“If the butterfly didn’t know how to end its life in the cocoon then we would have a bunch of dead butterflies inside of tiny silk coffins, little lives that refused to change. Perhaps due to fear of the unknown. But lots of people are less fortunate than butterflies, they don’t know when to give up, say goodbye, let go, move on. You’d think the holometabolism of the butterfly is about not giving up, but it’s not; it’s about giving up and letting in the unknown. The attainment of the state of being alive is not about never giving up; it’s about having the courage to give up, and to let in, over and over again, while you readjust your compass and realign your path.” ― C. JoyBell C.

There’s nothing like moving to a foreign country to realize your path has been awfully realigned. For some expats, this experience is a welcome change. We moved here knowing our world would be turned completely upside down, and we looked forward to new challenges and lessons. Of course, we couldn’t have possibly anticipated all that we would encounter and just how much adjustment was necessary. But we came with an open mind, and really that’s all you can do.

We’ve noticed that our expat friends who have lived here for a number of years and have adapted well all learned to embrace the Pura Vida attitude. Very little rattles our cages (we don’t even jump when we see snakes anymore). We’ve learned to almost ignore the negative aspects of living here – and believe me, there are many. Rather, we’ve chosen to embrace all the benefits of living here, taking time every once in a while to remind ourselves why we moved here in the first place.

Nevertheless, like everything else in life, it is a journey. And you can choose to enjoy the growth and transformation that comes along on that journey, or you can choose to fight, kicking and screaming, all along the way. That last group are the expats that return back to their home within 2 years — estimated at 50%, according to the latest surveys. Not at all surprising.

Our metamorphosis has been fascinating. When we look back at where we were 10 years ago, all we can do is shake our head in amazement. We took stock and realized how incredibly different our lives are than whatever we could have possibly imagined.

We’ve gone from:

Giorgio Brutini dress shoes and 9 West high heels to flip-flops

Calvin Klein and Jones New York suits to tank tops and shorts

Air-conditioned restaurants to open-air thatched huts

Entenmann’s to baking my own desserts (and hey, my crumb cake looks and tastes just as good as theirs)

Make-up and manicures to barefoot and tanned all year long

Spending my lunch hours at Barnes & Nobles and libraries to a Kindle

Choice of 24/7 stores within a 10-mile radius to mapping out all-day itineraries to find everything needed at multiple stops within a 50-mile radius

Navigon to Waze (which is still often wrong and has us driving around in circles)

Observing wildlife in a zoo to battling cane toads with a broom

Frozen vegetables to farm-to-table produce

Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s to small, local boutiques

Long-distance phone calls to WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger

16 layers of clothing in the winter to bare minimum needed to be decent in public

Real English muffins to tortillas

Whole Foods to MegaSuper (if it’s not in stock, you go without this week)

Gallons/Inches/Miles to Liters/Centimeters/Kilometers (our Canadian friends have the advantage here)

Asphalted super-highways to rutted, dirt roads (with gravel if you’re lucky)

Always being busy to just “being”

Four seasons (summer, fall, winter, spring) to two seasons (dry and rainy)

English to Spanish (or in Gary’s case, a combination of Spanglish and charades)

Keeping up with the latest technology and gadgets to learning to identify which snakes in our area are venemous or friendly

Movies in air-conditioned cinemas to watching the sun set at the beach

Wearing a watch to having no concept of time

Other changes have been less tangible. We are slower to anger (we used to nickname each other Match and Spark back in NY- I was always reminding Gary I didn’t want to have to spend money on bail); less frustrated; less bills; less headaches. New Yawkers are notorious for minding their own business and ignoring everyone around them (if you don’t believe me, ride a New York City subway – nobody even makes eye contact). Here, it can be like Peyton Place (small-town mentality) and we wave and say Buenos Dias to everyone we pass, walking or driving, whether or not we know them. Families are also very tight-knit and “connected” here – (yes, think Godfather) – and we are careful not to yell at, talk down to, or offend anyone. Sadly, a lot of expats don’t realize they are the guests here – residency notwithstanding – and think they can treat the Ticos (Costa Ricans) and Nicos (our Nicaraguan friends to the north) shabbily. I chalk that attitude up to fear, like the author above says. A fear of the unknown. Living here involves learning to deal with a whole host of unknowns, and rather than face those unknowns as opportunities for growth, many shy away from the challenge. And, in doing so, they miss out on the best part of living abroad – a chance to embrace a totally new lifestyle. A chance to change all the things you didn’t like about your previous abode. A chance to experience a true metamorphosis.

We have readjusted our compass and realigned our path. And we will continue to do so as we make new friends and find new experiences. Our prayer is that all of you can do the same, whether you stay where you are or venture into a new direction. Above all, wherever you find yourself, find peace.

Pura Vida,

Cheryl, Gary and the hounds

Remembering Mary

My heart is heavy tonight. I can’t sleep; I’m compelled to write. I’m mourning the loss of not just a dear friend, but a woman who was my greatest mentor – Mary Tierney. It was Mary who taught me all that I needed to know to be a successful businesswoman. Indeed, she was an inspiration to many young women.

Mary was a natural-born leader with a great sense of humor, but a very strict work ethic. Those of us who worked with Mary learned the value of that work ethic, and I know I am not the only one under her tutelage to credit her with that. There was never any slacking off when Mary was around. Not just at work, but at her home — if you weren’t helping in the kitchen, you better stay well away from it.

Mary was a supervisor when I started working at KLM as a reservations agent in 1986. After about a year, she took me aside in one of the small conference rooms. I can remember that conversation as clearly as if it were yesterday. She said “If you want to get ahead in this company, remember you have two disadvantages: you’re a women and you’re not Dutch. You have to work twice as hard as everyone else. Promise me that you will.” And I did: I swore to Mary that I would work twice as hard as anyone else. Her words were prophetic. Years later, I had the pleasure of co-managing the reservations department in Elmsford. I remember when I was offered the position by Bill Blair. I told him I would think about it; in all honesty, the offer came as a surprise and I wasn’t sure I was interested. I went to Mary for advice; her exact words “If you don’t take this job, I’ll kill you”. Needless to say, I accepted the position. When Mary spoke, you didn’t turn her down. She was fair – but fearsome.

That job in reservations turned out to be really challenging, but Mary was the steady rudder that guided us through those early days in our new set-up in Elmsford. She was our Jason; we were the Argonauts; we would have followed her anywhere. Everyone went to Mary for advice, personal or professional. She became MT; I was CCA. We laughed about hiring res agents that didn’t know where Ouagadougou was. We dealt with customers complaining that they wanted to talk to a “man in charge”; too bad – they got us. She taught us to just make a decision; don’t hem and haw; don’t think too much about it; don’t ask permission; just be quick on your feet and trust your intuition. And if you screwed up, then just apologize and move on. No one was going to remember later, anyway. She was right about that.

Over the years, together we talked for a million hours, we laughed, we cried on each other’s shoulders, we catered jobs, we traveled. But more than anything else, we consumed massive amounts of food and drink. Mary’s passion for cooking was infectious, and it was “all hands on deck” to feed the hungry hordes of people that showed up at her house. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s — if you didn’t have anywhere to go, you went to Mary’s house. If you didn’t have anything to do after work, you headed to Mary’s house. No invitation was ever extended – it was just “Mary, I’m coming over”. Almost any evening, weekday or weekend, you could find up to a dozen of us at her apartment in Manhattan or her house in Monsey. If there wasn’t room in the driveway for your car, you parked on the lawn. And everyone had a job. If you weren’t in the kitchen cooking, you were raking her leaves or taking Cho-cho-san for a walk. You didn’t go to Mary’s house to relax; as soon as you walked through the door, you were expected to ask “What can I do?” It was like a buzzing beehive, and she was the queen bee. And no matter what role you played, what task you performed, when we sat down to eat, you were thankful to be part of the hive, part of the sisterhood. Every meal was like a rite of passage.

Of all her culinary delights, two always stood out for me: spaghetti carbonara and tiramisu. Her spaghetti carbonara was a group effort — someone slicing the mushrooms, someone cooking the bacon, someone grating the cheese, four hands in one pot stirring the eggs in. It was timed to the second, and the result was divine. The tiramisu was without comparison, gliding over your tongue with the hint of espresso and chocolate. To this day, to eat anyone else’s spaghetti carbonara or tiramisu is tantamount to treason. I don’t care if they are a Michelin chef; no one could rival Mary on those two dishes. I remember when she emailed me the carbonara recipe….I knew I could never duplicate hers, but it was nice to be holding the paper in my hands. And as always, her sense of humor prevailed.

We kept in touch after KLM, although we didn’t get to see each other as often as I would have liked. The last time I visited her, I noticed this pillow on her sofa. It summed up her entire life perfectly.

