I can’t believe there are only ten days left in our 6-week working abroad adventure — the time has zipped by (for the most part — it has also crawled along at times). We’re in the home stretch of an experiment in which we rented out our house in Oakland, rented a house in the coastal jungle of Costa Rica (near Puerto Viejo), and brought our work with us. We wanted an extended change of scenery without breaking the bank, and we wanted to experience a new place without dying of boredom or sinking into a sea of listlessness. I acknowledge that boredom and listlessness are not everyone’s experience of extended vacations, and also that not everybody is going to get the “workation” concept (and it has had its ups and downs) but for us it has worked pretty well. Later, once I’ve had a chance to run the numbers, I’ll share what the trip looked like financially, and also share some thoughts about what we did right and what we did wrong. But for now I’ll just bring you up to date on the last couple of weeks.
Life is Easier by the Beach
Soon after my last post we decided to move away from our house in the jungle (Casa El Jardin), and rent one of the Caracola Hotel beach houses for the remainder of our stay. We met Issac, the manager of the Caracola (via another local friend — Matt Grinnell); Issac offered us a very good “low-season” rate for the beach house. By that point we’d had our fill of jungle living, and jumped at the chance to move to the beach.
Don’t get me wrong, the jungle house was “as advertised”; incredibly beautiful, a giant colorful garden, fast (if somewhat unreliable) internet, and intimate proximity to nature. The downsides were 1) the mosquitoes were pretty bad, 2) the sheer number, mass, and intensity of insect life in the jungle can be overwhelming to a temperate-zone city dweller, and 3) it was exhausting biking up and down the long, muddy, hilly, slippery-stone covered road (made more difficult with our toddler in the bike seat) every time we wanted to go the beach, buy food, or take our laundry to the lavandería. Our favorite place to hang out, we discovered, was at the beach in front of the Caracola Hotel; the gentle waves were perfect for Tesla Rose.
As an aside, for those of you who have tried to get me to drop four grand on a mountain bike so we can get our muddy trail thrills on (Dan Pardi), let me recommend navigating the steep downhill stretches of Margarita Road on an old fixie with one bent wheel, with your toddler attached, carrying a bag of groceries (including eggs), while it’s raining, with brakes at about 20% capacity. Now that’s thrilling.
In any case, life near the beach is good. When we want to get our feet wet we just walk about a hundred feet and hop in the water. Usually we hit the beach about three times a day; maybe a little soccer in the early morning (before it gets too hot), a quick dip in the afternoon, and usually a long visit in the early evening to enjoy the sunset. Somehow the sky and the water take on almost the same color; the light is stunning.
The Two-Dimensional Town
The topographical arrangement of the Puerto Viejo area is line-like; the vast majority of businesses and destinations (including the beaches) are along a single road. One side effect of this configuration is that whenever you go out, you’re likely to run into everyone you know (unless they’re home in bed). You’ll either see them on the road, going one way or the other, or you’ll see them hanging out somewhere; maybe at Cocles Beach, or Caribe del Sol, or Caribeans.
This line-like arrangement seems to spill over into the social realm as well; all people here are connected; everyone knows everyone (and has an opinion about everyone); there is nowhere to hide and there are no secrets. In other words, it’s like small towns everywhere.
On another layer, there are the busloads of backpackers and tourists that come through every day; people are constantly shuttled in and shuttled out. That includes us, of course, but our longer stay puts us in a slightly different category. We’ve been here long enough to get friendly greetings, or at least nods of recognition, from many of the locals. We’re getting to know the place, and the people.
We’ve entertained the idea of coming back for a longer stint. We even looked at a little school in the jungle where Tesla Rose could go. The school was charming; a beautiful location and warm and friendly staff who obviously knew what they were doing. Get this — tuition is $100. A year. The average wage here is only $2 or $3 an hour — that’s why (some) of the prices are so low. But it’s those jaw-dropping comparisons — the cost of preschool here vs. the cost of preschool in the Bay Area — that really make you think twice about where you live and why.
Invite The Family
We invited the whole family to visit us during our workation, and two family members took us up on the offer. My mom, a reluctant adventurer (she complains about all the risks of traveling, and then goes and does it anyway), and Kia’s dad (who is fluent in Spanish and has traveled a great deal in Central and South America) both came to visit (at different times). For each of them it was vacation (as opposed to workation) and both grandparents enjoyed their visits. It was great having them here, both to enjoy time together as a (larger) family, and also for the extra help with Tesla Rose. Having enough time to actually work has been a consistent challenge.
On Crime, and Swords
Our friend Eric Haller carries a sheathed machete with him at all times. He claims its a deterrent; so a would-be miscreant will “pick the other guy.” As a fellow ex-Dungeons & Dragons player, I’m dubious — I think the guy just likes carrying a sword around (and he’s finally found a place where that’s socially acceptable). But there is crime in the Puerto Viejo area. At least, that’s what everyone tells you.
I think every single person we’ve met has warned us about crime in one way or another. This is the beach where you will get mugged at sunset. This is the stretch of road where machete-wielding youths will rob you blind. Let’s write down the serial number of the bike you are buying so that when it gets stolen you’ll have some record of purchase. The manager of our jungle house insisted that we should be locking up the open kitchen every time we leave the house (the kitchen area closed up like a wooden cube with heavy, medieval-style hanging doors) or thieves would come take everything — our blender, our plates — everything! We ignored his warnings, and nobody stole our blender. In fact, we haven’t yet experienced or witnessed any crime at all (with one exception — see below).
