I’m in the midst of a six week “working abroad adventure.” The idea: rent a house in the jungle on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, and attempt to do and deliver all our work remotely (Kia is a motion graphics artist, I co-run Loöq Records, do freelance database consulting work, and write fiction). Why? To change things up a bit, to break up our normal routines, and to experience a change of scenery and culture. It’s a “workation”; a vacation without the giant financial hit, and without the risk of boredom from too much beach and hammock time. If it’s not already obvious, we both like our work — this is not some version of Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek (though we were inspired by his book).
The Good News
I’m happy to report that approximately two weeks into our trip, we’re getting some work done, and appreciating the natural and cultural gifts that this beautiful part of Costa Rica has to offer. Every day we take a trip down to the beach; we tend to hang out on an idyllic stretch in front of the Caracola Hotel with calm water and tidepools teeming with life. We feast on fresh mango and papaya, local grass-fed beef, fish caught hours ago in the Caribbean, and drink the best coffee I have ever tasted (with extra-healthful Costa Rican milk). At night we listen to the sound of rain on our roof, and in the morning are awakened by the sounds of howler monkeys, toucans, and parrots. On clear nights we look up at a sky densely packed with stars, and during one evening walk encountered a living Christmas tree, a giant black silhouette lit up by lightening bugs, blinking on-and-off.
Mentally, I feel awake, alive, and engaged. Emotionally, I feel powerful love for my wife and daughter, and more closeness with my parents, brother, in-laws, and extended family. I feel love and appreciation for my friends even though I’m far away from most of them. In the broadest scope of my life, I feel like I have expanded the realm of what is possible and doable.
Have there been hard times? Definitely, and I’ll go into those, but I wanted to start with the positive. I’m glad we decided to go on this adventure; I don’t regret the decision.
In my last post I mentioned my choice to not inform all my clients that I would be temporarily relocating to a house in the jungle on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. One client had requested a face-to-face meeting, and I wasn’t sure how to handle the request. Turns out the problem went away; I had already informed another person at the organization about my trip (and then promptly forgotten). I haven’t had a single complaint about my unilateral decision to work remotely for six weeks. I imagine some of them are withholding judgment for the moment; can J.D. get the job done from anywhere? If so, no problem.
But Can I Get The Job Done?
My productive output has suffered a precipitous drop, by any measure. We have childcare a few hours a day, at most (from my mom, who decided to visit us here and rented a place down the road, or from a local babysitter we met recently who Tesla Rose fell in love with). The rest of the time we trade off, or do activities as a family. We both try to work efficiently during the times our daughter is being cared for, or sleeping, but there is no shortage of distractions. If we try to work in the evening we get attacked by mosquitoes (we’re only really safe in bed — under the mosquito net). We’ve also had a number of internet and power outages that bring our work to a screeching halt. There’s also the temptation to go the beach instead of working, or just lie in a hammock and read a book.
Despite these challenges, we’re getting some work done. This aspect is harder than I expected, but not harder than I should have expected. I knew most of the variables going in. The key for me is setting a few clear, achievable goals for each day.
Fixing the Internet
Sometime into our second week, our internet went down. If you read my previous post, you’ll know that our only connection to digital civilization, our clients, Skype, etc. was a mysterious ethernet cable, encased in a plastic tube, disappearing into the jungle. Three days of biking down our rocky road to the Art Cafe several kilometers away was proving inconvenient (though it’s a great place to work — beautiful women serve you delicious fruit drinks while you bask in the wi-fi). Finally, I decided to investigate, and followed the cable across our yard and through a dense tropical thicket. The cable snaked upward through the trees, eventually joining some power cables and crossing the road towards our neighbor’s place. From my vantage point amidst the palms I could only see a large Bob Marley flag, and a high, densely-constructed wooden gate.
