Motorcycle Burns and Mango Trees: How to Ditch the Cube and Move to Paradise

[Today we bring you the first of what we hope will be many expat reports from Kansas Sara. Kansas Sara was born and raised in the Midwest and spent nearly twelve years of her adult life freezing in Chicago before finally heading south to Costa Rica in 2010.]

I bought this rad motorcycle about six months after moving to Santa Teresa. None of the roads here are paved, so most people get around on dirt bikes or ATVs. Or, for the unlucky ones, bicycles.

Power outages, mudslides, cold water showers, scorpions, dirty fingernails, sandy sheets, moldy t-shirts, gecko poop, motorcycle burns, busted electronics, petty theft… it’s a way of life down here in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica–a remote but world-renowned surf town hidden at the isolated tip of a lush peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. But this is my favorite place on the entire planet, and this is where I choose to live. Why? Because when I cashed in everything and took off to this little spot almost three years ago, this is what I got in return: a bedroom two minutes from the beach, a troupe of monkeys outside my kitchen window, an eight-hour work week, friends from all over the world, mango trees, a surf board, a suntan in December, zero McDonalds, near fluency in the Spanish language, fresh flowers in my hair, flip flops every day, and no alarm clocks. They would break anyway.

I want to say it hasn’t been easy getting here. But in all honesty, it has. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but what I really believe is that I just wanted it–badly. So I made it happen. I’d been vacationing in Santa Teresa on and off for about five years when the thought crossed my mind that maybe there was somewhere I was supposed to be that was not a gray cubicle in the uptight Chicago suburb of Naperville. When I considered installing a small box of sand from Costa Rica beneath my miserable office desk, just so I could quietly dip my bare feet in there once in a while as I typed away at some inane document, hunched over and angry, I knew it was time to go. Here’s how I did it.

1. I let go.
There are a lot of things you must be willing to give up if you’re serious about moving abroad, especially to a Latin American country without a work visa (like me!). A retirement plan, a wardrobe, a Walgreens on the corner, certain legal rights. Kiss it all goodbye. I sold everything I could to get here, and I showed up with one backpack and a small suitcase. I live here on a “tourist” visa, which means I must leave the country and re-enter every ninety days to stay legit. A simple forty-eight hour bus trip to Nicaragua takes care of that. Most expats here follow the same routine. And because proper work visas are almost nonexistent, all compensation is under the table. As an employee it’s not the most secure situation (yay, I‘m an illegal immigrant!), and often life is paycheck to paycheck, depending on your savings. But there are thousands of people doing this right now; some have kept it up happily for more than ten years.

2. I found a way to make money–before I made the move.
Want to work anywhere in the world, immerse yourself in the community, and not sell your soul to a corporation? Become an English teacher, like, immediately. That’s what I did, and it was the key to making this whole thing possible.

The soccer field at the public school. Welcome to my office!

I teach Costa Rican kids and adults at a decaying public school, in a small, open-air building on the edge of the jungle across from a quiet, palm-fringed beach. I literally went from photo of beach on cubicle wall to actual beach as workplace every day. I’m not employed by the public school system (nightmare bureaucracy, likely illegal). I’m paid a decent monthly salary by a private community organization working to improve conditions for the local kids down here. I was able to land this gig because I was in the right place at the right time (a mountaintop yoga class on one of my last trips to Santa Teresa, where I met one of the organizers) and because I had just completed a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. You can get certified to teach English for about $1500 at schools across the world. At Costa Rica TEFL I had the time of my life and left feeling totally prepared to step into a classroom. And I was! There are other work opportunities down here too. Some of my international expat friends work (illegally) in restaurants or hotels, teach yoga, own surf or clothing shops, or freelance with their companies back home. But I have to say, I feel like I’ve got one of the best gigs in town being a teacher. Plus I hear the local riff raff have serious respect for school teachers, and there’s an unspoken “do not rob or assault them” code reserved for us gals. That’s nice.

3. I stuck with it.
Santa Teresa may be a tropical paradise, but like anywhere, it can get on your nerves. Just because you move somewhere exotic to escape the crap back home doesn’t mean there won’t be a whole new pile of crap waiting on your new doorstep. This crap will just be a little prettier and smell like hibiscus. Seriously, it sometimes seems like we’re on the outskirts of civilization here. Take for example the case of the missing school key. I had to cancel my evening classes for adults for two entire weeks recently because the public school director changed the lock on the school and forgot to make me a new key. I offered to go make the copy myself, which required a thirty-minute motorcycle ride in the dust under scorching midday equatorial sun, when I discovered the key machine at the hardware store was “disabled” and had been “sent away.” There is no other machine for miles. Do I have to cancel my classes until this machine gets fixed? Probably. I was so mad about this when it happened, and sad, too, for my students who would miss out. But if I let all the little things like this bother me I would’ve been back in the Land of Liberty long ago. In a place like this, you just have to accept the things you cannot fix (most of them), take a deep breath, and enjoy the sunshine.

I think we forget how comfortable and convenient our lives in the United States have become. Most of the world gets by with much less than we have, and if you’re going to live abroad, and especially in Latin America, you’ve got to flip your thinking about how you handle life’s inconveniences. For instance, right now I’m writing this on a mini-laptop with a broken keyboard and ants are crawling over my feet. But the sun just went down and the only thing I can hear besides my typing are the waves and the crickets. That’s why I live in Costa Rica.

A year or so before I moved to Costa Rica I made this New Year’s resolution: See more sunsets.


4 thoughts on “Motorcycle Burns and Mango Trees: How to Ditch the Cube and Move to Paradise

  1. Beautfully written sara, and so much great info for anyone that wants to move to costa rica! Sounds like something I might have tried 4 yes ago!
    Love you,

  2. That was supposed to say ‘something I would have tried 40 YEARS AGO’!
    Typing on this I touch is still new to me.

  3. Hi Sara, Nice! I have passed this on to my friend in Canada. She wants to make the leap soon and I think her reading this will make her take the plunge sooner! Thanks, Yan

  4. hey sara- really enjoyed this. Moving to a place like ST has been a pipe dream of mine since graduating. I’m from Hinsdale actually (another “uptight Chicago suburb” as you know), I went to ST last March on a surf trip, fell in love with the place, and am planning to return later this year. So this article really speaks to me. Really impressed that you pulled it off, and I’d love to hear more about how it’s going since the writing of this article, be it in another post or email correspondence. you seem like a great resource on the subject

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