|photo by Annie Crawley for Manta Ray Bay|
My hands cling tightly to a floatation device rigged with lights, and I peer into the eerily lit water below, telling myself to breathe calmly through my snorkel. Divers with lights and cameras swim in and out of view far below us, positioning themselves to catch the excitement on video.
I hear muffled murmurs and shouts coming from the snorkelers farther down the line - they've spotted something!
Before long a large creature swims into view several feet below us, gliding gracefully. It's Big Bertha, a 16' female manta ray and a regular visitor in these waters. She's here for the plankton, which are attracted to the rings of lights. We're here to witness one of the largest but most docile creatures of the sea feeding in her natural environment (well, almost natural), far away from any zoo or aquarium.
Moving her wings slightly, she curves her enormous body up towards the the ring of floating snorkelers and lights, her white gill slits visible through her 36" gaping mouth, her belly mere inches away from our hands as she barrel rolls beneath us. After several rolls she swims off and another manta ray swims into view.
An hour later we're drying off on board the Sea Wolf, marveling at the experience and the fact that we are even in Hawaii at all.
How did we, a couple of middle-class, pasty-white Midwesterners, end up spending an entire winter in Hawaii, for free? And if we could do it, couldn't, well, just about anybody?
There's nothing too special about our story up through Dec. of 2008. My husband and I lived the life of many typical middle-class Americans: two white-collar jobs, a mortgage, multiple school loan debts, two cars, some credit card debt, kid, pets.
Commute, punch a clock, unfulfilling cubicle jobs. Dreams of an engaging, creative life buried beneath a sea of responsibilities, debts, and no knowledge of how to change our lives for the better.
That December, after saving for ten years to do it, we took a dream vacation, a two-week cruise around New Zealand and over to Australia. From a Sydney airport bookstore I perused the offerings of new releases and best-sellers on the store's shelves in preparation for our 14-hour plane ride back to the US (in coach seats).
My eyes landed on a copy of Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich. I had seen this book before, and although the title had caught my eye, I had passed it by at that time, thinking it sounded too good to be true.
The thought of fourteen hours of airplane movies made me reconsider, and this time I opted to buy the book, hoping it would take my mind off the plane ride and entertain me if nothing else.
Boy, did it ever. I could not put the book down.
I was immediately engaged by Tim's writing style, a mixture of humor and humility peppered with a lot of life experiences I could relate to - namely, the problem with a deferred-life plan, the one most of us are currently living, the one where you spend most of your productive years trading time for money, in hopes of living out the best years of your life at the end.
I was lucky - at the time I read Tim's book, I was already 25% of the way through the process of becoming a member of the New Rich, possibly the hardest part of his DEAL process - Liberation - since 100% of my job could be done from any location in the world with a decent cell phone signal.
But back to 2009. When we returned from that trip, after finishing Tim's book, I was fired up. I began dreamlining, eliminating and outsourcing. I bought a second copy of 4HWW for my husband, hoping he'd jump on the bandwagon with me (and because I didn't want to give up my copy long enough for him to read it). I learned to accomplish more in a day than I normally accomplished in a week.
But despite my flexible work arrangements and new efficiencies, I wasn't really free to go anywhere yet, as we still had a child in high school with special needs, a spouse with a non-telecommuting job whose income we needed desperately, an income-property to manage, and a huge pile of debts to clear off before we could really be "free."
For the whole of 2009 and 2010 we worked diligently at paying off the rest of our debts (using many of the automation methods described in Ramit Sethi's, book I Will Teach You To Be Rich, which I learned about via Tim's blog).
Our child graduated from high school, stabilized, and moved out. In the fall of 2010 we sold the income property that we had been managing for twelve years which was only marginally profitable and a real time-sucker when things needed fixing and renovating (constantly), and which also tied us down to living close enough to it to take care of sudden emergencies.
And then one night at the end of January 2011 (which also happened to be the coldest, snowiest winter on record since 1983 in Minneapolis), sitting across from each other over the dinner table in our rented farmhouse, we decided to tally up the remainder of our debts and were shocked to discover we were now within five months of paying off what was left - car and school loans totaling $11,404.
We would be debt-free by June!
I remembered reading a guest post on Ramit's blog by Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, entitled Travel Full-Time for less than $14,000/year, so I grabbed my computer and located the article online (still sitting at the dinner table) and read it aloud to my husband.
I don't think we had fully grasped until that moment the opportunities that were now in front of us.
We would spend a few more months in MN, finish paying our remaining debts and down-sizing our belongings into storage. We could then take my job anywhere with internet access, and my husband could quit his job (or take a leave of absence).
My sole income would still be more than enough to cover our expenses according to the ideas Nora laid out in her post. We could save up some travel money through the summer and fall, and then, for the first time in our lives, could spend a winter somewhere with sunshine and surfboards rather than snowstorms and shovels.
We had a plan, a timeline, and a goal.
So we immediately both got on Facebook and Twitter and told all of our friends and family members what our exciting new plan was, asking for their input.
We knew better than to put our new baby (our plan and goal) out there where people who knew even less than we did about what we were about to do would have plenty of ideas about why it wasn't such a good idea. We'd seen the movie Revolutionary Road. We had no intentions of ending up another Frank and April.
We put a white board up on the kitchen wall, with the goal - $11,404 to FREEDOM in big bold letters. Every month as we paid off our remaining debts in $2200 chunks at a time, we drew a new red line on the FREEDOM board.
In June of 2011, we crossed the final debt off of our FREEDOM board. And started looking for a place to spend the winter. Some place warm. Some place that did not stay below freezing for weeks at a time. Someplace without shovels.
One of my husband's Bucket List items was visiting Hawaii, and one of my Bucket List items was learning to surf, so we focused on Hawaii as our winter get-away location.
Referring back to Nora's article, we decided to look into WWOOF opportunities which offer free room, board and training in exchange for labor (farm chores). A perfect fit for us, seeing as we are both keenly interested in farming. We contacted several farms in the Hawaii WWOOF program and it wasn't long before we had our winter living arrangements figured out.
Of course, as with anything worth doing, there were complications and obstacles. Over the course of the last four years we I had acquired a number of farm animals including a 6-pack of alpacas and a dozen chickens, not to mention our three spoiled house-cats. We also had a house, garages and a barn full of possessions, ones we could not easily rid ourselves of as we'd need them upon our return.
These obstacles were not easily eliminated. Which is why it was important that we had chosen an "unreasonable and unrealistic goal," as Tim explains in Chapter 4 of 4HWW:
"Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal."
Through friends, family, bribes, and the willingness to think out of the box, we found places for all of our critters, and storage unit(s) for all of our possessions.
(Did you know it's possible to transport a few alpacas in the front end of an Airstream Travel Trailer, if you don't own a livestock trailer?)
And so here we are today, three years after first picking up Tim's book. We are debt-free and recently returned from a winter on the Big Island of Hawaii. The money we didn't spend on mortgage, rent, utilities and food went into the bank every month with the rest of the money we're saving up to buy a farm this spring.
Instead of a winter of cold and snow, our activities included beaches, volcanoes, surfing, swimming with dolphins, parasailing, snorkeling with manta rays...
and absolutely NO snow shovels.