Pura Vida

Thursday June 27, 2013

“Pura vida!” My family and I were welcomed with this greeting the moment we stepped out of the airport of San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The provider of the greeting was our driver, Norman, who had been waiting with a small plastic sign with our family surname scribbled in the middle. We had arrived at around 4p.m. and the foreign country had been ready for it’s afternoon rainstorm. The sky was dark grey with thick, threatening clouds, but there had been no sign of any drops. Costa Rica was just entering it’s first months of the rainy season. I didn’t mind. I loved the rain. Living in southern California for the past twenty two years made me long for the cool, moist weather. Tropical weather was even better because I didn’t need a warm jacket. There, the rain cooled the hot air to the most perfect temperature. Once all twelve of us packed into our hotel shuttle, we were off to our temporary place of residence.
“The national dish of Costa Rica is rice and beans and beans and rice,” proclaimed Norman. As I sat in the window seat and watched small buildings of the town turn into lush, green vegetation, I listened to Norman talk about the different fruits found in his home country. For two hours I took in the newness of my surroundings. Norman drove on a small road with one lane going each way. We headed for La Fortuna, where we had planned to explore trails that surrounded the Paos volcano. On our way, we drove between hills and mountains that were covered with exotic plants, trees and flowers. Costa Rica reminded me of the Philippines, the country where my parents were born. I had visited the Philippines when I was about sixteen years old so I remembered the landscape. Similarly, Costa Rica had old shacks and huts buried within the foliage that would appear every so often on the side of the road. During that road trip, I had also learned that both countries, Philippines and Costa Rica were conquered by Spain. Christopher Columbus reached the eastern coast of Costa Rica while Ferdinand Magellan landed in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province in the Philippines during the 16th century. The likeness had caught my attention. I was ready to explore, to investigate. I didn’t want to just be a tourist who viewed all the beauty through a camera lens. I wanted to indulge myself in the mystery of foreignness. I wanted to find something, yet I didn’t know what. Was it purpose? A few months ago, I had a postgraduate melt down because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The pressures of finishing college and getting a stable job gnawed at me. Ultimately, I was a random puzzle piece, waiting to be placed in the correct spot. In a sense, I expected this trip to somehow help me fit into that comfortable position. At the time, I didn’t know how, and now I still don’t have a full grasp of what my ultimate calling is. All I know is, “not all those who wonder are lost.” (J.R.R Tolkien)

