A Home Away from Home

On the other side of the Pacific, I have found my home.

Alex Ip
Alex Ip
Oct 26 · 11 min read

Costa Rica is not Puerto Rico. The first person I met in Costa Rica reminded me not to mix up the two places. Despite their alleged shared affinity of reggaeton, the former is a Central American sovereign nation, the latter an unincorporated territory of the United States still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria and political turmoil brought by Telegramgate.

Costa Rica is not Las Vegas. Contrary to my mom’s repeated insistence, Costa Rica is not located in the Mojave. It has been named by National Geographic as one of the happiest nations of the world, not because of all the gambling and partying and drinking, but probably because of Pura Vida (the lifestyle which literally translates as Pure Life), scenic views, and biodiversity.

Costa Rica is not Hong Kong, nor the States. As I would spend six weeks on the other side of the Pacific alone on a service project advancing Climate Action, armed with nothing but broken Spanish phrases, I couldn’t believe that I could find my true home — for now.


Despite serious pollution, the American crocodile has found its home in the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. Photo by Alex Ip.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I have been studying in the States; On May 3rd, I returned to Hong Kong, where I had been born and raised, for my first summer break as a college student. I had planned to leave for Costa Rica in Mid-June but was forced to push back the date three weeks to allow for last-minute maintenance work done at the project site. Now I would leave on July 6th, then hop on the plane to Atlanta, GA the day after my project has ended to start my sophomore year of school.

When I returned to Hong Kong, I felt uneasy. Sure, I liked the city, its hustle and bustle, its world-class almost-everything, its people. My people. But there was always a dark cloud hanging over us, just like the volatile weather outside of the skyscraper apartment our family was renting. Living in Hong Kong could be stressful for a lot of reasons, from unaffordable housing to long working hours to a lack of social mobility. Moreover, our political outlook has been looking bleaker by the day. That was perhaps why I had been so elated when I received two scholarships to study abroad; I thought that the grass was greener on the other side, the skies bluer, my future brighter in the form of a world-class education and possibly a work visa or even a green card a few years down the road.

But when the government decided to put forward the Extradition Bill, all hell broke loose. Many fear that the Bill will topple what has remained of the firewall between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Simmering public anger erupted in the form of mass protests reaching up to two million people, and confrontations with increasing intensity and creativity.

Because of my rescheduled flight, I have been able to attend many of them with my parents. Still, the time had come for me to leave midway through the ongoing movement; I would not return in six months. I wished my people all the best in fighting the good fight. But could I survive in Costa Rica? How would I change? What would Hong Kong become the next time I go back?


Two flights, one terrible thunderstorm, and twenty-six hours later, I landed jet-lagged and disoriented at the Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría.

Costa Rica is indeed not Hong Kong. Traffic is still a problem as in many places, but then you remember that the largest interstate highways are only two lanes wide on either side. Air conditioning does not exist in many households. Costa Rica is fifty times larger than Hong Kong but has only two-thirds of the population.

Upon closer inspection, Costa Rica does resemble Hong Kong in some ways. Most cars that skitter along the roads are produced by familiar Asian brands such as Hyundai, Subaru, and Toyota. Made-in-Hong-Kong oyster sauce — affectionately called Chinese sauce by local Ticos — is used in meals. Some Asians open general stores and restaurants, where I could freely converse with them in Cantonese, Hong Kong’s official language.

More than 450 years after its establishment, Ticos still take the narrow path from Cartago to Volcán Irazú. Photo by Alex Ip.

But then I was shocked when I arrived at the Project site of Ecotarcoles, where I would live and work for the entirety of six weeks. My first impression of the place was that, man, this place is close to falling apart. The shack did not have any glass windows; instead, walls of airbricks provide the facsimile of ventilation. Spending time inside in the middle of the day felt like going to the sauna. The sink outside was broken; water would drain towards your feet as you washed your hands. The roof smelled of gasoline whenever it rained (all the time). This was a beachfront property where all the sand would find its way inside through the open roof and all the cracks and stuff and cover the floor with a thin umber film.

