that happen in it are never predictable and consequently, never boring.

One of these moments happened the other day while I was at Scotiabank, where we have an account.

I had discovered about a week ago that my debit card was missing and realized I must have left it at the ATM when we were last there, so we drove the 45 minutes to the bank to see if it someone turned it in.

Of course, the day I made this discovery was the eve of Semana Santa, Holy Week in Costa Rica, when everyone is scrambling to do their banking and shopping before the entire country grinds to a halt for several days in religious observance (no beer/liquor is allowed to be sold and nearly every store or institution closes its doors for at least three days.)

The bank was jammed so I grabbed the obligatory number from the dispenser and patiently settled in for my turn.

About 30 minutes passed, without any new numbers being called, when an old Gringo with a young chica entered the bank and walked straight over to a bank representative and sat down and were served.

Had this happened back home, I probably would have went berserk and demanded I be served first.  But being in a foreign country without a good command of the langauge has taught me a few things, patience among them. It is neither worthwhile nor productive to scream and holler and get upset over things you cannot control. So, there I sat, prepared to wait it out.

Then, the opposite of what I would have ever expected here in Costa Rica happened. An armed guard, who unbeknownst to me had seen what happened, went to a woman who appeared more official than the front counter bank officers and reported the incident.

The woman promptly called me over and dealt with me personally, apologizing for the wait and someone else being served first. More importantly, she said my card had been turned in (another unexpected happening) but had been destroyed for security. She would promptly issue me a new one, she said.

When we were done, she asked me to fill out a form explaining what happened. The bank, she said, needed my feedback to improve the quality of service. Now, if that’s isn’t opposite of what you’d ever expect I don’t know what is.

Of course, I went to the ATM shortly after that and the card didn’t work. It hadn’t been activated and by then it was too late to return to the bank and I couldn’t face another long lineup, anyway.

My friend Mary’s onto something. Opposite land. A never-ending adventure in the expected and unexpected.


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While cruising the CR classifieds on a Yahoo group the other day it was a bit jarring to see a ‘for sale’ ad for a Glock, as in the gun preferred by most North American law-enforcement agencies. It is apparently legal to pack in Costa Rica but like most things, nobody can be bothered with the paperwork. In Granada, Nicaragua, people need to be reminded that weapons are not allowed in the park.

Centro Turistico, Granada

Centro Turistico, Granada

It poured rain for about an hour tonight — the first time in almost four months of continuous blue sky in Atenas, the Costa Rican town that boasts the best weather in the world. The air is fresh and the wonderful smells of the tropical forest waft up the nose like a freshly sprayed floral perfume.  The change in season is distinctive and Costa Rican winter is coming. Soon, the crunchy brown grass will be lush and green again and the rains will come every afternoon. God, how am I ever going to live through another Canadian winter after one without cold and snow.

The kids are finally loving school and eagerly dress every morning in their uniforms and march off without complaint. It is amazing to hear them greet their friends in Spanish and play in another language. Bilingualism (and I don’t mean a smattering of French) should be mandatory in Canadian schools. We are so myopic in North America.

Every day that passes brings me closer to our return to Calgary and the home we left almost a year ago. I’ve coined a new term for my old life: suburban suicide. The big question looms — how am I going to go back?

Continental Airlines has to have the nastiest and most unhelpful staff I’ve ever encountered. They were rude from the moment we stepped on the plane to fly to CR and even ruder when when I’ve tried deal with them over the phone to make airline reservations to return to Canada. I will never fly that airline again and if I can ever help, avoid Houston airport forever.

After seven months in Latin America, we are finally taking Spanish lessons. It would have been handier doing this at the beginning of the trip instead of the end. Somehow I always manage to do everything backwards.

Life’s problems follow you wherever you go but they sure are easier to work out when the mind is not cluttered with a million things to do. A sabbatical year is more useful than 10 of therapy and probably cheaper in the  long run.

