I love airports.
I know, I know. It sounds crazy. There are a lot of things about these painfully human places of transit that are easy to dislike, easy to be annoyed by—the sterile smell, the delays and long layovers, the endless lines and noisy crowds. I don’t like any of those things, either.
But I do like what airports symbolize. I like pretending I’m looking through a viewfinder as faces of all shapes, colors, and moods click past me, faces I’ll most likely never see again. I like understanding how people act under pressure, how they respond to their own vulnerability. I like watching simple acts of human kindness: how complete strangers help each other fumble for their passports, shove oversized luggage into overhead bins, or navigate the stressful security lines while beltless and shoeless.
Most of all, as I watch new beginnings and bittersweet endings, hellos and goodbyes unravel before my eyes, I like that I can only guess these strangers’ stories. I may know where they came from and where they’re going, but I’ll never understand how they changed between their arrival and departure.
Airports also offer a lot of time for reflection, a way to waste time before stepping onto a flying human invention and stepping off into a city or state or country thousands of miles away. So, in the San José airport today, I began to think about the concept of airports. I thought about how I entered in the rainforest, in the tropics, and I’ll exit on the prairie in a blizzard. I’ll step out of something completely foreign and into something I’ve known my entire life. I wonder if the familiarity will feel the same now that I’ve seen the world through a new lens.
After 18 full days in Costa Rica, I know for a fact that I’m not the same person I was when I left. But my experience most likely didn’t change or impact me in the exact same way it changed or impacted my teammates. We take away different lessons from shared experiences. We notice only what we need to see, what we need to hear.
However, there are a few essential things that bind us all. For one, when we were all scared, confused teenagers (and maybe some of us still are), we chose to commit our next chapter to Augustana University. As part of that commitment, we decided to pour our shared passion for swimming and diving into one team. Sure, maybe in high school we had to rely on our parents or guardians to drag us out of bed, encouraging us to keep showing up, but that only lasts for long. During our time as Augustana swimmers and divers, we show up because we want to. Because it matters to us. Because it makes us feel complete.
Because when it feels like we have nothing else, like working toilets and showers or a bed that’s not filled with sand, at least we have a lane in front of us, water around us, and teammates beside us.
This morning, we woke up before the sun’s golden rays even began to drench the clothesline behind Oceans Edge in warmth and light. With our final Costa Rican workout scheduled for 6 AM, most of us woke up early to finish packing, bask in the presence of the rising sun, and soak up the last few moments of our time in Jacó.
We lounged around on Oceans Edge’s front steps, petting the two friendly rescue dogs that had quickly become honorary members of our team, until the buses came to pick us up. I looked down at my shoes on the way to the beach. Funny, I thought. I’m bringing pieces of the rainforest to the ocean.
When we made it to Playa Jacó, Dr. Scholten led us through a series of stretches and a dynamic warmup before easing us into a water-sport athlete’s least favorite workout and biggest nightmare: running. Most of us barefoot, we sprinted across the beach at different intensities, our breathing labored but strong, our feet kicking up and slapping the wet sand, our throats and noses coated in salty ocean air.
And I never questioned once if I could finish the workout. As much as I hate running, I knew I could do it. Why? Because all I had to do is put one foot in front of the other, and I had been doing that every day for the past 18 days. We took a team picture in front of the Pacific before climbing onto the buses once again, sweaty but smiling.
Upon our return to Oceans Edge, we had a little bit of time to shower and drag the last of our belongings out to the buses. Most of us opted for the walk to Palí, a Walmart-like supermarket a few blocks from our hostel, to stock up on some of our favorite Costa Rican snacks like Takis or Pinguinos. Others stopped at the frutería to pick up their last serving of the freshest fruit we’ve ever eaten, trying to savor their last few bites of grenadía, a green, pomegranate-like fruit that, in English, translates to “little grenade.”
And before we knew it, it was time to leave. We stood in the driveway outside of Oceans Edge and looked to Dr. Scholten, who would be staying in Costa Rica for one more day before returning to the states. I didn’t expect to feel my eyes well with tears, my heart wrung out and hung to dry in nostalgia, in a sadness to leave but an eagerness to see home.
