Our haphazard approach to moving abroad
As I think back to when we officially decided to make this move happen (and I can't even really recall when that was exactly, but I'm thinking around 16 months prior), I'm sure the first thing I did was make a list. I love lists. I love that I can work through them, prove to myself I'm making progress by crossing them off (or use them as a motivator when I see that I'm being a bum by not actually making any progress), and best of all, I like throwing them away when they're done. I make them for me, my job, our business, our trips, my kids, and my husband (these last two get less love and attention than those made for myself, however...)
So I'm sure this first list was probably titled something like "To do: moving to Costa Rica in August 2020". I'm sure it was a sloppy (read: panicked) scrawl of anything that came to my brain over the days and weeks after making the official big decision. I'd leave a notebook by my bed so I could dump stressful "to-do's" onto paper before settling in for the night, throwing on the list both general categories (job, house, kids, cars, insurance, money) and also specific details (cancel phones, prepare lease for house, buy airline tickets, check passports). It had started as a brainstorm.
Eventually, that brainstorm became a serious list: timelined from August 2020 backwards. What could we wait on versus what could we easily finish now? I wanted to make sure every "I" was dotted and "T" was crossed far, far in advance. I do not like surprises when it comes to planning life. The surprises (only in the form of wonderful adventures) could come when we got to Costa Rica, I decided.
Over time, this list got modified (thanks COVID-19!), reprinted and rearranged. As we started to realize things took more time or as opportunities came or disappeared, we had to adjust accordingly. Things like "contact immigration to see how Sara - noncitizen - can get into the country with the border closed" suddenly got added (good times!). We tried to schedule tasks based on money, our time and availability, and what our kids needed and when. We kept this baby front and center (on our fridge, staring us in the face) for the eight months leading up to move to keep us on track. Right down to moving our pet chickens.
Here are some of the dirty details about how we are getting through this process:
Question #1: When are we going to go?
This was an easy choice. Our plan was to go for a minimum of a year. We felt that this amount of time would give us the chance to be able to move through all the phases of Culture Shock and hopefully settle comfortably into the "Acceptance" Stage before deciding to pack up and head back. Knowing how long our minimum stay was going to be helped influence a lot of future decisions related to housing, jobs and school. Since we agreed on a year, a school year seemed logical: we pull the kids out for a year (even though this didn't align with the Costa Rica academic calendar) and then stick them right back in once we return. I work in international education and my busiest time of year is summer, so I'd, in theory, wrap up my work and then leave my team during the slow period of the year. And we love Madison summer music festivals. So much so, in fact, that I scheduled our departure flight to Costa Rica the Sunday after the amazing Orton Park festival where acrobats perform from the trees, was scheduled to end the night before. Thanks to COVID, however, the Orton Park Festival was canceled and that strategic planning was in vain.
Question #2: Where to go?
This was also an easy question. Our travels are taking us to La Flor, Costa Rica, which is the 300 person town Johel left 20 years ago when he came to the states. This little village is
wonderful (so much so that we often take groups here through our business), but it's wonderful in small doses: mainly because it's small, safe, beautiful, welcoming, and slow. These things are all great for 10 day vacations, but for a year? That was something we asked ourselves several times. But ultimately, as we started to analyze our goals for moving abroad, the fact that the town is:
*packed with Tico family
*and near a lot of amazing places to visit
actually fit perfectly into our answer to question #3. La Flor, it is!
Question #3: Why, exactly, are we going?
Answered mainly in blog entry #2, our goals were simple and really based a lot on what Johel & I value, which, without having analyzed it too much before writing this paragraph, are family, trying new things and hard work. Our goals were:
*to build our GoTico! business connections in Costa Rica
*to try something different for a year before our kids are too old to hate us for pulling them away from everything they know
*to travel lots in-country (on a budget!)
*to work on our Spanish
*to get out of our comfort zones (on many levels: from a slower lifestyle to different food to scary bugs and major heat...)
*to relax, relax some more and sleep a lot
*to know and live another culture (and why not do it where you have family to give you the ultimate immersion experience?!)
Question #4: What will we live in?
