Once that we made the decision to take a year off, the key question was where?
We both agreed that it had to be a tropical country. Despite the fact (or may be because of the fact) that we live in Sweden, we both hate cold weather. Spending our money on a one year sabbatical in another cold country was completely out of the question. We wanted a flipflop life. So, one cold winter evening we took the world map off the wall and carefully looked at all countries between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn. Some names started to be added in the list: Australia (Queensland), Malaysia, Polynesia, Thailand, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Botswana…the list was still long.
We also agreed that it had to be a country well known for its conservation efforts. After all, we wanted to volunteer in (wildlife) conservation and learn from the experience.We knew that Costa Rica had been a pioneer in conservation and we had recently come from Botswana very impressed by its conservation efforts. We had also good references for Ecuador and not so good ones about Australia and Indonesia, and we had little knowledge about Thailand or Malaysia. As every time that I am confused (and there is no book to turn to) I turned to data. I looked at the Environmental performance index (EPI), looked at the biodiversity hotspots in the world and spent many evenings reading blogs and webpages about innovations in conservation and community-based conservation…only to become more confused. All countries seemed to have interesting initiatives in conservation at least as portrayed online although not all of them were performing so well in the EPI.
We had planned this sabbatical as a family trip and for us, our family includes our “furrballs”: our 9 year old cat and our 5 year old dog. So a third criteria was to go to a country where we could take our pets without quarantine. That immediately ruled out Australia and casted some doubts about Thailand or Botswana were it seemed that quarantine was required. On the other hand it put on the spot Costa Rica, where the procedure to bring in animals and bring them back to Europe seemed to be relatively unproblematic: the standard EU passport, a certificate by the EU-authorities and a blood analysis to test that the animals were free of rabies. After going through the hurdles of bringing my cat to the UK in 2004, this seemed like a piece of cake.
Furthermore, we wanted to live in a country with no death penalty and with low crime. We didn’t want to watch over our shoulders every time we were going out or live in a fenced house for the fear of intruders. And, we thought, that after struggling with our Swedish, it would be nice if at least the native language was English or Spanish.
Costa Rica emerged as the prize winner in all aspects, and more. Not only was a country pioneer in sustainability and conservation, very rich in biodiversity, pet-friendly and Spanish speaking but also had free education and universal health care, had had a female president and its crime rate is so low that it is often called the Switzerland of Latin America. Plus, Ticos (the local name for Costa Ricans) are extremely kind people.
Houston, we had a winner!!