What I Learned in My Bucket List Year in Costa Rica … by Leo Tolstoy

Stu & Tolstoy CR 2018
Our bucket list year just ended, and our lives will never be the same. What did I learn with my wife and two young sons in a remote corner of the Costa Rican jungle? Having also checked War and Peace off my bucket list this year, I’ll let Leo Tolstoy, in his own sublime phrasing, answer that question for me.

“We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us.”

We tend to pick a lane and stay in it long after it feels stale, often for a lifetime … never manifesting the precious things we vow to do “one day.” That is folly. Jodi and I have dreamt of this year abroad with kids for decades, long before we met one another. And we are showing our sons that dreams can be real if you are bold enough to make seismic, disruptive changes. Leaving Wall Street to pursue art, fearing I’d be mocked forever, remains one of my best decisions. I want my children to understand that they control their destinies, and even when they don’t, their dilemmas and “failures,” be they academic, social or internal, are fertilizer in their fields of self improvement and, eventually, inner peace.

Tolstoy

Tolstoy, born in 1828 into an aristocratic Russian family, fought in the Tsar’s army in the hairiest winter war conditions ever. His surroundings and reference points could not have be more different than our tropical paradise. Still, his characters realize something I too gained clarity on this past year – Love grows, evolves and expands. I leaned in and loved my kids and wife hard this year, through ecstasies and agonies. And felt that love boomerang back to me. I am truly happy. Because happiness is the flower that grows from loves seed. We’ve been motivated this year not by the accumulation of wealth, prestige and visibility but the pursuit of kindness and wellness, both ours and others. This paradigm shift cannot be overstated. I found the people we encountered and befriended intriguing and exhilarating. Because, if you somehow found your way to this microdot on the map called Playa Grande, you have an interesting story to tell. One which includes a conscious choice to step off the hamster wheel, walk away from people and places rife with stress and chase your bliss. Being surrounded by productive people who chose joy as a lifestyle changed our game at a cellular level. I intend to keep it that way, wherever I go from now on. 

“It is not beauty that endears, it is love that makes us see beauty.”

I’ve been with my wife fifteen years and love her more now than ever. The very first time I saw her, I thought she was cute, because she is. But today, her physical beauty is a minor ingredient in my deep and abiding admiration. The essence of my love resides in her unwavering courage and selflessness throughout our journey. She meets the daily challenges of raising our children with preternatural gentleness and patience. And she’s always game for good times and world-wide adventures. She got certified for SCUBA this year and is chomping at the bit to explore that magical universe with me and our kids. Through the prism of our time-tested bond, her physical beauty shines more each day.

Jodi and Bodhi Arenal 2019

Kai Avid Reader Award 2019

Playa Grande road

“There is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.”

There is one road in and out of our little beachside town. It is a fine, smooth road, though unlit and a bit scary in a hard rain at night. Just last week, a beautiful yellow line was added down the center of this black road, making it far more safe and easy to navigate. I derive a surprising amount of satisfaction from this nondescript yellow stripe. It signifies security, progress and visual symmetry. More and more, cleansed by deep nature and tranquility, I see greatness and find joy in such simple things.   

Bodhi Galapagos 2019

“He was always in a hurry to get where he was not.”

Sure, we need to herd the kids off to school each morning in a furious, last minute, “where’s my homework” rush … but in general, our pace has slowed markedly. We’ve irrevocably pivoted away from rush/grind/rinse/repeat/die to a more gentle, experiential and connective manner of filling the hours in a day. Yes, we have the financial freedom to do this, no small thing, but we each can review our relationship with money and ask ourselves if the system we are part of really serves our values of a happy, healthy, well-balanced life. If it does not, perhaps it’s time to find a new system. Most folks forget that the hamster wheel actually goes nowhere. 

Kai surf contest Tamarindo 2019

Tamarindo surf contest 2019

“Oh, how happy I am to have found it at last. Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky.”

Early on in our stay here, Jodi asked me who and what I missed back home. It surprised me to realize that I missed nothing and no one. I say that with no arrogance and no judgment, for I love my friends and family with all my being. Naturalist John Muir, a kindred spirit who escaped into nature, said it best, “I am learning to live close to the lives of my friends without ever seeing them. No miles of any measurement can separate your soul from mine.” In fact, many of the folks I love most I haven’t seen in years. But that’s ok. I no longer hold any guilt around that unavoidable truth. Living a healthy lifestyle under “that infinite sky,” makes us giddy as puppies. So, we’ll see you when we see you … hopefully soon!

