“Pura vida!” Donald exclaimed enthusiastically as I groggily descended the stairs.
Unsure of whether “Pure life!” was a command to behave, a question of whether I’d slept well or a tourist greeting for the gringas, I took a strategy repeated millions of times over by travelers in unfamiliar lands: I smiled, nodded and hoped I wasn’t getting myself in trouble.
“Pura vida” is, in fact, a bit of a tourist slogan, but it’s also used broadly by Costa Ricans to mean hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome, as a compliment or simply as a verbal thumbs-up.
Far from indicating an uptight national obsession with purity, “pure life” in Costa Rica means almost the opposite, a pride in the country’s laid-back attitude. It’s all good —“Pura vida.” And behind that relaxed exterior, the catchphrase is also a stand-in for many of the values of the little country, enacted on every level from everyday decisions to government policy.
After a short, mid-century civil war, Costa Rica established a constitutional democracy that continues to its day and took specific steps that help make it a Central American refuge of peace and relative prosperity. Costa Rica abolished its military, staying neutral and even standing up to the U.S. when it sought to support the Nicaraguan Contras from inside Costa Rican borders. Costa Rica also set about sweeping conservation programs that set the stage for its booming ecotourism industry.
Costa Rica has staggering natural gifts — some estimate that it is responsible for 5 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity, despite its tiny size. It largely lacks those resources that conquistadors and foreign corporations sought to plunder, allowing it to develop a culture of relatively small farmsteads that remain the backbone of its culture today.
I boarded a plane Black Friday for Costa Rica and returned about a week later, with at least two dozen bug bites but a smile that hasn’t gone away yet. My friend Rachel and I haltingly navigated the capital and a bus ride to La Gran Vista farm, which we found through a volunteering network and where we helped weed, hull seeds for dye, chop vegetables and feed chickens — though it has to be admitted that they didn’t actually work us that hard at all.
Years from now, I’ll have forgotten the names of unfamiliar tropical fruits, but I will remember the most valuable part of the trip, hanging out with our hosts, Donald and Xinia, and their family, living the pura vida. We traipsed to the tiny local mall and went to a party that resembled the Edgewood rodeo, where cowboy-hatted men downed beers in a large, tin building and hauled away horse feed they won in the raffle. We visited Donald’s parents, several of his sisters and cousins of Xinia’s. We met nieces who stopped in for a drink after a trip to a nearby waterfall and the farm’s mechanic, who stopped by to borrow a horse.
My poor Spanish significantly hindered in-depth conversation, but I was amazed by how much it improved in the course of a week, and I am always awed by our human ability to communicate through language barriers. When we can’t depend on words, we have to pay more attention to everything else.
Pura vida also represents the values of family and home so central to Costa Rican life. Donald and Xinia’s youngest son, a veterinarian, lives with them, and their other two sons live nearby, as do Donald’s parents, Xinia’s mother and many of the couple’s siblings. Costa Ricans find it strange that I would choose to live on my own, away from family. To be fair, many Costa Ricans do work in the United States, but this is a necessary evil and family-rending hardship, not a joyful quest.
By prioritizing sustainability and peacefulness, family and simple thankfulness, we start to build strong social networks. We bulwark ourselves against the buffets of the world, against loneliness and poverty and conflict and heartbreak. And, with a little luck, we start building communities, even countries, that do these same things.