A NEW VIEW
By Tracy Owens
Roya Habibi goes to the beach almost every day with her trusty pooch – a Vizsla named Mickey. She’s still learning to surf, but Mickey is already a master of the waves.
“He has become a full-blown salty dog,” Habibi said. “He is living his best life.”
Habibi is living her best life too – a life full of adventure and helping others. You see, the beach they’re going to is in Costa Rica. That’s where the Ashburn native, who grew up in Ashburn Farm and went to Stone Bridge High School, has settled with her husband and opened an optometry practice.
“It’s such a charming country. It’s a small place, yet so interesting,” Habibi said. “It feels like we’ve stepped back in time.”
Habibi and her husband, Patrick Allen, moved to Tamarindo, on the west coast of Costa Rica, in spring 2022 and opened their Ojos Del Mar clinic that November.
Allen, whose background is in technology and commercial real estate, handles business logistics, and Habibi provides the clinical expertise, including fellowship training for licensed Costa Rican optometrists. Becoming more fluent in Spanish while also untangling business start-up issues and absorbing the culture has been a welcome challenge for the couple.
They serve a growing expat community and donate eye exams and glasses to residents in need.
Earlier this year, the couple and their staff inaugurated the practice’s Eye to Eye Program, in which one free eye exam is given to someone in need in the community for every paid eye exam the clinic does. By providing screenings for local residents, the clinic has become more approachable for those who had been reluctant to correct their eyesight or even admit it needed correcting.
Ojos del Mar (“Eyes of the Sea”) has donated more than 1,000 eye exams and provided almost 100 pairs of eyeglasses so far. The clinic also reserves a certain number of “pay-what-you-can” appointments each month.
“We really care about making the community visually sound, to see all the beautiful things there are here to see,” Habibi said.
Her parents back in Ashburn are rightfully proud of the commitment their daughter and son-in-law have made to their new community.
“They’ve done a lot to become part of the community. Roya has brought a lot of who she is to this place,” said Jo Habibi, an ESL teacher retired from Loudoun County Public Schools. “Roya loves new people, and she loves new adventures. She’s very driven, but also loves to have fun.”
After graduating from Clemson University in 2009, Roya Habibi headed to University of California at Berkeley, where she completed a four-year Doctor of Optometry degree. She gained practical, on-the-job experience working at a clinic in Seattle for several years.
And she also worked as a fellow at the Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Ore., becoming an authority on medically necessary contact lenses and other eye conditions.
The fellowship training she provides to Costa Rican optometrists at Ojos Del Mar is a way of passing on all that she’s learned. “I’m essentially the teacher in the room,” Habibi said.
She and Allen married in 2018 with the idea that they would eventually live abroad, at least for a few years. Habibi won plane tickets at a Seattle hospital fundraiser in December 2019, but the two frequent travelers were stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic until heading for Costa Rica in April 2021. The place immediately captured their imaginations.
“There is truly something special here. I call it a frequency. Others may call it a ‘vibe.’ But Costa Rica … has taught me so many things,” Allen said. “I can confidently say I have never felt more connected with the world.”
Habibi still does telehealth consultations for patients in the United States and for the past five years, she has also co-hosted a podcast, “Try Not to Blink,” focusing on continuing education for optometrists. She does that “in my spare time,” she joked.
On their days off, she and Allen enjoy walking to a nearby hotel to drink chiliguaros – a spicy beverage made with a sugar cane-distilled liquor – and eat dishes of beans, rice, plantains, fish and fruit. Habibi said that for her – the kind of person who would schedule six or seven meetings on her day off – adjusting to the slower pace of life in Costa Rica has been a gift.
“It’s like growing up in the country 20 years ago,” she said. “Things don’t happen very quickly here”
Tracy Owens is a former magazine editor who writes about arts, businesses and people in the Southeast. Her work has appeared in Salon, Gulfshore Life, Islandia Journal, and many other publications.