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Casey Bahr, American expat blogger in Costa Rica
Published Monday October 21, 2013 (21:50:03)
Casey's blog: adullroar.blogspot.com
Casey's Expat Focus column: www.expatfocus.com/casey-bahr
See below for interview transcript.
Expat Focus: So Casey, you’re currently living in Costa Rica. Could you tell us a bit about the culture and what it’s like to live there?
Casey: Well, it’s like any other Latin American country, in that it’s fundamentally a Latin culture, and Catholic. And what that means is that there’s a little less emphasis on time and more emphasis on relationships. So when you interact with people, you’re expected to engage in some pleasantries and conversation before you really get to the point about what you want to talk about. Which is a little hard for some Americans to take, right?
Expat Focus: Yeah.
Casey: They want… to the point. “Let’s do the business and get out of here. So there’s that. But they’re not… as far as the religious aspect, they’re not over-the-top about it. They’re very tolerant here. And nobody… people invite us to various things, like the First Communion of their daughter, or something like that. But it’s cool, it’s relaxed. It’s not a big, formal thing.
Expat Focus: Nice.
Casey: There’s a little twist in Costa Rica in that if you know some of the history of Costa Rica, when it was first discovered, the Spanish named it “Costa Rica” because they thought there was a lot of gold here.
Expat Focus: Oh!
Casey: [laughs] And they quickly found out that there really wasn’t so much gold here, but they dumped a lot of colonists here, and then they just pretty much ignored them for about a hundred years.
Expat Focus: [laughs]
Casey: So compared to some of the other countries in Central America, they didn’t… for instance, they didn’t have slaves here. So the people had to do everything themselves. They had to work the land and the farms, and pretty much get along without Spain’s help. And you can really see that in how people are very independent here. They do things for themselves, and… they’re very proud too. They’re very proud of their democracy. They’re very proud that they have a long history of democracy, they don’t have an army, and that they’ve decided to put money into education and healthcare instead.
Expat Focus: Wow.
Casey: So for instance, in the US, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks and picnics and stuff like that. Here, when they have Independence Day, you’re expected to show up for what’s called an [Acto Civico]. So people gather in schools or churches or something like that, and they have speeches, sing the national anthem. Those kind of things are a little different.
Expat Focus: Yeah! It sounds lovely.
Casey: I’m not sure… most of my experience with Latin culture came from Mexico, because I spent a lot of time there. But I would say that ticos – that’s what they call themselves, “ticos,” here – they’re even friendlier than they are in Mexico. They invite you into their home, and you just instantly become part of the family. They’re very polite. And the children are very respectful. They don’t beat them with switches or anything, but they…
Casey: [indecipherable] they’re still respectful. Sometimes I pick up my son at school and… I have a pick-up truck. And there’s a lot of kids that want to ride, because they have to walk a long ways home. So they pile in the back, and when they get out, they come to the front window – I roll down the window – and they stick out their hand to shake me and thank me for the ride.
Expat Focus: Oh, that’s lovely!
Casey: That’s kind of a surprise.
Expat Focus: Yeah!
Casey: It’s also… I think it’s starting to change now, because of the population. Costa Rica still has a lot of its agricultural, rural roots, that show. So people get by with what they can, and they jury-rig things to make them work… there’s no garage sales here because… I don’t know if you have garage sales in England, but in the US…
Expat Focus: Yeah. [laughs]
Casey: … they’re very popular, right? But here, garage sales are very rare, because if somebody is selling something used, you can bet that it doesn’t work.
Casey: They’ll just use the thing [till it’s really worn out]. [laughs]
Expat Focus: [laughs] Lovely.
Casey: Yeah, so that’s what it’s like, culturally.
Expat Focus: Nice. And you’re retired at the moment, but you used to be a software engineer. What was it that actually prompted you to take early retirement and move there in the first place?
Casey: Well, before I was a software engineer I was kind of a hippie.
Expat Focus: Amazing.
