It’s a fairly common dream: You chuck it all and move to a remote beach, make coconut cocktails for a living, and never, ever wear real shoes again. Goodbye New York stress, tiny, overpriced apartments, and jobs that rarely pay well. It’s a fantasy for most of us, but I actually did it. And I’m here to tell you that it was at turns awesome and really, really weird. While I loved my six months outside of reality, I’m also glad I came back to New York, to my career, and to all my same problems. (Okay, maybe not that part.)
I’ve always been your typical NYC workaholic: long hours, only thinking about work, and not having that great of a personal life. Back in 2003, I was still trying to prove myself, spending countless days (and nights) toiling away as a young editor at style.com. I was in the midst of my quarter-life crisis, only I had no idea that’s what it was. I wanted to change everything in my life, and I thought that if I changed venues, magically, my life would improve.
Instead of heading to the shrink’s couch (maybe a smarter choice), I up and moved to Mal Pais, Costa Rica, a small surf town I had visited six months earlier. I remember being impressed by everyone’s laid-back attitude. No one had the spine-crushing stress that I lived with daily. Everyone seemed happy. Why wasn’t I doing this? Why didn’t I live here?
Instead of heading to the shrink’s couch (maybe a smarter choice), I up and moved to Mal Pais, Costa Rica.
In December of 2003, I found myself at JFK with a one-way ticket to paradise. I had sold nearly everything I owned (except my books, which went to my parents’ house), chucked my cell phone, and pared my belongings down to two suitcase filled with clothes, towels, and DVDs (this was pre-streaming).
My parents were aghast. “We moved away from a third-world country, and now you want to go back?!” my dad screamed at me. I tried to tell him about all the good things Costa Rica had — the education, the health care, the eco-tourism, the lack of any military coups (they haven’t had a military since 1948). But he was convinced I was throwing my life away. I had to go, though, for the simple reason that I didn’t know what else to do with myself. My life needed changing, and this was change with a beach! Was I terrified? Oh my God, yes. But adventure awaited.
I managed to get a job at the hotel where I stayed on my previous visit. I acted as bartender, server, front-desk girl — you name it, I would do it. I was a pretty good tropical-drink bartender, but an awful waitress. Disasters happened nightly — wrong orders, incomplete dishes, etc. But it didn’t really matter to the guests. They were fascinated by an American bartender who had uprooted to come to paradise, and frankly, my boss was just happy I wasn’t on drugs.
I was a terrible waitress, but my boss was just happy I wasn’t on drugs.
I lived in a small house the village over in Santa Teresa. My tiny cabin was cute and sweet; the bedroom and bathroom were indoors, the camping-like kitchen was out on the porch. I was one with nature, watching lizards and monkeys while I drank coffee. I loved my beach fantasy land. I loved not having a cell phone. The ex-pats and locals I met during my stay — a mix of Costa Ricans, Europeans, Africans, Australians, and South Americans — were some of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. (And so relaxed. I felt like a strung-out stress case next to them.) At night, I could hitchhike home when I didn’t feel like biking in the dark past the semi-feral dogs. I loved that everyone just hung out together, and the response to every single question was “pura vida.”
My long-term plan — in theory — was to save money to buy land, so I could open up a hotel or bar. I quickly learned that only one or two bars in the area were actually licensed, and the rest were illegal, including where I was working. (That may have changed since 2003.) And building anything required knowing who to bribe. Was I up for this? Was it worth it? The longer I spent in Costa Rica, the more I had my doubts.
I might have been living in paradise, but life was far from perfect. For a sleepy surf area, there was a surprising lack of weed, but an insane amount of cocaine. Some of my friends would sleep with every tourist they could find. (Hey, who was I to judge? Tourists offered themselves up nightly.) The fights between my boss and her boyfriend were legendary. One friend smuggled drugs out of Costa Rica; another died from a heart attack after I left. In reality, these were not the chill people living out every workaholic's fantasy of a life without stress. They were normal people with normal problems.
For a sleepy surf area, there was a surprising lack of weed, but an insane amount of cocaine.
After six months, I came to terms with the fact that my dream life wasn’t so idyllic. I got tired of having the same conversations with people, sick of the same music being played. I was over being propositioned by American tourists at night just because I was having a conversation or doing my job. I missed real connections. I hadn’t seen a newspaper or watched TV most of the time I was there. Being cut off was starting to drive me crazy.
It was May, and rainy season was coming. I had to decide whether I was staying or going home to New York. I went to Chicago instead. I was still in running mode, but at least I was stateside. It took another year before I could handle moving back to New York, and my career picked up right where it left off. Back to work. Always back to work.
I didn’t plan my career break the same way I planned my career.
Was it worth it? Sure. It was fun, and I needed a break. I didn’t take time off after college to backpack like so many of my friends did. I went from working two jobs (while carrying a full class load) in school to working 60-hour weeks after graduation, and I was tired. I had hit a breaking point. In hindsight, I wish I’d done something more meaningful and made an impact. But I wasn’t really thinking that way at the time. I didn’t plan my career break the same way I planned my career.
Would I recommend anyone else go and do this? Sure, but I’d advise you to go into it with your eyes open. No matter where you go, you’ll still be you. Some problems you’ll never be able to run far and fast enough away from. It’s been more than 12 years since I took my break, and my life didn’t change in some drastic, pura vida-inspired way. But my time in Costa Rica did teach me something important.
Right now, I’m going through another huge life transition, and I’m facing it head-on. I dream of taking off and leaving every problem behind, but I know it won't help. I may not be as brave as I used to be, and my anxiety definitely gets the better of me. But now, I know what the fearless girl I once was never realized: I can handle anything that life throws at me. Sometimes I just need to chill out and have a pineapple fizz first.
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