Business in “Pura Vida-Ville”: The Beginning (Pre-Costa Rica)

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People always tell me I have a “dream job” and ask how I made it all happen? How did I get to where I am today? I can assure you it was NOT planned!

Join me on my blogging journey as I chronicle the story of Safari Surf School and the trials and tribulations of running a small business in a foreign country (a.k.a. paradise)! This series will give you an insight into how we ended up starting a surf school in Nosara, Costa Rica, and all of the awesome experiences we’ve had along the way.

I love telling the Safari Surf “story,” since it reminds me of the amazing journey this has been so far, and I think it is unique and inspiring for others. Grab a cup of coffee or a beer and chillax with me while I take you back to the “early” days, just prior to the founding of Safari Surf School and beyond.

In my “youth” (late 20’s), I did quite a bit of traveling around the world chasing my dream of perfect surf, exotic places and cultures, and really in an odd way…looking for a place I could move to and live. Living a simple life with great surf always appealed to me. I didn’t have an idea of what I’d do for a living, and in retrospect I was quite delusional, but we daydreamers usually are. I only knew I wanted a simple, tropical life, close enough to the great surf where I could experience the healing power of the ocean on a daily basis. Growing up in Hawaii, people always asked me “why would you ever leave Hawaii?” Honestly, being a white kid on an island where the natives had their land stolen from them by white people…I didn’t blend in well. I’m sure my pale skin and my stark white blond hair didn’t help either.

I was looking for another place where the “aloha” spirit was alive and well, because at times it was hard to find in Hawaii. I traveled to places like Australia, Jamaica, Fiji, and Tahiti…where I found what I thought was THE perfect place for me to live. It was so close to Hawaii in so many ways and the “aloha” spirit was definitely strong. Then reality hit once I learned you had to marry a native in order to own land there. That kind of blew the whole deal out of the water, along with the fact that the cost of living was (is) ridiculous since almost every product there is imported!

Upon my return from Tahiti, I had a discussion with a good friend about my trip and told him how I loved it there, and would move there in a second if not for the aforementioned issues. He told me that I should check out Costa Rica, the new, cool place to go. Great surf. Cool vibe. I was sold.

I traveled to Costa Rica in 1995 with a couple of friends. We had 3 weeks to cruise up and down the coast and check out the entire Pacific side on the country. My girl Marsi would be joining us mid-trip.

My first “feeling” about the country was uncertain…through no fault but my own. Unfortunately, the boys and I had been drinking on the plane ride over and continued drinking on the taxi ride from San Jose to a surf town called Jaco. I do recall our driver being one of the coolest cats as he kept stopping to get us more beer, took us to a couple of cool spots to eat, and of course the numerous pee stops along the road. It was all in good fun and the driver was super friendly. It was a good omen of things to come.

After a couple of weeks in the country, I truly began to fall in love with the people and the vibe they had. They called it “pura vida,” or pure life. Everyone greeted you with “pura vida,” and said goodbye with “pura vida.” It was growing on me. In 1995, there weren’t as many traveling surfers as there are today, which made some of the outlying areas we visited REALLY special. I can remember as we would pass through local villages, little kids would come running out of their houses screaming and waving to us and we would stop and give them candy and stickers (my friend gave me the heads up that stickers were like gold in Costa Rica, candy was always a good thing to have, and if you wanted to barter with something bring some extra pairs of jeans…people just LOVED jeans!).

I remember stopping in front of houses that were basically a shack with dirt floors and ripped tin roof to say hi and meet the people who lived there. You could tell they had nothing but the essentials, yet they always greeted us with that “pura vida” friendliness. Their front yards were always well manicured (dudes used machetes to “mow” the lawn!) and there was no trash littered around, which is pretty prevalent in most poor countries. There was a real sense of pride in the families we met in Costa Rica. The kids were all just full of smiles and giggles, and you could tell they had no clue they were poor, it was just how they lived and they were happy. It really affected me in such a positive way that one could live in such a simple environment with minimal amenities and possessions and be so damn happy and care free.

It was somewhere on that trek along the Pacific coast that I knew I would love to live in Costa Rica. I also found that you could actually buy land and own it outright with no lease involved, and you didn’t have to marry a local!! Things were certainly looking promising!

