What I learned from the land of Pura Vida
It was precisely 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon when I found myself using all of my appendages to bounce off of rocks as I wobbled through the rapids near the Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. I was essentially a human ping pong ball, careening from boulder to fallen log, back and forth, periodically toppling into icy water before hopping right back onto my tube and doing it all again.
“Try to keep your weight centered right here in the middle of the tube,” the guide had instructed me.
Easy for him to say. His tube was on land as he demonstrated.
But now, not only was I on water, but I was flying down rapids, left with nothing to defend myself other than my awkwardly perched legs and arms iced with river water.
“Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall,” I kept repeating to myself.
This mantra had found a steady cadence in my mind this week. The past few days my husband and I had escaped our normal world of jobs, kids, baseball games, gymnastics practice, and puppy training, stealing away to Costa Rica on the Pacific coast of Guanacaste, followed by the wild rainforests of La Fortuna.
Wild. That’s exactly how I would describe Costa Rica. Vivid, bright, alive, joyful, crazy, spicy, rushing, steamy, flowing. And beautifully wild.
So wild that it only seemed fitting to engage in activities that were just as alive. At the beginning of the week, almost on a lark, Steven and I decided to go horseback riding after being approached by a chipper man who greeted us with a jolly “hola!” while his daughter stood smiling nearby. After some very enthusiastic gesturing (as Steven and I do not speak Spanish), the man’s daughter helped us onto the horses and we began what I thought was a typical slow-guided horse ride down the beach. However, the 16-year-old guide kept yelling from in front of us, “Let’s go!” while gesturing for us to tap our heels into the horse’s side. In minutes we were galloping down the beach as my control-freak-self gripped the saddle.
“Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.”
Every now and then she would turn around, look at our bewildered eyes, and laugh. “Pura Vida, yea?” she would say, then turn back around and keep on galloping toward the sunset, almost as if she was determined to outrun the sun.
“Pura Vida” is said often there by the locals. The direct translation is “pure life,” but it’s used as a greeting, thank you, or just general expression that something is great.
“Pure life, that’s what this is,” I thought to myself as I gripped the handles of the zip line overhead.
“Lay back, feet up, arms straight,” said the guide. I glanced back long enough to meet Steven’s eyes, outwardly curse him for signing us up for a zip-lining “adventure,” and off I went 675 feet above the cavern, flying 1/2-mile across, the wind whipping my body back and forth.
“Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall,” I said to myself in between prayers to God to help me survive this alive.
Survive we did. In fact, I thrived. But not without a fight first.
Because thriving in Costa Rica means giving in to the whipping wind, the glaring sun, the impromptu rainstorms and hundreds of pizotes (raccoon-like creatures) who cause traffic jams without a moment’s notice. In my everyday life, I like predictability, dependability, and safety. Costa Rica was everything but predictable.
But that afternoon while tubing on the river (after the horseback riding, hiking, and zip-lining), I finally gave in. I gave up trying to control the situation around me, and I laid back. I stared up at the jungle’s trees and toucans overhead, and I smiled as the icy water flooded my face. I then went down a few rapids and let myself fall off the tube into the water.
And guess what? I survived.
I looked up ahead at Steven, who had turned around to check on me. His face looked worried for a moment, but then I realized I could feel the ground beneath me in the water, so I stood up.
And I laughed. He met my eyes and laughed too.
This entire time I had been afraid of falling out of the tube. Well, it turned out that the water was only about four feet deep, so falling wasn’t really that scary. In fact, it was pretty fun.
Days later, as we drove from La Fortuna to the San Jose airport, I had three hours in the car to reflect on my week in this beautiful land. I had felt more alive that week than I had felt in really long time. Why was that?
Sure, there’s the obvious answer: I was away from the computer, I was in the elements, I tasted pineapple straight from the bush and swam in water warmed by the volcano.
But it was more than that.
Costa Rica taught me that it was okay to fall. In fact, good things come from falling—you experience entirely new sensations that, in many times, can result in laughter. And courage for what the next day brings.