La Flor isn't exactly a real estate mecca, so renting a home wasn't an option. Buying an existing one wasn't an option either. So it looks like building it is! After evaluating investments we had, Johel convinced me we could die tomorrow, so we may as well move some of those investments to a house in a tropical place that our kids can use for the rest of their lives (ooo-kay) and went at it. We had re-purchased a small piece of land from his older sister next door to another sister's house at the end of one of La Flor's two dirt roads back in 2005 without having any real plans to use it. I'd planted a wonderful array of trees in the back, and my brother-in-law and I had put up a fence many years ago. The front half of the property was open. It was perfect: the site of our future home.
Site-finding was the easy part. Then came the messy stuff, which became messier and messier as time went on. Johel found an architect/project manager (who is not currently my favorite person in the world, but that's another blog!) who designed the house based on a plan we created for a very functional and comfortable home. The contractor was hired and the ground was prepared. We set up a bank account (major, major pain in the butt: sending large sums of money to another country doesn't come without a million hoops to jump through to prove it's not laundered!). We transferred money in installments as needed by the laborers. Materials were purchased and work began in October 2019. It's still not done, in case you're wondering. It's okay (but is it, really?): we've got a month to go...
Question #5: What about jobs (and money?)
I mentioned earlier that up until COVID, our jobs were generally not transferrable to remote work: I teach English to international students in short-term programs at UW-Madison, also functioning as recruiter, program & outreach coordinator, and concierge when students are here. However, after presenting our moving plans to my boss, there was talk of getting creative to aid in international recruitment while I was abroad. This minimal work would have been enough to cover basic living expenses in rural Costa Rica while working toward our business development. Plus, we'd have Go Tico! trips we would run throughout the year to help with revenue generation, right? Wrong! Along comes COVID and suddenly our summer of programs (for both UW and Go Tico!) go down the toilet, and it makes it suddenly hard for my boss to justify keeping me on while abroad (recruiting international students to travel to a university that's practically closed to in-person learning, especially when we are a revenue generating team that right now isn't generating any revenue)....not likely.
Ok, move to plan B. I am an English teacher, so I'll teach English and look for other remote work. We immediately set up a virtual English class for Ticos, spread the word and start to get a small base of wonderful students interested in committing to learning online. By starting while in Madison, it not only gives me a chance to see how this virtual instruction will work, but hopefully build a base of satisfied students that can help spread the word for future opportunities for virtual or in-person instruction while we are living down there.
Plan C (running subsequently alongside A and B): Stockpile vacation time to receive the payout at time of departure, allowing for an additional cushion while we work on some business things that at the moment aren't generating much revenue (thanks COVID!)
A + B + C + operating on a (reasonably tight) budget = we (think) we're ready to go
Question #6: What do we do with our Madison life (cars, house, etc.)?
Given that the plan is a year abroad, renting the house furnished seemed like a logical choice. It minimizes the need to pack and eliminates the stress and emotional roller coaster of selling. We love our house, our mortgage is reasonable, and we're in a desirable area that we'd like to live in when we get back. So we post away, get a bunch of interest, and find a fabulous Norwegian couple planning to do research at UW. I work for the first time through preparing a lease (thanks Kaitlin and Jeremy!), process their security deposit, and we're good to go, right?
Wrong! Thanks to COVID, come mid-April, we start to correspond with our future Norwegian renters to learn that there are major restrictions in their own country (and of course in ours) that have an indefinite end. Ok, we'll wait and see.
May comes and things get worse. We opt to re-post to see if we can get replacement renters to no avail. So we arrive at June, 60 days to departure with potentially no renters and not in a position (or with a desire) to maintain our house unoccupied here while paying the mortgage and taxes on our slim Costa Rican income. Hmmm.
Ok, move to Plan B: sell the house. This decision was made in a one-night conversation, and only a handful of times have we had a moment of pause to ask if it was really the right decision. Our kids were born literally in this house, we've put so much effort into making it home, we love it (and even more, we love the location). Do we want to risk selling it and not getting this area back? It's not going to get any cheaper....
But ultimately we realize that it's-just-a-house and, for fear of sounding hokey, home is where the heart is. What we love about this house is really not the house but instead all we do here: movie nights, building legos, having sleepovers, cooking together, raising caterpillars in our dining room, arts and crafts, etc. We love our traditions here. We've decorated it to make it ours. And we can do all of that in Costa Rica. Or in a house down the street when we get back. Or across town. It's all part of the adventure. The thought that we'd stay in the same place for forever (or at least while we are raising our kids) seems so silly, really. So sell we did.
