Differences (so far) – Part 2

A few posts ago I talked about things that were different here in Costa Rica compared to Seattle. Things that were better, easier, cheaper or just more exciting. I promised that I would mention some of the differences that were less great, more expensive, or harder. None of it detracts from the amazing experience of living here, however. It is all part of our new adventure.

At the risk of duplication, I will repeat a few caveats: these are coming from a former Seattleite, Chicagoan, and Californian who is living in a small town on the coast of Costa Rica, and not working. The comparison is clearly not “apples to apples”. And these are mine – I won’t speak here for Aidan, Vie or Debbie.

  • Cars
    I had mentioned in my previous post that auto mechanics were much cheaper here. It’s a good thing, because in most other respects, owning a car is much more expensive and difficult. I related a bit of this when I talked about getting our new family “member”,
    Moose, a 1990 Mitsubishi Montero. All cars are incredibly expensive here as are car parts, which isn’t really a huge surprise. It’s the other things that make it harder and more complicated.

    Japanese cars seem to be the ones the mechanics know best and the ones for which parts are easiest to get. If you have different types of car, you may wait weeks for a part to come in – assuming they can get it here.

    All cars have some complexities, particularly for expats. To buy a car, for example, we learned that you actually need a lawyer. The lawyer (about $114) creates the bill of sale submits the registration information. It takes a few weeks to get that back. Once you do, you go to the bank and pay the tax on the vehicle. It is a value-based tax, dependent on the value of the car, as we have in some states. In our case it was only $170.

    Then, there is a vehicle certification every car needs to go through, sort of like a very involved smog check. You do it in a month based on the last digit of your license plate. You need to get it done in special facilities, which are only in large cities. In our case, we have to go to Liberia, about an hour away. It’s a little tricky evidently. Some new vehicles haven’t even made the certification. Sometimes they find small things. Sometimes they find involved things. That means you get to travel back to where you live, get the car fixed, and take it back to get certified – paying again and hoping that it passes. We hear that there is a guy in the next town whom you can pay to take your car to get certified. We hear they always pass. Ironically, though, we are lucky having an old car. Certification is evidently much easier for cars over 20 years old. We’ll find out in March when it’s our turn.

    And one last thing. Even though our residency visa application (in the system queue) means that we don’t have to leave every 90 days as most expats do, in order for us to legally drive, our passports must show that our 90 tourist visa is valid. We are not allowed to get a Costa Rica driver’s license until our residency visa application is actually approved.

  • Scorpions and other poisonous critters
    I talked a bit about snakes last week as part of my
    “jungle” adventure. Fortunately, I didn’t see any. Scorpions, however, are a different thing. Deb (and it always seems to be Deb), found a dead one by her side of the bed. A few weeks ago she found a live one on the wall above Aidan’s bed. Scorpions stings aren’t lethal and don’t require treatment generally, but they evidently hurt. However, there seems to be a creepiness factor in the household – likely because we have almost no nasty critters in Seattle.
  • Some technology
    Technology here is not nearly as expensive as I would have expected. The few things we have acquired here – a TV, Android tablet for freelancing, printer – were about the same as the US or maybe a bit cheaper in the case of the TV. The harder things to find tend to be associated with newer technology, such as micro-HDMI to HDMI cables (for tablets connecting to TVs). Gaming systems are expensive. What makes it harder is that these cannot be shipped from US suppliers due to export restrictions.
  • Vegetable diversity
    Vegetables here tend to be very cheap – at least the local ones. You can pay about $10 for asparagus imported from the US if you really want it. The challenge with vegetables for us is the diversity. At least, I am comparing this to places in the US like Seattle where you can find huge vegetable and fruit sections in stores. In Costa Rica in most smaller stores you can reliably find things like potatoes, herbs, cruciferous vegetables, as well as plantains, tropical fruits, and root vegetables like Yucca.

    yucca

    The produce sections are small, though, as you can see below. In fact, most stores are the size of the typical produce section in QFC, Safeway, etc. I can tell you that we are very fortunate in places like Seattle to have the range of vegetables and fruit that we do. But, it gives me a new challenge to figure out what to make with what we have. We like challenges.

