hot again today, temperatures in the low 80s. Cloudy, intermittent sun,
white skies, no breeze. Poas Volcano National Park is closed due to ‘significant
volcanic activity’, the first time in 20 years. ‘Last night
the earth shook!’ Alejandra laughs. I slept through it all. ‘I
hate Costa Rica,’ another manager tells me. ‘It rains all
the time.’ Comparisons can be enlightening. I’ve been here
50 days and seen a dozen rain spots twice.
It’s seven months since BCMPInterim’s Anne Morgan called. ‘I’ve
something that might interest you; the location could be a problem though.’ It
was, and it is. Yet here I am considering extending my contract, provided
I can get back to the UK regularly - respite is essential.
‘Something that might interest you’ eventually crystallised
into a four month assignment at an online sports gaming call centre and
marketing facility ten miles west of the capital, San Jose. The company
is housed in a warehouse beside the Prospero Fernandez autopista, or dual
carriageway. For neighbours we have two packaging plants. Opposite is
a soda or snack bar, where the staff eat what is laughingly called ‘smoked
lunch’, fajitas flavoured by exhaust fumes from the cars that rev
and reverse continuously.
Conditions are basic and will remain so until the facility moves next
year. I am lucky; I have an office with a slice of window. If I stand
on tiptoe I can peer across the roofs of the warehouse opposite and see
the mountains of the Cordillera Central range that cocoon the valley.I
have six deliverables and my role is to achieve them through others. This
can be frustrating as my preferred style is hands-on and task-focused.
The first week I felt like a walking version of Munch’s ‘Scream’,
but I’m still here and I’m still smiling. I train, coach,
develop procedures and script a new company handbook. I prod, push, cajole
and progress chase. Every day I walk the call centre floor.
It’s impossible to work here without being affected by the culture.
It permeates everything. TVs blaring across the office, loud voices, shouting,
hugging, kissing, touching, missed deadlines, flakey planning - the sheer
exuberance of it all. Culture shock is too tame an expression for the
Looking for a flat was my first non-work challenge. I had been promised
a shortlist of possibilities on arrival. Nada! Nothing! ‘We have
lots of time,’ said Carolina, the MD’s PA. Two weeks and 30
viewings later I was angry and desperate. I was looking for furnished,
safe and secure accommodation, one bedroom, simple cooking facilities,
clean and quiet, near a few shops, pool if possible. I was taken to empty
five bedroom condos, a house with a live-in canary and an isolated house
up a mountain beside a barn sheltering three oxen. Eventually I found
a flat myself through The Lonely Planet Guide. It’s in an aparthotel,
palm trees outside the window, saucer-sized hibiscus in the garden, multi-cultural
neighbours, worth the search.
Another challenge was finding a reliable taxi driver. I was offered a
car but wouldn’t want to drive here. There are no street signs and
few signposts. The way Costa Ricans - or Ticos, as they call themselves - drive
is machisto by UK standards. Came the day when Viktor Lopez picked me
up. Clean car, seat belts in the back, turned up on time. Perfect! I would
use him to take me to work and bring me home at night. The second week
he was late every evening. The Ticos are never on time,’ the Finance
Director told me. ‘I’m going to try and talk it through with
Viktor,’ I said. The Slovak receptionist in the aparthotel translated
while I talked. I told him his constant lateness felt like a lack of respect.
Since then he has been punctual ‘como un ingles’, punctual
as an Englishman.
This casual attitude to time-keeping is endemic. Mañana does not
mean ‘tomorrow’. Mañana means ‘just not today.’ Another
favourite, scrawled on the bumpers of cars, is ‘si dios quiere’,
if God wants, then it will happen; if not it won’t. It’s a
fatalistic approach that suits taking off to the beach but not working
for a UK multinational company, where it’s viewed as a way of avoiding
Costa Rica is expatriate territory. It would be so easy to fall in with
an expatriate community and never speak a word of Spanish. The life style
here can be very good - maids, gardeners, drivers. Not surprisingly, security
is an issue. Most condos have guards. Windows are barred, even in the
small houses. Cars parked in front yards are behind grids. It’s
not safe to walk out after dark. Streets are ill lit. The few pavements
are strips of rubble that suddenly disappear.
I find the Ticos open, courteous and easy going, especially when I try
to speak their language. My Castillian Spanish was so rusty that it creaked.
So I attend classes twice a week with Iris. I learn fast with her. Less
so with Latin dancing. I had one free lesson, intermediate level. Lost
- six left feet! ‘Move those English ‘eeps Ana,’ Sergio
yelled. How to explain that I’d spent a lifetime trying to hide
them; it was hard to suddenly start wiggling at my age. Never one to give
up, I’ve booked for beginners on Saturday mornings.
Weekdays I work and have dinner with colleagues. Lots of good restaurants.
Weekends I do tourist things and explore. I’ve seen brilliantly
coloured birds, iguanas, crocodiles, caimans, a white nosed coati ambling
beside our car, and one day, a Jesus Christ lizard. I’ve visited
rain and cloud forests and walked sandy beaches wider than Trafalgar Square.
I’ve smelt the stink of a sloth up close and almost personal. I’ve
felt my hair move with the flight of a hummingbird.
As I write I realise how accustomed I’ve become to so much. Barred
houses, armed guards, rubbish in the streets, crazy driving, not throwing
toilet paper down the loo - all part of living here and adapting to a
totally different life style. The assignment came to me from heaven and
Thank you BCMP!