0314 – Pura Vida! Thoughts from Costa Rica

I’m currently sitting at a patio of the Volcano Brewing Company Hotel in Tilaran, Costa Rica. My view right now:

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So I’m taking this opportunity to write this post. As always, I’m feeling a slight sense of guilt for not posting for so long although there have been many key moments in the past year. I did write a new spirituality essay though, and I am grateful for that opportunity.

Many of you know that I travel not mainly for the sights, but to learn about new ideas and understand how the locals live. I’m in Costa Rica with the GREEN program, aka Global Renewable Energy Education Network and the cheesiest acronym ever. I’m here because Costa Rica’s one of the happiest countries in the world, while also having a very progressive vision of becoming carbon neutral by 2021.

As with the case of my trip to the African country of Liberia, when I first came I was struck at the stunning greenery and the simple buildings with personalized touches. The sound of rain on zinc roof reminds me of the simple life, the air breezes invite a sense of tranquility, and the birds seem to chirp Pura Vida, the pure life. Granted, I am in Guanacaste, and not San Jose, where the capital lies. Even here, the hotel and restaurant signs in English, broken stop signs and raindrops leaking through the roof are indications of tourism, and the standard of living that cannot be compared to the middle class in the United States.

What is fascinating about this country is that… they get it. They get that one cannot simply live in oblivion of the deteriorating conditions of our planet. Costa Rica’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2021, if successful, would make it the first country to accomplish such feat. What I wondered in relation to this is 1) why do the people care, and 2) what makes them happy? I still strongly believe in the fact that happiness–both individual and collective–should be emphasized as a main motivation of sustainable development. So, what I set off to do is to talk to the few locals that I interact with.

The first person I interviewed was my program coordinator, Tom. Tom’s not actually Costa Rican, but he’s lived here for more than twenty years. What makes him happy? Water, he said. Clean water, good food, and safety are important to him. I was personally taken aback, because I thought relationships would come up first. He did say that with those things available, his kids want to stay around to hang out, and there is time to build relationships. This concept somewhat reminds me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and also the diminishing impact on happiness level at high income brackets. Tom did add though that the trademark phrases, “si Dios quiere” (if God wishes so) and pura vida (pure life), are concepts that Costa Ricans do embody, which really do lead to a happier population. But to him, the most important thing that Costa Rica does well is education. The people are well-educated, and the government makes well-educated policies. Tom, an American, acknowledges, (to put it lightly) the failings of the US education system.

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My next conversation was with Chris, who was our local tour guide/coordinator.

Much of happiness is relative, so it is quite fitting that Chris started by stating his frame of reference: Central America. Compared to the rest of the Central America, Costa Rica has very few street gangs, low crime and low violence. And guess what. The Army was abolished in 1948! Costa Rica serves as a bridge for peace in Central America. In fact, former president Oscar Arias won the Noble Prize in 1987 for his efforts to end civil wars in other Central American countries. The money’s been moved into education, Chris said, which allows the education system here to be free and mandatory up to the high school level. School kids wear uniform so that the poor kids don’t feel inferior to the rich. And the wealthy here does not show off. Those with lower income will not only be supported with education, but also with shelter and food and land for agriculture. The social safety net here seems to be strong, which reminds me of Scandinavia. Chris said that there is a joy about everything in Costa Rica. People work together in town festivals. People protest when they see injustice. When people leave the country in search of new employment, they come back to the country within six months because they miss the country so much.

Personally, he is happy because he feels safe. He can leave his bike outside unlocked. He can breath free air.  He can go to the store and get everything he needs, unlike in cuba. He’s happy because Costa Rica has the 15th most biodiversity in the world. He’s happy because the government truly is owned by the people. He’s happy because he has the right to say and do, unlike in Venezuela.

Costa Rica is not perfect. Apart from the broken street signs and leaking roof, big dumpsters and barren land bring this apparent paradise back down to earth. They face the same issues the world is facing, including political corruption and negligence. But it seems to me that the beauty in nature and simplicity is much more appreciated here than in the US.

It’s been a great trip. I really wasn’t sure that I would choose to come on this GREEN program. But I cherished the opportunity to visit renewable energy plants here–hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass. They’ve got it all. I’m excited to see if they’ll meet their carbon neutrality target. I enjoyed learning about the energy company (ICE)’s social and environmental responsibility unit. I deeply cherished my first interaction with the indigenous tribe. I loved visiting an off-grid home up in the mountains. I loved taking a deep breath of clean air, while my eyes admired the breathtaking landscape. I loved hiking to see waterfalls and lakes and the butterflies.

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And ladies and gentlemen, this is how I like to travel.

Next destination: Brazil in October!

For now, Pura Vida!

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