By Mark Drolette
Someone asked if I’m content with my decision to leave America.
I’ll put it this way: I’m content with how content I am. Despite a leaky (new) roof, a shower drain that doesn’t, a 10-minute walk down dirt or muddy roads followed by a 20-minute bus ride to town, a neighborhood with no phone lines and a state-run phone company with no cell phone numbers, at least I’m free of one concern: When will Costa Rica attack Iran? (For one thing, it’s pretty hard to do without a military, which Costa Rica hasn’t had since 1949. For another – well, there isn’t another.)
Nonetheless, as much as I’d decided I could no longer tolerate the state of the States, I wondered: Would I miss America? Would I pine for unending war, a dismantled Constitution and politicians so beholden to corporate largesse that Congress’ location really should be called Capital Hill?
My transition, though, has hardly been painless (I moved to Costa Rica from Sacramento in April). It couldn’t have been more difficult leaving my girlfriend, many dear friends and a batch of terrific co-workers at the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, only four blocks from my cool former downtown apartment. Thankfully, life has smoothed out lately but it was rough here at first. Everything was just so, well, foreign. And my Spanish? Oy vey! (See what I mean?)
But Costa Ricans? Friendly as can be. I’ve even received unsolicited waves from passing motorists as I await the bus. Still, the question nagged: Was their amiability sincere, or did Costa Ricans secretly resent yet another immigrant whose arrival assuredly wouldn’t help relieve pressure on ever-rising prices or an already-overburdened social safety net? Also, how did they (gulp) see Americans or, for that matter, America, the global 800-pound gorilla whose planetary standing plummets ever lower from the moral high ground it previously occupied (folks are just so down on torture these days).
I asked restaurateur Francisco Obando, 37, his take on U.S. foreign policy. Labeling Costa Ricans "very peaceful people" (and George W. Bush "a scary person"), he referenced the war in Iraq: "We really have a hard time understanding the reasons … even to begin a war."
Ah, yes, the war. Thus far, I’ve not (knowingly) met a Costa Rican who favors it. Taxi driver Paul Arroyo, 40, spoke bluntly, saying that "Bush wants … everything for himself," and the war is "an excuse for … taking petroleum."
Pointedly, he asked: "Why doesn’t Bush go … take Cuba? He can do it. It’s not very hard for him but nothing interests him there."
Arroyo’s not shooting from the lip; he’s experienced America firsthand, having lived there (legally) from 1997 to 2003. Did he see changes in the United States after 9/11? "It’s two different worlds," he said. Before the attacks, people frequently helped him; afterward, assistance evaporated. Americans were "scared," he said, particularly of foreigners, regardless their origin.
From living in Costa Rica, Obando also has noticed changes regarding the United States – in how it’s perceived. He contends, "9/11 has been used as an excuse for justifying a lot of other actions that have been proved already … didn’t have anything to do with what happened on that day." Consequently, he says, America, and by extension, Americans, have "lost respect all over the world."
Teresa Monestel, 50, brightened, however, when queried about America and its citizens. "I like Americans very much," she declared, adding she has wanted to travel to the United States since she was little, that fellow Costa Ricans who have been there say, "The people are very nice, friendly."
Her 26-year-old son, Jose Carlos Monestel, who runs the roadside cheese stand near my house, takes the pragmatic approach, saying Americans are "good for business."
OK, but how about otherwise? Overall, his impression is "good." (That is good, because I buy my cheese from him.)
’Twas time for the query that most interested me (for some reason): What of someone who loathes his country’s policies and expatriates to, oh, let’s just say, Costa Rica, to live more happily, more freely?
Arroyo could relate since he’s emigrated himself, albeit for economic, rather than political, reasons.
"I tried to go to the States for a better life ... because here, it’s hard to find … a good paying job." He did find good employment in the United States and was well on his way to obtaining legal residency when post-9/11 immigration restrictions crushed his dream. If he harbored animosity, though, it wasn’t detectable.
"I like Americans coming here," he said convincingly. "Everybody here is welcome."
I heard this time and again. Clearly, the welcome mat was out. Any remaining doubts I may have had about the genuineness of Costa Ricans’ hospitality were fading fast.
Jose Carlos Monestel joined the chorus, citing the "many Colombians" who have migrated to Costa Rica to escape domestic oppression. "If things aren’t good in the person’s country politically," Monestel reasoned, "he has two options: He can stay, or go to another country for a better life."
Still, though, doesn’t a citizen have a duty to try to improve things at home?
Yes, Obando replied, a person should "express (his or her) disapproval." He added a caveat, however: "What effect is that going to cause on the overall situation? Probably minimum. And when it comes to media and information … you’ll be reading whatever they want you to read. Sometimes you don’t really have the access to the whole truth. Whoever has the information has the power." (Let’s hope it never comes to that in America.)
Arroyo likely won’t be leading any resistance movements soon, asserting, "It is too hard to stay and fight because little change happens."
For Teresa Monestel, the topic of expatriation couldn’t be more basic. "If I didn’t like the life here or I had a bad life in this country … I would go to another country I liked." But in her case, it’s moot anyway since, as she laughingly explained: "I like Costa Rica!"
Funny, but I’ve been getting that feeling a lot lately myself. In waves.
(published originally in The Sacramento Bee as “Would emigrant do it again? Absolutely”)