I shared the results of my reconnaissance with Kia, as well as my plan to regain our connectivity. I would attach the cable directly to my laptop, type in the router address directly into my browser, hack into the administrative control page, and then do a remote reboot. That’s what I do at home when the internet doesn’t work — I reboot the modem and the router — it seemed worth a try in any case. My plan worked up to a point, I did in fact navigate my way to the user and password prompt for the router. I typed in numerous iterations of admin, user, bob, marley, jah, one, reggae, nation, love, etc. … all to no avail.
Kia eventually took a more down-to-earth approach, going next door and introducing herself to the neighbor, a Tico woman renting the place. The nice lady let Kia enter her home and turn her power strip off, and then on. Internet service restored.
Out of the Frying Pan …
One morning I woke up with a headache, feeling weak and utterly lacking in energy. I recovered quickly enough with coffee, water, some vitamins, and breakfast, and wrote off the episode to mild dehydration and overexertion. Two days later I experienced the same symptoms, combined with drowsiness, foggy-headedness, sluggishness of limb, irritability, and a dry cough. Do you suspect malaria? Some of the symptoms match. It crossed my mind too, but the incubation period for malaria is quite long, and the disease is rare in Costa Rica except near banana plantations. I think what I experienced was DEET toxicity, especially considering that the onset of symptoms in both cases occurred within six hours of applying a repellent cream containing DEET directly to my skin. I’m fully recovered now, but it was a nasty experience.
I generally try to avoid applying poison directly onto my skin, but the mosquitoes really love my blood (as does the Red Cross, but at least they don’t inject me with an itch-inducing digestive enzyme right after they withdraw my O positive). I had over 100 itchy, red bumps, mostly on my feet, calves, and forearms, before I resorted to DEET.
Turns out DEET is a potent neurotoxin, and can cause genetic damage. Severe cases of poisoning can result in disorientation, incoherence, tremors, seizures, respiratory failure, delusions of grandiosity, and death. We’ll never use it again. Currently I’m experimenting with an herbal alternative; a strongly brewed local peppermint tea spritzed directly onto exposed skin — it seems to be working so far — no new bites yet. Update: not only does the mint tea spritz not work to repel mosquitoes, the mosquitoes added insult to injury by landing in our open saucepan of mint tea, apparently to lay their eggs.
As a side note, it’s possible my regular intake of the local Pilsen brew might have something to do with my attractiveness to the bloodsuckers.
Leaps and Bounds
Our two year old daughter Tesla Rose is enjoying life in the jungle. She loves looking at the lizards, frogs, monkeys, butterflies, and birds, and for some reason the mosquitoes don’t like her (maybe because she doesn’t drink beer, or maybe it’s that she never stops moving).
The locals kids here are really independent. It’s not uncommon to see a little kid, three or four years old, walking alone on the road to run an errand. Our daughter is picking up some of that can-do attitude, and is learning to swim (or at least splash around) in the ocean (when we arrived she was terrified of the surf — she didn’t want to be put down anywhere near even the smallest of waves). She’s also lost her fear of dogs (she used to hide behind momma’s leg when approached by a friendly Labrador; now she will calmly put her shoes on next to a dozing Pit Bull). I think and hope she’ll remember the time we’re spending in Costa Rica, with all the novel sights and sounds.
The Big Picture
We’re slowly getting it together. We have a house, two bicycles (one in need of repair), internet (that works most of the time), and a babysitter. We buy our groceries at the Pirripli market, and get our laundry done by a friendly Jamaican woman down the street (Bet-El lavandería). We’ve enjoyed delicious meals at Jungle Love, Bread & Chocolate, and Soda Johana. Tomorrow morning we’re going to visit the Jaguar Rescue Center and get a closer look at some of the wildlife.
Is the working abroad experiment working? I’m not sure yet. Life is physically harder than I’m used to, but I’m fitter than I’ve been in years (and not quite as pale). There have been moments of extreme stress, but at least as many sublime experiences.
It might have been a better choice, at least for me personally, to have arranged a break from my consulting work and just focused on my creative work. But if I’d done that, I might be worried about money, considering this is such a long trip. On that point, I think I’ll need hindsight for clarity.