My girlfriend at the time (Marsi), arrived in San Jose where we met her upon her exit at customs…I couldn’t keep my giddiness in check. I had to tell her that this place was amazing and that we could live here and be happy forever!! It was everything I had always thought I wanted for a place to live.

We took off to a town called Tamarindo, which quickly killed my buzz – concrete everywhere, tourists everywhere, crowds in the water…ugh!!! We got out of there quickly the following day and headed south down the coast to explore. We were there in the summer (rainy season), so we definitely encountered some rain here and there during our trip. It’s funny how when you’re driving along and looking for surf and checking out cool towns that you tend to lose track of time. Losing track of time as the day is winding down when you have no lodging set up can be a bit stressful to say the least.

Darkness was a mere hour away and it was now pissing down buckets of rain so hard that the windshield wipers had no chance of catching up. I thought I had seen rain living in Hawaii, but no…this rain was by far the most intense amount of water I’d seen in such a short period of time. I had never experienced a “flash flood,” but it was happening before our eyes and small rivers that looked passable were quickly turning into whitewater rapids!

By the grace of God, and I say this whole heartedly, the next turn we took in that rain soaked storm in our “dingy” of a rental car changed my life and my girlfriend Marsi’s life forever.

We spotted a small “convenience” store that was open. Now when I say convenience, I mean it was a hole in the wall mini market that actually had lights on and an English sign in front of it. Help was our “mantra” at that point. “Must…find…shelter…help…us…please.” To our delight, we found an American ex-pat standing there with a smile. Bonus!!! In a situation like that, speaking English was quite a luxury. We told the gentleman that we were a wee bit lost, wet, hungry and had no place to sleep, and if he could please point us to the closest hotel or hostel. Chuckling (and I can still hear his laugh of disbelief), he said “there is no way on god’s green earth you can to make it to any hotels. All the rivers are over-flowing and impassable.” I guess looking like defeated drowned rats, he took pity on us and invited us to stay at his humble abode, which was a mere 100 yards away (and did I mention right on the beach!).

“Richard” took us in to his gorgeous, open-air home, which had beautiful hard wood floors, walls, and ceilings. He styled us with some amazing food and we drank with him into the evening…warm and toasty. I was very inquisitive and pressed Richard on how he ended up in this tiny fishing village (Garza)? How was he able to make the transition from living in the US to living in Costa Rica? I was mesmerized and taken in by his “spell” and had so many other questions. I wanted his life (or so I thought). I wanted the simple life. The “pura vida” life.

The next morning the sun shone through and Richard took us surfing to a secret spot where we surfed great, empty waves; came back, and had an amazing breakfast and as we sat there, Richard (sensing my “want” to live a life of leisure – which was exuding from every freakin’ pore of my body!), mentioned that he and his wife were “tired” of running the mini market and had been having thoughts of either selling it or leasing it out. BOOM!!!!! I quickly jumped in and said “WOW…hey Marsi …baby, honey, sugar, sweetie (you get the picture), we could lease the place, huh?”

Richard, Marsi and I hatched an informal plan, and we all agreed that once Marsi and I got back to the U.S. we would chat some more, formalize a plan, and then get back to Richard to confirm if we were all in! Some time passed and Marsi and I got married, but we kept in touch with Richard. I worked as a paint contractor running my own business and stashing away as much cash as possible for my future life. Marsi got her teaching credentials as we were on way to putting some bucks away and our plan was to be in Costa Rica at the end of ’96 or early ’97.

In the meantime, each of our families obviously had some “concerns” about our plans to move to another country far far away from them. We got questions like “how far away is that island?” (kid you not!), and “Isn’t that country between Panama and Nicaragua….uh don’t those people not like us?” So it certainly got the families attention what we were planning to do, but in the end to both our families credit, they wished us well and gave us their blessings (begrudgingly of course!).
Marsi and I sold EVERYTHING we had and I mean EVERYTHING, we packed up all of our belongings in boxes along with our two pug dogs and headed for Miami in a U-Haul truck. We figured it was easier and less expensive to send cargo and our precious pups from Miami than California, so a nice road trip ensued, actually crazy road trip, but I won’t bore you with the details (massive hangovers in New Orleans etc., etc.!). Shit…we were on our way to our (my) dream!!!!!