Please, Give Me Patience....
Updated: Feb 14
For those who don't know, "Pura Vida"-pure life- is the term every Costa Rican uses to answer many common questions or conclude everyday conversations:
"How are you?" "Pura Vida."
"How's it going?" "Pura Vida."
"What do you think of the new neighbor?" "Pura Vida."
Long conversation about blah, blah, blah. "Pura Vida."
"Rony, (our contractor), can you pick up four sacks of cement and confirm the windows are being delivered today for the cabins?" "Pura Vida."
Read any guidebook and they'll talk about this phrase as a reflection of Tico's attitudes toward life. They are generally easygoing and friendly, a perfect embodiment of "Pura Vida." Rony, who I swear talks to Johel these days more than I do as he wraps up our cabin construction project across the street, signs out every interaction they have on WhatsApp with a thumbs up, "Pura Vida" emoji.
So this "Pura Vida" lifestyle and attitude is one of the reasons, of course, that we love living here. We came here for a slower-paced lifestyle, one that has less hustle and bustle and as a result, more freedom and flexibility. But as the weeks and months have gone by, I'm slowly experiencing a little too much "Pura Vida" in certain aspects of my life that are starting to drive me bonkers. I'm beginning to question how much of this one can take without reaching a point where the laid-back, sometimes quite inefficient way of doing things makes you go a little crazy....
I have a former colleague who has also lived in Costa Rica and is married to a Tico. We regularly over Whatsapp exchange jokes (ok, let's be real...horror stories) about visiting a bank in Costa Rica. It's truly one of the most frustrating, time-consuming experiences I can ever recall having and just again today, I got to relive it. I was quickly reminded of why I'd told Johel that if we moved to his country, he would be 100% in charge of any in-person finances we'd have to deal with. I guess I'll have to transfer the house to his name.
Banks in Costa Rica, similar to the US, provide three main kinds of services: Caja (think bank teller for money transactions), Cajeros Automaticos (ATMS), and Plataforma (sitting down with a banker for whatever other kind of additional services). Never, in all the times I have visited a Costa Rican bank, for ANY of these services, has there not been a line. NEVER. And we're not talking one person in front of you doing a 1 minute transaction. We're talking 5-10 people in the ATM line or 3-4 people in the Caja or Plataforma lines - an area that I swear involves a 5 - 10 minute transaction per person. It's nuts. I teach a virtual English class with a banker from Costa Rica. When I (quasi-regularly but always kindly) spew bank-hatred at him during our small talk pre-class, he explains that it is because of two things:
Everyone in Costa Rica does everything last minute. Meaning primarily toward the end of the day. So there are always lines the later in the day you come. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, since once at 8:30 in the morning we needed to make a quick payment and at TWO banks, we faced a 30 minute line. Grrr.
Many, many services that people go to the bank to do are actually available online, but Ticos choose to do them in person. And they are services that require a bit of effort on the bank's end, hence the long lines. My question to him, then, is what is the bank doing to educate/motivate their customers to use the online services so those of us who have no choice but to go to the bank for our inquiry don't have to build in an extra hour to our errand-running? He hasn't answered me yet. Double grrr.
The Hardware Store
The store-whose-name-shall-not-to-be-mentioned is a major hardware store chain in Costa Rica that dominates the market, at least our region, and is really your only option for almost any kind of hardware, lumber or construction purchase. This place is the absolute bane of my existence, even more so than the bank, because I feel like, unlike the bank, whose clients are the ones who appear to cause the endless lines, this store's operations make it so wildly inefficient my head spins. And it's not just one of it's locations: I've been to three different stores of varying sizes many times in the last five months for various requests and only once did I walk out feeling as though it was a reasonably quick transaction. Better said, only once did I leave without an elevated blood pressure.
It's not at all that the sales associates aren't incredibly helpful: they are. In every store. But they have to be. Because not a single item has a price. Or a bar code. So, when you are making any, but in particular larger, purchases like lots of lumber or fencing or toilets or ceramic tile for a house, you have to:
A. Find an associate
B. Walk them around the store with you and point out every item you want so they can then
C. Hand write every item number (7-digits or so long) on a piece of paper to then
D. Head back to the computer and manually enter in the number to inquire about the price and if it's available.
Oh. My. God. You better not plan on making any changes once you choose an item or night will fall before you finish.
Johel and I made the mistake of running several errands together the other day for some construction purchases and started at this store. We made an even bigger mistake of not dropping one of us off and the other one of us running around town doing the other 27 errands we needed to run while Person A was busy at the Hardware-store-who-shall-not-be-named making (what should have been) a 15 minute purchase. (It ended up being about 1.25 hours!)
The worst part is that, even if you don't care about the price and don't need an inquiry but rather just needed to buy some small stuff, the associates still need to gather the numbers (with good ol' pen and paper), enter them manually, bring some of them up from the back, then send your purchase to the cajero to get paid and stamped and only then can you take your stuff home. All I can ever think during this process is: doesn't anyone in this store have somewhere else they need to be or something else they need to be doing? Is anyone else sweating about this like I am? The answer is, of course, no. Pura Vida.
If you're lucky, usually your purchases are all available in the front of the store, because if they are in the warehouse, oh boy. One of my first trips out of quarantine was to one of these stores to get some bare essentials for our house (wastebaskets, shower mats, etc.) a few weeks after arriving. The stop required me to pick up part of my purchase behind one of their larger branches in the warehouse. We pulled in and there were three customers loitering in the middle, apparently waiting for service. There were also two employees on the other side of glass in what appeared to be a break room/waiting area, sipping down a Pepsi and paying no mind. I observed for a moment and then, crazed American style, walked into the break room (politely) to request help. They were immediately helpful and got me just what I needed, but only after getting chastised by the other (waiting Tico) customers as we walked passed the line to grab my items. "Really, dude? I've been standing here for - like - 20 minutes!" Pura Vida.
Have I mentioned the stamps? Oh, stamps. Costa Rica loves them. Everything official (and everything seemingly unofficial as well) has stamps. Like dip-in-the-ink, push-on-the-paper stamps. I don't know if this fits in the "Pura Vida" theme, but to me it comes across as quite unnecessary in most cases and requires a lot of extra time, and yet everyone around me who is getting stamped away doesn't seem to get all worked up about it like I do. So let's say it fits.
Getting cash from the bank? They'll count it, print receipts, stamp them (there will be several!), wrap your cash, stamp the wrapper, and then I think you'll be good to go.
Buying anything of value? Work with your sales associate to select your items, then go elsewhere (the cajero) to pay (and get your receipts - stamped, of course), then take one (or both? - I'm never sure and just hand over everything I have to the employee at stop number #3 just so I can get the hell out of the store). At stop #3, they'll take your cajero papers, evaluate your purchase, stamp (again!) your receipts, and give you your merchandise.
Registering for school? Better have stamps! I recently registered the kids at a nearby public school that's meeting one time per week just for some social interaction with kids outside of the family, and when I presented their US grade summaries during registration, the director literally laughed in my face. "Did you print these? (for the record, the answer is 'no'. They were the end of year reports the school distributed for each student.) Where are the stamps?" That they were not stamped on each page was, to her, a sure sign that I myself had spent (hours) drawing up false summaries of the several years each of kids had been in school.
Fine. Need stamps? I can make that work. A quick email to the wonderful director at the kids' US school ("please, if you have any stamp of any kind, can you put it on the letter?") resulted in a nice, concise letter fully official with a return-address stamp smack in the middle, all within 24 hours. It did the trick, and I am learning. Pura Vida.