Moving to Costa Rica: Culture Shock

Photo by Joan Kistler – Tribute to Costa Rican Education (San Ramón)

We arrived in Costa Rica on March 21, 2023 early in the morning on a beautiful day and began our new lives in a country we have never visited – not even once. We anticipated that we would experience a culture different from that of the United States, but we couldn’t have imagined what it would be like. Now that we have been here for over three weeks, we are beginning to get a taste of culture shock . In some ways it has been bitter and in other ways sweet.

I will start with the bitter. First of all, in Costa Rica, the traffic is horrible. We chose not to drive in Costa Rica, and we are so glad we made that choice. We hired drivers for two trips from San Ramón to San José and back, and both times, the hour-long drive took more than two hours. On the second trip, the driver attempted to avoid the traffic by taking death-defying cliff-hanging back roads that made us seriously doubt if we would survive. The reward for our near heart failure was that we got to see some fantastic views. We certainly didn’t get to San Ramón any faster.

Second, I thought the sidewalks in Easton, PA were bad. Not compared to the sidewalks in San Ramón. You need to pay attention when walking, or you could easily step into one of many holes, trip over a sudden rise or fall in the sidewalk, or fall into the deep drainage ditches (our poor dog has done that a few times). Just today, while walking downtown, I looked over the edge of the sidewalk, and there must have been a four-foot drop onto the street. I felt like I was walking along a cliff with no railing. In Easton, I saw people with disabilities riding around in powered wheelchairs or scooters all the time. I haven’t seen anyone doing that here. They would have to be loco.

Why are Costa Rica’s roads and sidewalks so bad? Because they don’t prioritize infrastructure issues. They expect people to be aware of traffic and infrastructure issues, take responsibility, and act like rational adults. Costa Rica spends most of its money on three things: education, social services, and healthcare. Knowing this, I can forgive the horrible traffic and horrendous sidewalks.

Now for the sweet. The park is always full of people of all ages enjoying recreational activities, whether they are working out with the provided fitness equipment, walking or running around the field, playing on the playground, or playing a game on the basketball court or soccer field. Their faces are all brimming with sheer pleasure and relaxing enjoyment. Whenever I saw the few people in U.S. parks engaging in recreational activities, they didn’t appear to be enjoying it so much. They appear to be trying get fit for some big event or engaging in serious competition. That kind of pressure doesn’t seem to exist in Costa Rica. Apparently, it isn’t necessary. Costa Ricans are generally healthy and fit.

Some of the conveniences I enjoyed in the U.S. are non-existent here. I wanted to buy a mop with a disposable head – like a Swiffer. No such thing here. The way you mop in Costa Rica is by clipping a rag to the end of a pole. You wring it out by hand, and if you want it clean, you have to rinse it out or wash it. Why do I consider that sweet? In the U.S. there are many products that make life more convenient, but we don’t think its impact on the environment. For example, when we were living in the U.S., we were using a Brita pitcher, and we had over two dozen filters that we needed to recycle. Unfortunately, the company had dissolved their recycling program, so all those filters sadly ended up going in the trash. Many U.S. companies refuse to take responsibility for recycling the products they sell, and the environment suffers. The Costa Ricans don’t sacrifice the environment for convenience.

The sweetest thing of all is that in Costa Rica, you get treated like a real person who matters. More than once, I received a hug and kiss on the cheek simply for introducing myself. The sincere hospitality and generosity of our neighbors has also been a shock. We are foreigners, but we are treated like friends. Our neighbor has brought us wonderful tortillas and custards and complete plates of food. When there was a water main break, they took care of us, taking us in their car to the water truck and giving us containers so that we could collect water for ourselves. In the U.S., foreigners are treated with cold indifference at best.

In the U.S., when people meet for business purposes, they immediately get down to business. In Costa Rica, before business is conducted, people talk to each other. They actually take the time to check in on each other’s wellbeing and to get to know each other. When they say, “Cómo está usted?” (How are you?), they genuinely want to know how you are. There is about ten minutes of chatting before they actually get down to business. This has been extremely enlightening for me. I didn’t realize this before, but the message we Americans send in getting right down to business is this: “I don’t care who you are. I care only about what you can do for me.”

In America, the focus is on business. In Costa Rica, the focus is on relationships: relationships between people and the relationship between the people and the earth. In America, it’s all about money. In Costa Rica, it’s all about community.

That may be why Costa Ricans are among the happiest people on earth, and we are very happy to be living among them.

Stay tuned for my next post: Language Shock