Six years ago today two beautiful babies were born to an incredible woman in Calgary. Three weeks after that, my first child was born. The trio became very best friends and so did their moms. The same month we moved to Central America, my friend’s family moved to another city in Canada, about an eight hour drive away. It will not be the same going home without them there.

Happy Birthday Aiden and Abby. We miss you.

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Old habits die hard

I need an intervention. Maybe even rehab. I’ve fallen off the wagon, and in a big way.

The boots called out from the window of the store, begging me to try them on and taste again the sweet but fleeting feeling of wearing something sexy and new.

I’ve written multiple times about the importance of the concept that less is more and changed my ways by reducing waste, becoming eco-conscious and bidding goodbye to the consumer culture that enslaves us all.  And then I threw it all out the window.

The same three pairs of shorts and handful of drab tank-tops and T-shirts have rotated countessly through my wardrobe for almost seven months and it’s never bothered me. We’ve strolled through even the fanciest malls and though I’ve on occasion spied something cute in a window I’ve never felt compelled to actually try something on, let alone buy it.

In fact, I can honestly say that I’ve made just one clothing purchase in our time here — a $10 beach wrap to hide the paunch that has grown an alarming rate during the same period. I haven’t even succumbed to the purchase of a cute pair of sandals for my little girl, previously known as the Imelda Marcos of preschoolers.

The only reason we’d gone to the mall, which is an hour’s drive away, was to hit the bank and a major grocery store for a few provisions that we can’t get at the small one in our town.

But the boots. They spoke to me when I passed the window where they proudly stood. And before I knew it, I was slapping down the credit card and crafting justifications in my mind as to why I want, no NEED, these beautiful, black, hand-crafted leather specimens.

1. Every woman MUST HAVE a pair of black leather boots in her closet, especially those who live in places where the ground is covered in snow more than half the year. Mine are now at least 10 years old, have gone through one zipper, one pair of soles and so far gone the leather is starting to rip. Not to mention the square toe and chunky heel is so over.

2. The price tag for a similar quality pair back home would be at least triple the price.

3. I’m supporting the local economy by buying a product hand-made in Costa Rica by a local, family owned company.

4. I’ve been back to the gym every day for the past two weeks after months of being lazy and deserve a treat for all my hard work.

Ok. I just wanted the damn boots. So shoot me.

I can’t even wear the things because, well, they would look a bit silly with my shorts and tank top.

I could, however, parade around in them naked. These boots are sooooo sexy that my husband wouldn’t even notice the paunch, which, I’m proud to say has shrunk a fraction since I started working out again and laid off the cervesas.

On a deeper level, the guilt is nagging at me. The cost of my new boots amounts to about half a month’s salary of an unskilled worker, like a maid.

I feel like such a hypocrite and disappointed that I’ve slipped back into old habits, which seems to be happening more and more now since the initial shock and awe of being here wore off.

Somewhere along the way all my internal angst faded away and my insight along with it. Change and growth is easy to talk about but incredibly hard to make permanent.

So, really, the boot purchase is a good thing. It’s brought me back to where I began, prompting me to get back to work and remember to continually be present, aware and take time for introspection.

And I’ll be reminded of that with every step.

Kick me, I'm shallow

Kick me, I'm shallow

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Welcome to dysfunction junction, where the abnormal and the aberrant meet.

It’s also known as beach life, where motivation goes to die and inspiration is sparked with a spliff.

On the continuum of Costa Rican weirdness, the beach is at one extreme. And I’ve learned that I’m not, at the extreme of weirdness, I mean. Just resting comfortably somewhere between unique and different.

After months of living in an urban prison we moved to the beach, thinking the sand and surf was paradise waiting, the place we ought to be for our remaining six months in this tropical Third World.

At first I thought it was simply a move from crazy town to lazy town. But it turned out to be both.

Vacationing at the beach and actually living there are two very different experiences.

Everyone who’s made the move permanently has an unusual story of how they arrived, often one that involves some sort of calamity. I’m talking about expats, because that’s mostly who we became acquainted with when we moved to the beach, a complete reversal of our previous situation of living amongst the locals.

