Kia and I have been talking, for years, about the possibility of living and working abroad for a period of time. We love living in Oakland — the Bay Area has an amazingly high quality of life, and most of our friends and family live nearby — but the world is a big beautiful place and it doesn’t make sense to experience just one corner of it.
We bounced around quite a few ideas. We considered living three months in the south of Spain — close enough to my Dad’s place in France to visit him there — but the high cost of living and exorbitant cost of flying to Europe these days scared us off. We finally decided to live in Costa Rica for six weeks. My friend Eric Haller lives near the town of Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean side, and I’d been following his photo-stream for some time. Life in a tropical paradise looked tempting.
Kia and I have been trying to find our “vacation groove” for years. We’ve enjoyed some trips, but often find ourselves feeling restless and unsatisfied, even in the midst of spectacular beauty. The thing is, we both like to work. We like to be engaged and productive. Sightseeing and delicious meals — nothing wrong with that — but if there’s nothing to balance it with, it feels a little hollow. We decided to give up on the vacation concept and try something else: working abroad. Bring our work with us, and really settle in for awhile — that was our plan.
Logistics — It’s All Going to Work!
Once we had committed to the idea, the planning came together fairly easily. We booked our flights, and found a beautiful house to rent via craigstlist. We also rented out our own house for the duration to someone we like and trust (Facebook came in handy on that front). Our folks were a little upset about the prospect of being separated from their granddaughter for six weeks, so two of them decided to visit us in Costa Rica (my mom arrives next week). Everyone else we promised to keep in touch with via Skype.
Our rental house promised a DSL connection; this was a must if we were going to get any work done. I knew I could do my Loöq Records work remotely, especially with Spesh handling any local business in San Francisco. In terms of my freelance clients, I figured they didn’t even need to know I was working from the jungle. The vast majority of my programming/database work I could do and deliver remotely. I’m not keeping it a secret that I’m here (obviously — I’m blogging about it) but there are some clients I only plan to tell if they ask. Kia is also able to do her freelance work — motion graphics production — remotely. Since we were unsure about the speed and reliability of our internet connection, she negotiated the outsourcing of some of her larger renders (the idea being to avoid having to upload gigantic files).
For phone communication, we went 100% Skype. We each purchased a local 510 area code Skype number, Skype voicemail, and Skype credits for a total cost of about $30 each. We then forwarded our regular mobile phones to the Skype number. Anyone calling us locally then goes to Skype; if we’re online we answer, if not it goes to Skype voicemail. When we call from Skype, it appears as a 510 number. For local Costa Rica calls, we rented a cell phone from our landlord for $25.
Week 1 — Reality Sets In
Getting to our jungle house was a smooth journey, with only a few stressful moments. This is amazing considering how heavily we packed. Among our possessions: a car seat and a bike seat for our two-year-old, and warm clothes that we won’t wear at all while we’re here. We knew it would be warm, but we didn’t realize how warm.
We flew in to San Jose (in Costa Rica — there’s also a San Francisco in Costa Rica, as well as a Liverpool — this proved confusing to Tesla Rose who fully expected to see her beloved Auntie Lorelei when we arrived in San Jose), and stayed the night at the Hemingway Inn. Eric had some business to do in San Jose and met us there. The next day we all took the four hour bus ride to Puerto Viejo. I was half-expecting a cramped ride on a rickety bus along terrifying roads, with live poultry as co-passengers. In fact the bus was modern, spacious, and cool, and the road was newly paved with large shoulders. At this point I realized I need to reevaluate some of my thinking regarding “first-world” vs. “developing” countries. Last night I watched this TED talk from Hans Rosling that pretty much nails the problem in my thinking.
From Puerto Viejo, a taxi took us to nearby Cocles (not quite a town, a collection of a few homes and businesses near the beach), and up a very rough dirt/rock road to our house in the jungle. At this point we started to have some misgivings. There was no way we were going to be able to bike up this road (especially with a kid on a bike seat attached); it was too steep and too rough.
As you can see, the house is beautiful. The “DSL”, however, turned out to be a 100+ foot ethernet cable strung through a long plastic tube which disappeared into the jungle. “The internet,” explained the house instructions, “is from the neighbors. The cable is quite fragile, and can easily be damaged.” Uh-oh.
As evening fell, the mosquitoes set in. We also received a few stinging bites from ants, of which we immediately observed at least three varieties. The largest has the nickname of “bullet ant” because being bitten by one feels like being hit by a bullet. Fortunately I’ve yet to experience either, so I can’t confirm or deny the similarity.
We cooked our dinner from food we’d picked up from the market in Puerto Viejo, and went to bed soon after dark. That night there was a terrific rainstorm, with the most thundery thunder I’ve ever heard, answered with raucous defiance by the howler monkeys. Kia speculated as to the origins of religion — obviously, to the howler monkeys, there must be a big bad howler monkey in the sky making tons of noise and pissing on everyone.
The first few days were mixed. All three of us found the daytime heat to be oppressive (Tesla Rose got a bad heat rash), the mosquitoes were biting us, and it was difficult to get anything done (ever tried to concentrate while being dive-bombed by blood-suckers?). On the other hand, we were surrounded by incredible beauty, and the house had a fair number of amenities. Eric came over for dinner and we cooked up some steaks. Both Kia and I managed to get a little work done. We plugged our spare Airport Extreme into the infinitely long jungle ethernet cable, and miraculously, we had wi-fi. Twenty minutes later it went down, but then ten minutes after that it came up again.
On the afternoon of Day 3 we hit a low point. We were all hot, tired, and itchy. The mobile phone we had rented had a dead battery, and no configuration of the universal charger would give it any juice. The internet was down about a third of the time. Our only transportation was on foot, with the nearest market being twenty minutes away. Safe to say we were all grumpy and miserable.
A clear intention started to form in my mind. I went into the storage room and grabbed a machete.
To be continued …