Friday June 28, 2013

A five minute van ride took us through the small dirt road that led to a small horse range. One step outside the “turismo” van and I was bombarded with the poignant smell of horse dung. The heat clung onto my skin like a wetsuit as black flies flew around me, threatening to take my blood. I tried to smile as I swatted away the pesky insects. I refused to show my discomfort. Despite the uncomfortable nature I was in, I really was excited for what lay ahead.  My family and I were greeted by a brown, plump man with black muddy boots. His stomach hung over his belt and it bounced every time he walked.
“Pura vida!” he shouted as he rose his stubby hands in the sticky air. “My name is Eric and I am your tour guide today.” I noticed the yellow pit stains under his arm pit. Again, I attempted a smile. “There, my amigo. Se llama Mino.” He pointed to an older man who was strapping on a saddle to a dark brown horse that stood a few more inches taller than him. He was our other tour guide that assisted Eric. Mino had light brown skin and his face was puffy with a large nose that hung close to his mouth.  It was not long before we were all mounted on a caballo and were ready for the adventure ahead. We all rode in single file line (more or less) as we followed Eric. I envied my little cousin whose horse got to be pulled by Mino on his own horse. Controlling Juan was like trying to control a stubborn baby. When I wanted him to go faster, he would go slower. When I wanted him to go slower, he would go faster. I was terrified of pulling the reins to stop because I was afraid of him throwing me off my saddle. Still, I pretended to know what I was doing. After awhile, the pain from the metal part digging into my calfs left my attention as I started to notice the forest around me. The trail we were took was surrounded by tall trees and grass. We passed by coffee and sugar cane plants, creeks, abandoned ranches, and trees with mangoes and papaya. At times, we came to a clearing that revealed the Paos volcano, which stood about twenty miles away. We halted at a small pit stop to descend down four hundred and eighty two rock steps to the waterfall of La Fortuna. The climb down was cool as a canopy of greenery sheltered us from the sun. We heard screeches and chirps from toucans, montezumas, and other exotic birds. As we got closer to the bottom, we started to hear the fast flow of running water. I clung onto the rock wall as best as I could without letting the small plants and algae that grew along the stones loosen my grip. After the last step, I arrived at the bottom of the most beautiful and the most fascinating waterfall I’ve seen in my entire life. It stood about two hundred feet tall, with water plummeting into a miniature lake. The water was cold, crisp and energizing. It was a refreshing treat after hiking down four hundred uneven steps. After about fifteen minutes of swimming and picture taking, we hiked back up and straddled back onto our horses. I heard kissing noises behind me. Knowing that sound meant “vamos,” I didn’t feel alarmed. It was Mino, trying to hurry up the horses along the trail. Four years of Spanish in high school urged me to start some small talk.
“How long have you worked here?” I asked in Spanish.
“Eh…sobre cinco. Cinco años.” He replied as he loosened his reins. Within that thirty minute scenic horse ride, I had learned that he had a thirteen year old son named Kevin, lived just a couple of miles from the ranch and was absolutely in love with his job. “I meet many people…todos differentes, all of them different,” he said as waved his dirty calloused hand in front of him. I saw the same filthy fingers come down to pat his horse’s neck. “Mi caballo…es mi familia,” he said. As he smiled, I could see his parts of his yellow crooked teeth. It was odd to see such a large rugged man express his love for horses. He treated them like his children, punishing them when he needed to, but always displaying his affection by praising them in Spanish. If I spotted this man on the streets of Los Angeles, I would have guiltily profiled him as some sort of thug or drug dealer. He just had that face, with his eyes sucked deep into his puffy skin. He wasn’t that tall, but he had broad shoulders that revealed the years of working at the ranch. At times he did look creepy, but if you saw how he looked at the animals, the way he handled them, the way he talked to them, it was hard to deny that he had a fatherly appearance about him. At that moment, it wasn’t mystery that was beautiful, it was love.

Saturday June 29, 2013

Today was the first day of pouring rain and I loved it. We were on the road again heading towards our next big adventure: white water rafting. As my parents and aunts and uncles worriedly talked about the weather, I was already scratching off white water rafting off my bucket list. Nothing was going to stop me from riding the roaring rapids of the rocky river. The bus had stopped about half a mile from where we were supposed to board the air blown rafts, so we trudged our way through mud with our helmets, life jackets and paddles in our hand. My family and I were accompanied by other large groups of tourists and visitors so we all looked like a large troop of soldiers following our tour guide up to where the rafts waited. Once we all gathered, everything was a blur because it all happened so fast. We were separated in groups of six, so my family got split up into two groups.  A young man in half a wet suit and swim trunks directed us to our raft and told us our positions. My dad and my uncle sat in the front, while my brother and my mom sat in the middle. I sat in the back with my little cousin, who was snugged in between the seats and was holding on for dear life.
“You’re not going to strap him to the boat? He’s only seven,” I told the guy.
“No. He’ll drown when boat flips,” he replied as he flipped his own hand, gesturing the notion. I gave him a nervous look and he smiled. “It’s okay, you’re with me.” After his dark hazel eyes gave me a wink, he started to give us instructions how to paddle, when to get down and when to hold on. He strapped on his helmet top of his dark brown hair, which curled even in the rain. He was incredibly cute, which made me more nervous.
“How long have you done this?” asked my dad.
“My first time!” he joked. We all laughed nervously. “No, seven years. I compete.” His riding definitely demonstrated his experience. Just after a few rapids and a few drops, he was making us laugh and scream with thrill and excitement. He made us thrust our paddles in the air while shouting, “Pura Vida!” every time we conquered a rapid. As we paddled through rocky terrain, every so often he would jump high in the air just to make the raft rock back and forth even more. He made us dive down into the raft just so we could feel the swift movements of the raft. That rapids weren’t even that bad. It was like a two hour disneyland ride without the fake animals and plants and more water. The Sarapiqui River we paddled through was in the middle of a gorgeous forest. Trees stood even taller with ferns growing on the sides of the trunks. Some of the branches stuck out in the river and we had to duck down to avoid them. Green vines draped down making a natural curtain of leaves. It was breathtaking. I had never seen mother nature in that state. There were moments where the river was smooth and we had minutes to admire the environment around us before we caught the next pile of rocks. I caught Roberto admiring with me, which I thought it strange since he had probably ridden this river millions of times with other tourists.
“This isn’t work for you is it? All of this is like your playground,” I told him. He looked confused at first then corners of his mouth went up.
“Si, this right here…” he slapped the raft. “…this, my office.” He didn’t look older than thirty. As he paddled, his shoulder muscles had shown through his wetsuit, which stuck on to the rest of his fit body. He also wasn’t that tall, but he was lean. He told me that he started rafting because everyday was a new thrill, a new adventure. There were a couple of times he thought were his last moments (having broken his collar bone and fractured his rib) while racing in rapids much more fast and dangerous than the ones the tourists went through. No matter how life threatening, rafting was apart of him. And I sensed it in his dark, hazel and adorable eyes.

