How I Live, Part 2 / What I Eat + 10 Tips for Living Out of a Cooler

banana tree, banana bloom, tropical trees, living off the land, minimlist living, living out of a cooler, survivalist living, jungle living, costa rica,, cabinas ola mar

I thought the jungle would be a cost-free Eden. It’s not. It’s expensive to live here, even in rugged, minimalist fashion. While you might imagine that living in the jungle provides plenty of food from my immediate surroundings, you’d be wrong. I don’t go on feral hunts, and this isn’t a magical garden that only contains fruit trees and vegetable plants, perfectly docile meat animals, and an endless supply of easy-to-catch fish.

green mangoes, tropical food, costa rica,

[^Mangoes in one of our trees…we have to fight the monkeys for these.]

agua de pippa, fresh coconut water, tropical foods, costa rica,

[^Coconut water, the real deal, fresh from the source in my yard]

Yes, we have coconut, mango and banana trees that I eat and drink from. And one can eat a few things from the wild, and fishing can be good if you have a pole and net and buckets for catching bait, and plenty of hooks to replace the ones you’ve left hung on the trillions of rocks under the surface. But mostly, you have to buy your food. And it’s expensive out here.

While some things are less expensive than the states, like produce, that’s the exception rather than the rule. A small jar of peanut butter costs $6. A bag of granola is $8. And I spend about $50 a week on food, but that’s for just the bare essentials: Rice, beans, milk, eggs, canned food, and produce. Plus, it costs $10 to catch the public ride to and from the nearest town.

So I live on a basic diet: Lots of rice and beans, some pasta, canned tuna, PB&J, and lots of veggies. Most of my meals are some combination of those things. My typical meals are granola and eggs for breakfast, tuna and rice and avocado for lunch, and sautéed veggies and meat with rice for dinner.

The most significant factor in my diet, besides budget, is the fact that I have no refrigerator. For the past couple months, I’ve been using a small, 34-quart cooler for storing perishables.

minimalist living, survivalist, jungle living, living out of a cooler, 10 tips for living out of a cooler,

I try to use as many dry goods and canned goods as possible, but I’d like to eat healthily too, especially with all the wonderful produce available here. So some sort of refrigeration is necessary.

Ice is hard to come by out here though, so I use frozen bottles of water: my landlord allows me use of his kitchen and a portion of his small freezer for my liter-sized bottles. I have several bottles, so I switch them out almost daily.

(I figure if I were living somewhere without any access to a freezer whatsoever, more planning would be involved. I would probably go to the nearest town and ask to borrow a little space in the freezer at a store or restaurant, and use bigger bottles, and have the best possible cooler for superior insulation, and more space. Or if I have the budget, consider investing in a portable propane freezer. Not a fridge, because a freezer can provide with the ice necessary to make your own fridge, so you can essentially have both for just the price of the freezer.)

Anyway, for those looking for advice on how to make the best use of a cooler for an extended amount of time, here are more specifics, in the form of tips, on how I’ve lived from a cooler for nearly three months so far. The tips focus on saving space and reducing waste. Most are common sense, but some are just learned the hard way:

10 Tips for Living Out of a Cooler

  1. Before putting anything in the cooler, sprinkle some baking soda over the bottom. This will help absorb any odors.
  2. Don’t use bags of ice, you waste water and get everything soggy. Use two or more frozen bottles of water, 2-liter size if you have room.

insulated bag in cooler

3. If you have a cheap cooler like mine, supplement it with a zippered insulated bag, like the kind made for picnics or grocery shopping. In addition to keeping more cool in, the zippered extra layer helps keep ants out. Those little things can squeeze into tiny gaps.

4. Next, layer the bottom of the cooler (or bag) with a hand towel/rag, put the bottles in, and put another hand towel over the bottles. The towels will absorb the condensation from the ice bottles and reduce sogginess in your food.

use frozen bottles of water instead of ice for survivalist living out of a cooler, use rage under and over the bottles to trap condensation,

5. If you are in a humid environment (like a jungle), wrap veggies in newspaper, or if you have veggies in plastic bags, put some newspaper in the bags. Especially useful for leafy greens, this will reduce moisture and mold on your veggies. You’d be surprised at how quickly produce can start decomposing in the humid jungle.

survivalist living out of a cooler,

6. Have large Ziplock bags on hand for storing opened, unfinished cans of food (unlike my picture above). Just makes it quicker, and saves some space, compared to using Tupperware for everything. Large bags are best because they can collapse if you’re not using the whole bag, but offer more room if needed. That said…

7. If you can swing it, have small Tupperware containers on hand for leftovers. This is valuable, especially for foods (like half a tomato) which could get crushed if stored in a bag. But use the small containers. Big ones take up too much space.

8. Make big batches of rice and other staples. This may not be a direct refrigeration tip, but it sure makes things a lot easier, especially for one person, so I don’t have to wait 30 minutes for rice to cook after coming in at dark from surfing. Remember…you may not have lights, and it sucks to cook in the dark, not just for vision impairment, but bugs… I’ve had plenty of flying insects land in a pot of cooking rice.

9. Only store the absolutely perishable in the cooler. Fruits and eggs can stay out, but veggies stay in. Although some things, like honey or peanut butter, while not perishable, could use the extra ant prevention of the cooler, if you have room. Also, canned and bottled drinks take up too much space that is better used for produce. Just drink water, and it doesn’t have to be cold.

10. Finally, keep it shut, tight. Only open the cooler when absolutely necessary, and close it as quickly as possible. If you are using a bag for a liner, make sure it’s zipped completely, and make sure the “bagginess” does not interfere with proper, complete closing of the cooler. Tuck everything down before closing. Again, it’s not just heat that can get in, but little bugs too. It sucks to wake up with a craving, then open the cooler only to see ants running all over your food.

That’s enough on food. Next, I’ll talk about what I actually do all day.

[Update: After I had already written this and scheduled to post, I just now got an opportunity to stop living out of the cooler. The new option takes too long to explain, but it’s nicer, with nearly equal cost. Just to illustrate one more tip: #11. If possible and practical, avoid living out of a cooler. ]


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