Tag Archives: Community

Back from Costa Rica, into the “Real World”

In the previous two posts, we talked a little about why and how we came to spend half a year in Costa Rica with our two boys, aged nine and 12, and touched on the irreplaceable education we all four acquired from this experience.  Here Paul talks about the aftermath.

All good things must end.

We ran out of money in Costa Rica perhaps ten days earlier than we’d planned, and so booked our travel back home around the time of the first few showers of the impending rainy season.  Including our air fare, as well as various tours and admissions, our average cost of living for the entire six months was about half of what it would have been had we stayed home.  Since we’d canceled our lease and put everything in storage, we had few other expenses during that time.  However, there was other financial fallout.

We spent one morning "helping" make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We spent one morning “helping” make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We quickly rented a new home, but before we’d even had the storage containers delivered, we learned that our company had suffered a major crisis in recent days.  My partners had taken the unprecedented step of laying almost everyone off – including themselves, Cheryl and me.  So there we were with a new lease and no jobs.  I won’t say it was easy to recover, but things did work out.  Cheryl, who had been the work-at-home Mom, eventually found a full-time job outside, and she still works there ten years later.  I picked up the slack at my former company by sub-contracting there part time, allowing me to take on more of the at-home parenting role for the next few years.  The company never fully recovered and we wound it down a few years later.

We had originally thought we might buy a house again, but the experience of being mortgage-free – together with our employment uncertainty – had us defer the purchase.  By the time our finances looked better, the real estate market looked overpriced and we stayed out.  We still rent – not a bad thing, as it turned out.

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Despite all this, Cheryl and I never wavered.  This was one of the best things we ever did for our kids.

Still, I thought I’d best verify this again, and so I asked our two boys, now in their 20s, how they would sum up their experience.  (They had not yet read the earlier blog posts.)

Al, the younger, said emphatically that it was the best thing we’d ever done as a family.  It wasn’t just all those exciting adventures, including all those new animals he “never knew even existed.”  Most important, he said, was just that “time out of time”, when he and the rest of us could escape from the relentless schedule of everyday life, and for a few months, follow our spirits and our curiosity.

Dennis, who was still 11 when we were planning the trip, even wrote me something:

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

I remember vividly the day my parents told us we would be moving to Costa Rica for six months.  We were walking through our favourite city park when they dropped the bombshell on us.  I remember being pretty upset at first, especially when they said I couldn’t bring my Game Boy.  Fast forward 13 years later, and I can safely say I have absolutely no regrets regarding the trip.  I got to be surrounded by warm weather, awesome animals, cheap delicious food, and learn the Spanish language.  We lived on a farm, in an apartment, in the house of a Costa Rican family, in hotels, motels, inns on the mountain, bungalows by the beach, you name it.  I have dozens of interesting stories to tell from that six-month period, and it was definitely an experience I hope to repeat someday with my own kids.

Whew!  (I hope he still says that after he sees the picture in Part 2.)

Yes, it was worth it.  If you are reading this, and considering creating your own family adventure, and holding back … just go for it.

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw - and that means spunky monkeys!

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw – and that means spunky monkeys!

After I’d returned from Costa Rica, with the failing fortunes of our business partnership, I found myself years later confiding in one of my favourite career counselors.  I had the impression that my peers in the high tech industry looked askance at me because I had other interests – because I was willing to put my job on hold for half a year to go traveling with my family.  She told me that, in her experience, many parents work their whole lives, hoping “one day” to be able to do what Cheryl and I had done … and many never do.  It was good hear her acknowledgment.  Since that time, even some of my peers have admitted to taking inspiration from what our family did.  Some have admitted to envy.  Some have even compared me to the

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

fabled Mexican fisherman in this story.

I was reminded again of my priorities and Cheryl’s when I read “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, a short review of a book by the same name.  The author, a palliative nurse who worked with the terminally ill, had made a short list of the things she heard most frequently from those who were running out of time:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Referring to the second point, she went on, “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

During our family’s six month adventure in Costa Rica, we truly experienced each other’s companionship, our children’s youth – and, truth be known – our own.

