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For this expat writer who has photographed everything from the Gulf of Alaska to her own back garden, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGreetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs! “A Picture Says…” columnist James King is still away, so I am filling in again. But the good news is, he approves of the columns I’ve produced thus far! I know I’ve enjoyed spending time with the previous two guests, fearless and feisty photography pro Steve Davey and fine-art photographer Dave Long.

And today I’m excited to introduce Madeleine Lenagh, an American who, having lived in Holland for more than four decades, has made it her base for an impressive range of creative pursuits.

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A photo of Madeleine Lenagh taken in New Zealand, among the magnificent Moeraki Boulders.

I first heard about Madeleine from Springtime Books, which published her memoir, Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance, several months ago.

As those who perused our summer reading recommendations may know, Madeleine’s book was one of my picks. I was intrigued that she chose to tell her life story using poetic vignettes and commentary by archetypes from Nordic mythology and fairy tales.

From the title of the book alone, it’s possible to discern that that Madeleine is in touch with nature at an almost spiritual level. She looks to the stork to deliver her soul (in ancient Egypt, a drawing of the stork served as the hieroglyphic for “soul”). And if you read the book’s prologue, you’ll see that her view of nature includes mermaids—as evidenced by the prologue’s very first sentence:

Three mermaids play in the huge rolling waves, splashing and diving in the curling spray.

It comes as little surprise, then, to discover that besides being an author and blogger, mother and grandmother, and life coach and counselor, Madeleine is a shamanic practitioner. She has been influenced by Dutch shamanic teacher Daan van Kampenhout, whose method fosters connections with helping spirits and ancestors.

What I didn’t realize, though, is how much Madeleine loves to travel and take photographs. She even has her own photography site.

Now let’s see what other worlds Madeleine can conjure up for us with her photos!

* * *

Hi, Madeleine, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I’ll start the same way as James, by asking: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings (an apt metaphor in your case, given your fondness for storks) to start traveling?
Hi, ML, thank you for inviting me to take part in this column. In answer to your first question: I grew up in Westport, Connecticut. When I was two years old, my stepfather was sent to Europe as a Naval attaché to the NATO. For three years, we lived in Paris, Bad-Homburg, and London. We returned to Westport when I was five. Although I have few memories of those early years, I believe my love of traveling was born then.

So you didn’t end up being raised as a Third Culture Kid?
No, I didn’t leave the United States again until I was 21, when I coaxed my family into giving me a trip to Europe for my 21st birthday. I traveled all around Western Europe and down into former Yugoslavia. At the end of the summer, I was in The Netherlands and my money was running out. I didn’t want to go home yet and found an au-pair job for six months.

Which countries have you visited thus far, and of those, which have you actually lived in?
My travels have taken me all through Europe, as well as to India (Rajasthan), Indonesia (Java and Bali), Costa Rica, and New Zealand (South Island). I believe that Canada and Alaska deserve a separate mention as they are beautiful and remote parts of the world. But, apart from those few years when I was a small child, I have only lived in the United States and The Netherlands.

It’s interesting to me that you chose to make The Netherlands your home for your adult life. What made you settle there in particular?
When I became an au pair in The Netherlands 45 years ago, I sold my return trip ticket to buy winter clothing. Somehow I never got around to leaving. It often amazes me that I, a lover of wild places in nature, could feel so comfortable in this relatively “tame” country. There were key moments in my life when I asked myself, so where am I going now? But there was always more reason to stay than to go. Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul describes, among other things, my struggle to put down roots and find a sense of permanency.

“She will always love the sea…” —from the Prologue to Passage of the Stork

Moving right along to the part we’ve all been waiting for: a chance to appreciate a few of your photos. Can you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of the so-called “displaced” life of global travel? And for each photo, can you briefly tell us the memory that the photo captures, and why it remains special to you?
Occasionally I arrive somewhere and think, I could live here. One of those places was South Island, New Zealand. I love the wild remote land, the warm friendliness of the people, and the ever-changing scenery. The photo I have chosen here is the perfect arch of a totally deserted beach in the Catlins, way down on the southern end of the island.

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Untainted by the modern world, the Catlins are the kind of place where a mermaid might appear. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Wow, that’s the kind of place where it would be easy to imagine mermaids! I have only been to New Zealand’s Northern Island, but even there, I felt that it attracts people who want to get away from it all…
Along the same lines, another place I would be seriously tempted to live, if it weren’t so cold and dark in the winter, is Alaska. I love the pioneer spirit of the people who live there. My brother runs nature tours out of Paxson, which is located in one of the prettiest spots in the state. To the north of the Denali Highway, one sees the dramatic Alaska Range, with its snow-capped peaks and glaciers. An outstretched tundra lies to the south. However, the photo I have chosen, of a fishing boat near the shore, was taken down on Prince William Sound, during a day cruise in 2010. I like the muted colors, with only the bright splash of red on the boat to off-set the fog.

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While cruising through the calm, protected—and mysterious—waters of Prince William Sound. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Ooh, I really like this photo. So moody and atmospheric… Though I’ve never been to Alaska, I picture it as having this kind of mystique. Where are you taking us next?
This summer I traveled back to the New England of my youth. I realized how much at home I feel there, in spite of having left 45 years ago. Those of you who have read my book know that I have a special relationship with storks. One of the things they reflect about me is their migratory nature, feeling at home in more than one place. I love this photo of a white stork, taken near my home in The Netherlands, doing its special bill-clacking dance as it returns to the nest.