When she developed dementia, it was very difficult for me to deal with. My dad had Alzheimer’s, and I hadn’t dealt very well with that, either. It was if I was afraid to see this new Mary; I wanted to remember her the way she was; energetic, vibrant, healthy and strong. To confront her weakness would have diminished her aura, and I couldn’t allow that. I needed her to be the same Mary I had come to know and love. The hive had long since broken up, we’d all gone our separate ways, but I still needed her to be the queen bee.

Mary – your body has left us, but your spirit lives on. We all hold a piece of you inside. We will always be grateful for all the life lessons you taught us — principles that carried us far beyond KLM, the best company in the world. I am so incredibly blessed to have had our paths cross for so many years. Most of all, we will remember that “Fair is not an adult word”.

Cheryl Antonio-Elferis, July 2022

Let the Gringos Pay

A new law recently went into effect in Costa Rica, hiking the rates way up for new immigrants applying for healthcare. But first, a 30-second civics lesson as to how laws are passed in this wonderful country.

Someone in the government gets a bright idea. That idea is turned into a proposal that is then submitted to the Legislative Assembly for review. They send the bill to various Commissions and there are two required debates. After debating back and forth – no time restraints on this or any part of the process, for that matter – 2/3 of the Legislature have to approve the bill. Once that’s done, the bill goes to the executive department for the president to sanction it. Once he approves it, it’s published in “La Gaceta” – the Gazette – which is the government newspaper. Now, it’s officially a law. But wait – there’s still another step. Now it goes to the ruling authority for details of implementation – and this is where the hang-up occurs. This can take years. So, in theory, there can be a law in the books, but the government hasn’t yet figured out how to implement it, so nobody can take advantage of it or has to comply with it until that last step is completed.

This process, to us, is putting the cart before the horse. A law is passed without knowing all the details and fine points that will apply. In reality, it’s still only an idea, but one that the government thinks “Hey, this is a good idea; let’s see if we can make it work. But let’s make it a law first, so people will know what’s coming”. If, in actuality, we knew what was coming, we could be prepared. But since you only know the general thought behind the law, and not actually what it entails, the whole process is useless and ridiculous. And now that you know how laws are passed here, let’s talk about one that has got everyone’s goat up (is that a phrase people still use? I don’t know, but my grandfather said it all the time). Speaking of horses, this one looks like it has more sense than half the legislature here. Although, the same could be said of any branch of the U.S. government and I don’t think our Canadian friends are too fond of Trudeau.

Anyway, it was announced YESTERDAY – March 25th – that a new law went into effect on March 16th. A law that now requires all new applicants for residency to pay not only for healthcare, but for the pension plan, as well. But, again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Some background info here. When you first apply for residency, it is a requirement that you contribute 8-12% of your income to the health plan. This gets you free healthcare — and I do mean free. Zero cost for check-ups, prescriptions, maternity care, doctor’s visits, hospital visits. I could have open heart surgery and it wouldn’t cost a dime. So, at first glance, not a bad system. Never mind that you have to get up literally at the crack of dawn – and I do mean 5:00 am – to stand on line outside one of the local clinics to get an appointment for perhaps later in the day. And if your surgery is non-essential, you could be waiting months or even die before your time is scheduled. Nevertheless, the entire local population and a good percentage of the expat population rely heavily on this system. Hey, it’s free. And the doctors and hospitals are first-class. (There’s a reason so many people fly here for medical tourism). The same government office – known as “La Caja” – literally meaning “The Fund” also has a pension component. But since you have to contribute over 20 years before you can collect, and for most expats, it’s a non-issue, we weren’t required to participate in the pension plan. Fair enough.

But the new law says not only do you have to pay for the healthcare, you also have to contribute to the pension plan. Imagine, a 75-year old expat moving here and now having to contribute to a pension plan that in all likelihood, he will probably never collect. And then you realize, you’re not contributing to the pension plan for yourself, you’re contributing on behalf of all the Ticos who will be able to collect when they turn 65. And pumping up the coffers since there’s so much fraud on behalf of all the people collecting millions of colones per month for pensions. I believe the government officials here have been taking lessons from U.S. Congressmen and Senators on how to earn a million bucks a year on a $120,000 salary. So the burden falls on the gringos to pay.

It wouldn’t hurt so much — except for 2022, the healthcare rates have almost doubled– PLUS you now have to kick in for the pension part. Those of us who are already residents don’t have to deal with this at all. But, for our relocation business, this is another nail in the coffin. If we have to tell prospective immigrants that instead of paying 10% of their income month for healthcare, it’s now going to cost them almost 19%, that’s a huge deterrent. For example, if you declare $3000/month for income, previously you would have paid about $300/month for the CAJA. Now, that rate will be about $563 — almost a 76% increase.

What’s especially irritating is that the law was published in the Gazette LAST SEPTEMBER. You think they would have announced it more widely, so that expats living here who haven’t applied for residency would have had a change to do so BEFORE March 16th. How many expats read the Gazette? I’m willing to bet only a handful – and those are probably fluent in Spanish and have been here for dozens of years.

So now the government – who wants to attract North Americans and Europeans to move here – has just provided them with a reason NOT to. Yes, this is paradise, and yes, it is a wonderful country (I mean that sincerely – not sarcastically like my use of that word in the first paragraph), but sometimes, there’s just no rhyme or reason to how the “powers that be” think.

Our immigration consultant, Laura Gutierrez, wrote an article to the Costa Rica Star (one of the online English newspapers published here). In the article, she urged expats to contact their embassies and the Ministry of Tourism and write letters of complaint. Rarely do we raise our voices here. After all, even with permanent residency, we still feel like we are “guests” of the country and don’t want to risk any action that might result in deportation (yes, more common than you think and you can’t come back for 5 years!) But for this cause, we will speak out.

In addition, we have a presidential election coming up in two weeks. So, depending on the whims of the new administration, there’s no telling what this law will look like when it comes out on the other end. One thing we do know for sure — those websites that say two people can live here WELL for under $2000/month including housing and food – don’t even read past the first line. Unless you want to live in a teepee and eat rice and beans every day, a decent income is required here. Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Latin America. That said, the quality of life here is great, and we have absolutely no complaints (other than with the bureaucracy). Our supermarket shelves are stocked (even if imported goods are getting scarce), the weather is gorgeous all year round, it’s so nice to be surrounded by tranquility and fresh air…. it really is Pura Vida.

For the online course that we’re working on, we interviewed several business owners. One, a lovely European lady, runs a charter sailing company — Beautiful sailing ship that does whaling and sunset tours, etc. (If you come visit, we’ll hook you up). She married a South American, but of course, since he speaks Spanish, everyone thinks he’s a Tico (local Costa Rican). If she calls and orders something from a vendor, she gets the “gringo price”. If he calls, the price is much lower, since they assume he’s a local. We live near Tamarindo – a very touristy town – All the shops and restaurants list their prices in U.S. dollars — and they’re at least double, if not triple, the cost of the exact same clothes/accessories/foods if you just go 20-30 minutes away to a local town. The “gringo” prices.

Now, many of us that are well-travelled know that this occurs all over the world. Tourists are routinely fleeced because it’s assumed they are all wealthy. And compared to some poorer countries, perhaps we are better off. Our U.S. dollars enjoy a great exchange rate against the local colon, so for us, it’s a plus. Not so, for our Canadian friends, who don’t get the benefit of as good an exchange rate. On the other hand, I remember standing on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, buying a pretzel from one of the street vendors. He wanted $5 for a pretzel – until I turned on him with my Brooklyn accent and asked what was the “non-tourist” price. He blushed and sold me the pretzel for $2.

Ah, well, what can you do? Every place has its ups and downs. It just annoys us, that the same government who is trying to persuade people to move here, is making it more expensive for them to do so. We’ve spent a small fortune getting our residency (well worth it since we had decided we were past the point of wanting to do border runs every 90 days). And we don’t regret doing so. As a matter of fact, in 2-3 years, we’ll be applying for citizenship. It has its benefits (residency can be revoked, but citizenship cannot), and a second passport is always handy. Plus, we’ll be able to vote — never thought we might take advantage of that, but hey – why shouldn’t our voice count?

In the meantime, we try to avoid being “gringo’ed” and maintain a low profile. We saw this sign at the feria today, and it echoes our philosophy living here.

No matter which way you look at it, it’s still Pura Vida…

Cheryl, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

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Piece of Cake

One of the major complaints immigrants mention here is having to deal with the awful bureaucracy. There’s NO flexibility; rules are rules; there’s absolutely no gray area. Great in theory, but as we all know, these concepts don’t always work in real life. In North America, from kindergarten up, we are encouraged to “think outside the box”. We learn to be adaptable, to make allowances, to think quickly on our feet. Perhaps, it’s a life skill necessary to survive in our concrete jungles. However, here, in the real jungle, no such skill exists.