Casey: And I worked in home construction – my father and I built houses, one at a time. And I didn’t always work full-time – I liked to take a lot of time off, and I did a lot of time travelling, like I said, in Mexico and Guatemala. But after a while, that kind of got old, and I needed to really make some money. And it was just when computers were coming out. And I don’t know if you remember the old Sinclair Z80 computer – it was like a little, tiny thing that you hooked up to your TV. [laughs]
Expat Focus: Yeah.
Casey: I got one of those; I was fascinated with it, so I decided to go into computer science. And I spent about 20 years in that industry. It was pretty interesting, and I made a lot of money, but after 20 years I think I was starting to feel the burnout. It just didn’t seem fulfilling any more, and I wanted to kind of get back to my dreams in my youth, which was to live in a different country, and experience… you know, not just as tourist – actually live there, and become a part of the culture. And I’m also the kind of person who… I don’t have big ambitions about making lots and lots of money. I think if you’ve got enough money to meet your needs, and maybe a little cushion, that that’s enough. Right? And enough is a very happy place to be. So Costa Rica kind of… other countries would fulfill that too, but Costa Rica [inaudible] nicely.
Expat Focus: Yeah. Suits you.
Casey: And so it just came to a point where I felt like I needed to change. And I looked at our financial situation and said, “We can actually do this.” It’s not like I got a million dollars in the bank, but we could actually do this and get by and live a decent life. So I took the plunge. [laughs]
Expat Focus: [laughs] Amazing. What’s the best thing about living there, if you could choose a couple?
Casey: Well, there isn’t really any one thing. It’s kind of a combination. The climate is very enjoyable. It’s… even though it’s more humid, it’s not… I don’t know if you’ve experienced humidity like they have in the Midwest in the US. It’s just awful. It’s just… [laughs] You take a shower and you’re immediately… you feel sticky again. You know?
Expat Focus: Yeah.
Casey: And even though I’m sure the humidity is just as high here, somehow it’s different. So we’ve got used to the humidity pretty quickly. Plus we’re up in the mountains, so it’s not as bad as down on the [beach]. So that, and the temperature is between 65 and 85 all year round. I thought I would miss having four seasons, but I really didn’t. [laughs] I especially don’t miss the long, dreary winters.
Expat Focus: Yeah.
Casey: That’s nice, you know. And of course the people – if the people were not friendly, it would be kind of an isolated experience down here, but we get along really well with our neighbors, and we invite each other over for coffee and so forth. What else? It’s a… it’s just… it’s peaceful. There’s that feeling of… you’re outside of the kind of marketing pressure bubble in the US.
Expat Focus: Yeah.
Casey: There’s no junk mail here. [laughs]
Expat Focus: Nice.
Casey: And I’m not having people calling me up on the telephone trying to sell me stuff. So it’s kind of nice.
Expat Focus: Yeah, that does sound good.
Casey: And because… not just because the Costa Ricans are tolerant, but there’s a lot of expats down here, and they’re from a lot of different countries, so it’s a very international experience as well, which is a thing you don’t get [indecipherable] the US, because… to call them xenophobic would be a little strong, but I think it’s more just ignorance. People that are so satisfied to live in the US, and they just… sometimes it’s like they don’t realize there are other countries…
Expat Focus: Yeah.
Casey: Right? They don’t have much incentive to learn another language, or understand other cultures, and… it’s nice to be out of that.
Expat Focus: Yeah. So speaking of other languages – did you speak Spanish before you moved there? And if not, was it a challenge to settle in?
Casey: I did study Spanish in college, for a couple of years, and in total I probably spent six or seven months travelling around in Mexico, Guatemala, so I got to use it. But that was back in my twenties. And then it just pretty much sat idle for a long time. So, when I got here, I of course had the foundation, but it was difficult. [laughs] It was difficult the first year, because… not so much because Costa Rican Spanish is difficult. Because their pronunciation and so forth is what I expected, and it’s very clear to understand – they don’t mumble. And they’re very helpful. There’s so many time when I used to go and talk to somebody in Spanish – like a clerk at a hardware store or something like that – and I’d see the same guy over a period of three months, and I always talked to him in Spanish, and then we finally got so stuck that he started speaking English.
