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(506) 223-1327        Published Monday, May 1, 2006, in Vol. 6, No. 85         E-mail us    
Jo Stuart
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Three elements can bring on culture shock
By Ambika Chawla
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Those planning to re-invent their lives in the tropical paradise of Costa Rica just might be in for a shock: culture shock.

Canadian anthropologist Kalvero Oberg coined the term culture shock in 1954 to describe the anxiety and feelings of disorientation experienced when people have to operate in an different cultural environment. That's when a person finds that the ways that things always have been done no longer work in a new culture. For example, the transportation, the money used, language, and even the sense of humor change when a person enters another country.

Visitors to Costa Rica are often struck with how familiar things appear on the surface, and upon this assumption many make plans to stay permanently. However, the unexpected trials and wide differences in cultural understanding often make adaptation processes much more difficult than previously expected.

According to Ryan Piercy, director of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica,  “an expected 40- 50 percent of those planning to stay in Costa Rica go back. They cannot deal with the inefficiency. Or obtaining their residency takes anywhere from four to six months.  They cannot adapt to the culture.”

Culture shock affects people differently according to the coping strategies each individual employs in order to successfully adapt. Expats who do manage to stay for a long time in Costa Rica do so because they possess patience and flexibility.

A cross section of expats who have lived in Costa Rica for varying lengths of time, in extensive interviews, cited three key cultural differences making life in Costa Rica particularly challenging. These include: different concepts of time, different notions of efficiency and differences in expressing language. 

Cultural differences of time:

William Henry Pringle, originally from Canada, has lived in Costa Rica for 49 years and said he believes that he has never suffered from acute culture shock. However, he does continue to be bothered by what he views as a lack of punctuality on the part of Costa Ricans.

“The only thing that angers me is that my Costa Rican friends will say ´Yes, I'll come over Monday morning,´  but they never do," he said. "This bugs me, and it is quite common. Often they are not hours late — but days late — with no excuse- no phone calls – no apology.”

Eric Liljenstolpe, president of the Global Solutions Group, coordinates workshops and seminars on culture shock for business executives and university students who plan to stay in Costa Rica for extended periods. In his view, different cultures have different notions of time blocks.

“For North Americans, a person is considered late if he/she arrives 10 to 15 minutes after the scheduled time. For Latin Americans, a person is considered late if he/she arrives 30 minutes after the scheduled time,” he said. North Americans often begin to feel tension if a person arrives 15 minutes late, while Latin Americans begin to feel tension if a person arrives 30 minutes after the deadline, he added. Liljenstolpe said he believes that these differences in concepts of time often cause misunderstandings between Costa Ricans and North Americans.

Piercy of the Association of Residents has lived in Costa Rica for eight years. He said he believes that cultural differences in comprehending time can be attributed to the fact that Costa Ricans and North Americans place different value on time.

“In the U.S. time is money. In Costa Rica, time is gold. In Costa Rica, if you run into an old high school friend, you stop and talk and
ask how's the family . . . . Time is for you

'If you are going to take an international move seriously, take your preparation for culture shock seriously. People invest in learning about real estate, health care, transportation, and locations of great restaurants, but they often fail to invest in learning about the culture. This is a grave error because the majority of people who decide to go back home, don't do it because they couldn´t find a refrigerator or a car, they leave because they couldn't adjust to the culture.' 

Eric Liljenstolpe,
president of the Global Solutions Group

and not for you to live binded by it.” He said that expats who learn to adjust to Costa Rican time, better known as Tico time, have a much better chance of successfully acculturating.

Differences in efficiency:

For new expats arriving to Costa Rica, one of the most frustrating obstacles is dealing with what they view to be a lack of efficiency. According to Carol Marujo, a psychologist and organic farmer who works in the rural community of Tulares, “For the first six months to one year, I kept thinking ´what am I doing wrong? I cannot get anything done. Why does it take six months to go to different offices in order to get medical insurance?”

She is just one of the many expats who has had to patiently weave their way through the country´s bureaucratic institutions.  

Piercy said that in North America there is more efficiency, primarily in the services sector. This makes it particularly hard for North Americans to adapt to life in Costa Rica because they have grown accustomed to the speed and efficiency of services in their home country.

Differences in language:

Culture is embedded in language, and misunderstandings often arise due to the ways in which people of distinct cultures express and understand language content. According to Costa Rican psychologist Julietta Segura, “North Americans are more direct. In Costa Rica, we don't say things up front. It is part of our idiosyncrasy. It is considered bad manners.”

Misinterpretations therefore arise because Costa Ricans view their North American counterparts as “rude” while North Americans find Costa Ricans to be “indirect” or even “dishonest.”