“Yes, I may very well be killed tomorrow.”   

I lost someone I love this year. Whether you live to 54 or 94, life goes by in a nano-second. Still, most of us tend to postpone our bucket lists until the end of our lives. Let’s flip that script! If there’s one take home message I can share, it is this – Pick up your bucket right now, walk down to the ocean, and begin pouring your dreams out into reality … before that option no longer exists.
  

PS. To learn more about and follow this journey in photos, both past and future, visit my Instagram @stuart_sheldon

Pura Vida!

 

Where You From? Where You Been? Where You Going?


Standing shoulder to shoulder as our kids sprinted down field last year, I casually mentioned to a fellow Miami soccer/surfer dad that we were looking to move to Playa Grande, Costa Rica. “Whhaaaat!” he blurted … then grabbed his phone and started punching numbers. “My oldest, best friend lives there,” he said, as he raised the phone to his ear. A few seconds later, he barked, “Hey Frank! My good buddy’s moving to Grande; you gotta talk to him,” then thrust that phone into my face. “Ummm, Hey Frank …” 

Life is one giant road trip of random encounters, each holding the power to change you forever. That call is why we live where we live, a few streets from Frank in a jungle by the sea.  

Dawn, Nathan and family
Nathan, Dawn and family … from Brighton, England to Costa Rica

6 months from Canada to Costa Rica in this van
6 months worldwide in this van

Meet Dawn and Nathan.

Like many of us over the years, these gonzo, gorgeous Brits talked a big game of mixing it up and living abroad. But when they pulled the trigger, they went MASSIVE. Wiry, with Obama ears and laugh lines acquired on many a pub stool, Nathan and I met early on at our kids’ Playa Grande surf camp. Beat up longboard under his arm, he won me over instantly with his cheeky smile. What I did not know was that one year earlier, he and Dawn had sold everything, shut down their businesses, packed up two kids (10 & 12) and moved their entire life across an ocean to Canada, where they immediately bought a van and drove six madcap months across the US and into Central America, finally landing in our little slice of paradise.

Seven months into our Bucket List Year, one thing I’ve noticed over a lifetime of travel, is there’s always someone far more hardcore than you are. Dawn, describing their adventure in her gravelly, ever-smiling Lauren Bacall voice, told me they wanted to “follow our hearts, learn, grow and be inspired in a tropical environment … with a language we felt we could figure out” … as if learning Spanish from a dead stop was no biggie. 

Where to next?
Where to next?

The hillside town of Taxco, Mexico
The hillside town of Taxco, Mexico

El Salvador hotel room that “resembled the corridor of 1970s psychiatric hospital”
El Salvador hotel room that “resembled the corridor of 1970s psychiatric hospital”

Along the way, they survived their first ever earthquake, a whopping 8.1, that lasted one whole minute, as the four of them stood trapped on a cantilevered balcony in the historic hillside village of Taxco, Mexico. “We clung tight to a pillar, watched the buildings collapse around us and honestly thought we were going to die,” said Dawn, still incredulous. 

Their “most crazy day ever” took place at the El Salvador/Guatemala border, when their car was seized. Dawn describes it this way – ‘No way back, no way forward, no luck with bribes, hassled by rug dealers and scammers. We found ourselves in a hotel room that resembled the corridor of a 1970s psychiatric hospital.” She was forced to sit alone with her kids fighting off local street drunks in a tiny dive restaurant while Nathan took an eight-hour round trip to the capital to beg the El Salvador Minister of Transport for a permit to take their car through the country. But they made it happen … and now Dawn’s sparkly, blue-green, pura vida eyes and recently shaved head greet you when you enter The Libelula Lounge, the lush glamping B&B they created with vision, fortitude and sweat. 

Libelula Lounge and Lodgings
Libelula Lounge and Lodgings

Glamping in deluxe air-conditioned African tents
Glamping in deluxe air-conditioned African tents

Live painting at Libelula
Live painting at Libelula

“Seeing all our life experiences and our passion pulled together to create an expression of ourselves is incredibly exciting, daunting and challenging. But to know we had a dream and followed it is wonderfully liberating and energizing. It installs strength and confidence and a deep sense of knowing limitations are only what we choose to place on ourselves,” says Dawn. For Libelula’s grand opening, she and Nathan commissioned me to live paint a piece and, in light of their insane journey, I wanted to celebrate intrepid travelers everywhere. Those with the courage to leave their comfort zone, make space for life’s beautiful mayhem and trust that their best selves will emerge even better on the other side. 