Looking between each of us, Dr. Scholten pulled open his notes app on his phone and shared what he had learned during his experience with us.
Honestly? I don’t think I want to share everything he said. It felt too much like a gift, like a promise of friendship, like a capstone to an experience that couldn’t always be explained in words. It felt as though he had wrapped up our study abroad trip and tied it together with a little bow.
But one thing he did say, and one thing I think everyone needs to hear, is this: “Life gets hard, and then it gets harder. It’s because it’s life! I hope all of you know that with each other, you can brave it a little better now. A little stronger.” He smiled, his face red with emotion. “Maybe that’s the Augie Advantage?”
I think he’s right. Want to know another Augie Advantage? After 18 days of poor luck that we turned into crazy adventures, we had no problems traveling today. Our buses were on time, our suitcases weren’t rained on, our flights weren’t (too) delayed, and we made it through customs with hardly any problems. I can still hardly believe that everything went right.
So now, hanging in the sky somewhere between Atlanta and Sioux Falls, I’m reminiscing on Costa Rica. I’m considering the Augustana Advantage. I’m seeing how Dr. Scholten made us better people by encouraging us to chase our passions, to make connections with people we care about. I’m seeing how he combined his own passions into a trip that fits with all of Augustana’s core values.
As I finish this blog, I can start to see Sioux Falls’ lights out of my airplane window. I take a deep breath. I missed the comfort of home.
Pura vida, Sioux Falls. Hello again, old friend.
Pura vida, Costa Rica. Goodbye. But above all, thank you. For all of this.
In 2015, 14-year-old Cailey entered a local poetry contest with an original, free-verse poem she had scribbled into her journal. At the top of the page in horribly incorrect, looping cursive letters, she had titled the poem “Memories” and, over the course of twenty lines, she explored the capacity of human remembrance.
What happens when a memory finally blinks out? Can we ever find it again after it’s lost? How do we hold onto the moments we never want to lose?
With shiny braces across her teeth and thick, dark glasses hiding her face, the incredibly shy 14-year-old Cailey never jumped at the opportunity to share the things she thought were important enough to write down (and frankly, almost everything was important enough to find a rightful spot in her trusty notebook). But this one felt different. Unique. Important. A few weeks after submitting the poem to her English teacher, she got a letter in the mail that it had won.
And I know it sounds corny, but this small thumbtack in the roadmap of my life changed almost everything.
First, I learned that writing will always be important to me. It will always be my greatest act of courage, my largest plummet into vulnerability. Not because everything I write is subjectively good (and I promise, a lot of it is not), but because it matters to people. Because I can reach across the cyberspace or through paper and say to my audience, “This is my human experience. Do you understand? Does it feel this way to you, too?” Everyone has a story only they can tell. It’s been an honor to share my Costa Rican story with all of you.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I became very aware that the best lessons, the best stories I can possibly tell or write about x come from romanticizing my life. It is both my biggest strength and my greatest weakness. I have to seek out every corner, just in case happiness is lurking somewhere in the darkness. I can’t stop making everything into a metaphor or a symbol, like how I make the people I love the lighthouse of my universe, or how I notice that coffee grounds are the exact same color as my sister’s eyes, or how I think there must be a mirror between the ocean and the sky because my teammates’ smiles during our night swims shine just as bright as the stars. We are all made of stars and oceans, of salt and air and flames. I can’t help but slow down and notice the little things that make life beautiful. I don’t want a moment to pass me by. I don’t want to forget a single second.
So today, during our last full day in the paradise that is Costa Rica, I thought about 14-year-old Cailey and her prized poem. I thought about how she would try and remember this trip, and I felt proud that I am doing exactly what she would have done: romanticize, write about it, repeat.
But for some reason, while writing this blog, I found that the final day is the hardest day to write about.
This morning, the Augustana swim and dive team woke up far earlier than we have been over the past few days. I could hear the symphony of our alarm clocks blaring through Oceans Edge’s hostel at exactly 6 AM, the smell of toast and gallo pinto pulling us out of our (very salty, very sandy) beds.
