When Michael Lea walked across the stage at his Chanute High School Class of 1971 graduation, being a world traveler wasn’t on his mind.
Three years later, that wasn’t the case at his Neosho County Community College graduation.
“I walked across the stage, literally went outside and said goodbye to my folks and headed for Europe,” Lea said. He landed in London with Chanute friend Jeff Erickson and spent the next 6½ months riding a bicycle around Europe.
Lea was beginning a lifelong venture with stops in between of Manhattan, several US states, back to Chanute and Thayer, Kuwait City and the barrio San Francisco, Costa Rica, where he now resides.
That first trip gave him the taste of favorite spots including The Black Forest in Germany, and Amsterdam.
“It was a trip, without a doubt, that made me aware the world is much bigger than Southeast Kansas,” Lea said.
Upon his return he enrolled at Kansas State University and earned an engineering degree.
That led to a job with the French oil conglomerate Schlumberger, taking him to Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. “They ARE the oil industry around the world. You have no idea how Schlumberger touches your life.”
Lea made a career move, decided to raise his family in Chanute and took a teaching job at Thayer High School.
“I fell in love with teaching,” Lea said. “I was the Math department for 14 years.”
Single again, his next venture was huge.
“The internet was new and I searched international teaching,” he said, ending up in a job fair in Waterloo, Iowa.
Thirteen interviews were conducted and he received 11 job offers.
“I didn’t realize how much in demand I was, but to find a single man, with an engineering degree and experience in teaching from bonehead Math to Calculus.”
Because he had read up on Kuwait in National Geographic, he took the highest paying job in Kuwait City.
He said he knew they do a much better job of sharing the oil wealth there than any other oil-rich country.
“It was a very lucrative place for me to work and that’s when I met my wife.”
Jackie An was an Army brat from Philly who taught Literature. She had citizenship there because she had previously been married to someone from Kuwait,
What were his concerns about moving to a foreign country for a job?
“When I travel I travel with no expectations, that way I’m not disappointed. I go with as much information as I can, but I try to stay away from pre-conceived ideas or prejudices. I went with an open mind, signed a two-year contract and 14 years later I left with a handsome chunk of money and the love of my life.”
At the “high dollar” AP private school, Lea taught — in English — Algebra I, Geometry, Statistics, Algebra II and pre-Calculus, along with some college courses.
“I like kids. I can’t eat a whole one, but I like them,” he joked.
He served as a recruiter for teachers for the school.
“You don’t go there to find another piece of America, you go there to find another culture,” Lea told them.
He never mastered Arabic, but got by, he said. Assisting the language barrier is the fact that any place they’ve traveled or lived, there is a delightful ex-pat community.
His wife speaks Mandarin, Arabic and her French foundation is making Spanish easier to learn than her husband.
He noted Kuwait is a real melting pot in the Middle East.
The cuisine is a mixture of Indian and Lebanese and Arab peninsula and Persian.
“I don’t how you can beat Lebanon — the best kebab in the world.” He prefers the seasoned chicken over beef or lamb.
The Middle East is full of great people, he said.
“I’m afraid the press around the world does not do mankind justice. Ninety-nine percent of the people are just like we are, All they want is shelter, security for themselves, the future. The only ones that make the news are the uglies.”
Costa Rica choice
After traveling to such places as Sri Lanka, Russia, Istanbul, Egypt, Jordan, and the Philippines, the couple decided on Costa Rica for retiring after leaving Kuwait.
“Our travels had us falling in love with the climate, 65 mornings 85 afternoons year around. We Almost retired in Sri Lanka, but it was too far from the kids.”
From holidays in Costa Rica, the Leas were pleased with the politics and the ecological attitude.
Approaching four years in the country, they have “carved us a little piece of paradise.
“I tribute it to her good karma,” he said of his wife. “Once we decided on an area we found an attractive property.”
They own a little more than an acre on the Chirripo Pacifico River, at the base of the highest point in Central America, Mount Chirripo in the Talamanca Mountain Range. A river runs east and a river runs west and they are on the west side of the divide.
They are located in the Southern region of the country about the size of Virginia. There are 10 distinct microclimates because of the mountain, and oceans on both sides.
The country was shut down due to the pandemic and residents still religiously wear masks.
“It’s a mandate and everybody follows it. It’s not a division like here, it’s a community attitude.
“Through the pandemic, we ran a food bank through our house and helped two people build houses,” Lea said. “My wife has a heart the size of Dallas. There are a lot of people up our valley who think my wife’s an angel, and they tolerate me.”
Their property includes a greenhouse necessary because, “We do live in a rain forest.”
They have bananas, plantains, five different types of oranges, avocado, pudding plant as they call it, and grow green beans, tomatoes and onions.
He says he eats healthier there, lots of fruits and vegetables, and “I will lose these 3 or 4 kilos when I get back.”
The couple has six children between them and nine grandchildren.
“One of the drawbacks to living internationally is I don’t know them as well as I would love to,” Lea said of his grandchildren.
“I’m blessed. Gosh, I’m a lucky man. I have seen and done things most people just dream about.”
He offered this advice for those itching to travel.
“I’ve had the nerve to take that first step. Take that deep breath and realize that some things are going to be good and some things are going to be bad and let’s go.”