Casey: And I didn’t realize he’s perfectly fluent in English.
Casey: So I said, “Why didn’t you tell me before that you speak English?” And – you know, this is typical tico – he says, “Well, you were trying, so I thought you wanted to practice.”
Expat Focus: Well, that’s useful I suppose.
Casey: That’s happened more than once. It’s happened a lot of times.
Expat Focus: Yeah.
Casey: It’s a good place to learn Spanish. But the first year was… there’s a lot of things you have to do when you move to a new country. A lot of bureaucratic things, a lot of things… we were building a house, there was a lot of things I had to buy. And so I was in town almost everyday, and [so I’d really remark to] my wife, “Well, I’m off to go be stupid now…” Because that’s…
Casey: When you can’t… when you’re not totally fluent in the language…. Now, it’s much, much better. Much more comfortable with it.
Expat Focus: Yeah. Was there anything that you found particularly odd or surprising when you first moved?
Casey: Well… yeah, I was thinking about that, and I was… it took a while for me to think up something about that, because it’s been so long, everything seems normal now. One of the first things that was odd to us was that here, people come and visit your house unannounced. [indecipherable] they just show up, they never call ahead. [laughs] And they expect you to drop everything and have coffee or whatever, and talk, and… I guess the way we adjusted to it is that we started doing the same thing.
Expat Focus: It sounds like a very friendly culture.
Casey: Yeah, it is very friendly. Very friendly. And respectful, but… but they’re also… they’re respectful of your privacy too. They would not be… their feelings would not be hurt if you said, “Well, I can’t right now, because I’m doing…” something, but. So that was kind of strange. What else? Most of it we expected, because we’d been here before, and I knew a little bit about Latin culture. I think some of the surprises that were negative was that it was more expensive to live here than we thought it would be. Especially for owning a car. Cars are very expensive – they’re about twice what you’d pay in the US. [indecipherable] particular model, even used cars. And gas is expensive, and the roads really… the gravel and rock roads really take a toll on your car more than you expect. So you really have to kind of plan ahead and set aside some money every year for... new tires, because tires will only last like a year and a half if you’re lucky. [laughs]
Expat Focus: Yeah, sounds like…
Casey: It’s not because the tread wears away, it’s because the [cord] inside the tire just gets so beaten up that they start leaking.
Expat Focus: Wow!
Expat Focus: You have some interesting weather as well, by the sound of it. Do you have any amazing storm stories? [laughs]
Casey: Yeah, I’ve got one. You know, we’re south… we’re close enough to the equator that we’re outside of the hurricane zone. Five years ago, just before we moved down here, they had a big… it was a Pacific cyclone that came in, and quickly turned into a tropical storm called [Alma], but that was the first one in a 112 years. So they don’t get big hurricanes here, but they do get some of the flak. When there’s a big tropical storm in the Caribbean or something, it’ll bring rain in here, but you don’t get the big winds.
But there was a year – I think it was the second or third year we were here, and it started to rain, and it didn’t stop for three days. I mean, constantly, 24 hours a day for three days. So there… consequently, on the Pan-American highway there were a lot of slides. They closed the highway… it was still closed when a friend of mine had to go pick up his daughter, and I had to go pick up my sister at the airport. They were coming on different flights, but the same day.
So we said, “Okay, let’s go… we have no idea what the road’s like. Let’s go check it out.” [laughs] So we started driving like at five in the morning, and we had to navigate around several big slides that were blocking both lanes. [Fortunately, the shoulder] was big enough that we could just get around. We get to the top of the mountain – this was like the halfway point – and you can sit there and have coffee and look out at the highway – and we were there for maybe 40 minutes, and not a single car went by.
Casey: This is the main highway that goes through the center. [indecipherable] So we knew it was bad. We made, we made it.
