I get this question almost daily from curious strangers here in San Diego —
“You lived in Costa Rica for over 5 years?! How was that?!”
It’s hard to give that one a short answer. I think to myself, ok where to start – the good, the bad, the ugly – but I normally say something like this “It was amazing – warm, tropical, and beautiful.” Maybe I’ll pull up a picture like this one here, a typical sunset in Tamarindo, and then I subtly change the subject.
If pressed, I go with this medium length answer:
5 years in Costa Rica was amazing. It was warm, tropical, and beautiful. I worked and learned from one of the best surf camps in the world. I started a fitness business from scratch and grew it into a legitimate operation that funded my lifestyle for over 3 years. I met the love of my life, even though we lived right next door to each other 5 years ago in San Francisco. I got in the best shape of my life. And I learned a new language.
If that still doesn’t satisfy the curious listener, I give the full-length answer which I’m sharing right now.
I’ll start by saying this at an absolute minimum – If you haven’t traveled, please go do so. You really have no idea who you are or what your limits are until you see the world. Or as Russel Ward, a writer, expat and fellow traveller, puts it:
You don’t change job or move house, you do that and more. The scenery changes outside your window along with everything and everyone you once knew. The impact on you is huge.
You might not realize it immediately but one day you’ll see it for what it is. You grew, evolved and moved on. You faced setbacks and dealt with them on your own. You overcame obstacles, beat back the naysayers and you have the scars to prove it.
For me, it was the ultimate exercise in gratitude. Try complaining about the speed of your Internet connection when you’re in Nicaragua and you see a woman walking 5 miles in the blazing hot sun to get clean water for her family. Or how about that iPhone charger you forgot, that doesn’t seem too significant when you witness people bathing in the local river because they have no running water at home.
This is the real power of travel. You see how good you have it in the developed world. You gain an appreciation for what you have. You stop bitching so much about meaningless shit. You start doing. As Mark Twain so perfectly states:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
So, back the question “how was it, what did you learn?” Here’s my long answer…
1) Patience. Patience. Patience.
In the land of Pure Vida, patience is one of the most desirable traits to have. Pura vida is a Costa Rican tradition that literally translates into “pure life.” Its practical implication is that nothing really matters that much, tomorrow is most likely the best time to get something done, and its best to just chill out. Some have compared it to “island mentality” or the Hawaiian equivalent to “aloha” – it’s a laid back attitude that says, “hey man, don’t worry about it, it’s all good, pura vida.” Now as a westerner on vacation, pura vida is like a sweet nectar. It’s intoxicating. It’s a drug that fills your body with such a good sensation. Part of what makes it feel so good is its novelty; it’s so foreign to many of us inundated with email, work, traffic, and busyness. It is the antithesis of busy. It’s the reality that nothing is really that important, and therefore chill the hell out and enjoy the moment.
The real beauty of pura vida lies in its simplicity. There’s no overthinking with pura vida. It’s about being present, enjoying the moment, and not worrying too much. While I believe American culture could use a light dose of pura vida, there’s another side to pura vida that doesn’t make it to the front page of tourism materials.
It’s the flip side of pura vida, or as I like to call it — the dark side of pura vida. As my friend Brandon says “pura fucking vida”. When you live in Costa Rica long enough, it’s hard not to utter “pura fucking vida” grudgingly a few times a week.
Trying to get something done at the bank? It’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything quickly. Trying to run a business and relying on people to show up on time? Good luck. Pura fucking vida.
Looking to purchase anything that requires government approval? You should expect months. Pura fucking vida.
If you try to impose your own cultural beliefs around how things operate, you’re in for a rude awakening. The moment you try and fight the pura vida, that’s when its vice-like grip tightens even harder.
The only solution is to embrace it – Let go, relax and be patient. Pura Vida.
I found myself exercising this patience on a daily basis.
2) Dealing with a different Culture
There’s the pura vida we just spoke about, but there’s also a related idea of tico time, and a heavy dose of machismo that took some time adjusting to.
I had to learn to let go and accept it. So it will take 4 hours to withdraw $100. Or, I’ll have that document to you manana – 1 month later, still no document. Manana isn’t really “tomorrow”, it means whenever it’s ready. That could be manana, but it also could be 1 month.
Trying to reconcile our American mentality of instant everything is challenging to say the least. The key was to keep expectations low, and try to see where people were coming from. As it’s nearly impossible to strip away my American cultural lens, some of these things seemed so crazy to me. So frustrating.
But if I were to realize that these people don’t have my cultural beliefs, they have their own, and that shapes the way they operate through life. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. And especially when you are living in that country, you have to respect that difference and be open to looking at it from that perspective.
3) Happiness isn’t about things
I know we’ve all heard it before, money doesn’t buy happiness. The science around happiness is complicated and I’m no expert on the matter. But I can tell you this – I met some of the happiest people in the world and they had very little money.
And I’ve met some of the most miserable people and they had a ton of money.
It was down in some of the most remote parts of Costa Rica where people had access to very little – pretty much just food and shelter – and they were just content and happy. There was a palpable energy that radiated around them. It was powerful to see with my own eyes. We’re culturally conditioned to think that external factors (buying stuff, validation from others, etc.) will lead to greater happiness. But that’s just not the case.
Look to the people in remote Costa Rica who have nothing and are the happiest in the world. This was a great reminder for me. To see it with my own eyes. To interact and experience their energy viscerally in my body.
This will stick with me for the rest of my life.
4) The ocean is the ultimate rejuvenator
Having a bad day? Feeling a little sluggish? The big blue ocean is one of the best solutions. Having a good day? Want to make it even better?
The ocean will help. I can’t say if it’s the saltwater, the negative ions of crashing waves, the feeling of awe looking out at such a vast body of water – who the hell knows?
All I know is that it all makes for one of the most rejuvenating things you can do for both mind and body. As many of my surfer friends can attest to, a morning dip in the ocean just seems to make everything better.
5) Less is more
That shiny new toy, do you really need it? John next door just bought a fancy new car, now I need a fancy new car, right? We’re really good at justifying anything. You might say something like “of course I need that new car, it’s safer, it’s nice to have another car, etc.” But do you really need it?
I learned that most of the stuff I accumulated over the years I never used.
Less truly is more.
I have to tell you the most liberating part of moving from Costa Rica was that we could only take what we could carry on the plane. A couple big suitcases and a surfboard bag. That’s it. OK, so it makes it a little challenging as we look at unfurnished apartments here in San Diego, but we will deal.
As I slowly readjust to this new reality living in San Diego, California I can’t help but think how fortunate I am to have had this experience. How much it’s shaped who I am, what I believe in, and how I see the world. And not to mention the skills I picked up having to navigate those murky waters.
I want to know about your experience. Has travel changed you? I look forward to hearing from all of you below in the comments or here on our facebook page!
Have a great day.