Welcome back! Today, we’re kicking off this summer’s installment of Motherhood Around the World. First up is Mallika Viegas, who lives in Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica, with her husband, son, and dog. Here, she talks about how it feels to move to a sleepy beach town, watch out for the neighborhood crocodile, and witness babies being publicly cherished…
Mallika’s background: Mallika was born in Goa, India, and moved to Canada with her family at age 11. Her husband was also born in Goa, then immigrated to Canada, but they didn’t meet until after college. “We share some friends in Goa, and when we first went back to visit together, people were like, ‘Really? You move to Canada and you meet this guy?!’” she says, laughing. Their son Freddie was born while they were living in Toronto, and Mallika is now a writer and podcast host. Her parents moved to Costa Rica almost a decade ago, and during the pandemic, Douglas, Mallika and Freddie packed up and officially relocated to join them. (“I always joke that they’re trying to escape me, but I keep following them,” she laughs.)
On early mornings: The sun rises at 4:30 a.m., and the birds are very, very, very loud. As new parents, we were anxious about Freddie’s sleep, so when we first got here, we went mad buying blackout curtains and sound machines. Meanwhile, a bird was building a nest outside his window! We eventually gave up; Freddie now wakes up at around 5:45 a.m. Our days start early, and they end early, too.
On beach jaunts: We go to the beach before breakfast every morning — rain or shine. It’s a 10-minute walk from our house, and after one too many Canadian winters, we can’t not go. No matter how many deadlines you have, there’s nothing like getting the tension slapped out of you by a wave at 6:00 a.m. In the evenings, most of the town congregates at the beach, sitting around and watching the surfers. Sometimes Dougie and Freddie will have fresh pineapple or passionfruit juice on the beach while I surf; the next day, we’ll swap. Kids get on boogie boards super early, and you see a lot of eight- and nine-year-olds just killing it surfing.
Many, many Costa Ricans head to the beach on the weekends. In the summer, the highways are actually redirected to have all the lanes going towards the coast on Saturdays, and then back into the cities on Sunday. You have to take inside roads or alternative routes if you want to go in the opposite direction.
On watchful eyes: Kids often play together at the beach. When a toddler faceplants, there’s always an adult picking them up — it doesn’t matter whose kid. There’s a big emphasis on everyone looking out for each other. If Freddie wanders a bit from me, another adult will look around, make eye contact with me, and be like, Okay, he’s yours. We’re good. Although people don’t really scold each other’s kids, everyone will tell your child ‘cuidado’ (‘be careful’), and I’ve definitely been told that my baby needs socks!
On the neighborhood crocodile: Freddie is obsessed with seeing the local ‘dada-do’ (his way of saying ‘cocodrilo,’ which is crocodile in Spanish). Usually, if they’re near beaches, crocodiles are picked up and relocated inland, but this particular croc has laid eggs, so they let her stay. We often see her when we cross the bridge to the beach. We thought ‘watch for crocodiles’ was just one of those things people said, but, lo and behold, there she was in all her giant, prehistoric-esque, toothy glory.
On taking care of the planet: Utmost respect is taught for animals here. Costa Rica has strict regulations that prohibit the pursuit or capture of wild animals, so interacting with wildlife like monkeys or parrots is illegal — and that includes taking selfies! Generally, wildlife leaves you alone, because you’re doing the same. Howler monkeys hang out in the trees around our house; one even sat on our balcony one evening, which was incredible. But that’s where the interaction ends. You do you, monkey.
Hanging at home.
On friendliness: When you’re driving through town, every single person says hello or good morning — even from their bicycles. We feel guilty if we miss waving at someone! Strangers will stop to chat and hand Freddie a flower or rock they’ve found. Also, one thing that is hugely different from our Indian culture is how publicly affectionate people are. Here you see both younger and older couples on the street kissing, hugging and cuddling. Doug and I are pretty affectionate, but this is a whole other level. I love that Freddie is growing up around that.
On bumpy roads: Roads and sidewalks can be really bad. They’re often cracked, because of rain and mismanagement. In smaller towns, driving is hit or miss, so most people just walk on the road. Carrying your baby is the easiest way you can step on and off the road in case of traffic. Also, strollers are very expensive because they’re imported. We are obsessed with our Veer Cruiser, which was our ‘treat yo self’ baby item before we left Canada. The wheels are great on both bumpy sidewalks and sandy beaches.
