Wired country makes it hard to disconnect
Can a fully wired couple go somewhere and unplug for a month? Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton, picked Costa Rica, a tropical mecca for many Canadians, to see if they could rediscover life without constant distractions. The journey took some unexpected twists.
DAY 1 – Atenas
ATENAS, Costa Rica / March 2, 2017/ Troy Media/ – The town of Atenas is about 40 minutes from San Jose, the largest city in Costa Rica. Except for the fact that you can see the city lights at night in the distance, it might as well be worlds away.
Atenas is a slow, laid-back community in the heart of the country which caters to tourists who typically stop here on their way to the beaches, eco-lodges or the numerous active volcanoes the country is famous for. Our B&B, Vista Atenas, sits on top of hill just outside of town. The owner, Vera, moved here from Belgium 11 years ago and has been fighting with the bureaucracy ever since.
She rhymes off a few of the frustrations: the bank that limits how much she can deposit in a week (less than she earns); the local government that let her build a well but won’t give her a licence to use the water; the internet provider that won’t run cable up to her resort …
“That’s just the way it is,” she shrugs. “You just have to accept it.”
Guests, however, demand to be connected. The first question young people ask is the Wi-Fi password. A businessman staying here for a month wants to work here every day. We all want to be plugged in and somehow it happens.
Us too. You are getting this story as we experience it because we are plugged in. It’s the drug we claim we can shake, but on Day 1 it appears we have a long way to go. Seemingly urgent emails demand a response; stories need to be filed; photos sent.
I’m hoping time will cool our connection fever. Maybe not today or even tomorrow. Maybe in a week. At this moment, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever get there.
DAY 2 – Atenas to Finca Rosa Blanca
The sun rose about 5:20 a.m. over the sprawling valley our little B&B overlooks. We missed it. The guests who got up to witness it tell us it was spectacular.
We slept until seven, still decompressing from several weeks of intense work as we tried to “get ahead” of projects while we travel around Costa Rica. Now, as I sit in the lounge overlooking the valley responding to emails on my computer, I realize there is no such thing as getting ahead of your work. You’re just running a bit faster on the hamster wheel.
I read a piece on LinkedIn today that argued for Type A personalities work-life balance is a myth. The best you can hope for is work-life integration. Am I that guy? Are we that couple?
Our B&B owner seems to be someone who’s got it figured out. Vera Fouriau left her husband and children in Belgium 11 years ago to pursue the “pura vida” lifestyle in Costa Rica. Fouriau operates the B&B for much of the year and then goes back to visit her family in the low, rainy season. She says her only regret is that she didn’t move here sooner.
Pura vida literally means “pure life”, but there is more to the phrase for Costa Ricans. It also stands for an outlook on life, a sense of optimism and appreciation of what you have. North Americans, we are told, have a hard time grasping the full meaning of the term.
We spend much of the morning working before we pull up stakes and head off to a beautiful organic coffee plantation called Finca Rosa Blanca.
The main highway, No.1, is blocked solid, so we end up wending our way through tiny backcountry roads, dodging traffic, scooters and pedestrians. Thank god for maps.me, an app that seems to be immune to distractions. Somehow, we found Finca Rosa Blanca with barely a missed turn. Amazing!
We settle into this boutique plantation, grab a swim and … catch up on emails. Real internet! Ahhhh.
The author of the work-life balance article, Peta McLucas, argues that changing habits – transitioning from work obsession to a more seamless integration of work and life – takes time. New habits take about 28 days to form. That’s exactly how much time we have left in Costa Rica. There is hope.
DAY 3 – Finca Rosa Blanca
SANTA Bárbara de HEREDIA, Costa Rica – We’ve had so many coffees today, we’re jangly – full of energy, enthusiasm and bright ideas. But then that’s what happens when you are staying at an organic coffee plantation. Turning down another cup of freshly roasted, perfectly brewed local coffee is beyond our powers of self-discipline.
Finca Rosa Blanca is a boutique organic coffee plantation purchased by two Californians more three decades ago. As an eco-friendly facility, it is an archetype of walking the talk. The coffee plants grow on hills populated with trees and plants that contribute natural nutrients to the soil, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizer.
