Dear Reader, the below is the result of having been asked to contribute my story as a chapter in a book. It is long and wordy and I can’t imagine that it is actually all that interesting to read. This is my disclaimer. I will likely add to it and make changes as I am struck by a memory that I feel just has to be included.
Ben V’s Costa Rica Sojourn
My wife and I were/are a “type”. This is probably the most concise way that I can answer the frequently asked question: “why did you move to Costa Rica?” It is this quality of being that makes it so that there really wasn’t a lot of back and forth, or convincing from one to the other about what we wanted. The move just made sense and so we proceeded unhindered to become residents of Costa Rica in January of 1999.
As a family of 3 kids and 1 son-in-law we visited Costa Rica in 1998. We had been living in the Aspen Valley in Colorado since 1979. We had a beautiful life there. An integral family, a great circle of friends, a great job as art-buyer for a high-end art gallery in Aspen. We enjoyed the seasons of Colorado very much and were avid back-packers in the summer and snowmobilers and snowshoers in the winter.
I like to make these points since I wonder sometimes if people are thinking “well, things probably weren’t going so well in their homeland so they moved to Costa Rica”. Not so. We were looking for “different”. It didn’t even need to be “better”.
During the end of our tenure there in Colorado, we started feeling the itch of wanting to broaden out the life experience of our family. They say that a person does a thing for 2 reasons – the first one being the one that sounds good, while the 2nd one is the truth. So, my reason #1 is to say that I moved here to broaden out my children’s perspective on life. My reason #2 is that I wanted to broaden out.
Obviously my reason #1 was both true and compelling, but my wife and I shared an interest in learning a new language, new culture and all the things that come along with a move to a foreign land.
We had checked out Mexico quite a bit and decided that there is never a good time to move there. There seems to be a state of crisis somewhere at any given time in Mexico. We planned a family vacation to Costa Rica as just that, a vacation. I suppose that we may have had the niggling remote possibility of moving to Costa Rica somewhere in our minds, but it wasn’t overly conscious.
After a 3 week vacation in Costa Rica, we looked at each other and said, “let’s move to Costa Rica”. The rest, as they say, is history. 6 months later we were living in Costa Rica.
We moved in to San Isidro de Perez Zeledon. You’ve got to put all the extras after the name “San Isidro” as there are numerous San Isidro’s (8 of ‘em I think) in Costa Rica. It is also called San Isidro de el General. Lord knows why it needs two really long names, but there you have it.
We chose San Isidro for the sum total of its amenities. This is to say that, it wasn’t the overwhelming winner of favorite areas we considered, but the aggregate of the whole drew us in.
My wife was a lover of the tropics and of the beach. At that time, the coastal areas of Costa Rica were still very untamed and wild. There weren’t a lot of services there (roads, electricity, Internet, stores etc…). As a couple without kids we likely would have been fine with the conditions offered by the coast. With kids, San Isidro took the day.
So, we settled into a rental home and got ourselves set up with a car, phone, dial-up Internet connection, and proceeded to figure out how to go about things in our new land. These things are easy to write, but they were major undertakings to actually do.
My Spanish was rudimentary (at best) and every project that needed attending to was to be done in Spanish. Renting a house and buying a car had to be done with an attorney. Selecting a rental home wasn’t really so much “selecting” as it was “finding” one. Rentals were not really in the Tico scheme of life at that time. Finding one that could house a composite family – my 11 and 15 year olds and my oldest daughter and her husband.
An interesting glitch was the rather unique aspect of rental properties not providing appliances. So, when we would tour a possible rental property, the kitchen had a space for the refrigerator and for the stove. The spaces were there, but no appliance. Laundry machines were a luxury item and were frequently positioned outside the home.
When I asked why the rentals in Costa Rica didn’t include these things I was told that these were my responsibility to provide. We would “simply” take them with us when we moved out. Thinking back to my home-country and how stove and refrigerator were considered as part of the house and were always provided by the landlord, I asked why not here. There was nothing simple about moving around toting appliances. I then found out the real reason for this condition: Tico tenants would damage or ruin any appliances provided by the landlord. Hmmmm….
We quickly figured out that our very Gringo practice of going to the centro with a list of things to do in a day needed to be set aside. It was frustrating, having a list. We’d go into town to “run errands” and at the end of the day come home with a single line item checked.
