I don’t mean to have a longer “hate” list than I do a “love” list, but when you come to a new country, you have to expect a number of things to bug you. Sadly, I’ve ended up with a few more than I’d like. But that’s okay. It’s expected, and it’s part of adjustment to a new home. Still, they make me long for Canada, where I find these things don’t bug me as much.
(Though it might be fair to say that some of them would bug me pretty much anywhere.)
And just so you know, I’m not speaking out as a disgrunted ex-pat who wants to bitch about how this country isn’t conforming to me. I’m the one who needs to conform, and there are things I simply have to accept. Some of these things are purely my points of view, and are probably things that most Ticos don’t mind, and might even like.
Superstores / American Chain Stores
It seems impossible to go anywhere in this world and truly escape America. (So far, the only place I’ve been is Mongolia.) Even here, fast food chains are abundant (you already know about the KFC influence), which includes Taco Bell. Why on Earth anyone in Costa Rica would gladly choose Taco Bell over any number of local Tico restaurants is beyond me. And I don’t get the KFC thing, no matter how hard I try.
Beyond fast food, there are chain superstores here that are not only modelled from American stores, they are owned by them. Wal-Mart has a significant presence through its Más Por Menos (grocery), Hipermás (think Wal-Mart in Spanish), and EPA (think Home Depot) chains. Apparently, they own 70% of the market. At least in Canada (and the US) there is more competition. Here? Only Más por Menos has direct competition (Auto Mercado and Mega Super).
Yes, I do try to go to the smaller stores and to the markets … but sadly, there are times when you simply can’t avoid the bigger chains because — just like back home — they crush their competition out of existence.
Take every traffic law you know, and throw it out the window. No, I’m not just talking about my incident with a u-turn. I’m talking about a place where the lines on the road, traffic lights and signs, and even common sense are basically ignored. Speed limits are not suggestions — they’re just decorations at the side of the road. Snarls are not common, they’re constant (when there is no snarl, you wonder what happened elsewhere to keep people away). You don’t just honk your horn at someone who did something stupid, but also for “hello”, “goodbye”, “passing on your left/right”, “look out”, “let me in”, “hey!”, and “what’s the special at the market today?”. It’s a whole conversation in a single sound.
You either drive agressively here, or you never get anywhere. You have to be fully aware of what’s going on around you at all times. It’s daunting, even scary. It doesn’t help when pedestrians also try to run in front of you. If nothing else, it does force me to be always aware, and not rely on the assumptions that others know how to drive — which is the danger in Canada, especially when people start driving like assholes.
And lest ye drive too aggressively, you might have an accident. Unlike most places in North America, where you pull yourself over to the side of the road (at least when it’s possible), the law states that you have to remain exactly where you accident occurred until the police and your insurance adjuster arrives. Yes, you are imagining correctly what traffic looks like when an accident blocks a lane (or an entire highway).
I’m amazed that more of these putzes aren’t splattered all over the roads. In North America, most motorcyclists treat themselves as the equivalent of cars. Here, they weave in and out of traffic in patterns so erratic and unpredictable that I’ve nearly hit three of them. (Considering how little I drive, that’s significant.) They don’t wear helmets (they’ll wear them just on the top of their heads, which serves no purpose if they’re flung off, or they carry them in the crook of their arms!), they drive like maniacs, and I’ve seen more than a few of them ride with young children on the front of their bikes. I would love nothing more than to run some of these morons off the road and take them permanently out of my misery.
Again, not so much about the u-turn, as it is about police pulling gringos over and trying to scare them into paying money to the cop to make whatever trivial error they committed go away. I don’t care if this is something that evolved from centuries of Spanish rule. This is just a level of human depravity that bothers me a lot. You look to the police as a force to help keep the peace, protect the innocent, and maintain some form of order. With all the things I hear about crime, it makes me wonder if the police do anything to help at all.
The odd road gets repaved every few years. Otherwise, it’s just a mess of potholes. And missing manhole covers. Lanes that end without warning (sometimes into ditches and/or telephone poles). Realigned one-way roads that really make no sense whatsoever. A complete and total lack of road signs, so it’s quite easy to get lost if you’re not paying attention (Mark got smart and bought a Costa Rican-programmed GPS).
And did I mention that some of them flood easily?
Add to that the issue of the Panamerican Highway — Route #1, the main road from one end of Costa Rica to the other, which goes (quite literally) though San José. This is a highway that around the capital area goes from 4 lanes to 2 lanes, as a result of narrowing at bridges. No, the bridges have not been expanded, and it causes binds.
For whatever reason, few roads are actually straight. In Canada, we’re used to roads going in a straight line for great distances — longer than the country of Costa Rica. It’s pretty quick to move about there due to all the flatness (generalisation, I know that BC is fairly hilly). Here, it’s rare to find a straight road, and going over the mountains here is a windy, hilly experience. Hence why going a mere 100 kms can take over three hours. At least like in Canada, they measure in time, not distance. But it’s for a different reason.
Costa Rica advertises itself very well — it’s very green, very lush, and it’s an environmentalist’s paradise. The truth is much dirtier. Garbage is thrown out of car windows. Many of the lauded Blue Flag beaches have lost their blue flags due to fecal choliform. No recycling. Buses and trucks belch out enough exhaust to make Beijing look clean. I’ve yet to see a stream in this area that doesn’t look like it’s running with a million nasty chemicals or various forms of garbage.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love it here, but trust me when I say that things don’t look nearly as green when you look more closely. And no, I’m not holding up Canada as a shining example of clean — witness the oil sands to find out how bad things can get.
