How We Took 6 Months Off and Moved to Costa Rica
When I tell people we just returned from six months in Costa Rica, I can see the question brewing. They want to know about the surfing, the monkeys, and the food, but mostly they want to know, how – how did we do it?
No, we were not born wealthy, and we did not win the lottery or find a long lost rich uncle. We have the same trappings as everyone else: work, school, a mortgage, the comforting routine of everyday life.
But when our family took a short vacation to Guanacaste, Costa Rica, we all loved it. On a whim, we checked out a school while we were there and it felt like we had walked into the pages of a fairy tail.
The 26-acre campus brimmed with tropical flowers. Exotic birds called from a tree in spectacular bloom, and an unseen monkey howled in the distance. A security guard led us to the office, the clicking of our shoes echoing on tile floors while a lazy fan whirled overhead. Colorful murals adorned the walls, and the fragrance of something fruity drifted in from the courtyard. We were hooked before we even said hello. (Check out the school: http://criacademy.com/ )
When we got home, we decided we wanted to move there, not forever, but at least for a semester, perhaps a school year, and we put a plan into action. Here’s how we did it.
Make the Decision, Set the Goal
At a family meeting, we opened the floor to all voices, assessing the pro’s and con’s of this idea. This step is critical, because change will be comprehensive for everyone. It’s important to talk through it, to listen carefully and respond with thought. We talked about school, work, money, food, plane rides, friends, television, everything we could think of that would be different. Then we took a vote, and it was unanimous. We were committed.
Develop a Strategy
A list is the thing my husband dreads most in the world, but alas, it was necessary. I got out not a piece of paper but an entire tablet, and we started itemizing all the things we needed to do along with a set of deadlines. Our departure date grew out of this session, and our plans began to feel real. First on our list: figure out how we can afford to do this.
Our question was not, “Can we afford to do this?” That question is a goal buster. As entrepreneurs, we learned a long time ago to reconfigure that question. It’s always how can we, never can we.
Minimize the Financial Impact
“How” became the lead word in our many questions, our new mantra. For example, we were reluctant to leave our house vacant and certainly didn’t want to pay someone to housesit. Ultimately we decided to rent it, fully furnished, to a traveling doctor who was a wonderful person and delighted to find it. The rent he paid was higher than the rent we’d have to pay in our adopted country, one problem solved.
We also knew we would need a car. During our summer vacation, we had met a Costa Rican family and contacted them to get their input. Remarkably, they offered to loan us their car for the duration of our stay – six months. In exchange, we paid their insurance bills and routine maintenance costs, and we agreed to host their daughter at our home when she’s old enough to travel. Yes, it’s an amazing story: we met a family on the beach, spent an hour or so with them, and became lifelong friends. International travel is all about remarkable stories.
Like a lot of people I know, I use computers as a means to an end. While others click away for hours surfing site after site, I am on and off the computer as soon as my tasks are complete. But to make this transition work, I had to open myself up to technology, to seek out and use tools that are abundant on the internet.
After getting a $250 phone bill for one call to the school in Costa Rica, we opened a Skype account so we could communicate for free. Then we figured out how to adapt our cell phones so they’d work in Costa Rica. A quick call to a Verizons global customer service number unlocked our iphones for free, and we ordered the Costa Rica required SIM cards. Although we wouldn’t know if they worked until we stepped off the plane, we had Costa Rica phone numbers and had taken steps to streamline communication.
Another step we took was to automated every aspect of our financial transactions so banking could be seamless. Because we have different streams of income, this long overdue step was a project in itself.
Concurrently, we scoured the internet for information on daily life in Guanacaste. The wealth of information available is amazing. And as I learned, if you still have questions, someone in cyberspace knows the answer.
We thought about the mail that stuffs our box everyday. How would we keep up with it from such a long distance? Costa Rica has no postal service, and our destination was on the opposite side of the country from its capital city, San Jose, making deliveries even more prohibitive.
We found out about some business in Miami that facilitate mail between the U.S. and Latin America, but ultimately, we decided to try to keep that function more local. After a few interviews, we found and hired a entrepreneur in our own community to help us with this task.
While we were out of the country, she retrieved our mail, scanned appropriate pieces, and had scheduled weekly skype sessions to go over every piece. If she was unsure about a piece of mail, she would hold it up to the camera so we could look at it from our remote location and decide together the best course of action. Using technology, most of it free, enabled us to make our goal a reality.
My husband and I are entrepreneurs, but most of our work is local. To prepare for our physical absence, we made three lists: work we could manage remotely, work we could hire out, and work we’d have to let go.
Then we put action plans in place for each of those categories, planning one trip back midway through our experience to check on things.
After we arrived in Costa Rica, we met other families who had done the same thing in different variations. Some had full time jobs in the States but were able to work remotely. Others had taken leaves of absence and picked up contract work once they got there. The common denominators were being open to possibility and having a defined goal and the desire to make it work.
Expect the Unexpected
The first several weeks in our new home were consumed with adventures and establishing the infrastructure of our new lives.
Settling into our long term furnished rental did not go smoothly, and the car broke down on several occasions, stranding us in the hot Costa Rican sun. Our daughter, Lauren, had to move up a grade level at school which was an adjustment for everyone, and internet connectivity problems sabotaged our work plans.
We were shocked to pay $10 for a small jar of peanut butter, and Lauren discovered a large, hissing iguana in the toilet. If your entire family can’t adjust to throwing out one plan for a new one at a moment’s notice, an international move may not be for you.
Give Yourself a Project
When things settled down, we found needed a project, a structure to shape our days. Like most rentals in Costa Rica, ours came with a gardner and maid service, so we had no work to do around the house. We didn’t know anyone, so our phone never rang. Television programs were in Spanish, the appeal of which was limited. Finding something to do to fill those gloriously free hours became a necessity.
Our family decided to blog, and we all enjoyed it. My husband posted photography, our daughter created a video diary, and I liked to write. Other families we met took up surfing, pottery, painting, or other new hobbies, but all of us felt the need to do something new, something which became part of the foreign experience. (Check out our website: http://www.costaricahowler.com )
Living abroad stretched our boundaries as a family. It opened our eyes to new possibilities and brought us closer. Some of the changes we made came back with us and continue to enrich our lives. We eat more vegetables, use more technology, have more friends, consider more ideas. None of us miss the $10 peanut butter, but we’ll never forget the sunsets.