So, we adapted. We threw out the list and had 1 thing to do in a day. If we were feeling particularly ambitious, we’d allow for a backup 2nd thing if circumstances permitted. Latin America presents its own pace. One of the adaptations required for moving here is tweeking the knobs on our internal clock and expectations thereof.
The States is built on efficiency and productivity. We know this academically, but the reality of it differs from the academic. We also recognize that the high-stress productive focus of running as fast as we can to stay in one place results in stress and its related infirmities. This explains, to a certain extent, the interest of North Americans looking to Costa Rica as a possible place to move to.
Our interest in learning a new culture required that we learn how to learn. Initially we were standing in our North American shoes and comparing what we saw from that vantage. Frankly, our new culture looked a bit stupid from this point of view. We learned that to really grasp the differences and understand the new culture, we needed to take off our figurative shoes and look at things as though we had just arrived from Mars with no preconceptions. From this angle, things started to make more sense.
Much has changed in Costa Rica’s southern zone since 1999. Whereas a hush would fall on the street as we walked through San Isidro at that time, now we foreigners hardly turn a head. My daughters, both blondes, told me “dad, we won’t go to the centro without you”. When asked why, they said that the sexual harassment made them uncomfortable.
This isn’t to say that they were accosted physically. They weren’t. At that time there was a custom of hissing, the Latin America equivalent to cat calls – tzzzzt tzzzzt! The street would bloom with this sound as the men took note of the pretty, white skinned blondes. I somewhat hesitantly say that on one level, I can understand this. Not only had many of these men never seen a Gringa (US woman) or maybe even just a foreigner, but the different hair color from the pervasive “black” that latina women sport was apparently quite captivating. This is a bit ironic as I find the black hair of the Ticas (Costa Rican women) quite captivating.
The problem was pervasive enough that I heard of an actual law being passed that made it illegal for a man to hiss at a woman. I’ve never verified if this is true or not, but something changed, and the hissing reduced and has now been virtually eliminated. In time, my daughters were willing to go to town without me.
When we would enter a store, the store owner would look up and down the street to see if his neighbors were seeing that the foreigners had chosen his place of business. Ditto this on the social level. Our new Tico friends would like to show us off when we would accept an invitation to have a meal with them in their homes.
All of this has changed, well… for the most part. I think there is still some cross-culture fascination. But the ubiquitous presence now of foreigners to Costa Rica has allowed that we are very much just a part of the local scenery.
One of the last times my now-adult son and I were in the town center of San Isidro he said “dad, I’m so glad we got to experience that”, in reference to the foregoing. It was as close to actual time-travel as there can be. It was like going back to, say, the 1930’s in the States, but even more other-worldly with it being time-travel in Latin America.
I was 39 when I moved to Costa Rica. We had done well with our real estate buying in Colorado and my job there was lucrative. Due to the previously mentioned “type” condition of my then-wife and I, we were willing to step out of the conventional life course of working during our prime years to build towards retirement. We took what we had financially, and were willing to exhaust it to provide the life expanding experience to our family of learning a new culture and language.
We calculated that we had sufficient resources to live for 6 years in Costa Rica, at which time I would be in my mid-40’s, the earning-prime phase of life. We figured we’d simply have the experience, move back to the States, jump back into the job market and do it again – build up for retirement.
Enter real estate.
We found that we rather liked our new home/country, and I had lost interest in moving back to the States. My youngest child moved out of the house and my wife and I fell prey to empty-nest syndrome. We parted ways after 27 years of marriage.
Now, I know that this article is not about marriage counseling, but I’ve got some counsel for married couples: take care of your marriage. Nurture it. The relationship is a 3rd entity that is created when two people join forces in holy matrimony and it has needs, just like any other entity. “It” is more important than the kids and in fact, taking care of it is the best thing parents can do for their kids. But I digress.
During the latter part of this time, I had been approached on numerous occasions by a Dominical entrepreneur with the offer of us opening a real estate company in Dominical together. He would fund it and I would run it. The coinciding events of my failing marriage and having reached the end of our savings resulted in my move to Dominical to open a real estate office.
