Finances are a personal thing and can be awkward to talk about, but I’m going to lay out a little about our finances for this year. My goals are to help give a clear picture about our situation, to make it clear how God is providing for us, and to hopefully encourage others in the possibility of taking a Sabbath year for themselves. My wife and I are both teachers. Teachers (despite all of the complaining) earn a solid, yet modest salary. We married shortly after college and together (okay, just me) had about $25,000 in student loan debt. Our goal was for Rachel to have the option to stay at home once we had kids, so we have always chosen to live on just what I earn. We lived simply (although we did take some big, yet economical trips, to Costa Rica, Europe, and Puerto Vallarta in the summers) and were able to use most of what Rachel earned to pay off our student loan debt, buy an economy car, and invest in a rental property in a small town off-island (we were still renting, but based on real estate markets and cash flow, it made the most sense). After five years, we had our first child and Rachel stopped teaching. A couple years later, God blessed us with our own home that we purchased with borrowed funds, rehabbed, and refinanced. Shortly after finishing that project, we moved to the South Bay of Los Angeles where we continued to live on one income and chose to streamline our finances even more in order to meet the high cost of living while maintaining our financial freedom. The biggest lifestyle change was to move close enough to my work so I could walk to work and we could downsize to one vehicle. We kept both of our homes, and so now we have two rental properties. Normally we do not use any of the monthly income for our personal use because we set reserves aside for long-term maintenance expenses and the rest, with our current cash flow values, we set aside to provide for our tenants’ Sabbath years (see “Sabbath Theology” tab). However, in our calculations, there is enough left over for ourselves to take the full income for one year, our own Sabbath year. So our income this year is about $850 a month plus about $6000 that we have saved, from my salary, specifically for this year.
We left for our Sabbath year with no personal debt and that is how I would like to return. Leviticus 25:21, 22 says, “I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.” I want to believe in that promise and to live from it. We have lines of credit that we can access, we have assets we can sell, and we have safety nets in the U.S., but I don’t believe the Sabbath year is about losing freedom, but about gaining it and helping others to gain freedom as well. So we’ll do what we can to live in simplicity, enjoying the things that give the most fulfillment. Unfortunately, rent is a fairly fixed cost, and the house in Nosara Centro, although an option, would stretch our budget more than I desired. So we drove south to Sámara because we had enjoyed the afternoon that we spent in that town.
Sámara is a small town that is relatively undeveloped. Although heavily focused on tourism, it still seems to have a local flavor. According to what I’ve heard, it’s a little more affordable than the Nosara area with not quite as many expats. We asked some locals if they knew of any rentals, and they said they would let us know. We drove about ten minutes south of the town and saw some “Se alquila” signs. One was a tiny little one-bedroom apartment that smelled of mildew, with only a queen bed, a mini-fridge and a cooktop for about $180. There was also a decent house built above a separate garage that was well-furnished, with air-conditioning and even a washing machine, for about $550. It had a tiny fenced yard that was completely covered in cinder gravel. Both places were along a busy road, and neither had room for chickens or a garden, some of our hearts’ desires.
From Sámara. we drove north to Nicoya and then west to Playa Junquillal. As a crow flies, or as the dirt road travels, Junquillal is not very far, but the dirt roads are atrocious and impassable in the rainy season, unless you feel like fording potentially crocodile-infested rivers in a rental car, so the only route was inland through Nicoya. Going over the pass to Junquillal, we encountered a massive downpour and thunderstorm. It was raining so hard that I could barely see the road or the car in front of me, even at 20 kph. It reminded me of the rainstorms in Micronesia.
We finally arrived in Junquillal as evening approached and immediately knew it wasn’t a place we wanted to live. We want to be someplace that feels authentically local but that has access to services and transportation (transportation is especially important since we won’t have a car). We want to feel immersed without feeling completely isolated. We want to serve and to learn the language while also being able to have relationships with people of a similar background. We also wanted to be close to the beach and, hopefully, to be able to develop our nascent surfing skills. Rachel also really wanted air conditioning and a washer and dryer, but having lived in Honduras, I was sure that was out of the picture, at least in the budget that we were looking at.
Junquillal looked beautiful and remote. I’m sure there is a lot of wildlife in the area, but it everything seemed far apart and like there wasn’t much of a local town. It also looked like it was dominated mostly by foreigners. We had planned to spend a night there, but we decided to continue on since we figured it would be a waste of our time and money to stay there. So even though it was almost dark, we drove to Playa Negra a short distance away. Failing to find much of a town there either, we stopped at some cabinas at what ended up being Playa Avellanas. The cabinas were decent, with a nice pool, lots of bugs in the room, and a nice hippy couple from San Jose (Costa Rica). Since they didn’t have a restaurant at the cabinas, we drove back along a desolate and pitch black road to the tiny town of Playa Negra and ate at the only restaurant we saw, a surfer pizza joint with some of the best pizza I’ve ever had (and also some of the most expensive). There was only one guy working the place, so we chilled in the all-wood booths for quite a while and looked at some surfer magazines. Returning to the cabina, I took Jacob and Charlotte swimming while Rachel rested since she wasn’t feeling well.
