I have been grouchy lately. I would say for months. A year? I guess it was lockdowns, canceling multiple plans, and dealing with the ongoing rescheduling aftermath. My initial hopes for a more “normal” 2021 were dashed by personally contracting COVID-19 (it’s still a mystery, since I practically walked around town in a hazmat suit; alcohol sanitizer dripping off me with each step). We’ve all been touched by similar social maladies to one degree or another this past year.
When my husband and I moved to Tamarindo, Costa Rica, we had a plan. We designed a life with our main residence in Costa Rica, and a smaller one in Austin, Texas (returning each autumn for football, family, and frivolity). We also allotted two or three months of each year for international travel. This blueprint had been going swimmingly up until…well, you know. Since late 2019, we have stayed in our tiny beach town (population: 3,000 to 5,000-ish), riding the proverbial viral storm. I post photos on social media of sunsets on the beach, cold Imperial beers, howler monkeys, waterfalls—whatever tickles my fancy. The responses have been a resounding, “You are so lucky” or “You are living the life.”
“I am living the life,” that little voice inside reminded me. “Then why am I so grouchy?” came the reply. I dug deep into my COVID-blurred brain and asked, “Remember being that fresh-eyed expat just eight years ago? Thrilled with each new tantalizing sight, sound, and smell taking the senses into glorious overdrive?” Where was she?
I am living the life. So why am I so grouchy?
It didn’t take much effort to remember the magic. It’s why so many people find Tamarindo to be such an enchanting beach town. But I needed an accomplice. So I reached out to Kelly Montgomery, a native of Oakland, California.
Kelly’s a sassy expat who arrived with her two children exactly when Costa Rica’s borders re-opened to select U.S. states in October 2020. Her social media feeds are flooded with the mesmerizing, yet simple, first-time experiences. Things like watching monkeys wander by while she sits on her terrace, or enjoying that perfect cup of Costa Rican coffee, or building sandcastles with her kids at sunset on Playa Tamarindo’s golden sands.
When Kelly first moved to Oakland 25 years ago, it was about diversity and like-minded folks. “It was a wonderful city to live in back then. But the crime and violence have gotten worse. Everyone is fighting for something, and while that matters to some degree, it leaves everything feeling angry and unsafe. I had to get my kids out. I decided about five or six years ago that I wanted my kids to know other parts of the world and different cultures,” she explains.
Kelly is a licensed psychotherapist and certified health and wellness coach working remotely for her own companies, Healing Happens Therapy and Healing Happens Coaching. “My original plan was to buy a bed and breakfast and conduct health and wellness retreats, since I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. But COVID came and plans changed,” she continues. “I knew I wanted to live on the Pacific coast. After all, it was already my coast. I explored Sámara and really loved it, but it was too sleepy. So, I settled in the Tamarindo area.”
Every time Kelly mentioned something about her new life here, I was reminded to let go of the stress I was holding onto. Her warm and carefree attitude is infectious. “I have long, luxurious mornings for self-care. I am a better mom, a better therapist and coach. Costa Rica is much more affordable for me. I have a maid and a nanny, a private Spanish tutor, and I go to yoga classes on the beach. I am living like a queen.”
Costa Rica is affordable. I am living like a queen.
Kelly reminded me of things I’d started to take for granted. “There is so much more nature here. I swim a lot more. There is so much access to outside activities. Here, you can sit in one place but not get tired of it. I mean, you can see a sea anemone in one direction, a sunset in the other, and hear a foreign language at the same time,” she points out.
“I watch the monkeys go by. I tell my patients ‘these are your therapy monkeys.’ I’ve seen wild horses, and even a wild pig once. I send them photos and they love it.” She is right. The animals are therapy! Lately I have often found myself passing by a howling monkey in a tree and not even glancing upward. Kelly’s enthusiasm reminds me that I need to reconnect with my surroundings, and remember why I love the place so much. That includes thinking about some of the things that I’ve let irritate me over the past year. Tamarindo has quite a few beach vendors selling pottery, jewelry, and annoying bird whistles (most are supporting families back in Nicaragua). Kelly offered her take, “They are hard-working people. In other countries they are relentless. Here you just say “no gracias, pura vida,” and they say “pura vida” back, smile, and leave you alone.”