Dominical was, at that time, the center of the known universe in Costa Rica’s southern Pacific zone. It was the only town that anyone who had never been there might know the name of. And this was due to one thing – surfing. Dominical is a world famous surfing beach break and it offered the previously mentioned step-back in time. It was rustic-funky and unchanging. You could sleep on the beach, in a hostel, or one of the funky cabinas, wake up and catch a mind-blowing wave.
During my family years, we would set aside a day a week for beach-day. This usually involved going to Dominical as it was the closest, but also it was the most accessible. We made a few valiant trips down the coast to Uvita to enjoy the beaches down there, but our ability to do so was never assured, due to possible road conditions. Even the road between San Isidro and Dominical was a bit iffy. We would allow 45 minutes for getting to Dominical from our home, whereas now the trip is easily done in 30.
The day that I stepped into my new real estate office, located next to a restaurant known at that time as “San Clemente Bar & Grill” and now known as “Patrons”, I looked around and imagined the four walls of our office as the backdrop to desks, a secretary, a sitting area for client consultations and so on. I spent my first day visiting properties. This involved a lot of 4 wheel drive accesses and slow-crawl approaches to some of the properties. By day’s end I was tuckered out and so went out to the beach to just watch the waves for a bit.
While there, a fellow came along attired in nothing but a bathing suit and a beer. He was about my age and we started conversing. Turns out, he and his wife were here looking for a property to buy. Long story short, the next day, I took them up to one of the properties I had listed the day before in Uvita, and they bought it. I like to say that I sold a property on my first day in real estate in Costa Rica (ok, a bit of a stretch. But it makes for a good tell).
The next 2 years were boom years in real estate. The silly non-qualifying mortgages in the States (recall my previous point about cultural stupidity) were resulting in lots of people, both young and not-so-young finding themselves with a pocket full of cash due to a refinancing of their homes. “Honey, let’s go to Costa Rica and see if we can get us an ocean view property, shall we?”
We joked about having a Baskin Robbins-like, take-a-number device at the doors of the various agencies. The challenge for buyers was to find an available realtor. The challenge to realtors was to find something to sell. Crazy wild times!
Then came the crash.
I have kept a blog off and on since 2004, largely about real estate but also about observations of what it’s like to live here as an expat, understanding the unique challenges that the foregoing only begin to address. During the financial crisis of 2007 – 2011+- (I know, everybody states a different time when the “recovery” began), Costa Rica was hit just like everybody else.
I had gone off on my own, starting the office of Guys in the Zone real estate. I was soon joined by Rod Martin, a man who was to play a rather significant role in my life. We were the only real estate office in Uvita and enjoyed that abundance of the later part of the boom years there. Uvita was poised to be the cultural and financial center of what we called in the local vernacular – “The Zone”. Those were the early years of The Zone and during that time I was quite involved with Internet marketing, so this gave me a vantage on what people were searching for when they would do a search in Alta Vista, Yahoo, WebCrawler, Excite, Ask Jeeves, and the fledgling, Google.
The only search term that registered as being searched for at that time was “Dominical”. So I targeted all my efforts on that term. I achieved top rankings with a local guide site called Dominical Dot Biz. It was the go-to, remotely-like-Facebook site that everybody would find and use for anything having to do with this area. There was even a forum there that was quite active.
Now, keep in mind that we are here talking about a niche-niche. There wasn’t a huge press of people looking to visit or move to this area. But for those that were, they were hungry for resources. So, the site wasn’t very complicated. I coded the whole thing by hand, working in Dreamweaver and writing in HTML.
In my latter family years here, I would go to Dominical every Friday. On the preceding Wednesday I would announce to all the local merchants where I would be on that Friday. My only criterion for where I’d be was that the business have an Internet connection, not a forgone conclusion at the time, and a desk where I could set up. Tour companies, real estate offices, restaurants etc… always welcomed my request to use a space as it would result in a line (albeit small) of locals at their place of business that day. We would make adjustments to pricing, special offers, events and so on. I would also hear of any new businesses.
I say all that to get to this: the future was plain to see for anyone who cared to think about it. Uvita was the future. Dominical’s primary appeal was surfing which is a small niche for an area to hang its hat on. Also, Dominical’s future was limited by its topographical limitations. The area of Dominical is shaped like a piece of pizza with the Baru river at the broader north end, the coastal mountain range encroaching the wedge towards the ocean on the inland side and then, of course, the Pacific ocean on the other.
