Tag Archives: Puerto Viejo

Working Abroad Experiment Wrap-up, Part I — What We Did Right and What We Did Wrong

A young friend from the Iguana Verde Center.

Today is the last day of our Costa Rica “workation“; right now we’re at The Hemingway Inn in San Jose (CR) and we fly back to San Francisco tomorrow.  Six weeks flew by — at least that’s how it feels now (at times, time crawled at a snail’s pace).  Six weeks was certainly long enough to feel like we were truly living, and working, somewhere else.

Was the Trip a “Success”?

Kia and I had pretty similar goals going into this trip, and our two-year-old daughter was along for the ride.  Here is the short list of what Kia and I hoped to get out of the experience:

  • Perform a test … does “workationing” (a longer stay in another country, working remotely at least part of the time) work for us?
  • Be out less money than we would on a regular vacation.
  • Change things up; experience living in a new place; break out of our Oakland routines.
  • Have a good time, enjoy the foreign country we’re visiting.
  • Be creatively inspired; do creative work.
  • Do paid consulting work; meet client expectations; don’t fall behind on obligations/work responsibilities.
  • Meet new people and make new friends.
  • Avoid the boredom and aimlessness both of us have often experienced on longer vacations (no matter how beautiful the location).

Our daughter didn’t have “goals” for the trip, but it was important to us that she enjoy the experience as well, and grow from it.

File under "what we did right"

The short answer to the “success” question is yes, absolutely.  We performed the experiment, we got work done, we met new people and made new friends, we had some incredibly fun times, we totally broke out of our regular routines, we experienced creative inspiration, we avoided boredom, and we didn’t break the bank.  That said, there were some difficult elements, as follows:

  • We only had sporadic childcare, and this made working difficult.  It was rare that either of us got a clean three or four hour block of uninterrupted time, the kind that enables a person to get into a groove and experience deep concentration.  We had to work in fits and starts, and hour here and an hour there.  Having two of our daughter’s grandparents around for part of the trip was a huge help, as was Sylvia, a new friend who also did some babysitting.  Still, there wasn’t enough time to work.
  • The Puerto Viejo area is home to multitudinous hordes of insects that want to eat you for supper, including mosquitoes, sand fleas, and biting flies.  Some people get used to this, or cease to care, or stop having reactions to the bites.  Some people, but not us.  We suffered.  Mosquito nets helped somewhat, but I had a terrible reaction to neurotoxic DEET spray, and I actually preferred the insect bites to the sharply fragrant stench of citronella.  I would have tried Avon Skin-So-Soft in a second if I could have found some.
  • Internet speed and reliability has a long way to go in the Puerto Viejo area.  I realize this is true for many parts of the United States as well, but the slowness and drop-outs were frustrating when we were trying to deliver projects, check email, download files, etc.  It wouldn’t have been an issue if we were just on vacation, but it made workationing difficult.  I no longer buy into the false “first-world/third-world” dichotomy (see Hans Rosling’s TED talk for more on that), but there is progress to be made in Costa Rican internet service.
  • Tesla Rose, our two-year-old daughter, was bored and frustrated at times, and sometimes acted out.  When she had enough to do, and had friends and grandparents to play with, she did really well, but at other times she complained about missing her Oakland friends, threw more than one glass on the ground, and often exclaimed “I’m getting bited!”

Tesla Rose and the Dellinger girls doing their best to get us kicked out of Casa de Carol (great food -- recommended)

These difficult elements were easily outweighed, at least in my view, by the positive highlights of the trip, including:

  • Going to the beach two, three, or even four times a day to play in the waves, kick the soccer ball around, build sand castles, and admire the tropical Caribbean view.
  • Being in close proximity to Costa Rican flora and fauna; hearing and seeing howler monkeys, sloths, agouti, iguanas, giant blue morphos, etc.
  • Seeing old friends and meeting new friends, including a fellow workationing family, The Dellingers, from Virginia.  Tesla Rose got along great with their daughters Eli and Annika, and we had some excellent times at the beach, eating out, and seeing the local sights.
  • Good food!  Restaurant food was always at least decent, and several times exceptional (and this is coming from two Oakland food snobs).  Basic food quality is great too — for example, regular eggs from the local market in our area rivaled super expensive organic eggs from free-range pastured chickens in California.
  • Seeing Tesla Rose get braver, stronger, wordier, etc. — she grew up a lot during the trip.  Kia has done a full post on this.

