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Pre-departure Reflections: ¿Pura qué?

[The following was written and posted after my arrival in Costa Rica due to difficulties in setting up the blog, but it represents my pre-departure thoughts.]


Even before I decided to study abroad in Costa Rica, I had heard about pura vida from some friends who had vacationed there.  As I remember, they described it as a good-for-everything phrase that connoted a deeply held value of easy-going-ness.  One called it almost Buddhist in nature.

My first reaction to their description of pura vida was suspicion.  It sounded a lot more like a tourism slogan crafted by a corporate committee than an idiom organically born from post-colonial Roman Catholicism.  With tourism so robustly integrated into the Costa Rican economy, it would be easy to imagine that such a slogan would appear to be a cultural phenomenon to visitors whose interactions were entirely limited to that slice of the economy.  I just could not believe it was used as widely—or as sincerely—as my friends said.

My cynicism was jostled when IFSA Butler’s Eryn Espín-Kudzinski signed off the first of her many pre-departure emails with the phrase.  Her third email featured a full explanation:


The most commonly used phrase in Costa Rica is “¡Pura vida!” It literally means “pure life,” but the saying goes beyond its simple translation: it’s a way of life. This Spanish expression is used in informal settings as a greeting, a farewell and as a way to express gratitude or satisfaction. It can also refer to someone who is nice and friendly.


I realized with more than a little shame that I had not given my friends enough credit.  And the phrase continued to crop up wherever Costa Rica was concerned.  A past IFSA Butler blogger had written about it.  The Rough Guide to Costa Rica mentioned it.  And yet something about pura vida still made me uncomfortable.

It dawned on me that it was the phrase itself that I didn’t like.  I still don’t know exactly what it means, but it seems to have something to do with being carefree. And I do not like being carefree.  It seems philosophically immature at best, and hedonistic at worst.  I’ve always imagined the worth of one’s character to be the sum of the convictions one holds and the rigidity with which one applies them. Doesn’t being carefree necessarily conflict with conviction and rigidity?

I’ve been trying hard for a long time to live ever more rigidly and deliberately: to be full of cares, not free of them.  So initially I thought I would just have to throw pura vida on the pile of cultural oddities that were interesting to examine but ultimately useless to me.  And I was I little sad to have to accept that distance between my host culture and me.

But, to make many long stories short, things have been happening.  Not the way I planned them to, and not the way I wanted them to.  Despite all my deliberateness.  Despite all my determination.  And maybe because of it.  I have little to show for my increasingly rigid character, and much to lead me to question it.

In the past few years, I’ve made a number of big transitions.  Before each one I deliberated on my goals, set my intentions, and proceeded accordingly.  But for this transition, the biggest I’ve made yet, I simply cannot find any sense of guiding conviction.  I find myself in a spot of vulnerability.  It is the last place I would want to be at a time like this, but it might also be the best place to be.  At the very least, it allows me to explore the concept—the lifestyle—of pura vida with an open mind.  And something tells me that I will end up not just learning about pura vida, but learning from it.


One Response to “Pre-departure Reflections: ¿Pura qué?”

  1. Ellen Says:

    Pura Cami. Can’t wait to hear how it plays out. xo m

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