Monday, January 3, 2011

Pura vida: the true meaning

Having lived in Costa Rica for a staggering four weeks, I'm going to be bold in honor of the coming year - I'm going to define what perhaps one of the most ubiquitous national expressions really stands for. But first, let's review pura vida in its fundamental form.

Literally translated, it means "pure life." In a way, this translation suffices but it only barely scratches the surface in terms of cultural significance, especially since the English equivalent sounds out of place in most contexts. Within the borders of Costa Rica, however, it's almost inescapable. It can be used in response to an impressive variety of situations:

"What's up, man?" - "Not much, pura vida."
"How was your weekend?" - "It was pura vida!"
"Is Carlos cool, or is he kind of a loser?" - "No, he's pura vida."
"See you later!" - "Ok, pura vida."

Basically, the point is that it's like a linguistic MacGyver in that it somehow manages to be versatile in almost any situation and it makes you feel cool for "pulling" it when you have a lack of options.

While the conversational merits of the phrase are generally pretty easy to accept, the ways in which the words are deeply embedded into the Costa Rican lifestyle remain more ambiguous; but fear not, for here I attempt to crack the code.

While many readers were enjoying the Christmas comforts of candy canes and Santa Claus, I was trekking through remote rain forest highlands sharing the holidays with almost exclusively Costa Rican families. From all of them, I gleaned more about la pura vida which helped to polish its meaning.

Costa Rica is world-renowned for its diverse wildlife, a fact which does not go unnoticed by locals. People here are extremely proud of the animals that call this country home. Orlando Zamora Fallas, whose family I stayed with, on whether or not he supports hunting despite countless snake invasions: "That's not really what we're about. If I can provide for my family without killing, the animals deserve that respect." This respect for wildlife is Pura Vida.

You would think that after years of living on a seriously remote farm, as beautiful as the land may be, you would prefer the amenities of city life. Not true of the Lopez children who spend a significant amount of time in San Jose, a populated metropolis capital city, as well as where they grew up in Piedras Blancas, a challenging hike from the nearest anything. "Que bonita la tierra" seemed to be a common, and more importantly, genuine observation. Santiago Parra, owner of Rancho Tinamu, doesn't use any chemicals whatsoever to improve his harvest yields not because green living is trendy, but because they ruin the land and endanger his livestock. True appreciation of the land, even as it transcends generations, is Pura Vida.

Even the wood planks for the lodges are cut by hand at Rancho Tinamu
Hormidas Lopez has a reputation around here for being lively despite his age. His progeny comprising at least half of our guides/instructors, I was not surprised to be greeted by a paradoxically youthful old Tico man sporting a wilted bucket hat, dirty polyester dress slacks, and a two-tooth grin with a gap that’s almost not big enough to let his spry spirit spill through. He was completely beside himself after dinner Christmas Eve as he watched his kids and grand kids play together affectionately in the living room. Even as a total stranger, I felt welcomed, which was needed being so far from home. It became obvious that the importance of family is most definitely Pura Vida.

Don Hormidas Lopez with his granddaughter in Piedras Blancas
Sure, you can go to a picturesque beach resort and relax by the ocean or get a massage at the spa. Those things are great and they do have something in common with the laid back pace of certain parts of Costa Rica. But you can do that in any number of places across the world. The real pura vida can only be experienced by personally interacting with the people who created it.

All of the people I met along the trail play a crucial role in Costa Rica Outward Bound. Countless students have met them and countless students have enjoyed their hospitality and warmth. If you're interested in learning more, as always, check out our website for information. I won't even run the risk of sounding like so many other travel sites that boast the pura vida experience - come check it out and decide for yourself. 

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