June 30-July 4, 2013

The rest of the time in La Fortuna was spent zip lining through canopies and driving ATVs through forest trails. After the weekend, my family and I rented a bus to drive down to our next tourist destination, Manuel Antonio. The five hour road trip took us through more lush, green mountains and down to the Pacific coast. The town was literally a cluster of competing hotels with ocean views. Some were on the main road, others were deeply hidden within the underbrushes of vines, trees and shrubs. We stayed in a hotel called Los Altos, which overlooked the ocean and surrounding forests. After settling in, I decided to explore around our temporary abode. Just a few feet from the hotel, I discovered a structure that had looked like an abandoned shack. It was open, with just the cement walls and the metal roof left standing. Along the walls were art pieces, paintings and drawings that didn’t look abandoned, rather they were new. All of them had a similar style, like it had come from the same artist. Suddenly, I heard steps behind me and I quickly turned around. Before me was an old man of about sixty, not much taller than I was. His skin and hair were white and had a mid-sized beard growing around his chin. He wore worn out khaki shorts with a faded brown long-sleeve tunic that rolled up to his elbows and Jesus slippers. In his hand was a large piece of painted canvas.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know…” I started.
“Hi, oh it’s okay. Go ahead and look around. It’s not finished yet. I’m hoping I’ll have the gallery up by December. I’m Bill” the old man said. After our introductions, he shuffled his feet toward a blank space on the wall and started to wire the back of the canvas.
“It’s beautiful,” I told him as I continued to admire his paintings. They were vibrant and colorful, with abstract shapes of bodies and distorted faces. “Are these people that live in Costa Rica?”
“They are the indigenous people of Costa Rica. I’ve been studying the Latin history for my work for about 17 years,” he replied. He told me he had just came from Puerta Vallarta a few years ago studying and painting pictures of Huicholes and other indigenous tribes in Mexico. I was surprised to find an American living such a life. He had dedicated most of his years studying a culture completely different of his own. When I told him I was from California, he smiled and told me he had attended art school there. When I asked, “why latin history,” he replied with “they were mysterious.” He explained that even though he spent so many years studying the indigenous people and there are still so much more to learn and discover. It kept him going, it kept him alive. He lead a very frugal and simple life, owning nothing luxurious or expensive. What made him rich were his travels and the pieces of art that reflected history, culture and life. Painting made him happy and happiness was his treasure.

So there you have it. Here’s a piece of my mind. My account of finding something. I wouldn’t say this was my scavenger hunt for happiness, rather it was an exploration of my search for belonging. I will assume that everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere in this world, that they have a purpose for living. For me, I have come a little closer to finding out what. And that my friends, is enough for me.

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