By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a new regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
In an effort to see the world through fresh eyes, many of us schedule “getaways” as often as possible, but few of us actually leave— give up everything familiar in order to seek some new version of the truth, in a foreign destination, for an indefinite period of time. We dream of risk and radical discovery but rarely take the plunge. Joseph Campbell identified this “call to adventure” as one of the three basic common denominators present in all hero myths. I don’t know if everyone who “leaves” in the way I’m describing is heroic, but certainly all are, at a minimum, inspirational, especially to those of us who have heard the call but haven’t yet responded.
So be inspired, over the course of the next three Bloomers Blazing posts, by Wally O’Connor, Tony Louderbough and Julie Mars, three people who responded to the call to adventure, each of them with dramatically different results.
Wally O’Connor: “The Heart Speaks a Universal Language”
Wally O’Connor spent the early part of his life becoming dependent on various drugs and alcohol and then overcoming all these dependencies. Following his addiction/renunciation period, he spent forty years vacillating between selling plastics to corporations and working as an addictions counselor. He retired in 2012, but his relationships with former colleagues, fellow AA associates, family members, and many close friends—some of whom go all the way back to grammar school—have kept him active and engaged. Yet in February of 2017, having sold his beautiful house in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, he got rid of everything else he owned, car included, and moved to Costa Rica.
Joan Schweighardt: Why did you give up everything to move to a place you knew nothing about?
Wally O’Connor: In Tom Petty‘s “Learning to fly” there’s a verse about how life can sometimes steal your crown: “Well some say life will beat you down/Break your heart, steal your crown/So I’ve started out for God knows where/I guess I’ll know when I get there.” Trump stole my crown by winning the election.
I can’t actually say I left because of Trump, but he is definitely the one who started the ball rolling. I had already been thinking about my life and what I was going to do with what is left of it. I had known for some time that I was going to have to move from my comfortable home at some point in the next few years; I just couldn’t afford to live there anymore and keep the place up. So all that was going on in the back of my mind when the election happened and snapped me into action.
JS: Was it hard to leave your whole material world behind?
WO: Once the house was under contract and there was no (easy) way to turn back from my decision, disposing of all my stuff became fun. I knew which people would appreciate which things, so I made that happen. And I knew some guys who ran a local shelter for homeless drunks and addicts; I gave them a lot. The piles kept getting smaller until I was finally left with one carry-on bag and three suitcases, and that is what I brought to Newark International with me.
What was hard was not giving up the house and all the stuff but giving up a sense of home.
JS: Have you always heard the call to adventure?
WO: Yes, always. When I was four or five I would jump on the bus whenever I saw it stop on the corner of our street. I wanted to see where it would go. My mother always managed to pull me off in time. When I was seven or eight I tried to fly from a second-story window with a towel around my shoulders. One of my older cousins stopped me. As I got older I did other things, like hitchhiking around the country on my own.
JS: Would you say you were well-traveled before you made your move to Costa Rica?
WO: It may seem like a contradiction (though really it’s not), but I was the guy who never even thought of getting a passport. I never wanted to leave the U.S. There was too much to explore right there. Then I woke up one morning and things had changed. I always hated Trump—as a man, as a human being; he’s just a horrible person. As I said, he was the catalyst. I sent an email to everybody on my address list saying I was going to leave. Then I thought about my decision for a couple of weeks to see if there was any reason to reconsider. I discovered I felt exactly the same, and I put the house up for sale. Very soon the issue became a lot more about me and my life than about Trump.
JS: What adjustments did you have to make to get started on your new path?
WO: First there is the language. I hated trying to learn Spanish in high school and I still hate it. I’m taking lessons, but it is a slow process. The next big adjustment was transportation. I have a bike and his name is Junior. We go EVERYWHERE together. I haven’t driven a car since the day I got here, and I don’t plan on doing so anytime soon.
I also don’t get any mail here. I can but it is very slow, and since I don’t have any credit card bills anymore, I don’t need it. Emails, WhatsApp , Facebook Messenger, etc., take care of what I need.
JS: What are the day-to-day differences between life in Costa Rica and life in Bucks County?
