|. . . the Small print taketh away
|Paul is an engineer and geologist and the publisher of this mullet wrapper. Write him directly at email@example.com|
Okay, so Paradise does tend to hover a bit around umbrella drinks, warm sand, wildlife everywhere, outlandish adventure and plenty of “best-of” lists in the international press. I’ll give you that, and we are not whining too hard. Still, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be down here, and here’s why.
It is hot here
After sixteen years, I still don’t speak Centigrade, so the best I can do to convey this is through simile. It is hotter here than paila cooking chicharrones over an open wood fire. It is hotter than black beach sand at high noon on a cloudless April day. It is hotter than a Del Rey hooker on a Saturday night! My Matapalo friends laugh at me, say it’s just town, and admittedly there is a lot of heat-sink concrete and asphalt and road base and zinc roofs, heat magnets all I am told. That may be but my AC still doesn’t keep up! Course it’s wonderful au naturel anywhere in this country with any elevation to it, including my lay-lows in Platanillo and San Jose. Still my choice to live here on a backwater port on the Golfo Dulce’s breathless lee side of the Osa Peninsula means that unless I leave town and other than when I’m in the bank lobby I am unlikely to ever feel chilly. That I have melded my fortunes with such a scorching clime points surely to some irrationality in my overall model. But let’s not get into that . . .
Everything is SO expensive here
Everybody’s shopping bag has a different make-up, but mine averages about $30, from which I get the ingredients to prepare a decent meal and enjoy its left-overs. A can of tuna packaged in the Puntarenas Saldimar plant that costs $0.90 in David, Panama, costs $1.75 here in Costa Rica. How is that you ask? It’s part of the great costliness mystery baked into the quotidian reality of Paradise. Gasoline. It always goes up when world oil spikes. Then when global prices go into free-fall, our price at the pump only barely dips for form. Don’t get me started on the cost of electricity. Or water for that matter. Ah Chihuahua; they say the best way to leave Costa Rica with a million in the bank is to arrive with at least two million in the first place and to make sure you don’t overstay your solvency!
The place is lousy with NGO’s
Beneath every rock you find in the forest that you take the time to turn over, you will find a non-governmental organization (NGO) huddled beneath, insisting that you put the rock back like you found it and go to their web site to learn why moving rocks is bad and how you can donate to the cause. There’s so many do-gooders in paradise that it almost makes you want to go out and do yoga, meditate, eat a vegan meal, or something comparably out of character. After a while it starts to get to you, and the next thing you know you’re volunteering your time or worse donating hard-earned money to multi-national anti-national outfits with ebullient young people saving the world one smile at a time between clipped eco-utopian narratives of sustainability and admonitive deprecations over carbon footprints, habitat encroachment, species endangerment and even extinction. It’s certainly a lot to deal with for someone insufficiently selfless on a modest pension in paradise . . . but it is not without its upsides.
I just can’t make a living here . . .
Okay, so maybe I am not such a great businessman . . . everybody knows that Internet Cafes are so . . . ought-ish. And maybe my personability challenges disqualified me from success in my runs at the restaurant / bar business and for that matter my brief and hapless forays into the hospitality industry. Even so, with the musical chairs of businesses on Main Street it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that retail business in Paradise is a tough nut to crack, even for Ticos. My favorite is the one of the optimistic in-bound ex-pat with a plan to buy in on the beach somewhere and build a few cabins or a little hotel around his or her dream home and run it mom and pop and live offa da fat a da land a Paradise. Credit where credit is due: you can’t fault the idea!
Costa Rica is a social democracy
Costa Rica has a national sales tax, in effect a value-added tax (VAT) of 13%. On top of this it has progressive income taxation that applies to all companies, plus individuals making more than $1500 a month. While small businesses are hectored for CCSS participation entire Ministries are millions in arrears on their own social obligations. New taxes and fees appear yearly in sober efforts to bring the exploded national budget deficit under some semblance of hypothetical future control. Yet wildly unpopular and opportunistic taxes like making traffic tickets suddenly five times more costly or assessing corporations a surprise $300 annual existence tax get forced to ride the rail by a populace steeped with democratic institutions and a full grasp of its human and civil rights. Whether the operative word is “social” or “democracy,” once you get used to the way things are done in this nation, it winds up more a feature than a bug.