My ideas about crime in the Puerto Viejo area are as follows:
- The crime rate is not particularly high — certainly not any higher than Oakland.
- Residents are very concerned about crime; one reason is that any crime is a huge threat to the main industry (tourism).
- People look out for each other and feel responsible for each other (and thus warn about crime).
- Tourists are the main targets, especially drunk, obnoxious tourists (there is some sense perhaps, among the locals, that these types have it coming).
- Crime is highly localized — just like anywhere else. There are areas that are quite dangerous to hang out in at various times. Visually, these areas don’t look seedy or dangerous or rough — they look like an idyllic stretch of beach or a meandering coastal road.
The last point is the most important. I think it generally is important to heed the warnings of the locals. They may be overcautious, but they know what’s up. If I saw a Japanese tourist wandering around West & MacArthur, with a three thousand dollar camera hanging from their neck, I might direct them a few blocks northwest towards the Temescal District. The Temescal area used to be a pretty rough area itself, ten years ago, but now it’s a thriving, relatively low-crime commercial district. But West & MacArthur, just a few blocks away, is a fine place to buy drugs. A quick check of a statistical crime map of Oakland confirms this suspicion.
So, the real question — if I lived here, would I carry a sword? Hell yes! I mean, why not? In Oakland, if you carry a sword and try to defend yourself from getting mugged, you will just get shot. But guns are uncommon here. The muggings we’ve been warned about are either at “machete point” or via beating by fist. In both cases, a sharp blade could be a real deterrent.
But I don’t think I would opt for a machete. With a rapier, I could utilize my fencing training (don’t laugh — I ranked in the top ten of all Bay Area youth fencers in one tournament). On the other hand, while a rapier might have inspired fear in 17th Century Italy, it might appear to be a bit foppish these days. Putting parry-ripostes and double-disengages aside, a katana, with its historical reputation as a decapitating device, would probably be a better bet. I would love to draw a samurai sword against a machete-wielding mugger and see the look on his face. You want a sword fight? Bring it on.
I did have a run in with a motorcycle gang. I was bicycling up Margarita Road towards the jungle house, my laptop slung over my shoulder in a red grocery bag, when a guy ran by me, at full speed, with a look in his eyes that can only be described as abject terror. Up ahead, a man had gotten off of his motorcycle and was hacking at something, or somebody, with a machete. These weren’t little chops — they were full overhead swings. Was somebody being chopped to pieces? The something turned out to be a bicycle. I watched, with equal parts trepidation and fascination, as the man picked up the mangled bike and hurled it over a nearby fence. He saw me, and glared.
Giving me stink-eye the whole time, the man sheathed his machete and got back on his motorcycle. Farther ahead, toward the top of a hill, another man waited on an idling motorcycle. The guy closer to me looked mean, and the bicycle chopping made me question his sanity.
I considered my options. If I turned and biked away, he could easily overtake me and cut me down with his blade. It did seem in my favor that the blade was sheathed. His beef had been with the other guy, and the hapless bicycle, right? Still, he looked dangerous. I ultimately opted to bike by slowly and say “Hola.” The man grunted in response, and he and his friend rode off.
Later, riding back home from the jungle house (I’d ridden up there to use the fast internet), I encountered the guy I’d seen running away, along with his friend, retrieving his worse-for-wear (sliced tire, shredded seat) bicycle from the brush. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I felt a need to say something since I’d obviously been a witness to at least part of the drama. I settled on something like “That guy was loco!”
“I’m gonna keeel him,” said mangled bicycle man. “I’m gonna cut him up good.”
“Okay!” I said. I added “Motorcycle gangs!” with a shrug, as in “You never know what those kooky motorcycle gangs are gonna do,” and pedaled on my way.
Update: I got the scoop from Eric H. on the reason for this altercation; it was a case of mistaken identity.
Physical Costs and Benefits
Living in tropics can be rough on your body. Even though the risks of malaria and dengue are very low, the mosquito bites are still a drag. I’ve lost some muscle mass — I’m generally too tired from bike-riding to want to do any kind of strength training. On some days I’ve suffered a general malaise and mild tourista — no doubt my body adjusting to foreign (for me) strains of microbes. The water is Costa Rica is generally considered “drinkable” by U.S. standards, but we’ve felt better since running it through a Brita filter. We’re probably consuming more pesticides than usual, considering we’re making zero effort to eat organically, and we’re also doing other things that are probably horrible for us, like using aluminum cookware.
On the other hand, I’m tanner, leaner, and fitter than I’ve been in a long time. The challenges to my immune system will probably serve me well in the long run. In terms of both health and safety, most parts of Costa Rica fall into the “reasonable risk” category, at least in my book. I don’t want to be the type of person that avoids entire countries and cultures because there is a very small chance of getting a horrible disease (like Chagas), or getting machete chopped, or eating a few extra doses of pesticides. Life is rough on your body. Life is, indeed, a terminal disease.
Will We Do It Again?
Yes, definitely. Workationing is a blast. Now that we’ve done it once, we have some good ideas for how to improve the experience. I’ll get into those in detail in the wrap-up post.