And then there were the bugs. I got over a hundred bites on my first day — I might or might not have forgotten the mosquito net when I had headed to sleep — from all sorts of creatures. My ankle had become so swollen in the first week that walking became painful. And frankly, I was disgusted when I saw so many ants crawling around the kitchen sink and the compost bin.

There were moments where I truly wondered whether I could continue on with the Project. I was in terrible shape, coughing and wheezing even when performing some standard physical work. Nevertheless, I was not to be deterred. I had made a conscious decision to go there to understand how adaptable and tolerant I could be. I have never been a person who would easily back down from what I had believed in. And there was some old-fashioned ethnic pride adding fuel to the fire: the leaders of the Project had had a terrible experience with two Hong Kong volunteers prior which made them vow not to accept Hongkongers as volunteers again; it happened that they saw my U.S. education background and decided to make an exception.

I would not let my fellow Hongkongers down, would I?


Is Hong Kong China? That requires a carefully-crafted and very politically correct answer.

I would first explain the history and original intent of “One Country, Two Systems”. I would then show my respect towards the Chinese people. In fact, most Chinese people I get to know are nice and smart. But then, I would swiftly refocus on how we could use Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube, and Netflix in Hong Kong. That Hong Kong has freedoms of religion and speech and free press, an independent judiciary (at least most of the time), and some — still not all — democratically elected legislators.

Not in Mainland China. Not at all. To quote a well-respected journalist, Hong Kong is “the last battalion of freedom in China”.

I would finally reiterate my respect of most Mainland Chinese people, and lament their ignorance and stifled rights. I felt like a preacher acting as if he were fighting bees at times.

The confusion within every single person I talked to turned into shock, then anger, and finally exasperation. Costa Rica is the first Central American country to severe diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China for economic reasons. They were swiftly rewarded with a 100-million National Stadium. Ticos eat food and use products Hecho en China, notorious for its safety issues and intellectual property infringements, while Huawei phones, facing looming U.S. sanctions over allegations of espionage, are sold almost everywhere.

In retrospect, that had been why I felt Costa Rica had an uncanny resemblance to Hong Kong. Both are small, proud places of prosperity, stability, and liberty within unstable regions. Both are punching above their weight class yet misconceptions from outsiders still remain.

Both are increasingly being influenced by the mostly invisible hand of China.

One time, I was invited to participate in Global Village, an event where Service Projects participants like me would share aspects of their home cultures to members of the public. Given my dual identities, the organizer suggested that I could represent the US. I responded firmly that I would represent my home instead. I got his full support.

A few days later, I was presenting about Hong Kong to onlooking strangers in a mall in Cartago, a major city. The Spanish title of the slideshow I prepared was:

Hong Kong no es China.

To be more accurate, it should have been:

Hong Kong is not China. Yet.


Don’t let the scenic views fool you; the beaches of Tarcoles are riddled with trash, but the situation is improving through massive beach cleanups, led in no small part by Ecotarcoles. Photo by Alex Ip.

The house had been abandoned for fifteen years when Fernando, one of the Project leads, inherited it.

He sort of grew up here, when the house had been his grandparents’ resort. When he finally returned to convert the house into his Project and his home along with Raquel, his girlfriend and Project co-lead, they spent two weeks just to clean the house. It must have looked really bad the first time he stepped inside it as an adult. Not far away, the Rio Grande de Tárcoles drains into the Pacific. It is the most contaminated river in Central America. The beaches are full of trash, coming as far from the other side of the Pacific (I once picked up a plastic bottle with wrapping printed in Simplified Chinese, the official written script of Mainland China.) This was not the most desirable beachfront property.

Yet he came prepared. He had planned the project for almost two years, and he had a clear vision of what to do. With the help of volunteers, they built Los duches and Los baños, eco-showers and compost restrooms built out of bamboo. They let chickens and peacocks run free within the place while enjoying their delicious eggs (they are vegetarian). They planted lines of alemandro near the shore to attract gorgeous scarlet macaws with almond fruits hanging from the trees.

By the time I had arrived, things were looking up.