On cherishing babies: Babies are highly valued in Costa Rica. People seem to have infinite patience with crying babies, even in restaurants or on public transit. Strangers will make silly faces or clucks of comfort or offer to hold your fussy baby while you’re completing a transaction. At our regular parking lot, if it’s raining, the attendant hurries over with an umbrella and gets Freddie out of his carseat. Waiters have brought me glasses of water, unprompted, when they’ve noticed me breastfeeding at the table. It’s so nice to have that public support.
Also, male children engaging with babies is not something I often see in North America. But at the playground here, boys will come up to Freddie and be sweet and affectionate. Hearing a little boy at the market go ‘que lindo’ (‘how cute’) to Freddie melts my heart.
A restaurant in San José.
On where kids belong: In Toronto, there’s not a lot of space that’s for both adults and kids. But here — even in the capital city of San José — restaurants will often have a playground next to the tables. I mean, why can’t you drink a fancy cocktail while your child goes down the slide?
Checking out the hot springs.
On outdoor adventures: Almost every pickup truck has a pipe that looks like a snorkel. It took us forever to figure out what it’s for. Turns out, it’s to store water for drinking or showering while on outdoor adventures. Biking, trekking, and camping are all very popular, and Costa Rica has incredible waterfalls, rainforests and volcanoes. We were blown away when we went to the hot springs — you’re basically in a hot tub in a waterfall. Freddie splashed around like he was in the bath.
On food: Costa Ricans are often surprised when I tell them that Indians generally eat as much rice as they do. Rice is a huge staple here, and we have some kind of rice dish every day. Every house and rental will have a rice cooker. Freddie is obsessed with gallo pinto and regularly eats an entire container of rice and beans with a scrambled egg and fresh tortilla. Every Saturday morning, we head to the feria, a farmers market that winds along the paths of a park. We buy vegetables, fish, the most delicious rye bread, kombucha, and all kinds of crunchy things that I wouldn’t dream of spending on in Toronto but here they’re a fraction of the price.
Freddie’s first birthday, quarantine edition, with my mom.
On being an immigrant: I was worried about being a person of color immigrating to yet another country, but Costa Rica is more multicultural than I had expected. It’s not perfect here, but I never get asked why my English is so good, and Costa Ricans have also been able to pronounce my name on the first try. Every. Single. Time. That might not sound like much but if I had a dollar for every time someone said ‘Monica?’ or just completely butchered it over the past 20 years, I’d be rolling.
On everyday struggles: Because we are immigrants from India first, the downsides that many other immigrants or expats experience in Costa Rica don’t impact us the same way because it’s honestly worse in India. Bureaucracy and red tape when doing paperwork or difficult road infrastructure tend to bother people. Also, Costa Rica is ranked as the most expensive country in Central America. While I miss a lot of things about the ease of parenting in North America, having to tap into my resource brain (no department stores, no play centers, etc.) has been exciting and scary.
On making friends: Making friends has been challenging. We’re trying to meet locals — as well as joining expat communities — but finding people while not speaking fluent Spanish isn’t easy. I’ve had to go outside of my comfort zone. I’ve gone on a couple awkward ‘first dates,’ and couple nice ones as well, but I’m definitely craving a conversation with depth that can only come with time.
Freddie on a rainy walk with his sidekick, Pablo.
On the rainy season: Before we moved, my dad was like, ‘Just so you know, it rains a lot.’ The rainy season is almost half the year; where we live, it usually rains around 3:00 p.m. and continues until evening. My parents are in the mountains, where it can rain nonstop for days on end. You need to embrace it; otherwise you’ll be miserable. The trick is going out every day, which is something we learned during Canadian winters. Everyone has a jacket, even the dog!
Overall, I feel like I’m reliving my childhood, and our nine-year-old dog is spending his senior years in the best way possible. When we talk about how beautiful the country is, Costa Ricans will say, ‘Well, have you met a lot of Costa Rican immigrants in other countries? No? It’s because we don’t leave.’
Thank you so much, Mallika!
(Photos courtesy of Mallika. Crocodile photo by Santi Nuñez/Stocksy.)