A death in the family, and a new start in life

 My father died last summer at age 79 of multiple organ failure caused by complications from a ruptured ulcer.

 So I decided to quit my happy job of 25 years in California, sell all my stuff and move to Costa Rica.

 It’s an unusual story, but I’m an unusual person. And I intend to maintain an unusual blog about my travels to every corner of Costa Rica (and beyond) that I hope you will find entertaining and instructive.

 But before we hit the road, here’s a little background on how I ended up in this of all places.

 My mother and father were schoolteachers from Arkansas, but Dad had a wanderlust, a thirst for adventure that propelled him to take a job as a science teacher in Anaco, Venezuela, with Mom teaching kindergarten, in 1966, the year I turned 3.

 After one year in Venezuela, we spent two years in British Columbia; then two years in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Dad got his doctorate and Mom her master’s; then two years in Durango, Mexico, and two years in Torreón, Mexico, where Dad was director of private American schools and Mom taught elementary school and music.

 We spent a year in Lonoke, Arkansas, then a year in Kodiak, Alaska, then a year in Leachville, Arkansas. Then my parents divorced and my brother Paul, Dad and I spent a year in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

My father, Jerry Kahler, explores the jungles of Costa Rica. Photo: Paul Collar

I grew up an international mutt, fluent in Spanish, adaptable to strange cultures and thoroughly familiar with the idea of picking up my life and moving far away, sometimes on short notice, sometimes for odd reasons.

My father, Jerry Kahler, was bipolar — or more specifically, I believe, had a rare unipolar disorder that made him manic but not depressive. Starting at the age of 40, he experienced epic manic jags lasting weeks or months that got him into every kind of trouble imaginable.

In 1993, Dad was arrested by U.S. Forest Service agents when caught plucking a plant from a marijuana patch on BLM land in Big Piney, Arkansas. He was convicted of “manufacturing marijuana” and sentenced to five years in federal prison with no possibility of parole — the minimum sentence under Reagan-era drug laws.

Dad served six months at a minimum-security penitentiary in Texarkana, Texas, learned that his appeal had been denied, and one evening escaped from prison by going for a walk on the track at dinnertime and not coming back.

He ended up in Costa Rica, in the remote, southwestern Osa Peninsula town of Puerto Jiménez, where his nephew Russ had once built a house for a friend’s aunt, Leta. Dad, who was in his right mind at the time, ended up working as caretaker and cook for Leta’s 90-something aunt, Betty.

But to make a very long story very short, Dad went manic and shot a local policeman (who fortunately survived) and spent one year in Costa Rican prisons, then was released when found culpable pero no responsable, “guilty but not responsible.”

Dad flew back to Arkansas, where he was soon re-arrested for escaping from prison, and he served the rest of his five-year term in two prisons in Texas and two halfway houses in Louisiana and Little Rock.

Meanwhile my vagabond brother Paul, who had visited Costa Rica as early as 1984, moved to Puerto Jiménez in 1994, shortly after Dad did, to take a job as a geologist for a gold mining company.  After a stint in Singapore and Pennsylvania, Paul returned to Costa Rica in 2000 and has been here ever since.  He started an Internet café, ran a hotel for a while, started a doomed Mexican restaurant with three partners, and in general had lots of ups and downs before finally figuring out how to make a little money in this country.

The Internet café, CafeNet El Sol, eventually became a travel and real estate agency and a web publishing business. Paul also tapped his master’s degrees in geology and civil engineering to found a company that provides potable water, solar power and small-scale hydroelectric power to homes, businesses and communities.  

After Dad finished serving his time, he made a habit of going to Costa Rica every year to visit Paul, and to California to visit me. A few times Dad and I both went to Costa Rica, where we invariably had a great time. Once we flew into the remote Corcovado National Park, camped for the night and spent the next day walking back to civilization on a rugged trail crawling with wild animals.

I visited Costa Rica three other times on my own, or with my son Jordan, and Paul took us to every corner of the country (except the northeast, which is still on my list). I went whitewater rafting, inshore fishing, horseback riding and zip-lining. I loved this place.

The last time I visited with Dad was in 2012, when even Mom joined us for the trip, as well as Jordan and Paul’s sons Orpheus and Aladdin. It was the first time Mom, Dad, Paul and I had spent time together since I was 14 years old.

Dad died last summer at the VA Hospital in Little Rock with Paul and me at his bedside, and his death jolted me deeply. It reminded me that life is short, that it comes to an end, and that before the end we must live life on our own terms — the way Dad lived his. He hadn’t held a 9-to-5 job since he was 44 years old. He did what he wanted when he wanted where he wanted.

Was I living my life the way I always wanted? I realized I was not. I had spent 25 years working at the San Jose Mercury News, where I had a good job as national editor and deputy art director, but I had stayed there a quarter of a century only because I was raising two sons and wasn’t married to their mothers.

Coincidentally, my younger son Nathan graduated from high school and was accepted by NYU a month before Dad was hospitalized, so he wouldn’t be in the Bay Area anymore. Jordan was finishing up his last year of law school at Berkeley and would be working as a prosecutor in San Jose when he finished. My kids had launched. Now it was time for me to launch. They didn’t need me anymore, or at least they didn’t need me here.

I also inherited a little bit of money — not a lot, nothing I could retire on, but enough to give me options I didn’t have before. These three factors — my father’s death, my sons’ emancipation and my enlarged bank account — were an alignment I couldn’t ignore. It was time to make a change.

And so I bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica, my favorite country in the world.

How would I make money? No telling. I imagined myself buying a little property with bungalows that I could lease as vacation rentals, or buying a mini-hotel, or buying a house big enough to live in and rent out the other rooms. I could do some travel writing. If worse came to worse, I could even get a job!

I told my mom, who was very nervous about my idea but, as always, supportive of anything I really wanted to do. I told my brother, who said my rental income scheme was a terrible idea in the saturated market that is Costa Rica, but who had ideas of his own about what I could do down here.

I told my friends, and almost invariably I got one of two responses — “You’re so brave” and “I’m so jealous.”

Paiching Wei present a going-away page to Karl Kahler at his San Jose Mercury News going-away party
Karl gets a goodbye party and a going-away page from Paiching Wei on Dec. 19, 2014, his last day at the San Jose Mercury News. Photo: Patrick Tehan

I made my decision in September. In October I held a big yard sale, donated a truckload of stuff to Goodwill and sold some rare books on eBay. In November I gave notice at work and at my apartment complex. In December I sold my car and all my furniture on Craigslist and Facebook. On Dec. 19 I worked my last day and was feted by my colleagues with song, gifts, cake and a boozy party.

In January I stored eight boxes of personal memorabilia in a friend’s garage, and I packed three suitcases, a backpack and an Igloo ice chest to take with me.

On Jan. 8 I boarded a plane — from San Jose, California, to San José, Costa Rica. It was time to start my new life.

I’ll miss you, Dad. But thanks for the wakeup call.

Next: My first crocodile-related injury in Costa Rica


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