I’ll give you an example. We were at the supermarket and I needed sweet bell peppers – they had red, orange and yellow — all were the exact same price – 560 colones each (a lot of produce here is sold by piece, not weight). Anyway, I filled up three veggie plastic bags with an assortment of colors. When I got to the cashier, (conversation all in Spanish), she said “You mixed the colors up.” Me: “But what difference does it make? They’re all the same price.” All she had to do was count the total number of peppers times 560 colones. But no – she proceeded to open the bags and separate them by colors. Then she retied the bags, and now she could count how many yellow, how many orange, how many red. And sure enough, on the receipt, the peppers were broken down by color. Did it really matter? It’s not like I was going to return them. To me it was a waste of time and effort, but it made perfect sense to her. And there’s no arguing with the rule.

Today was our appointment at the Immigration Department to have our pictures taken for our new I.D. cards. We were approved early 2021 for permanent residency, but for some reason, we didn’t get the notice until a few months later. In the meantime, the cards we had for temporary residency were about to expire, so we went to renew those, not knowing we had already received the new approval. It was without a doubt, the worst day of our lives here, and you can read all about it in the blog “Rose Colored Glasses from July 2021.

Anyway, after that 6-hour traumatic ordeal, we were in absolutely no hurry to go back for our new permanent cards. So, all these months, we’ve been walking around with the old expired cards and the print-out of the resolution that said we had been granted permanent residency. Nobody looks at the cards, anyway. Cashiers will ask for them for I.D. if you’re paying by credit card, but they’re just looking to see that the photo matches you and the name on your credit card.

So, last month, I said to Gary, now that we’ve recovered from that last fiasco, let’s just go back and get these new cards done. I contact our immigration specialist, Laura, and tell her we’re ready to get the new cards. She sends me an email with the breakdown of receipts that I have to get from the local government bank, BCR. Three payments, $361, $25 and $98 for each of us. We go to the bank and pay. While we’re signing, I notice one of Gary’s receipts has the last name spelled wrong – “Elferid”. I point that out to the teller. Takes him another 10 minutes to figure out that a letter is needed , signed by “El Jéfe”, attesting to the fact that there is a mistake on the receipt. Gary says “Why can’t he just reprint the receipt?” No, that would be too easy. So we have to wait until El Jéfe signs the letter, and we’re on our way with our receipts in hand.

Laura advises the documentation we have to take with us, while she books the appointment. I practically BEG her not to send us back to the Nicoya Post Office, the site of last year’s debacle. We will drive ANYWHERE else, I don’t care how far. She comes back with an appointment at the Immigration Department office in Liberia, which is fine with us. Both offices are equidistant from our house, and we can make other pit-stops in Liberia, so that’s perfect. I get a follow-up email from her, asking why we didn’t want to go to Nicoya — I am honest with her — I tell her the staff is incompetent and unwilling to help. I aske her, did she not remember how in the middle of our meltdown last year, we had to call her to talk to the post office employee because he was being so ridiculous in his demands???

Now, we get the rest of our documentation in order….. our appointment letter, passports (I take Gary’s old and new since his was renewed after we came here), our bank receipts with the stupid letter attached, proof of our CAJA (health insurance) payments up-to-date, the resolutions, and some cash = 7,910 colones administration fee plus 6,500 colones for mailing and handling fees for each of us. She tells us to dress nicely for the photo (it’s only a headshot anyway) and that it’s a good idea to bring a Spanish-speaking helper. I don’t tell her that I think I can manage with my poor Spanish and I don’t think a translator is necessary.

Gary is already starting to dread the coming appointment. I try to be encouraging by mentioning that at least this time, we will be dealing directly with the Immigration office and not some knucklehead at the post office, who wasted an hour of our time flipping through pages, looking for any excuse to tell us our paperwork was not in order. Oh, I can’t even get started on him again, my blood pressure will go through the roof.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful day (when is it not here???) and we have about a 90 minute drive, so we make the best of it, making chitchat and blasting reggae music on the radio. We get to the office with 10 minutes to spare before our appointment, and are happy to see very few cars on the street (there’s no parking lot and the office is at the end of a dead-end street). As we are walking to the office, I notice the gates are closed and there are three women sitting outside. Uh-oh, did I get the date or time wrong? Is the office not open? We walk up to the door and an employee opens the door (the gate is still closed) and asks me what we need. I explain we are here for our photos for our residency. She takes out a schedule sheet, looks at our appointment sheet, and then highlights my name and Gary’s. Then, she lets us in, and even though there is NO ONE else in the waiting area, she tells me which chair I must sit in and which chair Gary must sit in. It’s not like you can just sit wherever you please, don’t forget the rules.

Our appointments are 11:00 am and 11:20 am, and at about 11:15 am, I am told to go in first. There’s a lady behind the desk, not smiling, very businesslike. I smile and say Buenas dias, she just grunts and asks me for my passport and DIMEX (I.D.) card, my receipts, and the resolution. I hand her everything, she says nothing, just starts typing into the computer. After not even 2 minutes, she says to sit in the chair opposite the camera, she takes my photo, I sign the digital pad, and then digital fingerprints are taken of my first finger on both my right and then my left hand. She hands me two pieces of paper, says sign here, pushes everything back to me, and says “Listo” (ready or done). I’m so stunned that this took 5 minutes. I go back to the waiting room to get Gary – he says “Already??” – he can’t believe it either. Another 5 minutes, and he’s done, as well. She asks me where we live and offers me two choices: I can come back to this office tomorrow and get the cards, or I can go to the post office in Villareal (5 minutes from our house) and get the cards there. We opt for Villareal; she gives us two pieces of paper, tells us we have to go to the post office “HOY” (today), pay for the cards and good-bye. I turn to Gary: “That was a piece of cake.” Gary: “Chocolate??”

And just a side note – we have been working with Laura for over 6 years now. I would say she is worth her weight in gold, but she’s so petite, she’s probably all of 100 lbs soaking wet, and she’s more valuable than 100 lbs of gold. After the horror stories we hear of lawyers absconding with payments, dragging their feet in filing applications to the point that documents have expired, people trying to do this on their own without fluency in Spanish — we are grateful to have her on our team.

We are done so early, we decide to make a pit-stop at PriceSmart (like a Costco’s) and pick up a few things that we can’t get anywhere else — big box of hangars, Hazelnut coffee creamer, box of donuts, etc.

To celebrate, we stop at one of our favorite restaurants in the mountains in Belen – K-Pi. Huge appetizer of nachos, garlic shrimp and mahi-mahi with a tomato cream sauce. Scrumptious.

Then to the post office. Ah yes, another happy government employee. Greets us with a scowl, asks for our I.D. and paperwork, email address, sign this paper, and pay 4700 colones each. It will take about six days and then we’ll go back and pick up the cards (there’s no regular mail delivery service here).

We head home, exhausted but very relieved. At least, we don’t have to deal with this for another 2-3 years. And that renewal should be just as easy as today. Plus, my Spanish turned out to be “bastante” (sufficient). I understood everything, I think they understood me, all good.

What does permanent residency mean? Well, for one, there’s no income requirement – we don’t have to prove how we are supporting ourselves anymore. Secondly, we can legally work here — not that we want to, but we could. But residency can still be revoked. I suppose you would have to commit a crime or something just as heinous for the government to decide they don’t want you here anymore. In a few years, we’ll be eligible for citizenship, and we plan to pursue that route. A second passport is always handy, plus citizenship cannot be revoked. We’ll be able to vote, although not sure we will get that involved.

Today really was “just another day in paradise”.

Pura Vida,

Cheryl, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Just when you thought you were done………you have to learn something new from the ground up again. I must admit – I loved school, was always fond of learning and reading, never backed down from an academic challenge. However, I did think then when I hit a certain age – ahem – that my book-learning days would be over.

I thought that all I had to tackle now was Spanish and some word games and puzzles to keep my brain active. Imagine my surprise when we thought of a great service to be added to our Path To Pura Vida relocation business – all the information in an online course. Oh yeah, it looked great on paper, and we talked up a storm, convincing ourselves that this could easily be our next endeavor. No small thanks to our business coach, Chris Kelly, who dangled the carrot in front of us, all the while assuring us this was an achievable goal. What we didn’t take into account was that, for the last 6 years, we have been living “under a rock”, have not kept up with the latest and greatest apps and software, and struggling to remember if we turned all the flames off before leaving the house. I hear you snickering, but I know most of you can relate. Chris pressures us to say a launch date, and without thinking, I blurb out March 1st.

Now I know old dogs can learn new tricks, for sure. Kaia is 7 years old and has only ever been spoken to in English. Then along came Mister Chan, and as we consider him our Tico Dog, I speak to him in Spanish. Lately, I notice when I ask him “Que quieres?” (What do you want?), Kaia is the first to respond, running right to the pantry with the dog treats or the back door to be let out. I tested the theory by speaking to her in Spanish when Mister Chan wasn’t around, and I realized she had picked up all the phrases. Not surprising; she is probably the smartest dog we have ever owned. Crazy, but smart.