Blending in with the natives at the beach is simply not a good idea, or at least it wasn’t for us with two little kids. It’s fine for the young surfer dudes who need nothing more than a place to party and crash and who have virtually nothing to steal except for their board because theft is a serious issue at the beach. Drugs and violent crime are also problems in many of Costa Rica’s bigger beach towns; two expat business owners were executed within the past two weeks alone in places about an hour apart along the Central Pacific coast.

So, we chose a small gated and guarded development that was in the middle of nowhere and away from the drugs and debauchery of Jaco, a bustling tourist spot known for its fierce waves.

At least that’s what we thought. Turned out our neighbour in the development, the actual builder of the lovely little complex, is into cocaine and guns. Sometimes both at the same time.

On Christmas Eve, after our kids were tucked into their beds under the air conditioner, the neighbour, an American, and his Tica wife became embroiled in a nasty dust-up. They were scrapping so loud we heard their shouting through concrete walls, followed by two distinct bangs that were unmistakably gunshots.

Earlier that day, the neighbour had for some odd reason told me that his father had shot himself to death, which immediately sprang to mind when the shots rang out. Given that we had no phone, and the police at the beaches generally don’t come when their called (or so we were told) we opted to wait until the next morning to look for bodies. It was a relief when both emerged from the home the next morning unscathed.

The incident was all the talk of the neighbourhood (which consists of about 30 homes) for the next few days because like in any small community, there are no secrets amongst the expats who’ve made their home by the beach.

Shortly after our move there, I became the new best friend and confidant of a woman from the States who moved to this Central American country along with her husband more than three years ago. She poured out her marital woes over a couple of glasses of wine, claiming that talking to a complete stranger was safer than sharing with friends who might make her situation fodder for the gossip mill.

She’s a beautiful girl, both inside and out, but has bigger troubles than just her marriage. She confessed that she used to be bulimic but I’m not convinced the eating disorder — which supposedly resulted when she lost her sense of taste and smell after being hit by a car and comatosed — is a past-tense problem given her skeletal appearance.

Then there was a young couple with a baby who’d been living in the complex and renovating a property there for the past seven months, leaving for long stretches at a time on “vacations” to areas far flung like Indonesia. Their source of income was on ongoing mystery as their stories about their respective pasts and present circumstances changed with every person they met.

There were other strange ducks but after a while I stopped listening to their stories. Actually, I pretty much stopped doing everything, save for going to and from the beach every day. The heat was insufferable and sucked the life out of all of us and we eventually moved back to the mountains, where it’s pleasantly warm during the day, cool at night and the people are only slightly off-kilter.

We struck a deal with the owner of the beach house and have spent this past month enjoying weekend at the beach, catching up and experiencing more of the craziness at the complex.

The trigger-happy neighbour was at it again, this time at 1 a.m. and during a blackout. The new best friend is down to 108 pounds after being stricken with dengue fever and is on the verge of leaving her constant marijuana-smoking husband, who doesn’t actually believe she’s suffering from the potentially deadly mosquito-borne disease.

It’s all just a typical day at the beach. A great place to visit but wouldn’t want to live there.

There’s nothing like getting a glimpse into someone else’s craziness to help you realize that’s yours is really not all that bad.

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More than 10 million cases of Imperial beer are sold annually in Costa Rica for domestic consumption. I’m not sure how that stacks up against other countries but it sure seems like there’s a lot of suds sucked down in a country that boasts a population of about five million.

Ticos like a good party. The more frequent, the better.

The fiestas begin in January and last for months, each town or community holding its own version.

The biggest is Palmares, where hundreds of thousands of Ticos line the streets for the annual tope (horse parade) that kicks off 10 days of drinking, dancing and general debauchery. 

Atenas, the town where we live, held its fiesta this past weekend.

Since we missed the big parade in Palmares, we decided to take the kids down to the parque central and catch the tope in Atenas. Of course in true Tico fashion it started three hours late.

