Give Up Your Gringo Disadvantage

I’ve identified a disadvantage some expats bring along with their luggage – something that impedes adjustment to life in Costa Rica. This insight came to me as I waited in line four hours one morning to receive my Costa Rica drivers’ license. Yes, it was really four hours — my lifetime record for waiting in line.

Actually, there were three lines, stacked end-to-end: one line to get into the door of the licensing office; a second one inside leading to the licensing agents; and for us extranjeros, our second line led to a third upstairs where we waited to see a special agent.

Once inside, mercifully, everyone waiting in line could sit. However, every few minutes someone finished processing. Then the person at the head of the line advanced to see an agent. Each time this occurred, about three dozen people would all stand and move to their next chair in unison as the person who was just served left the room. Then another soul was allowed to enter the office and take the empty first chair. Four security officers closely choreographed this inchworm dance and assured the peace.

I made it to line three upstairs in about two hours. Every so often, an officer would escort someone past my group of waiting extranjeros, straight into the agent’s office, which we were waiting to enter, without apology or explanation. Each time the line was cut, we looked around at each other in exasperation. We all knew this office would close around noon.

There’s nothing quite like waiting beyond one’s limit of patience to reveal character, acculturation, and attitudes. I noticed while waiting, most Costa Ricans chat, socialize, snooze, read, play games, or text on their phones. Most Gringos tend to fidget, frown, look around anxiously, keep checking their watches, and phone their friends to complain.

In North America, a land of drive-through-everything from dry cleaning to marriage, we’re bred to believe we have a fundamental entitlement or Right to Fast, Efficient Service (RFES) in all situations. Lines with more than 3 to 5 people are considered mediaeval impediments to progress, blocking one’s very pursuit of happiness in a violation of a Constitutional RFES.

I first discovered these entitlement issues within myself on that morning when waiting for my Costa Rica drivers license. Then I began to see them in others. I noticed a sense of entitlement could be attached to almost anything, not just one’s RFES. For example, there’s another troublesome entitlement issue called REQLP – Right to Excellent Quality at Low Prices. This shows up at stores in Escazu and similar locations.

The typical Gringo has a finely developed sense of entitlement to never wait longer than five seconds for anything, if even that long. When we are made to wait, our sense of entitlement rears up and we feel violated and victimized. When we make someone else wait, we feel compelled to apologize. Being forced to wait for stuff may mount up over time. I suspect these culturally embedded entitlement issues may be the real reason people go postal.

This whole entitlement discovery has become a major insight for me. I’ve realized any sense of entitlement impedes my smooth transition to life in Costa Rica. I decided to just let it go. I noticed many issues I used to get upset about don’t bother Ticos. I’ve become convinced the cultural sense of entitlement Gringos bring from abroad is entirely misplaced in Costa Rica, where people don’t feel quite so intent on not having their time wasted. I wonder how many Gringos have failed to transition because they just can’t wait?

Now, fully resigned to waiting, I rarely become impatient. I carry reading materials and my beloved, 3G-connected iPad. The Zen of waiting is to not wait – to just keep on living as usual and take advantage of any unscheduled break in some satisfying way. Frustration with waiting comes from lack of planning to have something interesting to do.

I’ve come to believe one of the most important adjustments an expat can make is to discover entitlement issues of all kinds and get over them, replacing indignation and outrage with a willingness to go with the flow and be present, savoring every moment in all it’s possible sweetness – even while waiting in line.

First, I went to where I wanted to be – Costa Rica. Then I chose to be where I wanted when I wanted to be there – in each moment. I can’t tell you how refreshed and relieved I feel and how much the release of entitlement issues has helped me relax into the easygoing pace here with calmer mind and more serene spirit.

Now I see the light. Bureaucracy in Costa Rica is largely about making sure everyone has something to do even if government gets bloated and processes are so inefficient that you need three paper copies of your passport and residency papers to even be allowed to get into line for a drivers license. It’s all part of our collective Pura Vida.

More Soon,

Joseph Riden

About the Writer: After decades as a design engineer, marketer, writer, and entrepreneur, Joseph Riden lives in Costa Rica. He’s a professional angler now and he’s helping to revive a US-based family business, Tycoon

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