Everything Takes Longer
Things you expect to take a day take two; a week is a month. “Mañana” is heard often, and all it really means is “when it’s ready”. One of the nice things of Costa Rica is the laid-back attitude. The flip side is that things do not happen quickly, and that can be really frustrating. This is a cultural aspect of life here, and I’m fully aware of it. I don’t fight it (anymore) — you can’t. Trying to fight it is like trying to move a lake with a small stick. While I don’t fight it, it still drives me batty.
Higher-Than-Expected Cost Of Living
This isn’t directed so much at Costa Rica as it is at those who thought moving here would be a financial boon to me, that I would earn so much more money down here. Well, lemme tell you a few things:
- My rent is USD$2,000 a month. And yes, I could find cheaper, but refer to my above statement about crime. With my baby, I’m not taking chances — we’re living in as secure a facility as we can get.
- Gasoline costs between $1.40 and $1.50 per litre. It costs USD$80 to fill up our car. (For the record, I support higher gas prices, as they force the issue of less personal vehicles and better public transit.)
- Gringo-ised areas. Where we live, there are a lot of gringos and gringo influence. Hence higher-than-usual prices. $5 coffee? No problem. $40 dinner? Easy. $10 hamburger? Without breaking a sweat.
- Familiar foods, such as cereals or imported tastes do not come cheap. A small jug of maple syrup? USD$30. Yes, you read that right — thirty dollars.
That’s not to say that everything here is expensive. You can find cheaper prices, but you have to know where to find these things. And it’s a big trust factor for gringos to go into some places that most Ticos wouldn’t think twice of. It’s adjustment, I won’t deny that. But it’s a tough thing to handle.
That said, we’re not bad off right now. Alex is able to stay at home with Mi Pequeña Niña and we’re able to do things. But I don’t know if we’ll be able to have as much freedom as we’ve experienced in these first two months forever…
But still, please stop telling me that living here is great for my finances. It’s just not true.
We live in a fairly nice complex, but my downstairs neighbours have their sub-woofer turned up way too loud, going sometimes to 23:00 in the evening. And they’re not the only ones. I know this is part about living in a condo complex (it’s why I didn’t want to buy one in Canada; and living in a house is far too cost-prohibitive), but come on, people, it’s not a stretch to realise that if you think it’s loud, others will think the same, too.
I’m told that this is a cultural thing, too. Not so much the noise as the joie du vive that exists in most Spanish-speaking countries. People stay up late, well into the early hours. I don’t hate that part per se — I suppose I just dislike not being able to do it myself, and the lack of consideration for people who have their lights out at 22:00 every night.
There’s no easy way to say this: Costa Rican beef sucks. I’ve eaten Canadian beef for almost my entire life, and Alberta produces some amazing beef. Down here, though, it’s stringy and tough. You need a sharp serrated knife to go through a steak down here, and about an hour to chew it. I think it’s the type of cattle that are used. But either way, unless it’s ground or you know a really good cook (which Javier does), the beef is hard to eat. I’ll be waiting until I get home for my next rib-eye.
Costa Rica is replete with monopolies, again due to the Spanish model of government set up hundreds of years ago. The worst is ICE, which is not just the electric company, they also handle the cell phones, television, and internet systems. Technically, there are other companies involved (RACSA and Amnet), but ultimately this all comes down to ICE. It’s why the cell phone network here sucks, why it’s hard to get your own phone number at home (Ingrid, who’s lived here most of her life, took a year to get a line at home), and why the internet goes up and down like a yo-yo.
Finding Low-Sugar Drinks
I don’ t know what it is, but Costa Rica is hooked on Splenda. It seems to be in everything that’s “low sugar”. When you try to go to fruit juice, some idiot adds sugar to it. (It’s APPLE JUICE, man, it does not need any sugar added!) And heaven forbid you buy something in a plastic bottle — chances are it’s from the US, which means it’s full of high-fructose corn syrup. Even many of the milk products here are like that.
Although one good side: Coca Cola (“Coke regular”) is made with cane sugar, which is the original recipe. I think Canada Dry Ginger Ale uses it, too. Both come in glass bottles, and taste a lot better here than they do in Canada.
I love the storms, but we’ve had 30 or so power outages since we arrived. (Note we’ve only been here about 60 days.) It’s so bad I’ve had to buy a small UPS for our networked storage so we don’t lose any more data (I think I lost some songs in our music library when one of the disks when out of sync from a power outage.) It’s particularly fun when the power goes out at the office and everyone loses their work.
Can someone please tell me why air conditioning needs to be turned up so high? It’s not as bad as Panama (that was extreme), but here it’s still insane. Two degrees cooler than the outside is a good rule of thumb, folks.
Lousy Public Transit
Despite the fact that most people here can’t afford cars and have to take the bus, the bus system sucks. I don’t know why, but that’s all I’ve heard. When you’re warned not to take the bus, that’s a sign that it’s bad. I might complain about Calgary Transit, but I’d still recommend it over driving. Here? I’d rent a car.
Poor State Of Sidewalks
The sidewalks mirror the roads: missing grates (complete with several-foot falls if you’re not careful), cracked, broken, ending abruptly, or altogether missing. Being a pedestrian here is sometimes risky, especially if you’re pushing a stroller. And where sidewalks don’t exist, people tend to run across roads and highways. There’s a reason why some places are marked with a heart and halo — a place where someone died.
Guys With Shotguns
I’ve never gotten used to this, and I never will. Again, due to the aforementioned crime, there are a lot of armed guards. Ever seen Armed and Dangerous? It’s not a comedy … it’s a documentary. Down here, there are guys I wouldn’t trust with a potato gun wielding something that could easily blow my head off. Someone tell me how this is supposed to instill a sense of security?