“Dad! Dad! A sea turtle is laying eggs on the beach and poachers are stealing them!”
I leapt from my chair at the sound of my son’s frantic words. We’d spent the last week in a surf shack on a remote stretch of Nicaraguan beach hoping to see an endangered sea turtle lay its eggs. Now it was finally happening and everything was going wrong.
I grabbed my camera and ran out the door. Shielding my eyes from the tropical sun, I saw a cluster of people down the beach, with two men on their knees gathering something from the ground. Turtle egg poachers. I noticed my friend Shawn hurrying back into our little rented surf shack. I headed for the men, hot sand under my feet as I ran.
We’d arrived on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua in the midst of a seven-month journey through Central America I was taking with my wife, Jacqueline, and our two sons, Silas, 14, and Jonah, 11.
Through social media, I’d learned that an old friend, Shawn Sheely, had also left the U.S. for a solo motorcycle odyssey through the region. After I messaged him, he spent a long day piloting his bike across dirt roads and water crossings of undetermined depths through rural Nicaragua until he rolled up on a dust-coated motorcycle to our little casita on the beach.
We stayed up late that night as the sun slipped beneath the sea and shared a bottle of locally made rum. As waves washed on the sand, we talked about our lives and the winding paths that had led us to that faraway beach. Fed up with America’s materialistic excess and obsession with personal wealth, I’d long wanted to take my sons out of school for a year and head to Latin America, a part of the world that is poorer and simpler but in many ways richer. After the unexpected death of my mother, I’d decided it was finally time to follow my unfulfilled dream. It was my mother’s final lesson to me: don’t wait to live your life.
Shawn, who I hadn’t seen in over a decade, explained that he’d recently shut down his successful tech business in Minneapolis for a mid-life recalibration. He was here seeking some perspective and a bit of adventure. Turns out we were both escaping the churn of the modern world to seek what was true in life.
It was a few days after Christmas and I told the story of how happy the boys had been with the simple gifts we’d managed to acquire from the little family-owned tiendas in dirt-road villages. Instead of pining for iPhones or whatever piece of status electronics all the cool kids had, they were just glad to have a couple Oreos and a new hacky sack.
“That’s a big part of why we took this trip,” I said. “To give our kids a sense of perspective and gratitude.”
When I explained that they’d also received a bit of money from their grandparents, Shawn said, “You might teach them about the value of setting that money aside and avoiding debt.”
Turns out that Shawn was something of a financial philosopher and for the next hour he shared with me his story.
His family struggled with debt during the 1970’s recession and for two years he and his brother slept in a camper behind his parent’s store. Joining the military to pay for college, he eventually became an intelligence analyst in the build-up to the first Gulf War. Upon his return, he started a bicycle accessory business which he eventually sold, now deep in debt and unsure what to do with his life. That’s when I met him, when he was a bike courier in Minneapolis.
“Riding a bike every day was the perfect thing for me then,” he said of that otherwise difficult period. “The exercise, the motion, railing through traffic downtown, the rush and the speed. I loved it.”
He also loved the magazine I wrote for, BIKE, that era’s most soulful cycling publication. He let me sign up and ride with his company for a week so I could write an article about being a bike messenger in Minneapolis in January. He believed in my writing and I slept on the couch of his apartment in the city the last night of the story. That was over a decade ago and I hadn’t seen him since.
It was only a matter of time until Shawn moved on from being a bike messenger. What I learned during our time by the ocean is that he’s not only dizzyingly smart, he’s also a creative live wire. He explained that after I went back to my young family in Montana, he devoted himself learning programming, which came easy to his analytical mind. At the same time, he began focusing on his finances. Like me, he’d learned an unintentional lesson from his parents. He analyzed the money game, determined the most efficient course of action and made a plan.
“Today I’m debt-free,” he said. “I live a cash lifestyle.”
He lives off $40,000 a year, he told me, which he routes entirely through his lone credit card. Any excess he banks in tax-protected ways. He bought his new truck with cash, so has no payments. He pays off his card every month while raking in points, many at bonus levels.
“So I’m making money off my credit card,” he said. “I get paid to spend my money.”
“Well, I’m impressed,” I said, setting down my Cuba libre (rum and Coke with lime) and relighting the candle on our beach-side table. “I don’t even worry about my debt mainly because I don’t think about it.”