So there is hope, after all, even for old dogs like us. First, we had to stare at the PowerPoint screen, completely different from the last time I used it (at least 30 years ago!). Took about a week to figure that out, and we are able to get the presentation done, but still feel like we’ve overlooked all the bells and whistles.

Then, trying to download photos. We must have had thousands of photos on our phones, and afraid that they might somehow get lost, we downloaded them onto a portable hard drive. Okay, now plug the drive into the computer and find the photos you want. Sounds simple, right? Except there are so many folders upon folders upon folders, that two months later, we’re still trying to find some photos. Finally gave up and resorted to websites that let you download royalty-free photos for personal or commercial use.

Oh, and then trying to figure out audio for the narration. Bought a microphone, plugged it into the computer, couldn’t figure out how to get it to work. Finally, after several tries, we get it to produce some sound. Superb sound??? THEY LIED. Computer microphone – also not great quality. Voice recorder on the smartphone? Best option so far. Now if we can figure out how to get the audio in to the PowerPoint, that would be wonderful. We’ve listened to the tutorials, we’ve tried a dozen different options, nothing is working.

And don’t forget the video. Gary will do introductory videos for each module of the course. Clowning around with the dogs in front of the camera? Great. Trying to memorize script and appear professional but relaxed? Ah, well that needs work. We manage to get through about 20 takes of each video before we give up. Some of them, I think, will be great if we just do a Bloopers section. Oh wait, there’s a perfect take….oh except for the truck driving by and drowning out the sound. Gee, this one looks good, except the wind is howling and he can barely be heard. Wait, this one might be good…..oh no, we need the shadow behind him, not in front. Okay, we’ll try this again another day.

We are making some progress, though. We have the outline for the course all written out. We have contacted most of our business partners and they are all enthusiastic about participating. Some are doing their own videos, saving us at least some of the work.

I send Chris a progress report, informing him of all the steps we have accomplished and asking for his feedback. But my last paragraph does talk about our frustration in dealing with all the techie issues we didn’t think we’d have to face, and the usual not-enough-hours-in-the-day sob story. I get a great response with no sympathy but a lot of positive feedback and encouragement, and I start to feel like there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. That March 1st deadline seems impossible, though, and I mention that April 1st might be more realistic. Chris’ only comment: “We’ll see”, which I know means we better get it done by March 1st.

And it seems like for every subject we think is “done”, we remember another piece of information that should be included. We get the missing information from our business partners, who are experts in their own field, rather than relying on googling some random website. That’s one of the reasons we started this business in the first place — the overwhelming amount of incorrect and outdated information on the internet. Social media is the biggest culprit: on one of the expat blogs, someone asked if they could bring certain medications into the country. 50% of the responses said “yes”, 50% of the responses said “no”. The author of the post was no more enlightened than before he asked his question.

Okay, back to the online course. Chris sends an email that the website platform that we have to use (Kajabi) is offering a 45-day free trial (normally 15-days) and that we need to sign up now and get the course launched within those 45 days. The offer expires at midnight; I hem and haw, tell Chris we’re not ready, but then I send him another email “We’ve taken the plunge”. We are very familiar with GoDaddy, they do our regular website. But they can’t support an online course with all the other techie things that are attached, like payment processing, emailing, tracking stats, etc. So we have to learn how to navigate Kajabi. Even though I have downloaded their guides and have been reading about Kajabi for weeks, now that the clock is ticking, I find myself staring at the screen, the heart palpitations are starting, and I realize I have no idea what I’m doing. All I know is that it is T minus 45, and we have to get going, and fast.

We’ve already been spending a minimum of 2 hours per day on the project; that has to be upped to 4 hours a day during the week and 6-7 on the week-end. Book more appointments with people providing input: business owner, vet, school principal, our real estate company, the developer. Get cracking on figuring out the audio. And start shooting those videos again. I roll over in the middle of the night, waking up with yet another idea for the project.

Oh, and we have to update our regular website that the online course is coming soon. Working in GoDaddy is like second nature now; easy to navigate, so adding the new page doesn’t take long.

Back to the Kajabi screen. No idea where to start. The website? The project? I don’t even understand some of the terms in the tutorial. It may as well as be written in a foreign language. I feel like a dinosaur, completely out of place with all this techie stuff whizzing by. I click the Chat and get a bot — can’t you ever talk to a human anymore? Anyway, eventually it figures out what I want, and says that a help ticket has been opened. What does that mean? Where’s my reply? The next day, I get an email response answering my question, but directing me to some online tutorials, which I understand some of it, but not all. What do you mean, I can create 5 modules??? I have almost 20 subjects to cover. I have 100 more questions.

Fortunately, Gary is more technically inclined, and whenever I hit the wrong button or everything disappears, he is only a holler away. We like the challenge, and are excited about this new venture, but honestly, we both wish it was easier. If you don’t hear from us in the next six weeks, you’ll find us buried under mounds of paperwork and glued to the computer screen. We’re putting our nose to the grind but still taking time to enjoy the sunsets…

Pura Vida,

Cheryl, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. If you know of anyone who is interested in relocating to Costa Rica, please send them to our website: Thanks!

Attitude Adjustment

“Change is not popular; we are creatures of habit as human beings. ‘I want it to be the way it was.’ But if you continue the way it was there will be no ‘is’. “ Robin Williams

There’s a certain comfort in routines. A familiarity that provides structure. Not having to “think” about something; just to be able to “do”. All of us have familiar patterns and routines in our lives. Yet, we can all acknowledge that too often, we can become “stuck” in those routines and identify more with the hamster on the spinning wheel in its cage, than with a free-thinking human being.

Think about the routines in your life – waking, showering, dressing, going to work (even if that means in front of your computer at home), thinking about what to eat, prepping and cooking meals, some form of entertainment (exercise, TV, movies), going to bed, and doing it all over the next day. Yes, that routine might vary on the week-ends; sleeping later, breakfast in bed, more leisure activities. But basically it’s the same. And there’s a certain comfort in that reliability; we know pretty much what to expect, we are prepared to meet any unforeseen challenges, we know what to do and we can do most of it effortlessly and without a lot of conscious thought.

But what do you do when your routines are turned completely upside down? You find yourself in a situation where every move isn’t predictable; time moves at an entirely different pace; the pattern of order in your life is disrupted; you’re surrounded by an unfamiliar environment; and your support system (family and friends) isn’t so readily available.

That’s what it’s like to move to a foreign country. And I don’t mean an extended visit of a few months, where you can imagine yourself on a very long vacation. I mean completely uprooting your entire life, leaving (mostly) everything and everyone behind, and starting from scratch to establish a new home in a new country.

As we’ve discussed many times in our previous blogs, relocating to any foreign country can seem like a daunting endeavor, although with lots of research and planning, it really isn’t that difficult. The evidence is in the overwhelming number of people looking to flee their country of birth (yes, including the USA and Canada) to move to “greener pastures”.

What many expats forget is that they weren’t happy or satisfied with their “routines” in their home country, and that’s a large part of the reason they looked for somewhere else to settle. Yet, we see an awful lot of expats who insist on coming here and bringing those routines with them. Little wonder that about 50% of expats who move to Costa Rica return to their home country within 2 years.

In a recent survey, expats were asked reasons for leaving Costa Rica. The number 2 reason was culture shock: an inability to adjust and adapt to a new way of life; not interested in learning and adopting local customs and traditions; inability to deal with the bureaucracy here; and no commitment to the “adventure”. And yes, it really does help to look at it like an adventure. This way, you’re always prepared for something new every day.

The number 3 reason? Unrealistic perceptions; people bring their problems with them; not recognizing that this is a regular country with problems similar to every other country in the world. For years, I complained about the absolutely horrible customer service at the Department of Motor Vehicles in New York. (Talk about people going “postal” – I was always surprised no one ever pulled out an AK-47 and went berserk at the DMV after being told to stand on four different lines – all without getting any help). And we complained about the inefficiency of government offices and paperwork, the crime, high taxes, the price of gasoline, and on and on. We’ve all had these nightmare experiences. So, why would people come here – to tiny Costa Rica – and expect anything to be different or better? Why wouldn’t there be crime here? Why wouldn’t there be long lines at the bank? Why wouldn’t the immigration office lose a paper or two?

Within a very short time living here, we realized that thinking and behaving like a typical “gringo” doesn’t get you very far or well-liked here. An attitude adjustment is THE most important requirement for successful integration into any new environment.

