Life Without Guardrails...my Costa Rica Story
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
I am a life coach living in Costa Rica. This post is an introduction to my blog. It is my story: the story of how I got to this country, my many dramatic adventures here, and how I have learned through it all to start living a high quality life.
Getting from There to Here
What happens when you drive a mountain road with no guardrail? Well, it depends...on weather conditions, the particular vehicle, your own physical and emotional state, for example. In Costa Rica, there are more winding mountain roads without guardrails than with them. Driving with no guardrails was something I had to learn when I relocated to this country.
Costa Rica is a tiny country about the size of South Florida, but it houses 5 to 6% of Earth's biodiversity. Sunshine, tropical breeze and the rhythmic sound of ocean waves are the rule, but we also have our share of floods, brutal Papagayo winds and an occasional earthquake. I have learned to live in harmony with this place and its people. "Pura vida" is the common greeting that is used by everyone. Literally translated it means "pure life".
I visited here for the first time in late October 2003, around the time of the astrological
Harmonic Concordance (a total lunar eclipse occurred on November 8, 2003 along with other astrological events; you can read it about it here ). My husband, Alain, and I had had a rough year and decided to take advantage of an opportunity to visit Costa Rica for the first time. We arrived after dark; I recall the next morning waking up and discovering the breathtaking beauty of the crescent beachfront of Playa Flamingo. I made my way down the hill to the beach. About midway along the beach I stopped in my tracks with a strong feeling that I was "home". Whatever cosmic force was guiding me back then, it was a strong one. We proceeded to move here from the US lock, stock & barrel and never look back.
I was 53 at the time, in the blush of mid-life. Alain was 62. We had been considering leaving the US for some time as we approached retirement age, but didn't have a clear idea of where. Suddenly Costa Rica met all our criteria: only a 3 hour flight from our base and family in Florida where we lived for 30 years, at least one of us was fluent in the language, (Alain was born in a village on the border between Spain and France and spoke Spanish from a young age), the climate was hot and sunny just the way we like it, and it's considered one of the best places on the planet to retire. (See this link ) On top of that, there was a great college preparatory school in the vicinity and our youngest son was just entering high school.
But as so often happens, in the end we moved here because we fell in love. We fell in love with Playa Flamingo, and with Mar y Sol, a beautiful home perched on the North Ridge. It was so beautiful that we decided not to retire, but instead open a new business: a fine dining restaurant in this lovely, grand house. It would be the last of nine food service establishments my husband created in three countries during his hospitality career. I had been a life coach since 1997 when I graduated from Coach University. I was coaching clients in the US and a few in Europe. Since I work by phone, I could have continued from Costa Rica without missing a beat. But with a new home, new country, and new business (not to mention learning a new language), I decided to take a break from coaching to focus on these major life transitions.
The Challenges of Expatriation
Visiting a foreign country as a tourist is one thing; relocating there is another. After closing the US chapter of my life (moving out of the home we had lived in for 28 years, shipping all our belongings to Costa Rica, and saying good bye to my father who died that summer from cancer), I traveled alone (well, alone with our cat, Cosmo) to Costa Rica in September 2004. My husband and two sons had already arrived a few months earlier, but by the time I reached our new home Alain and our older son, Jean-Luc, had returned to the US to tend to our remaining business in Florida. Alex, our younger son, had just begun high school at Country Day. (Our daughter, Amanda, had already moved to Hawaii a few years prior.) I arrived at a new house that had been left in the hands of three bachelors who unceremoniously unpacked the container with all our worldly goods. What a mess; everything was helter skelter. Now it was just me and my ninth grader. There were no draperies yet on the walls of glass, I couldn't find anything, I couldn't speak the language, and our vehicle was tied up in customs. By the grace of God and the help of Maria, (the house keeper who came with the house), I got through all that. She led the way to find what we needed, made all the draperies, helped me put order in the house, and even helped me understand a few key words in Spanish. I am not sure how we communicated in those early days but somehow we did. Jean-Luc returned some weeks later to open the new restaurant, while Alain remained stateside for the final season of our Florida restaurant, leading up to its sale.
The Legendary Mar y Sol
From the beginning the stars shown on Mar y Sol. With my husband's rich experience and our son's culinary prowess (he was named Best Young Chef of the SouthEast United States the previous year (see here for more about this annual competition) it did not take long to develop a following. The stunning views of the Pacific, especially at sunset, added to the attraction. We created a beautiful, private home ambiance surrounded by the sea. A row of six royal palms stood sentinel at the entrance, embellished by colorful bougainvillea and tropical plants throughout the property. Alain had the outdoor lantern from his family's 200 year old inn in southern France shipped to Costa Rica to be placed above the front door. We enjoyed the creating of it. Downstairs was totally converted to a commercial restaurant while the second floor and hillside casita made up our family quarters. We were intimately involved with the business and knew most of our customers by name, (many are steadfast friends to this day). Mar y Sol became famous throughout the region. Although running a business in a foreign country was very challenging to say the least, we loved it.
Unraveling, and the Debacle
Mar y Sol thrived for almost nine years. The seeds of its demise, however, were already planted at the very beginning. In the month following our arrival we purchased an adjoining lot for future development. The following year, we decided to build apartments there and engaged an architect. We secured bank financing and broke ground in 2006. By the end of 2007, we realized we needed additional financing to complete the project; we had plenty of equity so it shouldn't have been a problem. They say the banks knew about the crash of 2008 before it happened. No one would lend, not just to us but to any other developers in the area. So we were stuck with a project 60% complete but in suspended animation. Instead of going within and finding my inner compass, I let fear take over. What I feared most was losing everything we had. We now had our home tied up with the biggest investment we ever made; our home, our business, all our possessions, and 30 years of building our capital. I couldn't let that happen! My fear became desperation. I made the rounds of investors literally for years. All the doors were shut. I ended up trusting (and helping) people I shouldn't have, and that is how I drove us off the cliff.