    produce aisle

  • Co-ed soccer
    This one is probably the most disappointing. Essentially, there is no co-ed soccer. Based on my last data point, Seattle had about 232 co-ed teams across 3-4 soccer leagues. I noted earlier that I had discovered a great pick-up soccer game here. I just expected that both Deb and I could play. It turns out that when Deb asked our friend, Fabricio, who told us of the game, whether women play soccer with the men here, he got a very shocked and horrified look on his face and responded with a stuttering “no, no, no mixto.” We learned that there are a few (yet to be discovered) women in the area who play…with other women. But no, women never play with the men.
  • Mail and Shipping
    We are learning the hard way about mail here. Mail takes a LONG time to get here, period. Packages are usually screened and opened and import duties applied – if you get the package. After about two months now, our first two packages sent from my parents – one with an iPhone replacement for Deb and the other with a Kindle for Vie – are still not here. Two others with clothing did come, however, as well as one shipped via DHL.

    We have since learned that you should not ship packages by the US Postal Service at all, even with a tracking number (which we did not have). We have heard stories of people getting packages 4-5 months after shipping. Many don’t arrive at all. DHL is the most reliable, but it is expensive. If you ship packages in soft (bubble-wrap type) envelopes, it usually comes quickly and easily. If it is a box then sometimes they are opened. However, they still make it here.

    All options though are usually so expensive that a very creative service has arisen: Aeropost. Essentially, you mail your packages to them to a virtual PO box. They fly them directly into the country (most of Latin America). Shipping is much cheaper but you still pay duties. A video game, for example, gets a 70% duty on it. Once here, they deliver them to your door. We think we will stick with having visitors bring us things or trips.

    And, I was wrong about Amazon. The few items (relatively speaking) they can ship internationally, costs a lot to ship and the prepaid duties are high. While they show $4.99 to Costa Rica, it is probably only for very thin books and doesn’t include duties.

  • Software downloads
    I expected that if we needed any software we hadn’t planned for, especially for unschooling, we could just download it. It turns out it is not so easy. Our region is Latin America now, identified by our IP addresses. Most sites can tell where you are connecting from (some even helpfully switch to Spanish). You can use a VPN service that makes it seem as if you are connecting from the US and we do have one of those. However, the one we have only works for things like Pandora and Netflix. So far it has been tricky to get things like Pimsleur language downloads and Xbox Live products. Again, we may have to just wait for a trip back to get some of these.
  • Movies
    We love movies. Unfortunately, there are no theaters near us (the closest is an hour away). Downloading movies from Xbox Live used to be fun, but that doesn’t work for us now. There are very few movie rental stores as far as we can tell and they are regionally encoded so they won’t work in our DVD player (our Xbox). They might work in a PC if we had a DVD drive. It isn’t a huge deal as it turns out. We have discovered torrents. I’ll let you explore that one on your own.
  • Racing bugwrath
    Each evening, the mosquitos and other biting, stinging, and eating insects come out and are really abundant around 6pm. Really. Abundant. This is about the time I finish soccer on Tuesdays. “Racing bugwrath” is when I get on my bike and try to make the 20 minute ride home more like 10 minutes. Even when I am fast, I still catch “bugwrath.” You know when you are in a car driving cross country and get out and see a storm of insects plastered on the front of your car? Same thing, except when I make it home the insects are alive and plastered to my sweaty body. I can run my hand across my chest and it is covered in black bugs. Fortunately, we have a hose and a swimming pool!
  • Ice cream
    Ice cream is (was) our guilty pleasure. At any time in Seattle, we’d have 7-10 pints of ice cream, usually Haagen Dazs, in our freezer. Really! Here, a pint costs about 4,000 colones or about $8 in the few big stores where we can find it. There are a few local brands but the ice cream is not as rich. More importantly for all the ice cream, it is usually so hot that the ice cream in the stores melts a bit and then gets refrozen, creating an “icy” consistency. Consequently, we are not eating ice cream.
  • Roses
    You’ve heard me mention this one in a previous post, A Rose By Any Other Name… After almost two months, no roses L I can’t even find the national flower, the guaria morada, where we are (good submitted idea, though). I did try origami…step-by-step directions, YouTube videos, and more. Sadly, I fall short here in my skills. I’m still working on it though!

But what about…?

  • Heat
    The young adults will differ with me on heat. It does tend to be consistently in the 80’s and 90’s for most of the year.

    weather
    Courtesy HolidayWeather.com.

    There does tend to be a lot of humidity here. But compared to Seattle, I’ll take the heat any day.

    seattle weather

    And notice that this is a rare week in Seattle where you can actually see appearances of the lovely yellow ball despite the cold.