After eating a quick breakfast, the divers began their short walk to the beach for a dryland workout, while the swimmers loaded the buses and headed to Las Nubes pool once again.
Our bus ride was the most silent it has ever been. We stared out the window, trying to memorize every road, every mountain, every tree. I wanted to breathe in every moment and then never breathe out again.
And then we got to the pool. I sighed everything out.
I’ll be completely honest. I was not excited about the idea of jumping back into the freshwater in the narrowest pool, with the jankiest lane line, I have ever swam in. Staring at the pool, with the morning sun beating down on my back, I felt my skin prickle with sweat. I knew that meant the pool, lacking temperature controls altogether, would feel even warmer.
I took a deep breath. I remembered what our coach had said while swimming in the icy waters at the Cariari Country Club during our time in San José.
Look around you.
It’s about the experience! Remember where you are.
At least there’s sunshine.
Yes, I thought, starting to grin. At least there is sunshine.
Correcting our mistake from last time, we split our swim practice into two groups. The first group, my group, consisted of the men’s team and six distance-swimming girls. We jumped into the water first. The second group, the rest of the women’s team, started with another training circuit from Dr. Scholten, instead.
The swim went significantly better than our previous practice at Las Nubes pool. With less people, we didn’t have to worry about concussing ourselves on each other or on the concrete walls. I watched brightly colored flowers and fading green leaves swirl around at the bottom of the deep end, waltzing around the small blue tiles breaking off from the pool’s foundation. During our breaks on the wall, I stared at the mountains in the distance, watching them breathe. I felt grateful for my able body, for the place, for the moment, for the people I got to share it with.
And when I climbed out of the pool, tossing on shorts over my suit and trying to squeeze my wet feet into my tennis shoes, I felt truly proud of myself.
For Dr. Scholten’s training circuit today, we focused on strength. While explaining the exercises—like calf raises on the steps in front of an outdoor classroom or pull ups on the school’s monkey bars—he told us that he wanted us to focus on quality over quantity. He wanted us to continue to reminding ourselves that every movement was making us stronger.
During our core workout at the beginning of dryland, Dr. Scholten stood in the middle of the oblong circle we had formed in the grass. We complained that it felt like needles, that it itched when it stuck to our still wet skin. So what did Dr. Scholten do? He used motivation as a distraction.
“How many can you do? How far can you push yourself?” he kept asking, spinning around to look at each of us. “Don’t do it for me. I’m asking because I’m a scientist. Do it for YOU.”
Dr. Scholten has a way of flipping trials into lessons, too. He’s shown us that everything we’ve done here in Costa Rica is for us and us alone. Every research article we’ve read, every workout we’ve completed, was there to make us better athletes. Every journal entry, every blog, was there to help us remember. And every experience, although scheduled by Dr. Scholten and the coaches, was made fun and unique because we were there to make it our own.
I think that’s why once we were done with practice, for our final 24-hours in Costa Rica, we were given the entire day to do whatever we wanted.
Some of us spent the day weaving through tiny Jacó shops, buying last minute souvenirs for our family and friends back home. Others hitched a ride with some of the Oceans Edge missionaries to a nearby beach volleyball court, spending the afternoon nose-diving into the sand, trying not to burn their feet. A few lounged around, waiting for the next high tide to strike around 4 PM so they could try surfing one last time. And, if you’ve been following along with this blog, you’ll be happy to hear that Dr. Scholten finally got his bike ride in, as he and four members of the men’s team rented bikes and battled a 43-mile loop up a mountain and down again.
As for me and a few others, I took the day in minute by minute, stopping to notice the color of the sky, the smell of the salty air, the way bike tires sound on Jacó’s roads, especially when they’re carrying a family of three—one on the seat, one on the handles, and one hanging off the back.
