Thursday, 22 April 2010

The meaning of Pura Vida and wanton friendliness

When you land at the international airport in Alajuela, it is very possible the first words you will hear from a local is "Pura Vida".  And, as you are destined to visit our hotel, the first Spanish words you will say are also likely to be the same - "Pura Vida" . . . as in "is this the free taxi to the Pura Vida Hotel?".
In your case you will be asking for the free taxi to the hotel, in their case they are probably saying "hi there!" or "great day isn't it!" or "so nice to see you!" or "see you later, friend!". Pura Vida is as close to the national motto as any phrase ever will be. If you want to see a Tico (local person) smile, just say "Pura Vida" and they will likely as not smile and say it back to you.
There are a number of explanations for the use of Pura Vida (literally "Pure Life") in the daily affairs of every Costa Rican. You will hear it over and over again as Ticos smile at meeting an old friend or as they say goodbye to a relative after Sunday lunch . . . "Pura Vida!". Pura Vida is unique to Costa Rica and it is probably the most used phrase of any . . . it is also the reason why there are 3 very different lodging places near the airport called Pura Vida Hotel (us), Pura Vida Spa (not us) and Pura Vida Motel (where beds are rented by the hour, also not us).
The explanation that you hear most often goes like this. Costa Ricans started using the expression "Pura Vida" after watching the premier of a Mexican movie called "Pura Vida" in 1956.  We have another more interesting theory based on “chicken soup” (see below for our explanation). By 1970 everyone was using the expression on a daily basis because the words conveyed the state of happiness, peace, and tranquility that political stability, a small country and freedom bring to Costa Ricans.

This period (1970 onwards) was a time of enormous change in what was being laid down as the groundwork for one of the most critical of all advances in Costa Rica - the national park system.  Poas Volcano, which you can see from the Pura Vida Hotel garden, was the first such park designated in 1971. Quite extraordinary to think that more than 25% of the country was protected in the 15 years that followed.
Nowadays, the expression "Pura Vida" has become so popular that it has been added to Costa Rican Spanish dictionaries as an idiom to greet, or to show appreciation. Pura Vida is a word that identifies a Costa Rican wherever he or she may be.

When you say "Pura Vida" the facial expression of the person changes and the person smiles. It is a word very meaningful to Costa Ricans. It reminds them of home and beauty and peace.

Now . . . about that chicken soup explanation.

Wiki says "Some foreigners view the phrase as an expression of a leisurely lifestyle, of disregard for time, and of wanton friendliness. However, Costa Ricans use the phrase to express a philosophy of strong community, perseverance, resilience in overcoming difficulties with good spirits, enjoying life slowly, and celebrating good fortune of magnitudes small and large alike."

What I thought I heard (but cannot google as yet) is that hundreds of years ago, the new Andalusian settlers realized that they were broke and starving in the New World. The Andalusians were the first real settlers after the mess the conquistadors made.
The Andalusians of Southern Spain had been attracted by posters on the walls of Seville (in the 1600's?) telling a special tale of potential in a small country with a Rich Coast. If they would come and colonize, they'd have "neither glory nor riches" but they could make an honest living without interference from conquistadors or papal edicts and no taxes for a few hundred years. And even if they did get a papal edict they could feel free to ignore it and same goes for oxcart driving. The downside, unlike the rest of centro america they'd not be able to accumulate any slaves and "there'd be no gold for the grabbing", the wall poster went on.

This attracted a certain kind of settler . . . a farmer, a small holder, a shopkeeper, a teacher, a lottery seller and such. They boarded the boats at Cadiz with their meager worldly possessions, some bags of rice and beans and a few tools and set sail for Limon. On landing they quickly hailed a taxi oxcarto and headed for the central valley, some stopping off to found Orosi and Turialba and others going on to the small settlement of a few thousand souls eking a living in San Jose (the progeny of future BN tellers and residents of my village) .
Along the way encampments were setup in the shade of Pejibaye palms (ask us about Pejibaye when you get here). The settlers decided to boil some water for tea. And, of course, a small bunch of ripe pejibaye happened to drop in the water. It didn't smell too good but they were hungry and fished a couple out to eat. Dipped in Mayo de Cadiz, they didn't taste too bad . . . but we digress.

The remainder became soup for the evening. And it was pretty OK. The next evening they found some veggies and threw them in to the soup and it tasted better. As time went on soup became a favorite at the end of the day just as dusk set. Over the years you could hear the locals declaring it "pretty darn good" in the local dialect of the day. In later years they experimented further and, after a hard day toiling in the camote fields, they'd come home to really good soup, toss in a camote and would declare it "the best thing!"

As time went on they decided to add chicken bones to get a better stock and this was to be declared and even better thing, "the best thing of the day!"

