Part III: In Search of Pura Vida
A week after leaving Costa Rica, any shred of Pura Vida I managed to pick up is gone, except for one small moment each morning, when I savor my first mouthful of Costa Rican coffee. It is a breed apart from Maxwell House, or even Peets and other upscale versions. It’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. How do Costa Ricans produce such heavenly nectar? Could it be a manifestation of their famous Pura Vida?
Pura vida literally means Pura = pure and vida = life, but “Pure life” in Spanish would be “Vida pura” instead, so the real meaning is closer to “plenty of life”, “full of life”, “this is living!”, “going great”, “real living”, “Awesome!” or “cool!” It can be used both as a greeting and a farewell, to express satisfaction, to politely express indifference when describing something or even to say “thank you” or “you’re welcome”. The phrase has become universally known in Costa Rica and it has been used by many Costa Ricans (and expatriates) since 1956.
Because the phrase is used for such a wide range of situations, it can seem slippery, elusive – especially to a Gringo like me. Having heard more than enough New Age rhetoric in my life, I automatically dismiss anything that comes remotely close to mindless babble. But my friends Kat and Layne, whose intelligence I respect, use Pura Vida all the time, so I try to get a handle on it.
Ask six people what Pura Vida means and you’re likely to get six different answers. Laid back. Pure life. Spiritual. Well-being. Satisfaction. Home. The list goes on.
Spending my first Costa Rican week in the capital city of San José so as to be close to daily dental appointments, however, made finding the essence of Pura Vida even more challenging. The primary business of San José appears to be automotive. Everywhere you look you see a service station, repair shop, dealership, parts store, and every other conceivable service to sustain moving vehicles. While public transportation is excellent throughout Costa Rica, it doesn’t appear to be reducing car traffic much at all. Gas prices are in the $5 per gallon range, which likewise doesn’t discourage its purchase – although one can survive car-less in CR, and many Ticos do.
Between the noise and air pollution, San José feels as stressful and rushed as my life back home – maybe even more, since here cars take precedence over pedestrians — leading me to wonder if Pura Vida is the same old bullshit as New Age and other similar rhetoric. When I tell this to Layne, he’s offended.
Bullshit or not, I advise anyone visiting Costa Rica to get out of San José as fast as is humanly possible. Just as Times Square isn’t all there is to New York, and Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t all of San Francisco, San José does not represent all of Costa Rica!
The Costa Rican Countryside
Sitting in Kat and Layne’s backyard in Atenas, about an hour out of San José, I feel the way I used to when I lived in New York and went upstate for days at a time: profoundly relieved. The only sounds here come from the time-challenged roosters, the many birds, and an occasional monkey. The air is clean and breathable. Shades of green predominate as far as the eye can see. Here, I think, I will surely find Pura Vida.
Atenas advertises itself as having El major clima del mundo. The climate is pretty good, I guess – if what you love is heat and humidity. I don’t.
Kat and Layne don’t own a car, so we go everywhere on the buses, which stop wherever someone stands waiting, for instance, right at the end of the driveway! We ride up and down the treacherously winding mountain road that connects their house to the small lively town of Atenas. To some tourists and ex-pats riding the bus is an adventure; to me it isn’t far off my life in Oakland – except that here everyone rides the bus, not just the poorest of the poor.
One of my favorite things in Costa Rica is the taxicabs: they’re everywhere, both in city and country, wherever a person’s likely to need one, like at bus stations and supermarkets. Now, this is very different from Oaktown; in fact, it’s like New York City, only cheaper. For three or four bucks – no tip; they’re
not customary – a cab took me from the supermarket to my hotel, without the driver grumbling that it was too short a ride. Like everyone else in CR, when I thanked him he said, “Con mucho gusto (The pleasure is mine).”
Kat and Layne are real “people people,” interested in absolutely everyone who crosses their path. The large ex-pat community in Costa Rica offers them plenty of opportunity to indulge in their love of humans, and they entertain three or four times a week. Kat’s a fantastic cook and charming hostess, and Layne is talented at keeping conversations going, pushing them deeper and further. Thus, I meet a fair number of American ex-pats.