Life in Tamarindo comes with a broad range of challenges that might not be top of mind when making your relocation plan. There are bugs. Kelly’s Zen-like acceptance puts me to shame: “I have learned to like them. I even take photos of them and look at their cool colors.” And it’s true, I have seen bugs on her newsfeeds. Who gets excited about bugs?
Another regular occurrence is the Papagayo winds, which typically blow on occasion between January and March each year. Sometimes they are strong—you see lawn furniture blowing into the pool and potted plants rolling across your terrace, with dirt flying everywhere. I’d come to think of them as a menace, but perhaps that’s just my recent grouchiness resurfacing. Kelly manages, again, to see an upside. “Yeah, we have to tape the doors. Nothing is sealed properly here. The winds just come through. I got used to it, it’s like a lullaby to sleep. It doesn’t bother me,” she smiles. I am going to remember that lullaby analogy next time my neighbor’s terrace divider screen flaps loudly in the wind!
Although Tamarindo is mostly a flat and walkable town, Kelly quickly realized she wanted to purchase a car. “It’s really difficult not having a car with two children. There are (mostly) no sidewalks. Even just going grocery shopping without a car is not easy. But life here would work with a golf cart or four-wheeler too.” What does she think of the actual driving here, though? “I absolutely love it! I am an aggressive driver. I make the rules myself—taking it into my own hands.”
Kelly, like me, knows life is not perfect anywhere on the planet. There are annoyances we all endure. Like when the ATM runs out of money just when you need to pay your rent (Kelly can’t open a bank account until she’s secured full-time residence status). Another annoyance for newbies? Ticos (Costa Ricans) are rarely on time and you will find that the repair guy may not come today as confirmed. Or tomorrow. Or this month. Her approach is the same as my own: “Just embrace it. It’s part of the lifestyle.” We laughed at the common ground we shared, while enjoying one of those amazing Costa Rican coffees. (Side note: Kelly’s perfectly manicured fingernails actually matched her celeste blue coffee cup.)
There are always other random things which simply become a part of life for those who have lived here a long time. Not necessarily good or bad, just routine. “Be fluid, be patient. I have to go to multiple stores to find everything to cook one recipe. But we have made cooking dinner together fun,” she adds. “Oh, and I had no idea about the goo on the roads. It smells like syrup. So weird, but ingenious.”
To explain: shortly after rainy season, when business owners are fairly assured there will be no more rain for the next four or five months, a sweet smell wafts through the air and the roads get a little gooey all around Tamarindo. Besides the primary roads in town, the secondary and tertiary roads are unpaved. When those Papagayo winds kick up, we experience mini-tornados of dry dust from the roads.
Thankfully, ticos are resourceful. For a fraction of the cost of actually paving the road, business owners pool resources and hire a truck to spray molasses on the road surface. It hardens the next day and remains firm until the first rains in May wash it away. It works. (It probably tastes pretty good, too.)
“Coming from the Bay Area, there is a hidden anxiety level in you,” Kelly admits. “Here, after two or three months, you naturally remove it. There, you think you are fine, but you are not. Working in mental health, I know this to be true. But here, there is a chance for full liberation. In the end it is all worth it. It’s only your mindset that gets in the way.”
Seeing Kelly make positives out of things I’ve allowed to become negatives in my own life, I have to admit that she’s right. Sometimes, life isn’t about making time to stop and smell the roses, but remembering that they’re there. It’s taken a conversation with a newly arrived expat to remind me of what is so wonderful about where I live. And though I’m not about to start licking the road molasses, I shall definitely look up next time I hear a monkey howl.
I don’t think the novelty will wear off for Kelly. She’s found her home here. “I do beach yoga three days a week,” she says. “I was in the relaxation pose at the end of class after a stressful trip to California to complete my paperwork for residence. Usually I have my hands up, but this time I turned my hands down into the beach. I grabbed the sand for two full minutes, tears dripping off my cheeks, and I repeated to myself, ‘This is my land.’”
Tamarindo Beach. This is my land too.