How We Ended Up on a Coffee Farm in Costa Rica

It all started innocently enough. As teachers at inner-city DC schools, my wife and I had done a decent job of saving, and wanted help figuring out what to do with what we’d put together. Paige, a financial planner we’d hired, started by asking a question we weren’t expecting:

So what do you really want…from life?

We weren’t prepared. We expected a speech on diversification or how we still weren’t saving up enough for retirement. Instead, Paige went for the jugular.

An answer never came during the meeting; instead, it gnawed at us for weeks. Finally, we admitted what we really wanted: more time.

Don’t get me wrong — we both loved teaching. But students would arrive at my school at 7 AM and wouldn’t be dismissed until 5 PM. There were classes on Saturday and during the summer — and it was mandatory. It was sustainable in our mid-20s, but we could see that it wouldn’t last much longer.

Throwing a dart at a map

On a whim one night, Ali said, “You know, we could just live abroad for a year — not working at all…” We both laughed at what a silly idea that was.

And then we came back to the table a week later and both admitted the idea was enticing. “Why not? What’s the worst that could happen?”

When it came to picking a place to live, we did the superficial thing: looked at what others had written about Latin American countries (we’d visited Chile and decided that’s the general area we wanted to be). Buenos Aires was our first choice, but my grandma fretted that it would be too far away.

Then, we decided on Costa Rica. Embarrassingly, I thought it was an island. And when it came time to find a house to rent, we used the same website everyone did back in 2010: We rented for first house we found that was both affordable and nice looking. And just like that, we had a place to live.

Finding inspiration when we weren’t looking

We had no idea what kind of a city Atenas was. With only a few thousand people in the town-proper and a firm agricultural base in outlying neighborhoods, it was a really nice place to live.

And yet, we felt out of place.

We were in our late-twenties, no kids, living with Ticos, with me only having passing Spanish and my wife having no experience with the language at all.

“That’s it, we’re moving to the beach,” we agreed. And so we set out to look at places in the bohemian city of Montezuma.

When we returned back to Atenas, we made plans for the move. But first, a college-aged volunteer we met in town said we should visit a coffee farm she was working at — called El Toledo — and take a tour.

“Sure, why not?”

By the end of the tour — and unbeknownst to us — our life had been changed. What Gabriel taught us (we’ll cover this in future posts) offered an example of what truly sustainable living could look like; and the mix of energy and humility it was presented with was contagious.

“We can’t leave,” I told Ali.

“I know,” she said. “You need to start helping out here.” So I started showing up, every other day, just asking if I could help. Each morning when I set out for the farm, I told Ali to prepare to get a call from the local jail because the El Toledo family would get freaked out by the odd Gringo that kept showing up wanting to work for free.

That phone call never took place. Today — seven years later — we live on the farm for half of the year. Our daughter plays with Gabrielle’s two little girls. And we’ve decided it’s time to share the farm’s coffee and — more importantly — their story with our stateside community.

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