Everyone knows “Pura Vida” is the national motto. It means everything from hello to good-bye, all is well, have a great day, nothing you can do about it, sounds good, and more. But more than a phrase, it embraces the whole essence of Costa Ricans – moving at their own pace, enjoying life, taking one day at a time, not stressing over anything, not rushing. It’s no coincidence that the national mascot is the sloth. This t-shirt in a window shop in Tamarindo sums it up.

For North Americans, who can’t even put their cell phones down for an hour when they’re on vacation, that’s the complete antithesis of their natural inclination. Of all the things we could ever use to describe ourselves, “sloth” is never a description I’ve heard. We are used to moving at the speed of light, talking fast (especially us New Yawkers), multi-tasking, zipping around from place to place. It’s no wonder, that when we went on vacation, we felt like it took us 4-5 days just to really wind down and disconnect. After one 12-day vacation in Jamaica, I remember taking a photo of us on the beach and putting it on the shelf right above my computer in the office. The idea was, that every time I felt stressed, I would look at that photo, try to recall that feeling of bliss, and it would calm me down. It worked for a few weeks, but then I realized I couldn’t really recall that feeling anymore. So we plod on, work hard and look forward to the next vacation, where we repeat the same cycle.

So coming here, expecting things to be more or less the same as the place you left, is really bizarre, now that we think of it. I think, for most people, the attraction of living in a foreign country is CHANGE. You weren’t happy with your current lifestyle – not to say you didn’t like where you lived or your friends – but you found that hectic pace wasn’t conducive to your overall well-being, or you couldn’t afford the lifestyle you thought would really make you happy. And here you have the opportunity to do something about it — to take in different scenery, to eat different foods, to learn a different language and new customs, to breathe different air.

So it really boggles our mind when we see expats posting things like “I hate Costa Rica – you can’t get good bacon here”. Or – “No one speaks English where I live”. Or – “I wish they would hurry up/show up on time/get here when they say they’re coming”. Or when someone gets mugged and hundreds of expats reply “It’s not safe to live here”. Really??? You can’t learn to like the bacon here??? Honestly, I don’t think it’s bad – we even prefer the local brand to Hormel’s. This is a Spanish-speaking country, and the majority of older Ticos don’t speak a lick of English – why should they?? For your convenience??

It’s not safe?? We came from New York – don’t talk to us about safety. I always said living in New York City you must expect three things to happen to you – your car to be stolen, your apartment/house to be broken into, and to be mugged. If you go throughout life in the Big Apple without experiencing any of those, you are indeed very fortunate and in the minority. Why would you expect there to not be any crime here? The same amount of vigilance is required no matter where in the world you travel these days.

And as for the concept of time – it’s completely alien here. None of these words mean what you think they mean: soon, tomorrow, in a little while, in an hour, shortly, promptly, quickly, any minute now, before long, on time. You THINK you know what they mean, but you don’t. Here in Costa Rica, all those words mean the same thing: At some unspecified time in the future. When the plumber says he’ll be here “mañana”, he means some day, but you won’t know what day that is until he actually shows up. It could be tomorrow, but it could also be the next day. Or next week. Or maybe never. And for those of you who think I’m exaggerating, you only have to look at the comments of the many exasperated expats who are tired of sitting around waiting for workers who may (SURPRISE!!) or may not show up when you expect them. Now, this isn’t always the case. Our gardeners show up on the 14th and the 28th of every month like clockwork, always on time, and you can’t imagine how much we appreciate that.

The point is – complaining about all these things doesn’t change ANYTHING. Expats have to realize that they are the ones that have to change — you can’t expect an entire country and culture to change just because you are here now. An example: we live in a really nice small rural town, surrounded by similar towns and one tourist town. There’s an intersection on the main road where you can either go straight or make a right turn down into the tourist town. It can get pretty hectic at that intersection when traffic is heavy – which is not often. And there’s no signage of any kind at the intersection. (FYI – traffic lights are extremely rare in this area. From here to the airport which is about a 90 minute drive, I think we pass two lights). But generally, drivers are kind and will slow down and let people make the turn. If not, you just sit patiently and wait until there’s an opening and you can safely turn. No one is in a hurry here. Well, on the local expat forums, one woman was almost belligerent – she couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a traffic light at that intersection, she wanted to start a petition (hah!), how unsafe it was (funny – we have never seen an accident there) and she carried on and on. A few expats agreed, but the majority just laughed and thought it was so ridiculous that she should think that the Ticos who have lived without traffic lights in this area all their life, should now put one up to make her happy. I suppose she probably thinks a law should be passed prohibiting livestock from the roads. I guarantee you she will be one of those statistics that leave Costa Rica within 2 years.

Those of us who have been here a few years have realized several things:

  1. We are happy that there are no food shortages here and even if we can’t get the brands/specialty foods that we sometimes crave, our bellies are always full.
  2. We have learned to slow down. Gary always says: We didn’t come here to ‘do’, we came here to ‘be’. And we have mastered the art of “being”. If you would like free lessons, come on down and visit.
  3. Living without utilities is not the worst thing in the world. We laugh when we see expats in a panic when the water/electric/internet is turned off. It happens sporadically, it’s never usually for more than a few hours, and you learn to be prepared (lots of bottled water, a good book, an excuse to sit and stargaze).
  4. The Ticos are really nice and friendly people, and they appreciate your fumbling efforts at speaking Spanish.
  5. We have learned to live without and/or become extremely creative. Some of you may recall how it took us 8 months to find a regular 2-slice toaster. We no longer get upset about what we don’t have or can’t get. Instead, we focus on how much more we have gained from living here.
  6. There’s no “us” and “them”. We’re all neighbors. Everybody is doing the best they can.
  7. We are the guests in this country and should act accordingly. We didn’t come here to tell anyone how to do their job, that they can’t play their music loud at night, or party until 3 am. Especially after the last 2 stressful years, we are happy to see people having a good time.

I guess that’s why we find ourselves so frustrated when we hear expats whining and complaining about Costa Rica. Are there things that could be improved? Absolutely. Could the government make it a little easier to live here? Certainly. It took us exactly 5 years and thousands of dollars to get permanent residency. A friend of ours moved to Mexico last month, and within two weeks, she had her permanent residency card. Good grief. We’re happy for her.

Sometimes, our friends will ask “Do you think you will ever leave Costa Rica?” They’d have to drag us out, kicking and screaming. And after living here, honestly, I am afraid we are unfit for any society that doesn’t understand having a sloth for a mascot.

At the end of the day, all we can say is “Pura Vida”,

Cheryl, Gary, Kaia (the loco lab) and Mister Chan (sweetest pitbull in the world)

p.s. Please feel free to share our blog. If you know of someone who is interested in relocating to Costa Rica, they can check out our website:


May you be blessed of the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 115.15

It’s our favorite word in Spanish: it means “blessed”. With the Thanksgiving season here, we thought it was a good time to take stock of all that we have.

Blessings come in many forms, not just material goods. One thing we quickly learned living in Costa Rica — we can’t get everything we want. It’s easy to be spoiled living in the States, especially coming from a city like New York, where every possible amenity is so easily accessible. Oh, how our lives have changed!

In New York, supermarkets never ran out of our favorite foods (at least when we lived there). Malls were great places to spend an afternoon, eyeing all the “stuff” you never even thought of, but now convinced yourself were essential to your well-being. Need a part for a repair? No problem – always a Home Depot or local hardware store within 20 minutes drive. Craving a midnight snack? Not to worry – the 7-11 on the corner was always open. Feel like buying a new outfit? Dozens of clothing stores to choose from, all within a few miles radius from your home. Don’t feel like cooking? A dozen restaurants in the neighborhood will deliver all sorts of cuisines. The most important drawer in the house was the one in the kitchen that held the menus from all our favorite food haunts.

Fast forward to living in Costa Rica. No more 7-11s or 24/7 stores. No large malls (unless you drive 5 hours to San Jose area). There aren’t dozens of stores to choose from. In fact, I think almost all the clothing we purchased in the last 5 years came from one store in Tamarindo. Food delivery? That’s something relatively new (thanks to COVID) when restaurants were closed but could do take-out, and then got the bright idea to deliver. So, now we can get pizza, Asian, or burgers on a whim.

Early on, we realized that shopping here can be a real challenge. It’s not uncommon for there to be only one store of its kind within a 10-mile radius. And if you need a special part for an appliance, that can take weeks, if not months, to order. Before we moved into the house, we went into the new Walmart, a little more than an hour away. I saw a stepstool that I thought would be useful, but didn’t want to buy it and then have to schlep it during the move. Of course, when we went back a few months later, there were no more stepstools. Same with the great Pioneer Woman cookware; I bought one skillet, loved it, and decided to go back for the rest of the set. You guessed it – all gone, never to be seen again.