Costa Rica ranks twelfth in the world in the incidence of stomach cancer and is behind only Guatemala at number 4 in the Americas. Sounds bad, but in 2012 it was tied for first place with Japan, and as recently as 2015, it was in the top five of national incidence. Though mortality has plunged 30% in recent years, mostly due to earlier detection, epidemiologists are not sure why Costa Rica is more vulnerable to this fifth most common type of cancer. While we are advised to chew our foods thoroughly and boost antioxidants in our diet and exercise more and punt on tobacco and alcohol, I am doubtful that we chew our food less thoroughly in paradise than people do elsewhere. Could it have something to do instead with our national weakness for chicharrones? Does it relate to our heavy reliance on palm oil? Surely this cannot be laid at the feet of rice or beans. While newcomers may feel somewhat insulated from this nativist threat, it should not be so hard to figure out why Costa Rica is more vulnerable than other countries an take the steps to redress this vulnerability.
You have a fair chance of dying here
Costa Rica is kind of a dangerous place if you’re not careful. It’s not talked about much, but visitors are more likely to die here than in any other international tourism destination other than Thailand. The country is bounded on two sides by oceans, and no other nation comes even close to Costa Rica in the incidence of tourism drownings, which are over half the expat deaths in this country year in and year out. After drowning and road accidents, suicide is the next greatest risk factor of death for foreign national visitors to Costa Rica. At 8.1 murders per 100,000, Costa Rica is only the 62nd most murderous country in the world and the least murderous of all in Central America and the Caribbean. Still, there have been four confirmed expat murders on the Osa alone since 2009, five if you assume the worst for Cody Dial, vanished last year into the Osa and thought to have met with foul play, a young man whose body has not been found. There is no mandated public lifeguard network on even large and popular public beaches of this country. Of the three Swiss girls that I sent off to Corcovado a few years ago, only two returned, the third claimed by the Pacific near the La Leona Ranger station. This nation is a surfing mecca, with all the associated risk factors of that sport and lifestyle. Our waters are treacherous everywhere to people not versed with surf and in many places to those that are. But beyond the dangers and elation of surf, Costa Rica is also, as Cuba Dave was once fond of widely advertising—a sex-tourism destination, and the nation has its fair share of drug overdoses and even street crime that go hand-in-hand with the world’s oldest industry. But travel is always riskier than staying at home, and if there is a lesson to be learned it would be to be extra careful around water, motor vehicles, and vice when traveling in Costa Rica.
The ex- in ex-pat
Foreign nationals comprise 3.2% of the world’s population but 9.1% of Costa Rica’s. Most around the world are involuntary migrants fleeing oppression or economic hardship. Then there are those of us that choose to live beyond our lands of birth for less pressing reasons, and we are far fewer in number and may correlate well with mental and psychological deficiencies, a subject that is beyond the scope of this essay. I still get to vote back home, but I’m not sure I should have that right. I respect and honor the laws, customs, and values of a society that I have chosen and embraced but can probably never be completely and fully one with. In these turbulent months of Donald Trump back in New Rome, it has an all-hands-on-deck look to it, and sometimes when I see all that stuff going on, I am not sure whether my separation from my land is a feature or a bug. An empire in decline, happily, is also beyond the scope of this essay. It feels like the best days are behind the United States and in front of countries like Mexico and Venezuela. But in Costa Rica it feels like the best days are happening right now. Maybe the utopia is modest in scale, small-ball and pedestrian. But it’s still pretty utopian as far as I can see and irrespective of its scope, it’s happening now!
It’s a shame they haven’t invented the word in-pat yet.