How long have you lived overseas?
Its been 10 years. I am 68 and I am making a little money from the coffee I am growing, a little money from renting out pasture, and I am living off the proceeds from selling my house in the U.S. My original plan was to develop this farm to the point where I could earn a bare bones subsistance income from it, maybe $3000 a year. Not there yet. The 1500 mixed native hardwood trees I have planted I consider to me my Social Security. I can sell them for lumber one at a time when I am old, or mill them myself and sell the lumber. And in the meantime I get to enjoy their company!
What made you decide to leave the US?
Mostly it was Dubya either winning reelection or stealing it in Nov 2004, and the refusal of my fellow anti-war , anti-imperialist activists to look at the overwhelming evidence that 9/11 was an inside job. And the wimpiness of the anti-war movement in thinking that marching around some abandoned city streets on a weekend when nobody was in town was the best they could do to stop the invasion of Iraq.
I should mention that I have been spending winters in Mexico and Central America since 1977 and I was involved , during the U.S. wars on the poor in Central America, in solidarity work and voluntary accompaniment work in Guatemala and El Salvador from 1986 to 1996,when the Peace Agreement was signed in Guatemala. International accompaniment is where foreigners use their white skin privilege to accompany folks who are threatened with assassination or disappearance, mostly indigenous leaders, or human rights leaders or labor union leaders, or entire indigenous communities. I have also lived in a Zapatista community. So deciding on Costa Rica was not a big, abrupt thing for me as it might be for others, I have experience in Central America..
I chose Costa Rica because land ownership by foreigners is more secure, though some still do get ripped off through fraud.
What do you miss about not being in the US?
Mostly I miss nutritional yeast for popcorn, tamari soysauce , whole wheat blueberry pancakes and real maple syrup and good turkey for sandwiches. And good roads, the road infrastructure here in Costa Rica is one of the worst points. And road signs, and street signs in towns and cities, and house numbers. I miss a sense of cause and effect which my very rural neighbors seem to lack. I miss bookstores and libraries and intelligent conversation. Or did I really have that much intelligent conversation in the U.S. ? I miss good live music. I miss drivers who know how to drive.
What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?
I picked a somewhat remote rural area in the mountains. I have a small coffee farm . I like the altitude of 900 meters, it is not hot like the lower elevations are. But it is the wild west out here and I had the bad luck to buy a farm in between two psychopaths. How are you going to know how your neighbors will turn out to be when you are a newcomer? I found out years after buying the farm that the reason the owner was selling it was due to credible death threats from my east side neighbor, who has also threatened me and fired shots when I caught him on my land. Go to the law? Ha ha ha. Been there. It might be that the threats towards me were to make me want to sell my farm cheap, because maybe one of the two neighbors, who are related, wants to buy it. I was told that a local who came to ask about buying my farm was actually acting on behalf of the neighbor who threatened me with the machete. Or the threats could be because I agreed
to be a witness against him for the Environmental Agency here for illegally cutting trees right down to the stream.
I had a really good Tico (Costa Rican) family living nearby but they moved.
The hardware and farm and building supply stores drive me crazy. You have to wait in three lines to buy something. First you wait in line to order it, then you get in line to pay, then you get in another line to receive what you are buying. The cashier is always a family member. There are no self service stores because everyone is so dishonest that the owner would be robbed blind by both customers and employees. I am not the first to remark that apparently the Catholic Church does not teach such basic concepts as don't lie, don't steal, honor the Golden Rule.
For further discussion of what is wrong about Costa Rica, google “Moving To and Living In Costa Rica. The Dangers and Pitfalls” by an anonymous author (not me).
What are some of the pleasant surprises you've encountered in your new home?
That I could learn how to be a tropical farmer and specifically a coffee producer. That I could overcome my fear of the fer-de-lance, the most poisonous snake in the Americas, which are everywhere in rural and wild Costa Rica. Oh, the Department of Tourism forgot to tell you about those?
Very low taxes, almost makes you feel like you actually own your place instead of renting it from the government, as you do in the U.S.
Bananas and plantains in various parts of my farm, there for the picking. And little wild tomatoes. And mangoes and avocados. And some fruit drinks that are new to me: guanabana and cas.
The police are friendly! Can you imagine? They may not be especially competent in investigations but they are well meaning and courteous, at least in my interactions with them.
