Friday, November 18, 2016

How to Build the Life of Your Dreams and Save it in the Process


You want to get away. Not just a weekend trip for a short break from the hustle of everyday life. You want to get away.

Maybe that means shedding all of the self that you’ve ever known. Maybe that means ditching the mundane routine you’ve barely muddled through for a decade. Maybe that means looking up and being able to truly appreciate the oddities of a rare beetle or the smell of baking bread without a deadline approaching. Maybe you’re aching for something far deeper.

It starts with getting away. That’s all you know for sure.

Hotel Caribe Town, a rustic bed and breakfast deliberately set five hours away from the nearest international airport in Costa Rica, is really getting away. Don’t just try it for the colorful, soothing décor or the homemade breakfasts or the personal greeting you get from the owner.

Try it because the owner knows exactly how you feel, and she created a space that’s balm to urban angst.

The owner is a testament of survival and grit, thriving today against overwhelming medical odds.
When she was just 20 years old, doctors told Jessica Sangster she had a few months to live. She immediately rerouted her goals to live out the remaining days as she wanted.

She was in college when she got the diagnosis that she had a rare heart condition which caused it to periodically stop. As scary as it was, the diagnosis (known in medical jargon as monomorphic tachycardia) was also a partial relief: For years, she had been told she was “lazy” or “clumsy” if she got winded or felt tired. To hear there was an actual reason for her symptoms was an odd comfort.

She immediately dropped out of college, eager to experience life and not sit in classes learning about it.

“If I was about to go, I wanted to know how adults lived,” Sangster says.
She also joined the corporate workforce so she could make the money she needed to have the experiences she wanted.

At just 21, she was working as an administrative assistant in the financial services world. As a woman living on borrowed time, she saw it as a lucrative industry that would make her money as quickly as possible. She worked harder than many of her colleagues, eager to prove her worth without a college degree.

Sangster far outlived the doctor’s prognosis. She also climbed the corporate ladder, got married, and had two children by the time she was in her late 20s. The years were a blur, and the life she got seemed to happen to her, rather than being one of her choosing. Inwardly, there was always a sense that her life was the product of someone trying desperately to keep friends, family and society placated.

“I had accomplished everything that society tells you will make you happy, and I was miserable,” Sangster recalls.

She even went to a psychiatrist and was put on anti-depressants. He studied her malaise at a clinical level, even theorizing that she was bipolar. Deep down, she knew what was fundamentally wrong: She felt so at odds with the corporate world, like an imposter playing a role every day.

“I was the best faker in the world,” she says.

Still, she told herself if she climbed far enough up the corporate ladder, the dissonance would subside. 

When she was passed over for a promotion, she went out to Newbury Street in Boston and bought a bunch of high-end corporate suits. Once she looked more like a financial executive, she soon got the promotion.

Then she realized it didn’t assuage any of the emptiness she felt. She vividly remembers the day everything came to a head: She walked up to her office building and stood outside the door with a sense of dread. Still, she went in and worked the day. When she got home, she felt the same sense of dread as she approached the door. Her whole life seemed to say, Turn around.

By then, the only remnants of Sangster’s illness were frequent bouts of pneumonia during the punishing New England winters. Eventually, they became so bad that she was forced to look at living in a warmer climate. She and her then-husband began researching areas. She settled on Costa Rice because everything about it felt right to her: It wasn’t ruled by the military or religious dogma; it was affordable and warm; it was an easy flight home to see family.

Although Sangster and her husband divorced before she made the move, she was determined to set up a life there. When she arrived in Costa Rica, she said it felt like nothing short of falling in love. That same sense of rapture filled her. She felt finally at home.

“I remember looking out at the ocean and not seeing another person, then turning around and not seeing another person,” she says. “I felt like Boston just took and took from me, until I had nothing left to give.”

However, Costa Rica proved to have its own challenges. When purchasing a property, there is no formal inspection. It’s basically the Wild-Wild West where the buyer negotiates the mortgage with the seller. The first year, Sangster came upon obstacle after obstacle while trying to set up a bed and breakfast. The building had far more problems than she’d anticipated, from electrical issues to no plumbing to major structural issues. The expenses became so high, she began to count on the kindness of others to cover basic living needs. While the stresses of trying to get the building fixed were immense, she never considered returning to her former life. One of Sangster’s favorite sayings is by Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

She did.

“When you’re trying to change your life, don’t give yourself an out,” she cautions sternly. “If you do, you will run the moment things get scary.”

It took her five years to get the property fully renovated, but it is now running successfully as a bed and breakfast. She and her fiancé work from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, but the workload doesn’t drain her. She is filled, rather than depleted, by her work. Her illness has been in remission for years. She shed 50 pounds since moving to Costa Rica, something she attributes to going on a diet from corporate America. She is now forty, an accomplishment on its own considering she was never to make it to legal drinking age.

Sangster takes pride that her guests are willing to make the five-hour journey to her bed and breakfast. The intention is to make them feel away from the “real world,” to put them in immediate proximity to the natural surroundings, and to feed them only unprocessed food that is in as pure a state as possible. The feel of the hotel is rustic and homey, not like it’s trying to imitate one of the major five-star chain hotels. The patterns and colors are bright and uplifting. The little touches, such as a kitchenette for guests to make meals, are to give them a more personalized stay. The sand on the neighboring beach is either white or black, depending on the weather.

“I make people happy for a living,” Sangster says with punctual emphasis. “It’s wonderful. There’s a big difference between a life of happy moments and a happy life. I have a happy life.”

Sangster even fell in love again during the process, this time with a person and not just the place. Once the ultimate cynic about romantic love, she now emphatically believes it exists and says to never settle for anything less.

Sangster knows her guests are people looking for a respite from the outer cold or their own inner cold, and she is eager to provide them with that sense of warmth. She and her fiancé make all of the breakfasts, and everything down to the jelly is homemade. Until recently, they did almost all the daily operations work, including room cleaning. They’ve just expanded their staff to a count of four, including housekeeping.

As for the illness, she is grateful for it. It forced her to live the life that was of her own making and not built around societal expectation, a business card, or a fancy corporate title.

“I think about how lucky I was that I got this (heart condition). It gave me a real respect for life,” she says. “Never give up or accept second best. The right life, the right love, is out there for each of us. I truly believe this. We need to learn to keep searching.”