February 20, 2013
To live in Costa Rica is “la pura vida” – a common dicho or saying that literally means “pure life” or “all life”. It’s a newer dicho, having become popular in the past fifteen years after it was coined by the Mexican comedian Antonio Espino y Mora, known as Clavillazo who used it in this film. Although younger people say it often as a slang or when things are going particularly well on a given day, it’s a shared sentiment by Costa Ricans, and something even extranjeros tap into when visiting. It’s an ideology, a way of life, a deeper philosophy of how life should be lived, both in peace, but also to its fullest in the present moment. It also refers to a shared sense of entitlement that you can’t mess with my right or anyone’s right to live a peaceful life. What has become clear after one week of my visit to San Jose, is that viviendo la pura vida doesn’t involve accumulation of wealth or longing for things un-had, it’s a deeper understanding for the richness and appreciation of life itself.
It’s something we discuss for hours while eating pizza and nursing some drinks at Cafe Mundo, a lovely cafe in the ritzier part of San Jose tucked amid boutique hotels, bed and breakfast spots and spas. It’s a favorite spot among locals and Americans who live here and for whom San Jose isn’t just a springboard to eco-adventure-ville. My new friend, Jose Enrique Garnier, a native retired Costa Rican architect, has brought me here. It’s our first two hours of meeting one another after being introduced over e-mail the day before through a mutual friend in Guatemala. Jose Enrique is not only an architect, he was the previous dean of the architecture department at UCR, a documentary producer and now the organizer of what will be the region’s first Cine Arquitectura. He’s soft-spoken and slow to respond, which I thought initially meant he couldn’t hear me. His pauses, however, mean reflection and eventually he responds as any good professor does, by saying “well you have to look at it in context.”
He’s also recently widowed, his wife, who was a journalist, passed away the previous year after thirty years of marriage. He has two sons, both who live in the United States and are in doctoral programs. Sitting across from him I can see he’s had a difficult year, we both have and neither one feels a need to hide it. We’re both happy for each other’s company. Out of sheer impulse, I had called him earlier and asked him if he wanted to go to the Contemporary Art Museum, it was a shot in the dark, but he agreed readily. “Estoy en San Pedro, te veo pronto.” I’ll see you soon.
I have to stick to Spanish with Jose Enrique, which makes my brain hurt when I ask him about “social paradigms” and “institutional knowledge”, words I do not know in Spanish. We meet at the museum gates, he wears a yellow golfer’s cap, khaki pants, and a burgundy cardigan that comfortably stretches over his belly. He has his small point and shoot camera in his hand. I think: If he were grandpa, he’d be a hipster, arty type of grandpa who takes you to the museums and then for a root beer float later.
We enter the museum 45-minutes before they close and we both try to negotiate down the $2 entry fee, shameless I tell him, while he makes his final bid for “2 for one”. “How about 2 for 2?” the museum woman tells us with her biggest and most graceful smile. I don’t think we’re the only ones who arrived late.
But Jose Enrique isn’t one to rush through things, so we move from piece to piece together, taking pictures of each piece, getting to know one another, scratching our heads when we arrive at a piece we have no idea what to think, then shuffle along quickly to the next piece. One of the exhibits is a national artists’ collection with close to twenty Costa Rica contemporary artists. I couldn’t have picked a better museum partner because Jose Enrique knows most of them and has enough context on everything to teach an entire class. In the pop art section we get to a collection that focuses on outside perceptions of Costa Rica and its role in Central America as the “Switzerland of Central America”, the Swiss Army knife without the army, the missing puzzle piece, the happiest place in the world. “Somos presos del exito.” We’re prisoners of our success, I heard later in my trip and slowly I began to understand.