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Time for a spot of beak-clapping, says this Dutch stork. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Hm, until now I have always associated storks with the arrival of babies. But after hearing what you have to say, I may start thinking of them as the avian counterpart of the serial expat!

“I lie on my stomach, hearing gossamer wings rush by.” —from the Prologue to Passage of the Stork

Having seen your first three photos, I expect it’s a bit of a tough choice, but which are the top three locations you’ve most enjoyed taking photos in—and can you offer us an example of each?
I’m actually going to pick three new places for you. The first one is India. It is a riot of color and ornate decorations, a photographer’s paradise. The photo I have chosen illustrates this perfectly: a group of children posing for me in the “best room” of their desert compound near Jaisalmer.

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Colorful life in India’s Thar desert. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

I also have a special relationship with Norway (disclosed in my book) and I love photographing birds. Up in the Lofoten archipelago, I had the unique opportunity to photograph white-tailed sea-eagles. I’m very proud of this shot, catching the bird just as it had landed on a rock.

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A white-tailed sea-eagle touches down on this untouched land within the Arctic Circle. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Finally, though I’ve taken you far afield, my last pick for favorite photography locations is my own garden! I love the simple beauty of the nature I find there. A perfect illustration is this photo of a spider web covered with droplets of fog.

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Is it a spider web or the finest lace? Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

I love that you’ve taken us back to your own garden! It makes me think of a fellow New Englander of yours, Emily Dickinson, who took companionship as well as inspiration from her garden in Amherst.

“You can cage a bird, but you can’t make him sing.” (French-Jewish saying)

Going back to your photo of the children in India, I wonder: do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
I am very reserved about taking photos of people, especially in other cultures, and will only do so if they have given me permission. Usually, asking people if you can take their photograph is a wonderful way of making contact with them and often leads to spectacular portraits. The photograph of the children in India is a good example. I love how the two sitting girls (unmarried and therefore veiled) unveiled their faces for the photo.

When did you become interested in photography and what is it about this art form that drew you in?
I believe I have photography encoded in my DNA. My grandfather was taking brilliant photographs in the 1920s. My mother never went anywhere without her 1953 Leica. My Norwegian father (caution: book spoiler!) was a cinematographer. I started taking photographs (and working in a darkroom) when I was about 18 years old. I believe that I was originally drawn in by the fact that it required no real motor skills and I was dreadful at drawing! I’ve always had the urge to express my feelings in some creative fashion, whether it be writing, photography, painting, or dance. Currently, my greatest motivation to photograph is to share the beauty of the natural world with others; to draw them into the same sense of awe and majesty that I feel when I’m in touch with nature.

“Listen to all, plucking a feather from every passing goose, but, follow no one absolutely.” (Chinese saying)

And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
Most of these photos were taken with earlier cameras but, at the moment, I use a Canon EOS 6D, a full-frame camera. My favorite lens is a 70-200mm f 2.8 lens. I have been using a 2x extender to get up to 400mm, but recently decided that it slows down the focus too much so I will be looking for a good telephoto lens soon. I find that, as my experience grows, I grow more and more fussy about my equipment! I photograph in RAW format and process the images in Adobe Lightroom.

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
I suppose the most important advice is just to go out and photograph the things you love. Good photography takes practice and more practice. Study the manual of your camera and don’t be afraid to experiment with settings. Study paintings and sculpture by the artists you admire, to develop a sense for light and composition. As I develop as a photographer I find myself growing more and more critical of my work. It’s not just about showing the things I’ve seen or taking good photos. It’s about taking great photos that show a unique moment.

And I think the most important advice to any aspiring photographer was voiced by Pablo Picasso:

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Thank you, Madeleine! I appreciate your sharing a selection of photos that illustrate your deep connection with nature. I’m impressed that you can find so much beauty and wonder on your own doorstep as well as on your travels to the world’s most unpopulated and unspoiled places.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Madeleine’s travel-photo experiences and her photography advice? Please leave any questions or feedback for her in the comments!

If you want to get to know Madeleine and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her author site and her photography site. You can also follow her on Facebook (she posts her latest photos) and Twitter. But to really get to know Madeleine, I recommend getting her book, Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul. You’ll never look at storks, or mermaids, in the same way again!

NOTE: If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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For this wanderlusting Californian for whom photography and travel are a perfect fit, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King is back with his latest interview subject.

Jenny in Ireland

Jenny Schulte in front of an old church window ruin near Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland.

Hello again, readers! My May guest is 38-year-old Jenny Schulte. who never had any thoughts of leaving her Northern California home until she travelled to Ireland in 1999 to explore her Irish roots. Now she is an ardent traveler who combines her love of photography with her travel experiences in her captivating blog Bulldog Travels, subtitled “Everything and Nothing Plus Some Pretty Photos.” Jenny is wrong to call it “nothing”: her blog is her her outlet for sharing her travel adventures along with the kinds of “photographs my friends have always enjoyed,” as she puts it.

On her About page, she says:

[Those] two wonderful hobbies of travel and photography fit perfectly together.

A woman after my own heart!

* * *

Hi, Jenny, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Thank you for getting in touch and offering to share your photo-travels with us. Can you tell us where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and consider myself fortunate to live in such a beautiful part of the world. San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, the gorgeous California Coast, Redwoods, Yosemite, Napa Wine Country—all are on my doorstep. But while I have always loved to travel within the United States, when I was twenty I decided I really wanted to delve into my Irish heritage and see Ireland first hand. I had a very romantic vision of the country and figured I would be disappointed if I never went. Well…the moment my tennies hit the ground, a restlessness took over and I have been globetrotting ever since. I made a good friend in Ireland who is from Germany. and together we have seen much of western Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France, Monaco, Spain, Andorra, England and Scotland). In more recent years I have been fulfilling an archaeological interest of mine exploring Mexico and Central American sites and ruins.