And along with it, now we get the joy of packing everything, storing everything, and finding a spot for the car we're keeping in the states. We're tackling it little by little, getting rid of absolutely everything we really don't truly care about (which is a whole lot) and boxing everything else up. We're tackling decor and all the stuff that makes the house "homey" bit by bit in order to make progress without making the house appear alarmingly and suddenly empty to the kids. The kid's area is staying off limits to packing until the last minute so they still feel like it's home. And we are maintaining all of our summer traditions despite the move.
Another big ticket item to tackle was the car. We needed one in Costa Rica, but we needed a big one for the five of us plus (what we hope) will be family visitors. These SUVs in Costa Rica, used and old, can cost double or more what they would here. The solution? Buy a car here, drive it to Florida, and ship it down to Costa Rica. Logistical nightmare: having to line it up with when we arrive in-country in order to pick it up (chocked full of stuff we'll need). Plus, the shipping process is so long (the US processing, shipping and the Costa Rican processing), that we are now going without a second car for a big chunk of summer....making getting to work at a location too far away to bike and coordinating summer activities for kids a major challenge. But it's happening.
Question #7: Will our kids actually get an education down there?
It's funny because different people we talk to about our plans have very different gut reactions to this issue. Some immediately respond with, "but what are you going to do for school while you're down there?" while others believe that "it will be so amazing for the kids! They will learn so much from the experience, school or no school".
Our gut reaction aligns with #2. How could you do anything but learn when you are living in a community where your home country's language isn't spoken by anyone? When most people have a different religion and lifestyle? When all the vegetation and critters all around you are different from what you have back home? When every outing you have will show you something new and different? Of course they'll be learning, formal school or not.
Now, of course La Flor has a school. But last year, it had 36 kids total in grades K-6. Due to it's rural location, not much oversight happens here and as a result, let's be honest, not much inspirational, engaged learning happens either. It would be the complete opposite from what our kids were used to at their wonderful school here in Madison. La Flor classes are three hours a day, 30 of which is snack or lunch and easily another 30 is...hanging out? So that leaves about 2 hours of "learning", such as copying stuff off a marker board. We considered all this and checked out other options.
From this investigating, something interesting arose: during a visit to Costa Rica last year, we checked out a nearby private school, which was by no means comparable to any public or private school here, but it was a major upgrade from the local public school. We took the kids, met the director and toured the school. They liked it and were excited. But when given the choice, they opted for La Flor. Why? It gave them the chance to make local friends: people they'd hopefully spend their free time with. Being at a school 15 minutes away in another city with kids from different communities would make true-friendships outside of school hard to develop. So Escuela La Flor it is.
Escuela La Flor and homeschooling, actually. Since we didn't want our kids to "fall behind" (really, were we really worried about that? I'm not sure, but society makes us think we should be...), I reached out to their current school to get summaries of what they would have learned next year had they been in Madison. Then I analyzed it, read a bunch of books on learning theory, checked out some resources for online learning of some key sites I think we'll use (Khan Academy, some music apps), and put it all in alignment with what our educational goals were for our year abroad, which I think are:
*learn and practice gratitude
*get comfortable with boredom (this feed naturally into the goal above)
*fuel our natural curiosity (with more time and energy)
*learn as much as we can about the world and culture around us
*learn to work with the earth and develop a greater appreciation for nature
*build soft skills of leadership, problem solving and intercultural communication
*improve Spanish skills
*explore music on our own terms
*maintain math, reading and writing skills through activities directly related to our abroad experience (math: budget for our weekend excursions; reading: anything, anytime; writing: journal about life in La Flor or write a monthly newsletter article for our school back home)
I put it all into a spreadsheet with learning objectives, possible projects, ideas for getting started (with simple household routines that will be in place from day one). I planned in steps to make transitioning into this new life swift and organized so that things don't start to feel like a vacation for too long. We'll see how it goes.
Question #8: How will we sell this move to our kids?
