While living in Costa Rica, I’ve met many people that do not have an online presence, but would rule the internet with their interesting stories. In this new series, I coerce them (hehe) into sharing their story with me in an expat interview.
My goal is to share a good story, break out of my introvert shell, give a more colorful profile of what makes an expat, and explore how wonderfully different and similar we are all.
Today’s expat interview is with Tiger. She is originally from The United States and has been living in Costa Rica for about 7 years.
Tiger was one of the first friends I made in Costa Rica. I just happened to be staying at her house for many major crises in my life, totally coincidental – the breakup with my Tico boyfriend, my sister’s near death experience, my dog’s death, and me getting violently ill. Geez, I hope one day Tiger gets to know the not-in-crisis Erin!
Before we get into talking about Costa Rica, can you tell us about your name?
My name is Tiger Baby.
It originally came from the flip side of an album by The Silver Convention “Fly Robin Fly.” The song was called Tiger Baby and it was a song I danced to at a bar called The Bare Affair in Fairbanks, Alaska.
When I moved to Japan to dance, I just kept using the same name until I was 28, at which time my manager told me that I was too old to be called Miss Baby and would henceforth be referred to as Tiger.
I want to hear more about that! We’ll come back to your time in Japan as a dancer, but first let’s hear about Costa Rica. How long have you been living in Costa Rica, and why did you move to Costa Rica?
I moved here in 2010. After my husband, Jim, passed I just didn’t want to work or live in San Francisco anymore. There were too many memories everywhere.
I was talking to my friend, who happened to be my hairdresser, at the time. He told me a story about his boss, the woman who owned the salon. She bought 27 hectares of land for a really low price 20 years earlier and was selling off parcels to all her friends and employees, somewhere in Nicoya.
He asked me if I wanted to split his hectare with him, so I decided to sell our house in San Franciscio and go check it out. It turned out to be super hot and humid and the land had no water or electricity so I passed on that, but liked Costa Rica and moved down to Mal Pais.
I didn’t really like Mal Pais.
It was so hot, so many bugs, nothing to do but surf and hang out on the beach and go watch sunset. I wanted to be closer to organic food markets, movies and theater, museums and shopping and my own place. So I looked on Craig’s list and found a woman renting a room in Escazú and went to check that out.
I liked Escazú, but she only had an opening for a week. There was another apartment in the building for rent and I decided to take it despite the fact that it had four bedrooms. I figured I could rent out the other three and that became my first Tiger’s Den.
How do you make your living in Costa Rica?
What are the pros and cons of living in Costa Rica?
Well the pros are many. Great weather, land taxes are cheap, labor is cheap, fruits and veggies are cheap. I love my house and my yard, I love to cook and to entertain. All in all life is good.
On the con side, workers never show up when they say they will and sometimes it drives me crazy, but I figure that’s my problem, not Costa Rica’s.
I have made some good friends, and seem to have an uncanny knack for getting people visiting my B&B that enjoy my cooking, going to the farmers markets with me, going sightseeing, making art or just hanging out. So I’m not lonely. I’ve also been lucky in love and that’s helped a lot.
How do you define success
To me success is being able to wake up and go to sleep whenever I want.
To be free to pursue my love of art, mostly sculpture and ceramics and not have to do boring repetitive tasks if I don’t choose to.
To be able to take long hikes in the mountains with my dogs every day.
To have good food to cook and share and not to worry about money too much.
What do you fear?
Getting old and being a burden on someone. I want to stay healthy and independent.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three things would you have with you and why?
My chefs knife.
And my music.
Can you tell us more about your travels and time in Japan?
When I was a kid my dad flew a little two seater Cessna 150 to work. I got used to flying around, so hitchhiking around Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and the Dutch West Indies by airplane seemed like a natural thing to do.
When I was modeling lingerie in Puerto Rico, I met a guy on a scuba cruise who suggested we move to Alaska because we were both certified welders and could make lots of money. So I did.
When the pipeline in Alaska was coming to an end, I started dancing to keep the big bucks coming in.
One day a talent scout on his way back to Japan got snowed in in Alaska. He traveled to Fairbanks, caught my act, and offered me a job with a two months entertainment visa in Japan.
Did you take the job?
Yes, I jumped at the opportunity for several reasons – the money, an all expense paid trip to Japan including hotels, plus all meals and transportation. I kept secret the fact that my entire Japanese vocabulary consisted of only 5 words: geisha, samarai, sayonara, sushi, and harikari.
So off I went with my huge costume trunk and a baffling contract demanding I must be brond, and not brack eyed (blond and not black eyed).
What was your first day in Japan like?
When I arrived it was overwhelming to say the least. My agent picked me up at the airport and took me to register as a gaijin (foreigner) and to get a gaijin torokusho, which was a card with my picture and thumb print on it that I was required to have with me at all times.
By then I’d been up for more then 24 hours and was starting to feel the effects of the free booze on the flight, not much food, and everything around me being spoken in a language I had no comprehension of what so ever.
