According to the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica is the happiest place on Earth. A tiny country with a population of about 4.9 million, Costa Rica is sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America. I had the opportunity to visit this magical place last week and spent 5 days in a forest, on a beach, and in the capital city. It was very telling that I was visiting the happiest place on Earth at this point of the year and also at this point in my life. Like the majority of us human beings, I have been searching for happiness for most of my adult life, and even though I know in my heart that happiness is something that originates inside of my own self, there still seems to be a constant pull to find the next thing that will make me just a bit happier than I was yesterday. Many of us can relate to this incessant need to be happy, and to the judgment of the world when we are not. And then, as Fall leaves us behind and the Winter pulls us into its firm, cool embrace, I have been recognizing that the sunlight is now hiding for much of the day, and the darkness is closing in.
At the time I booked my vacation to Costa Rica I was not aware that it was considered to be such a happy place. I had only heard stories from friends and seen pictures in magazines and online of all the amazing biodiversity, animal life, friendly people, and tasty food, the ziplining adventures, and the sunny beaches. When I was planning my trip I knew I did not just want to sit on a beach for 5 days. I wanted to experience a few different parts of Costa Rica in a very short period of time. So, I decided on Monteverde, Tortuga Island, and San Jose. Three parts of Costa Rica, three different types of landscapes.
After flying into San Jose, I shuttled my way to Monteverde, which is a region about 137 kilometers from San Jose. It is a place up in the mountains at an elevation of 5,900 feet with a series of forest hiking trails at an elevation of approximately 4,100 feet. Monteverde is lush, green, and full of gentle grey cloud cover interspersed with moments of blue sky and sunshine. Hummingbirds (in Spanish, colibri) flit and float and flap their colourful wings and dip their beaks into flowers and trees. Bright blue butterflies large enough to be birds hover everywhere. The Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the key attractions of Monteverde, is full of hiking trails for those who want to experience the fresh forest and to soak up the wisdom of the trees of the primary and secondary forests. Epiphytes (plants that grow on top of other plants) climb through trees and into the sky. During my hikes in the forest I was constantly reminded how dependent life is on other life. The fact that we as human beings can only co-exist, and could never exist on our own. The fact that the forests, trees, birds, butterflies, sloths, and tarantulas must all survive in order for our lives to be sustainable. Walking through the trails of the Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde, I was led by a guide whose identified as a member of an indigenous community of Costa Rica called the Bribri. He claimed to know every plant, bird, animal, and insect in the forest. He shared stories with those of us who were walking along with him and allowed us to taste piper (pepper vines), take pictures of flowers shaped like hot lip candies, and stop, breathe and admire trees that shot up into the sky like fire. At the end of the day after hiking through forests, I felt joyful without a specific, tangible reason. Sure, I was on vacation. But, it could be argued that I wasn’t really “doing” anything spectacular. I wasn’t climbing up vast mountaintops or witnessing architectural wonders. Every region of the forest looked similar, and yet there was so much life to be observed closely and carefully. Even dead leaves in the wet mud seemed to conjure up a feeling of understanding and intimacy, that recognition that we are all going to merge with the dirt at the end of our lives. There is so much contradiction in the forest – it is teeming with life, and yet death, destruction, ugliness, and the end of things, is present everywhere at the same time. So yes I was joyful, but also contemplative. Essentially, the forest is a wonderful mood enhancer!
After spending a few days in the forest I hopped on a bus to travel to the town of Puntarenas, where I caught a small cruise ship to travel to Tortuga Island, a tiny private, island in the middle of the Pacific, surrounded by a series if other islands, about an hour and a half from the coast of Costa Rica. My boat was full of people from all around the world: Chile, South Carolina, Mexico, Russia. There were families traveling together, and some folks were on their own independent journey. As I connected with those around me I enjoyed the feel of the sun on my legs as I lounged on the trampoline-like deck at the front of the boat. And beautiful and kind Costa Rican men came around with bountiful trays of papaya, watermelon, pineapple, banana, and oranges. These moments felt like the resort experience that I actually had not wanted to have, and so I resisted, but I also felt so relaxed that I could not really agitate about it. The air was warm, and the breeze was kissing me so invitingly, I really had no choice but to settle into a state of total peace.
Once on the island, I sought out the conga player on the cruise ship so I could get a few drumming lessons from him. The marimba played and the maracas shook while I beat the drums and the other cruise passengers watched on. We went snorkeling in the Pacific waters, and I lost myself in a dance with colourful fish in the sea. The sardines shimmied past me and jumped up into the air in the hundreds, trying to find safer waters to travel. The waters were murkier than some of the others I’ve been in, but I loved being with the marine creatures, staring into their wide, naïve eyes, and appreciating their beauty. It was tough to get out of the warm water and back onto both feet.