Surprisingly, our kids attitudes toward the whole move shifted over time in a way I hadn't expected. We never kept our move a secret, and they were the first to know of our plans to move abroad. In fact, they started to share it with friends and teachers at school before we had even broke the news. Ollie's teacher last year approached me at school, sharing with me that Ollie "is telling everyone you're moving to Costa Rica. Just wanted to let you know." "We are, actually." was my response. So initially, it was exciting.
Shortly after, Ollie start to get bummed: at age 9, he had solid best friends and things he loved to do with them. The thought of that going away for a year was hard to swallow. But never once did he say he didn't want to go: just that it made him sad. Yori, age 6, in contrast, was thrilled from the get-go, ready for the adventure as long as Papi built her a tree fort. She had grandiose ideas for how she would craft the perfect playscape out of our little Tico piece of land.
But then comes COVID, abrupt school closings and cancellations of every summer thing we survive winter for each year and attitudes suddenly shifted. Ollie became more and more thrilled to be leaving this craziness and less and less attached to the friends he was now unable to see and truly connect with (virtual play dates only carry you so far...). Yori, in contrast, became hella nostalgic, sobbing about friends she couldn't see all summer anyways thanks to the pandemic and of course wouldn't see in to the coming school year and suddenly missing everything about the house we'd be leaving. As parents, all we could do was acknowledge it'd be different, reinforce the it's-not-permanent mantra and state (and re-state and re-state) that this is another adventure: with more friends, more play spaces, and more tradition-building that we love to do. It was going to rock. Period.
To convince them of this, we gave them some influence on decisions and highlighted the amazing:
They helped us choose some aesthetic aspects of the house, while we did some major build up to the fact they'll have bunk beds (yes!) and enough space to house an additional family of four in case family or friends plan to visit (double yes!). They even got to pick out new sheets that will go on their beds (kiwis, narwhals, and trucks....whatever). We are also having Johel go down a week before us to make sure everything is in order in the house (down to the beds being made), so it feels like an orderly home when we arrive.
We had a family night where we scoured travel books from Costa Rica and let everyone choose several places that we plan to visit over the course of the year based on whatever criteria they chose (for Yori, that was usually just the cutest photo of a monkey in a nondescript tree that she could find). In doing so, everyone got excited for adventures we'll have. I think even a Leo selection or two made it on the list. We charted this all out as our tentative travel plan for 2020-2021 that we hope to stick to to the best of our ability.
We brainstormed great ways to, COVID or not, build and maintain friendships and social connections. We talked about how the local school doesn't have art classes, for example: so let's hold them at our house. We could have weekly craft sessions where friends could come over and the kids could lead the activity. We love reading and are bringing more books than clothes, so let's set up story times!
We gave them some options. We planned to come home for 1-2 major holidays, so we let them pick which ones. By giving them a bit of say over the new life they'll have, I think it gives them back a bit of control they might feel they're losing. We'll see.
And last, but not least, we pointed out how close the nearby (amazing!) swimming hole is. Family plan: when bored, head here.
Question #9: How are we preparing for the transition?
Answer: incessantly and methodically. We had a gazillion balls in the air, and we just dealt with them as proactively as we could. We had momentary freak-outs that came and went (borders closed?! schools not re-opening?! renters can't come?! house construction months behind schedule?!), but we prioritized and handled everything one by one. We got wonderful support from my parents with wrangling our children, and we thrived on positive comments anyone threw our way (and tried to drown out the naysayers). We began to accept that we couldn't plan for everything, so we'd do what we could (rice and beans budget: check, plan of attack for the kids: check, stuff in order in Madison: check). I thought about the kids constantly, and while not truly worried about how they'd fare, wanting to make sure they loved it right off the bat. I tried to think of what, however small, I could do to have something feel familiar and comforting when we have such a change of scenery and the initial "woo-hoo!" starts to wear off.
Here's what I came up with: books. Lots and lots of books. I compiled a list of the books we truly love and invested in a whole bunch of them, English and Spanish. The kids don't know, but my plan is to, weekly, set one out on their beds to provide the comfort of cuddling up with a book they love. A small, but meaningful surprise that I'm hoping makes all this effort to get us to Costa Rica easier for everyone. I'll let you know how it works.