Where You From? Where You Been? Where You Going? 

If you’ve spent significant time on the road, you know these three questions form the mantra of each new encounter, the reference points to engage, learn and share with the human being in front of you. The kindling for friendships that may blaze for a minute or a lifetime. 

Libelula Commission. Where You Been? Where You From? Where You going? Latex and acrylic paint, 1937 World Atlas on wood panel, 36x72" 2019
Libelula Commission. Where You Been? Where You From? Where You going? Latex and acrylic paint, 1937 World Atlas on wood panel, 36×72″ 2019

In this artwork, against a background of gleaming blue ocean, the horizon fades to serene infinity. Before us, lies the perfect wave, a spiraling tube that echoes the original moment the universe spun itself into being. If privileged to enter this sacred vortex, one’s thoughts evaporate and a rare moment of absolute clarity arises. No past. No future. Only NOW exists. One experiences literal “tunnel vision.” It is this moment of pure immediacy that I strive to live within at all times, for it is the only point in time that is not an abstraction.

The tube is collaged from pages of a magnificent 1937 World Atlas given to me by a crazy Aussie many moons ago. If you study the collage closely, you’ll find every country that is home to someone wonderful I’ve met since moving to CR, each an ambassador of life’s big pivots.   

Original Libelula sketch
Original Libelula sketch – I must admit, I’m delighted with this piece and how it matches the original idea.

Mad adventures from England to Central America
Mad adventures from England to Central America

1937 world population
Check out the 1937 world population!

Finished piece installed
Finished piece installed at Libelula

“Waves are toys from God,” says pro surfer Clay Marzo, and I say whoever plays with the most God-made toys wins. Dawn summed up their ongoing mission as an opportunity to “see our children flourish in life from the experiences they have had, follow their own dreams and be able to deal with all that comes their way.”

Henry Miller, one of my creative heroes, said, “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” Right now, in this grand place, immersed in fierce beauty, a bountiful sea and people I greatly admire, I am indeed looking at things in a new way.

Father and daughter make it to paradise
Father and daughter – destination reached

We Left America

 



We left America. 

More precisely, as reminded by our local friends, we left the United States. We still live in America, Central America. Playa Grande, Costa Rica, to be exact. Our home sits atop a mist shrouded mountain in a dense jungle above the Pacific. We wake with the sun to a symphony of Congo monkey roars and birdsong madness. Sip our coffee gazing out over dense green into endless blue beyond which nothing exists. At dusk, the sky drops its golden pebble into the sea to the west. Ours is a truth spoken in future tense for decades … now manifest. Every moment a mirror into which we stare. And looking back at us, the words … You. Are. Alive. 

Welcome to our bucket list year.

It is a curious thing to capture what you chase, for once the butterfly is in the net, what do you do? We cannot keep it, for a butterfly kept is tragedy. Instead, we must recognize that the butterfly was illusory, simply a pretext to run on a hill in the wind … because running on windy hills is good for us. A thing we should do always. 

I am literally now living on a windy hill. And so, it is time to let the butterfly go and take pleasure witnessing each moment of it’s unfettered flight. But, I have a confession to make. Instead of watching the butterfly from a state of perpetual awe, I’ve wasted precious time these inaugural weeks looking over my shoulder in worry at faraway things I could be doing elsewhere. Vanity-driven nonsense that won’t mean a thing in a hundred years and will actually detract from the exciting art projects I currently have in motion (more on these in the weeks ahead). That grind will be right where I left it when I return. And, as my wife so astutely points out, shame on me if I waste another minute in paradise fretting about the stateside hustle.


So, I am stating this aloud, with you as my witnesses. That self-imposed, little bitch, stress session stops now! I am here for one year, in Costa Rica, with my beautiful wife and magnificent boys, wrapped in the warm embrace of the purple/blue/grey/green hillsides and the buttery Playa Grande surf … with nowhere else to be but where we are. 

Pulling back the throttle right now. New surfboard’s in the truck. Just ordered War & Peace and Brothers Karamazov which I never read. Heading off to Spanish class shortly. Eyes wide open. Eager to fall deeper in love with my self and my family. 

I’m all in!

Gonna be magical. Already is. And I’ll be sharing occasional bits and pieces in this blog. if you’d like to see more regular pics and posts, follow the journey on FB and Instagram @stuart_sheldon.

Pura vida!