Now the time of year has come when the sunny days of taking it easy or doing your favorite outdoor activities has ended, and the dreaded door of the fall/winter season has been shut, keeping you inside your climatic cell. Every prisoner has thought of escape, even if the escape will only be temporary…
If your ‘prison’ is an office, a factory, or even sitting in your own home looking out at a cold overcast sky, your mind will ‘escape’ taking you back to the sunshine and sunsets of a better existence. Before, one could only gaze at a few photos in a magazine or catch scenes of a movie; now, we can propel ourselves away from this gloom with a few clicks of the ol’ mouse anytime we choose.
With new expat e-mags springing up like weeds, one only has to Google a destination to be propelled into a cyber-fantasy guaranteeing that your next search will be for a vacation travel package, an escape in itself! The photos and video clips contained by these and other sites will transform your dull day into a delightfully dreamy state of mind.
Escape Artist and EFAM were pioneers of this genre of e-magazines. As a writer I am proud to follow their trailblazing principles offering people peeks into paradise without trying to exploit and change the very soul of the area that made it so attractive in the first place. ‘Pave paradise, put up a parking lot’ – these song lyrics by Joni Mitchell ring through my head when I think of what most expat e-mags are trying to accomplish by ‘preaching paradise to pineapples’.
Pineapples? This is the word that Costa Rican realtors like to use when referring to expats that come wearing their rose-colored glasses with checkbook in hand. They, like real pineapples, are regularly ‘harvested’ in these paradise locations. A percentage leave within a year or two, leaving the real estate agents with more seeds to sow. This turnover makes them easy profits from people selling themselves on the idea of living abroad thanks to the ideas that have been ‘implanted’. My goal with this article is to help prevent people from turning into pineapples!
You may have heard of the various stages that most expats go through, starting with the most potent one, ‘The Honeymoon Stage’. Even with exhaustive Internet investigations, one will be overcome upon arrival with the new ambiance that seems to melt away all problems and concerns. Like falling in love, it will be difficult to see or even care about the defects and downside of your new adventure. Being seaside sipping drinks and fantasizing about what life might be like takes over and blinds them completely. They return home, sell the boat and the Buick, tell their bosses what they can do with their job and loosely plan their return to paradise hoping to create a new life. Retired couples are a little more cautious, but not by much. Imagining a better life in a warm climate has no age limits.
Not long after getting settled in, the honeymoon starts wearing thin for many. Local customs and inconveniences change from being cute and quaint to a pain in the rear. The bargain house or apartment starts to get old fast, listening to the neighbor’s dog barking or even worse – roosters crowing at some ungodly hour. You can’t complain, because it will only build resentment from the locals who can’t understand why you would object to their bi-monthly all-night salsa dance fiestas. Living far from neighbors presents it own share of problems, especially getting robbed when away.
Unless you could easily buy a luxury condo or home in a gated community, you may not be prepared for the reality of what ‘living on $1000 a month’ really is. But regardless of your income or where you might choose to live, there will be other obstacles to overcome as well. The language barrier is something that most people don’t realize will be such a problem in their daily lives. Sure you will soon learn enough to handle restaurants, bars and the local market, but this leaves you to exist on an expat island. Needing an interpreter to accomplish things that were simple back home gets old fast. Remember, it is easier to speak a foreign language than it is to understand it. ‘Gee, why don’t the people here speak like they do on that Rosetta Stone course?’
‘We came because of the weather’ are famous last words of many that haven’t experienced all the seasons of their new location. The off-season is the wet season in most tropical areas. Along with the daily rain comes humidity and insects. Throw in some thunder or tropical storms with torrential rain, power outages, and road closures that arrive with them and your life will be temporarily terrible!
These ‘expat islands’ also tend to get real cliquey – what if you don’t fit in? All these negative factors can drive a wedge between the most well-meaning couples. One is content and the other soon wishes they never had moved. Divorce and despair become the next option for some.
But try not to worry – there are plenty of people that are satisfied with the quality of life that is available, and these are people with imagination. The imagination that mentally transported you away from the gloom of winter can be harnessed in your new location as well. No one plans to fail, but many fail to plan. This is where you can turn things around in your favor. Have a plan of what you would do with your time. A hobby business, volunteering your time and expertise to help locals, or doing those things you have put off all your life are things that you can use to occupy your time. Just lying in a hammock sipping cervezas will soon get old as well. You will learn that life, even in its later stages, must have a purpose.
Have a back-up plan if you decide later you don’t like the location. Sometimes just the next community or province over can make a world of difference. Don’t be tempted to buy a home at first. You didn’t come here to speculate in real estate, you came to start a new life, so avoid sales people or their tours. They will tell you if you decide to leave, you can easily flip it for a profit, but good luck! A good standard rule is to rent for at least a year. In this year you can hopefully befriend some locals whom later you can use to ask prices of places that you see with just a crude ‘se vende’ sign out front. One price for locals and another for gringos is a fact of life south of the border. A mistake some people make on their first visit is not staying in a place that matches their means. Staying in a resort or upscale hotel may become more of a vacation instead of an investigation. Many hotels have some rooms with kitchens that rent reasonably by the month. Using websites like www.airbnb.com to rent a room with locals for a while can give you a big advantage. You will be able to receive unbiased local knowledge from someone that may become a friend also. Rent for long term carefully, and beware of your future neighbors! Visit the location in the evening to check out the noise levels.
Most important – don’t give up! You need to give yourself a minimum of 6 months before deciding it is not for you. After the honeymoon and the following irritation stages pass, one can become quite content after learning to navigate the system, making friends and knowing where all the hidden resources and pleasures are located. Successful candidates will be people who can live similar to the local way of life. This is why you came in the first place, right?
Locals and expats alike have a distain for complainers. The golden rule here is ‘it is easier to change yourself then to try to change everyone else’. If you must comment on local conditions, at least try to inject some good-natured humor. Also prepare yourself for the people that are ‘too friendly’, as misery loves company. You will hear all the gossip (some of which may prove useful…) from them as they try to pry into your past. Stay low-key. People appreciate modest folks. If starting a business is your idea, be especially careful, as you will be infringing on someone else’s turf. My advice – don’t start a business for at least 6 months, but this might not be possible for some people. Check every detail out beforehand. Another tip – befriend a competent and trustworthy taxi driver – they possess a wealth of local information that will prove to make your life easier.
So if you want to be a pineapple, I suggest going to Hawaii, it will be a lot less painful! Just remember, some paradises aren’t meant for everyone, thank God… Above all else – Think like an Escape Artist!