Progress came to the little villages of Turialba and the town of San Jose which periodically exchanged with Cartago to become the capitol of this outpost managed from Guatemala. Priests were occasionally sent down to try and figure out how to make a buck but most never reported back to home base. They stopped in San Ramon and Atenas and Alajuela and just loved the local soup and set up shop as chicken farmers and Jewish tailors (there is a degree of confusion in 17th century history in CR).
As the Andalusian settlers got better organized they moved from a subsistence level to something more settled, more pleasant. And then, on special occasions, they added a whole chicken to the soup . . . and it was declared "the best thing (perhaps ever)" . . . at the end of a hard days toil. Sitting back after a couple of platefuls you could hear it from the kitchen tables of San Carlos, Orosi, San Pedro and Heredia . . . the words that truly expressed the pleasurable contented peaceful family feeling . . . "Pura Vida!".

OK IMHO, Berni

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Moving to Costa Rica . . . a country at peace

We participate daily in the local gringo message board here Costa Rica Living, anyone is welcome to join if they have an interest in Costa Rica.
There is a caution I must add  . . . as you read the posts, these are opinions and are frequently wrong for various reasons.  For one, new arrivals to Costa Rica have different needs than the old hands.  For another the social climate (as well as the weather) is TOTALLY different in the loosey goosey Zona Sur than in the much more populated and organized Central Valley of Costa Rica.  What works for one rarely works the same for the other.
Here is a pretty good example of 2 perspectives about the exact same stretch of road.  One visitor wanted to know about the road in and out of San Vito close to the Panama border.  It just so happened I had been on that road the previous week . . . I replied:
"The road from the "highway" to San Vito is lovely
although the designer appears to have used a
corkscrew as her/his template . . . Going out the other
side of San Vito is also a nice winding road through
delightful countryside . . ."

Another member of Costa Rica Living then replied with:

"The hiway from Cd.Nielly is windy and uphill (and
dangerous in a rainstorm if you think in those terms)
and the one from the NW is full of potholes in
addition to the beautiful views, just so you know.
(Potholes at least before last Dec.)"

One member thinks the road is lovely and delightful
and another thinks it is potholed and dangerous.
Both views are of course true!

Actually the road looks just like this:

Recently a thread broke out about Costa Rica's lack of interest in war (as demonstrated by the abolition of the military in 1948 due to bad behaviour).  I wanted to share this thinking as the idea is what attracts many to Costa Rica in the first place.

A country at peace with the world.

The conversation started with this thought (obviously from someone who does not yet live here),

Q: "I am wrinkling my eyebrows now at the thought
that CR has no army. Do you really feel safe there?
I mean, there are idealogies that seek to dominate
the world and it seems to me that CR has no way
to defend herself. Don't you feel terribly vulnerable?

"I may have to watch out for the odd snake in the
woods, but am happy for not having to subsidize
a war machine. As it so happens we have already
too many arms with police and guatchiman."
 "Defend herself from whom? Nicaragua, Panama, ... ?
Most countries with military establishments have been
in more wars than CR has."

"I kinda like when this question surfaces.  We don't
have anything that anyone wants here. Neither Panama
nor Nicaragua need more terrain or more campesinos!
We nixed off shore drilling, so no one is going to invade
us for our oil.
We have no enemies since we remain neutral in international
Our president Oscar Arias has made a massive effort over
the years to encourage other countries to spend the money
that a military requires on housing, education, medical care
and other things instead of weapons and soldiers. If people
are healthy, happy and reasonably well taken care of, they
don't do revolutions either.
Our need for a military is basically nonexistent. Many of our
neighbors in Central America use their armies to control the
population. We don't need to do that either.
I love that we don\t pay taxes for something we don't need."

"I have to admit to having a huge smile on my face
when I read this question.  Having no army was one
of the major deciding factors in my moving here in the
first place.
We have nothing which anyone else could want to take
and we have education and health-care instead!
What could be better??
I've never felt more safe anywhere."
 "Sorry, but i have a different take on what
could be taken from Costa Rica - and
it is happening now - "economically taken"
from a population made vulnerable by
tv and advertising, mesmerized by an
artificially-created need for owning
"things" that are manufactured and imported
from giant countries with giant armies - take
a guess which - and sold at artificially "cheap"
prices so these giant exporters can maintain
their trade deficits."

"Partially so, because we start to realize that we can either
suffer or master this situation. The solution towards a liveable
future will come from constructive and peaceful agreements
amongst ourselves. I don't have a cristal ball, but do believe
in our common sense (which needs time, like everything else)."

"My view of this is not that CR is a peace loving
nation but one taking advantage of circumstances,
many countries are willing to come to the defense
of CR should it be required, Israel, USA to mention
a few, who needs an army and BTW, what would
call all these uniformed "police" running around in
military uniforms, you tell me, police, military, army?????
Been to CR many times over the past 15 years and
decided there are other places that may be better.
Just check out the former leaders of the country,
where are they? The corruption rivals the USA. "

"Israel? What makes you think they would help Costa
Rica? Not saying you are incorrect but I have never
heard anyone mention any country other than the USA
who would come to the aid of Costa Rica should they
be invaded by a foreign power. I believe China might
but Israel? Can you tell me why you think Israel would?"