It wasn’t a showy parade with bands and floats, like we have back home in Calgary with the famous Stampede, but a  bunch of cowboys, Imperial cans in hand, riding through the streets showing off their beautiful horses to an appreciative crowd that waved and clapped for their favourites.

It was simple, laid back and disorganized.

And I loved it.

I have come to embrace the delays, disorder and dysfunction that pervade almost every aspect of life here. What comes with it is freedom from arbitrary rules and, incongruously, a feeling of control.

People here seem more focused on their own lives than that of their neighbour, unlike home, where everyone is too busy minding someone else’s business to worry about their own.

The rules of life, both written and tacit, were suffocating.

When we moved to the suburbs about five years ago from an inner-city community, the welcome was a complaint from a neighbour over a newly constructed fence that was built too high. Then it was overgrown weeds in the alley. And after that, it was my roaming and unlicenced cat.

Not once did anyone knock on the door and inform me of their opposition to my fence, weeds or cat, or explain what it was about them that was so upsetting.

I’ve always been a bit of a rebel, a person who challenges authority and shirks the mainstream. As a result, I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an outcast even though I’ve always outwardly done all the things society would expect of me.

It wasn’t until I moved to Costa Rica that I felt like I was normal. That’s because here, the only normal is the abnormal. It fits.

How all of this relates to beer sales in Costa Rica, I’m not sure.  Following this stream of consciousness, maybe it’s that if I’m going to go back to that life in suburban Calgary where a municipal bylaw dictates how long the front lawn can be grown, I’m going to have to start drinking a lot more booze.


Here’s some pics of the tope . . .



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After four months living outside San Jose, the seedy capital of Costa Rica in a typical Tico home in a typical Tico community we’re ready to say goodbye.

It has been a wild ride here, full of interesting people, times and experiences. Not quite what we had imagined for our life in this tropical destination in Central America, but nonetheless memorable.

During our stay at a home in Santo Domingo, where we settled, we endured an infestation of cockroaches, gunfire outside the gate on three different occasions and discovered the old man living in the casita on our property was once a drug runner for a Columbian cartel and has sold his life story to a Dutch filmmaker.

The neighbour residing in a house next-door is a retired sheriff from California who was shot four times on the job and sleeps with a .357 Magnum next to him at night.

We’ve been scammed by a Gringo to the tune of $1,200 and were rocked by an earthquake that measured 6.2 at its epicentre some 200 kilometres away.

It has been an authentic experience, if there is such a thing for a family of foreigners who barely speak Spanish and have lived behind prison-like gates feeling like an exhibit in the zoo.

We enrolled our kids in an international school where most students, and consequently their parents, are locals and became a part of an incredible community.

We bonded with several Costa Rican families, who have helped as us at every turn and taken care of us as if we were a member of their own family. We’ve also made friends with other expats, each who have their own interesting tale about why they came to Costa Rica and and are also moving on.

There’s the self-described geeks, the Joneses, an American family who felt like outcasts in their own country. They came here seeking a simpler existence, bringing with them their teenage daughter, but are returning next year, partly because their home was broken into one too many times, heightening their security paranoia to the point they live like prisoners.

Then there’s Francesca and Damian, a couple from Ireland who have lived here for the past year and worked as visiting professors at two local universities. We’ve taken several trips together, had a lot of laughs and I will miss them dearly. Both are volcanologists and earthquake experts, each holding a PhD in their respective fields. They’re leaving in two weeks, returning for work to Ireland, fed up with the myriad frustrations of working within the Costa Rican culture and system.

Among our Tico friends there are doctors, developers, business owners and a pensioner, George, who has tirelessly worked to teach us Spanish, mostly because he’s one of the few of our friends here who doesn’t speak English.

Tatiana, a brilliant and caring woman whose son and mine became fast friends, transported us to and from school almost every day and insisted we call her day or night if we ever needed help. Her sincerity was heartfelt and she befriended me, she says, because she imagined what it would be like to move to a foreign country without knowing a soul or the local language.