“El 17 de enero 2011 se publico la siguiente noticia en el Facebook de Telenoticias: “Cientos de Nicaragüenses Buscan legalizar Su Estado en Costa Rica “Estós hijo los Comentarios Que Se hicieron el dia al respecto, los cuales se pueden ver en www.facebook.com/Telenoticias7/posts/161151917265734″
It’s one of the biggest debates right now which centers on the increasingly immigration of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica and what to do about an already overburdened public medical and social services system.
I asked Jose Enrique what “pura vida” meant in this context and what it meant to him. He pondered that question quietly. “It’s a good question, it’s a dicho, which we use, but in this case, it’s questioning our own ability to let others live their lives.” I was getting confused because there was a clear tension between how outsiders perceived Costa Ricans, how Costa Ricans perceived themselves and the growing pains of a democracy dealing with increasing levels of government corruption, immigrants from Nicaragua, narco-trafficking, money laundering, and the plot just thickened.
The last part of our museum tour involved the upstairs exhibit which focused on the internal violence that Costa Ricans face with decreasing public safety as reflected in the familiar rolled barbed wire over houses, iron bars on the windows, the availability of guns, homophobia, the increasing aggression by the police force, the push and pull between public and private institutions, limitations to liberty of expression, machismo and pretty soon it was getting stuffy in this attic. I look for Jose Enrique who is staring tranquilly over the balustrade at the repeating video of a young man watering his asphalt yard. Not even weeds sprout to ease the tension.
“It’s stuffy in here,” I tell him.
“I think that’s the point,” Jose Enrique says wisely. I felt like I’d just sat through a three-hour lecture on the plight of Costa Ricans.
“Let’s go get a coffee or drink,” I told him. He nods. “I know just the place.”
We left the museum and ordered wine, vodka and a pizza at the Mundo Cafe. Tucked in between the ferns, Jose Enrique talked about his fascination with Cine Aquitectura, Metropolis, Peter Greenaway, Clockwork Orange, Bladerunner, Tron, even Batman, films where architecture was part of the theme of the film or the protagonist or where you used film as a medium to tell the story about architecture in a more interpretive way. He’s passionate about it, I’m trying to keep up by Googling on my cellphone or writing as many names as I can for later.
I’m, ultimately, multi-tasking while he’s talking, texting and trying to get another meeting moved over to the cafe. It’s yet another person I’ve never met who I’ve convinced to meet with me. I tell Jose Enrique this and he laughs. I’m not sure if he thinks I’m rude, immature, or simply a novelty. So I casually tell him, this person will be dropping by to say hello. I text over the location to the new soon to be acquaintance. His name is Luis Matgui and he just began the Observatorio Ciudadano, an all-volunteer advisory group that will focus on saving La Caja. I look it up: “La Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social es la institución líder en servicios de salud públicos en Costa Rica.” It’s social security and the socialized medical care system which indirectly helps to create a stronger middle class and increases preventive care and, subsequently, extends the life span for Costa Ricans. It’s not the first time I’ve heard mention of La Caja, the one that’s in crisis, the one that the entire balance of the Costa Rican middle class hinges upon.
Luis rushes into the cafe, looks around. I immediately I spot him and wave him over to the table. He has a full set of graying hair, vivid dark eyes that dart back and forth inhaling his surroundings. He has a soft leather briefcase in his hand that he sets on the back of the chair. He makes to shake my hand, but then notices I’m Central American and instead gives me kiss on the left cheek. He shakes Jose Enrique’s hand and then sits. I offer him pizza, a drink, he asks for a coke. I ask him where he just ran from and he smiles, “Where didn’t I go today? It’s been a busy day!” I ask him why.
It’s the questions he’s been waiting for. Luis unleashes about his meetings with public officials and civic groups about the importance of saving La Caja, La Caja this, La Caja that, the plight of the Costa Rica, the slow implosion which is coming to a critical phase after the last ten years. Jose Enrique takes a call on his gleaming white iPhone and Luis continues his unleashing, which has become an informative rant at this point, except I’m too uninformed in local Costa Rican politics to be able to connect the dots. But my brain is speeding along with Luis and the night is still young.