In September Greg Seymour published his second book about living in Costa Rica. Costa Rica Curious is equal parts memoir, travelogue, and how-to guide for those considering a life change and a move to Costa Rica.
Written in a humorous tone, Costa Rica Curious tells the story of how Seymour and his wife decided to break free from the ‘earn-more spend-more’ treadmill of life in the U.S. for a simplified life in Central America. The book is broken up into three sections:
- Know Before You Go discusses the couple’s 10-day due diligence trip to determine if Costa Rica was a fit. On the trip they visited three different areas: the Central Valley town of Grecia, the beaches of Guanacaste, and the Arenal area. They quickly and hilariously became comfortable with some of the country’s quirks.
- Intentionally Unemployed takes the reader back in time and illustrates why they considered such a drastic move at such a young age in the first place. Why they chose to downsize outside of the U.S., how they chose Costa Rica and the Central Valley as their new home, and numerous other decisions. Seymour also spends a good bit of time discussing the taboo subject of money: how much they came with, how much they spend, their monthly budget and the contortions needed to achieve it.
- Welcome to Paradise tells some of the adventures the couple has had in learning to live in a new country and culture and learning new skills and ways of making money that have let them live a life devoid of stress and full of adventure.
Chapter 1–Know Before You Go
Here I Sit, Taking a Shit …
I was trying to find the next line to continue that old poem so often scrawled on rest-stop walls. That’s what I do when confronted with a conundrum, a challenge, or when I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. No, I don’t sit. Well sometimes I do. In fact that’s exactly what I was doing while thinking about this poem. No, what I do when I find myself in an awkward position is make jokes. Either that or I do math.
The tendency to make jokes or do math when faced with adversity was a product of my childhood, and each skill has served me well both as a child and as an adult. I grew up on San Antonio’s poor side, the third child of a preacherman and his wife.
There would eventually be four kids (three boys and one girl) and my dad supported our family of six with an anemic income by preaching to a congregation that numbered 50 on a good Sunday. My mom’s frugality in managing the household, by necessity, matched to the penny the parsimony of the parishioners. Still, with coupon clipping and government cheese our family always ate.
It is only in looking back that I realize life was tough. As a kid the financial matters were unknown to me as was my minority status as one of only three white kids in an elementary school filled with Latinos. What mattered most was having fun. For entertainment we had bikes that we would ride too far from home, we built and jumped unstable ramps, we ran through sprinklers in the hot Texas sun, and when all those things failed to entertain, we had me. I recognized at a young age that humor could garner the lion’s share of my dad’s limited attention; I learned to be funny and when Dad wasn’t around, my siblings endured my talent.
Then there was math; that too, was born out of want. The Sears catalog was a permanent fixture in the kids’ bathroom. The Book rested under a plastered plaque of a boy tinkling toward a toilet and these words, “My aim is to keep this bathroom clean, your aim will help,” and while the pages of The Book would occasionally come to rest in the bra section, more often it was the toy section, or electronics, or pages with things with engines.
Though I looked with lust, I had learned that I didn’t actually need to possess the thing of my desire; I just had to show myself that I could get it. For example, the dirt bike of my dreams cost $250–if I could save just $5 a week, it would be mine in 50 weeks, less than a year. It was of no concern that I did not make $5 a week or any money at all. Or, that if I had any money, it would be spent on candy. That it could be done, that is what mattered.
So there I was, using one of my go-to skills and was working furiously to add something clever or funny as the second line to that infamous poem, all in an attempt to make light of my predicament. The opening line was perfect; it conveyed my exact position–perched with pants around ankles. But while that perverse verse might have reflected what I was doing, it did not accurately reflect my growing anxiety about what to do next.
It was the sign that caused me to pause.
Clear tape adhered the hand-written page to the wall facing me, five feet from ever-widening eyes. Purposefully posted at eye level, the page had a simplicity that belied the information conveyed by the words. Underneath the writing on the sign was an arrow pointing down. Below the arrow, a little trashcan, silver, the kind that provides hands-free hygienic disposal by depressing a lever with a foot.
The sign above the can had both English and Spanish. The English read: Do Not Put Toilet Paper In The Toilet
I concluded the Spanish would yield a similar instruction.
A foreign concept to me experienced in a foreign place, a foreign country in fact. The toilet, sign, and I were all in a little bed and breakfast near the center of Grecia, a small town in Costa Rica.
We had only been in the country for two hours, having flown in from Dallas. It was January 2012 and I was in Costa Rica with my wife, Jen, and her mom, Mary. It was a clandestine trip cloaked as vacation. The reason for the secrecy was that the purpose of the trip was not a normal one.