Between Dominical and Uvita, the mountain range runs almost parallel to the ocean. At Uvita, it turns inland and then returns out towards the ocean, forming a large, develop-able flat area with plenty of room for growth. Add to this that the inverted “V” of the mountain range was complemented by the ever-so thoughtful presence of a rock configuration that is mystically (providentially?) in the shape of a whales tail just off the coast of Uvita. It’s a bit ironic now that a good portion of Uvita tourism is whale watching.
The impending, foreseeable, shift to Uvita as the center of our universe was somewhat delayed by the fall of the world economy. We languished during that time but, oddly enough, those of us that survived (read: stayed) look back on those times with fondness. There was a sense of increased community and camaraderie amongst this small but intrepid group of creative strugglers that made up the population at that time.
The market had spiked up to unrealistic heights pre-crash and sellers were cycling through the various stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as they looked to liquidate their Costa Rica assets to salvage what they could back home. The evaluation of properties was always an interesting ride. These folks had bought at the peak of the market and absolutely had to sell. The quintessential “motivated sellers”.
When we would evaluate their property at 40%-50% below what they paid, they would argue (deny), then get angry and go to another, more rational, realtor. When they would hear the same numbers from the other realtor, they would then start to sell the realtor on the unique value of their property, justifying how the asking price (coincidentally right around what they had paid) was actually the real value of their property (bargaining).
These tough times saw their share of depression, but we finally got to the state of acceptance. Granted, finally arriving at this state was a relief. But even with this rational and realistic mindset present, it didn’t change the prevailing condition of the market – there simply was no market.
I told a fellow who had come into my office to check on our efforts to sell his property that he could have lowered his price from $700,000 to $5.00. It didn’t matter. There were no buyers.
My blog is really a synopsis of conversations that I would have with people in my real estate business and that I would later realize would be of interest to my readers. One such article was entitled “The Man Says There Is No Market”.
During those days, I ran into a fellow at the Uvita Farmers Market. He had previously been a Wall Street analyst. He asked me a couple of questions regarding my real estate business and business in general and then made the statement that is the title of the mentioned article.
It is a harsh slap in the face to hear those words when one is wondering if he can keep the lights on and put food on the table. But the harshness be damned, it was true. And what the heck is going to help us to move forward if we dwell in fantasy? I sought out further association with this man as his incisive insight was quite helpful.
Well, we survived – sort of.
At about that time, I had a life-altering event that the doctors said would kill me. Apparently, they were wrong. However, it resulted in considerable residual effects that demanded a change in my life. I was unable to work, so I had to close my office. I had some money from the sale of our family home in San Isidro so I was able to quietly spend recovery time in my home in Playa Hermosa, a small Tico pueblo just north of Uvita. I set about learning about traumatic brain injury (TBI) and putting into practice techniques I learned that are useful for this condition.
One of the damaged areas of my brain deals with time. A week could go by and I would think a day had. The beautiful “plastic brain” understanding that we have now of our brains and how they can recover became my focus. The plasticity referred to by that title is basically that we can create new circuitry to replace the lost. This was/is tremendously encouraging to a survivor of TBI. But it ain’t easy.
I’ve spent my time firstly, trying to identify the damaged areas and secondly, develop routines that practice the missing cognition.
In the hospital, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to die, the doctors then informed my family and friends that “we never know how much of a person with brain damage will come back”. This was said as I laid in a coma. “He may be a vegetable, or he may come back as before, or some point in between”. I think that I came back somewhere in between.
Language was elusive at first. I couldn’t talk. I have vague memories of trying and it being a bit comical. They gave me some paper to write what I was trying to say. What I wrote was akin to a seismic chart initially, but with time, I could express myself with child-like writings. We wish that we had saved those papers but when you’re in the midst of this type of thing, posterity is not a big concern. “How much of dad/honey/Ben is going to come back?” was the concern of the day, although at that time, I was not aware of this concern. I knew I would return.
One day some time later, my gal came into my room and I was speaking in Spanish to the nurse. She brought this to my attention as I don’t think I was all that conscious of what I was doing. There was some serious fist-pumping exuberance caused by the event.