Many expats feel that they have had to learn to decode what their Costa Rican work associates and friends are really trying to say. According to Marujo, it is not that Costa Ricans lie more, it is that they are trying to save face. In her words “Costa Ricans don't want to disappoint you. If they don't know the answer, they say to themselves 'I  don't know but I want to give my best guess.'” 

"You have to learn to listen carefully and read between the lines,” she said.

Benefits Outweigh Obstacles:

Despite the numerous challenges and obstacles which expats face in their new homeland, those who have stuck it out are convinced that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The country's strong democratic tradition, innovative environmental programs, museums and cultural activities, and cheaper living costs continue to make Costa Rica a popular destination spot, particularly for tourists and retirees.

According to Julie McKinney, a librarian in Escazú who has lived in Costa Rica for 30 years, “it is important for newcomers to remember that they are guests in someone's country.  A lot here is wonderful and the wonderful outweighs the drawbacks.”

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, May 1, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 85

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Death of North American
investigated in Alajuelita

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Agents are investigating the shooting death of a man who may be a retired North American.

A maid discovered the body Sunday at a Alajuelita residence high above the Central Valley. The man was said to be 70 years old. Although the house was locked and did not look like it had been ransacked, agents are treating the case as a murder and not a suicide.

This is the second death in the area Sunday. At 4 a.m. police were directed to a wounded Francisco Javier Sánchez, 21, in  La Aurora de Alajuelita. He died later in a hospital from a knife wound to the chest. Alajuelita is south of San José.

Our readers' opinions

Racism gets the blame
for Caribbean deficiencies

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
I just wanted to quickly congratulate you on your recent article on “Xenophobia.” While this issue is obviously not only existent in Costa Rica (one doesn't have to travel far in the U.S.A. To see the continued racism there on the part of both blacks and whites), it is a bold and courageous move to bring this issue up in a country that I find doesn’t want to own up to this huge dichotomy in their culture.

In my four years in Costa Rica, I have spent a lot of time on the Caribbean side, and some of my best friends in Costa Rica are on that side of the country because of it. It has always amazed me how many Ticos in San José to Guanacaste have NEVER been to the Caribbean coast, Limón or elsewhere.

The main reason from my observation has always been this racist mindset that continues to exist in the culture and, unfortunately, the world at large. Yet, when one travels over there and gets beyond the surface view of the poverty and trappings that come with most port towns throughout the Caribbean, I have found some of the nicest, happiest, and yes, hardworking and honest Ticos, to be my “friends of color” in the Caribbean.

I have heard many Ticos in San José and on the Pacific side talk about all the crime, drugs, bad roads and general danger of traveling there . . . and in most cases when I press them, they have never been there, or only once for one day.

When you really examine the geography and diversity of the two coasts in Costa Rica, I personally find the Caribbean much prettier, greener and the Ticos more friendly and hospitable, in general.
It is only too bad that this xenophobic state of mind has to date limited so much of the development and tourism capacity the Caribbean side has to offer. With over 300 cruise ships coming into Limón every season with hardly ANY tourism development there to speak of, it is an obvious neglect based on the attitudes your editorial points out by the Costa Rican government and its people.

Instead, they bus people two and a half hours over the dangerous mountain roads to see a couple national landmarks in San José and lunch at an expensive French restaurant, then back to the boat to say goodbye and thanks for visiting Costa Rica.

It is encouraging to hear rumors of World Bank funds coming for Caribbean side development, and a new resort and golf course planned for an area close to Limón. These are first steps to bringing equity to this region of the country, AND exposing tourists to rich traditions and history of Costa Rica that they normally never see.

For some of the best food, parties, beaches and views in Costa Rica . . . tourists AND Ticos should get over their biases and embrace the most diversified and exotic side of their national heritage. It will bring much meaning and human understanding to do so, along with good times and the realization that Costa Rica truly has real white sand beaches — and that its not a bad thing to share them with people that aren't quite as white.
E. Thurston
Panamá City, Panamá

Reader is not impressed
by traffic police idea

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I read you article regarding the proposal to establish a tourism police force in Costa Rica, and I thought I would suggest my own plan to keep tourists from getting robbed and taken advantage of while visiting Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican government can start by cleaning out the thieves from current police force especially among those in the traffic police.

It's embarrassing to hear tourists tell stories about how the had to pay the traffic cop 20,000 colons so they could get their passport back and get on their way.

As residents, we have learned how to deal with this low life element, but visitors will continue to be victimized and then go back to their home countries and tell their sad story.

If the current police force can't be trusted (and they can't), it would just be a waste of time and money to establish a tourist force. On second thought, maybe we need the tourist police to help keep tourist safe from the traffic cops.