In the midst of this intense financial stress, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma, a common but deadly form of breast cancer. It was 2009. It was an aggressive cancer (nuclear grade 3) making this a life or death issue. In fact, my diagnosis was actually a wake up call. By God's grace, I was somehow able to access my inner compass. I calmed down. I went within. I made a list of all the cancer survivors I knew of and proceeded to contact them one by one and ask how they did it. There was not one common way out for all of them, but all of them did have what I would call a survivor energy frequency. They looked and sounded and felt differently to me than the cancer patients I'd been around by then. I wanted to resonate with that survivor frequency. I went on a meditation retreat. I learned yoga. I changed my diet. Friends reached out to me with incredible life saving support, and I accepted it. Most important, I began to read my inner compass. It led me to places that others, (including my doctors) did not understand or agree with. It led me to new doctors. It led me to a new relationship with myself. It prepared me for what was to come in 2013: my year from hell, the culmination of my dark night of the soul. (Learn more about the dark night of the soul here.)
It took six months to get from driving off the cliff (trusting & helping the wrong people) to impact at rock bottom. Because of multiple factors, we could no longer sustain Mar y Sol restaurant. We had to close the business. We set a date. It was like a death watch. We had to let everyone know, we had to give notice to the employees. We had to let the inventory run out. Two days before the closing, I received word from my oncologist that, although there were still no signs of the aggressive lobular carcinoma from 2009, a new cancer had appeared. This one was not as serious as the first one, but there were also a couple of carcinomas in situ ("pre-cancers"). She could save my breast (yet again) but I would have to undergo more surgery and months of radiation therapy. How could it be that I escaped one cancer only to develop another?!
We completed the business closing. Then I returned to my meditation center. I prayed for guidance, I prayed to be able to read my inner compass correctly. It pointed me in the direction of a prophylactic mastectomy. How many times could I assault this breast with more surgery and radiation? It felt like a better decision to just let it go. So after discussing it with my husband, who has always been my #1 support, I scheduled it.
But fate had other ideas. Shortly thereafter I was undergoing a routine pelvic ultrasound when the doctor announced I had a "gigantic" cyst on my ovary. (I could speak enough Spanish by then to understand him.) Ovarian cyst? Gigantic? Breast cancer is bad enough but an ovarian cyst or tumor is worse. I postponed my mastectomy and scrambled to find an ovarian specialist. I found the right one. He confirmed the urgency and told me I had a 50-50 chance that the cyst was malignant. We arranged for surgery within the week. He did an excellent job because the lab report showed that the tumor was intact upon arrival at the lab. That meant all of it was out and none of it was left inside of me. It turned out to be a benign borderline serous tumor but I had been high risk for malignancy. The specialist estimated it would have become malignant within 6-8 weeks. Another narrow escape.
Five weeks after my emergency hysterectomy for the ovarian issue, I underwent the mastectomy. Four weeks after that, the courts foreclosed on our property. It was traumatic. It was the toughest period of my life. We lost our home, our business, all of our assets totaling close to $5,000,000, I lost my my uterus, my ovaries and a breast, all within two months. It was so much loss...
The Journey from Grief to Gratitude
After much grieving, forgiving and healing by way of psychotherapy, soul searching, and many long walks in nature, I was finally able to get some perspective on the loss and trauma, reflect on what remained intact, and begin to appreciate the amazing road I was traveling.
After the foreclosure, I thought we would leave Playa Flamingo, the town we had made our home. Wisely, my husband felt we should stay, in spite of all that had happened. We moved into a nearby apartment. Decorating and settling in to our new home was very therapeutic for me. And it was the first time it was just the two of us without staff or customers around; our sons had their own places by now. Not only did I survive cancer and foreclosure, but our marriage survived, against all odds (see these links to articles on how serious illness and forclosure can affect a marriage). We began a new and tender chapter in our relationship. And I resumed my coaching, which has always been a great source of joy for me.
These days I spend my mornings taking care of myself by walking beautiful Flamingo Beach, followed by yoga and a swim in the pool with Alain. We share household duties. Alain is my private chef and prepares incredible menus for me every day. In the afternoons I take care of my coaching clients, write, and work on the computer. Alain is the national president for Costa Rica of La Chaine des Rotisseurs, a world wide non profit organization that promotes the culinary arts and pleasures of the table (see more information here.) I, too, am a Chaine member and collaborate with him on various projects. We spend time with family and friends; we travel; we indulge our passions. I am enjoying my life.
Here are ten rules of the road I've learned that guide me:
1. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all, take the road less traveled.
2. Learn how to use your inner compass; you'll find your true north.
3. Be happy; if you're not happy, then go in a different direction.
4. Sometimes you have to deconstruct your life to get to its core value.
5. Less is more; a simple soulful life is richer than a life too full to digest.
6. Your health is your wealth, take very good care of yourself.
7. Focus on what makes you feel grateful.
8. Trust that all is well; say yes to the mystery of life.
9. Time is a luxury worth more than cash: it's freedom.
10. Travel light; love is really all you need.
US phone: 941 256 0104