If you’re lucky enough to be Irish…you’re lucky enough!

So once you finally got the travel bug, you were up and running in those tennies of yours. I have only managed the UK and France from your entire list. I’m envious. Can you share with us some of the highlights of your travel adventures?
I really enjoy history and from Ireland I went to my first European countries: Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, where I could not only delve into history but also enjoy great food, culture, and scenery. From there I went on to other destinations such as France, Scandinavia and the UK. My search for ancient ruins took me to the Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala. The animals and the raw nature of Costa Rica stole my heart. At home, where I have travelled California and the entire west on shorter trips, I really love Joshua Tree National Park, Portland, Southern Utah, San Francisco and Mendocino.

Now that you have gained so much real travel experience, I would love to hear more about what inspired you to travel originally and sustains you on your many trips.
No one in my family has ever travelled very far, with the exception of a few who travelled for Uncle Sam’s benefit. They tend to stick close to home preferring to take a drive rather than fly somewhere exotic. My family built a cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and we still enjoy it whenever we can. But my grandmother had told me stories of Ireland since I was a child, and I always dreamed of seeing it one day. After that initial Irish adventure, every trip has left me wanting more. I have averaged one or two main trips per year and as many small trips as I can fit in. As a photographer I tend to focus on areas I know will be wonderful to capture. But I am always surprised and pleased when I get great photos I never expected.

So tell us about where you have travelled most recently.
I recently returned from a trip to Belize and Guatemala. I tend to spend my home time in Sacramento, San Francisco, California Coast, the Lake Tahoe area, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will probably stay in California until I retire and then I plan to be more nomadic, visiting places that are difficult to visit on a two-week trip. Then I hope to live in areas longer, to fully appreciate the culture and the environment.

Don’t leave it too late like I did. You need a lot of energy for the expat life.

“Laughter is the brightest where food is best.”

Now let’s move on to a few of your shots that capture favourite memories. Thank you for sharing and for describing the story behind each one and what makes them so special.  
Of course! For my first photo, I present you with a little boy cleaning a fish out front of his grandmother’s restaurant, Maggie’s Sunset Diner, in Caye Caulker, Belize. His family’s BBQ was fired up just out of the frame. The boy so badly wanted to be like his grandmother. He was begging to BBQ his own fish like an adult. My husband and I observed this charming scene while having dinner. I believe that good, inexpensive food in a place full of local ambiance is better than a five-star restaurant anywhere in the world. The photo was taken only with my iPhone but I think it captures the mood and the vibe of this small island off the coast of Belize.

Q9.1 Boy cleaning fish

Boy in Belize cleaning a fish. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

The second photo is of some donuts my husband I consumed in Maui, Hawaii. I was driving around the rural part of the island looking for something to eat for breakfast when I stumbled upon a locally owned and run donut shop. The donuts were glorious and became a highlight of our visit. We have actually contemplated going back to Maui just for the donuts! Then again, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard to go back to Maui. The older I get the more food tends to be an important part of my travels.

Maui donuts

Donut feast in Maui. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

The last photo is of a two-headed jaguar you can see in the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, which is located in Yucatán, Mexico. Something about Uxmal really spoke to me. I think what makes it so special is that the architects for these structures were so clearly artists. They went beyond function and focused on form in a way not seen elsewhere in the Yucatán. Their work is magnificent and the detail is phenomenal. I never grow tired of looking at photos from this visit, and I offer this one in hopes of transporting readers to these spectacular ruins.

Uxmal

A Mayan jaguar. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

I am really impressed by the picture of the boy cleaning fish. And I agree that the experience of eating wholesome home cooking in basic local surroundings is better than any clinically manufactured setting. I am sure you take a lot of photos but where, so far, are your favourite places to shoot and can you explain why these places inspire you.
Photography is an integral part of travel for me. It doesn’t matter if I’m travelling to a faraway exotic location or hitting a local California beach—taking photographs helps me recall the trip in a way my memory alone doesn’t, and inspires me to be creative in a way I find difficult at home. I have many favourite places to take photographs, including zoos, gardens, and historical sites. In recent years, I have photographed the San Diego Zoo and the Belize Zoo. I am looking forward to a weekend-long photography expedition at Safari West in Santa Rosa in the fall. I enjoy shooting botanical gardens like Mendocino, DuPlooys in Belize, San Diego, Lake Constance (Germany) and the Maui Garden of Eden. One of my favourite architectural structures is the Eiffel Tower at night. I’ve had fun attempting to shoot it from angles not often seen.

Well, Jenny, since you left it up to me to choose three photos that represent your favourite spots, here my selection. My first choice is your photo of a rickety old building in Paris, which houses a gallery of some kind. I think your capture is wonderful because it looks as though the building won’t be standing much longer, and the shop is a relic of a bygone era.

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A rickety Parisian gallery. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

Next I’ve chosen one of your Eiffel Tower shots. This one is not immediately recognizable as most shots of this iconic landmark are. So it asks a question—who am I? And the photo of the lighting on the structure in the night sky is beautiful.