What do you want to experience?  What will you miss if you don’t?

Paul’s Left Brain Takes a Mayan Holiday

Paul has been reflecting on what he likes so much about travel – about being in “vacation mode”.  He’s not one to sit around the pool with a margarita, but can usually be found on an all-day walking tour, or working on a new foreign language.  He observed that his favourite principles of good vacations apply just as well to “everyday life at home” – although we don’t always remember them:

Paul's not above trying the local beer, however.

Paul’s not above trying the local beer, however.

Here’s something he wrote on the subject a couple years back…

Ah, to live life in vacation mode every day!  What does it take?

I explored the texture of that question on a recent trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

For sun-chair reading, I’d packed a copy of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight.  Neuroscientist Dr. Jill reports “from the inside” what it felt like when a massive stroke shut down the left side of her brain, and put the right side in charge.  As I understand it, the left brain manages linear reasoning and language functions;  the right brain fills a more intuitive, holistic role.  In Dr. Jill’s case, for the first eight months of her eight-year recovery, the “little voice” in her head fell silent.  Imagine!  She used her experience to reflect upon her life in general, and in particular, the relationship between her two different aspects.

Dr. Jill observed that “vacation mode” derives from the right brain.  So simple, I mused?  The question hovered over me like an iridescent Yucatan hummingbird.  Meanwhile, I did the usual holiday things.

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

One of my travel activities has me strike up conversations with strangers for no reason.  I dusted off my knowledge of Spanish, German and Portuguese to talk to almost anyone I found myself next to, even tried to learn a little Mayan.  Bix a bel, tz’unu’un!  What’s up, Little Hummingbird?  Yet my wife and I both found it hard to start conversations at the resort.  Our fellow vacationers seemed reluctant to connect, as if locked in their tour buses with the windows up.  I felt frustrated.  After this mood settled over me, something startling took place.

En route to climb the great Mayan pyramid at Cobá, we pulled of the road at a corner store in one of the small towns that crouch in the Yucatan interior.  We squeezed in to harvest a few nuts and chicharrones to stave of the need for a tourist-priced lunch.

I plopped a couple of bags of munchies near the cash register, while we continued to hunt for more.  Just then, a small Mayan girl of six or seven came in, chose a bag of the pork-rind snacks and took them to the cashier.  As we arrived at the counter with the rest of our purchases, I saw the store owner already totaling our bill.  The young girl stood waiting.  I sensed him directing preferential treatment toward us “gringo elders”

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

In my most sophisticated Spanish, I explained that she had preceded us, and that he should look after her first.  Alas, my linguistic abilities failed me.  After a couple of failed attempts followed by puzzled looks, he asked me if I meant to pay for the young girl’s purchase.  Annoyed that my communication attempt had gone so completely wrong, I shook my head and replied, “No, no!  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  Chastened into silence, I let him continue with our order, and we left the store.

While we poked around decaying ruins that afternoon, however, I had my own “micro stroke of insight.”  I saw that I had at least two valid answers to the store owner’s question, “Do you want to pay for hers too?”

My “right-wrong” linear left brain had jumped in and taken control of the situation in the store.  “No, that’s wrong.  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  End of story.

Yet his question had another valid answer, one that my less linguistically adept right brain could only whisper on a quiet trail in a Mayan jungle.  Did I want to spend sixty cents to buy chips for a cute kid who looked as if sixty cents mattered?  Did I crave a chance to make the tiniest human connection, no matter how fleeting?  Yes. I did!  Yes, I had!  Yes, I would have!  And then a wave of sadness and disappointment flooded my soul concerning opportunity missed – not just this one, but for all the little missed opportunities of a lifetime.

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Fresh from Dr. Jill’s book, I supplied mental hemispheric interpretation to the event.  My number one priority on this holiday involved connecting to people, just because – I thought that a right-brain function.  Yet I’d let my linear left brain run the whole show with its need to get the Spanish right.