What We Did Right, What We Did Wrong

Will we do it again?  Will we take another workation?  Yes, absolutely.  And there are some things we’ve learned from our first foray into this area.

What We Did Right

  • We chose a place where we knew somebody (Eric Haller) who was already living there.
  • We chose a place where rent and other prices were reasonable (or at least cheaper than U.S. prices), and we went during low season.
  • We chose places to live with internet.
  • We chose an area that’s easy and enjoyable to navigate via walking and biking.
  • We chose an incredibly beautiful location.
  • We chose a place where Kia speaks the language, and where Tesla Rose and I could get by with our Spanglish.
  • We maintained a generally positive attitude, even in the face of difficulty.
  • We were outgoing and met new people (Kia and Tesla Rose were especially good at this)
  • We heeded local advice regarding area to watch out for (in terms of crime) and managed to avoid trouble.
  • When we found that the original house we rented wasn’t ideal, we moved.
  • We rented out our place in Oakland to someone we knew, which both eased our minds about our house, and also relieved some financial pressure.

The excellent little preschool in the jungle we would have loved to send Tesla Rose to (unfortunately, they were full up)

What We Did Wrong

  • We ignored the advice of our local friend, and rented a jungle house separated from the main road by a long, hilly, rocky, often muddy trail.
  • We rented a place, sight-unseen, for the entire six weeks; we should have rented a place for just the first week and gained more local knowledge before committing.
  • We chose a place with lots of biting bugs, and didn’t have a good strategy for how to avoid getting eaten alive.
  • We didn’t choose a low-crime area (even though this decision turned out not to have consequences, the constant tales of gangs of machete-wielding youths kept us a little on edge).
  • We didn’t plan, or find, an independent activity for Tesla Rose.  Going to the local preschool, even part-time, would have been fun for her and would have made working easier for us.
  • We didn’t arrange enough childcare for the “crunch periods” (Kia had a couple of intense deadlines for her motion-graphics work).
  • We came in needing faster and more reliable internet service than was currently available in our area.
  • We didn’t choose places with enough desk space.
  • We packed much too heavily, bringing warm clothes we didn’t need, and a car seat we only used once.
  • We didn’t bring enough of certain clothing items.  Some things we planned to get when we arrived in Puerto Viejo, but discovered those items were either unavailable or very expensive.

Overall, the experience was positive, with some glitches.  Some of the glitches were major, but most were avoidable.

I think we’ll enjoy our home in Oakland more than ever for awhile.  I could see trying another workation sometime this winter, or maybe we’ll go somewhere cold next summer.  We have friends and/or family in Switzerland, France, Norway, The Netherlands, and Argentina.  We’re also curious about Iceland, Denmark, Chile, Peru, Japan, and New Zealand.  A number of U.S. and Canadian cities are on the short list too.

If you have recently gone on a working vacation, or are planning one, I’d love to hear about it — please comment below.

Working Abroad Adventure: Weeks 3 and 4

Path to the beach at the Caracola Hotel.

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.

One of the bugs up in the jungle house.

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.

Dog running on the beach.

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.

The little school in the jungle.

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.

with Nana Ina

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.

At Art Cafe, not worried about crime.

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:

  1. The crime rate is not particularly high — certainly not any higher than Oakland.
  2. Residents are very concerned about crime; one reason is that any crime is a huge threat to the main industry (tourism).
  3. People look out for each other and feel responsible for each other (and thus warn about crime).
  4. Tourists are the main targets, especially drunk, obnoxious tourists (there is some sense perhaps, among the locals, that these types have it coming).
  5. 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.

Armed with a rapier, yet somehow … not intimidating.

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.

Wall-climbing lizard.

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.

Why hello there big beetle.

Bananas at the farmer’s market.

with Grandpa at the beach.

Jaguar Rescue Center (with baby sloth videos)

An incredibly cute baby three-toed sloth; these guys are responsible for a significant percentage of Costa Rica's eco-tourism industry.