Eiffel Tower

A new angle on a famous angular building. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

Finally, I love this nature shot of yours, taken in Du Plooys Botanical Garden in Belize, with its contrast of the crimson flower, green leaves and shadows. I think it would make fine wall-art.

DuPlooys Botanical Garden Belize

Botanical blossom in Belize. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

“Better good manners than good looks.”

So do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I definitely do. I try to live my life in a considerate way. I would never feel comfortable embarrassing or offending anyone. I would never be able to look at the photo afterwards with a clear conscience. Sometimes I shoot images of people from an angle where they might not be aware. This is because I prefer candid photos versus asking for permission and taking what I would consider more of a portrait. I admire photographers who do portrait photography, but I suppose it makes me uncomfortable. It can also take the fun out of it.

On occasions where you do ask for permission, how do you get around any problem of language?
Sometimes what I do is show the person the photos I have taken of them. Recently, for example, I photographed a little girl in Belize whose mother owned the dive shop we were visiting. The girl was coloring a picture and smiling at me. I held up my camera and made an O.K. sign with my fingers. She immediately started hamming it up for the camera and then begged to see the image of herself on the camera. The girl and her mother spoke some English, but in this case it was more fun to ask without words. Miming can work pretty well. Holding up a camera or pretending to take a selfie generally gets a smile from a stranger.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
For me, photographing events or moments has the power to capture something that is both crisper and more emotional than if I wrote about the place or just relied on my memory. My photos represent what is in my heart and mind better than any other means of communication. Sometimes I will look back on an old photo and remember a moment or a place that I had completely forgotten about. The memories that come flooding back are what keep me planning for the next trip.

Clearly, a picture says a thousand words for you. When did you realize that, and how has it changed your perspective?
I don’t think there was a particular moment. I have always been that way since I had enough money to buy and develop film—I always took too many photos. But for me, and ultimately for my subjects, it is worthwhile to capture a special moment. That said, I sometimes have to force myself to put the camera down so that I can be in the moment.

“May the blessing of light be on you—/light without and light within.”

Now for the technical stuff. Can you tell me what kind of camera and lenses you use?
I use an iPhone 5s, Nikon D800 and Nikon D700 cameras. Nikon Nikkor DX 18-135mm and Nikon Nikkor AF 70-300mm lenses.

That’s quite a collection. And which software do you use for post-processing?
I just use Lightroom for post processing.

“Your feet will bring you where your heart is.”

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Be responsible, show respect, be a good advocate for your home country and for the human race and, if you can, travel while you are young. If you aren’t young anymore travel anyway and it will make you young! Follow your instincts, have fun, stay inspired, take breaks from your art when necessary to keep the spark, try new things, talk to people, eat the food, take the back roads and get lost…the world will all of a sudden become very very wonderful.

That is very good advice, Jenny, and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story in this interview.

Editor’s note: All subheds are from Irish sayings or blessings.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jenny’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Jenny and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her travel site. You can also follow her on Instagram or contact her at PhotosbyJenny@aol.com.

Born in England, James King is now semi-retired in Thailand. He runs his own photography-based blog, Jamoroki. If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Some funny things happened on the way to paradise, as recorded in this brilliant new expat memoir

Paradise Imperfect Collage

Clockwise from top left, surrounding Margot Page’s author photo (center): Monteverde waterfall; the family’s front yard; Margot, her husband,and their three kids; sunset; their youngest child, Ivy, on the vine outside their house; first day of school. All photos courtesy of Margot Page.

Before introducing today’s guest, Margot Page, I’d like to make one thing clear. When I first read of her decision to uproot herself, her husband and three young kids from their comfortable life in Seattle to spend a year in Costa Rica, I thought it made perfect sense.

In fact, it reminded me of my initial decision to try living abroad. While I wasn’t married with kids, nor was I looking to land in paradise, I sensed that I needed to get a wider perspective on my own country. It was before the era of the dot com boom and crazy Wall Street wealth, but even then, we Americans were becoming a pretty spoiled and entitled lot. I almost couldn’t bear to watch it and wondered: would my life be enriched if I tried living with less?

Now that I’ve made that clear, let’s return to Margot’s story. As she notes toward the beginning of her wonderful memoir, Paradise Imperfect, Seattle in 2003 could drive a person crazy:

It was an environment that made a person constantly aware of how rich other people are.

Thanks to all the overnight Microsoft millionaires, her family often felt “downright poor,” she says, despite enjoying a high standard of living and a reasonable amount of money.

Margot missed out on her opportunity to go abroad while still single—to “confront her privilege,” as she might say. But she is feisty enough to think that she need not forgo the expat experience of her dreams. A dozen years into her marriage, she finagles it so that she and her husband, Anthony, could quit their jobs, rent out their house, and head off with their three children, 4, 9 and 12, into the mountains of Central America, for a year.

The family settles down in the cloud forest of Monteverde, where the kids attend a “school in the clouds” with many Tico classmates and the entire family works hard on mastering Spanish. While it is enjoyable to read about their adventures in that part of the world—which at one point include a trip to Nicaragua, where they received a “full-on truth assault” about what poverty really is and hence their “own, unimaginable wealth”—there are plenty of other reasons to read the book as well, not least of which is that Margot is a gifted writer possessed of a self-deprecating sense of humor (always a huge plus at the Displaced Nation). She is, in short, jolly good company, as we shall see in the interview that follows. NOTE: Margot has generously offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE COPY to the person who leaves the most compelling comment about why they’d like to read her book.

