“Pura Vida in Costa Rica” by Janet Lucy ~ published in Real Travel Magazine
It was my 14-year-old daughter’s dream to return to Esterillos Oeste, Costa Rica, where we had vacationed briefly the year before. Our Santa Barbara friends, Kristy and Kurt, and their two teenage daughters, Jennaka and Tiana, had moved there four years earlier and we had had just enough time one spring break to visit them for a week in their village on the Pacific Coast. They had been volunteering in the local elementary school and offering their time and support wherever they could.
“What if we went back to Costa Rica and really lived there,” Sarah proposed one foggy Sunday a year later, while Jack Johnson’s mellow music inspired tropical memories in our living room.
Living in another country wasn’t foreign to me. I had immersed myself in Mexico a number of times, and wanted to offer the same kind of life-altering experience to my daughters. Big changes were already up ahead. I would be turning 50 in a few months and had been contemplating a sabbatical and new adventure. Plus, my oldest daughter would be starting college in the fall, so the timing was ideal for Sarah and me to pursue her dream. Several months and a few timely emails later, we had a house-sitting job and two volunteer teaching positions in Esterillos Oeste, Costa Rica from September to December.
We were greeted at the airport by a driver sent to retrieve us by Eleanor Rogers, an expat from Canada for whom we would be housesitting. We had rented her cabinas the year before, and fallen in love with her ocean view oasis, luscious landscape, and backyard jungle, where white faced monkeys swung through the trees, iguanas draped the branches, and scarlet macaws screeched across the sky like streaks of red and blue paint.
We arrived during the rainy season and the first week were introduced to the majesty of Costa Rican thunderstorms. Lightning cracked the sky and thunder boomed like canons, signaling the torrential downpour that would pummel the metal roof all night. When Eleanor left for Canada at the end of the week after giving us a crash course in the idiosyncrasies of her house, garden and pets, I felt confident knowing what to do if the power went out, the name and number of the vet, and who to call if I saw a snake (Ricardo, the gardener).
It didn’t take long to absorb the pura vida lifestyle, and once we found our new rhythm, we were eager to begin teaching in the after school art program Kristy had arranged. Sarah would assist Kristy’s 16-year-old daughter, Jennaka, with her class of first and second graders; and Sarah and I would be teaching a class to a rambunctious group of sixth graders.
As we approached the school on our first day, I could feel all fourteen pairs of eyes upon us, watching Sarah and I carrying our nylon bags full of art supplies. They focused primarily on Sarah, who wasn’t much older than most of the sixth graders ranging in age form 11 to 14, taking in her tall slender frame, long blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes, a dramatic contrast to their dark hair and chocolaty brown skin.
“Hola, pura vida,” we greeted each other, then stepped through the double doors into the sala comunal. Our classroom was a large all-purpose room with barred open windows allowing a glimpse of the ocean and a welcome breeze. We gathered the kids around a big wooden table in the middle of the room and unloaded our bags. I set aside my American teaching formalities and reminded myself of our true intention: to connect with the heart of the village—the children—and facilitate art for the next twelve weeks.
We made torn paper face portraits, sea life mobiles, masks out of tree bark; the lively after school art club was chaotic and fun. Eventually we relaxed and became more familiar with each other inside and out of the classroom. On the street or the beach, our faces lit up, we’d wave and call out enthusiastically, “Hola!” “Hola!” and stop to chat as the classroom walls came down.
Aside from day trips to nearby Jaco and Parrita and Manuel Antonio National Park, we had no desire to leave our village. From the beginning, our intention was to stay in one place, connect with the local people and make true friends, which takes time no matter where you are.
One of the friendships I treasured most was with a young Costa Rican woman named Angelica.
“Hola!” Angelica greets me from the balcony of her one room casita, as I pass by for an early morning walk on the beach.
“Hola,” I call back and am parroted by the brilliant green loro perched on her shoulder.
“I’m having a cena tonight,” she informs me, “for puras mujeres.”
I’m intrigued by the invitation she has extended to a small group of expats, and later discover the purpose of the dinner.
“She needs some help,” Kristy reveals, “for her mother and family, and a few of us have offered to help her brainstorm ways to earn extra money.”
That night, seated around the table on Angelica’s front porch, Karen prompts Angelica to share the purpose of our gathering.
“Que verguenza,” Angelica begins, blushing through her dark skin and lowering her eyes to the table.
“We want to help,” Brigitte reassures her.
“And this is what women do best,” I offer, “together we’re even more creative and resourceful,” lessons I’ve learned.
Angelica looks up from the table, sees our sincere faces, and reveals the situation. Her mother’s house is in dangerous disrepair with holes in the floor and ceiling and open windows without screens, which allow the Dengue fever carrying mosquitoes to come inside. Angelica is worried about her mother’s ailing health and the rest of her younger siblings.
“I’d do anything for my mother,” she tells us.
“You have a beautiful singing voice,” Kristy reminds her. “How would you feel about a public performance?”
