Becoming Location Independent: Expectations and Reality

COSTA RICA, LOCATION INDEPENDENT, SERIES, STAFF — By on September 28, 2011 at 01:28

By staff writer Lisa Carter. Photos Copyright © Jon Lee.

This is the fourth post in a series by Lisa Carter about an experiment in becoming location independent. Links to the other three in the series can be found in the first paragraph below, and at the end of the post.

Here we are! After careful decisions, arrangements and detailed preparations, Jon and I are in Costa Rica for our three-month experiment with location independence. We have brought our freelance careers as a translator and software designer with us – and, it seems, a few underlying expectations that clash with reality.

Let me paint a few snapshots to illustrate the sorts of things we’ve bumped up against in the first month alone.

Silly Little Mistakes

As we stand in line for customs and immigration at Juan Santamaría International Airport, I notice a puzzled look on Jon’s face.

“What?” I ask.

“So, if today is August 15, and we leave November 14, that’s more than the maximum 90-day visa allows.”

I count – using fingers and toes, since math is not my strong suit. The line snakes toward the row of customs agents. He’s right. I booked our tickets for 91 days. Oops. We will either have to change our return flight, leave the country for Nicaragua or Panama for two days and re-enter, or find out about a one-day visa extension.

Internet Issues

As our taxi pulls in, Hisano Bell, the owner of Casa de Megumi, and her teenage son, Mykle, are there to greet us, complete with hugs. The house is simple, impeccably clean, cozy and well-equipped. Our host has just completed a number of upgrades – including new wiring after a storm blew the electrical system two days earlier. They proudly show us around.

When the afternoon rain begins, Jon and I sit on the covered patio. We stare in delight at our tropical surroundings. A storm rolls in, growing more ferocious by the second. Both of our jaws drop as a bolt of lightning strikes the transformer across the road, spraying white and blue sparks. The earth trembles with a long rumble of thunder.

The show is tremendous, but so are the consequences: the modem is fried. We will have to wait three days before the national telco, ICE, comes to replace it. So much for getting straight to work.

Business Changes

One day into our trip, with the Internet still out, I pop down to Hisano’s (a block away, down the private drive) to check my e-mail. A major client has sent a contract renewal tender. Wonderful! I think. They’ve been very happy with my work for the last two years and I like collaborating with them.

Lisa hard at work at her makeshift desk in Atenas

Lisa hard at work at her makeshift desk in Atenas


I scramble to read the terms, fill out the paperwork and submit my bid by the deadline. I look for a response the next day. None. I follow up the day after that. Bad news: a competitor has undercut me. Since my client is required to accept the lowest price, I now have one small job remaining on my existing contract before our relationship is terminated. Ouch. Our travel budget wilts like a hibiscus overnight.

Not-So-Minor Inconveniences

Jon and I check the bus schedule for our first foray into Atenas. As promised, it passes by twelve times a day – only four of those are before 7:30 a.m. We essentially have two options, 9:30 or 11:15 a.m., if we want to get into town and back home again before the downpours begin.

We head to the stop across the road. 9:30. 9:40. 9:50. The bus finally rumbles up the hill. I hand the driver our fare: the equivalent of $0.50 each. I’m captivated by every sight through the window: the profusion of vegetation, tidy little houses tucked behind wrought-iron fences, others barely visible behind high cement walls, the undulating, hilly landscape.

We wind along the narrow road from Pan de Azúcar through Río Grande and finally into Atenas. The scant 10-kilometer ride has taken approximately forty minutes. Coordinating bus schedules, wait times and the milk-run nature of every route mean that our outings consume a large portion of our day.

The Completely Unexpected

The pool at Hisano's house

The pool at Hisano's house is a heavenly
place to take a break from work

It isn’t long before Jon and I settle into a daily routine. We are here to work, to complete long-term projects and meet our clients’ day-to-day needs, just as we would from home. We’re up with the first cock-a-doodle-doo at 5:00 a.m., as trucks grind their gears, motorcycles rev and dogs bark.

Each day, we enjoy meals on the patio as flocks of green parrots swirl and twitter past. We use break times to swing in the hammock or take a dip in the pool. But work takes priority, with deadlines that need to be met, and it somehow feels very, very wrong.

Here we are in this exotic country, staying home, slaving away. We aren’t out adventuring. We aren’t zip-lining and rafting, climbing volcanoes and touring coffee plantations. Hampered by the public transportation system, we’re limited to exploring nearby towns. Even then, trips to Alajuela and Grecia are to determine whether they might be a fit for a longer-term stay rather than sightseeing, per se. When we go in to Atenas a few times a week, it’s to run errands, buy groceries.

Feature photo: It’s a busy place just outside the bus terminal in Atenas

In essence, our day-to-day routine continues, only in different surroundings and without the convenience of a car. The result is a disconnect that’s hard to reconcile.

Betwixt and Between

This is not a vacation, where each day begins with the promise of exciting new sights and sounds. Nor is it an absolute move, where we’re working for a local company, establishing friendships and integrating into the community. Location independence is somewhere in between, a bit like being in limbo.

The gated entrance to Casa de Megumi

The gated entrance to Casa de Megumi, typical of most properties in Costa Rica


Most of the time we’re walled off in our yard at home, where there’s minimal contact even with the neighbors. When we do go out, we speak to wait staff, store clerks and the occasional retired expat. Everyone is friendly, but no real connections are being made. We’re just passing through.