John Downs
Playa Avellanas, Guanacaste

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Even the cultural sector will be out protesting today
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

There is a protest planned for today, but the topics are just not the free trade treaty, social policies or similar.

The arts and culture sector is unhappy that the current ministry complex might be taken over by the central government. That includes actors, dancers, painters and other art professionals.

The Arias organization sent up a trial balloon last week suggesting that the president-elect, Óscar Arias Sánchez, had eyes for the culture complex. It is called the Centro Nacional de la Cultura, and it used to be where liquor was made in Costa Rica. The location is just south of the foreign ministry, Casa Amarilla, and near many other government offices and Parque España. The complex takes in a city block.

Arias aides suggested the location was more convenient than the current Casa Presidencial in Zapote.

Some 200 of those involved in various culture industries met last week at the cultural center.

The arts and culture contingent is considering the suggestion from the Arias camp as an attack on culture. "The art and culture are the heritage and right of humanity," said a statement. "Whatever attacks the arts and culture is an attack against humanity. To violate the rights of art and culture is to violate the identity and peace."
The sprawling center includes two theaters, a museum, an outdoor stage. teaching rooms and offices of the Ministerio de Cultural, Juventud y Deportes.

The cultural contingent instructed its supporters to show up today and next Monday dressed in white shirts or blouses and wearing a black ribbon in mourning for the possible loss of the theater.

Today the group is expected to join the traditional workers days parade, where protests of everything from the free trade treaty to compulsory vehicle inspections are the norm.

The original idea about the center which came from the Arias camp said that some other property would be converted into a cultural ministry.

One purpose of the march today will be to emphasize to new legislators that part of the citizenry is unhappy with the free trade treaty with the United States. The treaty is in the legislative hopper for possible ratification.

Deputies who were elected on their party's slate Feb. 5 take office today. The session starts at 9 a.m. and will last through an afternoon speech by President Abel Pacheco, who has a week left in office.

The workers day march is colorful and sometimes creative. The more hardy of the marchers climb Mora hill to conclude their efforts in front of the Asamblea Legislativa building.

Skinflint and lazy walk side by side in this dicho
El aragan y el mezquino andan dos veces el mismo camino.

“The lazy one and the stingy one have to walk the same road twice.” This dicho nearly always proves true. Essentially what it means is that if you do a job half way, it usually will have to be done over, and if you always try to do things on the cheap, then you’ll often end up spending more money than you would have if you had paid for good quality to begin with.

A friend of this column, whose wife is Costa Rican, sent me this dicho, and I immediately remembered hearing it from my grandmother years ago. Of course, to my grandmother all of us kids were araganes, and if she didn’t get this or that new gadget she wanted for her kitchen, then my parents where mezquinos.

Saturday mornings, my brothers and sisters and I were all required to pitch in and help clean the house. I have to admit that I resented this deeply, not because I did not want to work or do my part, but because my parents employed what seemed to me a small army of domestic help primarily for the benefit of my grandmother. Nonetheless, I could rest assured that if I didn’t do my chores to the satisfaction of granny dearest, I’d be doing them over a second time.

One of my tasks was to clean the upstairs bathroom, a job I loathed totally. When I had finished I had to obtain grandmama’s imprimatur. After inspecting every nook, cranny, and fissure of the bathroom (each Saturday I fully expected her to bring a magnifying glass along) if my work passed muster, I would be permitted to go out and play soccer with my friends.

Once, however, I decided not to worry too much with cleaning the sink. But grandmother only shook her head scornfully, clicked her tongue and said, “Sorry, not good enough.” She wouldn’t tell me exactly what was not good enough, and I, of course, was not about to draw her attention to the sink. So, my only recourse was to start all over and clean the entire bathroom again!

But once more my work did not pass inspection, even though I had scrubbed half the porcelain finish off the basin. Finally, after the third cleaning grandmother allowed as how the job was good enough, although she would still not say why she had withheld her approval the previous two times. Needless to say, I never tried to slide anything past my hawk-eyed grandmother again.

Today I consider myself to be a careful and thorough

way we say it

By Daniel Soto

person, and that may be because of a certain lesson I once learned from my dear grandmother.

Mezquino, on the other hand, has never been one of my faults. In fact, I’m sometimes a bit — shall we say — on the lavish side. But I did have a very rich uncle once who could only be described as a total skinflint.

When I was a small boy I liked to visit him at his place of business. That is until one day when I was about 7 years old. I was at his office and he dropped a coin. He looked at me and said, “I never pick up a coin.” Of course I dove to retrieve the money. When I stood up he put forth his hand and said, “. . . because there is always someone around stupid enough to do it for me.”

