• Kristi Burke

My Move To Costa Rica: Learning To Embrace Struggle With Open Arms

Last week I was sitting on my kitchen floor thinking I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. After months of planning, making calls, planning, filling out paperwork, planning...and more planning, my husband and I were days away from a new life in Costa Rica, but nothing was going right and it seemed like we might never actually get there. Our bags were packed, our lease was up, and we had drained our bank account. If our plan fell through, we would lose everything.

One Week Before Departure:

Our nightmare commenced while attempting to get USDA certification for the four of our cats. Before you bring your pets to Costa Rica, you have to have them evaluated by a USDA certified veterinarian, run several health tests, give them multiple vaccinations and have the certification signed by the doctor, then approved by the USDA. The fun part is that it has be complete within ten days of travel, which is an exceptionally small window considering everything that needs to be accomplished. Unfortunately, our vet office was highly disorganized, and when we arrived for their appointment a little over a week before our departure, we were informed that they had accidentally scheduled us on a day that the USDA doctor was not in. We urgently began calling around to other vet offices in hopes of finding a certified doctor.

We were lucky enough to find a location willing to see them, and after the cats were checked in and getting ready for their procedures, the vet tech combed over a breakdown of costs. When he stated the total, however, my heart dropped into my stomach. I asked him to repeat it because I knew that I must have heard him wrong, or perhaps he was mistaken. Was he looking at someone else's paperwork? He wasn't. What we expected to be a $300-400 process, was triple that. And there was nothing we could do. It either had to be done or we wouldn't be moving to Costa Rica - because there's no way I'm living anywhere without my cats. There was no other option, so we pulled out the credit card and took care of it.

A newer member of our family, Ursa Major AKA Grizzy

Four Days Before Departure:

Although the USDA certification is supposed be a quick turnaround, the fact that we took our cats in on a Thursday right before a holiday weekend meant we had to wait until the following Monday before we would know anything. When the next week rolled around, we received news that two of our cats had been denied for "missing information", as there was the name of a vaccination not included on the documents, and it all had to be refiled and resubmitted for approval. This, they told us, could take another day or two. Our time was running out.

Goose & Grizzy

The next day, I received an email that, once again, my cats had been denied. This time, it was because the date format was written incorrectly by whomever filled out the paperwork. In Costa Rica, they write their dates day first, and then month, then year. The paperwork was filled out according to the American format. Again, days before we were supposed to leave, we were resubmitting the paperwork and waiting on the phone call. Luckily this time it took less than 24 hours before the vet was calling us to give us the good news: all of our babies were approved and going with us to Costa Rica. I wanted to scream in relief. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hug the technician on the other side of the phone. Disaster averted. We could focus again.

Two Days Before Departure:

At this point, we had all of our bags packed, the majority of our household items sold, and were preparing to clean up the house to have it ready for move out. Dave had spent hours on the phone with multiple airline agents, confirming our reservation and bag allowance. Although we hoped to minimize our lives, we also wanted to bring along everything that would help us stay creative. We purchased three 27 gallon storage containers for our clothes, essentials and all of Dave's music equipment. We also planned to check both of our bicycles.

When Dave was attempting to purchase additional checked luggage, he noticed restrictions and limitations we hadn't seen before, and none of the agents we spoke to told us about. We were told that not only were all of our checked bags about 5 times too large for an international trip, but oversized items such as bicycles and the guitar wouldn't be allowed on the flight at all, per United Airlines policy. To say that Dave was devastated is an understatement. He had his own vision of life in Costa Rica, writing songs by an open window and taking his bike to the local downhill trails every week. Like the pull of the undertow, that vision was ripped from beneath him, and he found himself moving to a foreign country without any of his most valuable possessions. We went into this knowing that we would have to make sacrifices, but those sacrifices were quickly piling up and drowning us in a pool of fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and even regret.

So there we were, 48 hours before our flight with way too much luggage already vacuum sealed and taped up, a house that needed a deep clean, and more trash than we could have anticipated, since we were crunched for time and forced to either donate or throw away the majority of what was left - which already was not very much. My wardrobe went from weighing around 30 lbs, to less than 5 lbs. If ever there were a lesson in letting go, this was it.

The Day Of Departure

It didn't take long after our arrival at the airport that we realized just how overloaded with baggage we were. Since we could only take the luggage carts so far, we were forced to carry one backpack stuffed to the brim, a laptop bag (also stuffed with whatever would fit), and two cat carriers - each. We were stressed, sweaty, and out of breath from all the excess weight, just getting to our gate. Getting on the plane wasn't any easier. Because we had so much to carry on, and all of our bags were so full and bulky, getting through the tiny plane aisle felt like trying to squeeze a piece of ice through a soda bottle. I must have apologized twenty times on my way to our seats, as my bags kept bumping into those who had already taken their seats. This process caused my anxiety to bubble up in a pretty severe way, and it took everything in me not to collapse into a panic attack right there in the middle of the plane. All I wanted was to get to my new home with my husband and my cats, and it felt as though every step of the way we were treading through a craggy river against an angry current.

The flight went smoothly, and although we did experience a delay in our layover, we didn't arrive in San Jose much later than anticipated. We were finally off the second and final flight, and customs was our final step. Of course, nothing good comes easy, and we were learning that again and again. As we were giving our passport to the border agent, I heard the soft voice of a woman in line behind me say "excuse me ma'am...one of your cats is out of the bag." My eyes bulged as I looked down and saw one empty carrier with the zipper entrance pulled open, and no cat inside. In that moment, I had no idea where he was or when he got out. Frazzled. my eyes began scanning the room aimlessly. I heard some commotion and voices behind me, and turned around to see Maverick, my sweet, orange escape artist, cowering under the desk of a border agent who was standing outside of the cubicle, wide-eyed and chuckling. Without thought, I lunged for him before realizing I was heading behind the desk of a border agent in foreign country, and stopped myself to ask if it was okay to proceed. I expected a scolding in a language I could barely understand, but luckily everyone was very nice and and able to laugh it off. I'm still unsure how Maverick escaped, but I'm thankful someone else noticed before he got too far.