The blue morpho butterfly. The scarlet macaw.
And it is stone cold QUIET where I live. As I write, I hear a bird singing, now a different one, I hear a low insect buzz in the distance, I hear creek water flowing. I hear NO internal combustion engines. Praise the Lord.
This morning I heard the loud raucous call of scarlet macaws and went outside to see two fly over . I have planted two types of tree they like.
Something else I like here. The traditional hardworking rural farm life here has no problem with gender roles. There were logical reasons in the development of human civilization why the man went out and did the grunt work and killed the beasts (and snakes) and the women stayed home to nurture the young and tend to the house.
The local bar and pulperia a few miles from here has NO TV ! I haven't watched TV in 45 years and I can't stand eating in a restaurant or visiting a bar that has the TV on. So this 6 stool bar (and 5 seats outside) is good by me. People actually talk to each other, have conversations ! And there is this wonderful custom. As a new man enters (unfortunately its all men who go to this bar, but that is also why there are almost never fights), he makes the rounds and shakes everybody's hands and exchanges a greeting. I love it. And they include me, even guys from out of the area extend the same courtesy to me of shaking hands and saying hello. On the other hand, when someone has the flu, everyone else gets it from handshaking real fast.
I have a horse! That’s a pleasant surprise. I think of her as my emergency solar powered (photosynthesis grows the grass she eats) transportation.
What are some of the unanticipated problems?
As mentioned, bad luck in having two very bad neighbors.
The police and judicial system do not function very well.
The constant pressure from Costa Ricans to apply chemicals with abandon to the farm, as they do. They are so accepting of chemical agriculture that I fear the knowledge has been lost amongst them of how to farm without chemicals.
Cultural isolation. I chose to NOT confine myself to a community of ex-pats, though many do that. I wanted to immerse myself in authentic Costa Rican culture. Well, I have. Including being threatened by my western neighbor with a machete. I had fantasized a happy, honest, egalitarian society, when in reality Costa Ricans are out to take advantage of foreigners and will lie and cheat and overcharge you almost every time. And they don't have “friends”, they have relatives. And you ain't one. And they therefore have a whole clan to support them and to plot against you, while you have no such clan. Out where I am they are just as Capitalist as back in the U.S., always trying to screw someone, even a relative, to get an advantage. The small farmers here are just as uncaring to the health of the land and the community as , on a larger scale, the big corporate demons back in the U.S. are. This could be because Costa Rica has so little indigenous blood, it's very Spanish. It could be Catholicism (I always try to offend as many groups as possible). The nastiest guys in my area, the ones who also are the worst destroyers of the environment, are the ones who are getting rich and are gaining power. Sound familiar?
What are some advices you have for Americans who also want to get out?
Knowing or learning the language is a must unless you want to hang out with fellow ex-pats at the McDonald’s. If you are a collapsenik or back to the lander like me, you want to live on rural land where you can produce food. Land is a hell of a lot cheaper here than in the U.S. Maybe you should rent first and get to know what the real prices for Costa Ricans are so you don't pay gringo prices, for land and everything else. Also maybe travel til you find an area you like then rent for awhile. Trouble is if you want to live the back to the land homesteading lifestyle, you can't really apply yourself to land you are renting.
A successful transition is part personality (yours) and part luck. But you will seldom hear the negative stories because those people who would tell them want to sell their foreign homes so they can get out. Maintaining Real Estate value or maintaining one's income from tourism is a strong incentive for those of living here to always talk up Costa Rica. When a Tico asks you if this is your first visit to Costa Rica, grab a hold of your wallet. They ask that to determine how stupid and gullible you are, to determine if they can play the “tropical paradise” card and pretend that this is the happiest place in the world and it can be yours if you just sign here.
Anybody can sell real Estate in Costa Rica, there are no rules or licensing. So a broker can mark up the property you are looking at as much as he wants. And he can lie that he is doing so.
Where do you want to be as we head for the worldwide collapse of industrial civilization? I have to say that North American forests seem a lot more hospitable to me than Central and South American jungles ( newly repackaged as “rainforests”). I mean it's hard to sell a snake infested malarial jungle, but just call it a rainforest! You won't find me outside my house here after dark, that's when the fer-de-lance pit viper comes out to hunt . I can't ever walk outside without shoes or with flip flops due to the likelihood of ant bites. Black rubber boots are the everyday wear on farms here. Not very sexy.