Expat Focus: Good! [laughs]
Casey: And we made it back! [laughs]
Expat Focus: Yeah!
Casey: A big storm could come in… a lot of water… I mean, it can rain… in our area, the rainy season lasts from about April to December, and in that time you can get 150 to 200 inches of rain.
Expat Focus: Wow!
Casey: And it doesn’t come all at once, right? [laughs]
Expat Focus: Yeah. [laughs]
Casey: But sometimes it’s just a torrent! I mean, you just can’t believe it. You can’t see a hundred feet because the rain is so thick.
Expat Focus: Wow.
Casey: Other times it’s just misty and drizzly.
Expat Focus: Yeah. I feel like I can’t complain about England’s rain now.
Expat Focus: We don’t have that much.
Casey: The big difference here is that even in the rainy season, almost every morning it’s sunny. Up until about noon, give or take, it’s sunny. The clouds come in and it rains, but… so you never feel down in the dumps and under the weather literally, right?
Expat Focus: So you have a family as well. What are the main challenges you found that were specific to moving abroad with children?
Casey: Well, I think it really depends on the age of the children. I mean, if they’re under ten, say, they’re really not going to know the difference. [laughs] They don’t have enough experience to really compare. I mean, they’ll miss their friends, and it’s a change for them, but they can adapt pretty quickly. When they get older, then they’ve got more permanent friendships with other kids and they’re going to miss those, or… they’re just more resistant to the idea, right? I think if you have toddlers, it’s a no-brainer – they’re just going to grow up and this is normal for them. Our son, when we moved down here, he was ten. Right there [indecipherable] So he just went with the flow.
I think the challenge though is… you worry about keeping them occupied and keeping them challenged, educationally. Because in the US, the norm there is you send your kid to school, and then he has two or three after-school activities during the week. Soccer, baseball, taekwondo, dancing, whatever. And you’re always dragging them around to all these different places. And here it’s not… not only… that exists, but there’s less of it. Also, we live in a rural area, so we can’t drive to town two or three times a day – it’s just not practical. But since we have the internet, he’s pretty well engaged with that, and he can keep in touch with friends back in the States… and play a lot of video games. But that’s one of the concerns – you need to think about – kids are growing mentally and physically, and so you’ve got to keep them active.
And then the other thing you worry about is healthcare, right? Is my kid going to get the right healthcare? Fortunately, in Costa Rica… I don’t really have a lot of good things to say about the public healthcare, [laughs] which is partly endemic to this reason – it’s worse here than it is in other parts of Costa Rica – but the private care is just excellent. I mean, dental and medical is just superb, and it’s really cheap. So you can get by here without insurance. Because you’re actually paying less than the insurance premiums, just for regular care, even some emergencies.
The other thing is education, right? You worry about, “Is my kid getting the best education he can?” It’s [indecipherable] here. It’s like, we started him off in private school… In Costa Rica, there’s one national curriculum that all schools, public and private, have to follow, part of the core curriculum. If you’re in school, they pretty much stick to that curriculum. There might be a few extras; in private school there’ll be a few more extras, like computer classes or something like that. But it’s hard for me to compare with the US, because the school system’s a little bit different. But it seems like they’re a little… maybe one grade behind what he would be doing in the States.
But on the other hand, now he’s in a public… junior-high-school combined… now that he’s in a public school, I worry a lot less about bad influences on him. Where, in the States it’s just a free-for-all. By the time kids are in high school, they’re already driving cars there, and the drug scene and whatever is just much more intense there. Here, the kids are very respectful, they don’t have a lot of possessions, so they’re not very materialistic. They’re not going around wearing the latest iPod and the latest iPhone and stuff like that. They’re much more mellow. And he seems to have adapted very well. His Spanish is much better than mine, and he’s made a lot of friends, and I think…
I don’t worry so much about the education because in about three years, he’s going to be out of high school here, and that’s kind of an [inflexion] point, where we have to decide – well, what are we going to do? What’s the next step? I think that’s going to depend on him, what he thinks at that stage. But we might – one of the options is that we might temporarily move back to the States, just to get him started off in college there. But he might want to go to university here. They do have a couple of really good universities here in San Jose. So that’s an option too. Those are the things about… if you’ve got a family, you got to think about all that stuff.