WO: Here in Costa Rica everything calls for your attention all the time. It’s very loud in the mornings with birds and monkeys, and many, many roosters and chickens, all of them making a racket. A quick peek outside will tell you what the beach will be like that day. At this time of year [November] it is bright sunshine every morning and it is cool at 5:30/6:00 a.m., with a nice breeze coming in from the ocean. EVERYBODY in Samara, where I live, is up and out at six: moms, dads, kids. Everybody is on a bike or motorcycle.
The tides change everything. Some days the beach is immaculate and well over a mile wide. Some days it is half that and covered with wood debris. Other days it is very clean but only 30 yards wide. And all of this has a huge effect on our beloved reef. Some days it is invisible completely. Some days you can see all of it. Mostly you see about 20 percent of it.
Our beach is the safest, most family-friendly beach in all of Costa Rica. The government saw this and spent huge amounts of money to pave all our roads and give us many towers for internet and cell phone reception. They wanted to make Samara the Number One place for wealthy Ticos (Native Costa Ricans) to vacation, and they succeeded. The reef keeps out all the sharks, whales, crocodiles and rip tides. It keeps all the big waves away, leaving nice five-foot waves for surfers to learn on. The Ticos keep it spotless. They ALWAYS clean up after they party and we have other guys every day picking up stray cans and bottles or coconuts.
JS: Who are the guys who pick up trash and coconuts? Do they work for the town?
WO: Exactly who they are is one of several mysteries that will take time to unravel. The same bunch of guys just built an entire bull ring—with seats 25 feet high—from scratch right in the field in front of my house, to prepare for the Christmas festival. As far as I have been able to learn, they are paid by the local governing association in Cangrejal, which is a community within Samara. But it could take years to know for sure. Ask five Ticos a question and you will get five different answers. You will figure out what the truth is eventually, in good time. And that is the Tico way, Everything in time. Pura Vida!
JS: Have you connected with the locals, or are you tucked away in one of those gated communities you see on HGTV?
WO: The Flor de Coco, where I live, is owned by a Tica and all the people who live here (except for me) are Spanish. Besides renting out the nine apartments in the building, Flor runs a restaurant. It costs me $500 per month for everything. It is as far from a gated community as you can get. I am immersed in the local Tico culture and am scrambling to get my Spanish up to par so that I can immerse myself further.
Flor is part of the Arias family, and they are the second largest family in the area. They teach me every day about the Tico culture, and I love it. I want to know about the local Costa Ricans. I want to learn to blend in. That is my goal.
JS: Are you the only (temporarily) non-Spanish-speaking person in town?
WO: Sixty-five percent of the people here are native Costa Ricans who speak Spanish. The rest are ex-pats from all over the world, many Americans, Canadians, Germans and Swiss.
JS: Do you attend AA meetings in Samara?
WO: Yes, I go to Spanish-speaking AA meetings in the jungle twice a week. We meet in an outdoor clubhouse with a tin roof, electricity and benches to sit on. It is the perfect AA setting. It is self-contained and totally independent.
I am the only one at the meetings who doesn’t speak Spanish. Yet the Ticos greet me with open arms and treat me like a long lost brother. Although the meetings run 90 minutes and I often don’t understand what is being said, I never feel these meetings are a waste of time. AA is about sharing your gut. The exact details of someone’s story are not important; their anguish and joy are there in their body language and voice inflections/volume. As one of my buddies down here says, the heart speaks a universal language.
JS: What’s the worst thing that happened to you since you emigrated?
WO: Before I even moved I found an ad online for a rental house in the jungle in Cabuya, and I said to myself, “I MUST LIVE IN THAT HOUSE.” Cabuya is seven miles north of Montezuma, but the roads are so bad that it takes 30 to 40 minutes to get there from Montezuma BY CAR. I was warned ahead that Cabuya was a tiny fishing village with only a few stores. But I ignored the yellow warning flags, as is my specialty, and rented the house.
The place was gorgeous—a small two-story with a kitchen and bathroom downstairs, Outside was the spiral staircase to get to a big bedroom with a huge deck overlooking the jungle. There were no other houses around. It was like living in a tree house. But the third day there I woke up with a huge toothache. One of my wisdom teeth was infected. I checked with the landlord and she got me an appointment with a dentist the next morning in the village of Cobano, an hour away. I had to take two buses to get there.
