Emily: Travel Mother
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Costa Rica, etc.
My name is Emily Shea. Growing up in Maryland, US, I’d always hungered to live in faraway places – and not just in one foreign spot either – I dreamt of a vagabond life. The world offers us so much in nature, cultures and experiences, and I want to spend my life in the constant growth that travel insists. When I married and became a mother, my husband and I agreed to find a way to somehow raise our family “on the road.” After a summer “trial run” in Norway, we decided to sell everything –our house, cars, furniture, etc. – and try our luck at living abroad. We chose Costa Rica as our first stop, as it is a safe, affordable and extremely beautiful and diverse country, and not too far from our original home. We intended to stay for just three months, then venture into South America and over to Europe – but that was two years ago, and we are still in Costa Rica, just twenty minutes’ drive from where we began, actually.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
About a month before we moved to Costa Rica (and began our international journey), I created what is now Travel Mother with my husband. I wanted to share our adventures with my friends and family, and the grandparents especially would need to see regular photos of our two very young children. Our son was two and our daughter was only five months old when we left.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
My most popular post to date is called “The Dark Side of Paradise: 9 Reasons Why You DON’T Want to Live in Costa Rica.” I wrote it when I had a burst of cheeky, sarcastic energy flowing through me. I wanted to express my gratitude for the country we couldn’t seem to part with, in a different way. Those who also adore Costa Rica were enraged with the title, but shortly won over once they realized my own obvious love for “their” country.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Costa Rica differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Life is so enormously different here. Moving here was a massive learning experience, as we knew little Spanish when we arrived, and are used to living in a modern, consumeristic society. Boy is Costa Rica a breath of fresh air! We’ve preferred to stay in the small, rural towns of the Central Valley – a land of coffee fields, machete-wielding farms, and wandering dogs, chickens and children. Allowing the village to truly help raise my own children was definitely uncomfortable at first. People would kindly scoop up my flailing toddler in the grocery store and cradle my baby on the bus. They’d insist on even carrying my sleeping child to my destination when I was on my own with the two. What a loving, genuine and unafraid-to-socialize culture. It’s like a big family down here, and we are heartily included.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Costa Rica? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I wasn’t prepared at all, really. We didn’t do much research besides securing our first short term home rental and updating our passports. We went in to Costa Rica blind, and everything worked out fine. While it might have been helpful to seek out and join the expat community already settled in Costa Rica, I think those first few months in complete cultural submersion was just what we needed.
The only true decision I wish I could go back and change is my daughter’s place of birth. Had she been born in Costa Rica, we could all apply for residency here and not need to exit every ninety days. However, on the other hand, we’ve had some excellent trips caused by these “forced vacations.” Pura Vida, as they say here.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
This story is funny in retrospect, but it was quite scary at the time. We were visiting Omepete Island in Nicaragua, and had taken a solo jaunt into the wilderness. On a volcanic-stone path that looped right off the main road, we encountered a large family of Capuchin Monkeys. In our experience, they are very brave, thieving creatures, so we knew to keep our distance. The thing is, they were crossing our path, so we just stood and photographed them quietly. Suddenly, a very large male ran up behind us, hissing and barring teeth. I made the mistake of “shushing” him like a dog, in an effort to protect my children and this caused a real flare up of monkey-rage.
Three or four other monkeys began chasing us – sometimes just inches away from our legs – right out of the woods. I thought I’d be bitten, but off we continued to stumble swiftly towards the trail exit, carrying both children. I glanced back to see two males piled up onto one another, screaming at us. Once on the main road and back to safety, we could laugh about the situation. What happened? Why were they so furious with us? As I looked at my grinning husband, with my grinning son on his shoulders, I realized that my two “males” were in the same pose of aggression that the Capuchins were exhibiting before we escaped. Oops.
I then made a silly video about the experience, called, “Family Versus Wild Monkeys”, to the horror of my parents.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Costa Rica?
- Be open to change. It is extremely important to leave your own culture behind when you ask to be adopted into a new one. Don’t expect the customer service, cleanliness, and fast-paced type of life that the US is known for.
- Look for the humor in all situations. You could become infuriated when it takes five times as long for a job to be completed, when your water is turned off for several days (a common occurrence in some towns), when you find your children teasing a scorpion (not dangerous here), when your car breaks down, again. The job will get done, the water will return, and you will learn not to freak out at the sight of any tropical bug. Someone will surely pull over and help you with that car – they’ll probably give you a lift home themselves and call their uncle, who owns a tow truck. Everything will work out if you think positively and keep your chin up.
- Learn Spanish. At least learn the common pleasantries. There’s just something beautiful about walking down any street in Costa Rica and receiving a warm “Buenas” from each passing Tico. You are welcome here, and with a little small talk, you are a friend. If you can be open and willing enough to communicate with the people of this country, you will quickly learn to call Costa Rica your “home” too.
How is the expat community in Costa Rica? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
There is a surprising number of expatriates in Costa Rica. There are social groups online with thousands of members. My most useful expat group is on Facebook and it’s called, “Families with Children in the Central Valley, Costa Rica.” There are over three hundred and fifty moms just like me on the surrounding hills, building a new and exciting life for their family. The been-there‐done-that expats of these groups offer a wealth of knowledge for newcomers, and I have had many hopeless questions answered in friendliness and supportive encouragement here. In my own little town of Grecia, the handful of us very like-minded families frequently get together for play dates, holiday celebrations, birthday parties and even group mini‐getaways. We have found some of our closest friends here in Costa Rica.
How would you summarize your expat life in Costa Rica in a single, catchy sentence?
Costa Rica bewitched our vagabond family from the start, so wherever we go, we are in danger of always yearning to return.