But the U.S. is full of guns and TV addicts who have watched a zillion hours of violence on the tube, and the majority think that torture is O.K. And they have zero interest in U.S. foreign policy ( a euphemism for who the U.S. is torturing and slaughtering this week, and which “rebel” group the U.S. is training to later become the next bogeyman who will justify yet more incursions in oil rich lands or where there are potential or actual pipeline routes), as long as the TV works and they can drive to Walmart.....
And it's warm here year around, no struggle with winter. No need for either heat or AC where I live.
Perhaps the ultimate question is : do you leave your friends and kinship group behind to strike out for a new land? On different occasions local people here have asked me, incredulously “You live here without family? '' They cannot imagine living without family. They are right, it's nuts.
So far I still return to U.S. for 2 or 3 months in the summer. Last year, flying from Costa Rica to Newark Airport, I was talking with a young woman seated next to me. I don't usually get into political or other deep conversations with new acquaintances, but she seemed smart and from our conversations I thought she might be open to what I had to say. I told her that actually I was afraid to be back in the U.S., afraid of the police state, afraid that another false flag attack like 9/11 would happen while I was in the U.S. and there would be martial law and I would not be able to get out. As we exited the plane, there was immediately a gauntlet of 6 black uniformed police with German shepherds we had to walk in between. I nudged her with my elbow, and whispered “see what I mean?”
A little later, after going through Customs we passengers were walking fast down a long hall when we came to a 90 degree turn to the right. All of a sudden all passengers were halted, we were being questioned aggressively by black uniformed police who asked questions to catch people off their guard. As my turn came, the cop asked “where were you, what countries were you in, what were you doing there?” I told him, in answer to the last question, “it's what I do”. I later thought a more complete answer would have been “it's what I do. You hassle people in airports, I go to Costa Rica” . A more appropriate answer would have been “What's it to you? This is a free country, ain't it?” But we all know where that would have gone. With me being led off to a room where there were no witnesses.
There are a high proportion of U.S. men living alone out here in the boonies because in general U.S. women (or Canadian or German or French, etc) can't take the social isolation . One newcomer seven or eight miles from me returned to the U.S. a few months ago after his wife moved back and refused to live here anymore. (see “friends and kinship groups”, above). Women can't take the social isolation, but I can't take the noise of close neighbors. Hell is other people and the noise they make. If one is lucky one might find a place a little ways out of a town that is quiet. Until someone new moves in nearby. Latin Americans love noise, they equate it with joy, or excitement, I think. I am an hour from town on a winding mountain road, the closest half of which is not paved. That is the price I pay for quiet.
But what do I or you expect? We of European heritage invaded the Americas inflicting catastrophic, heinous death and suffering on the native peoples. Destroying their exemplary, more-egalitarian-than-us , more sustainable than us, more fun than us lives. Yea yea I know about the Aztecs and the Mayas and the Incas. They were on the same trajectory, it's called civilization. It does not end well. Still, their waste was all bio-degradable. We of the U.S. discovered oil in Pennsylvania, we created a deathly industrial “revolution” that used the skies and the earth and the rivers and the oceans as waste dumps. Now we, with the help of Halliburton, ingeniously have figured out how to pump our toxic waste deep underground, polluting forever water reservoirs. We have created nuclear plants and nuclear wastes that will way out-survive us. We have spread death and suffering around the world with our military. Now the chickens are coming home to
roost, the planet is about to get rid of it's disease. Human industrial civilization is on the way out due to finite supplies of petroleum. Humanity itself may be on its way out sooner rather than later as well due to global warming. And what ? I expect , out of some notion of white entitlement, to find some happy land I can move to and avoid the cataclysm? I should not suffer like everyone else? At least I don't have children. To steal a line from Native American spoken word artist John Trudell : “We are the seventh generation”. And there is no undoing what our previous six generations have done.
Oh, right, one is supposed to end articles on an uplifting note. About how we can still lick this problem if only bla bla bla . Sorry. ( Guess I won't be getting that grant after all.)
If you're an American living abroad, please answer the questions above and send them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org . I'll post all of your answers on this blog, plus a photo or two if you feel like sending them, and please do tell how you're making money in your new country, and give me your age also. Many thanks in advance!
Monday, January 26, 2015
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.