I was, understandably enough, infuriated. I gave him his damnable coin and resolved then and there never to extend the smallest courtesy to him ever again.

It was a vow I was destined not to keep, for many years later when he was old, partially blind and confined to a wheelchair, he asked me if I would come to his house three days a week to read the newspapers to him and often also legal documents pertaining to his business. Knowing him to be a person who was as parsimonious with his confidence and affection as he was with his money, I imagined he didn’t trust his wife to read the legal documents. But, be that as it may, he was old and sick, and I felt sorry for him. So I took on these little duties to help him out.

Each day, when I had finished reading to him and was ready to leave, he would simply say “Well, guess I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.” He never once thanked me for my assistance.

But, then, he would also often fumble around and drop his pen or some of the papers we were working on, and I, to be sure, never once picked them up without first being politely asked to do so.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, May 1, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 85

24 indictments handed up in peso exchange scheme
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

U.S. and Colombian authorities have arrested 24 suspects in Colombia and the United States for allegedly laundering drug proceeds through an illegal black market peso exchange, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced.

The agency said that in addition to laundering drug proceeds, those arrested also were charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and various other money laundering charges.  The suspects face potential penalties of up to life imprisonment, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The U.S. investigation of the case, code-named Operation Rainmaker, indicated the drug organization laundered drug proceeds in several ways through what is known as the black market peso exchange.  The agency described the peso exchange as a decades-old money-laundering scheme that handles billions of dollars' worth of illicit funds annually.  It is among the primary means by which Colombian drug cartels convert their U.S.-based drug dollars into "clean" pesos that they can use in Colombia.

Julie Myers, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the black market peso exchange "blurs the line between crime and commerce, using global trade to mask international money laundering.  This investigation demonstrates what can be achieved when law enforcement agencies at home and abroad work together to target this sophisticated form of money laundering." 
During the course of the investigation, more than $7.5 million in alleged drug proceeds, more than 24 kilograms of cocaine, and more than 2 kilograms of heroin were seized.

A total of 30 people were charged in indictments with participating in the laundering scheme, but six of those individuals have not yet been arrested. They remain fugitives from the law.  Eight of the defendants in the case were arrested in Colombia by Colombian law authorities.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the United States will seek their extradition from Colombia. 

The remaining 16 defendants were arrested by U.S. authorities in various U.S. locations.

According to U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias in Atlanta and information presented in court:

Beginning in August 2003, Immigration Enforcement-Atlanta initiated a multi-national, multi-agency investigation into a money laundering and drug trafficking organization.

The organization arranged for drug proceeds in the form of U.S. dollars to be picked up in numerous places, including New York City; Brockton, Massachusetts; Atlanta; Philadelphia; and Puerto Rico. Following the pick-up of U.S. currency, an equivalent amount of Colombian pesos was delivered to the organization in Colombia. In some instances, following the money pick-ups, the U.S. dollars, less a commission, were wire transferred into bank accounts in the United States and elsewhere, as instructed by the organization.

Second policeman dies in shootout with robbers
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A policeman died Friday night in a shootout with robbers. The death came a day after another officer died in a hospital from a bullet wound suffered in similar circumstances.

The man who died Friday was Margio Chow Bojorge, 26. He was off-duty and driving in Matina, Provincia de Limón, when he stopped to help a man and two women whose vehicle had malfunctioned.

As he was lending aid, according to police, robbers pulled up in another car intent on sticking up the stricken motorists. It was 11:20 p.m.
Chow pulled a gun, but the robbers shot him three or four times in the chest and fled, officers said. He was a member of the Unidad de Intervención Policial.

The officer who died Thursday, was buried Saturday in the Cementerio La Piedad de Desamparados. He was  Roy Sarmiento Granados, a five-year veteran of the Fuerza Pública who was a member of the Grupo de Inteligencia of the metropolitan police force.

He suffered a bullet wound to the head as he tried to capture robbers who had held up a store on Avendia 10 April 21.

He was working undercover.

Venezuela won't recall ambassador to Lima despite action by Perú
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — The government says it has no plans, for the moment, to withdraw its ambassador from Perú, despite Lima's decision to withdraw the Peruvian ambassador here.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodríguez told state television Sunday that Venezuela will not get drawn into what he called "provocations."

Peru recalled its ambassador to Venezuela Saturday,
citing what it said was Venezuela's "persistent and flagrant interference in Peru's internal affairs."

The move came a day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called Peruvian presidential candidate Alan Garcia "a thief," and again endorsed rival candidate Ollanta Humala. Humala will take part in a presidential runoff election on May 28, in which Garcia will almost certainly be the other candidate.

Chávez said he will cut diplomatic ties with Perú if Garcia is elected president.

Jo Stuart
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