Banana plants, which can hold 20 litres of water or more, provide natural irrigation. There is no piped water going to these plants.
The herbs used by chef Gustavo Alvarado are grown in a greenhouse on site. The eggs in our breakfast come from merry hens penned in a shady section behind the restaurant.
We loll around the grounds, running into the half-dozen other guests staying here this week, and gradually feel our cares ease. Every couple of hours, though, we slip back to the room to catch up on emails. Work is always less than 200 footsteps away.
If there is one discovery that makes me feel a little better about our digital addiction, it is the realization that we are not the only ones struggling with our digital tethers. As we sipped a drink in the plantation’s restaurant last night, I became aware of a woman’s voice needling me over my right shoulder. There were just three of us in the restaurant.
The woman was alone, yammering constantly on the phone. The conversation lasted longer than the 20 minutes we were there.
The next morning at breakfast, she was there again – same seat, same phone, but this time with an open laptop, too. Lisa and I wondered whether she had spent the night there.
We’ve all got this addiction, it seems. And – let’s face it – coffee doesn’t help. But for the moment, at least, we don’t care.
DAY 4– Uvita
UVITA, Costa Rica – Canadians are used to getting places fast. Set the cruise at 120 km/h, and watch the klicks tumble like dominoes as you motor across some section of our vast, sprawling country.
Costa Rica is quite different. It’s hard to imagine how a 220-km trip could take four hours but indeed it does in this country, in spite of our best efforts. It’s traffic. It’s impossibly bad roads in some sections and it’s construction. At one point, we are stopped for 20 minutes while the entire road is dug up and a section of pipe underneath replaced. In fairness, they moved remarkably fast.
Even so, it turns out the last mile is the toughest one.
We are booked into a spectacular resort on the southwestern section of the country near the Osa Peninsula. It’s called the Kura Design Villas, and it is unquestionably the sort of high-end eco-lodge we only get to stay in because Lisa has travel writer credentials.
Kura is high in the hills above some spectacular beach front on the Pacific side. Below us in the distance we can see the “whale’s tail”, a sand spit perfectly formed to match its namesake but only visible at low tide.
Getting up the 4,000-foot elevation gain to the resort was the trick. Our rental company had supplied us with an SUV and we assumed it was a 4X4 as requested. We needed that extra grip for the road to Kura, which warns guests “solo unidade de cuatro ruedas” (you can guess what that means). Unfortunately, we assumed wrong. This puppy is really only fit for pavement. Our long-suffering Tucson made it about two-thirds of the way up before its front-drive status was exposed, and we found ourselves with smoking tires spinning on gravel and rock.
Lisa got out to hike the rest of the way to the resort while I tried to back the Hyundai to a safe location. A half-hour later, as I sat parked in a lot beside a waterfall along the road, the resort’s 4X4 idled by, looking for its MIA guests.
At the top, I discovered that Lisa had hiked a lot further than it appeared – more than a kilometre at a steep, steep angle. Hot and sweaty, we showered and headed to the pool.
Our digital fix would have to wait while we recovered from the dread of being genuinely stuck half-way up a mountain. A swim and a few drinks later, however, we are back online.
UVITA, Costa Rica – “I find it hard to concentrate,” said my wife, who never finds it hard to concentrate. “I can’t read a book. I’m having trouble following the plot.”
I attribute this phenomenon to the war that goes on in the minds of Type As, like us.
When we start to unplug, it is far from an easy, linear cruise into relaxation. Our minds go to war with us – rebelling against our attempts to force a scaling back of activity. We are programmed to stay in hyperdrive and it just feels weird to try to be in any other state.
For Lisa, it’s thinking about work obligations and some health challenges within our family that have recently come to light. For me, it’s all that, too, plus a sense of anxiety about how to cope with days that are largely unstructured. Of course, that’s the idea – not have our days planned from dawn to dark.
Today, we decided to keep things unstructured and go with the natural flow of events. We drove down the west coast to the remarkable Osa Peninsula, then idled our way back up in a kind of beach crawl.
The southwest corner of this country has massive fine-sand beaches which are, in many places, barely inhabited by humans. Frolicking in the bathwater warm ocean, we found ourselves imagining we were truly alone – castaways from the relentless pace of life.
