Maybe the honeymoon is over, the bloom is off the rose. I understand and experience the wonder and beauty of Costa Rica, although I am not sure that “pure life” which is the literal translation of “pura vida” ever really described life in Costa Rica. I know that the expression Pura Vida is not just an advertising ploy by the division of tourism, because I hear ordinary people speaking Spanish greet one another and say goodbye by reiterating Pura Vida. Yet I have come to believe that Pura Vida is also used as a marketing ploy by the tourist industry, the real estate industry, and the ministry of tourism to promote an idealized Costa Rica that does not, in fact, exist.
I am certain that every country makes life hard for immigrants. The United States surely has one of the most intimidating and difficult processes in the world, blocking out thousands of people who are well qualified for highly technical jobs as well as ordinary people who simply want a better life through hard work. Whether you are an illegal Mexican immigrant or a hi-tech Asian with a great job opportunity, it is hard to get a green card in the USA. Moreover, increasingly, police officers are used as de facto immigration inspectors, as in Arizona. So why should I be surprised that Costa Rican laws make life difficult for would be residents?
I had a very stressful and infuriating experience this week. First, I was notified that my application for residency has been accepted, and my attorney sent a runner to get an appointment for me at immigration to get a “cedula” or permanent ID card. He thought, and I thought, it would only take a day or two. Meanwhile, I know I need to get a CR driver’s license, so I decided to go to San Jose with a friend so that we could accomplish both errands. We set out Tuesday morning. About 2 hours later, my attorney called to say that my appointment for a cedula would be…December 6! Since we were already on the road, we decided to go ahead anyway to the COSEVI or MOPT (division of transportation) in San Jose for the driver’s licenses. I looked up the process on the web, and made phone calls to both San Jose and the local MOPT office to make certain I had all the paperwork.
After a grueling 7 hour drive in heavy rain and traffic, we got to San Jose, and then got up early to get to the license office by 8AM. No sooner did we get there, but we were told that the law for licenses had changed 3 weeks ago, but the website had not been updated! There were no official announcements. The local officials did not know the new law. The new law is a complete Catch 22. It says that in order to obtain a CR driver’s license, one must have a cedula in hand. Simply being accepted for residency is not sufficient. Moreover, and here is the draconian part, one has to be in the country of Costa Rica for 90 days or more without leaving in order to get a license. But it is illegal to drive here for more than 90 days after one enters with a US driver’s license. You can get a huge ticket, and liability and other auto insurance is invalidated. So the only way to follow the law is to come here, get a cedula (which takes about 2 years), stay 90 days, and then on day 91 take public transportation to San Jose to get a driver’s license. By the way, you also need a medical examination and proof of your blood type for this license. So we drove back empty handed, fuming, and discouraged.
This new law functionally makes every traffic policeman an immigration officer. Traffic tickets are tied to the central computer banks, so if you get a ticket, you can’t leave Costa Rica without paying it. There are traffic policeman on motorcycles stopping tourists at every intersection. What a clever thing! If Costa Rica only wants tourists, no problem! But by making the process for getting a driver’s license and residency tied hand in hand, one virtually has to leave the country every 90 days to stay legal to drive, unless you follow the little pathway I outlined above. If you leave every 90 days or less, you cannot get a CR driver's license!
I am supposed to get a cedula on December 6, and so in late January I can go back to San Jose for a driver’s license. The world will not come to an end. But my heart is heavy and I am confused. I’ll be ok. But I want to ask the government of Costa Rica, are you serious about wanting Costa Rica to be the “silicon valley” of Central America? Are you serious about wanting people to retire here, or to invest here, or to start businesses? Or when push comes to shove, are the people of Costa Rica just as xenophobic as others, advertising a pleasant friendly environment for all of the above, but making it impossibly difficult?
I encountered a similar roadblock when I went to see the President of the Medical College to find out how to volunteer to help my friend, a family doctor in Playa Grande. There are no English speaking psychiatrists in Guanacaste, and my friend wanted me to be able to consult with her about the psychiatric and substance abuse disorders that haunt the ex-pat community as well as the Costa Ricans here. We were told that my credentials from the US are useless. The only way I could work or volunteer here would be to take all of my exams, from first year anatomy and physiology all the way to specialty boards, again, in Spanish! I took the bulk of these tests in the early 1970s, and a lot has changed since then. There is no way I could pass those tests now, even in English, and especially in Spanish. So clearly, the government and medical board of Costa Rica do not want US physicians working in Costa Rica, or even volunteering.
Life is good here, at times. This morning I walked on the beach and swam in the warm ocean, watching the pelicans diving for abundant fish. The butterflies are as big as saucers, and the howler monkeys wake me up at dawn. The sunsets are magnificent! The air is clear and clean. It is peaceful and calm in my home. Pura Vida! But buyer beware! This is not the whole story! Institutionalized misery, like this driver’s license business, plus ubiquitous crime, unpaved roads, terrible traffic, abused animals, and thinly disguised racism and xenophobia are here as well. Life is hard, Dura Vida, and sometimes downright scary.