I’m currently living in Costa Rica with my family, near Puerto Viejo, in the midst of a working abroad experiment (we’re calling it a “workation”).  Recently, on the recommendation of several friends and acquaintances, we visited the Jaguar Rescue Center.  This unique organization, started by a herpetologist and a gorilla expert, functions to rescue and rehabilitate injured, mistreated, and/or confiscated animals from the local area.  During our tour we met baby howler monkeys and baby sloths who had fallen from the trees (otherwise a death sentence for both types of animal), snakes discovered by residents who would have otherwise met the sharp side of a machete, big cats rescued by customs agents otherwise destined for lives as leashed pets in Kuwait, a baby cayman discovered in a local creek, and numerous frogs, who, as far as I could tell, were just enjoying the giant, lily-pad covered pond.

A young ocelot -- note the giant eyes for night hunting. He looks cute, but this guy recently went after a large dog.

The Jaguar Rescue Center is not-for-profit, and receives no government support.  They’re not really part of the eco-tourism industry (though they of course attract eco-tourists); their mission is solely to protect and heal at-risk animals and help them return to their natural lives in the jungle.  The cages open at least once a day (or night, for the big cats) to allow the animals to leave if they wish.  Some leave and then come back for a time, like the young orphaned jaguar who had never had a mother to teach him not to hunt porcupines.  He slunk back to the rescue center to recover from a faceful of quills, then left again, a fully healed and much wiser beast.

It's always nice when someone feels comfortable around you.

The baby howler monkeys regularly interact with a couple of local troops who live in the nearby trees, and eventually leave the rescue center to join one of them (usually monkey romance is the deciding factor).  One feature of the tour is the option to enter the cage where the baby howler monkeys hang out, and let them climb on you.  They’re quite friendly and fearless, and immediately clamber onto the visitors.  One of the monkeys started chewing on one young woman’s hair.  I was used more like a tree branch, as you can see in the picture.  It’s a strange feeling to have a monkey hanging off of you, supported only by its tail wrapped around your neck.  Not uncomfortable, but weird.  Those tails are incredibly strong.

Lying in the food bowl = acceptable sloth table manners (youtube video below).

The baby sloths were the highlight of the tour, especially for our two-year-old daughter.  As you can see, they’re cute.  Really cute — cuddly and adorable.  The two-toed sloth (the orange one), has a peak of fur on its back that helps the rainwater drain off.  It looks just like a faux-hawk.

Both sloths and monkeys often get injured in power lines.  There have been efforts to get the government to install “collars” at the base of the power line poles to prevent animals from climbing them, a relatively cheap fix that could save hundreds of animals from life-threatening burns.  You would think the Costa Rican government, with its generally strong commitment to protecting the environment and supporting eco-tourism, would be all over this.  Evidently there is still progress to be made.  I can hardly be critical, coming from nation that has just hosted what might be the worst environmental disaster of all time, but I’m glad the Jaguar Rescue Center is working hard to protect the stunningly beautiful wildlife of Costa Rica.

Unfortunately their website doesn’t have an easy way to donate, like a Paypal button or credit card form, but if you feel moved to support their efforts I hope that doesn’t discourage you.  Give them a call and arrange a donation.  And if you’re ever in the Puerto Viejo area, by all means do the tour.  It’s informative, fun, and monkeys might chew on your hair.


Working Abroad Adventure: Week Two-And-A-Half

A view from the beach, which could benefit from a two degree rotation in Photoshop.

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

The girls.

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.

The Client

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?

Brain coral.

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.

Land crab (far from ocean) in front of our jungle house. Trying to slice our internet cable?

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.

What we really need around here is one of Nathan Myhrvold’s mosquito lasers (or click here for the full TED talk — fascinating).

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).

In front of Pirripli market.

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

Off to the lavandería.

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.

Gecko!

Leaf-cutter ants (click for video)

Working Abroad Adventure: Week 1

View from the second story.

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!

No need to wash the windows.

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).

Why hello there.

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.

Our internet wire comes from ... the jungle.

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.

Some happy times ...

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.

... some grumpy times.

A clear intention started to form in my mind.  I went into the storage room and grabbed a machete.

To be continued …