Jen and I were considering this Central American country (that we had never been to) as a place to retire early. The company I managed was in transition, so it was time for me to make some decisions about my career, and one hair-brained idea was to move to a foreign country. We thought it wise to check out the country before pulling up stakes.
We had asked Mary to come along as she was well traveled, and we needed someone to keep the stardust from obscuring our vision. My parents had a lot on their plates, as my dad’s health was poor, so Jen and I decided the prudent measure would be to not add to their emotional load by only mentioning a move if one became probable.
Before leaving Texas we had arranged for the innkeeper at the bed and breakfast to pick us up at the airport. When asked how we would recognize him, Danny, our ride, simply said, “I am bald, over six feet tall, and I am very white. You can’t miss me.” It was true. After retrieving our luggage and exiting the doors of Juan Santamaria Airport, it did not take effort to find the Canadian, an iceberg jutting from a sea of brown. He greeted us with a big smile and a wave.
The distance of the drive from the airport to Grecia Centro was only 15 miles but took 40 minutes because of traffic. I had read online that Grecia was a farming town, mostly coffee and sugar cane, and so I expected dirt roads occupied with carts pulled by oxen. What I saw was a quaint but modern town with paved roads, restaurants and clothing and grocery stores.
We turned off the main road just as we were passing the landmark metal church and central park. After a few blocks, we pulled up to a non-descript home and Danny parked the Jeep. We retrieved our bags and walked into a humble home. The front door opened to a living area that had a couch, chair, and bookshelves filled with softcovers about Costa Rica. Just past the living area on the left side of the hallway were two rooms. Jen and I put our luggage in one room while Mary did the same in the other. Opposite these two rooms was the bathroom where I was facing my dilemma.
So, there I sat, on the toilet of the B and B Grecia in the Central Valley of Costa Rica on a fact finding trip to see if this country was a fit for us and vice versa–striking my best pose of The Thinker, at a minimum The Stinker–and my mind could just not process the directions the sign was giving me.
My thoughts went something like this: “But it’s toilet paper. I mean, the toilet is its home. Toilet is even its name–T O I L E T paper.”
I was confused and didn’t know what to do. Thinking the problem through a bit more, I wondered if the used paper doesn’t go in the toilet, then where does it go? It must … wait a minute … you’re not saying–my eyes followed the arrow down–the trashcan? I had seen signs like this directed at women, telling them not to flush feminine products down a toilet, which makes sense. But, I am not a woman–what the hell was going on here?
My butt became numb from thinking so much, and I had pretty much determined that I was reading the situation and the sign correctly. There was this nagging fear however. What if I was wrong? What if I had misunderstood the sign? What if I put used toilet paper in the trashcan?
Right now might be a good time to add the small detail that the restroom where I was facing that age-old dilemma, to flush or not to flush, was a shared bathroom. Meaning this restroom, which occupied the space connecting the two main living areas of the home, was shared with everyone staying on the bottom level of the house, as well as by those on the top level if they didn’t have the forethought to use their own restroom before venturing downstairs.
If I did make a mistake with the interpretation of the damn sign, it would be noticed by anyone using the downstairs toilet. I could vividly imagine how the conversation at the communal breakfast the next morning might be a bit … strained. Then again, what would happen if I had read the sign correctly but ignored the warning and instead put the used paper in the toilet? I am not a handy man and I did not see a plunger in sight.
In the end I did what any untraveled North American would do, at least the men. I ignored the sign and did what was most comfortable and non-foreign to me. I flushed the paper, and then I waited. And waited. And waited just a bit longer for the inevitable flooding. The do-do deluge did not come, and I was relieved but still a bit perplexed about what I was SUPPOSED to have done.
Sometime after the epic toilet versus trashcan battle, I saw Danny and deftly worked my bathroom experience into our conversation keeping the details to a minimum. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Um, I flushed toilet paper down the toilet … is that OK?
He: No, I put a sign there written in both English and Spanish to tell people what to do.
He went on to explain that in many places, many times in Costa Rica, plumbing pipes are much smaller in diameter than those in the States, and the pipes just can’t handle today’s two-ply, ultra soft, ultra thick toilet paper. “And yes,” he added, as if I couldn’t follow simple instructions, “you are supposed to place the paper, the used paper, in the trashcan, not the toilet. Just follow the arrow.”
Shortly after this uncomfortable discussion, I told Jen so that she wouldn’t make the same mistake or have to worry about what to do. I put my lips to her ear in a conspiratorial whisper and said, “When you go to the restroom–I know this sounds weird–but you put the used toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet.” I read the look I got in return to mean “no shit, Sherlock,” and she confirmed this by saying, not in a whisper, “I know, there’s a sign. It has an arrow.”
And so it goes:
A precarious position I admit
Saw the arrow
Took my time
Went ahead and ignored the sign
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