Expat Focus: Yeah, definitely.
Casey: If you’re just coming here to retire, then those things aren’t really a concern.
Expat Focus: [laughs] I guess, yeah. So that’s great. Just one final question – what advice would you give to anyone who’s thinking about moving abroad, whether with a family or without?
Casey: I think the best advice – which is pretty obvious – is do a lot of homework. Do a lot of research about where you’re going. And try alternatives – don’t just focus in on one country. All those issues kind of go away though, if it’s somebody that’s moving because of a job transfer. I would have loved to have gotten a job transfer, because then everything’s paid for by the company, and they’re going to make sure you’re taken care of. And you know that it’s temporary, so even if you hate it, you know that you’re going to come back someday. But not everybody can do that, right?
If you’re doing it on your own, like we did, then do as much research as you can, but remember that no matter how much research you do, there’s going to be unexpected things. Just things you… you can’t think of everything. You don’t know what it’s going to be like. And also, you have to kind of resist the effects of culture shock. I mean, it’s not just culture shock – it’s just that you’ve moved to… even if you move to another area in your home country, where you have to adjust, you’ve got to find out where the stores are, how things are done, what taxes to pay, and so forth, like that. But when you’re in another country, you might feel that even tenfold. So you have to give yourself time to… you have to give yourself one or two years to adjust, and not… not come to the flight response. [laughs] “Get out of this. Go back to what it was.”
And along those lines, I’d recommend people really think about their financial situation. If they think they’re going to come to another country, and they’re calculating it down to the penny and they think, “Yeah, I think we can just make it,” don’t do it. Because you need a little cushion, because there’s going to be stuff that you didn’t count on, that’s going to cost you money. And the worst thing to be is away from your home country and struggling, especially in a country like Costa Rica, where it’s not easy to make money. Because average labor cost here is around two or three bucks an hour, it’s kind of minimum wage. So unless you’ve got an ongoing business or something, or some income stream from something else, you’re not going to make a lot of extra money to make up for those [rare events] that happen.
The other thing is I’m a kind of a guy who always likes to do things on his own – so when I was in the States, it’s like I would avoid lawyers and accountants and those kind of people, because, “Oh, I can figure it out and do it myself.” Here, you really need to find those people. Because the law is different, for one thing. The whole basis for law is… common law here is different than it is for, like anywhere in the US. So those people need to know about that, you need to know… you can’t really know about all the tax laws, it’s difficult, because of the language barrier. So you got to find a way to find people that you can trust that speak your language… and it’s not going to cost you that much. It’s going to be a lot less than it would cost in the States, so don’t worry about it. [indecipherable] be well worth it. I don’t know… you need to…
One of the things that we didn’t expect, or I didn’t expect, actually, was how often my wife needs to go back to the States for visits. I haven’t been back for five years. [laughs] Since we came here I haven’t set foot in the US. But she’s gone back three or four times, for various reasons. So that’s something you have to discuss ahead of time, because that’s a big expense. Otherwise, I think the bottom line is you just got to hang loose.
Casey: You just got to kind of go with the flow and let it roll over you sometimes, because there’s just going to be times where you… I mean, the worst thing is to get into the mode where you… that I see some people in – they start complaining about the country, and they… “Oh, stupid ticos. Why do they do it that way?” It’s like, I don’t care why they do it that way. That’s the way they do it. [laughs] So I have to accept it.
Expat Focus: Yeah. Well, yeah, that’s really helpful. Okay, so thank you for talking to us. It’s been really cool. And yeah, we’ll look out for further updates on ExpatFocus and on your blog.
Casey: Okay. Well, thanks very much for the opportunity, [indecipherable].
Expat Focus: Thank you. [laughs]
End of Transcript
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