I became impressed by Fernando and Raquel’s dedication: they have barely traveled beyond Costa Rica since taking up the project. Gradually, I took pride in washing the dishes and doing other chores such as taking care of the chickens, sweeping the floor, and cooking. There were fewer ants, simply because I had attempted to clean up before they figured out where the food scraps were at.

I’ve taken ownership of the house, my home for six weeks; in return, our house, our home, is becoming more beautiful, comfortable and sustainable each and every day.

I regret that I had rushed to a conclusion on the first day. I later knew that Fernando had applied to rebuild the house but got rejected by authorities due to a law concerning the conservation of coasts that limits the development of coastal properties. They had been dealt a bad hand, yet they still managed to make the most of it, due to the love of their home. Now, they are lauded by the local government as the new faces of the environmental movement in the region.

I vowed that no matter what happens to my home, I will do whatever I can to make my home better. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.


We had a chick that chirped wherever it went. Fernando described it as a noise-making machine.

One day Fernando was giving me instructions on how to use the washing machine when suddenly the chirping stopped. Sensing something had been amiss, Fernando raced to the adjacent plot of land, where he rescued the chick from the clutches of a hawk. If he hadn’t been alert, it would have been dead meat.

Freedom is fragile. Without vigilance, all it takes is one swoop from the predator, and nothing is left.


Sunset at Tarcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Photo by Alex Ip.

Fumbling with the key, I finally open the lock of the beachfront gate. I carefully make my way through a small trail parallel to the beach, avoiding the few remaining pieces of trash, taking a sharp left turn, making through the tall grass to the dark sand.

It’s six. The setting sun is reflected by the flood tide, slowly lighting the playa on fire, turning it from a tranquil silver to a soothing lilac and then a blazing vermilion. It’s beautiful.

My mind tends to wander when I’m confronted with picturesque scenery. I think about the Costa Rican National Football Team. Even though China built them their Stadium, the Ticos are the ones who make it to the World Cup year after year, reaching the quarterfinals in the Brazil 2014 edition. Somehow China, with all of 1.3 billion people but only one World Cup appearance and not even a made goal to show for, couldn’t find eleven players on the field to outmatch those from a tiny country of five million in Central America. Costa Rica is charting its own course in football and more, and I’ve found my adopted home team, until one day Hong Kong can be proudly featured on the world’s biggest stages. If Ticos could do it, we could do it as well.

I also think about home.

Home is the place you think about every night before your tired mind and body drift into sleep. Home is the guiding light when you’re blind and lost. (I lost my glasses when a wave crashed in on me at Manuel Antonio National Park. The bus driver dropped me in the middle of nowhere on the way back.) You defend and protect and contribute to your home no matter how good or crappy it is. You may have many places to stay, but there is only one home.

We recently installed lights on the huge tent outside of our home. If even the weakest bulb shines out of darkness, what about the mosaic of neon signs embedded within shoots of skyscrapers, or the flames within one’s heart?

My friends and I have recently talked more about the prospects of emigration. We’re half-joking, of course, we haven’t even got our degrees yet. But we’re also half-serious. What happens when your home is no longer livable? We’re fortunate to have received a world-class education, but what about those who are less fortunate? Can we actually find another home?

But that is for another time. For now, we got work to do.

As light recedes from the sky, I’m sure the sun will yet again rise from the other side of the Pacific, its light shining upon all creation. It has been like this for millions of years, and it will continue to be. Each day brings new hope of a better future, of a better home. But we can’t be afraid of the darkness that comes before; we must act, and we shall persevere.

Let’s go, Hongkongers.

The past, the present, and the future collide in Hong Kong. Photo by Alex Ip.

Originally published at thexylom.com.

The Xylom™

All scientists are humans. Humans tell stories. The Xylom is the place for scientists to tell their stories.

Alex Ip

Written by

Alex Ip

The time is always right to do what is right. Founder of @thexylom. https://about.me/alexip718

The Xylom™

All scientists are humans. Humans tell stories. The Xylom is the place for scientists to tell their stories.

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