The Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Costa Rica are, from what I’ve been told, culturally two different worlds: different inhabitants, different foods, different vibes. But from beach to jungle and beach again, there’s one thing that undoubtedly connects all Costa Ricans: pura vida. It’s a term used liberally as a greeting, a goodbye, a response, a confirming statement, and in a dozen other mystifying-yet-somehow-logical ways.
To help explain pura vida (“pure life” literally translated), I borrowed this from a blogger:
“The most commonly used phrase Costa Rica…goes beyond its simple translation: it’s a way of life. Contextually, then, it symbolizes the idea of simply enjoying life and being happy. As the Urban Dictionary states, it’s a synonym of “hakuna matata” and reflects the relaxed lifestyle of Costa Ricans.”
Another website describes it this way:
“’Pura vida!’ Means that no matter what your current situation is, life for someone else can always be less fortunate. So you need to consider that maybe…just maybe, your situation isn’t all that bad and that no matter how little or how much you have in life, we are all here together and life is short…so start living it ‘pura vida style’…no matter how much of a mess your life may seem, there is always someone else who’s [sic] life would make yours look like a vacation in paradise.”
Well, amen to all that.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a little town that does pura vida proud. Buses bursting with flip-flop-footed tourists come and go; bananas and pipas frias and fresh-baked bread get hawked in the streets; banks and grocery stores operate and regular business gets done, but it all seems to groove along at an even, unhurried, uncomplicated tempo. Pura vida. Flow. It’s as though the locals take their cue from the beckoning beaches that stretch the length of their town, and the slow-moving sloths that dangle lazily from the tree branches. Calm, peaceful. No hurry, no worry.
With a full month keeping my feet on the ground in this spot, it’s been easy to slip into the sway. Our North American impatience and expectation of outcomes and frequent disconnectedness feel out of place here, and often earn gentle chuckles and head-shakes from longtime expats. Getting out of my own way and simply going with the flow—being present and enjoying right now, because the Costa Ricans have figured out that’s all we ever have—has allowed me to connect with wonderful people like Jeff, Ro, Dawn, Danielle, Tariq, Eric, John, Melissa, Kent, Nancy, Barry, Seer, Michele, Giramina, Tom, and so many others. It allowed me to start off a day trekking to a waterfall only to end up working with indigenous Bribris, hauling cinderblocks up a steep incline through the dense and steaming jungle to help them build a water holding tank for their tiny village. It allowed me to witness the thousand shifting shades of dozens of sunrises as I drank coffee on the beach with my new friends, and marvel at the transformative power of rain, both replenishing and destructive. I know how a sloth hangs and moves and eats. I recognize the haunting call of the yellow-tailed Montezuma Oropendola and the unnerving lion-like bellow of the howler monkey. I know what a banana tastes like the second it’s picked from the tree. I know what a moment feels like.
After adapting such a natural-feeling flow, it’s all the more jarring when that gentle, easy rhythm gets interrupted. Like when before you’ve even left Costa Rica, a message from your airline tells you the final flight of your already-very-long journey home has just been cancelled due to bad weather. Your bus to San Jose leaves late, gets stuck in construction traffic, and arrives an hour behind schedule. You pay a taxi driver an exorbitant price to get you to the airport on time. You stand in a massive lineup waiting to pay your airport departure fees, and another one to check in for your flight. You snake through security and run to your gate, stopping on the way only to purchase a $5 USD bottle of water that is then promptly confiscated by gate officials (no liquids allowed on the flight). The person who sold you the expensive travel insurance doesn’t care that your flight is cancelled due to weather; that’s not covered by your policy. You haven’t eaten or even taken the time to tie the laces of the close-toed shoes you’re wearing for the first time in a month. You make it to Newark airport and un-bravely face a 19-hour layover by booking yourself into a hotel you can’t afford at 3 am, just so you can shower and sleep and feel human. Back at the airport your 19-hour layover then turns into an indefinite one, and 36 hours into your journey you’re still sitting there, with no end in sight.
How can we go with the flow when the flow is gone? When in the space of just a few hours we go from being relaxed and in the moment to being stressed and angry and sweaty and impatient and hungry and tired, and utterances of “pura vida” get replaced with mutterings of “*&$#!” and “%*#@!” and “are you freakin’ kidding me?” Where is pura vida when we need it most, and how can it feel so far away when we just had it in the palm of our hand?
And so it is that I meet the ultimate test in my month-long experiment of traveling without moving. I will try to let the weeks of calm and ease and appreciation of every moment serve as a lesson. As I look into the blank, soulless gaze of a journey home from Central America that will take longer than any of my many journeys home from Southeast Asia ever has, I will fight to remember the rightness of the feeling of going with the flow. Pura vida was in my hotel room, with its cozy bed and hot shower. It was with me as I watched the winter storm rage outside my hotel room window while conjuring the sound of Puerto Viejo’s pre-dawn rooster crows, and the charmingly repetitive reggae music tumbling from every battered doorway. It’s here as I remember barefooted surfers with beaten boards under-arm, strolling seaward to catch a few good breaks, and in those easy conversations with my new friends.
In the end it’s not that hard to do; because no matter how much of a mess my life may seem, there is always someone else whose life would make mine look like a vacation in paradise.
I am safe, alive, and well.