The Ability To Adapt

As the first month passes, our situation begins to feel rather restrictive. We feel unsettled. Restless. Would it make a difference if we had easier access to town? What if we injected more travel into our location independence?

Jon and I decide to leave Atenas after only one month instead of two. We will rent a car for one week, travel up and down the Pacific coast. It will be a mini-holiday, a chance to see more of this country. We’ll also look for a place that’s slightly more economical, within walking distance of town so we can get out more.

Lisa and Jon on an outing at The Butterfly Farm

Lisa and Jon on an outing at The Butterfly Farm


Hisano sympathizes with our predicament and kindly agrees to refund the second month’s rent. She has been warm and generous with her time, advice and friendship; leaving her will be hard, but we know that one more month would only increase our sense of isolation and dissatisfaction.

Just like travel, location independence requires an ability to adapt to the reality you only discover once there. It’s a good thing Jon and I are as ready to roll as the thunderstorms that pass through every afternoon.

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RELATED POSTS

Becoming Location Independent: Decisions, Decisions

Becoming Location Independent: Arranging the Essentials

Becoming Location Independent: Technology, Business and Personal

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Lisa Carter of Intralingo

Lisa Carter

LISA CARTER is a literary translator and writer with a passion for travel. She and her partner, Jon, live in Ottawa, Canada – at least for now. They are currently experimenting with being digital nomads based out Costa Rica. You can find Lisa on her professional website intralingo.com, her personal food blog sweetsaltysour.com and on Twitter @intralingo.

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    13 Comments

  • Julia Munroe Martin
    Twitter: wordsxo
    says:

    It’s so interesting following your journey! Having lived in other countries, I can understand that feeling of isolation and unsettlement… I can’t wait to see where your journeys take you next!

    • Lisa Carter
      Twitter: intralingo
      says:

      Thanks, Julia. There is certainly a lot of isolation and upheaval when living abroad. Like you, I’ve done it several times. What’s interesting this time is that the unsettling feeling comes from not actually feeling like I live here! Isn’t that strange? But it’s all good. I love these challenges and learning more about myself. Look forward to bringing you more posts about this journey!

  • Ann
    Twitter: AnnHolly
    says:

    Hi Lisa! I have to say this surprised me! I forgot that you weren’t going to have access to a vehicle. I think moving into town was a good idea. I also think that if you were there permanently, you WOULD get out more!

    I remember when we moved to Sicily – we spent so much time settling, but we had access to a car and could take off on the weekends to explore.

    While a test case is a GREAT idea – there are some things that a permanent move would include….

    Good luck with the 1 day extension on the visa!

    • Lisa Carter
      Twitter: intralingo
      says:

      Hi Ann! Yes, no car… We thought public transpo would be much more convenient. Affordable it is, but pokey slow!
      You’re so right that a permanent move would be different. But I’m still so glad we’re doing this, lessons and all.
      Will let you know what we decide to do about the visa problem. 😉

  • JM Merchant
    Twitter: JMMerchant86
    says:

    Sorry it hasn’t turned out the way you hoped Lisa, but as you say, lessons learned that can be applied to all sorts of situations.
    Must still be an amazing experience though.
    Jo x

    • Lisa Carter
      Twitter: intralingo
      says:

      Hey Jo,
      Yes, despite the bumps, we’re thrilled to be here. As with many things in life, there can be a difference between what you expect and what reality presents. But I wouldn’t change a thing. 😉

  • Hey Lisa,

    I love this article. i think this is a good post because it shows what many people may not expect when becoming location independent. I am talking about Location Independence in my blog as well. http://www.tomacedonia.com

    Keep up the good work!

    Kenneth Ashley

    • Lisa Carter
      Twitter: intralingo
      says:

      Kenneth,
      Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment! I’m so glad to hear it was helpful — I was actually feeling like maybe I’d scared people off. 😉 There’s no doubt there are a lot of challenges, but it’s all part of the fun.
      I’ll definitely check out your blog!
      Lisa

  • j says:

    I know I keep saying it, but I love following along with you. I so feel your pain (and your happy), and I find myself rooting for you two like characters in a book. Can’t wait to see what the move brings you. (I also think it was brave of you to commit and talk to Hisano. That’s the kind of thing that I would struggle over, when, of course, you absolutely need to make this experience as full and enriching as you can. Something I need to work on more right here in my hometown!)

    • Lisa Carter
      Twitter: intralingo
      says:

      Aw, thanks, j! It’s good to have people along with us on this journey, following vicariously, wishing us the best. It actually really makes a difference.
      As for being brave, talking to Hisano, I have to admit that’s my weak suit. I was worried about disappointing her, making her upset about losing that month’s rent, so I asked Jon to do most of the talking and I went along for moral support. 😉
      But Jon said the same thing as you: We can’t do things to make other people happy and not ourselves.

  • iris McGrath says:

    Lisa it is such an enjoyment to follow along as you record your experiences for all of us to read. Costa rica is a beautiful country as your pictures attest to. Who knows maybe Ron and I will join you for a visit if you decide to make it permanent. Love Aunt iris

    • Lisa Carter
      Twitter: intralingo
      says:

      Iris – I am *so* happy you came by and left a comment. It has been a strange “trip” because it hasn’t exactly been “travel” but every experience has been worth it. If we come for a longer time, you and Ron would be most welcome to visit. I think you’d really like it here. 😉

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