I will continue on what I now view as a rather fascinating journey for the rest of my life. It took a TBI incident to start it for me. I would encourage anyone to embark on it, sans the TBI. Keep the mind active. Learn new things. Practice those things. Develop new abilities. I have a counter-intuitive approach to what I choose to do with my time: if I don’t want to do a thing. If I find myself avoiding a thing – that is what I will do.
We are comfort seeking beings. Like water flowing down a stream to the ocean, we look for the easiest way down. This is not a bad approach and certainly has some merit in some areas of life. But for personal development, identifying the difficult and perhaps, the unpleasant, and then taking those things head-on results in growth, and in my case, healing.
So my recovery progressed at a glacial pace. I passed through the time of preferring death, which is a common residual effect of TBI. In fact, there are many publicized cases of TBI sufferers, NFL players, returning war veterans etc…, offing themselves during this time. I wasn’t suicidal, just simply wanted to die. I couldn’t watch a movie where someone would die in their sleep, or meet some other innocuous death without envying the character.
I suppose that, very much like the grief cycle, there is a cycle to a life event such as mine. And perhaps it even adheres to that cycle. The end result is that oh-so amazing, profound and wonderful quality of acceptance. I call it “The Big A”. I preach it now.
Digression alert: I spent a week many years ago in the San Isidro socialized medicine hospital. I had sustained a puncture wound on my ankle. Despite our best efforts to keep it elevated, soaked, creamed and anti-bioticized, the 3rd day I woke up with it red and inflamed. So off I went to the hospital.
My stay there was one of the most culturally intense experiences of my life. I was in the men’s orthopedic wing. There were 8 beds there and the quality (or lack thereof) of treatments and amazing afflictions of some of the Tico men there was enlightening. Not to belabor this as I could write an entire article about what I saw there amongst the well-intentioned doctors, nurses and patients in an absolutely overworked and inefficient system.
At the end of the week, my wife came to pick me up and take me home. I said that I felt that I should stay another day or two since my ankle was still a little red and inflamed. She said that she had something to tell me. She had hoped to wait until I got home, but since I was going to stay – “Our daughter is pregnant”.
Now, this is frequently a joyous happening in a family. And certainly, the advent of a new life coming into the family is a wonderful thing. However, our daughter was unmarried, 18 years old, and was, at that time, investigating medical schools in the States in order to pursue a career in that profession. This was a blow to my daughter’s life course.
Later on that day, after my wife had left, one of the nurses came in. She and I had enjoyed a number of jovial interchanges during my stay, and what with being a nurse and all, she had a particular interest in the welfare of her charges. She asked me what was wrong, so I told her the news.
She looked at me thoughtfully and said “do you mind if I offer a word of advice?”
Now, I’m going to tip my hat here a bit to what could be construed as a touch of arrogance on my part. My thoughts: “what on earth could this simple gal have to say to me that I don’t already know? I’m a big, rich, smart gringo after all.” Ok, so if you were wondering if you were getting the straight skinny from me as I relate my tale, you now can see that clearly you are. I stand before you buck-naked as I admit it. I didn’t imagine that she would have anything to say to me that could possibly help. But, the social code dictates that when asked such a question, we respond with “yes, please do”.
“Accept it” said she. “You’re going to eventually. Why waste all the time in between now and when you finally do? Accept it now”
Such was my introduction to The Big A.
Returning to my recovery: The path to acceptance was a bit rocky, but I finally have arrived there. I had to process what I used to have, what I used to be like and the dramatic difference with what I was now. There was some serious loss here. If required to present my case before a jury, I’d convince them that I have every reason to live my life mucking about in self-pity. I’d win my case.
The Big A allowed me to break out of the “loss” mindset and get to work. Well, that and the fact that I was out of money. This was actually the one-two punch. The diminishing funds pushed me to action. The action was good as it segwayed into the introspection necessary to quit the grieving and start the celebration.
The construct of the loss/celebration mechanism is like a magnet. One side pushes away while the other attracts. The day that we shift poles, so to speak, and get over onto the other side is a really good day. And strange, magical things start to happen.
The basic life demands of needing to be able to eat, clothing, and having a roof overhead probably caused me to go back to work a bit early. I signed on with a real estate company in Uvita. I chose this particular office for 2 reasons. One was that they had the top ranked web site on the Internet for Costa Rica real estate, so they generated leads (read: buyers) for listings posted there. The second was that there was no broker there. Someone looking over my shoulder. It was a satellite office of a country-wide company.
