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A Taste of 'Pura Vida' in Costa Rica

Starting to write this report reminds me of a moment I have faced a lot over the last few weeks. A moment, standing opposite my parents’ friends, my newsagent, someone from my old school who I haven’t spoken to for months, when I am thrown the casual question, ‘How were your travels?’ The reply should be easy – I know that a few ordinary adjectives of enthusiasm and maybe the odd comic anecdote is all anyone expects. But to really genuinely express how I found ‘my travels’ and to digest my two months in Central America into a neat little summary seems impossible, it seems absurd. My battle against the inevitable flood of clichés begins and soon I’m just smiling and shrugging and telling them that, well, I had an incredible time, I don’t know where to start.

I could start by ticking off the clichés one by one! It was definitely a great personal challenge. I had just spent six weeks in New York, interning at a literary festival amidst the bright, buzzing lights of Manhattan in the skull-numbing temperatures of January and February. I had been living independently for the first time, getting to know eccentric and brilliant people over coffee and hot cocktails and wandering solo through galleries and art house cinemas looking to be inspired. But lots of this wasn’t exactly new to me – I’ve grown up in a major cosmopolitan city where you can meet incredible people and see stunning things on a regular basis; for me the difference was that the brevity of my stay heightened the intensity of the experience, giving me a new level of freedom and anonymity. But arriving at JFK airport I knew that I was venturing into the unknown. I exchanged my snow boots for a bikini and boarded the plane to San Jose, armed with copious amounts of garlic pills to fend off mosquitos from an enthusiastic Greek friend and about three words of Spanish to get me started.

I had never before experienced such an extreme language barrier. I arrived into the steamy Costa Rican night to meet the local family I was to stay with that night (who didn’t materialise for a worrying few hours!), but, having enthusiastically greeted them and announced my name, I could only smile foolishly and try to look apologetic. It hadn’t really occurred to me how powerless I could suddenly feel without language, I had just assumed I’d muddle through somehow! I suppose I did eventually – the next day I found a bus across the country to the Pacific coast where I could meet my host family, although conversation at our first meals was a little sparse – consisting of them pointing at things and me energetically expressing my approval by repeating “ah me gusta!” and the family never managed to pronounce anything resembling “Imogen” – eventually resorting to calling me “Michelle”! But I had four weeks to live with them in the small beach town of Samara where I spent a few hours each day at a language school. It was exciting to feel my Spanish improving – from the early days when it felt like it took me half an hour to struggle to the end of a story, though the moment when I could understand jokes, and the moment when I could joke back, to the basic conversation I sustained with an Argentinean woman I hitched a lift with for about twenty minutes along the coast!

My experience of four weeks in Samara was far richer than a linguistic immersion though. I was living in conditions I had never before encountered – the house was just a few small rooms beneath a corrugated iron roof, the water was cold, the electricity was unreliable and the cockroaches were plentiful! But the family were so warm and open – the father was a fisherman who brought home fresh fish most nights and we’d sit talking under the stars with gallo pinto (rice and beans) cooked on their two ring camping stove and lemony vegetables with sweet Chile sauce. I remember their grinning faces as they proudly announced that Costa Rica was the happiest nation of the world – an official statistic that seems to genuinely translate into a weirdly low emigration rate! I could certainly understand it after four weeks in Samara – I woke every day to tropical birdsong and a plate of mouth-watering fresh fruit, and at sunset I would be on the beach watching wild horses gallop along it and pelicans wheel around, above the sparkling Pacific. I had time to fall into the rhythm of the Costa Rican way of life – which was a serious contrast to the rushing pace of New York. I lived so closely with the family that I could really feel subtle cultural differences – I was inspired by the physical intimacy of parents and children and the way everyone who came by the house was introduced to me as one of their cousins (although their continual focus, morning to night, on the TV was a little relentless.)

