Monday, November 5, 2012

In Search of Pura Vida

After more than one and a half years of living in Costa Rica, I admit to an ambiguous relationship with the Costa Rican phrase, “pura vida.”  During our first months in site, my wife and I were waiting in an ADI member’s front porch where supposedly their bi-weekly meeting was to be held.  We arrived on-time, wanting to set an example to our counterparts for punctuality, fully knowing that their meetings start between half-an-hour to an hour late, and despite the fact they are scheduled to begin at 5:30 pm on Tuesday nights.  The first member, besides the host, arrived 45 minutes late as we patiently waited for the others.  At 6:30 pm, the members called the Presidenta who replied that she would come, “ahorrita.”  Another member trickled in an hour and a half late, but we still lacked the Presidenta to have a quorum to have an official meeting.  She was called again at an hour and forty-five minutes and she said she was “on her way”.  At two hours, the members decided they couldn’t wait any longer and disbanded the meeting.

Both Melinda and I were newbies when it comes to the disappointment of poorly punctual and disorganized meetings, assuming they actually occur or that you’ve been notified because they have been cancelled.  Don Fabio, the then current ADI treasurer with whom we have had a friendly relationship, saw that both Melinda and I were visually dejected and turned to Melinda and said, “¡Pura vida! ¿Sabes que representa esta frase, verdad?”

Melinda looked at Don Fabio and said, “No, eso no es pura vida.”

According to Wikipedia, the saying “pura vida”, literally means pura = pure and vida = life, but may be more closely translated as "plenty of life", "full of life", "this is living!", "going great", "real living", "Awesome!" or "cool!"; or, per the Spanish Wikipedia entry: “Se utiliza para expresar bienestar en el estado de animo o en acciones.”

I have found myself utilizing the term pura vida with other Ticos as an expected, semi-rhetorical greeting (actually, I’m really having a crappy day, but thanks for asking!) and as a signal of agreement; however, only in the latter of these two uses, do I feel like I don’t come off as a fraud.  Instead of saying pura vida, I’d like to say, “Why pretend – we work together and try to feign mutual respect, but we really don’t LIKE each other.” or, “It would be pura vida, but I’ve got this horrible heat rash on my bum and I can’t itch it, so actually life is kind of excruciating.”
As a PCV in Costa Rica, I already have a hard enough time not feeling like an imposter, with my semi-fluency in Spanish and not being able to hide my obviously gringo characteristics.  I’m almost two years into my own service and I’m challenging my own integration.  I mean, pura vida is supposed to be Costa Rica, right?  Isn’t this phrase at the nucleus of why Costa Rica has been named the Happiest Country on Earth?

I’m not certain Costa Rica is the happiest country on earth – in fact, I have a problem with the whole “happiest country” rating system in its entirety.  I’ve listened to too many quejas of community members who are concerned about lack of fuentes de trabajo, teen drug use, lack of security and the increase in robos where houses must have bars, be locked at all times, or have someone present 24 hours (or hire a guard).  I’ve seen the alcoholism and the lack of educational opportunities and resources (How can children learn if they can’t hear, if they only have class half the time or if they have to walk an hour and a half just to get to the bus to take them to the colegio?).  The majority of these issues are not particularly Costa Rican, many of them shared in many sectors of society in the United States, among other countries.  Ticos are some extremely kind people and I’ve been treated by many as an extension of their family.  I’ve had the privilege to share life experiences in likely the most naturally beautiful place that I will ever have the opportunity to live, but I believe there is a limit to pura vida, as generally believed by most tourists and readers of Internet sound bits.

Despite these misgivings about how to reconcile what I see in certain sectors of my community, I do know that “pura vida” exists.  I feel it when working with Don Carlos, who is a part of the Junta de los Padres del Sexto grado who helped us on a school ceramic floor project.  I see his smile and when he says “pura vida” I can recognize his sincerity and it comes from his heart.  I also know pura vida in my interactions with Don Justo, who is the father of one of the kids in our English class through his unfaltering positive attitude.  I sense pura vida in the interactions I have with Susana, my co-worker’s wife, as she practices her English with us that she’s learned through an INA course recently, and can also be viewed through her relationship with her husband and the intelligent, respectful and well-adjusted child that they are raising together.  Culturally, in general I’ve been able to distinguish another pura vida through the unwavering patience Ticos have when things work out or whether they don’t.  It’s the Spanish equivalent to the French saying “c’est la vie”.

I’ve learned in my two years of service there are very few things that I have control over, and this has allowed me to not only to be a successful PCV, but also to remain sane and to enjoy and value my service, despite the cultural divide, the malentendidos, the isolation and the countless other frustrations that all PCVs face during their service.  I can’t control the working relationship with my counterpart, the fact that the sun is tremendo (I’ve got sweat marks in every imaginable location) or the frustrations with meetings lasting four hours when only one would be sufficient.  However, I can embrace my version of “pura vida” and not always accept it at face value.  I renounce stressing about what I can’t control, stop complaining and embrace reality.  And, when I COS this coming May, I will be infinitely grateful for all the pura vidas that those like Don Carlos, Don Justo and Susana have shared with me.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting view point. I remember "purda vida" as a tourist as "good times". The grass may not always be greener.