The final beach at Uvita is one we have been admiring from our lookout room. It’s the one where, at low tide, the shape of a whale’s tail is visible, and you can walk the two kilometres out to the tip. At high tide, though, the whale takes a deep dive, obliterating the image.
We vow to get up early to catch up on some must-dos. Tonight, exhausted by the sun and a series of spectacular beaches, we call it an early night.
DAY 6 – Guapil
GUAPIL, Costa Rica – The Hacienda Barú Lodge is a funky little budget resort along the Costanera Sur highway that traces its way along the western coast of Costa Rica. Single vagabonds and families on a budget like its hostel-like casual atmosphere and sense of community.
It might be the last place you’d expect to find 330-hectare national wildlife refuge bridging the space between the highway and the ocean. But there it is.
The reserve was once a working ranch, largely barren of trees. In 1976, owner Jack Ewing banned hunting on the property and began a four-decade quest to return the land to the wild. By 1990, he had sold off the last of his cattle. Just five years later, the country declared Hacienda Barú a national wildlife refuge.
Walking through it today, past its massive Guanacaste trees and 12-metre tall shards of bamboo, it’s easy to believe it was never anything else than it is now. Overhead, a sharp eye can spot some of the 60 types of mammals and 300 species of birds that have been reported there. Identifying them, of course, is another story.
On our walk, we encountered a troop of capuchin monkeys who seemed to barely give us a second thought, a wild boar, a great currasow (a bird that resembles a wild turkey) … but, alas, not a sloth. And not the jaguarundi cat – a creature halfway between a house cat and jaguar – that is said to inhabit this tropical treat. And, sure, and the almost obligatory iguana, basking in the yard.
What struck me was how quickly this land can rejuvenate itself; so unlike what we know in Canada. That’s what a never-ending growing can do for you.
In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote: “The mind is its own place, and in itself make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Hacienda Barú, however, is no trick of the mind. It is paradise regained.
DAY 7 – QUEPOS
QUEPOS, Costa Rica – Karen and Mauricio have what at the moment seem like the greatest jobs on Earth. They are eco-guides whose job it is to take tourists through the Parque Nacionale Manuel Antonio on the biologically rich west coast of Costa Rica.
They are skilled at pointing out some of the wildlife you’d be likely to walk right by without their help.
Squirrel, capuchin and howler monkeys are spotted at various moments, bounding across branches and electrical wires. The squirrel monkeys are the mischievous ones, lurking around visitors who naively stray too far from their corn chips. In a flash, the monkeys carry the unguarded food away.
Sloths nestle high in the arch of trees, invisible to all but the unatrained eye. Iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards (so named because they walk on water) and geckos lurk in nearby shrubbery.
The trained eyes of guides like Karen and Mauricio spot these creatures, focus a monocular on them and beckon their groups over for the money-shot closeup.
Costa Rica has embraced eco-tourism as a convert embraces religion. It can be seen in the shining eyes of the young men and women who grew up in schools learning about sustainability, like Karen and Mauricio. It is also the cornerstone of many resorts, which – as our on-resort guide Ely tells us – make sustainability not only their mission but also their brand.
“Without it, people would not want to come here,” he says.
Maybe. In fact, there are a lot of reasons to come to an upscale resort like Arenas del Mar. It sits on cliffs that lead down to a spectacular beach that is officially public but accessible only from the hotel. It is also surrounded by Costa Rica’s rich vegetation, pulsing with animal life.
Ely takes us on a tour of the facility, part of a chain of eco-resorts called the Cayuga Collection of Sustainable Luxury Hotels, pointing out the solar water heaters, on-site greenhouse, composting and water filtration and recycling programs and other initiatives that elevate this from green-lite to something that feels much more authentic.
It is humbling for a Canadian because it is a reminder of how much further this tiny Central American country has advanced in its conservation efforts compared to our supposedly technologically superior homeland. Although Canada is moving quickly to catch up – with wind, solar and water conservation, for example – the clever people of Costa Rica has shown us just how far we have to go.
We could use a few disciples like Karen and Mauricio in the Great White North.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is partner with his wife in Big Tree Communications, as well as President of Troy Media Digital Solutions and Publisher of Troy Media.