We headed back to the island after the snorkelling excursion, and then there was a beautiful meal of plantain ceviche, pasta salad, white wine, and Costa Rican coffee waiting for us. Then, I wandered straight into a hammock and plopped myself down in it with a book and a journal. An elderly gentleman beside me fell out of his hammock as I was getting into mine, and he laughed so heartily it made me smile. The joy of falling right on your buttocks and not caring. The joy of being older and having a sense of freedom that there was no longer any need to impress anyone but oneself. I loved that moment with that man for reminding me of this freedom.
Hours went by and I wandered the beach looking for shells and rocks to remind me of the place. I watched 4 male peacocks chase one another down the beach while the females ran behind them. I saw a small wild hog bury his black body in the sand to cool himself down. I caught a glimpse of a faun running through the forest away from the beach.
Leaving the island, I caught the most glorious sunset. It felt so complete, this day of beach and fish and wildlife and peace.
My last day was to be spent in the city of San Jose wandering the streets and popping into the Mercado Centrale to search for cute souvenirs and trinkets. When walking down Avendia Centrale, a walkway with only pedestrian traffic, Costa Ricans had set up their stalls selling everything from bags to undergarments to locally crafted jewellery to lottery tickets. I met the “Charlie Street Drummer”, and as we tried to communicate in some version of Spanglish, he told me that he makes his living beating drums around Central America. His face was shining with pride and happiness as he told me about his livelihood. I was both envious and in awe of his courage. How many times have I told myself I would follow my dream, only to get sucked back into the mundane routine of trying to make a living? How long would this pattern continue?
It was nice that the Hotel Presidente where I was staying had unlimited amounts of Twining teas for hotel guests. I sipped on tea late in the afternoon and observed the ambience around me. All the hotel staff would smile big smiles as they walked past me, the message of pura vida etched into their faces. Again, there I was, envious and in awe.
For what I thought would be the last night in Costa Rica I went out for a night of karaoke and salsa dancing with a friend. As it was the Halloween weekend plenty of ghouls, witches, goblins, and all out scary faces joined the festivities at Castro’s Bar. The majority of the bar was filled with very young people, likely in their late teens and early twenties. They were glowing with intoxication and satisfaction in the moment. Some never left the dance floor and kept swinging from partner to partner, or else they stayed with their true love in sensual embrace for the entire night. The haunting beats merged into me and I danced.
The next day my flight was supposed to leave from the San Jose airport, but after I arrived to check in for my flight I was told that volcanic ash in the atmosphere was preventing the plane from traveling from Liberia to San Jose to pick up passengers for the Toronto flight. I was devastated in an instant, thinking of all the work I had to do the very next day (which would be a Monday), the classes I had to teach, the assignments I had to mark, the projects I had to complete etc. etc. My mind raced with worry and all I could think about was how unfortunate it was that I was stranded in Costa Rica. Imagine! I was in the happiest place on earth and worried about being stuck there for a little while longer. But, this is what the mind does. It does not latch onto happiness easily. It would much rather hang out in its own suffering. So, I fretted and worried and made calls and sent emails and complained over and over again about my bad luck. I saw others doing the same. And others threw up their hands, pura vida!
So, for my last night in Costa Rica, I lay in bed in my hotel room next to the airport, watched Denzel Washington’s beautiful face on screen in a movie called “Unstoppable”, drank peppermint and white tea, read the rest of a really good novel, and just enjoyed relaxing. I let go of the anxiety of what I was missing and just spent some good quality time with myself. I didn’t feel the need to get out and see anything, or to do anything in particular. Recognizing that I was extremely lucky to get an all expenses paid last night in Costa Rica, I relaxed into gratitude. That can be a magical thing when that feeling finally appears.
The next day all of us passengers whose flight had been cancelled were boarded onto a bus that traveled to Liberia where we were to take our flight back to Toronto.
As I viewed Toronto from the sky it was surrounded by blackness. The CN Tower, the bright buildings, the dark lake, all stood out in front of me and I felt a rush of love for my home. Being in Costa Rica had been fabulous, but I was able to connect with the feeling that I don’t have to ever rush away from Toronto, or from my home. Instead, I can make the choice to rush towards my home, even when home is causing me distress and pain.
A pure life is lived with a pure heart. A heart full of gratitude, understanding, compassion, and awe for life just as it is. Whether it is in the forest, on the beach, in a dusty central American city, or at home.
That is the reality of pura vida, I think.