Living in Costa Rica — By Jennifer Shipp
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Living in Costa Rica — By Jennifer Shipp

On our second big overseas trip to China, on a trip from the airport to our hotel, John and the driver of our car named “Renny” had a conversation about the purpose of our trip. Renny spoke excellent English, but there were certain things he clearly didn’t understand and John was trying to simplify things down for Renny so that he could understand. On that trip, we were still clarifying our travel goals. So, John struggled to find the right words.

“So, what brings you to Beijing?” Renny asked.

“We’re not tourists…” He said, and then paused. “We want to live like the people in Beijing.”

The second it came out of his mouth, I knew that it was both true…and impossible. In fact, after the words fell into the air, they hung there awkwardly and I heard how insulting they were to Renny. How could we possibly live like the people of Beijing? I could never be a true “local” in any foreign place, because I am endowed with a distinctly American optimism and the knowledge that at any moment, I can go “home.”

How People Live in Costa Rica
A Costa Rican house located near one of the bus stops we take into downtown Alajuela.

Foreigners always say that Americans are very friendly and optimistic, which surprises me because I don’t feel like Americans in America are all that optimistic. Apparently the ones that travel, though, have a different constitution. And I suppose that I can fit in with these mutant rejects. But I could never be Chinese or Turkish or Costa Rican. The way that I define certain words like “poverty” for example can undermine the difficulties that have been experienced by these people.

I know, for example, that I have been “poor” by American standards. We lived in an RV for 2 years and sometimes couldn’t afford to buy eggs even without credit card debts or a mortgage payment. But by Costa Rican standards, I have never known poverty. There are houses in this high-class suburban neighborhood along Calle Vargas, for example, that are made of sheets of scrap metal, cardboard, and plastic that are tied together with pieces of old wire and twine. I hear people (or perhaps only one person) inside these shacks listening to Spanish soap operas and I imagine the one or two hard wooden chairs set up facing an old TV under the only panel in the house that doesn’t leak when it rains every day.  This is poverty.

There is an old man along the bus route who has a shoe repair business that he runs out of a ramshackle little building that would fall down if a bird ran into the side of it. I have this strange respect for him because according to what I know from my basic American upbringing, he’s made the most of something. In the United States it’s not possible to run a business out of a decrepit little shack that could burst into flames at any moment or cause tetanus if you get too close to the rusty nails sticking

Costa Rica Living Conditions
A little shack built of rotting wood where a man who wears a yellow shirt everyday fixes shoes for locals.

out at every corner. But if it were possible, this man would be able to live a hybrid existence between the lower class and homelessness just because he possesses a skill. I think he belongs to a class that has been entirely obliterated in our culture: the lower lower class. These people would be able to build shacks out of the trash that everyone else throws away and live just above homelessness. Just above total hopelessness. They would be able to use any talent, any skill to maybe buy their way into a more comfortable lifestyle if so inclined.

I don’t completely understand the nuances in these foreign places. They are the dark and dirty Costa Rican secrets that no one really wants to talk about. But I can observe and at least acknowledge the fact that I don’t understand. I am not a local, but only an observer of local habits. I may not be a tourist, but I can never be a “Citizen of the Planet” either, though it would be romantic if such an existence were possible. In the end, home is in the United States and what I bring back are merely artifacts.

I never have the whole story and never will because I am not a local. I am not Costa Rican. I am American: an American sampling the flavor of Costa Rica. But I can never taste Costa Rica without comparing it to the flavor of home. I may not be a tourist, but one thing never changes no matter where I go: I’m always me and home is the United States of America.

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