Of course, in leaving the U.S., one had to have a better destination in mind. Recalling “out of the frying pan, into the fire,” a long list of potential homelands had to be eliminated.
Pretty hard to start fresh in Europe, where they were fairly set in their ways and already hated Americans.
The Far East, too far, Africa, too dangerous, South America, too south. Mexico, too many Gringos, the Caribbean, too expensive, and most of Central America, too rustic – except one tiny country.
Costa Rica: a beautiful, 100-mile-wide swath of mountains, jungle and two oceans, home to 7 percent of the entire world’s species and friendly, well-kept locals who actually liked Americans, or at least pretended to. Here was a democracy whose president had the Nobel Peace Prize on his mantle, and actually deserved it. A collection of 4 million somewhat relaxed souls who had done away with their military in 1948 and invested that money in free health care and education for all. Costa Rica had a higher literacy rate than the U.S. and a longer life expectancy, and were reputed to be the happiest folks on earth. Plus, foreigners could own land outright.
I had traveled to this pretty little republic several times over the past 25 years and knew the exact area I liked.
So, slipping away from my wife’s family reunion in Miami, I boarded a plane for the wild and beautiful Southern Pacific zone, purchased a 5-acre piece of tropical heaven overlooking the sea and shot back to Miami before I was even missed. Over the course of the next 16 months, I hired a young Tico architect and built a simple, teak, Caribbean-style, two-bedroom bungalow with wide, shady verandas and a tiny pool. I lugged down a few of life’s necessities: some good books, a cheap stereo, an electronic barking watchdog, a blender. I then mixed myself a tall rum drink and collapsed in the hammock. “This is all a guy needs,” I murmured, watching a dung beetle wrestle a dust bunny across the floor. I mixed another drink. The dust bunny grew larger. I mixed another drink. And another. And another.
I jerked awake to the sound of a hysterical monkey, my back seized awkwardly in the hammock position, my mouth like an Arab’s armpit … God, I needed a drink.
I then realized this might become a problem. It seems you can take the boy out of America, but you cannot take America out of the boy. After being programmed to chase the Yankee dollar from the minute you could walk, then spending every waking moment for 50 years doing just that, it is virtually impossible to actually just sit down and do diddly. That is, without becoming a babbling drunk, which is the sad demise of many retired Gringos in the tropics.
I was going to need something to do, something that didn’t require a lot of work or brains in a climate that was sorely conducive to lying comatose in the shade with a cool drink in hand.
Then it hit me. A hotel! People bringing you money on a daily basis – interesting people from all over the world, lapping up your unreasonably priced cocktails, while finding you in your Panama suit and dark shades the most fascinating man alive. Paid to party! Then they would go away before discovering the real you – perfect!
I raced back to the States and approached my banker.
“But Steve, it say’s here you are currently unemployed. Do you plan to get a job?”
“Good! Sign here.” Which I did, immediately attributing to the demise of the U.S. credit system as we knew it.
Within a week, I was back in Costa Rica and purchasing a highly overpriced cliff-hanging lot with views to China.
“Can I build a hotel here? A bar? A restaurant?” I asked the seller.
“But of course you can. It’s your property!” He looked shocked. “Do what you want. This is Costa Rica!”
Now I would need some investors; if I was going down, I might as well take a few friends and family members with me.
I set a date and offered “Proposition Night” to all interested and solvent acquaintances.
Next, I hired my suave Latin architect to produce a set of glossy color paintings of Hotel Costa Rica, complete with beautiful women around the pool and flocks of brilliant parrots adorning the surrounding palms.
I then laid out Proposition Night as carefully as a thief would lay out a hit on Fort Knox.
Every moment of those days surrounding Proposition Night would be orchestrated like a fine symphony.
I went about my small village of Ojochal and proceeded to pay every person I and my party of investors were likely to encounter. On every bartender, every tour director and guide, every chef and restaurateur, every waitress and fisherman, I pressed a freshly borrowed $50 bill and instructed them to act like I was their absolute best friend, like the sun shone from my backside, when I arrived with entourage in tow.
Proposition Night arrived, and in the shade of gay umbrellas on the freshly cleared ocean-hanging lot, the architect, who sounded and looked exactly like Antonio Banderas, pointed to the rich renditions of Hotel Pie in the Sky. “And here chew will see the beautiful infinity pool … and here who could not love the romantic Spanish balconies? …”
Every woman in the small group would have bought used cat litter from the guy, and it’s always the woman who decides.
At night we visited restaurants and bars whereupon the entire kitchen crew would burst forth to hug their best friend – what’s-his-name. During the day, simply driving through the village brought residents running from their homes, arms held out. “ESTEBAN! Mi amigo! Venga! Venga!”
People I’d never seen before were running up to warmly embrace me, extending invitations to dinner and family events. It was getting a bit uncomfortable, but my investor victims were eating it up. “My God, these people love this guy.”
“What’s wrong with this picture?” muttered my sister to her husband. “Something’s wrong here …”
Two days later I had the money. Hotel Costa Rica was becoming a reality.