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PI_FrontCoverMargot, pura vida! Welcome to the Displaced Nation. Many people may not realize that you waited ten years before writing a memoir about the year you and your family spent in Costa Rica. Why was that?
Actually, I did try to write the book when we first got back—I just couldn’t get it done! But the great thing about that initial effort is that I wrote down a lot of the events when they were still fresh. Then, when I was actually ready to write the book, I was able take those stories and stand back from them, and see the picture they formed. You might liken it to an impressionist painting. Up close, I could have looked at an event from that year and said “Hmm, nice dot.” But with the distance of time, I could see that all the dots made a picture, with form and theme and sense. Had I managed to get it written right away, Paradise Imperfect would have been a completely different book.

Did you ever think of writing a novel instead?
More than one publisher suggested I turn Paradise Imperfect into a novel. Fictionalizing your story really lets you pile on the crises. Memoir only has a chance with the big publishing houses these days if you’re either already a celebrity (Tina Fey, Hillary), or if something truly hideous happened to you. If I’d had to saw off my arm or a couple of the kids were on meth, the big houses would have been all over me. As it was, they were very “Ooooh, we love your writing! Can you turn it into a novel?” Because then of course I could introduce some addictions or incest or something—you know, the stuff that really makes a story pop.

You went from a harried existence with very little work-life balance in Seattle, to a carefree, pura vida existence in Monteverde. Looking back, what do you think was your strongest impetus for packing it all in like that?
I think my impetus was about the same as anyone’s who’s living a busy, full life and has one of those days where you just feel like you’re running the whole time. The only difference is that a lot of people take a bubble bath at the end of that day, maybe pour a glass of wine—whereas I rented out the house and bought airplane tickets. It’s still not entirely clear to me what made that night different from a bubble bath night. Although clearly, the bubbles weren’t doing it for me anymore.

From reading the book, I know that even though you didn’t work in Costa Rica, you were far from idle. You applied yourself to learning Spanish and also did some volunteering—which had the added benefit of helping you practice your Spanish.
Yes, I went from working more than full time to volunteering a few hours each week at an amazing art gallery/studio; one of the owners painted me the piece of a woman in a hammock, stretching her toes to heaven, which became the cover of Paradise Imperfect. So while the kids did their homework, I would work on my Spanish, or practice painting assignments.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”

No doubt you’re familiar with the expression “Be careful what you wish for”. Was all the family togetherness as wonderful as you were hoping?
The initial period, when it was just the five of us, on top of each other all the time—that was a real challenge. It’s a good thing to have done, but it wasn’t so delightful in the doing. Of course, as we grew into our lives there, other people got incorporated, which was great. Kids would go off with friends, people would come over. And, as time passed and we adjusted to the conditions, we found all kinds of goofy things to do with ourselves. We had dance parties in the living room, just the five of us. We’d walk several kilometers just to get a milkshake and go to the library. There was much flopping around in hammocks with books and conversation. And with no sports practices to work around, dinner was a nightly togetherness event, with kids helping cook and clean the kitchen.

When I saw the title to your book, I was thinking of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In your case, paradise was imperfect. Why is that?
Paradise is imperfect because people are. We just ARE, and putting us in front of a really pretty waterfall just means you have flawed, funny people in front of a really pretty waterfall. In Costa Rica, we were strangers in a strange land together, and that made us incredibly close—which was wonderful, but you know, the closer you are, the more blemishes you can see. Wherever we go in the world, we take our human frailties with us.

You were the one with the original idea to take your family to Costa Rica. Were there any moments for you personally when you could say that you felt displaced and had made a mistake? 
Honestly, I never had that moment. At Christmas during our Costa Rica year—I put this in the book—the kids were lonely, and the possibility hit me hard that maybe the whole escapade was just a tremendously selfish act, bringing the kids on this adventure that was really for ME. But I never once felt like it was the wrong thing for me.

Here at the Displaced Nation, we call that your “pool of tears” moment.

“Sweet is the breath of morn…/With charm of earliest birds…/fragrant the fertile earth/After soft showers”

Was there a particular moment when you felt you were born to be Costa Rican rather than American? Having read the book, I can think of quite a few: when visiting your children’s “school in the sky,” when coming across new flora & fauna, or when tasting the fried chicken from El Super Pollo in Monteverde.
I had those moments almost every day, that Costa Rica was exactly where I belonged. But I think it was usually tinged with “I am exactly where I belong right now.” And although it was hard to leave, coming back to the States felt right, too. One of the fun things about that year, paradoxically, was that it gave me the chance to fall back in love with being an American. Back home, I’d been pretty upset with the political landscape. But when you travel, you get a different perspective on what truly corrupt government can look like, and you think “You know, we all wish Congress would do their jobs, but it appears that not having your shit together is not, in fact, the very worst crime a government can perpetrate on its people.”

You say you were happy to get back to Seattle, but did you miss Costa Rica once you returned? 
We definitely missed Costa Rica, and the way we got to live there. My son, Harry, spent a semester in Monteverde a few years after our family returned. When he got home, he smelled fried chicken and had this super strong sense memory of Super Pollo in Monteverde. He said:

I love it there so much. And I love Seattle so much. And it’s great, having two places to love. But it also means that, no matter where I am, I’m always just a little bit homesick.

Unlike many of our readers who are long-term expats, you stayed abroad only for a year. But the impact appears to have been lasting.
All our kids are travelers, now. And I can’t see a freighter without wanting to jump on it. My husband, Anthony, seems to have the travel bug the least, but that is not surprising. As I mention in the book, he’s a congenitally satisfied person 🙂

“Thou shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.”

