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5 things I learned in Costa Rica that serve me as a mother

As I look over this list, I see that it resonates with advice a Costa Rican gave me, which I come back to, often: back to basics.

Parts of Costa Rica look a lot like the area of Colombia that inspires the setting of the movie Encanto.

Wake up with the sun

In the tropics the sun basically comes up and sets at the same time every day, all year long. As a person from about the 44th parallel, this was a surprise to me at first. The longest day of the year is really only around 45 minutes longer than the shortest one, in Costa Rica. There are no long summer dusks, just sunset between 5:30 and 6 PM. And no darkness until 8 AM during winter – the sun is up by 5 AM most days. And so are people. Work begins at 7 AM, or maybe 8 – never 9. In order to enjoy the cooler temperatures of the morning, it is worth it to get up early, and then plan for a slower schedule in the afternoon heat, especially in the hot lowland areas.

Now, back in the land of daylight savings and winter and summer evenings of sun, I’m a mother with two small boys that wake up before 7 AM most days. I admit, it’s HARD to be awakened at 6:30 by an energetic three-year-old’s greeting: “It’s morning time! Get up, get up, get up!” I have learned that if I don’t fight it, we can have time to clean up the kitchen, make and eat a hot breakfast, play with a toy or do a drawing, all before it’s time to go to school. Not a bad way to spend the morning. (Here’s me with that reminder to myself for tomorrow morning.)

Sweep every day

I can name the steps along my transition to reaching the point of appreciating this. First, in my early twenties, I denied the fact that it was necessary to sweep every day. I looked down on Costa Rica women who “wasted their time” on such household chores. Then, when volcanoes spewed ash day after day, or the wind whipped under the door and brought in the dust from the street, I starting seeing the need to sweep more than once a week. And I resented it (anger). Sweeping was not something I had budgeted into my daily schedule. Or even more than once or twice a week.

The next step was acceptance, realizing that my feet felt better if they didn’t have grit on the bottom of them when I wanted to sit on the couch or climb into bed. And now, with two kids under 6, I can sweep the entire upstairs floor, and about 10 minutes later, it needs to be swept again. And guess what? I hardly even notice that I do it, though I do notice how much better it feels to see the floor clean.

Take coffee breaks

I’ve written about this elsewhere, focusing more on the 1-hour lunch break. But the same idea applies – during every four-hour stint of work in Costa Rica, workers knock off, drink a cup of coffee and eat a small snack, and chat, for about 15 minutes. That is, after about 2 hours, a short break. They don’t drink the coffee and eat the snack in front of their computers, or bring work to the break room. They get up, stretch, look at something different, and nourish their bodies and relationships. Of course, some workers have more access to this than others, but it’s pretty built into the culture overall.

Now, I try to remember to stop and take a break – from my work, my kids, chores – and refuel. I am not always good at it, but the cumulative effect of consistent breaks provides even more benefit than each break, in and of itself, so I try to keep it up.

Try to solve a health issue without medication

As a US-ian, I am an expert at keeping over-the counter drugs in the house. My giant bottles of ibuprofen and acetaminophen sit beside vitamins and pepto-bismal and antbiotic ointment. In Costa Rica, I learned that people went to the pharmacy to get those items 2-6 pills at a time as needed. First, they would drink coffee or tea for a headache or anxiety, or blend rice with cinnamon for stomach issues, or apply aloe to skin irritations. Natural food and time with family is seen as good a medicine as most. The focus is more on preventative medicine – actual health, not just health care.

Now I keep my mom-anxiety at bay with tea and a little chocolate (I mean, come on). I ward off tension headaches with yoga, stretching and breathing (you know that ibuprofen isn’t going to touch it, anyway). And I still use medications for myself and my kids. Just perhaps less than I would have.

Take care of your physical belongings and physical appearance

When my colleagues and I would welcome US college students to Costa Rica and orient them about staying with a host family, one of the instructions we would give them was to take special care of the family’s possessions. “Don’t slam doors (in houses or in cars),” we would tell them. “Organize your room and keep your area clean. Costa Ricans take good care of their physical belongings.” In a place where physical goods are more expensive than workers’ wages (the ice cream scoopers at the popular Pops ice cream parlor weigh the cones before serving the appropriate amount to the customer), a door or a table or a kitchen gadget should last decades.

Taking care of one’s possessions seems to be a no-brainer, but the corollary of taking care of my own physical appearance was something that seemed vain and wrong to me, at first. I would see Costa Ricans wearing new clothes, very (I mean very) clean shoes, women with shoes and handbags and fingernails and hair clips that matched each other, perfectly styled hair… I would see these things and think: don’t they have better things to do with their time than worry so much about appearance? What about reading a book, or doing community volunteer work?

What I didn’t realize was that by my own zealous book reading and community work, I was actually neglecting myself. As I rushed from important job to important thought to important… whatever… I wasn’t nurturing or appreciating my own body and health. Taking time to wash and dry my hair, or paint my fingernails, or finding clothes that fit me and made me happy were things that Costa Ricans taught me that made me slow down, breathe, and pay attention to my own well being. Now, during stressful times of a pandemic and so much other trauma in our world, these lessons have served me well. Going overboard isn’t necessary. Taking care of myself is.

As I look over this list, I see that it resonates with advice a Costa Rican gave me, which I come back to, often: back to basics. Getting up when the day starts, taking care of myself and surroundings with what I already have (rather than with things I should want or purchase). It’s not rocket science. But it sure makes a difference.


Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.

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