  • Things take a long time
    Finally, one we were expecting, and were warned about, was that things take a long time here. They call it “Tico time.” Honestly, we have not seen it. Deb expected to spend half a day at the bank to pay the car tax based on what we heard. It took an hour. The main waterline for our town runs under our yard and burst last week. We expected no water for a few days. It was fixed (by Juan Carlos, who lives down the street) in a few hours. We had a small issue in the rental house. Hairo was here in 15 minutes to fix it. I wouldn’t expect responsiveness like that in Seattle. So, perhaps it is indeed an issue but maybe it’s just a way to keep the expat population down.

Happy Holidays and pura vida!

How We Got Here

Several folks have asked us “Why Costa Rica?” and “What sort of planning did it take?” I thought that while it’s fresh, I’d post the answer. Let me know if I missed any details you’d like.

Why Costa Rica? Well, our first choice, as I described in our new adventure was actually Brazil. Sadly though, the US has tight restrictions on Brazil and so Brazil has tight restrictions on Americans coming in. We wouldn’t be able to stay more than 30 days realistically – at least there was no guarantee. So Deb began a hunt of other locations that fit our criteria. Here’s our Top 10 reasons (in good ol’ David Letterman form) why we chose Costa Rica as the country, Playa Portrero as the city, and the specific place we live, Casa Dutry, in order of least to most important.

11.   The swimming pool at the house was a bonus!

10.   We had to have air conditioning (primarily for Vie, who thinks it is too hot when
it is 70 degrees).

9.     We didn’t want a place with dangerous rip currents so we could feel comfortable letting the kids go surf by themselves. The surf in Playa Potrero was perfect.

8,     Our new home had to allow dogs of course.

7.     The rent had to be pretty modest.

6.     The house needed to have three bedrooms. Two bedroom places are common and so are 4-5 bedroom places, but three bedrooms are hard to find.

5.     Costa Rica is the happiest country on the planet according to the Happy Planet Index (there is no military, and there is great education and health care).

4.     The place had to be warm and by a beach (hey, if you are going to move to another country, make it amazing) – and within walking distance to the beach.

3.     We needed to bring our dogs without them having to go through a quarantine process (which is common in Europe and many other countries).

2.     We needed to be able to stay at least six months and up to a year.

And the number one reason:

  1. We wanted a country where the kids could learn another language within another culture. Spanish worked particularly well as Deb studied it and I knew Portuguese and Italian.

What sort of planning did it take? The whole thing took a lot of planning over several months. It was really broken up into two parts: planning where we were going and planning to leave. Deb did a brilliant job on the former and I took care of most of the prep work to leave.

Deb started by looking for the right country. Some of the top contenders were Portugal, Ecuador, Uraguay, Belize, Panama, Chile, and Spain. There were others but based on our criteria she chose Costa Rica. We made a vacation trip the year or so before to nearby Tamarindo and loved it. Deb scouted some more details afterward.

We got more serious about moving about 10 months before we ended up leaving. At that point Deb started the 6 month search for a house to rent and that’s when we learned about and added many of the other criteria (such as no rip currents). It was a lot of emailing property owners and rental companies. She started with vrbo.com, airbnb.com, and various real estate and property management companies. Then went deeper searching for communities and local blogs where home owners post homes for rent with not a lot of responses. She finally found a small local agency, LEP, and then she narrowed down property choices. We got very lucky in finding what we did.

The next big planning hurdle that she took on was getting passage for the dogs. No quarantine I think translates to lots of paperwork. This included knowing all of the vaccinations and certificates they needed to enter the country, as well as finding the right airline to transport them. She researched how the airlines cared for pets and a lot more. As I mentioned in Roots, I ended having to drive to Tumwater, WA for final paperwork for the dogs (during the government shutdown).

Meanwhile, I was started by planning and prepping for the big estate sale to get rid of our stuff. I detailed a lot about in that post. That was a huge endeavor. Fortunately, I quit work a good 5 weeks before we left so I had a lot time to prep at home.

Another big task was renting our house. We initially expected to have to find a Property Management company (which we did), but good fortune struck and a good friend was looking for a place for her family to rent. They took a look and loved our place. That made the whole rental planning far easier. We still had a lot of work to do to set the house up for rental (adding CO monitors, deep cleaning, wall fixes and touchups). Of course we had to overdo it and paint two rooms and add a new floor before we left. That’s all less about move planning though.