We did a survey of hundreds of expats asking what they wish they had known before moving here. The number 5 reason was the availability of goods – the limit of what can be purchased here and the high cost of shipping from places like Amazon. Most expats go back and forth to their home country for periodic visits, and use those trips to stock up on their favorite supplies. Others bite the bullet and either pay the exorbitant cost of shipping stuff here. And then there are those (like us) that just learn to do without or learn to adapt. You know that saying – “Necessity is the mother of invention”? Nowhere is that truer than here in Costa Rica.

Need a dehumidifier to stop mold? Little zip-loc bags of cat litter do the trick nicely. Skunk repellent? Orange peels scattered around the hedges (although I know have a large horde of birds rustling through my bushes every day). $6 to buy an Oreo cookie crust in aluminum pan? Buy the local brand of chocolate creme cookies for $1 and crush them in a food processor. Favorite fabric softener hard to find? Use vinegar (also helps with the hard water). Need fertilizer for the garden? Soak banana peels in water overnight.

So where’s the blessing??? For one, our lives are so much simpler now. We have a lot less “stuff”. Of course, it helps that it’s 85 degrees every day, so tank tops, shorts and flip-flops are all you need. That little black dress I brought from New York?? Gary’s fancy silk martial arts jackets? They’re still packed in the suitcase.

We’ve also learned to appreciate nature so much more. Having finally overcome (most of) our initial fear and dread of the many “critters” we encounter, we can almost admire all of them. (Except the locusts. Death to the locusts.) Although we still cringe at the sight of the larger, more menacing critters (think spiders bigger than your hand), those encounters are thankfully few and far between. “Live and let live” is the mantra of the day; we try not to kill anything, knowing that every species plays its part in the ecosystem, and that most of the times, we are the intruders here.

Of course, the larger wildlife is most amusing. Horses, cows, monkeys, lizards and parrots — watching them is often much more entertaining than whatever Netflix has to offer.

We think one of the biggest benefits to living here is our health, which we attribute to breathing more fresh air, eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and exercising more. We’ve lost weight, our joints don’t ache anymore, and we have an overall sense of well-being. Although every once in a while, we crave some “comfort food” from the States, we have often been pleasantly surprised at what we can get, like Nutella. Instead of Entenmann’s, I bake or make all our desserts now (not necessarily healthier, but just as delicious!)

We are awed by the beauty of the nature here. The countryside is so lush and green; even during the dry season, flowers of all varieties abound. Nothing is more relaxing than dinner by the beach, watching the sun set.

Sure, Costa Rica has its bureaucratic nightmares and problems. But it’s much easier to not get caught up in the negativity that seems to be so pervasive in the world today. We don’t have TV, so we don’t spend hours listening to news that really doesn’t have an impact on our daily routines. Our circle of friends here is smaller, but thanks to social media, we can keep in touch with all our friends and family living around the world. And when we do have visitors, it’s a wonderful opportunity to show off our new home.

We agree, though, that the most important blessing of living here is the sense of peace. We now do finally really understand the phrase “the peace that passes understanding”. Even just sipping coffee in the morning, sitting in the backyard, listening to inspirational music, can be incredibly soul-strengthening. The pace of life is so much slower; the passage of “time” has a very different connotation here. When you get there, you get there. It’ll get done – someday. The worker will show up – sometime. No worries, no distractions. In New York, we had to remind ourselves to slow down and breathe. That comes automatically here. Not that there aren’t challenges – like fighting with utilities and government agencies – but it’s not that often – so you don’t feel so stressed. In the States, between the crime, financial obligations, commuting and work, the constant negative media, the dirt and grime, and other distractions, I felt “worn down” all the time, especially in the last couple of years. Not any more. One of my favorite signs here:

Costa Rica recently passed legislation to enable “digital nomads” to come here, work and live for a year with a special visa and without residency requirements. All the details are still being worked out, but if you work remotely, and would love a change of scenery, let us know. We would be happy to help you find your own Path To Pura Vida.


Gary, Cheryl, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. If you know of anyone interested in relocating/visiting Costa Rica, please share our blog and invite them to check out our website: .

Rose-Colored Glasses

It’s really easy to think of our home as a paradise and see everything through rose-colored glasses. After all, Costa Rica consistently ranks either as well or higher in a lot of features compared to other countries. Out of 140 countries measuring personal wellbeing, Costa Rica ranked #1, Canada #85, USA #108 (Happy Planet Index). Even in the quality of healthcare, Costa Rica (#36) ranks higher than the USA (#37) (World Population Review)

Global Peace Index 2021 (measures the state of peace using three criteria: the level of Societal Safety and Security; the extent of Ongoing Domestic and International Conflict; and the degree of Militarization): Canada #10, Costa Rica #39, USA #122. (It saddened us to hear of one New Yorker friend describing the city as the “Wild West with bullets whizzing by all around”)

Median income: Costa Rica $8,929, Canada $41,280, USA $43,585. (Actually, this is one of the major reasons people move here — better quality of life at lower cost. Could you live on $25,000/year?) (World Population Review)

Costa Rica has consistently ranked high in best countries to retire to. For 2021, here are the rankings. International Living: Costa Rica #1. CEO World: Canada #4, Costa Rica #40, USA not on the list (hah-not surprised!). Forbes #1, US News: Canada #6, Costa Rica #15, USA not on the list. World Population Review: #3 (Canada and USA not ranked).

What do all these statistics mean? Before your eyes glaze over, forget all the numbers. But let’s be realistic. As one expat put it – “You can be in love with Costa Rica but still be honest about all the things that are wrong here”.

It is a place where you can enjoy a stable democracy, albeit full of corrupt and unbelievably-highly-paid officials. There’s free healthcare, as long as you don’t mind getting to the clinic before the sun comes up and standing on lines for hours. You don’t have to worry about seeing heavily armed militia parading around, although when you dial 911, it’s a crap shoot if the police will actually show up. It’s easy to open a bank account as a non-resident, although be prepared to prove that you didn’t make your money from drugs or money laundering (no thanks to the USA for forcing some countries to abide by these ridiculously stringent requirements!) Ticos are generally friendly and helpful, but your Spanish has to be good.

So, what’s the silver lining? Very little of what the government does impacts us as immigrants. If we choose not to use the free healthcare, a doctor’s visit is $50 and prescriptions are cheap. Forget relying on the police; your neighbors are more likely to assist. And once you do open the bank account, it’s extremely easy to pay bills.

Now, if we want to be brutally honest, some simple transactions here can be frustrating beyond belief. Take our last experience with renewing our immigration papers. As everyone knows, I am a stickler for detail and extremely organized, almost to the point of OCD. I had every receipt in duplicate, all my papers in chronological order, every bank statement for the last 2 years printed out, copies of our last renewal – you name it, I had it. All we were supposed to do was go to the Post Office in Nicoya to have our photo taken for new identity cards. Simple, eh?

Our appointment was for 10:00 am, and we arrived promptly. We even brought cold drinks for the employees because it was such a hot day. The postal employee behind the desk slowly reviewed all my papers, separating them in piles, then putting them back together, looking over each one several times. After about 15 minutes of this, Gary and I exchange sly glances — “Now what?” He then announced that we were missing a letter from the bank. I told him that we didn’t need a letter – the copies of my bank statements proved that we had transferred in the necessary funds every month as part of the residency requirement. But he wasn’t buying it. He proudly showed me a piece of paper that said we needed a different form, and he couldn’t accept the bank statements. I was adamant that the statements should suffice, and finally he called a friend who worked at a bank, who said that we needed a “Constancia de Cuenta Bancaria”. Fortunately, he said, the nearest bank was only a few blocks away, so in the 95-degree heat, we trudged nearly half a mile – clearly, his sense of direction is different than ours. It’s now 11:30 am.

When we got to the bank, we were disheartened to see a very long line of people waiting outside. Thanks to Covid, the number of people allowed inside was only a trickle. The guard at the door yelled “Plataforma” and I ran up (to see a customer service employee at a desk rather than a regular bank teller). The guard wouldn’t let both of us in, and since nobody at these banks speaks English, I went in and left Gary outside to sweat it out (literally!). After about 15 minutes, finally it was my turn. In my head, I’d been practicing what I needed to say in Spanish. I explained that I needed the Constancia de Cuenta Bancaria form, which she promptly printed out. But that turned out to be just a form that showed our current balance in the account – a whopping $152.97. Now, we transfer in the required amount every month, but I pay my bills with it and spend the rest on groceries, household goods, etc. So, at the end of the month, there’s hardly ever any money in that account. I explained that I needed a letter from the bank that stated that for the past 24 months, we had deposited the required amount in our bank. I was ready for her response — that the bank only has access to the last six months of activity. (I had heard that before, but still find that very hard to believe). Well, I was ready – I shoved the 24 pieces of paper – each with the incoming transfer nicely highlighted in yellow – and said, I have the proof – I just need this as a letter. Just having to recount what transpired during the next 2 hours — yes, that’s how long I was sitting there, arguing with her — just thinking about it now makes my head hurt. After the first hour, with her adamantly refusing to do a letter and me just as stubbornly refusing to leave, I resorted to Google Translate. Believing that perhaps my poor Spanish was to blame and that maybe she didn’t understand what I needed, I typed in everything. But no, she had understood, but she insisted there was no such letter. And I insisted that all she had to do was write two sentences on a letterhead — I even told her the exact words to write. But she kept reiterating that she couldn’t prove it. “But I have your bank statements right here — how could that not be proof????”

