Culturally, we, as Americans, grow up with the American dream, large house, 2.5 kids, white picket fence and a dog named Spot. Money and status tend to be the motivating factor in our everyday lives. Keeping up with the Jones’s is a priority. My husband and I lived this way for many years without even realizing it. Always existing just within our means, struggling to stretch that paycheck but at the same time telling ourselves that we owe it to ourselves after working so hard to treat ourselves. We owned a 3000 sq foot, 4 bedroom home in the heart of San Antonio full of furniture. (Mind you, we have no kids, it was just he and I and our animals) Our taxes and insurance were $900 a month with a mortgage on top of that. We owned two new Jeep Cherokees both with high car payments. We had multiple credit cards, mostly maxed out. We were both working roughly 80 to 100 hours a week to even afford this. Once sick of the corporate world, we then took out business loans and opened a high risk business. Look, I am not saying we were the sharpest tools in the shed, I am just merely telling it like it was. We were seeking something, some kind of satisfaction. Work wasn’t fulfilling us, owning all of the stuff wasn’t fulfilling us, we soon came to realize that all of it, the stuff, the business, the careers, they were weighing us down.
Over the years, the one thing that fulfilled us and made us thrive was travel. We have traveled extensively throughout Asia and Central America and fell in love with both. We felt the most alive while traveling and made a pact that when we retire, we will go somewhere tropical and beautiful. I was raised in Hawaii and really missed the air, smells and water. The plan was a dream but as we got older we would travel for longer periods of time. We would spend three weeks to a month each time in a different location, rent a house or apartment and really try to get the feel for what is would be to “live there”.
After two years of running our business, the licenses, bonds etc were all coming due. It would be another $20,000.00 out of pocket to stay open. We were slaves to the business. My husband who was ordinarily healthy was now on all kinds of blood pressure medication and felt as though he would stroke out at any moment. I was having heart palpitations and was just physically exhausted and depressed. We had to make a choice, close the doors and lose everything we had invested or sink more money we did not have into the business. Our business was thriving, all 5 star reviews, awards left and right by reader’s choice but our short term loans were killing us. We had a staff we loved and thought of as children so this was not, by any means a light decision. In the end it boiled down to the fact that we were just unhappy. We announced to the public that we were closing after telling the staff. After a very emotional last two weeks, we closed the doors and liquidated.
We had a choice here and decided that losing everything may be the kick in the butt we needed to just purge it all and go. We set up a four week timeline for ourselves to get the house ready for sale and to sell all of our things. Our house was built in 1925 and had been neglected quite a bit due to the hours spent running the business. We were so emotionally and physically exhausted but we did it. Painted the entire exterior and interior. Made repairs, landscaped, cleaned like we had never cleaned before all while having two garage sales every weekend for four weeks to get rid of 30 years worth of belongings. The amount of stuff we had acquired was alarming. As a writer, I am fully aware that there are many more eloquent words I could use in place of stuff, however, stuff sums it up perfectly as that was all it was. Just because my house held a place for all of our belongings could not hide the fact that we were disguised and tasteful hoarders. Who has 8 cake pans, 4 mixers, 12 pie pans, 25 wooden spoons, 4 TVs, 450 DVDs etc….etc. We sold it, all of it minus 4 suitcases and 3 boxes 18” x18” worth of things. I must admit, it was an emotional process but at the end of the day, it really is just stuff.
During this emotional rollercoaster we also had some planning to do. Where are we going? How are we getting there with an 11 year old dog? Where are we going to live? Are we crazy?? We just kept moving forward, like a whirlwind, on a mission. All the time convincing one another that we can do this. And we did.
Asia was out, too far away from friends and family. Central America it was. My husband and I loved Costa Rica but decided to start our journey on the Caribbean side of Panama in Bocas del Toro which is an archipelago. We stayed on Isla Colon which houses Bocas town for the first week while we hunted for a house to rent. We ended up finding a 3 bedroom house on an acre of land on Isla Solarte. Solarte has no roads, no store, no restaurants. There is an indigenous Indian village, one school and a few homes scattered here and there across the island. There is no power, sewer or trash pick up on the island. In order to live there, you must be off grid. The house we rented had solar power, a water catchment system to collect rainwater and composting toilets. We had no hot water without a propane tank to heat and even then, it was never really hot. We used a propane tank to start our stove as well. We had no air conditioning, the house was basically open air. We bought a small 14 foot penga (traditional Panamanian boat) for transportation to and from surrounding islands. Remember, we had to travel to another island for a market. If there was a storm, you were stuck. Backups were essential, backup propane, backup toilet paper, backup water, backup food, booze etc. Not to mention that our house was in the middle of the jungle so once you park the boat you now need to transport your goods from the boat up the mountain to the jungle. Even if you jump in the sea at the dock you are a sweaty mess by the time you get to the house. As I said, there was no trash pickup and no recycling so we had to separate our trash, all paper (including toilet trash, no sewer) is separated for us to burn. We reused plastic bottles for seed starters, reused rum bottles for infused olive oils, basically reused what we could to cut down on trash. All organic waste went to compost for the garden. All other trash, we had to haul to town on our boat and pay to drop it off. It is amazing how quickly you realize the waste packaging creates. Wrapped in plastic, then wrapped in paper, then styrofoam then cardboard, ridiculous! You must also realize that the food wrappers etc that you have to haul to town are sitting out in the heat until you are able to take them (again, weather permitting) so the bugs take residence. The bugs, the bugs, the bugs….what an incredible display of bugs. I am not a squeamish person. I do admit, I will jump on a table if there is a snake on the floor, other than that I am pretty calm when it comes to bugs or rodents. The bugs in Panama, however, they are a whole other story. It is like they are bugs on steroids.
We took a bit to get adjusted to the lifestyle but after a few weeks we were a well oiled machine. The isolation was what we were struggling with. Granted, there were some selfish issues such as wanting to go out to dinner, hit up a bar, internet was intermittent. With that said we were really able to figure out what we were willing to do without.
After four months in Panama, we decided to pack it up and come back to our beloved Costa Rica. With a new found understanding of what we really needed versus what we wanted, we carefully chose our new abode. We have no hot water, stove is run on propane, we have no AC. We are on the grid but still using a water catchment system. We have sewer but the infrastructure still cannot handle flushing paper products so in the wastebasket it goes. We have trash pickup which turns out is a real a luxury ! Our home is about 750 sq feet. We have two small bedrooms and one bath. Our outdoor kitchen faces the river and is really one of my favorite places to be. We are within walking distance to the beach, the store, the bar and restaurants but still are surrounded by nature. I have monkeys in my trees, iguanas outside my door, wonderful neighbors who have a smile on their face everyday walking over the river and down our gravel road. This is my paradise.
So I suppose the joke is on me in retrospect. I killed myself all of those years for things I never really needed. I am so much happier in my kitchen with the concrete floor. I am barefoot, eating fresh fish and fruit off of my tree. I can celebrate the fact that I made the change and discovered what is best for me and my little family.