I also had time to make lasting friendships with the local people in the village. I initially spent most of my time with my fellow students from the language school – who were good fun and almost all Swiss, bizarrely – but increasingly I passed my evenings with a group of Rasta musicians, listening to live reggae by huge fires or learning to merengue with the sand between my toes! They gave me interesting insights into the dynamics of a town that had only recently been changed by the establishment of the language school and the noticeable presence of westerners. I heard about the tensions between the “gringos” (Americans) and the “ticos” (Costa Ricans) from my friend whose great grandfather had been murdered by Americans for being the last chief who could co-ordinate all the indigenous tribes. I was also disturbed by the local women – who worked in the day while their men lounged at the surf shack and treated us with open hostility in the bars at night where their men were shamelessly pursuing the young blonde Europeans who were passing through for a few weeks. I saw first hand the level of police corruption in Costa Rica – which prepared me for some of the towns I travelled to on the Caribbean coast where police are literally only ever present on the street if they are being paid to turn a blind eye to a drugs deal.

But my Rasta friends were almost certainly some of the happiest people I’ve ever met – and that wasn’t because of their lifestyle, or the lifestyle I’m sure you’re assuming they had, but because of their “Pura Vida” attitude and their really sincere gratitude for life. They were actually a very interesting group of people who had achieved a lot – Milo, for instance, had just returned from a two year scholarship to a music school in Germany, and Carlos had devoted his early twenties to running a music school for disadvantaged children in Puerto Viejo, which he had set up and won government funding for, and which led to his getting a position as cultural representative for the area in the government in San Jose. He loved playing with people’s expectations and exploding their prejudices, walking into high-level meetings with his waist-long dreadlocks and taking responsibility for serious policy decisions. It was sad to hear how strong these prejudices are though: as a teenager another friend had been spat at by the father of his first girlfriend and Milo’s neighbours never complained about the loud music at their parties because, he claimed, “they are terrified of my hair!” (the one-sided dreads were quite striking!) Their “Pura Vida” attitude may not have been the most efficient approach to life – especially when they were giving me a lift back to San Jose at the end of my time in Samara and they spent the whole day lounging and jamming on their verandah and occasionally moving their instruments into the pick-up-truck, before setting off and taking detours to their favourite beaches, bars and friends’ houses. We arrived in the early hours of the morning by car – when the journey would have taken me only five hours by bus! But I’ll never forget the feeling of the darkness rushing past me as we drove through the night, a feeling of perfect freedom.

I also appreciated any lifts I could get given the hours of bus travel in store for me as I travelled down the Pacific coast through glorious, lush rainforest, then up into the misty cool of the mountains and beyond to camp beneath the barren, surreal stretches of Rincon de la Vieja – one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes. In fact, it was so active when we arrived that the treacherous path round the crater was closed off – a guide casually told us about an unfortunate tourist who had lost his balance there recently and was boiled alive. According to my tico friends the path was worth the risk though! We were following their advice for the whole time – otherwise we would never have found the bright cloudy-blue river where all the ticos from the local village bathe every Sunday, or the best live salsa night in Liberia.

I travelled up into Nicaragua with a friend and the difference between the two countries was immediately tangible. Even in the relatively well-travelled, elegant, colonial city of Granada on the bank of Lake Nicaragua we felt suddenly much more conspicuous as westerners. I remember organising a cheap boat to take us out to Las Isletas, which involved the driver walking us along the lake’s black-sand beach. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) so the beach was brimming with people, drinking, dancing and eating greasy street food. The grey waters of the lake broke onto the shallow beach in long ripples and hundreds of fully and colourfully-clothed “nicos” were bathing in them. It was a sight I’ll never forget, but our sudden feeling of isolation in the crowd was even more powerfully memorable. We were the only westerners on the entire beach and the hostility and harassment, the accusing looks and obscene comments that we had already experienced reached a new intensity. Perhaps it was the quantity of “Flor de Caña” rum on that beach, but I think it was also that nicos are just much less used to tourists – you can see hardship in their scarred faces and toothlessness in a way that we hadn’t seen in Costa Rica, and whilst the tension was slightly frightening, I felt that it was also important to experience.

