May 9, 2012

Expat American finds love in Costa Rica

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Travel, Women at 6:36 pm by dinaheng

An estimated four to six million Americans live abroad. This is one in a series of interviews with American expats, who offer a unique perspective on the world, and a look at life outside the United States that guide books could never capture.

Kristine Jiménez’s connection to Costa Rica started with a love story.

During the second semester of her junior year at Reed College in Portland, Ore., she did a semester abroad at the University of Costa Rica. The first weekend she arrived was also her birthday weekend, so she convinced some friends to go to the beach. The group took a bus to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, and ended up staying at a hotel called the Cabinas Talamanca, which cost $5 a night.

A month later, the group went back and stayed at the same hotel. It was then that Jiménez met the hotel’s assistant manager.

“My Spanish was mediocre at best, and Eduardo didn’t speak any English, but our connection was electric,” she recalls. “From then on, I traveled between (the university at) San Jose and Puerto Viejo. It was an amazing experience.”

Jiménez returned to Portland to finish her degree, then returned to Costa Rica in 1998. Eduardo had built a bamboo hut on his property, and the two lived there for seven months without running water or electricity, bathing in river water, “until I got a staph infection on my skin and decided I’d had enough of playing Tarzan and Jane,” she laughs. “Besides, my student loans were coming due, and it was time to start thinking about next steps.”

Madly in love, the two wanted to stay together, so when Jiménez moved back to the States, she arranged for a fiance visa for Eduardo, who arrived in Seattle, where Jimenez was living in July 1999. Two months later, the 23-year-olds were married.

The couple stayed in Seattle for six years. Eduardo worked as a carpenter and she did public relations work in corporate America. Then, through a random sequence of events, she discovered the EARTH University Foundation.

EARTH University offers studies in sustainable agriculture and natural resource management, with an emphasis on ethical entrepreneurship, community development, and environmental conservation. Most of its 400 students come from disadvantaged, rural communities around the world. The school’s hope is that after graduation, students will return to their countries to promote social, economic and environmental well-being.

Based in Guacimo, Limon Province, Costa Rica, the campus is in the middle of the tropical rainforest. When Jiménez was offered a job as assistant to Jose Zaglul, the university’s president, she said yes and the couple moved back to Costa Rica in 2005.

“We’re almost finished building a weekend home in the same spot where we had the bamboo hut, and I LOVE what I do,” says Jiménez, who is now director of public relations for EARTH University. “I have a purpose, and in some small way, I am helping to change the world.”

Jiménez, who grew up in Colorado, has a Cuban immigrant mother and a Caucasian father. She says she didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, and thinks her gravitation to Latin America is probably related to her desire to connect with a part of her background she didn’t really experience while growing up in Colorado.

“People’s social networks are fulfilled by family here,” Jiménez says. “My husband has a huge family, and I have a very small family. I find it overwhelming sometimes, but it’s also very comforting to know that so many people are there for you.

“As for cultural differences, people are always late here, and there is a bigger emphasis on appearances. But people are also so incredibly generous with their time, and are always polite.”

Today, the couple has two children — Jacob, 4, and Maya, 2. They live on the EARTH University campus in a three-bedroom house that’s a 10 minute walk from her office and a five minute walk from the elementary school where Jacob attends pre-school. Eduardo does carpentry work, and a nanny watches the children and cleans the house.

“We’re very close to our neighbors here,” she says. “We’re kind of one big family. In the United States, we could go months without talking to our neighbors. Most of us are expats here, so we all rely on one another for our social needs.

“Our kids are growing up here with a lot of peace. They are connected with nature. They are in a safe environment on this campus. They’re being raised fully bi-lingual, and get exposed to a lot of different cultures. There isn’t the pressure for material things that there is in the States.”

She notes there are disadvantages of rearing children in the middle of the rainforest, including the lack of art and sports programs, and an educational system that is adequate, but will probably require some supplemental home schooling.

This Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States, and Jiménez is thinking of putting together a video message from her children and herself for her mother, who now lives in Birmingham.

“Maybe we’ll do something ridiculous, like dance to one of her favorite songs,” Jiménez says. “She hasn’t seen the kids since Christmas, so I think it will be a nice gift for her. She taught me to always try my hardest and teach my kids to do the same, and to encourage my kids to be independent. She taught me that I can be successful professionally, and still be a good mom. It’s not always easy, but it can be done.”

And how will she be spending Mother’s Day in Costa Rica?

“Mother’s Day is a national holiday in Costa Rica, only it’s August 15, not in May,” Jiménez explains. “Since my husband is Costa Rican and we’re living in Costa Rica, we will wait to celebrate in August.”

For those who want to visit Costa Rica, Jiménez recommends visiting Puerto Viejo, the beach community where she met her husband and fell in love.

Her favorite restaurants there include Maxi’s in Manzanillo, “a funky family-owned restaurant right on the beach that serves traditional Caribbean food from Costa Rica — kind of a mix between Jamaican and Costa Rican food with lots of coconut;” Cafe Viejo, “a hot spot at night that serves delicious and simple Italian food,” and Pecora Nera, “a high end Italian restaurant that is perhaps the best food I’ve had in Costa Rica. It’s expensive, but well worth it. There are a lot of Italians who have settled in Puerto Viejo.  Thank goodness for that!”

And if you’d like to experience life in the rainforest, EARTH University offers educational tourism packages, and has a hotel on campus, where visitors can stay.  Check out www.earth.ac.cr for more information.

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