When you got back to Seattle, was it back to the grind for you and your husband, or was your outlook somehow different?
The hours went back to being a similar breakdown to what we had before, though there was much less parental shuttling as our kids had become brilliant walkers and public-transit-takers. 
But the most important change was internal: We knew in a much clearer way that we had made a choice to live in this way. And our family also had a core togetherness as a result of that year in Costa Rica. Even when we’re geographically scattered, we feel together in a way I didn’t feel before. I attribute it to our common challenge of spending a year figuring out a new language and culture. Think about it: When do parents and kids ever have the opportunity to learn something so fundamental as how to speak, all at the same time?

And one more repat question: Did your family retain its social conscience, developed over the course of that year of learning to live with less?
I think we’ve kept an in-our-bones awareness of the fact of our own, sheer luck. I used to tell myself “I’ve worked really hard for what we have,” which is true! But you know what else is true? A lot of people work just as hard, and don’t have any cushion, and never will. That year in Costa Rica also developed us as people who will keep getting out there. Our son, Harry, was recently in South America, and while many of his peers tend to backpack and look at things until their parents’ money gives out, he got a job waiting tables. Our older daughter, Hannah, recently graduated college and moved to a new city; she hasn’t asked for a dime to help get started, and the housing she can afford is frankly a little appalling—but she is so spunky and awesome about it! And Ivy, the youngest, is currently back in Costa Rica, where she goes to school and helps out in the small hotel that her family runs.

Treading the publishing path

Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Finding the discipline to cut was just excruciating. There are so many fun little stories that didn’t make it into the book. Stories I slaved over! Sentences I loved! But the difference between writing a legit book and just publishing your journal all cleaned up is that you really do have to kill your darlings, as Faulkner or whoever said. At the time I was finalizing, I thought I had cut absolutely down to the bone. But now, looking back—I think I could have killed more darlings.

Why did you publish with a small press?
That decision was made on the advice of my agent. As already mentioned, the big publishing houses told me I needed more crisis, but my agent loved the book and wanted me to be true to my experience. I simply don’t grant that there isn’t interest and beauty in true stories of normal people. You have to tell them well, of course.

What audience did you have in mind for the book?
My ideas about audience went from something pretty specific to something much more general. People always think we’re this crazy alt family that’s always up to wild shenanigans. Or else they think we’re obscenely wealthy, and had no economic issue in quitting our jobs. But we’re actually so mainstream! So I wanted to show regular people: “If we could do this, you totally could.”

But it quickly became clear the audience is basically everyone who likes a good story. Men, women, people with kids, people without kids, people with grown kids—the different populations that have responded has been really lovely. Some people are planning a big adventure and are actively looking for inspiration, but the vast majority just love the people they meet and the events that unfold in the book.

The most fun for me is when women say “I got your book but I haven’t read it yet, because my husband is totally hogging it!” I can’t say why it’s so rewarding for me that Paradise isn’t just a chick book, but it really, really is.

What’s next for the indefatigable Margot—more books? Other creative projects?
I write for magazines about topics that interest me. Although I’m not Catholic, I’m nuts about the head of their church—I call him Pope Frantastic. And in the next year, I’m going to seriously embark on the novel that’s been in my head. I’m trying very hard to be a Twitter user, but really? I find the whole idea enormously intimidating.

How’s your Spanish these days, your art?
My Spanish and art—ack. Let’s just say I really hit my zenith during that year away.

10 Questions for Margot Page

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Wow, that is a hard question! It’s the “truly” that’s stressing me out. I’m going with Fidelity, a five-story collection by Wendell Berry. It is the most beautiful arrangement of sentences ever organized about how to be a person.
2. Favorite literary genre: Any book that someone in my family read and then gave it to me saying: “You HAVE to read this; you will love it so much.”
3. Reading habits on a plane: I’m actually really smug about what a light traveler I am, so my reading usually tends to be any book I’ve been meaning to read that I won’t mind leaving behind. Or airport magazines (Harper’s, The Atlantic). I try to read trashy magazines because it seems like that’s what you’re supposed to do, but honestly I just can’t bring myself to give money to the people who are putting this crap in the world.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. I just don’t trust anyone to run the country who doesn’t love Calvin. That’s my litmus test, right there.
5. Favorite books as a child: Mandy, by Julie Edwards. I must have read that book a hundred times. It’s about a girl who finds a garden and makes it hers. It’s like The Secret Garden but has a lot more soul and a lot fewer sideshows. It’s just a beautiful story of a lonely girl who sets out to heal her own little heart, and in the process finds people to help. And Julie Edwards (who, amazingly enough, is also the actress Julie Andrews) wrote it because she lost a bet about swearing to her daughter. I have a lot of respect for that whole situation.
6. Favorite heroine: Claudia from From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I love Claudia. I never was her, as a kid—I was much more like her reckless little brother, Jamie. But as an adult and a parent, I relate to Claudia much more. She went to the museum for reasons not unlike the ones that took me to Costa Rica. She had to go get a piece of her self back, a piece she had lost to her role as responsible big sister. Mine was as responsible mama and breadwinner, but those roles are not so dissimilar. Claudia’s cooler than I am, though, just by nature of being 12. And in New York.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: The thing is, my fantasies around meeting writers all revolve around how incredible it will be that this amazing, brilliant human is interested in ME. But writers are total crazed narcissists! Have you noticed? So my scenario is unlikely. That said, I think Donald Barthelme and I could have a pretty good time, if he’d just stop being dead for a minute. He wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say and I wouldn’t really care. I’d just listen to what he said and then we’d have pie.
8. Your reading habits: I read every single day on the bus to and from the office. This makes going to an office infinitely more tolerable.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I gotta be honest here. Paradise Imperfect.
10. The book you plan to read next: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. I’m traveling right now, and it’s next to me on the seat.

