It all came down to two things; cold weather and a motorcycle. He didn't have any grand plan. He just knew he didn't like cold weather, but he did like riding his motorcycle. Those two facts, and an invitation from friends to take a road trip, led to a life he never could have imagined. That life began when his motorcycle stopped in Costa Rica.
Paul Shepard rented a room in a doctor's house and began learning Spanish quickly. Three months of listening to the radio and living with non-native speakers and he could communicate. When asked whether there was anyone back home who was unsupportive of this unexpected move Paul chuckled, "No, in fact most of my family and friends thought it was a great idea that I move far, far away."
The simple act of reading the local newspaper sitting on a bench one day led to a lifetime as an educator. As Paul described it, "I walked into the teacher thing. I never had plans to be a teacher." The ad in the local paper said "Needed 4th grade English teacher." Paul thought since he had never done that before he should try it. To work as a teacher in the U.S. usually requires a college degree and he didn't have one at that time. But he had already discovered that things worked a little differently in this country, so he applied and got the job.
Over the years he has seen other Americans emigrate with expectations of living the easy life in retirement or starting a business. Most don't last a year, let alone three decades. As Paul says, "Good sense leaves from the soles of their feet when they land." His advice to others with the same idea, "Bring lots of money." As Paul elaborates, "The custom is money buys everything. Most every law can be circumvented if you have enough cash." He cites an example of a regulation that houses are not supposed to be built within 100 meters of high tide. Yet you will see plenty that are because someone was able to offer the right person the right amount of money. He gives another example of no one going to court for traffic violations. People simply ask the police to 'pay the fine' right there when they are stopped.
Paul has seen the country experience some cultural changes through the years. When he first arrived he noticed that no one would line up for the bus, it was just a big crowd at the door with people throwing their things through the windows to save a seat. People now line up for the bus. Another cultural change is that when driving on Costa Rican roads he would see shrines with statues, a cross, flowers or beads to mark where someone had died in an accident. The elaborate shrines are gone, replaced now with crosses painted right on the road or a heart with a circle. He figures the shrines are too expensive now. Two things that haven't changed are the way people drive and the way they give directions. Paul gives fair warning to drivers new to Costa Rica to be careful with rotaries as locals on the inside rotaries will always cut to the outside rotaries to get to their exit. He relays a valuable piece of advice; "A driver can go anywhere he wants as long as he doesn't make eye contact with you. If there is eye contact they will always back down." Another problem when driving in Costa Rica is the prevalence and size of the potholes, which no one seems in a rush to fix. Paul mentions seeing an especially large pothole once where someone had used a broom, weeds and clothes and created a scarecrow and planted it in the pothole to warn others. In an illustration of Costa Rican driving, Paul wryly notes, "Even the scarecrow got flattened." Costa Rican directions are an anomaly. Unlike North America or Europe where directions are given using street names and house numbers, Costa Rican directions are more descriptive and contain directions revolving around landmarks. For example, the directions to someone's house might be given as follows, "Take the main road through town and then turn left at the flowering tree. Make another left at the grocery store and it's the sixth house down with the green gate." The fact that the grocery store was torn down three years ago is not mentioned.
When asked to describe Costa Ricans, Paul says, "Latin Americans are lovable, lazy, liars which after 36 years has been confirmed as mostly accurate." He points out some things that Costa Ricans do better than Americans. "They know how to take it easy; they do a better job at keeping their families together. The family unit is strong. The people eat better and you do not find such a high percent of obesity in the population as you do in the U.S." He also feels their outlook on life is different. For Costa Ricans it is important to have a house and do certain things at certain times.
Friends and family are now used to the idea that Costa Rica is his home, but as Paul says, "Friends and family in the U.S. resent the fact that I have such an easy life. I have a maid. I don't worry a lot." Paul acknowledges all these advantages and adds, "I couldn't afford to live in the same house in the States that I have in Costa Rica. I live in a very nice house." He also cannot complain about the healthcare and retirement benefits Costa Rica provides. However, Paul pointed out a major lifestyle difference between the United States and Costa Rica; efficiency. "In the U.S. you know what's going to happen. In Costa Rica it might take a year to get a phone, but once you have it you never have to worry again."
Ruminating on some of the best things about life in Costa Rica, Paul mentions the great climate with emphasis on the variety of microclimates in such a small country, the safe environment for raising his children and the exotic fruits. He takes a moment to bestow a recipe for a Costa Rican dish called 'Gallina de palo ' which translates as 'tree chicken.' The dish involves taking an iguana and cutting the tails off and cooking them in the coals of a fire on the beach for twenty-five minutes. Laid on a tortilla and sprinkled with some Tabasco sauce Paul describes it as a tasty 'boca.' He does point out that the dish is not as common as it once was as there are more protections in place now for this animal.
He reflects on the motorcycle ride that led to thirty-six years in Central America. What if he hadn't taken up his friends' offer for a road trip? "I have absolutely no idea what my life would be like except to say that it wouldn't have been as much fun."