Maverick, the international escape artist

Our last stop at customs didn't go smoothly either. As customs agents looked over the paperwork for the cats, they developed confused looks on their faces and called a supervisor over to have a closer look. This was my biggest fear from the beginning of this process: having the cats denied entry. With all the hassle we had been through trying to get USDA certification, I fully expected something to go wrong at the border. I watched intently as the agents combed over the paperwork with their brows furrowed, shaking their heads at one another as if to say "no". Dave and I looked at one another with the same worried frown. An agent walked over to us and began asking us questions in Spanish we couldn't understand. Although we've been working together to learn, we only know enough to get around and order food. She kept pointing to the date on our paperwork, shaking her head, and trying to explain her concerns. We couldn't understand her and were trying to find a way to communicate before she just threw her hands up and said "bien, bien", waving us off. We later realized, after processing the exchange, that she was not aware we planned to border jump and come back after our first visa was expired, so she wanted to let us know that in order to bring the cats back to US, we would need to get them re certified after 30 days. I'm just relieved we weren't turned away. Every moment of that exchange was panic-inducing.

The Most Important Lesson

My body hit the seat in the transport van like a docking ship after it's longest journey over the stormiest seas, and the only reaction I could muster up was to cry. The flood of mixed emotions and physical exhaustion had turned me into a chaotic, confused mess. I was lacking sleep, recovering from the physical consequences of an anxiety disorder amidst an international move, and trying to process this foreign place I was about to call my home. I let out all the stress, frustration, anxiety and fear via rivers down my cheeks, and as they soaked into my cloth mask I finally felt a small sliver of peace.

With every challenge we faced before and during our move to Costa Rica, I found myself more confident in my ability to overcome. As I conquered every seemingly impossible obstacle, I started to realize I was capable of making it through anything. I kept recalling mountain biking in Appalachia, and how climbing up the mountain felt so painful, so exhausting, and so many times along the way I would want to give up and turn around, but once I reached the top and felt the rush of a downhill trek, the feelings of accomplishment made the struggle seem almost appealing. Knowing I had been through so much to make it to the other side, and with a story to tell, made me want to do it all over again.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, I was taught to avoid struggle. I was told that struggle was proof I was on the wrong path and I needed to turn to god for guidance, distrusting myself. I was conditioned to see struggle as either a test from god, or punishment from him. When I aged into early adulthood and made typical mistakes, those from my past would jump at the opportunity to claim that my struggles were evidence of god trying to tell me something. So I learned to do everything I could to avoid struggle, perhaps so I could prove to myself that I was always on the right path. I now realize just how erroneous that is.

I believe struggle is to be embraced and utilized as a tool to find peace, happiness and enlightenment. I much prefer the perspective of the Buddha when stated that suffering is unavoidable and stems mostly from desire and ignorance. To struggle isn't to be punished, but to build character and find greater purpose. I spent so much of my life avoiding hardship, believing life would be better if it were easier or more convenient. Now I believe that my attempts to fulfill each and every one of even my smallest of desires has led to a miserable and unfulfilled life.

I have purposefully placed myself in a position less luxurious than my life back home because I truly do believe that the reward of a pure life is much greater than a life of convenience and leisure. I don't have A/C. I'm itching all over from ant bites. I often have trouble communicating with the locals. I wash my clothes in a sink and hang them on a line to dry. I don't have my own transportation and have to rely on others to get me around. I rotate the same three outfits, and I can't find flavored coffee creamer anywhere. Despite all of it, I'm already in love with this life. It's teaching me so much about finding happiness even when I am uncomfortable. I don't need an alarm clock, because I wake early to the sounds of birds every morning. I drink coffee outside as I write and soak in the cool breeze. I see mysterious mountains that make me feel so small, and yet so big, everywhere I go. I move at a slower pace, soaking up every moment, even when doing things like washing my clothes or the dishes. I'm learning to enjoy chores. I'm finding myself to be more patient. Neck and jaw pain is non existent. I hardly watch television and I'm not obsessed with politics. I spend very little time on the couch. My skin is looking clearer, my body feels lighter and healthier, I crave fruit more than the usual junk I consume for comfort. I don't want for anything. I don't have any incessant desires but to continue soaking up these days, and learning more about myself, my environment and my purpose. It's been quite surprising to me that the less I have, the less I seem to want. I like it this way.

The view from our first home in Costa Rica

I'm excited to share more stories about the good experiences I've had here so far, but I thought it was important to stress that my life here isn't smooth and easy. That I've worked really hard and struggled so much to make it here, and I am still experiencing struggle every day (not even as much as my poor husband. But that's for another post). I want to let you know that if I can make it through everything I have gone through to get here, you can make it through whatever struggle you're going through right now. Whatever you're trying to accomplish, whatever you're hoping to find, you have it in you to make it to the other side, no matter how difficult the journey. Struggle shouldn't be avoided, it should be embraced and welcomed with open arms. The more you practice it, the easier you'll handle it in the future. And when you hit the most rugged, stormy seas, you'll be ready to take them on with confidence. Trust yourself and the journey, and never let suffering keep you from finding purpose and peace.

Yours authentically,


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