There were a few other details that took planning and a bit more than we planned. One thing in this category was cell phones. We had to buy new, unlocked cell phones and then we had to work out that it was best to wait until we were in Costa Rica to get the SIM cards for them. That worked out pretty well.

Getting to the airport was more pain than I expected. We had to go to SEATAC airport in Seattle and rent a minivan with stow-and-go car seats so we could transport the dog crates (and luggage). We planned for a cab to take Deb and the kids, but when it didn’t show, we ended up all cramming in the same vehicle. The opposite was true in Costa Rica. One of the nice things about using a property management company is that they have a concierge. This meant that Deb was able to have them arrange transportation from Liberia airport 45 minutes away and it was there on time and ready to go, fitting all of us comfortably. The comfortably part took a little planning. Deb sent the 2 dog crate measurements (cm) to make sure that they would fit in the vehicle along with our large amount of luggage and 4 people.

Finally, there were things we planned but didn’t get right. For example, I was excited to learn that Amazon shipped to Costa Rica for $4.99. But, it doesn’t ship consumer electronics (eg., cables, cell phone covers, printer cartridges) and things from most non-Amazon sellers it seems. So far these are the things we’ve needed.

Likewise, I read that while some services such as Pandora and Netflix don’t work outside the US. But, Xbox Live did. Well, yes and no. Netflix did work in Costa Rica. Xbox Live did for gaming. Pandora didn’t. So, I subscribed to a VPN service (I used Unblockus.com) which helps media content get through. It does and we have Pandora now, however the fine print is that Xbox Live movie rental and downloads don’t work and can’t. I’m still working on a way where we can see new movies. Ironically, I thought we could at least go to the theater here, but there are none in the several towns around us. At least Unblockus helps in that web content, media, etc. is not defaulted to Spanish which helps the young adults until they learn Spanish (then we switch back J).

In all, the planning was an adventure in itself and definitely part of ours. Once we found the rental and started seriously planning, it took a lot of our spare time. It was worth it though – both the move and the fact that we did spend time planning. It means we can now focus on small missed details easily and not face a mass of unexpected details. Planning certainly takes the edge off of any change.

Roots

It’s amazing how many layers of connections we have to one place. The longer we stay someplace, the more of those connections we accumulate. They are a lot like roots. And uprooting something is very tough.

When we started planning our Costa Rican adventure, we knew that it would be a lot of work, but I think we also were thinking about it in somewhat idealized terms – kind of like an elaborate vacation. We are coming up on T minus 3 weeks to leaving and it is feeling very much like the final stages of pulling a very large oak tree out of the ground.

There are expected things for anyone moving, like transferring utilities, forwarding mail, finding a renter, telling folks about our new adventure, and saying goodbye (for awhile). Some of these things are more tedious or harder than others of course, but we knew they are coming.

There are unexpected things, like figuring out which services we subscribe to will continue to work in Costa Rica, such as Xbox Live, Netflix, and iTunes (yes, yes and no, by the way). Xbox Live is particularly key since we haven’t had cable TV for years and that’s been the only way to watch a few shows we like on a big screen. Or, learning that in Costa Rica we will be exposed to “a far greater number viruses, Trojan horses, worms, and other nasty things than elsewhere in the world as the ISP there does not do as good a job of filtering them out before they hit your PC.” I have to really up the bar on our anti-virus and internet security software and learn a lot more about this than I had planned.

There are some unique things that we’ve had to deal with since we will be away a year in a foreign country, such as applying for a residency visa or getting a special insurance policy for our stuff. Our current challenge here is getting the right kind of unlocked smart phone to move all four of us to as Costa Rica switches from GSM to 3G technology country-wide. We almost timed that one poorly!

As we start figuring out each detail, sometimes we learn that the “root” is much bigger than we could have imagined. My favorite in this category is getting the documents for the dogs to go. We expected paperwork, and we got that. But, we didn’t expect to have to drive to Tumwater, WA to the USDA office 10 days before we travel so that they can certify that our dogs can leave the country, all the while worrying that the government shutdown will get so strict that they completely close their office and keep us from going altogether. This is still an active concern.

Our roots here in Seattle are pretty deep after almost 18 years. As we continue to cut each root though, it does get easier and easier. The daunting uprooting task that makes it difficult to want to start is almost done now. And, like uprooting a big tree, we feel a great sense of accomplishment and empowerment. We can see a lot better without the tree. In our case what we see are possibilities.