Me, Tatiana, and Karina

Me, Tatiana, and Karina

I’ve watched my son blossom from the ignored new kid, the only fair-haired non-native Spanish speaker in the class, to an outgoing, popular boy who can now communicate with his friends in their language. Though not completely fluent, I am amazed that at 5 1/2 my son is almost bilingual.


We have made a life here in Santo Domingo, one not entirely disimilar to the one we had in Calgary. Our kids go to school, we socialize with friends and combat a daily grind, although one much less hectic than before.

This is why it’s time to move on.

We came to Costa Rica to escape all this, an urban existence with chaotic pace and time spent in traffic instead of with each other.

On the other hand, we’ve lived four months (quite happily) without a car, reduced our spending and waste dramatically and grown in ways we never imagined.

It’s sad to say goodbye but with every end there’s a new beginning. There is still so much to see in Costa Rica, so many things to learn about this culture and oursleves and the clock is ticking. There are just eight more months to enjoy our adventure and the last four have gone in a blink.

So goodbye Casa Roach. We’ll miss you.

Hello beach, here we come.

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There are those who believe there’s no such thing as luck, that serendipity is what happens when planning meets opportunity.

Then there are those who believe there are no coincidences in life, that everything happens by some cosmic design or that we subconsciously create the lives we live, even those aspects of it we think we don’t want. 

Have you ever known someone who seems to consistently have bad luck and the more they complain about their misfortune the worse it gets?

There have been times in my own life where I was a shining example of this and it seemed that one negative thing piled on top another, and another, and another.

On the other hand, there have also been many times where I focused on something I wanted, saw it happening in my mind and it magically appeared.

I’m not talking about winning the lottery. If only it were that easy.

But there are numerous examples in my life where coincidence led to incredibly good fortune, including one this past week.

We have been for weeks desperately searching for a beach house, thinking the sand and surf is what Costa Rica is all about and what we should be enjoying during our year in this tropical destination.

But nothing seemed to work out, the endless options of housing and beaches not quite right for whatever reason.

Then my parents decided to visit, and plan to arrive at the end of December and stay for a month.

The beach idea suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea, the thought of my retired folks suffering in the heat in something much less than an air-conditioned five-star resort too much.

So we changed our plans and started looking for a house in a place called Atenas, a small Costa Rican town ideally located between the beach and the mountains that is said by National Geographic to have the best weather in the world.

Problem is, every real estate agent in Atenas told us there was nothing available there, that every fully furnished rental home was presently occupied and would be throughout the rest of the high season here in Costa Rica.

So we went there, intending to scour every gate, restaurant, grocery store and public billboard in search of ‘house for rent’ signs and ads.

That’s when things began to take an unexpected but fortunate twist.

We booked into a small resort called Poco Cielo, which turned out to be owned by a couple from the small town near Calgary where I grew up. By coincidence, my father had just a week earlier sent me an e-mail about their resort after having run into a mutual acquaintanceof the couple’s back home in Canada but I had forgotten about it.

The evening we stayed, the couple invited a friend of theirs to dinner and he told them that evening he had accepted a job back in the U.S. and would be leaving in January after four years of living in Costa Rica.

As it happened, he broke the news in front of my husband, who mentioned we were looking for a place to live.

By the next day, we signed a deal to live in this man’s house, a fantastic property perched on a mountainside with the kind of view I had dreamed we would enjoy while living in Costa Rica.

Then, we sped down to the beach, where we had also planned to look at a house and picked up an almost half-price deal for the month of December at a place that we had not intended on looking at.

Was this a case of planning coinciding with opportunity or was there something more at work?

At the end of the day, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

What’s important is that three days from now, we’ll be splashing in the waves of the Pacific and enjoying Christmas at the beach and after a month’s vacation living in the kind of home we dreamed about.

Life in Costa Rica is looking up.

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