San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A letter to my future children

Dear L. and Q.,

As I write this, we haven’t yet met. I don’t know what you look like. I don’t know where you were born or precisely how old you are. Yet you do exist, somewhere in China, where you are learning to walk and say your first words in an obscure orphanage. For now, we are inching toward each other, until the day we find you, and our lives finally merge. When that moment arrives, you will probably not understand what’s happening. You won’t be able to read these words for quite some time. But like all the things your mother and I have planned, this letter will be here, waiting for you to discover it.

Over time, we will tell you about Costa Rica, where we lived for nearly two years. We will show you pictures of ourselves, smiling and sweating in front of waterfalls. You will see videos I made of indigenous people and a wounded toucan. We will seem young and trim, donning outdated clothes and strange haircuts. You will not believe that we were ever so reckless and free.

Not another story about Costa Rica! you’ll exclaim, rolling your eyes. You’ve told this one a million times!

Yet we’ll tell you anyway, not just because that’s how we’ll bond with you, but because we love to tell the tales: The time we nearly bought a car with missing doors. The time we painted ourselves with mud and dipped into a hot spring, only to be surrounded by white-faced monkeys. The time your mother chased a snake out of the bedroom. The time I kept telling people that October 22 was “my Christmas,” because I spoke so little Spanish that I thought “Navidad” meant “birthday.” The time I was so sick that I had to look up “dysentery” on WebMD to make sure I didn’t have it.

But gradually these stories will cohere in your mind, because they will explain certain aspects of our life together. You will realize that people like Beto and Dave and Zach and Andrés and Erin and Lindsay and Katherine and Adrianna – those recurring adult cameos, the folks you’ll simply call “my parents’ friends” – were all people we first met in Costa Rica. When you meet Charly, the smiley guy with the graying mustache, he will explain why he calls me “Uncle Bob.” This explanation will confuse you, but like all children seeking to understand their parents, you will simply accept that this nickname once made sense.

Together, we will visit Costa Rica. The country will have changed by then. There will be more shopping malls, cars, highways, and luxury hotels. The population will have surged by a million or more. Everyday items will be shockingly expensive. Street crime will be higher or lower than ever before. Certain species will be extinct, despite conservationists’ best efforts. A canal will cut through Nicaragua, a fact you will learn in school, despite your parents’ disbelief.

Yet the essence of Costa Rica will remain, because within Tico life there is a campesino heart that beats forever. You will try gallo pinto for breakfast, whether you like it or not. You will learn Spanish from an early age, to compensate for your father’s tardy acquisition. You will zip line, you will swim in Caribbean waters, and you will meet a sloth. We will zigzag all over the country in our rental car, pointing at important statues and structures. Other monuments will be more personal: We will visit the quiet street where we once lived, the soda where we once grabbed lunch, the little park where I used to sit around drinking coffee, the street where a Gringo con artist once tried (and failed) to extort me, the town square that swelled with soccer fans during the World Cup, and the rustic roads – long and winding – that led your father on a bicycle trip across the country.

When you are older, and you have some idea what Costa Rica is, we will explain why we don’t live there anymore. You will learn about our paperwork problems, our limited income, and the time-consuming and expensive red tape to recognize your mother’s doctorate. As the years go by, and you face increasingly difficult decisions, you will recognize the cold logic of this choice. You will understand that we couldn’t afford property, couldn’t buy a dependable car, couldn’t see your grandparents at a moment’s notice. Yes, we could have raised you in Costa Rica, we wanted to, and we might have been happy doing so – but there were certain risks we couldn’t justify, risk that haunt any immigrant far from home. We will daydream about that bygone time, when your father was a journalist in Central America, and your mother strove to help Costa Rican children with autism. But you will also witness that relationship with the country continuing to unfold, through visits and interactions, the mementos we collected, our jokes and anecdotes, for years and years to come.

But here is the most important thing – perhaps the most vital thing I’ll ever tell you. For your mother and me, Costa Rica has been an epiphany, a dream come true, a revelation that surpassed all our expectations. We arrived in Costa Rica with four duffel bags, two cats, and a few sets of clothes. We leave with strong friendships, competent Spanish, and a feeling of profound accomplishment. We hustled. We struggled. There were moments of awkwardness and even terror. People helped and consoled us, especially in the glummest moments. People gave us opportunities we could not have imagined. We can look back on Costa Rica as one of the most exhilarating chapters of our lives. No matter what happens, we will always foster this memory.

And so we hope for you. Wherever you go, whatever you do, we hope you find your Costa Rica. It doesn’t have to be a Latin American country. It doesn’t have to last two years. But we want you to experience something akin to this, a period of astonishing freedom and breathless adventure, when the challenges are so invigorating that you wake up each dawn eager to tackle a day. We hope you collapse in your beds each night, exhausted by a new language, unfamiliar practices, perplexing street patterns, and a thousand unexpected yarns – and you fall asleep grateful to have felt so tested. We hope you meet such dedicated friends and collaborators, such generous strangers, such encouraging supporters as we have. It is our fondest and most heartfelt wish.

To us, this is what pura vida really means. It is not a translatable phrase or an imitable lifestyle. You can’t find it in a national park or bag of coffee. Pura vida doesn’t require an explanation or footnotes. It can’t be trademarked or purchased or worn on your body. And it doesn’t exist only in Costa Rica, although Costa Ricans embrace their motto with particular aplomb. Pura vida is something you recognize when you find it. It’s an ongoing sensation, a way of being. It’s a lot like happiness, but more so. Such an abstract feeling won’t make sense at first. Yet with luck, it will.

Love,

Dad

Robert Isenberg would like to thank his readers for joining him on his journeys these past two years. Pura Vía began as an 11-part series about biking across Costa Rica and continued as a weekly column about culture and travel. While he will continue to contribute occasional pieces to The Tico Times, Isenberg will return to the U.S. to resume his career as a freelance writer. Keep an eye out for his forthcoming book, “The Green Season,” soon to be released by Tico Times Publishing.

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