Nicaragua is, of course much more unsettled than its southern neighbour – the scars of recent conflict are still visible and the overwhelming presence of the heavily armed, intimidating police force was a shock after Costa Rica – the only country in Central America not even to have a standing army. But it was exciting to escape some of the more Americanised elements of Costa Rica, elements which have by no means swallowed up Costa Rican culture (and which are apparently far worse in Panama!), but which are nonetheless present. Of course, we no longer felt safe walking around at night and it was disturbing to see rubbish-strewn beaches and monkeys being fed crisps by tour-guides who don’t appreciate the eco approach that underpins Costa Rica’s tourism industry. But it felt much easier to find authenticity – it was amazing, for example, to see the ancient Good Friday procession where the crowds carry figures of Christ through Granada, accompanied by the deep, haunting lilt of brass instruments, to the lake shore, where they descend into boats out to Las Isletas.

We also began to meet a different type of traveller in Nicaragua – we left behind the rowdy American college students on two-week spring breaks to Costa Rica and found our fellow backpackers’ beards were growing longer as their trousers grew baggier! But their stories were thrilling – one twenty-minute conversation with someone half way through a five-year road-trip from Canada to Argentina set me struggling with a rising temptation to miss my flight home. The temptation certainly grew over the last few weeks as I realised I wasn’t ready to give up my new way of life. I love that travelling is such a heightened existence – you can almost become complacent about seeing extraordinary things every single day. We visited Ometepe, an island made up of two huge volcanos rising out of Lake Nicaragua, and swam in an aquamarine pool in the middle of the forest, and drank rum with fresh mango juice and slept in hammocks (possibly for a few more nights in a row than was ideal – especially given the unfortunately small distance I left between the two ends of my hammock when tying it up on the last night!). Then we went back down into Costa Rica, along the Caribbean coast where we took a canoe (on a very dodgy deal, where the guy just shrugged at the idea of us not making it back!) along tiny rivers into the sticky, dense rainforest of Tortuguero National Park. The birds were completely extraordinary and so was the sense of being utterly alone in the endless forest – I did feel a little bit like I was in “The African Queen” – especially after a crocodile encounter which, whilst not close, was certainly close enough for me!

The towns on the southern Caribbean coast were completely different culturally from anything we had seen before – suddenly we were tasting coconut everywhere, hearing Jamaican accents and dancing to Caribbean beats. But we immediately sensed a change of atmosphere and didn’t for a second question the area’s reputation as the most dangerous part of Costa Rica. I was grateful that I had local friends I trusted to stay with in Puerto Viejo for my last week, not only so that I was shown hidden paths to utterly deserted paradisal Caribbean beaches by day, but so that I felt able to explore the town by night. It was incredibly vibrant but a lot of the faces looked pretty tough. There was more poverty than I’d previously seen and a lot more drugs money, a combination which made me uncomfortable, alongside the typically “Caribbean” disrespect for women that I continually encountered. In fact, my local friend was furious when he found out that I had walked back to the house alone after dark one night when I had been separated from our group and I realised how crucial it is to guard against that feeling of infallibility we get from youth and adventure. I did still feel so comfortable and free, standing in the firelight at an open mic which had spilled out onto the beach on my last night, singing “The Girl from Ipanema” in Spanish – I probably looked very different from the girl who had arrived only two months ago at San Jose airport, stepping into the unknown with my unopened phrasebook.

I went straight on to spend the summer living in Paris, adding another few magical months to my memory bank, but my time in Central America was continually present for me. I remember waking up under-the-weather to torrential rain on the grey-blue Parisian roofscape outside my window and the joy of Skyping a friend in Samara. The screen swayed back and forth as he swung in his hammock and the bright white of the sunlit beach behind him scattered through a row of palm trees. His calm, broad smile spoke of such assurance, such peace with the world around him, and a moment later he had sprung out of the hammock to show me the slick green shiver of a lizard crossing the verandah. It was a beautifully simple instant of delight and I realised that I may well need these Skype calls to get my fix of “Pura Vida” every now and again.

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