Expat Advice: Culture Shock in
Mal Pais, Costa Rica
Mal Pais, Costa Rica
An expat in Mal Pais, Costa Rica provides a detailed culture shock report that offers a great example of someone who has learned to roll with the punches that come with expat life in a somewhat remote location. Covers everything from mosquitoes, to finding products from the local grocer, to getting your laptop repaired. And don't for get about the fruit bats and monkey poop!
What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?
If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?
Growing up in Southern Orange County gave me many opportunities to learn and speak Spanish. Boy do I wish I had taken advantage. Moving to Costa Rica without speaking the language has not been too difficult, but I wish I was further along. I am learning new words everyday with the help of a little friend. My neighbors have a 2 year old son. When I visit I ask him how do you say this or that? He is a good teacher. I enjoy learning the language organically and the locals are very helpful. Watching movies with subtitles in Spanish is very helpful as well.
Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?
I traveled to Costa Rica before the move and fell in love with Mal Pais. I knew their would be challenges but I was not worried. I was ready to live a simple life.
How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?
The culture shock was related to the activities of daily living that you take for granted in the US. We have an old washer that is constantly breaking. The rainy season makes it impossible for the clothes to dry and boy do they smell. We had no hot water for the first year and a half. The electricity, water and internet goes out a couple times a month. You just go with the flow. We have candles, a stock of water and it is good for the soul to go without internet.
Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?
Our honeymoon stage lasted a good year, but the mosquitoes in Costa Rica snapped us out of that stage. It became a constant battle. My husband was on a personal mission to "murder" every mosquito he could find. We have whats called (Costa Rica tattoos) our skin in scarred from all the bites. We have settled into the culture quite well, but we share our mosquito bite stories each day over coffee.
What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.
Costa Rica is stress free, especially compared to Southern Orange County CA. We have relaxed and are not always on the move. There are days of what I call (the blues) It can get to you that you are so far away from family, but this only lasts a day or two. The cure is the sunset. We eat and drink less here in Costa Rica. The food is simple and I still cook our usual American dishes at home. The stress in the states had me carrying an extra 15 lbs. I lost those pounds in a month of moving and kept them off. We are very active, walking, biking and swimming.
What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?
We love the Pura Vida vibe. Some people say it doesn't exist, but for us we notice the simple laid back attitude everyday. We love the local people and have made many friends. We appreciate the simplicity. I especially love the surprises! For example, the horses walking down the street grazing on the graze unattended. The iguana that lives on my roof. The monkeys steeling my avocado and then pooping in my floor after I hid all the fruit.
The fruit bat that fell on my computer keyboard out of nowhere!
I love the "you don't see that everyday!" aspect of life here.
What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?
Honestly the most challenging aspect of the new culture is having to still deal with the US on some level. Using Skype to make US phone calls is extremely challenging. I needed my laptop repaired, the taxi took me to the repair shop but the "guy" who does the repair was not there. The taxi driver made a phone call and found another guy who repairs computers. After driving up a narrow dirt road and missing the turn we finally arrived at a private home. A young man approached the car and told me in English " sure i can fix" uh okay I replied. We drove away and I had an uneasy feeling that I just handed over my laptop to a stranger. Several days later and a few desperate emails I got my laptop back in good working order. Everyone I asked about the repair man's good standing was answered with " of yeah I know him, hes a good guy." Another challenge at first was finding certain products in the local grocery store. We have adapted to buying more local products, but one time I asked the store if they had decaf coffee? They promised to order some for me. Everyday or so I would ask "did you get the decaf? The response was "maybe tomorrow" in Spanish of course. I finally gave up asking.
Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!
During the dry season the water can get turned off at any time. One time I had water, but my neighbors did not. My neighbor and his family stood below my stairs and asked me a question. Using my translator, I believed he asked me if his sister could use my shower? everyone was smiling as I replied. "Yes, of course" The neighbor left and said she would return in a few hours. I quickly went upstairs and cleaned my bathroom and shower. The sister did not return much to my surprise until the next day the sister showed up with all her cleaning supplies. My neighbor actually asked if his sister could clean for me. I thought this was so funny, but declined. My apartment is tiny and the bathroom was already clean. Beware of what you agree to!
Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?
The best advice is about expectation. I read many things from expats who complain about this and that. I left the US for a more simple life. I expected the challenges and was willing to look at them as a fun adventure. You cannot have US expectations, you must be flexible and just laugh at the unique cultural challenges and enjoy your new life.
More Expat Advice about Culture Shock in Costa Rica