This reflection troubled me.  My troubling in turn shocked me.  My own stroke of insight had allowed me to glimpse how my left brain’s reaction had drowned out my right brain’s voice, leaving my life just a little less rich.  A single thread dropped from an intricate Mayan blanket.  Even after returning from Mexico, I kept brooding.  Intrigued that such a trivial event had bothered me for days, I pulled at the loose thread.

How often had I missed an opportunity like this one because I didn’t want to get something wrong?  Ba’ax ka wa’alik?  Hell-o?  Now I see how many threads I’ve dropped in the tapestry of my life. It’s a good blanket regardless and it keeps me warm, but my stroke of insight showed me that I could weave it even warmer, more colourful.  Sometimes I hush my left brain’s chatter, listening for a second right answer, a fleeting chance to make the human connection, just because.

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the "Well of Sacrifice") at Chichén Itzá

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the “Well of Sacrifice”) at Chichén Itzá

I’ve watched myself drop a few more stitches since then.  Sometimes I’ve gone back and picked them up again.  I look forward to catching more before the tapestry runs out.  The colours brighten.

Yum bo’otik!  Thank you, Mayan sun god.

For further exploration:

Speaking of vacation mode, here's another lounge lizard from around the pool

Speaking of vacation mode, here’s another lounge lizard from around the pool

What’s “vacation mode” mean for you?

Couchsurfing on a Feather Duvet

When we told our senior friends we were going Couchsurfing in Provence, many of them had never even heard of Couchsurfing.  Most of the rest expressed strong reservations about crashing on someone’s uncomfortable couch.  By the time we headed for the airport, we were confident we’d find more comfortable sleeping arrangements.

Couchsurfing.org is one of the more popular “hospitality exchanges”.  These sites and organizations offer travelers around the world short-stay accommodation with local hosts, with no expectation other than the pleasure of each other’s company…  and maybe some help with dinner.  The fundamental premise is that the cultural exchange is a two-way street, and the hosts should enjoy the experience as much as the travelers.

There are a number of hospitality exchanges, and some might be more suitable for the older traveler.  If you “surf” with a 20-something host, there’s a good chance you will be sleeping on a couch.  The average age of a Couchsurfer is 28, and only about 3% of users are over 50.  Still with about 5 million members, that’s 150,000 “golden age” surfers and hosts.

The view from our balcony in Provence

The view from our balcony in Provence

We decided to search hosts who were couples over 50, something fairly easy to do on the site.  We also restricted our searches to “verified” profiles with pictures, and read all the references carefully.  The listings generally indicated that their offer of accommodation was at least a private bedroom.  Still, to be on the safe side, we decided to try it out nearby before heading to France.  (We’d done the same thing with AirBnB.)  Our first Couchsurfing experience was in the seaside town of Sequim, Washington.  Our host, Teresa, was both interesting and gracious, and the accommodation offered us by our new friend was as good as any an old friend might provide.  After one more local test run, we were ready to try Europe.

Our chosen hosts in Avignon included facility with English on their profile, so we figured we could revert to our native tongue if our fractured French was found wanting.  In our message exchange before our arrival, we were careful always to include a Google Translate French translation of every message we sent.  It turned out to be unnecessary as our hosts were fluent in English.

Roussillon, the "Colorado of Provence", was one of the many local sites we visited with our hosts in Avignon

Roussillon, the “Colorado of Provence”, was one of the many local sites we visited with our hosts in Avignon

We were pleasantly surprised with the responses we got from our query.  Another host who couldn’t accommodate us went out of her way to recommend nearby B&Bs and restaurants:  “Tell them Pauline sent you.”  We received an unsolicited offer of accommodation from a retired judge who’d spent six months in our hometown years earlier.  By then we were already “booked” with the couple we’d selected.