Then – and here was where I almost fell off the chair – she called a supervisor, who spoke English. Here I was, killing myself trying to translate and so mad I could barely type on the stupid small keyboard on my phone, and someone was here who could speak English all this time????? If, at that moment, I didn’t burst a blood vessel, that was a miracle. Meanwhile, I had to keep seeing Gary out of the corner of my eye, peering into the glass and waving his hands, not for a second believing this was taking so long. After much deliberation – at this point, my brain half shut down and I wasn’t understanding anything — they decided a letter COULD be written but the “jefe” (boss) would have to sign it. Now, of course, I am thinking – if they tell me that guy is out to lunch or not here today, I’m going to leap over the desk and strangle them both. But I wasn’t sure how bail works here, and not wanting to cause Gary any more undue stress, I restrained myself. An hour later, I have the letter and the Constancia in hand. I force myself to thank them both profusely for their help – neither of them will even look at me at this point – they don’t even respond. I pack up my papers and leave. Once outside, I tell Gary not to even ask me what happened – I was beyond words at that point. It’s now 1:30 pm.

Trudging in the heat back to the post office, I hand over all the papers to the same guy as before. But wait, now he doesn’t like the fact that I have 24 bank statements — he wants them on fewer pieces of paper. WHAT??? At that point, I call Laura, our immigration miracle worker; I explain the situation and hand the phone to the postal worker. Okay, he only needs 6 months of statements, but again, he doesn’t want 6 pieces of paper – that’s too many. (At that very moment, I understand completely just how people go berserk and start shooting up a place.) He wanted Laura to email him a PDF file with all the statements on 2 pieces of paper, but she wasn’t home. Gary had to take a photo of each statement and email it to Laura, so she could cut and paste it, like she has nothing better to do. But she couldn’t read the bottom of each statement, so that plan wasn’t working. Finally, the guy decided he and another employee could figure out how to scan each statement, make it smaller, cut out each one, and recopy it. That took another 30 minutes watching the two of them doing arts and crafts. Eventually, he was satisfied with the 2 or 3 pages of statements now so small, I don’t see how anyone at Immigration is going to be able to read them. It’s now 2:35 pm.

Next step: go into another room with Arts-and-Crafts-Guy to get our photo taken and our digital fingerprints done. First, it’s my turn. I sit in the chair in front of the camera while he types everything off my application into the computer. Then he has to scan all the papers — but he wasn’t satisfied with the results, so he keeps starting over. Mind you, this is the third time we’ve been through this immigration process; isn’t all our information already in the system??? Is my father’s name or my date of birth likely to have changed??? Then, when it’s time to finally take the photo, he keeps motioning for me to change the position of my head – several times. Gary blurts out “Who does this guy think he is – Federico Fellini???” At that, we both start laughing hysterically, although to be honest, I did feel on the verge of a complete meltdown. Now, I’m done and it’s Gary’s turn. Again, waiting painfully while all the information is typed into the computer. And then – the power goes out. Of course, there’s no back-up battery on the computer —- noooooooo, that would have been too much common sense in a place of business. So, when the power comes back on, after about 20 minutes, he has to start from scratch, re-typing everything in. And just when it was time to take Gary’s picture – yep, you guessed it – the power went back out. Now, I’m still laughing hysterically — forget about being arrested — they were about to call the looney-bin for me. But I can see Gary’s blood pressure about to geyser through the ceiling. Fortunately, after about another 20 minutes, the information had been saved so just to get his photo and fingerprints done. It’s now almost 4:00 pm.

We make a beeline for the car, completely drained, barely speaking. It’s about an hour drive, and we are just beginning to feel human again by the time we get home, relieved that we won’t have to go through this ridiculous ordeal for a couple more years.

So, again we ask, where’s the silver lining? It’s a trade-off. These random, trying situations in exchange for an overall better quality of life. We feel healthier and happier here, and despite days like that one, we can’t imagine living anywhere else. Ask any immigrant here — they have at least a few similar horror stories. But then, we go to the beach, put our rose-colored glasses back on and listen to the soothing waves, and all is well with the world again.

It really is Pura Vida,

Cheryl, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

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The Almond Tree

This morning was a good time for a walk around my home town, Santa Rosa. Temperatures in the 80s, no humidity, slight breeze, just enough clouds to provide some shade from the sun. I decided to explore some side streets that I had never walked down before. Didn’t find anything interesting, just residential areas with the typical one-story brightly painted cement buildings prevalent here. No one paid much attention to me; a few responded to my “Buenas dias” shouts. Mostly, dogs barked, a few chased me until I was out of their turf. Families sitting on their front porches, neighbors chatting in rapid-fire Spanish, too fast for me to understand.

I headed back to the park in the main plaza in the center of town. It looks like the municipality is putting some money into sprucing up the park. There were new cement benches scattered around the edges, bordered by brightly spray-painted used tires. I decided to rest for a few moments on one of the benches before continuing my walk. It was early, so not a lot of people were out. It was too early for church-goers, too early for the hordes of children playing in the streets. The loudest sounds were from the neighborhood roosters, still crowing and cackling.

I sat on the bench, took off my sunglasses and baseball cap, and took in the peacefulness. I looked around on the ground and noticed lots of dropped, rotten almonds; I just happened to be sitting under one of my favorite trees, an almond tree.

Then I looked down and noticed a lone green almond. And instantaneously, I was transported back to my childhood summers in Jamaica. Those summers were the highlight of my childhood. Besides lots of family, I had many friends my age living on our block, and days were spent playing with them or heading to the beach. Our favorite “game” was sneaking into one of the neighbors’ yards; he had a huge almond tree. At night, we would climb that tree and pick the green almonds. Then we would stash them in an empty fire hydrant on the block. The next day, we would retrieve our stash. Using heavy rocks and our bare hands, we would smash the green almonds, and pick out the sweet meat inside. We would eat until our stomachs hurt and the stash ran out. And we would repeat the sequence almost every day and night. We never got caught, never got sick, and sitting and eating and chatting with my friends — well, that was the best that I could hope for out of life at that age.

Then I looked down at the bench beside me. I normally wear my denim martial arts cap for walking, but today I had subconsciously chosen my Jamaica Walkerswood cap. I thought it was an omen.

I must have sat there for an hour, thinking about how in the world we had ended up in Costa Rica. April 30th marked our 5-year anniversary of living here, as unlikely a place as any. I believed it was simply “meant to be”, no more, no less. On my first visit here, more than 10 years ago, I was struck by the similarity between Jamaica and Costa Rica — the tropical weather, the hot temperatures, the lush mountainsides, the beautiful flora. Of course, in the long run, tallying up the positives and negatives, Costa Rica scored so much higher that it wasn’t even a debate which place to choose.

But then I got to thinking. Maybe life isn’t always a straight line where we’re constantly moving forward. Maybe it is, as the song goes, a “circle of life”. Maybe what we’re searching for in life isn’t something new that we haven’t experienced. Maybe we’re trying to get back to what made us feel secure, what made us happy, what made us feel whole. When I think of being secure, happy, whole – I think of those childhood summers in Jamaica. They were a stark contrast to the rest of the year, going to school in Brooklyn. Constantly being pressured by my father to be no less than a straight-A student. Encouraged by my mother to “think big”, hold my head up high, and be the very best I could be, no matter what profession I chose. Always being challenged to learn another language, win another award, get a better job, join another professional organization, work twice as hard to get ahead. It was exhausting. A stark comparison to my times spent in Jamaica, where none of that stress existed, and I could simply “be” and not have to “do”. Who wouldn’t want to regress to those times?

And so I think, I’m living in Costa Rica now, but I’m back to my childhood. Yes, still working, but at a job I love, only part-time (thanks to COVID but that’s a good thing), very little stress (“Mister Chan, get away from that skunk!”), surrounded by nature, not skyscrapers and blaring sirens. I’ve traded in my high heels for flip-flops, my Jones New York and Calvin Klein suits for tank-tops and shorts.

A few weeks ago, we had breakfast with friends who were moving back to the States. I couldn’t stop staring at this painting for sale on the wall. I don’t know what it was that struck me about the painting. I’m not particularly fond of goldfish, but I liked the colors and the sense of movement. I think this painting describes life; we’re not always moving in the same direction. Sometimes, we’re circling around and around, and I think that’s okay.

I think I’m going to plant an almond tree in my back-yard.