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Margot? Do you admire her decision to trade in her family’s packed schedules for a life of monkeys and footpaths, which is almost paradise? Or do you think she was crazy? Do you identify with any of her motives or epiphanies, thinking (as I do) that extended trips overseas should be encouraged for Americans?

Don’t forget, there’s a FREE digital copy on offer that will go to the best commenter…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Paradise Imperfect is available from Amazon (among other venues). Peruse the many five-star reviews, and be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit the book’s companion site (where you can read about Margot’s other writings, including a Modern Love column for the New York Times), like its Facebook page +/or follow Margot on Twitter, where she’s now testing her wings.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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For TCK writer Cinda MacKinnon, fiction is a way to revisit “homes” she has cherished

Cinda MacKinnon CollageWhen I first returned to the United States after my extended expat journey, I remember humming to myself:

There’s a place for me,
Somewhere a place for me.

But then last month, when I went to see our monthly columnist Elizabeth Liang perform her one-woman show, Alien Citizen, I realized that my displacement, which took place as an adult, does not compare to that of Third Culture Kids. Most expats have been global residents by choice, whereas TCKs had no choice in being dragged around the globe by their parents. They and they alone have earned the epithet of “global nomad”.

Elizabeth has found a place for herself in theatrical circles. And today we talk to another adult TCK, Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon, who has found a place in fiction writers’ groups. Based on the first novel she produced, tellingly entitled A Place in the World, it seems fair to say that Cinda thrives on creating fictional characters whose lives resemble her own in some way, and then placing them in a part of the world where she has fond memories of spending some portion of her formative years, as a TCK.

In brief, A Place in the World centers around a young American woman named Alicia, who marries a Colombian and goes to live on his family’s remote coffee finca in the “cloud” forests of the Andes Mountains. Calamities strike one after another and Alicia ends up running the finca alone.

According to the book description, A Place in the World is a romantic adventure story, with a multicultural cast of characters, in the same vein as Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa.

Unlike Dineson’s work, however, it is not a memoir. Cinda may have loved her time in Colombia, but she didn’t marry a Colombian. And though she always wanted to be a biologist, she became an environmental scientist instead.

Well, enough from me. Let’s find out more about Cinda, why she wrote the book, and the book-writing process. And don’t forget to comment at the end of the interview! As Cinda has agreed to be this month’s featured author, we will be giving away ONE FREE E-COPY of her book to the person who leaves the most interesting comment!

* * *

APlaceintheWorld_coverCinda, pura vida. Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Let’s begin at the beginning: what made you decide to write a novel about an American woman who lives in the cloud forests of Colombia?
Well, like all writers the story was simply in my head. Contrary to what I’d been told to do, I wrote for myself, without the idea of publishing—at least when I first got started. But I guess there were also some motivating factors. As you mentioned, I grew up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. My family lived in Greece, Germany, Colombia, and Costa Rica because my father was in the United States Air Force and then worked as an attaché to American embassies. I spent my formative years—and by far the longest time—in Colombia and Costa Rica. I wanted to be a rainforest biologist. That didn’t happen, but I’ve been able to live this dream through my protagonist, Alicia. Writing the book gave me an excuse to visit and study tropical nature in several places.

What impact did writing about the experience have on you overall—did it help you process what you’d been through as a TCK?
I love Latin America—the setting and culture are comfortable to me. The book gave me a chance to write about the people in that part of the world who were enormously kind to me. Growing up as a girl without a country, I came “home” for the first time to the States for college and felt totally out of place. Writing gave expression to some of this unanticipated culture shock.

What kinds of books have influenced you as a writer?
When I look at my Goodreads list of top 40 favorite books I see there is a definite multicultural theme: 30 are set in other countries, written by foreign authors or about expats. A few eclectic examples:

  • The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Crime and Punishment, by F. Dostoyevsky
  • Zorba the Greek, by N. Kazantzakis
  • Tortilla Curtain, by T.C  Boyle
  • Small Kingdoms, by A. Hobbet
  • How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by J. Alvarez
  • Eva Luna, by I. Allende
  • Caravans and Hawaii, by James Michener
  • The Thorn Birds, by C. McCullough
  • Pillars of the Earth, by K. Follett;
  • The Paris Wife, P. McLain;
  • Lost in Translation (different from the movie), by N. Mones
  • Dreaming in Cuban, by C. Garcia.

A fish out of water…

As you know, we like to talk about “displacement” on this site. When you were growing up as a TCK, what was your most displaced moment?
When I was working in New Zealand as a young adult. I’d lived in four or five different countries and could make myself understood in several languages so wasn’t expecting that to be a problem in NZ. I remember being with a colleague trying to order a milkshake, and the lady behind the counter asked me to repeat myself. “A chocolate milkshake, please,” I said as clearly as I could. She looked at me blankly and said, “Say it one more time dear, I’m trying very hard to understand you, but your accent is so thick.” As we left the shop, I told my work mate, “I don’t know what I got, but it sure isn’t chocolate!” Alistair smiled and replied, “I thought you asked for ‘banahnah’”!  Go figure!

