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What Costa Rica Has Taught Me About Play

Last week, I got to get away. Like away, away. To-the-tropics away. I went to Costa Rica. This was my first visit back to Costa Rica in five years. I spent nearly three years teaching English In Costa Rica from early 2009 to late 2011. Living in San José, I met my Ohio-born husband who was also teaching there. We moved back to the United States in 2011. It was great to leave the kids behind, to go back, and to see old friends.

This trip was a quick weekend getaway for the wedding of dear friends from that special time period of our life. Nearly as soon as we landed, we were reminded of some deep life lessons we learned from the Ticos, the people of Costa Rica. The ideas of staying young, enjoying life, eating well, and connecting with others is so deeply cultural in Costa Rica that each day is a woven intermingling of all of these elements. There’s nearly always a sense of, “it’ll all work out.”

It’s not that the Ticos don’t have stress, of course they do. It’s more that there’s always someone there to remind them that their worries will still be there tomorrow. Friends stop by unannounced to play cards around the kitchen table. Grown men in business suits sit on park benches eating ice cream cones on their lunch breaks. Instead of paying a parking meter, an actual person known as the “guachimán,” (pronounced: watchiman) gets a buck tossed his way for watching someone’s car while they hang with friends in a bar, eat at a restaurant, or chill on the beach. Beachgoers find a shady spot to rest out the high heat of the day. Friends meet up late for beers because they already napped midday. In Costa Rica friends are like family, and family are like friends.

And while Ticos love to indulge in the good life with beer and ice cream, they also really know the importance of eating well. Food is grown in gardens in the yard and on small farms scattered across the countryside. Markets offer fresh produce in the cities to supplement what isn’t growing in the courtyard garden. And if someone doesn't get a chance to make it to the market, don’t worry the vegetable seller makes house calls. He makes his presence known by calling the inventory left in his truck as he slowly rolls down the street. Beans are eaten at every meal and fresh fruit juice – like real, oh-so-fresh fruit juice – is a household staple. Cheese squeaks as you chew it because it’s so fresh from the farm (I don’t know the science on that one, but it’s true that I love Costa Rican squeaky cheese!). Food is shared with friends, and among laughter and storytelling. We ate well this trip!

Costa Ricans also know hard work. They navigate complicated bus systems, roads speckled with potholes, and an entire country that doesn't use addresses but directions. (My address in Costa Rican direction giving would be something like: From the old tennis courts at Garfield Park go 300 meters south, 100 meters west, 50 meters north, grey house with the red door.) They tend their gardens, walk up dusty hills, and work long hours. Working hard is what allows, or maybe requires, Costa Ricans to unplug fully and completely when it’s time to recharge. And that happens daily.

This was a trip full of belly laughs. We were reunited with some friends we hadn’t seen in nearly ten years; others who we’ve gone 5 years without visiting; and still others who we didn’t even know were friends yet because we only met this trip. The stories that were told – the missed moments of the last several years as well as the memories of times gone by – were full of raucous joy.

We also paused for more intimate moments where we could acknowledge and share the ugly parts of real life that have passed – failures, deaths, lost relationships, you know the stuff. An old friend doesn’t always have to hear the nitty-gritty, you hit the highlights and the lowlights, and you laugh your way through it all.

We bobbed in the ocean; rode to the next beach over just ‘cause; shadow danced on the beach at sunset; and giggled our way through the long weekend. We played.

And now back at home in Michigan, as the country prepares for a collective pause in response to coronavirus, I think about how I can really bring this experience, this feeling, this living attitude back to my daily life, back to my neighborhood. I realized upon reflecting on the “Pura Vida” lifestyle that I actually already do find ways to maintain this spirit in my daily life. I hang out with my neighbors; I take walks in the woods; I climb trees with my boys; I enjoy bonfires with s’mores on a chilly winter night; I enjoy long summer sunsets with a dinner picnic on the beach; I slow down and unplug when I remember to. And I know that's the thing - I just need to remember to.

Through remembering to include play in regular life, I know I can intentionally find that slow down. And good thing because I don't really have another option. I can't book a trip to Costa Rica every time I want to let loose. Instead I’ll need to find my own reminders. So, as an Irish American girl from the Chicago suburbs I found this blessing in honor of my roots and this month’s special celebration of St. Patrick and I share it as a reminder from the Ticos and the Irish to get out and enjoy the good life.

An Irish Children’s Blessing
Lucky stars above you, Sunshine on your way, Many friends to love you, Joy in work and play. Laughter to outweigh each care, In your heart a song; And gladness waiting everywhere All your whole life long.

Sláinte. Pura vida. Wash your hands. Keep your fingers off your face. Play everyday.

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