Pura Vida, indeed!

Chery, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. Please ‘like’ our Facebook Page Path To Pura Vida and check out our website

There’s a lizard in my hair

Regular night – 9:00 pm – letting the dogs out in the backyard for the last time. I slid the screen door open, the dogs ran out, and I stepped outside on to the porch. Immediately, I felt something ‘plop’ land on my head, and then 4 small feet twirled around a few times, and before I could react, he jumped off and landed on the deck a few feet away. It turned out to be just a gecko. I probably startled him when I opened the door and knocked him off his perch.

Now, the unusual part of the story is not that this happened at all. Far from it. That one of these creatures should land on my head is not surprising. As a matter of fact, I was more astounded that it hadn’t happened sooner in all the time we’ve been here. The amazing part of the story is my reaction, or rather, lack of it. I felt him scurrying around on my head, and I felt his weight, so I knew it wasn’t a scorpion. And it wouldn’t have been a bat; we have plenty of those around, but they are the master navigators, and never bump into anything. But while my brain was trying to process what in the world was dancing on my head, I never flinched, I didn’t even move, I remained totally calm. Unnaturally calm, given my dislike for many of the critters we come across here.

And then I realized – what a difference a year makes. Two or three years ago, if that had happened, I would have been screaming at the top of my lungs, running around like a lunatic and frightened out of my wits. That I didn’t even flinch this time taught me a lot. Particularly about the way we really have adapted to life here in the tropics. Both of us have learned to be braver; Gary says he refuses to be frightened by anything smaller than him, but I’m not quite there yet.

We did a ton of research before moving here, 5 years’ worth, to be exact. We can tell you all about the currency fluctuation, immigration and tax laws, best banks to do business with, the many different micro-climate zones here, cost of real estate, and where the best beaches are. But you can’t research what you don’t know exists, and the last four and a half years have sometimes been a rude awakening.

Nothing could have prepared us for the amount of wildlife that we would encounter – some of it interesting, some of it downright scary. I imagined that we would only come across the most frightening creatures while hiking at night in national parks, not high on our to-do list. And even though we live in a lovely little village, we are surrounded by mountains and jungles, and all sorts of creatures – creeping, crawling, flying, slithering, hopping – have made it their habitat. And when they do venture down into our living space, we are rudely reminded that we are on their turf — they were here long before we were. In Queens, New York, we had a few raccoons and occasionally, an opossum would cross our path, and we thought that was like living in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (am I dating myself by mentioning that show?). Imagine our surprise here — there are no words for it.

This is one of the “good guys” – wish we had more of them around. This fellow is about 4 feet long.

We’ve been sprayed by a skunk, scared out of our wits by snakes, stung by scorpions, peed on by monkeys (yes, that’s not raindrops on your head). We’ve had to run for our lives through a horde of locusts, barricade ourselves in our house against a swarm of huge bees trying to get in, learn how to drive sharing the road with chickens, dogs, cows and horses, chase off a hawk that tried to pick up Mister Chan when he was a puppy, and kicked by a neighbor’s horse (Kaia). As far as the venomous hog-nosed pit viper that was in our backyard one morning, the dogs woke him up so I think he was just as frightened as we were. Nothing like a few of those experiences to remind you that you only think you’re at the top of the food chain.

Another awakening — so you think you speak Spanish, eh? Three years of Rosetta Stone down the toilet. There’s Latin American Spanish, then there’s Costa Rican Spanish (closest to Colombian), and then there’s Guanacaste Spanish. Then add to the mix the the Nicaraguans who are here; when most of them speak to us, it may as well as be in Chinese. And then, to make matters worse, the Ticos have a habit of diminutivizing everything – adding ‘ita’ or ‘ito’ to the end of every word. You don’t have a little dog (“perro pequeño“), you have a little dog (“perrito“).

Ahora” means now. But “ahorita” means “in a little bit”. Ah, that’s what it means everywhere Spanish is spoken — with the exception of Costa Rica. It could be “soon”, but it can just as often mean in a couple of hours, or even days. Much like “mañana” – which you thought meant tomorrow, but here, it really means “at some unspecified point in the future”. The electricity will be off “ahorita” — don’t hold your breath waiting for it to come back on; pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read. The gardeners are coming “mañana“; maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, maybe next week. The road is going to be paved “pronto” – that could really mean “soon”, or it could just as well mean “next year”, or “if ever”. All of this, just to teach you that life moves at a different pace here, and actually, once you get used to it, it’s kind of nice, not stressful at all. I say “not stressful” because it forces you to realize what’s really important and what can wait. Does it really matter if the electric is out for a few hours? Sure, I could stress that it means I can’t work, but in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter; I can catch up later, or tomorrow. The gardener didn’t show up today? So what? The grass will grow a little higher, but he’ll be here eventually. Very little is life-and-death, and you learn not to stress over what you can’t control (a good lesson anywhere). Well, maybe, the swarm of locusts might count as life-and-death. That I didn’t have a heart attack and lived to tell the story is a miracle in itself.

Nothing like a herd of cows in the road to teach you patience. They don’t care how loudly you honk your horn. They’ll move when they get good and ready, not before.

Another surprise: the weather. We picked Guanacaste because we wanted to be near the beach, and we like it hot and dry. It’s 85 degrees all year round. But what we didn’t expect were: The 60-70 mph winds in January and February – cooling and refreshing, but think Sahara dust storm in the tropics. The violent thunderstorms in October – we didn’t know that much water could possibly fall from the sky at one time. The earthquakes – we’re on the Ring of Fire, but really didn’t give it too much thought, until the house shook under our feet. The forest fires – by the end of the dry season, when there’s been no rain for 6 months, the mountains light up like bonfires, sometimes a little too close for comfort. Fortunately, those extremes are few and far between. A friend once asked, didn’t we miss the seasons? I’ll take all of the above over one snowstorm and bundling up with sixteen layers of clothing.

Relaxing in a cabana at the all-inclusive Westin Playa Conchal Resort.

Another surprise: the entertainment. Notwithstanding this year, when everything is cancelled due to COVID, there really is enough to keep busy. Nothing cultural, unless you count the one music festival that passes through Tamarindo every year. There’s finally a brand new movie theater in town (closed now) with the occasional film in English. But no concert halls, no live performances (except for musicians in bars), very few organized sporting events, no Broadway shows, no museums, no exhibitions except for a few art galleries. For those, you have to go to the Central Valley — but that’s too “city” and too cold for us. Here, there’s lots of outdoor activities, beach/pool volleyball, exercising, strolling the beach, reading, chatting with friends, Spanish lessons, shopping at open markets, driving and exploring new parts of the area, trying out new restaurants, especially the mom-and-pop “sodas” with “comida tipica” (LOVE the food here!) Plus, there are dozens of volunteer opportunities: turtle nesting, animal sanctuaries, walking dogs at halfway homes, teaching English to adults and children, among others. There’s no lack of great outdoor adventures: exploring waterfalls, hiking in national parks, catamaran cruises, surfing, ziplining, coffee plantations, volcanoes and hot springs, kayaking, white water rafting. Here’s a photo of us having the time of our lives, doing our best to hang on:

Laughing and screaming our way down the Rio Balsa. Check out the expression on the face of the girl behind Gary. She actually did fall out and the guide and Gary had to literally drag her back into the raft.

What we have been pleasantly surprised at: Bright starry skies and always breathing fresh air, the abundance of fresh produce at reasonable prices, price of gas and car maintenance cheaper, housing can be much less expensive, the friendliness of the Ticos, the most amazing sunsets, flocks of wild parrots flying overhead east in the morning and west in the afternoon, breathtaking views from mountaintops, availability of imported goods (I actually found Gruyere cheese here once!), tranquility of the mesmerizing waves at the ocean, low cost and high standard of medical care, an appreciation for nature and the eco-system, how valuable water is, how quiet it can be (no police or fire engine sirens) and a hundred other benefits. Life here is much simpler, and in many respects, much easier. We don’t “need” as much, we appreciate all that we have, and we take absolutely nothing for granted. Every day where we have all three – internet, water and electric -working all day is a wonderful day, indeed. Everything else is icing on the cake.

My favorite word in Spanish is “bienaventurado“. When I first saw it, I thought it meant “good adventure”. Well, not exactly — it means “blessed”. But, in a way, that actually does describe our life here. Every day really is an adventure, and we feel very blessed to be here.

And at the end of the day, it’s still Home, Sweet Home. Coming up on 5 years living here, and can’t imagine being anywhere else in the world. Even if I have to put up with a lizard in my hair every now and then.

It really is Pura Vida,

Cheryl, Gary, Kaia and Mister Chan

p.s. If you know of anyone who is thinking of moving to Costa Rica, please send them to our website. And invite your friends to “Like” our Facebook page – Path To Pura Vida. Thanks.