Some are here for the reputed Pura Vida, some to follow their destinies, spiritual and otherwise. Others are here simply because in CR they can afford to retire and live fairly decently, something they cannot do in America. They’ve been typically resourceful here, organizing organic food co-ops and informal lending libraries of books in English, or joining in activities to save the planet. The majority are pleasant and friendly, and most are of the Democratic or liberal persuasion. They seem to be nicer to one another here than at home – maybe it’s because they need each other more.
With the ex-pat community growing by leaps and bounds, Costa Rica is changing and will change even more in the coming years. The Ticos welcome this influx of Gringos, with their money and willingness to spend it, and bend over backwards to accommodate North American needs. The stores import foodstuffs Ticos never heard of and/or wouldn’t dream of spending money on, like tonic water and many soy products; when Kat asked for tahini at one of the mercados, they began to stock up on it. The Tico diet consists of beans and rice, homemade tortillas, a little bit of cheese, fruit from the trees in their own back yards – and, of course, coffee. (M&Ms, however, appear to be extremely popular!)
We rent a car and drive down the coast to spend a day at Playa Doña Ana, a public beach where monkeys wait for us to feed them bananas, snatching them out of our hands when offered. We regret not having brought dog and cat food for a few very thin dogs and cats that also live here. The water’s sparkling blue and cold; they tell me it’s usually much warmer. (For more on the monkeys, who peed all over Layne’s glasses, read Kat’s Costa Rican blog.)
The next day we drive to Jaco, a tourist town full of upscale hotels and gambling casinos, bars with American names, and a fairly substantial hooker population. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, and several conduct business from the poolside bar at the hotel where we eat lunch. Nobody hassles them or treats them like pariahs; Layne tells me he and Kat have spent hours at the bar, befriending the working girls by buying them rounds.
As soon as we hit the beach, the skies open up and rain pours down, so we retreat to the covered walkway of the hotel to watch the storm.
I don’t have time, or even much inclination, for any of the day tours CR offers: zip-lining through the rain forest, driving up to active volcanoes, a trip to gawk at an ancient tribe. (Someone at La Sabana hotel went zip-lining, and while she said it was fantastic, it took her two full days to recover.) On our own we visit a butterfly farm, and a small portion of the rain forest. We stop at a roadside souvenir stand where I nearly break the bank, what with all the great stuff at low prices. Later on I regret not having bought more.
My favorite aspect of Costa Rica, other than the taxicabs, is the people. They’re physically gorgeous, at least the younger ones, and extremely kind. They’re never impatient when I fumble with collones; sometimes they laugh, but there’s affection in their laughter. Despite my ridiculous Spanish, no one ridicules me. Once, wanting a light for my cigarette, I asked a teenage boy for “la luz” – which I realized too late means lamp, or electric light. He just stared, uncomprehending, until I realized my gaffe and said “Fumar,” at which point he pulled a book of matches out of his pocket. I am not exaggerating when I say Ticos were universally kind to me. They seem to be genuinely happy. Is this Pura Vida? I still don’t have a clue.
It is only on the flight home that I experience my moment of Pura Vida enlightenment. It occurs when I walk up the aisle to use the lavatory, and find the door blocked by a large man chatting with one of the stewardesses. Gently I tap him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, I’d like to use the bathroom.”
“So who’s stopping you?” Maybe he’s trying to be funny, but there’s an edge of contempt in his voice. My heart sinks and I think, “Oh no, this again.” For the two-plus weeks I spent in Costa Rica, nobody, but nobody, spoke like this to me or to each other. Not once did I see anyone argue about who was first in line, or who wasn’t fast enough at the cash register. I hadn’t even seen anyone roll their eyes at someone’s behavior.
Welcome back to America.
Still to Come:
Part IV: In which I befriend one of Costa Rica’s leading artists.
(As stated from the get-go, these topics are subject to change on a whim, and it looks like Part IV will be my final entry.)