Note from the Ginger Warrior
I met today's guest blogger, Emily Wilson, when I was backpacking in Costa Rica in the summer of 2013. I was in the tourist hotspot of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica sitting in the garden area of Hostel Jacaranda. A rather good-looking young couple were sitting in the same area and as they spoke I heard that the girl had an English accent. Being the shy and retiring type I immediately engaged them in conversation and soon learned that Emily, indeed from England, was now living in Costa Rica's capital San Jose where she had opened her very own cupcake store. I was intrigued, to say the least, and a couple of weeks later, when I found myself in San Jose, I hunted Emily and her cupcake store down (coincidently it was a stone's throw from the hostel I had selected). She obliged me not only by stuffing me full of deliciously fluffy and buttercream topped cupcakes but by sharing her story with me. And it is a wonderful story and one that begs to be shared.
I came to Costa Rica with a backpack filled with flip flops and bikinis and a ticket for a flight leaving six months later. Fast forward five and a half years and I’m finally leaving Costa Rica after unsuccessfully trying to stuff a houseful of belongings into that same backpack.
Flashing back to July 2009, I had just graduated from Edinburgh University with a Law degree that I never planned on using. Looking for a more stimulating adventure, I accepted a job offer to teach English in San Jose, Costa Rica. Living and working on a beach sounded fantastic so I rushed through a certificate in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and headed to sunnier shores.
Costa Rica was nothing like what I had imagined. Three hours away from the nearest beach, the town where I lived and worked was dirty, ugly, and heavily polluted. Instead of beach huts selling fresh coconuts and mango smoothies, the streets were lined with Subway Sandwich Shops and Pizza Huts. Muggings were common, so walking alone wasn’t advised and houses were surrounded by high fences, spikes, and barbed wire.
But I loved it.
Although I’d travelled before, this was the first time I felt truly independent. I explored the city from the bustling central market to the grimy shopping malls. I ate and drank everything I could find, from fried pork skin (chicharrones) to a drink of what looked like floating black tadpoles (chan). I learned Spanish from waiters, bus drivers, and dog walkers, and picked up a few less savoury expressions from construction workers. I flagged down buses and hopped on, not quite confident they were going where I wanted to go. I saw whales breaching, turtles laying eggs, a sloth crawling along a rafter in a bar to escape the rain, and cockroaches scuttling across my shower. I hiked from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean Coast and kayaked with alligators. I watched a volcano erupt and felt several earthquakes. I went caving, surfing, and abseiling. I took ten-hour bus trips into Nicaragua and Panama to renew my visa every three months. I learned to like beer and outgrew doing shots. On occasional beach trips, I ran on the sand, sipped cocktails, and watched breathtaking sunsets. I climbed Mount Chirripo and watched the sun rise over Costa Rica.
I started taking Spanish classes and studied diligently. My teacher boosted my confidence but I found various ways to embarrass myself when I practiced outside the classroom. At dinner with friends I asked for my steak to be rude and kind of weird (grosero y medio raro) instead of thick and medium rare (grueso y medio rojo). I met some intimidating older Costa Ricans and tried to tell them a story about an accident at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, when a man was run over by a rubbish truck (camión). Instead, I told them that he was flattened by a sweet potato (camote). I learned to laugh at myself and poco a poco, or little by little, my Spanish improved.
But even after learning the words for brownies, cakes, and cookies, I still couldn’t find anything to satisfy my sweet tooth. Since Costa Rican baking doesn’t involve real butter or chocolate, I started making my own desserts out of necessity. I learned to bake and developed a reputation among friends for making fun themed birthday cakes.
I loved Costa Rica so much that despite pleas and tears from my family, I extended my teaching contract and cancelled my flight home. When I decided I wasn’t patient enough to teach, I volunteered to work on grant applications and translations for the Red Cross. It was here that I learned one of the most important idiosyncrasies of the Costa Ricans: ahora.
Ahora is translated literally to mean ‘now’ but it is used to refer to any time in the next day or two. Ahorita refers to something a little more timely, maybe happening the same day. Ahora mismo literally means ‘right now’ and ya means that it has already happened, but these are also used to refer to an indefinite moment in the (usually quite distant) future. The moral of the story? Costa Ricans have a very flexible concept of time.
So when my supervisor at the Red Cross told me that there would be funding available for my position ahora, I should have known that this might maybe possibly perhaps materialise in a few months. But after four months of thinking it would happen the next day, I gave up waiting.
In desperate need of an income to prolong my Costa Rican adventure (because as Ceri discovered, Costa Rica is surprisingly expensive!), I looked into getting a visa that would allow me to do anything other than teaching English. But the visa situation in Costa Rica is quite simple: either you’re born with residency, or you marry into it. There are a few exceptions but none of them applied to me, so the only way to stay in Costa Rica legally was to start my own business. I remembered the casual suggestions of opening a bakery and with no other attractive options, decided to start a cake and cupcake business.
The next three years are a blur of excitement, stress, and exhaustion. I experimented with recipes for a year before finding the perfect storefront on the main road in a student neighbourhood. I set up a Facebook page, built a website, and designed signs, menus, and adverts. I waded through an ocean of paperwork to register my business, get a health permit and operating license, and sign up to pay taxes. With the help of an army of friends, I remodelled an empty storefront to make a café with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a storeroom, and fitted it with lights and running water.
Cupcakes turned out to be hugely popular in Costa Rica. I started working alone but soon had to find someone to work with me full time and a few months later I hired a cook and two more girls to work behind the counter.
I sprinted up a very steep learning curve. My Spanish went from intermediate to fluent in months as I discussed cake designs, persuaded a bank to let me open an account, and navigated the very ambiguous Costa Rican legal system of taxes and employment law. Through trial and error I learned how to promote my products, deal with customers, and hire and fire staff. It took a little longer to learn how to balance my work and personal life. I was so involved in the business that I didn’t even notice when my relationship and friendships fell apart.
Two years after opening the café, I had developed 106 flavours of cupcakes and decorated over 500 cakes. The Facebook page had 15,000 likes. My cupcakes had been featured in two articles in the national newspaper, a six-page spread in a food magazine, and a TV show.
Both the business and my life were finally running smoothly when my life took an unexpected turn. I met a boy...
I phoned my mum two weeks after we met to tell her that I had met ‘The One’. Over the next few months we flew around the world to meet each other’s families and on my birthday he asked me to marry him. We decided to leave Costa Rica and move to California, where he’s from. Of course, this meant I had to sell my business.
The sale was emotional. The café held many reminders of successes and failures, of early morning chaos and late night decorating, of tears and laughter. I said goodbye to staff and customers who had become friends and who I will probably never see again. But I took with me memories that I hope I will never forget.
Waiting for my US visa, I’ve buried myself in a new project: a cooking blog. I’m in a strange limbo between two very different stages of my life, excited to move onto the next one. Costa Rica has given me a roller coaster of an adventure and a marathon instead of the sprint I thought I had panned, but the finish line is far, far away from the start line. When I came to Costa Rica I was naïve, enthusiastic, and overly ambitious, but I’m leaving with the confidence of knowing that whatever I decide I want from my life, I will do everything I can to achieve it.
Whether your dream is to start a business, travel, or embark on any other adventure, turn that daydream into a goal. Rise to the challenge and remember that you’re capable of a lot more than you think you are.