My writings about the Constancy of Change in Life and beyond. From my view spot above the city in southern Costa Rica, I write.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Pura Vida!

Pura Vida

A Pura Vida sky on a walk with the dogs
Pura Vida is an often repeated phrase among the Ticos (what the Costa Rican people call themselves) in Costa Rica. The term has been part of the Costa Rican dialect for over fifty years and now an indelible and audible amenity of this gracious country.

It is deceptively simple. A direct translation means ‘Pure Life’, but there is so much more in the two words. As you pass a neighbor walking along the road you share the simple greeting. She smiles and says, Pura Vida!  You reply with the same, Si, Pura Vida!  You and your neighbor have just said to each other that life is good in spite of all the things that interfere or disrupt or change and that no matter what the current situation is in life, it is good. It also acknowledges that there are others less fortunate so it is good to consider that in comparison, one’s own life is just fine – no matter how much or how little one has.

Where did the term come from? According to one study of the expression, there was a film called Pura Vida that came to Costa Rica from Mexico in 1956, directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. In that movie the term ‘pura vida’ was the expression of eternal optimism used by a comic character who unfortunately seemed not to be able to do anything right in life.
"Pura Vida!"

After the film’s viewing a small population used the term and by 1970 it was being used nationwide -as it is today.

One of the most satisfying parts of living here in Southern Costa Rica in my poor neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by my Tico neighbors is that I’m finally getting to understand the depth of Pura Vida. It has taken awhile – especially with regard to my closest neighbors.

I moved into my simple, leaky roofed Tico house in 2008 after losing most of everything I had in the US financial crisis and medical bankruptcy. And though I knew the precariousness of my financial situation, I appeared ‘rich’ as the only ‘gringo’ in my neighborhood. While I was immediately accepted by Anita and her family who had sold me the house, my adjacent neighbors were not so quick to welcome. Immediately below my small place were four houses occupied by three generations of the family clan with the grandparents, Virginia and Antonio occupying the closest house.

My first encounter with grandfather, Toño and his son in law Sergio was about money. Though their rapidly spoken campesino dialect was impossible for me to translate using my infant spanish, I understood that they thought I owed them money. It was unclear how the debt had evolved – but somehow there was a reference to their part in my purchase of the property. Without any legal reason for them to be reimbursed, I basically ignored it – not knowing what else to do.  

And the years progressed – amicably, but from widely different viewpoints. They assumed that I was rich and had everything I needed and wanted – and quite separate from them. They could not know that my $673/month social security in 2008 barely provided. Much like them, I was also living in poverty though I was fortunate to have access to more income through teaching watercolor. Though our day to day commonalities were mostly invisible, I planted my roots deep into the Costa Rican red soil.  Through teaching and art I was able to rebuild the termite ridden house and replace the leaky roof, build an outdoor studio and two cabinas. All my Tico neighbors helped me with the labor.

Other neighbors, Billy & Jesus planting along the wall
Perceptions gradually changed over the years. It was as if the torrential tropical downpours gradually smoothed us out. The surface qualities and visible differences were slowly washed away to lay bare our human soul connections beneath. We were more alike than different.

I witnessed from afar the family’s pain with the grandson’s drug addiction and their constant struggle for ‘enough’. They witnessed the collapse of my roof in a mighty storm and the awful tragedy of Frank’s sudden death. Through the succession of seasons – with the sunrises and sunsets – my place in the neighborhood slowly became embraced.

Toño's house and driveway below my wall and house, upper left.
It mostly came through neighbor to neighbor interactions - beginning with the trees that grew along their entry driveway just under my expansive view. If the trees grew too tall they blocked the view. Early on I was able to pay $20 and Toño, the grandfather and patron of the family or a son in law would trim a tree. But then it began to look like all their new plantings along their driveway were deliberately focused on fast growing vegetation. A new cash crop? One year I managed to barter a pruning by taking Toño to the local nursery and buying him small fruit trees. But that could only work once.

On year seven I devised what turned out to be a winning plan. It was a few weeks before Christmas and I knew that the family would welcome money at this time. I put a 20,000 colone bill in my pocket ($40.00) and waited for the opportunity to encounter Toño on the road. (He was rarely home). One morning he was there and I told him I had money for him. He smiled and approached my car. As I extended my hand with the bill I said I hoped he could cut just a little from two trees and to my delight, he agreed and asked me to show him which trees. I pointed them out and later that afternoon I heard him chopping just below my wall. There he was – the same age as I at 73 – up in the tree with his machete cutting branches as I pointed and exclaimed from my higher vantage point. Finally I pleaded for him to get out of the tree and back to safety on the ground – and he laughed.  That Christmas Eve I took a big basket to them containing things I knew they would not buy themselves – peanut butter, olive oil, cinnamon rolls and fresh baked coconut macaroons. 

Everything changed.

Now we live more Pura Vida. If I have leftover materials from a building project, I offer whatever I have as a gift to my neighbors. I recently gave them leftover rocks from my retaining wall gavione project. They reciprocated by placing some of the rocks in the muddy center of the road in front of my house so I could more easily drive into my carport. And there was Toño - placing them with a huge smile on his face!

I knew we had reached a new level in our relationship when I arrived home after returning from a walk with my dogs. Virginia, the sweet grandmother of the clan was waiting for me in my carport. She extended fresh baked bread pastries to me with a big smile. “Para mi?” I questioned in surprise. “Si. Si. Come!” (Yes. Yes. Eat!) 

I returned the gesture a few weeks later with fresh cinnamon rolls I purchased at the market from the Mennonite community.  A win win – as it must always be in Pura Vida land.  And - it turned out to be Virginia’s 74th birthday!  We shared a big hug.

Pura Vida!

And that view I want to preserve? 
View out over the city - rain is on the way.
View out over the city - night fall


  1. Beautiful story and beautiful pictures!

    1. Thank you, Alisa for taking the time to respond. It is always a new adventure here learning about the deeper aspects of Pura Vida and I very much appreciate the feedback.

    2. Love this post, Jan, and the view from your little house is breathtaking!

    3. Thank you, Maeve - always so good to hear from you! Yes, I do feel so fortunate to have found this place to be. And I know you feel the same about your home. Blessings!

  2. Hi Jan, I was studying your book today in my watercolor class and just found your blog! What a beautiful and moving story you have shared with us. thank you -- please keep writing and painting! best from Rio, Brazil

    1. Thank you, Karina! I hope you'll stay in touch - I'm just about to publish my new book, 'A Woman Awakens: Life, AfterLife'..

  3. Hi Jan, I was studying your book today in my watercolor class and just found your blog! What a beautiful and moving story you have shared with us. thank you -- please keep writing and painting! best from Rio, Brazil

    1. Thank you Karina - and so sorry I only found your comment now - so many months later. I must figure out how to do this better! I will let you know when I write more. In the meantime - I have a book out, 'A Woman Awakens: Life, AfterLife' with 40 of my paintings. You can look for it on and it will be in kindle version in just a few days. Also a new website, Thank you and Pura Vida!