The Cobano dentist shot me full of Novocaine and told me everything would be fine. But it wasn’t! An hour into the procedure I heard her talking excitedly into her cell phone in Spanish. After her call, she pulled me out of the chair, handed me an X-Ray of my mouth, and said I had to go immediately. Where? I asked. She explained in broken English that the roots of the tooth were too deep and she couldn’t get the tooth out. There was another dentist across town who could finish the job and I had to go there, “Now!” She asked me if I knew where the pharmacy was. I said, “Hell no, I don’t even know where I am right now!”
She was beginning to panic. She took me outside and had me get in her car and off we went. Blood was dripping all over me and all over the X-ray I was holding. We got to the pharmacy and she pointed to the alley behind it and told me to go to the end. She wished me good luck. It wasn’t exactly how I expected the morning to go.
The man at the end of the alley turned out to be a dentist who knew what he was doing and was able to get my tooth out after much effort. Bottom line: it all worked out. The whole thing cost me $140.00. Very cheap.
JS: Did this experience make you wonder if moving to Costa Rica had been a mistake?
WO: No, but moving to Cabuya was a mistake. Cobano is a fascinating place. It is the business and money hub of that whole part of Costa Rica. All the banks, doctors, lawyers, dentists and shopping malls are there, all positioned around an open-air central square, kind of like towns in the old Wild West. The square is filled with business people making deals. Deals for everything and anything. Legal and illegal. There is a small police presence but it is mostly for show. Anything goes.
That was the nearest town, and I was an hour away from it, and I quickly realized how isolated I was.
JS: Is it true there are wild horses in Samara?
WO: Guanacaste Province has been horse and cattle country for over 100 years. With caballeros on horses herding the cattle, it is more Texas than Texas. Christmas is celebrated here with a big rodeo featuring bull riding and many horses.
There are about 60 or 70 horses that just roam free on the streets of Samara. There is horseback riding for the tourists, which is big business here, but most of the horses just do whatever they want. They roll around in the ocean to cool off, gallop up and down the beach saddle-less and rider-less in groups of five or more, graze in the field right across the street from where I live, stroll down the main street in town at their leisure. It is amazing to Gringos but the Ticos who care for them (and that’s another mystery; I don’t really know who these people are, only that the horses are always clean and groomed) don’t even think of them as an anomaly. To me, they are a constant source of amusement and amazement.
JS: So no downside to life in Samara?
WO: I guess at this point I have to admit that there is a huge problem in Costa Rica with petty theft. Violent crime almost doesn’t exist, certainly not here in Samara, but the theft of personal property is rampant. Impossible to ignore. That is why I stressed “safety” when talking about where I chose to live. I am on the second floor and we have a guard who watches the property every night all night. I am totally safe here. But you can’t leave your phone or laptop just anywhere. It will be gone in an instant. Costa Rica is still a poor country by and large, and the people have a certain “Robin Hood” mentality.
Then again, I am living in a place that is alive itself. In the short time I’ve been here we’ve had 70 – 80 mph wind storms, two earthquakes, and a hurricane. All very exciting and a little annoying at times but never boring. And every sunset at low tide when I walk out a quarter mile into the ocean and look at the majesty around me, I forget all about that other stuff. It’s quite a place.
JS: Do you imagine you’ll spend the rest of your life in Costa Rica?
WO: Residency was always the goal. I hate just “visiting” places. If you want to know about a place you must live there, at least for a while. You learn zero in a week or two.
My stated goal upon arrival was to build a nice little life here from scratch. And I have kind of done that, though there is still much to do.
I believe the Ticos now know me as one of their own. They see me on my bicycle. They see me shopping for food. They see me on the beach every day. They see me in town. They see me at AA meetings. They saw me in rainy season, when the tourists left. Many know I have applied for residency. They know I am not a tourist. It is impossible for me to go to town and not run into several Ticos I have come to know personally. This is a small town. Everybody knows everybody.
So, is it my home now? Not yet. But as I said, I don’t have any other home at the moment. Costa Rica is great. I think it has a very good chance of becoming my home. But “home” is not a designation you give away easily. It has to be earned, over time. We will see.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, The Accidental Art Thief and other novels. Her newest novel, Before We Died, will be published in September.
So funny hearing you tried to fly with a towel. I did the same thing with an umbrella “Mary Poppins” style. Didn’t go too well either.