"God forbid that the Israeli Army ever shows up here...
I was in Israel in October.
There was a scuffle in Jerusalem so the army flew
maneuvers all around it's borders. Showing the neighbors
that they were serious, I suppose. But they also flew
maneuvers over all the 5 star hotels at the Dead Sea.
All day.  Flying lower than anything I ever seen outside
of an airplane Show. It was unnerving. It was loud.
It was unneccessary.
I seriously doubt than anyone will ever need to defend
us as there is no one to defend us from unless we change
the policy on offshore drilling. In whch case it is more likely
that the US would protect it's interests here. Because it has
been US companies that have shown an interest in our oil
and no one else to my knowledge.
They might actually have to if the problem were a takeover
for oil. But since we don't drill for oil here the likelihood is
about zero, maybe less.  Actually studies have been done
that show that most armies are used in part or wholly to
keep the citizens under control. Only a few large developed
countries send their soldiers to wars outside of their borders.
Far fewer than you might think."
 "I can think of one reason CR may need defense in
the future (if they can get serious about protecting its
most valuable resources). With the way the rest of
the world is going, clean water and oxygen may
become the most desirable things around.
Anyone for a fly fishing trip in the Aral Sea?"
 "Let me see if I have this correct, some country, such
as china were to take over Costa Rica they would respect 
the no exploration for oil in the coastal waters of CR????
I think not, they would begin exploration before you cloud
say jack rabbit, they are oil hungry, perhaps that may be part
of the reason they are courting CR now, hummmmn.
Fly fishing in the Aral Sea would be very successful, you
would be abuzz with success."

"Nope, I think IF some country took over there would
be no respect for anything (and especially if you already
built the refinery). But I just do not think the IF is likely.
Logistically it would be just too difficult for a distant nation
to accomplish it through invasion, would have to be done
from within. So IF the government wants to give the country
away, I am not sure that is the same as being taken over?
You get my drift.Either way, the kind of "taking over" that
could befall CR would not be defensible by an army. It
would likely require a civil militia, or an outraged population
at the voting booth. Or maybe just families preserving a
culture. Just my humble and maybe wishful opinion."
 "Um for the life of me I can't see why any country,
least of all China, would take over CR in 2010?
In a world of city states (lets say circa 1456 a.d.) there
was a great need to accumulate more cities and
territories in part because a city state was non viable and
needed some economies of scale, room to graze more
cows, a cute queen to attract and perhaps additional
slaves or something else they coveted.
Nobody takes over other countries any more (well
ALMOST nobody). Its truly passe, makes a mess of
the local landmarks and pisses off the neighbors.
Figueres was a very bright guy and got that all figured
out in 1948.

IMHO of course.
p.s. if my reading of the history is accurate, the total
layoffs as a result of disbanding the army and turning
the barracks into a cultural icon (I love that guys
style!) . . . was about 450 guys out of work. It wasn't
that big a job, but a distinct message to the future.
Correct me if I'm wrong on the numbers?"

All -
  1. Giant Cane Toad (AKA Bufo Marinus): more dangerous than the former Costa Rican military, this one found in the Pura Vida garden, about the size of a bread plate
  2. Cute little 2 toed sloths, native to the southern Caribbean zone of Costa Rica . . . the mother may have been electrocuted as sloths sometimes can't tell a high tension cable from something pleasant to climb on
  3. A map of the rea around San Vito, just north of the Panama border, check out the corkscrew road design.  This is also the road to the most excellent Wilson Botanical Gardens.  The Wilsons are buried there too.
  4. Downtown Alajuela, our home town . . . though this is the second largest town in Costa Rica many of the locals do not use much from the so called developed world . . . supermarkets being one.  Many shop at the "underground" mercado central and the weekly Plaza Ferias (farmers market).
  5. This is Lola the pig and unofficial mascot of the delightful Playa Avellanas - she is one contented and enormous pig (and lives at one of our favorite beaches).
  6. The afternoon clouds mass in Alajuela near the Pura Vida Hotel
  7. The Rhino beetle and its kin.
  8. All of Costa Rica might, by some be considered a political backwater despite healthcare for all, no army and one of the hot spots on the planet for longevity.
  9. Yes the U.S. built some bridges here as part of an effort to make sure the Panama Canal would be accessible by road in the event of who knows what . . .
  10. The last real invasion attempt into Costa Rica was oddly enough managed by an American, William Walker in 1856
  11. A delightful caterpillar.
  12. A plaque commemorating the Costa Rican uprising that responded to the invasion with a campesino army of 5,000 . . . more people died in this war from yellow fever than from bullets.
  13.  Lichen growing happily on a log, just the way things should be in the neo-tropics.