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Home abroad -- paradise found? Add to ...

Through my bedroom window, the orange glow of morning illuminates the mist. An exotic quetzal lands on the windowsill, while a record plays an adagio for strings. This is what it will be like living in Costa Rica, I think. But as the clouds rise from the tropical slopes, the record needle dances and skips, and I tumble back to earth.

Even in the sexy Central American country of Costa Rica, toilets don't always flush and paradise sometimes seems lost.

Not so long ago, Costa Rica was a backpacker's hideaway, a stunning and inexpensive travel destination. But secrets are rarely kept for long. Every year, about 50,000 Canadians come to the country to enjoy its bounty: Surf lessons in Jaco by day, pina coladas and warm breezes by night. Hikes through the intoxicating rainforest of Braulio Carrillo and perhaps a rare glimpse of a jaguar or a long and lethal bushmaster snake.

With all these natural wonders, it's easy to see why so many tourists might dream of returning to Costa Rica to live. And some actually do. Ted MacKay, first secretary of public relations for the Canadian embassy in Costa Rica, estimates that close to 6,000 Canadians live in Costa Rica on a permanent basis.

There are many reasons people pack up and move away from the familiar and familial. Some are simply in pursuit of work opportunities or a warmer climate. For others, it's an almost spiritual calling to move abroad and explore the different ways life can be lived.

Russell Maier, a Yukon native, worked for eight months in the West Bank town of Ramallah. After the intifada of September, 2000, Maier sought peace and moved to Costa Rica, a country that has no standing army.

In a less dramatic case, my girlfriend was hired by a child rights organization in the capital, San José, and I came down with her in search of new experiences.

Soon after we arrived in January, we realized that living abroad isn't always easy. Leaving behind friends and family in Toronto and building a life from the ground up is a challenge. Words such as alienation, exaltation and depression have entered my daily lexicon. At times, my mood swings -- with their high peaks and deep valleys -- resemble the Himalayas. And yet my senses still tingle with the unexpected: A conversation with a neighbour or finding my way home through a maze of unfamiliar streets can suddenly seem like a coup.

Making a new life is a delicate process of integrating what's familiar from home -- music, sports, food (maple syrup!) -- with novel elements of an adopted community. It's a mysterious alchemy with no set recipe for success.

Depending on whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full, the list of pros and cons around life in an unfamiliar country will probably look lopsided in the beginning. In San José, for instance, health and safety seem gravely undervalued. I battle the searing pollution and the maniacal driving, which takes two lives a day in this tiny country. The pitted sidewalks and open sewers can swallow a human whole.

In bank doorways, security guards dressed in bad suits, with shotguns pressed against their chests, pose like B-movie cops with fingers always on the trigger. It's a bit overwhelming, coming from a relatively unarmed country.

It's a massive adjustment, one that can easily shatter the fantasy of living abroad. A broken water pipe in Canada may be viewed as a nuisance, but in an unfamiliar, less developed country it can be seen as evidence of incompetence or backwardness. How a person confronts these comparisons and prejudices is an indication of how he or she will adjust.

Several Canadian-run organizations offer support for new residents in Costa Rica to lessen the shock of starting over. The Association of Residents of Costa Rica disseminates legal and health information, while the Canadian embassy has a "meet and greet" every month to give newcomers and veteran residents a chance to interact.

The tourist industry in Costa Rica is a well-oiled machine. A typical visitor will spend a few blissful days in Manuel Antonio sunbathing, while squirrel monkeys play in the trees and iguanas roam the underbrush. But living in Costa Rica, one deals with the same bureaucracy as every other Costa Rican. And being Canadian provides no immunity from the headaches of daily life -- noisy neighbours, hampers filled with dirty laundry, health and financial concerns.

Locals and expats do head out on the weekends, however, for the beaches and parks that have made the country famous.

Jason Alexander Cunliffe, president of the Chamber of Commerce for Costa Rica/Canada, is optimistic about his life in Costa Rica. After five years, he has no plans to move. "Once you transcend certain language and cultural differences," he says, "Canadians and Costa Ricans have a lot in common. They're peaceful and easygoing, like us."

Francis James Pacheco, Cunliffe's associate, adds that unlike Costa Rica, living in places such as "Venezuela or Cuba can feel like you're on skates for the first time."

After three months in Costa Rica, I still feel as if I'm on skates, but my list of pros continues to grow. I do miss Toronto's multiculturalism, but Costa Rica is catching up. Fourteen years ago, when I was first here, rice and beans was pretty much the only game in town. Now, sushi, Jamaican and Asian-fusion cuisine and French crèpes are all part of the culinary landscape.

Adding to my list of pros is living near the vibrant university campus, which provides a great point of entry into Costa Rican life. I've discovered cool joints in which to hang out and sip iced cappuccinos while watching the streets buzz with activity. After only a handful of months, I no longer feel like a ghost in a foreign land. My girlfriend and I have made friends with the neighbours, the parking attendant and some expats.

Former Vancouverite Joanne Loewen, a graphic designer who now lives in Puerto Rico, says that with the right attitude you can flourish abroad. If, however, you are unwilling to understand or integrate into your new environment, always referring to locals as "these people," you won't last more than two years, she predicts.

There are many stories of Canadians moving to Costa Rica or other tropical locales after only one vacation. Not being prepared for the drastic change in language and culture can be overwhelming. Some simply flee back north.

The most important things to bring when moving don't weigh anything: learning to bend like a tree in a storm and a willingness to meet people. After all, paradise is a state of mind. Everywhere else, there will always be leaky pipes in need of fixing and potholes to be hurdled.

For more information, visit the following Web sites: The Canadian Club: ; The Association of Residents of Costa Rica: ; Canadian embassy, Costa Rica:

 

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