I explained that I’ve never seen debt as a hard boundary because it’s so easy to dip into my credit card. It’s right there whenever I need it. Which is nice. I don’t like hard boundaries. I also don’t particularly like spending time dealing with money. With my mind in the clouds pursuing more artistic and spiritual aspirations, I’ve always felt there was something almost crude about commerce. I don’t want to waste my life counting money.
“But the more I hear you talk, the more I realize that maybe I’ve had it wrong this whole time,” I said. “More than anything, I want to spend my life as I please, but in the modern world money really is time—it’s the energy that flows through and drives the system we live in. So if I’m wasting my money on interest or unneeded spending, those are inefficiencies in my time as well and my life energy has to go into earning more.”
I suddenly realized, in an epiphanic combination of imparted wisdom, Central American rum, and salty sea air, that if I wanted true freedom from thinking about money I needed to actually think a bit more about money.
Shawn never thinks about money, he said, because he’s got it so dialed and he stays within his means. He’s identified what he needs to retire on and is working toward that goal. He and his longtime girlfriend make two extra house payments per year, giving them the payoff period of a 15-year loan with the interest rate of a 30-year loan. Because his business was setup as an S-Corp, he said, it protected him and saved him money when he shut it down. He encouraged me to do something similar, maybe an LLC, with my writing and photography business (which I strain to even think of as a business). I nodded and smiled—I had no idea what S-Corps or LLCs were—and took another sip of my rum.
Whether it’s credit card points, mortgages, or mysterious LLCs, Shawn is working the angles. And some day in the not too distant future he’s going to be one of those enviable people who retire early and live the good life while they still have the health and youth to enjoy it.
“It changed my life to get debt free,” he said. “Now I have freedom.”
For the next couple days we occupied ourselves with less weighty matters, like spin-cycling ourselves through the Pacific while attempting to balance atop surfboards. All the while, we kept our eyes open for sea turtles, which we knew were laying eggs in the region. Rural Nicaraguans often gather the eggs, which are considered a delicacy and can fetch several weeks wages. In Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, $4 for a hard day’s work is an excellent wage. It’s hard to blame them for taking the eggs. But with the turtles now endangered, if we don’t start leaving eggs in the sand these magnificent animals will be gone forever.
So as I sprinted across the hot sand to the men, I tried to think how to stop them. A huge turtle with an ancient-looking shell was slowly making its way back to the ocean. As I neared the cluster of people I saw my son Jonah and a couple local friends we’d made watching two Nicaraguan men scoop up egg after egg into their shirts, which they held off their bellies like baskets. A couple Nicaraguan children were with them, watching and learning. My wife, Jacqueline, was there, too, desperately trying to get the men to acknowledge her as she asked in Spanish what they were going to do with the eggs. It seemed only a physical confrontation could stop them.
I started taking photographs, because that’s what I do. Documenting the men’s act, which they knew was illegal, had power. As my enormous camera moved closer and closer, they threw daggers at me with their eyes, but continued gathering the ping-pong-ball-like eggs. Then Shawn arrived, immediately opening his wallet and asking, “Quanto?”
The men looked up. The tone changed. Now it was a transaction. For the first time the Nicaraguans and the crusading gringos were interacting. After some quick, tense haggling, Shawn handed them a $20 bill, they gave us most of the eggs and quickly left. The mother turtle was already back in the sea.
Once again, Shawn had showed me something—by turning a crisis into commerce, he’d saved the eggs.
We took them down the beach, where our new friends had a house, and buried the eggs in the sand where they could keep an eye on them, at the exact same depth and distance from the water the mother turtle had laid them. A couple days later, after more surfing, more late-night talks, and another sea turtle laying eggs on the beach (with no poachers in sight), Shawn bid us farewell and continued his motorcycle odyssey to Panama. My family and I soon left the coast, too, and headed for the Nicaraguan jungle and more adventures in remote villages. Our journeys continued, with a little more wisdom and a little more insight accrued each step of the way, like the strengthening carapace of a turtle, except not protective and hard, but warm and open to the possibilities of the world.
A month later we got word from our friends—the eggs we’d saved had hatched and three dozen tiny turtles made their way to new lives in the sea.
Aaron Teasdale is an award-winning writer and photographer on a quest to explore the world, find the meaning of life, and avoid getting lost for more than two days at a time. He lives with his wife and two sons in the hills outside Missoula, Montana.
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