Off the Beaten Path

This is the fourth time my wife, Linda, and I have decamped to beautiful Costa Rica for a month, give or take.

It’s a terrific way to reduce the length of a New England winter (like baseball games and pregnancy, it’s fun at first but soon becomes a grind) and parachute into a different country and culture for a little while.

When it comes to traveling, we lean away from the beaten path.

Not to say we have not done the standard Costa Rican tourist things like zip-lining, volcano-hiking, and monkey-watching in past visits. But at this point, we just rent a condo in a small city and do our best to immerse ourselves in local life.

As you might imagine, in a place where few people speak English and the nearest hotel concierge is many miles away, just getting through the day can be quite the adventure.

What we have discovered, frankly, is that in order to “play the game,” you must be willing to sometimes fail and even occasionally look like a complete idiot.

Some examples…

The buses. The first time we figured out how to buy tickets for the 45-minute ride to the beach, we sat down and got comfortable.

Eventually, I noticed an older couple standing next to me in the aisle just staring at us. Apparently, while you can sit anywhere on a local bus, the long-distance buses have assigned seats. Oops.

The money. You can use a credit card pretty much anywhere. But the cash is beautiful (and waterproof!), so it’s fun to use the local currency.

The first week here we tried to buy groceries using bills we had discovered in our basement from some long-ago trip. Turns out they are no longer valid currency. Oops again.

And, of course, the language.

Just when you think you are getting the hang of it, things can go horribly wrong. The other day, while sitting next to our Airbnb host’s non-English-speaking father-in-law at a football game, I thought I’d give it a go.

I opened with, “How many children do you have?” No problem. But then, I mixed up the word “novio” with “nieto” and instead of asking the man how many grandchildren he had, I asked, “How many boyfriends do you have?” We spoke little for the rest of the match.

And on and on.

You are the brand. So it can feel risky – to your ego and reputation – to put yourself out there, whether that means pursuing a prospective client, putting your name forward as a potential conference speaker, or pushing send on your next newsletter.

Here as well, the potential exists for you to fail and even occasionally look like a complete idiot. Still, you’ll be happy to learn I have good news for you…

We are a long way from blending in around here. But we are way more skilled and comfortable than when we first arrived four years ago. As someone famously said, failure and success are not opposites … the way to success is through failure.

The more things you try in the name of growing and marketing your business, the more you will learn about how to do it better.

But the key word is “try.” Talking to people, listening to podcasts, even reading newsletters as gosh-darn fabulous as this one will only get you so far. Reading the guidebook is not the same as feet on the ground.

The fear of being laughed at or ridiculed when trying something new can be high.

But the truth is, whether it’s trying out your crappy Spanish or following up on a potential client lead, if you get it wrong, nobody is really paying attention.

In fact, in my experience, you get a lot of credit just for trying, since most people take the safe and predictable path of doing nothing.

To us, the lack of predictability – in the people we meet, the things we discover, even the problems we run into – is what makes our annual visit here so special.

Working without the safety and regular routine of a steady job has the same feel.

Back when I was last an employee, the difference between a great day and a terrible day often came down to whether or not I discovered leftover birthday cake in the breakroom. Life was never terrible, but it was never off-the-charts, high-five-amazing either.

As a solo, each new day has the potential to range from abject fear to sky-high celebration.

Working for yourself isn’t for everyone. There was a time where I was sure it wasn’t for me.

But if you’re going to do it, jump all the way in. The good stuff happens when you venture deep into the unknown.

Regards to your grandchildren.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever been to Costa Rica?
  2. What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said or done while traveling in another country?
  3. How many boyfriends do you have?

Share your answers below…

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9 thoughts on “Off the Beaten Path

  1. Keanisha M Johnson

    Lots of golden nuggets! I love “if you’re going to work for yourself ,go ALL the way” and adventure deep into the unknown, which I’m adventuring now. This gives me inspiration!

    Now the questions

    I’ve never been to Cody’s rica
    I’ve never traveled to any country
    I don’t have boyfriends

  2. Wendy Abraham

    1. No

    2. Gotten arrested in China in the ’80s for talking to people who didn’t officially exist (the Chinese Jews).

    3. None (thank God).

  3. Wendy Abraham

    Yup. There I was, in the Summer of “85, minding my own business while gathering oral histories of the oldest generation of Chinese Jews who could even purport to have witnessed the celebration of Jewish holidays, Chinese-style yarmulkes, and other odd curios during the early years of the 20th century, when all of a sudden I got picked up by the Public Security Police.

    They confiscated my passport, pushed me into the back seat of a waiting Mercedes, and rushed me to the headquarters of the Secret Police in some godforsaken part of town — this, in one of the poorest parts of China, where the rickshaw was still king, and only those with any kind of serious money could even think of taking a bus …). They positioned one member of the secret police on either side of me in the back seat, in case I tried to jump out and make a break for it… As if I could get very far in a town which hadn’t seen a Westerner since the ’40s …

    And then the interrogations began. It was quite terrifying. In the end I had to write a “Self-Criticism” — in Chinese and without a dictionary — the ultimate humiliation of the whole ordeal. After determining that I was relatively harmless to the People’s Republic, it was decided that even though contacting people who didn’t exist was illegal, since I admitted my guilt, as evidenced by the enormous amount of crying I did during the course of the interrogation, I wouldn’t be harmed or hung, so long as I vowed never to contact the people who didn’t exist in the first place, again. I was warmly welcomed back to China, however.

    As my grandmother would have said, don’t ask…

    The minuite I got back to Beijing and saw our Marines standing guard outside the U.S. Embassy, to file an unofficial official complaint, I burst into tears and knew that I would never lambast this country again. Not that I did in the first place, but it suddenly sunk in that a country with laws was infinitely better (and safer) than one without them. Or at least one that had them, but completely ignored them, the further away from the ccountry’s capitol one got.

    Suffice it to say that I never gave up the fact that all the tapes of oral histories were just lying around on my bed back at the hotel, or that those very same original cassette tapes have since been donated to the Sino-Judaic Archives of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where I was researching the subject of the Chinese Jews for an ill-fated dissertation in the first place.

    I did, however, high-tail it out of China on the first Trans-Siberian Railroad I could find so as not to risk even the slightest possibility of getting arrested at the airport.

    Five days and a bunch of cool places later (Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia (when there WERE Inner and Outer Mongolias), Siberia and the Gobi Desert, not in that order) I finally landed in Moscow and eventually Italy, where I heaved a sigh of relief, having for the first time in over a year arrived in a non-Communist country. I will not soon forget the breathe the fresh air of Tuscany, literally and figuratively, without any possibility of being hauled back to China.

    For what it’s worth, that whole ordeal (one of many), has been the subject of a “forthcoming” book that’s been forthcoming for the past forty years. I really should finally write it before I croak, but if I never do, at least some part of the story lives on in the darkest recesses of the Hoover Archives at Stanford.

    Anyway, since you asked, there it is. (Or there it was.)

  4. Roberta

    1. No, but it sounds marvellous!
    2. I’m too darn cautious, so my adventures still await. If I have, then the person was/people were either too polite to let me know or more than happy to keep me ignorant of my blunders.
    3. One permanent one 😉


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