There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…
Wow, immigration, what a hot button topic these days. Even with our limited exposure to the goings on stateside we are bombarded with all aspects of the issue. A mere mention of The Wall can be enough to trigger an all out riot. Not only do our gringo friends talk about it, but we’re asked about it by our Tico friends and neighbors as well. My go-to answer, thusfar, has been to remain noncommital, vague and to simply declare that I’m glad I’m here and not in the middle of what’s going on there. I know, it’s a cowardly way to go but I really don’t relish getting into a heated political discussion that could very well end in body blows and broken furniture. After successfully dodging the discussion, it dawned on me…I am now an imigrant. I know…duh! (I never said I was the sharpest tool in the shed and it may take me a little longer than most, but eventurally I get there.)
Without painting myself into a corner by landing on one side of the aisle or the other and attempting to leave political discussions by the wayside, I thought it might be interesting to write about my experiences as both a “perpetual tourist” in Costa Rica, and then making things official by becomming a legal resident. What is the attraction to either remaining a free agent versus putting down roots? First of all it costs money, more than one would expect. Then there’s having to deal intimately with Central American buearocracy, always an adventure (que eyeroll). Finally, one’s acceptable level of frustration is tested to it’s limits. So the question remains…why bother?
First and foremost, a piece of advice for those who may be looking at setting up a life in another country…LIVE there for a while. Don’t make the mistake of taking an extended vacation and falling in love with a destination and thinking that your happily ever after will be anywhere close to the bliss you experienced while on vacation. Live there, spend the different seasons there. Rent a house where you have to shop, cook and clean there. Create a living budget. Speak the language, experience the culture, holidays, and celebrations. Be there during the non-tourist season to see why. Experience the primary modes of transportation be it cars, buses, bicycles, boats or or something four-legged…and know what to do if something breaks down. Medical conditions or emergencies? Know what is available, what is affordable, and what you are willing to tolerate in terms of facilities and services. There is so much more, but you get the idea.
My life here in Costa Rica started out as a glorious 10 day vacation with the man of my dreams. We did it all, waterfall hikes, ziplining, boat trips, sunset dinners at secluded jungle restaurants, the whole kit and kaboodle. Of course I fell in love, who wouldn’t? Michael had already bought the house by the time I showed up on the scene, however it was still a work in progress that needed more than a few finishing touches. But that first trip we simply enjoyed all the beauty and bliss that this paradise has to offer
Then came the next “vacation”, and all the vacations that followed. The house needed to be painted, furnishings needed to be ordered, the plumbing needed some higher quality upgrades, etc…etc…etc. So not only did our time here become working vacations, we also began hauling down suitcases full of items that were needed from the US. But even with all this going on, I remained in love with this country and the life we were building piece by piece.
Then came time for jumping off the cliff…an official move. We kept a safety net in the US and set out to spend at least a year living here and would evaluate the situation to decide if this was indeed the life for us.
Long story short, after some bumps in the road, big bumps, huge bumps, we decided that, yes, this is where we want to spend our life together. Up until that point we were what is described as, “perpetual tourists.” This means that we would have valid 90 day visas, leave the country for a short period of time, and return for another 90 day visa.
Every three months or so we would dutifully travel either back to the US to visit family or spend a couple of days in Panama and then return home with a brand new 90 day pass. This is fine for a while, especially during the evaluation phase. Although this remained an entirely legal and valid lifestyle, we sensed a shift in the way the Costa Rican government was evaluating the perpetual tourist status. The requirements for residency status were becomming more expensive. The automatic 90 day visa, usually a given upon checking into the country, was no longer as easy to obtain. Proof of either return to your country of origin (in our case, the United States), or onward travel out of Costa Rica was required upon entering the country before any valid visa was granted. In my opinion, a perfectly reasonable request, but one that took time, money and planning. There were other more minor issues that involved banking, obtaining a drivers license, and the ability to conduct business that began to creep up the longer we remained in what I now feel was a form of limbo. It was all this plus a nagging feeling of being temporary, that helped to solidify our decision to spend the time and money to make things more permanent by applying for legal residency.
Once again, long story short, after some perfectly rational requests from immigration officials and some not so rational, downright odd requests, (What do you mean our marriage certificate has expired?!) we finally made it through the process and got our “cedulas” the country wide identification card. At first glance having that small card in my hand, much like a drivers license, made me question if all the time, energy, and thousands of dollars were worth it. Did it really make that much of a difference? After all, it wasn’t a matter of legality as Michael and I had always maintained a legal tourist visa and never overstayed our allotted time. We never abused any social services meant for legal residents/citizens, and kept our noses clean with the law. So why bother?
The only thing I can tell you now is, YES, it’s utterly and completely worth it!! It’s not so much the opportunities, discounts, and conveniences that having a cedula offers, but it makes a huge difference in how we are treated. This is probably more of a personal perception than any overt actions, but we now have a sense of belonging, of being home. When asked for I.D. for anything from traveling, to using a credit card, to banking, to a routine transit police roadside stop…whipping out that cedula versus a passport creates a whole new sense of comradarie, confidence and comfort. Doors have opened, both literally and metaphorically, by becomming a legal resident. Upon entering into the country a few months ago from a visit to the US, I deplanned and dutifully followed the masses towards the immigration counter. Two lines…one for tourists, the other for citizens. I got in the citizen line. A very nice, well-meaning woman standing in front of me in line tapped me on the shoulder and discreetly told me that this was the line for residents of Costa Rica and that it was quite possible I was mistakenly in the wrong
que. Certain that she thought I was some ditzy, virgin tourist who had the attention span of a gnat, I reached into my purse and pulled out my cedula. She gave me a big smile and nodded her head as if to say, “well played, chica, well played.”
Here is where I may ruffle a few feathers and dip my toe into the realm of current events and their propensity for politically charged tension. This whole shift from feeling like a bit of an outsider, a tourist, or extranjero as the Ticos say, was not a passive process. Just because we lept through hoops, saved our pennies, and persevered the governmental red tape to finally hold that cedula in our hands, it didn’t immediately guarantee any newfound feelings of belonging. Yes, we are entirely legal and not subject to living according to the time left on our visa. Yes, we own a home in the community. Yes, we pay our share of taxes and the mandatory premiums to the public healthcare system. All that and more does nothing to give that sense of being home without actively assimilating into the community, culture, language, and lifestyle. This does not by any means mean a loss of heritage for one’s nationality…I’m as patriotic as the next person. But there’s a big wide world out there and I consider myself lucky to be able to live this multicultural life, remove the blinders that keep me focused on living the same life I had in the US, and incorporate new and varied ways of living, thinking, and doing. So yes, I’m going to say it…immigration without assimilation makes one a transplant not a true immigrant, and a lazy one at that. It’s a conscious choice whether or not to be a part of the community, to assimilate and be open to new experiences and most likely a new language. It’s hard work, it’s forcing yourself out of what may be a firmly fixed and long standing comfort zone, but what is gained in return is so much more than can be communicated with words. To view the world through another’s culture is an amazing gift.
While living here as a perpetual tourist is not necessarily living in the “shadows”, as long as it’s done legally and not abused, it can be the preferred choice of many. If, however, a sense of permanence is what you’re after, a sense of belonging…there’s really no place like home.