I was immediately taken to audition.
I had to change in a tiny Japanese style bathroom and was told I couldn’t wear my high heels because “no shoes indoors.” So my costume dragged 3″ too long. The stage was only about 3 feet wide. They all gathered around to watch me dance. I stripped in front of a bunch of men, who I assumed were all talking about me, to the radio playing awkward Japanese music.
Finally it was over. No one clapped, but Tad told me they were happy and I should go to bed because I had a 12-hour train ride first thing in the morning to Hokkaido.
They put me in a Japanese themed love hotel (rooms that were usually rented by the hour). It had a miniature Mt. Fuji with a slide going into the tub, big fluffy futons on a round panel that turned in circles, and it was surrounded on all sides and above by mirrors.
Were you on an entertainment visa the whole time?
No just 6 months – 3 2-month entertainment visas. When those expired, I got a student visa. I had to attend school 20 hours a week and keep a B average. I studied Japanese for 5 hours a day and danced at night.
A few years later I married my first Japanese husband and got a residential visa. I continued working and studying for about 12 years after I first arrived.
Where did you go after 12 years in Japan?
I went back to San Francisco, bought an apartment house, and started a company called Leo Tiger with my Japanese friend Leo. I rented a huge loft in Oakland and hired a bunch of people from Japan to make clothes. It’s a long story but that ended when I got robbed of a whole season’s merchandise and had to borrow money to pay my employees.
I then returned to Japan for another eight years and married a handsome young Japanese bodybuilder. I got him books on bodybuilding in English and translated them into Japanese for him. He started winning bodybuilding competitions and soon his friends wanted me to train them, too. That’s when I switched from teaching aerobics to being a personal trainer, which I continued when I returned to The States after hubby #2 got someone else pregnant and left me. Insert sad face.
That sucks. What was San Francisco like?
When I moved back to San Francisco, it was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I was a home health care nurse for most of my friends as they dropped like flies all around me. Insert face with tears.
In addition to nursing for PWA’S (people with AIDS), I was also a personal trainer, bartender, and I did lots of drinking and drugging to numb the pain and to try and have some fun despite all the death around me.
Enter Japanese husband #3 – a gay friend of mine who was my roommate and needed a green card. That lasted 2 years. He got a green card, I got my rent paid for two years. Win/win.
Finally, I settled down for about 15 years in San Francisco after another year of traveling. This time I was a translator for a nice Japanese man who had been a kamikaze pilot in World War II. (He was saved from flying to his death by Americans) He wanted to travel all over the world. That was fun for a year, but I got tired and longed for a real home and a real relationship.
So I returned to San Francisco where I tended bar at night and trained elite athletes and others at the Four Seasons during the day. I met my fourth husband, Jim, there.
Jim and I had some problems, but were basically very happy. One problem was that I wanted to get married and he didn’t. He finally proposed after 10 years and we were wed in a small, but beautiful ceremony attended by all our friends and family. We had an amazing honeymoon in Europe for six weeks. When we returned I went off to work for a couple of days. When I came back, I found him dead of a massive coronary heart attack. That was October 19, 2009. Our marriage was short, but we had a wonderful ten years together.
Shortly after, I moved to Costa Rica.
How has your experience in Costa Rica compared to your time in Japan?
My experiences in Japan and Costa Rica have differed in every way imaginable. I was really young in Puerto Rico and Japan. I was pretty crazy, too. By the time I arrived in Costa Rica, I had been through so much…I felt dead inside. I felt like I was just going through the motions of life, but not really expecting to ever feel joy again.
I’m glad to say my life was far from over, but it took me a while to fully come back to the living. Where Japan was crazy expensive, I was making crazy big money. I came to Costa Rica because I thought it was cheap and I was tired and felt beaten down, chewed up and spit out.
The differences are too many to mention, but just as an example:
- I flew to Hong Kong once a year, stayed in The Mandarin Hotel and shopped for a week, so I could SAVE money. Coffee cost $30.00 a cup in Tokyo.
- In Costa Rica, I take a big cart and shop until it’s full of fresh fruits and veggies and rarely spend more then $30 a week on food.
- In Japan, my friends called me ‘Miss Match’ because I had matching high heels and a purse for every dress I owned.
- In Costa Rica, I don’t bother to wear anything fancier then cut offs and a T-shirt and no one really cares or notices.
I’ve grown up a lot and I feel it as well as look it, but in many ways I still feel like that wide-eyed crazy kid, just looking for the next adventure.
Thanks for sharing your story, Tiger!
Tiger has 4 rooms for rent in the most conveniently located house in Escazú. I’ve actually been managing it for her for the past year while I write my tale of woe and self discovery from 2015. The house is huge, so even fully booked there is plenty of private space. It’s a cool house. Fantastic place to stay if you are in Costa Rica for dental tourism or maybe need a place to crash in the city for errands. Dentist offices, grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping are all within walking distance.