Our hosts, Monique and Jean-Paul, had offered to meet us at the boat docks – later switched to the train station due to flooding on the Rhône.  We easily spotted each other, and much to our delight, they proceeded to drive us – with a few sightseeing stops en route – to a 400-year old Provençal six-bedroom farmhouse, hidden away on a quiet country lane, and surrounded by vinyards and fruit trees.  Our “couch” turned out to be a very comfortable bed in a second-story bedroom with ensuite, balcony overlooking the gardens, and kitchen facilities.  The kitchen was

This farmhouse in Tuscany was a wonderful oasis

This farmhouse in Tuscany was a wonderful oasis

hardly needed as our hosts fed us delicious healthy home-cooked French cuisine three meals a day for our entire stay.  In addition, they drove us to many area attractions – including some we’d never heard of, and certainly would never have visited but for their hospitality.  What’s more, given their patience with our halting efforts, our French improved dramatically over just two days – although it never got anywhere near as good as their English.

Our visit to Avignon was a perfect example of the objectives of hospitality exchanges.  We talked about many subjects over our two days, comparing French ways of doing things to those back home – not to mention all the other countries that each of us had visited.  Like many Couchsurfers, our hosts were globetrotters, so we had the chance to live their adventures vicariously – as did they with ours..  And pick up some tips for the road.  It was the most memorable two days of our entire trip.  Couchsurfing will be high on our list for our next trip.  We’d recommend it for yours.

Maddalena shows Paul around the cheese operation

Maddalena shows Paul around the cheese operation

If you still feel uncomfortable and are looking for ways to start gradually, there are some alternatives you might try.  One is a much older hospitality exchange called Servas.

Servas has been around since just after World War II.  In many ways, it’s similar to Couchsurfing, but “older”.  Servas chapters operate independently in each country, and maintain paper lists of hosts.  Only gradually and tentatively are they experimenting with Internet directories.  Travelers must supply two letters of reference and be interviewed by a local Servas volunteer before receiving their official “letter of introduction” and the directory of hosts for their target countries.  In our experience, the average age of Servas hosts is older, perhaps even in the 50+ range.  The Servas accommodation we’ve seen has generally been at least a spare bedroom, if not more.

We were Servas members before we joined Couchsurfing, our second membership because the latter offered more convenient access via the Internet.  We still love Servas and have had great adventures with them as well, including a stay in a remote organic sheep-cheese farm in Tuscany, and a cozy family apartment on the Italian Riviera.  In both these stays, we had lots of

Barbara showed us the local shopping on the Riviera

Barbara showed us the local shopping on the Riviera

time for local sightseeing.  (One memorable experience at the last place was witnessing a typical argument between the mother and her teenaged daughter.  Out of deference to their guests, they switched from Italian to making points in English, leaving the father scratching his head … since he only spoke Italian and Genoese!)

Another way to ease in to the hospitality exchange concept is to arrange for a “day host” as it’s known in Servas.  (Couchsurfing has a similar concept.)  A day host meets a traveler during the day for a few hours to show them around, or engage in some joint activity.  For instance, while in Florence, we arranged to meet for capuccinos with a Servas day host who turned out to be a professional tour guide.  Surprisingly, we didn’t end up picking his brains for tips on the Uffizi Gallery, but instead learned of his excitement about the family’s impending trip to Colombia to adopt a young girl.

Cinque Terre was a day-trip from their place

Cinque Terre was a day-trip from their place

Is there an obligation to host in return for being hosted?  Not in Couchsurfing nor in Servas.  It’s more of a “karma” thing;  I’m sure there’s a special hell reserved for travelers who never host.  Perhaps it’s an endless stay in a characterless chain hotel.  But most travelers enjoy hosting as much as visiting.  After all, most of us can’t travel all the time, and hosting is inexpensive way to experience the world from the comfort of your own home.  In the year and a half we’ve belonged to Couchsurfing, and the longer time we’ve been Servas members, we’ve hosted more often than we’ve traveled.  And enjoyed every one.  We’ll share a few recent hosting adventures in a future post.

Maybe the next one will be you?

Why Live Alone

A few years back, we learned of a successful experiment in communal retirement living pursued by some old friends of ours in Australia.  They had joined with two other couples, and built a special home to their requirements.  While each couple has private sleeping quarters, they share most of the 3500 square-foot house.  They love it!

