Thinking about the cloud forest

There’s a part of me that is a little reluctant to share that my family is in the homestretch of a year-long stay in Costa Rica. On the internet, where everything has already been named, this experience is known as a “family sabbatical.” It is a literal sabbatical for my husband, Will (who spends his days researching and writing), and more of a figurative sabbatical for our two young kids (who attend school here) and me.

We did not come to Costa Rica to live out a blissful, beachside lifestyle or to seek the true meaning of pura vida. Yes, our lifestyle here is relatively simple and slow; but it was also (already) relatively simple and slow before we came here. Living at high altitude in the windy cloud forest near the continental divide, we are at least three hours from any beach. (There’s a joke that our mountaintop town is three hours from anywhere, and that feels true.) I wear long sleeves and long pants to sleep every night, under two blankets. 

It is and isn’t a fantasy to be here. We are who we are, no matter where we go in the world—perhaps even more so, when we go somewhere new and unfamiliar. Just ask my five-year-old.

Why did we do this? The answer most people want requires that I mention a babysitter we happened to meet during the pandemic, who regaled our kids with stories of her childhood in the very town where we’re staying and at the very school they are attending this year. As it turns out, we are renting the very house she grew up in. We’d never been to Costa Rica before and we’d never heard of this town before we heard about it from her.

But this is the deceptively simple answer that I continue to reflect on: we did it because we thought of it.

It was really Will who thought of it. One weekday late in the first, awful year of the pandemic, he came into the guest room I had appropriated as my home office when I was between eye-straining Zoom calls.

“Do you have time to talk?” he asked.

“Sure!” I replied, breezy and casual, as if he always dropped by in the middle of the day to chat. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time he’d done that, so I was on high alert.

“I was thinking we should go live somewhere else for a while,” he began, introducing a completely new idea we’d never talked about until that moment. I asked questions only. He explained that he felt maybe we all needed a change of scenery, that our kids would never be able to learn another language unless we actually lived where the language was being spoken all day, that they were a good age to uproot, that we needed to get out of the bubble of where we lived.

We agreed to talk further at some point about it. Then, having delivered his idea, he left the room.

Out of curiosity, I started doing some research on-line. By the next afternoon, within 24 hours, we had a name to describe what he had described—“family sabbatical”—and a short list of three destinations for our purely hypothetical family sabbatical: Spain, Costa Rica, or Taiwan. By the day after that, we’d pretty much decided on Costa Rica for our still hypothetical family sabbatical, although we continued to research.

I’m not sure exactly when it was a Real Intention and no longer hypothetical, but at some point, it was “just” a matter of timing. At the time, I was still working for a company that had strict rules against working internationally, so I would have had to request a leave of absence to go. Also, the pandemic continued on and on, borders around the world stayed closed, and the school we hoped our children could attend shut down.

But a year later, I had left my corporate job, and the school had re-opened. We made plans, we stuffed a year’s worth of supplies and clothes into two check-ins and four backpacks of varying sizes, and here we are: learning, growing, and experimenting.

I continue to marvel that we would never have done it, had we not thought of doing it. One day, I had no expectations whatsoever that we would go live somewhere else for a year. And then the next day, I was imagining a plan for doing exactly that.

Does it give you the same sense of vertigo to wonder: What am I not doing, only because I have not thought it yet? And if I haven’t thought it yet, what am I waiting for?

  1. […] to time, ambition, money, my environment, my family, and my own identity. Into a year-long “family sabbatical” experiment and experience in Costa […]

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