The pole shift of moving my focus from loss to celebration hasn’t been a revelatory, bolt-of-lightning experience. It is a process that takes its sweet time. My residual TBI symptoms are still very present. Those didn’t change with my new outlook. I just feel different about the little boogers when they present themselves – well, for the most part. I still catch myself in self-pity on occasion.
I look back on my early days of going back to work as a sort of pathetic heroism (oh how I love oxymorons). Frankly, I don’t remember a lot of that time, but enough to kind of cringe when I think about what my fellow workers in the office saw.
I would hardly ever go to the office. I didn’t find the environment stimulating and there were lots of distractions. So I would work from home. I had been in the business long enough that when people heard I was working again, I managed to get some listings and would make the occasional sale. Meanwhile, the process of gradually increasing mental clarity trudged on.
It trudged on to where I started thinking that perhaps this particular office wasn’t as conducive to my goals as I had thought. I really liked the lack of involvement on the part of the company’s owners, but I had to acknowledge that this was largely me avoiding the potential embarrassment of my condition being noted by them.
I had a chance happening where I had loaned an item to some clients who were here looking for property. They were unable to return the item to me before their departure, so they gave it to a friend who worked in a neighboring real estate office: Blue Zone Realty.
I forgot about the item until one day I needed it and then recalled where it was. So I went to that office to pick it up.
I went into the office and there was just the broker (Tim) and his wife (Tiffany) there, working on their computers. I inquired about my item, they directed me to it, and then we started to talk. A half-hour later, I returned home.
When I got home, I asked myself: “was this chance happening an answer to a prayer?” The broker had impressed me with his professionalism and insight into the market. Of course I had known about him just from the small-town effect of knowing each other. Waving “hi” on the street sort of thing. We had even spoken once previously on the phone regarding business. But what happened that day had been my first face-to-face with the man.
He hadn’t made any overt efforts to pull me away from where I was. We were just two professionals discussing things. But there was some of the human thing going on. I sensed that we were both putting our best foot forward with a new acquaintance.
Fast forward 3 months. Tim had a client for one of my listings. Things worked out so that he and I drove together to the property some distance away, and the clients followed. From my side of things, this was an enjoyable time. There was a good synergy. We got to return to the office in the same way and ditto on the effect.
So, I decided that this was one of those times when my fear was keeping me from taking a brave step. A step that could potentially be on the path to where I wanted to go. Stinking fear. Keep in mind my criterion of recognizing what I don’t want to do, and deciding that, for that reason, it is what I need to do.
What was the fear? It was what I mentioned earlier; that a “present” broker is going to see how I really am.
TBI has a particularly diabolical aspect to it that non-TBI people aren’t aware of. TBI people look fine, sound fine, and can even act fine in many situations. All of that appearance is external. Internal is the intense struggle to provide that impression.
I’ve spoken with other TBI’ers and also have read accounts where this aspect of the condition is mentioned. It sounds weird to say but it would have almost been better to have lost an arm or a leg so that there is a public announcement by one’s appearance that all is not quite right.
Double this with anytime one ventures out from the pretext and describes the struggle, the listener will always respond with “yeah, I have to deal with that as well”. The symptoms are what everyone experiences, but they are exponentially greater to the TBI’er. So one finds himself quite alone with this thing.
I decided that I would make the move. But, I needed for Tim to know what he was getting himself into. We set up a breakfast meeting and it was there that I did my best to clue him in.
Tim gave me the impression that not only was he OK with it, he seemed to actually regard it as a challenge he’d like to take on.
In my first few months with the Blue Zone office, I kept count of the number of days I had been there. The old adage that “if a thing appears to good to be true, it is” reigned in my mind. I kept looking for a chink in the armor. When a day would pass with no chink, I would add another day to the list. Tim would hear me respond to “hey Ben, how are you doing?” with, “well, I’m at day 53 here at Blue Zone and I’m loving it”.
I check in with Tim on an almost daily basis, letting him know what I’m doing and what I need to do. I don’t know how he does it but he somehow manages to check up on me with what I’ve got on my plate. He is running what has got to be the most productively active real estate office in the zone, not to mention selling lots of properties himself, and yet he has consistently reaffirmed my initial impression that he gladly accepts that “challenge” I described to him at our breakfast.