Collaborative retirement household featured in "A group solution to growing older", Sydney Morning Herald, June 3 2013

Collaborative retirement household featured in “A group solution to growing older”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 3

What first caught our attention was the possibility of saving money, retiring sooner, and traveling more.

However, the more we looked into it, the more we discovered that the real value of their arrangement was the new community that came with it:  something equivalent to a new family.

As we approach the next phase of our lives, we can feel our old communities slipping away.  Our kids are preparing to leave home – we think.  When we retire from our current jobs, we will quickly lose touch with former colleagues.  Our friends are beginning to retire and move away – some to the countryside, some overseas.  We ourselves plan to move out of the City, and expect to spend more of the year abroad.

We watched what had happened to our parents, aunts, and uncles.  Many of them ended up living alone for the final years of their lives.  Some of them were shepherded into assisted living complexes when living alone became too uncertain.  Even for those who managed to stay independent – often with the help of several nearby grown children – the solo years struck us as missing something.  Was there a better way?

The tranquil view from our former island cabin - too much solitude now?

The tranquil view from our former island cabin – too much solitude now?

Cheryl and I have valued our privacy over the years.  We started our family in a development of five and ten-acre wooded lots.  We later enjoyed spending time with our boys at our off-grid island cabin.  Our retirement dream at one time included a 40-acre spread of wild countryside.

Now our perceptions are changing.  Selling the island cabin may have heralded this change;  we thought it would be too isolated as we got older.  Our experience with our own parents was pivotal:  we would probably live longer than they did, and – like most boomers – we have fewer children to rely on, children who are unlikely to live in the neighbourhood.  The same demographic shift likely means that the cost of assisted living will escalate while the quality of life in those complexes will decline.

Our reading has also underscored the importance of community.  The declining birthrate worldwide will make it harder to replace the old networks of support we are losing as we transition into the next phase of our lives.  Initiatives such as Blue Zones have shown how critical maintaining community is to our health and happiness as we age.  This aligns with advice on nurturing your communities in books such as Flourish and Younger Next Year.  We have all read by now how we can keep our brains younger by engaging in mental activity such as language skills and problem solving.  Living with other people is one way to ensure that kind of mental workout.

We recently joined an outdoor association, and were surprised to find so many retired or almost so.

We recently joined an outdoor association, and were surprised to find so many retired or almost so.

We’re now in the process of realigning our personal tradeoffs between privacy and community.  Can we construct a future for ourselves that replaces the communities we are losing?  We’re taking steps to reach out and join or create new communities for various activities.

What about collaborative living?  Is there a solution that will work for us?  Our friends in Australia had known their housemates for many years before moving in together.  When we took inventory of our own circles, we found very few possible candidates – when we broached the subject with some of those, they soon announced they were moving out of town.  Coincidence, we’re sure!

Can we find new partners for such a venture?  Perhaps.  It’s not a trivial exercise.  The householders and our friends call themselves The Shedders – primarily because of the physical and emotional baggage they had to “shed” in order to make living together work.  Will our circumstances dictate a different form of collaboration?  How far are we willing to go in trading our privacy for community?  We are grappling with now with these questions.  We’ll share some of what we learn over the months ahead.

Solitude or community - in the Marais district of Paris.

Solitude or community – in the Marais district of Paris.

Here are some of the sources that have influenced our journey.

  • Shedders:  This is Heather Bolstler’s personal blog about the journey to their collaborative retirement home.  The earlier entries are now available in this eminently readable Kindle eBook.  The Shedders are by no means the only ones to have made this work.  “My House Our House” profiles a group of three women who turned a preexisting house into a collaborative housing venture.  With an ageing population and lingering economic malaise, we predict a lot more of these in the coming decade.
  • A quiet home on a private acreage no longer the ideal?

    A quiet home on a private acreage no longer the ideal?

    Our own recent experience – such as our recent cycle trip in Provence – has underscored our own need for community.

One of our reasons for starting this blog is to reach out to a wider circle in our search for community.  We’d love to hear from you on this subject.