San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Expat Navigates Many a Croc-Infested Water

ESTERILLOS OESTE, Puntarenas –Rosemary Chamberlain can walk on water.

Or so the story goes…

Earlier this year, she waded into one of the many rocky pools that make up the shoreline of Esterillos Oeste, hoping to enjoy a quiet moment in one of her favorite spots along the central Pacific coast.

A two-meter-long crocodile, however, was lurking nearby. Within minutes, her friends on shore began screaming at her.

“I didn’t want to move slowly because (the crocodile) would catch me,” says Chamberlain. “I didn’t want to move fast and make noise, because then he would hear me.”

Then her friends told her the croc was headed her way. “My stomach changed places with my liver. That’s when I walked on water. I’ve never moved so fast in my life,” she says, laughing.

Throughout her life as a social activist, the 75-year-old Chamberlain has dealt with scores of proverbial “crocodiles” in her pool.

Sometimes they have emerged as the local drug dealer, sometimes as corrupt officials, and sometimes more insidious as a lack of funding or resources.

Her most recent challenge was a group of thieves who last week robbed the Esterillos school of its electric cable and breakers.

“The kids aren’t going to have electricity when they go back to school on Monday”, she says.

The Esterillos school system is just one of several projects Chamberlain has on her plate in this town. Notwithstanding the recent theft, much of the talk surrounding the school has been positive. When the K-6 school opened its doors this year, it was outfitted with 20 new computers, new English and art teachers and English night classes for adults.

Never fully satisfied, Chamberlain has bigger plans for the school system. “The next step is to build a high school,” she says.

Working for such social change, she says, comes naturally to Chamberlain. “My parents were very involved (in Costa Rica) and in the (United States) with helping people.

They taught me to always leave a place better than you found it.”

Chamberlain was born to a U.S. father and a Tica mother, the daughter of a Costa Rican ambassador to the United States. She was conceived as her parents traveled up and down Costa Rica’s Pacific coast to build many of the lighthouses that now dot the coastline.

She was born in 1933 in the old ClínicaBíblicaHospital in San José and spent the first seven years of her life in Costa Rica. She then moved with her parents to California where she would stay, more or less, for 53 years.

In the states as a young adult, she had a rather atypical lifestyle. During the days she worked at a consulate, General Motors and Merrill Lynch “and in the evening I was involved with things to make the Earth a better place.”

She went to Woodstock, marched with César Chávez and was an integral part of what she calls the “awareness movement” of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

After 15 years with Merrill Lynch and countless social projects, she landed a job with the Santa Cruz County of Education as a “water therapist,” treating severely mentally and physically handicapped children through water exercises and rehabilitation.

In 1983, Chamberlain retired from her job in Sacramento and moved back to Costa Rica where she worked for fruit giant Del Monte. She moved with the job to San José but kept an eye on the little piece of property she owned on the central Pacific. Then, last year, she retired from her job, sold her house in San José and moved permanently to the Esterillos Oeste.

Esterillos Oeste, like so many small beach towns was already feeling the effects of corruption and crime. One of Chamberlain’s first priorities was to try to quell the rising drug crimes, robberies, assaults and petty thefts.

When a friend asked her to be a part of the town’s newly emerging “security committee,” she jumped at the chance.

Chamberlain and other members of the council went door to door, asking for donations, an exercise she calls akin to “pulling teeth from an elephant.”

The group managed to raise enough money, much of it from North Americans in the area, to remodel the police station.

The building now sports fresh paint, a raised floor to protect from flooding, a new galvanized stainless steel roof, and the option for a second and third story in the future. A new cement floor was laid in the back and a large wooden table was donated, where every week the five new officers from the national Tourist Police meet with local cops for a briefing.

Chamberlain acknowledges real change won’t come from a new building alone. The human problems of corruption and leadership  need to be dealt with as well. “We will not tolerate corrupt police,” she says, adding she wants to acquire more experienced leadership for the officers in the police station.

Even with the larger police presence, crime continues to plague Esterillos Oeste. But Chamberlain continues to stay positive.

“The storm does not last forever” she says. “There is an equal balance between the sun and the storm. The sun will come out.”

Even at 75, and after having her cancerous thyroid removed, she has a twinkle in her eye and a hop in her step that many 30-year-olds might envy.

Chamberlain credits her father for her vigor. “My dad taught me something was I was very young,” she says. “You always put more life into your years than years into your life.”

Along with the ongoing school and police projects, Chamberlain is raising money for new lifeguard stands at Esterillos beach, working with local environmental officials to address illegal water diversion, and raising support to protect shark and lobster populations up and down the beach.

“Everyone counts,” she says. “We are all grains of sand on a beach, and each one is important because it forms the whole.”


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