The next day, Wednesday, we drove north to Playa Brasilito, which is a little north of Tamarindo and Playa Grande, a little south of Playa Flamingo. This is the area where I’ve taken a few schools groups to serve. On Orcas Christian School’s first trip with Bill Crofton and Mission 517 in 2010, we stayed in Playa Grande and drove through Brasilito to serve in the Portrero school. The next trip I went on with Pastor Bill was in 2014, and we stayed in Brasilito, worked in the school, and ended up serving some families connected to a man named Comanche (read some of the back story here). In 2017, I took a group from South Bay Junior Academy to Brasilito, again with Pastor Bill, and I developed the relationship with Comanche more. We built his family a covered patio, and he also helped us connect with and serve other families in Brasilito.
Brasilito is a small, local town that is sandwiched between Reserval Conchal (a mega resort), Playa Flamingo (a town that is synonymous with over condominium-ization), and the Portrero area (an area that has been taken over by many expats). Brasilito remains mostly Tico (Costa Rican) and ends up getting a lot of the negative impacts of tourism without a lot of the positives. But it was an area of interest to us, having spent some time serving in the area and meeting some of the people. It is also a local town but has access to amenities, easy transportation, and an expat community.
We arrived in Brasilito and first looked for lodging, expecting it to be easy to find since this is the low season. Hotel Brasilito, where we’ve stayed before, was completely booked. The cabinas by the beach looked full, but no one opened the gate. We followed some signs down a dirt road to some cabinas in the woods; the lady wanted $90 for a simple room in a simple setting. Ninety dollars! What happened to budget accommodations?! Costa Rica has been surprisingly expensive, way more expensive than the vacation Rachel and I took in 2009, a lot more than one would expect from simple inflation. Anyway, $90. We went across the dirt road to another cabina, and the man said he was full as well. Starting to get a little nervous, I had Rachel look up hotels in Tamarindo on Expedia hoping to get a last-minute deal for some nicer accommodations at a similar price. We ended up finding a solid cabina along the main road into Brasilito for only $50 a night, and after some checking into their availability, they even said they could rent to us over the weekend.
Feeling a little surprised and discouraged, we decided to get down to business. We stopped by Comanche’s house to ask if he knew of any rentals in Brasilito, but he wasn’t home. I left a message and my phone number with his wife and daughters and then dropped Rachel and the kids off at the beach. The kids had had enough time in the car, and we wanted for me to be able to scour the area for any possible rentals. I started by driving up and down the three main roads in Brasilito and found not even one "For Rent" sign. I then explored along the dirt road, past the bridge, that ventures off into the country side. Nothing except a creek to ford that ended up being deeper and scarier to cross than I had expected. Heading toward Portrero on the main road, I stopped at a building that advertised long-term apartment rentals, but the guy said he didn’t have any two-bedroom units. After driving up into the hills and along every possible road that looked viable and not finding any "For Rent" signs, I headed back to the beach, feeling discouraged, to pick up Rachel and the kids.
We had looked online before coming down to Costa Rica and hadn’t found any decent rental options. Everything seemed fancier than we wanted and way too expensive. We figured that it would be easier to find something in our budget and in an area of our interest once we got down here. When people asked if we had a place to live, I stated with mostly confidence, “Not yet, but I believe God is preparing a place for us,” referring to Exodus 23:20, “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared for you.” I still believed that to be true, but the whole budget thing was stressing me out. As I said before, I would love to return to the U.S. with no personal debt, in a state of more freedom than when we left. I was beginning to have a hard time seeing that as an option. What seemed to be the best option at that point was to return to Nosara Centro and to rent a completely unfurnished house, with no A/C, not very close to the beach, for $550 a month.
As evening approached, I picked up my family, and as soon as they were in the car, Comanche called. He told me to come so he could show me a house. I didn’t want to. I had been discomforted enough for the day and didn’t feel like struggling through a conversation in rapid-fire Spanish and then awkwardly checking out a terrible house that we would never want to live in, but I’m terrible at saying no, especially on the phone, in Spanish, when it’s hard enough for me to carry on a conversation as it is. So we went.
We arrived and all got out of the car. Comanche was there with a big grin in jeans, a collared shirt, and tennis shoes. I’ve never seen that man in jeans, or a shirt, or shoes. He looked quite dapper! We entered through the fence, stood on the patio that we had helped to build, and conversed with his family. They were happy to see Jacob and Charlotte again, and Comanche’s granddaughters have grown so much. After some conversation, we piled Comanche in our rental car and drove 100 meters down the street to a house where Comanche got out and we waited for a guy. After meeting up with the guy, we followed Comanche and him down the street to a house next to the park. It was a little Tico house, but it looked promising. It was made of cement walls and was nicely painted with tile floors. It had a gated yard, a covered patio, and a covered parking area with a pila (concrete wash basin for laundry). It had two bedrooms, one bathroom (a shower with no hot water), a kitchen, and a small living room. It was furnished with the basics: beds, couch, plastic table and chairs, a refrigerator, and a stove/oven. It even had an air conditioning in one of the bedrooms. When I asked him the price, he said $350 plus electricity and water! It was even across from a soccer field and a park with a playground. The beach was less than a five-minute walk away.
