One-and-a-half years in and I’m starting to see fissures in the image of paradise I created for myself since arriving. Like most, I was wide-eyed and blinded by the sparkling light emitting from every living thing—from the moisture settling in mid-air to create a permanent mirage effect. It’s stunningly, magically, hallucinatorily, breath-takingly beautiful. The light can literally get you on its wavelength and get you high.
I’m convinced this is the answer to why so many people “fall in love” and buy property here after a two-week vacation from their real lives without even blinking about spending their life savings on a third-world gamble. Because that’s exactly what it is. And the odds are against you. Especially if you’re white-bread white. You know what I mean. Especially if you’re from any metropolitan area anywhere in the world and you enjoy cultural events, convenience and think you’d like to live in Costa Rica based on a two-week vacation from your real life.
You don’t know that when you get here. That’s why old-timers remind you beauty is only skin deep. Everyone’s got a story or five you’d never believe if you heard it anywhere else. And you will hear it. All of it. Many times. Sometimes from the same person. Over and over and over again.
As it happens, some of us end up in a terrifying loop of self-prophesized reality playback. Like that movie Groundhog Day but in this version the poor guy never figures out he can change things. He’s so far gone he doesn’t even remember what it feels like to have had free will—to affect change simply by making the decision to do so. These stories are the gloomiest; ending in last minute estate sales and one-way tickets back to the place they left to come here.
Some are more prolonged; starting out as happy announcements accompanied by classified ads for this or that. Things that can be lived without until the move. You feel better about this type, but still you wonder why they couldn’t hang on. They seemed like they were doing so well. The movers themselves tell you it’s just time. Or they want to be closer to family or some other completely un-tragic circumstance that makes you wonder what the real reason is.
You used to think everyone who moved here was here because they’re meant to be here. Because they belong here, just like you do. Because you fully expected to meet people who are just like you. Because why wouldn’t they be? You watch in disbelief as the rotation begins.
When everyone you’ve met in the first six months leaves; you begin to ask other questions. Like, how long before you change your mind or if you will be one of the ones who stays. You really don’t even think about actually leaving until the life-long friends you made in the second half become long-distance acquaintances in the third. By the time that happens you’re already so jaded you pat yourself on the back for making it where everyone else tried and failed.
At one year, you feel invincible and you begin to think, I must truly belong here. I must be one of the special ones. The chosen few. Especially when so many others fail or give up. So many more worthy. With more money. More experience. More time on this planet. That’s a nice feeling.
At 1.25 you feel like you’re home when you are here and every 90 days you only visit that place you used to live. You look at the sign you placed in the living room when you arrived and you believe it. “Paradise Found.” And then, as it happens anywhere “home” becomes a thing attached to permanence, security and responsibility.
It starts with a few minor trials that you overcome with little resistance. This gives you a false sense of power and you wonder why all your friends are having so much trouble. They must not being doing something right. Maybe they aren’t communicating with their neighbors or maybe they were azzholes to begin with and it’s only now beginning to show through.
Then a major ant invasion in all five rooms of the house occurs one piece of furniture at a time. First, you notice the chair you’ve been sitting in for over a year is making crackling noises. Then you notice a few ants around the base. Then one day you turn it over and realize in horror that the crackling sounds is hundreds of ant bodies brushing against each other. The chair is literally crawling beneath you.
To be fair, it’s hard to see everything around you when everything you see is all brand new. And to be honest, it’s easier to see the things we want to see rather than those we don’t. Not to mention it’s pretty easy to miss something we don’t even imagine exists. Even after the initial sighting, it can take a while for comprehension to set in.
Solve that problem and wait as the one ant who survived the holocaust makes a new nest in your bed. Good thing you were expecting guests that month and decided to give them the comfy mattress or you never would have lifted it off the frame. Add to that three more rooms from every angle including the ceiling and the bookshelf and the magazine rack and the bathroom sink.
Now tack on random termite appearances, mold that must be treated on a weekly basis or grow out of control. The dank smell of mildew on four-day old laundry and nothing but dark, cold, windy days. Go to bed every night to the sound of animals either dancing with or killing and eating other animals above your head knowing their feces is rapidly accumulating in said space attracting rats and thus, more feces. Imagine the roaches the bats that come and go each dawn and dusk must be feasting on and I guarantee you will manage to chink the armor a bit.
You can try to escape by going outside, but there are bugs out there and they bite! Add to this the fact that you can’t find anything you want to buy EVER. Including ant traps. So be prepared to spend a LOT of time online researching home remedies for everything you never thought you were taking for granted before, like baking soda and vinegar.
And all this despite the fact that if you ask someone, they will always know of someone who has a relative who once knew somebody who knew a place you could buy one and it’s only “100 meters” from (insert local landmark and person pointing in opposite direction here). But you won’t find it.
Then the sun comes out and all the people on the bus smile as they board. They’re always smiling these people. This is confusing because you know their lives are not easy. You know that the least of their worries is how much Christmas wrapping paper got destroyed by the ants. Or how long it will take for the mildew smell to come out of a beaded silk dress. Or how much electricity the on demand hot water heater uses (one revolution per second, btw). And you smile back.
During the rainy season it’s easy to let the gutters fill up with neglect, regret, good intentions and a general sense of dread. And I’m not just talking about the ones around the house. It gets to a point the rain just barrages you into a depressive overflow and starts to shows signs of leakage above your head then slowly makes its way down the wall behind the sink and onto the tile. You might not even notice it until it one day your feet feel wet. Especially if you’re prone to looking down. Especially, if you’re prone to sadness on cloudy days. Especially if you’re already pissed off about the cost of anything worth buying or repairing.
It starts out with just a small leak left unchecked like compounding interest on your high-yield savings account—only not. The funny thing about these leaks is that they grow exponentially overnight without doing anything at all. Especially when we do nothing at all. Or on the other end of the spectrum; when we flip out and do way too much to over-correct.
Poco a poco (little by little) is a saying you hear often in this part of Costa Rica.
We gringos often complain of our neighbors’ seemingly totally absent regard for the future, for preplanning – for proactive measures against the wind, rain, pests and all the other mal vichus (bad things) that we all encounter every day in our own private version of paradise (or hell depending on your attitude).
Plan for the best, prepare for the next
You can take all the precautions in the world, but the fact is you really never know where the next ant invasion will come from or if the house will flood or be over taken by bats or termites or if a swarm of strange flying insects will pass through the town and touch every house but yours. And then, how silly you will feel when you wasted all your time plotting yet another ant genocide when this week it turns out to be that new vine strangling the orange tree you protected from root rot that needs attending to.
You can be a very busy person if you’re constantly steering too far to the left and going off a cliff or too far to the right ending up in a tailspin. When it comes to improving my own life it’s the little by little approach that seems to have the most profitable returns. I know this guy who says he lives like water: taking the path of least resistance. Sounds lazy at first, but if you know anything about water; you know how powerful it can be. It’s also something that we can’t live without. Like rain. Like the very rain that caused those leaks in the first place. Kinda funny when you think about it. How we ask for the very things that cause us “pain”. How we define pain.
How we define ourselves based not on our actual experiences, but how we feel about them. How how we feel about something becomes the reality of it.
That’s the thing about Costa Rica. If you manage to live here long enough, one day you will wake up and realize you are the one who is always smiling.
Then you know for sure the honeymoon is over.