Yes, having been to New Zealand, I can kind of imagine that! What was your least displaced moment, when you felt that the peripatetic life suited you, and you were at “home”?
As an eighth grader arriving in Costa Rica from Colombia. My first week I was accepted as part of the class and invited to a party. I spoke Spanish and felt I fit in. Costa Ricans are a hospitable people, but I think I was also especially lucky to have been in that particular class. They were—and are—an exceptionally nice group of people; they still meet every month or so for dinner, and any classmate who happens to be in town is invited to drop in. I found life in Costa Rica to be nurturing.

You mentioned the counter culture shock you experienced when coming back to America for college. What was the biggest challenge you faced at that moment?
Well, it wasn’t one thing but all the little things: I was dressed “wrong”, didn’t know the music, had never been to a football game… I just really felt like a fish out of water and wanted to go back to Costa Rica—so, after a couple years, I did! (For a while…)

Clearing the writing & publishing hurdles

Moving on to A Place in the World: what was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
Beginnings are the most difficult for me, as well as writing synopses for agents and publishers. In general, however, the answer is: time. Finding time to write while I was still working; finding time to meet my indispensable writing critique group; and once edited and published, finding time to speak at bookstores, do interviews, and write posts for my own blog!

What was your path to publishing?
Like any previously unpublished author, I had a difficult time. I had one agent hold onto my novel for six months as we discussed strategies and then (with the downturn in the markets) told me they had decided not to handle unpublished writers anymore. This has become a mantra with traditional publishers. (J.K. Rowlings was turned down dozens of times before finding a publisher for Harry Potter.) After a couple of years (during which time I was polishing the manuscript with my critique group), I decided to “indie” publish. There is a range of providers between traditional publisher and self publishing; and my publisher, VirtualBookworm, is one of those in the middle. I paid for my own editor (she was great—an expat who married a Latino) and a very small fee towards printing; but I get a bigger percentage per book than with a big publisher. I’ve been happy with all the support they have given me and would do it again.

What audience did you intend for the book? Has it been reaching those people?  Can other kinds of expats, who haven’t lived in Latin America, relate to Alicia’s story as well?
I think of it as “mainstream” fiction that will appeal to anyone who likes to read about other places and cultures; but yes, it has been popular with expats. I rather thought that alumni from the overseas schools I went to would be interested, and that has been the case. I’m heartened and amazed at the support and e-mails I’ve received from adults of all ages.

Are you working on any other writing projects?
Yes (she says hesitantly). Hesitantly because, as you might guess from what I’ve already told you, I’m working pretty much FT—and finding time for creative writing is harder than usual! I do have several ideas that I’ve started: one set in Hawaii, another in Costa Rica, and a third in Europe. This last might be of interest to your followers, as it will be about a group of kids in an international school in Switzerland written from the point of view several different characters, taking their experiences into adulthood. And then my writers group thinks I should do a memoir. So I don’t know which of these schemes will “win”, but I intend to set priorities before the New Year.

10 Questions for Cinda MacKinnon

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, comes to mind, but how great is great? I could go back to Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis.
2. Favorite literary genre: Literary and mainstream—especially multicultural or historical.

3. Reading habits on a plane: Anything—even the airline magazine in a pinch, but I usually take my Kindle with a good novel. Also, planes provide great down time to write!

4. Book(s) you would recommend to other TCKs, expats: Other than my “multicultural” fiction list above, it would be two books: Tales of Wonder, a fascinating autobiography about growing up in China almost a century ago, by Huston Smith; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself—Bill Bryson’s funny take on coming home after years abroad.

5. Favorite books as a child: Fairy Tales, by Brothers Grimm. When I was a little older, the Nancy Drew mysteries and I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to my little brother.
6. Favorite heroine: In fiction: Nancy Drew? In real life: There are too many to choose just one.

7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Barbara Kingsolver and John Steinbeck.
8. Your reading habits: I take a break every afternoon and I get a little reading in, and then my husband and I always read before turning out the light.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: A Place in the World! Seriously, two fans have suggested this and I love the idea. I visualize the opening as the cloud forest seen from the air and then zooming in to the tiled roof house with the veranda and bougainvillea. (This is actually a possibility! A colleague of mine is a script writer and mentioned that it would make a good movie.)
10. The book you plan to read next:  I just started Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. Then I’ll probably read The Old Way: A Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, or Cristina García’s new novel, King of Cuba.

* * *

Thanks, Cinda! Though I’ve never been to Colombia, I find myself enamoured of the idea of finding a place for myself in a cloud forest. It’s actually an apt metaphor for how many of us “displaced” types live: with our heads in the clouds, pretending we are somewhere else half the time.

Readers, how about you? Is your head in the cloud (forest) after listening to Cinda? BTW, if you’re as new to Colombian cloud forests as I am, I suggest that you check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards. You can also get to know her better by visiting her author site and blog, and liking her Facebook page.

And don’t forget to comment on this post! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on November 2, 2013.

NOTE: If you can’t wait to read the book, you can always get a softcover copy here and the e-book version in various formats on Smashwords or Amazon.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when monthly columnist JJ Marsh talks “location, locution” with best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images (left to right): Valle de Cocora in Columbia, with wax palms towering over the cloud forest, courtesy McKay Savage on Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0); Cinda MacKinnon as a child in Colombia; Cinda MacKinnon now (she lives in northern California); and Cinda with her husband in front of Monserrate, a mountain that dominates the city center of Bogotá, Colombia, taken just this past summer.

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