I tend to get excited and maybe a little impulsive about things and wanted to take it the next day. Rachel tends to be a little more fearful and cautious. I was excited by the price, that it fit most of our criteria, that it had a yard for a garden and chickens, and that it was even near a playground (something I never thought would be a possibility for the kids). Rachel was concerned for our safety in such a small and local town as Brasilito.
The next day, Thursday, we drove north to check out one more town that was of interest to us, Playa Hermosa. We had visited the town in 2009 and had really enjoyed it. It is a small town near the over-developed condo-opolis of Playas del Coco. Visiting again, we noticed one large condo development in the middle of town and many promoters walking the town, hawking promotions for the latest condo in next door Playas del Coco. And although the town still felt small, it didn’t feel like there was much local soul to the place. We stopped at one apartment hotel and discovered that they had a nice, furnished apartment with gated access and a pool for $550 a month. That seemed like a decent option that would be more secure and comfortable than Playa Brasilito and more affordable and closer to the beach than the house in Nosara Centro.
After talking about it some more, we decided that we would take the house in Brasilito, so we drove to Liberia to do some outfitting for our new home. I’ll write more about that later, but Thursday evening we called the landlord and told him we’d meet him at the house on Friday morning with the $350 rent for July and the $200 deposit. We did and are now officially established in Brasilito. Marroquín, the landlord, brought us a newer couch to replace the worn out one and even helped us switch the beds around. We moved all of our possessions into the house which took less than 15 minutes, including moving them out of the hotel we were staying at. We spent most of the day cleaning and arranging the house but took some time in the evening to walk down to the beach; I think it took us four and a half minutes.
Friday night was a tough night. Even though we felt like taking this house was the right thing to do, we felt homesick, vulnerable, and alone. When the dark comes, so do the insecurities.
The reality of an entire year, now made so real by having a real place to live, felt interminable. What will we do? What relationships will we have? Will we just be homesick and feeling lost for a whole year?
The vulnerability of being rich gringos in a poor Tico neighborhood. Having everybody watching us but not knowing who anybody is. Will our things be safe (basically, just our electronics and passports are valuable, but they’re very desirable)? More importantly, will our children be safe and will my wife be safe?
Also, the bugs! There are sufficient cracks under the doors to allow ants to crawl in freely, which they do, from under the door and any crack or crevice in the house. Ants are one thing, but what about spiders or even snakes? Rachel rolled up some door mats that we had bought and placed them in front of the door gaps, and then we went to bed, both of us feeling homesick, vulnerable, and alone. It was a restless night. Various music blasting from different venues around town until about midnight didn’t help. Neither did several loud bangs on our roof in the middle of the night, followed by the scratching of claws on the tin and the slithering of some primordial monster. If I had been an Israelite, I would have been among those saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants…; and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:32, 33).
Morning finally came, along with the ability to see more clearly. God has clearly blessed us in this place. To speak boldly, I know that this is the place that God has prepared for us, and I know that he has sent his angel ahead of us to prepare it for us. Beyond the fear factor, it is more than anything that we could have dreamed of. The house is simple yet solid. It’s furnished and even has an air conditioning, which was Rachel’s heart’s desire yet rejected by me as an impossibility. It’s across the street from a playground and a field, something that our kids love but something else I thought would be impossible. It’s extremely close to the beach, and there’s even a surfing break down the beach that’s viable at high tide (now to find a bike and a board!). We have a yard for a garden and chickens. The bus stop is a 100 meters from our house, there’s a small supermarket less than a five minute walk away, and the amenities of Huacas and Tamarindo are all close by. And the town has heart and soul (that begins throbbing at six in the morning).
But probably the best part is that we share a yard with a friendly, young family. The father is Costa Rican and the mother is from Maine. They have two kids, a girl that is almost two and a boy who is about four! We share watermelon and popsicles, and our kids race around the yard playing. Sunday morning, the neighbor boy Noah and Jacob were growling at each other through the window at 6:30 in the morning, and this morning the boy was knocking on the door well before 7:00. It makes our hearts so glad to know that our kids will have companionship this year as they develop their Spanish skills and make more friends in the community.
And truly, God was preparing this place for us in advance. In talking with our neighbors, this house was vacant for about two weeks. That means that the occupants were moving out at about the same time that we were leaving for Costa Rica. It seems to be the perfect place for us, more than what we could have asked for, and at even a better price than what I was hoping we would be able to find even in Nicaragua. It may not have hot water, but we can always install a widow maker shower heater if we want to. And it may not have a washing machine, but there’s something rustic and simple about doing wash by hand and drying it on the line (already attempted this once and realized that my technique needs improvement).
God is good, he is faithful, and his promises are sure. I pray that this year I learn to stand firm in my faith (in my heart, not just my head), not just in looking back and celebrating the amazing things that I have already seen Him accomplish, but standing with calm and confident assurance knowing that he has me in the palm of His hand in all things.