“A fundraiser,” Karen clarifies, “we’ll charge for admission.”
By the end of the evening we have a plan for Angelica’s debut singing performance and fundraiser. Over the next few weeks Angelica’s voice rings from her casita as she practices her songs, and we accompany her to rehearsals.
On the night of Angelica’s performance we arrive at “The Shake” at sunset after decorating the restaurant earlier in the day. Angelica is beautiful, her dark eyes framed with black eyeliner, her dark skinned face sparkles with glitter. By 7:00 the restaurant is full and overflowing outside onto the terrace. Karen thanks everyone for coming and shares with the audience how Angelica courageously gathered a few of us together, revealed her mother’s plight, then asked for fundraising ideas. “She didn’t ask us for money,” Karen explains, “She asked, ‘What can I do to earn more?’” Karen is eloquent in both Spanish and English, as she sets the stage for Angelica.
When Angelica takes the microphone, the magic begins. She opens with a Spanish love song, her voice fills the room as she strolls from table to table, and her fans hoot and whistle and cheer her on for the next two hours. By the time she completes her final set, we are all on our feet, clapping and stomping like a Costa Rican thunderstorm. Angelica shines like a star.
The next morning, our committee reassembles to count Angelica’s earnings. There is exactly what she needs to send to her mother. Angelica rushes home to call her.
Midway through our trip, life got hotter. Sarah, Jennaka and Tiana began taking salsa dancing lessons from Lourdes, a young Argentinean woman, who owns a restaurant, Arena de Fuego, with her Costa Rican husband. But Lourdes’s true fire was for dance and her lifelong dream was to teach. So Kristy recruited a few teen boys who were more than willing to be the girls’ dance partners. Every Monday night some of Costa Rica’s finest young surfers accompanied the girls to Arena de Fuego, the perfect setting for the class—an open patio, low lighting, Latin ambiance, and of course, music. Lourdes led them through the steps and especially coached the girls, “You must seduce those boys,” referring to the passionate nature of salsa. By the end of the lesson, sweat mingled with perfume and male cologne, and heat filled the car on the way home.
As the weeks went by, I became increasingly aware that my daughter was coming of age. Quince Años is the most celebrated birthday in a girl’s life in many Latin cultures, and while in Costa Rica, Sarah would turn 15.
“Are you going to give her a Quince Años?” Margot asked me. “Every girl must have one,” she insists, and we agree her restaurant on the beach is the perfect informal location. El Vago has an open-air patio full of tables and chairs, foosball and pool tables. Here the ticos and the gringos, adults and the children, revel together, and Sarah’s party was inclusive of all. At the appointed time, Sarah’s celebrants gathered around the two big cakes, lit up with candles and serenaded her in English and Spanish.
“Make a wish,” she was encouraged, and that’s when I saw it, the glance between her and one of her salsa partners. She blew out fifteen colorful velas, we all cheered, Sarah blushed and said “gracias!” and the merriment continued well into the evening. On the night of Sarah’s quince años, many of her wishes came true.
The Grand Finale
On the last day of our art class, Sarah and I approached the school with heavy hearts. How could we say good bye to the children we had grown to love so much? Not only would we be leaving Costa Rica, but they too would be leaving the elementary school in the village, graduating from sixth grade and heading off to the colegio in the nearby town.
They were all waiting outside the door to create a mural—the grand finale I’d promised them. Together we rolled out heavy white butcher paper to make a huge canvas for the mural’s theme: El futuro esta en nuestras manos—the future is in our hands—the message I hoped to convey as they stood poised to graduate from sixth grade, leave their school, and our crazy art class. I wanted them to know their dreams are powerful, and like art, begin with imagination.
Paint was everywhere as they splattered the mural with handprints. The room was alive with the joyful sound of slapping hands against the canvas and happy shrieks until the paper was completely covered in handprints. Finally, we all stood back to admire our creation. The project was complete and so was our art class. With a mix of joy and sadness, I told them it was “con mucho gusto” we had created art together. After farewell hugs, the students trickled out the doorway and into the school yard waving good bye. Then one student turned around to face us and enacted a dramatic charade of tears, comically expressing our mutual feelings.
The Last Sunset
I head down the hill at sunset, listening for Angelica’s voice as I pass her house, inhaling ylang ylang along the path to the beach. I am savoring every sound, smell, and sight, filling my senses with memory. My bare feet touch the sand, still warm from the day, and I walk to the water’s edge. I look out across the turquoise sea, changing color as the sun sets; watercolor washes the sky, pink, orange, and violet streaks that blend into grey then black. A soft breeze caresses my skin, and I wrap a sarong around my bare brown shoulders, several shades darker than when I first arrived.
Tiny lights dot the sky, sparkling like jewels, one by one. The moon pierces through the velvety blackness, a curved thumbnail, taking her place in the infinite cosmology. I have been searching for that, too, my place of belonging in cultures both foreign and oddly familiar; and connecting the dots in the greater constellation of my life’s design. This place and the people have become a bright star on my map. I know we will return.