On our way to the beach, a few of my teammates and I stopped at a local coffee shop called AMPM infusions, known for its excellent coffees in the morning and best-selling wines at night. We ate açaí bowls, sipped on iced lattes, and laughed about our extraordinary experiences and hilarious misfortunes over our time in Costa Rica. When we had finished our food and the ice cubes in our coffee had returned to water, none of us moved. If we got up, it meant we were officially done with our last lunch in paradise.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, the sun hanging high in the sky, braving the waves at Playa Jacó. They weren’t nearly as tumultuous as the previous few days, and although I was still throttled and thrown towards the beach when I got caught in an unlucky few, I was mostly able to let myself float atop the ecosystem of fish and salt and seagrasses and sand below me, hidden beneath a thick navy blue.
I didn’t want to leave the ocean, either, but I could feel the heat radiating of my skin. Throwing a towel over my shoulder, I turned around to wave to the Pacific. It waved right back.
I finished my night with a meal I had been waiting for since we arrived in Jacó—sushi. Although I usually shy away from eating… well, anything that swims or crawls or lurks deep in the ocean, I wasn’t going to not eat raw fish from a restaurant right on the coast. If I can’t do it for my taste buds, I’ll surely do it for the blog.
And it was the best sushi I’ve ever eaten. Our waiter looked at my two teammates and I in complete disbelief as we finished the last of our miso soup and 48 sushi rolls. Perks of being a swimmer, I guess.
Before returning to Oceans Edge, we stopped in Pop’s, our favorite ice cream place in all of Costa Rica, for one last ice cream cone. We ate it quickly on our walk back, trying to stop it from dripping down our hands in the waning, still burning sun.
“Wow,” one of my teammates said, licking strawberry syrup off her palm. “I’m getting sentimental now. I’m ready to be home but I don’t want to leave.”
Suddenly, I realized why this blog has been so hard to write. When I finish writing this, the chapter is closed. I have a chance of forgetting these moments, these memories. And once I’m done writing this chapter, I have very few pages left before I close my book of my time as an Augustana swimmer altogether. I tasted bitterness in my mouth, and it mixed with my Pop’s. This is the bitter sweetness of senior year.
To close the night, as I shoved the last of my clothes and souvenirs into my suit case, I thought about the human capacity for remembrance. I knew I wasn’t thinking about it through the same lens as 14-year-old Cailey. I change along with the stories I tell. And while I was caught up in my thoughts, I accidentally picked up my drawstring bag I used at the beach from the bottom, dumping a handful of sand across my entire suitcase.
That’s one way to end the trip, I thought.
And then I looked closer. I saw how the sand glistened across my clothes, both clean and dirty, like the stars in the sky, like the smiles of my teammates. I thought about how each grain has a story to tell, too, how each one came from a different rock, weathered and eroded across millions of years. I thought about how our memories are like that, too. How they may weather, how they may erode. And while I may forget specifics, like the names of coffee shops or how warm Las Nubes pool was, I’ll never forget how the moments made me feel. I’ll never forget how lucky I am to land in the exact same spot on the beach as my teammates, as my best friends, as my family.
“Hey guys?” I asked my roommates, brushing the sand away. “I think we need to take the phrase ‘pura vida’ back home with us. Let’s never stop saying it, okay?”
They all agreed.
There you have it, 14-year-old Cailey. How do you hold onto something you never want to forget? You combine it into one simple phrase, into a few grains of sand, into people you’ve shared the past 18 days with. You use them as a light to guide you home.
Today, for the first time in what has felt like forever, I took a real shower.
By “real” shower, I mean I opened the bathroom door, pulled back the shower curtain, turned on the faucet, and let warm water wash the grainy sand and burning ocean salt off my skin, watching as it twirled around the drain in a synchronized dance. My shower at Oceans Edge, which I share with six other roommates, is by no means anything special. But it felt luxurious.
Why? Because over the past few days, the Augustana swim and dive team has become used to showering in a garden hose.
Here’s a fun fact you probably don’t know about Costa Rica: most of the country’s plumbing pipes are too small to accommodate toilet paper, so it can’t be flushed. During our orientation the first night we were here, Aaron firmly warned us that “no flushing toilet paper” is the most important rule to follow and, although we’ve done a great job at following it, the team before us did not. Throughout our stay at the hostel, we’ve seen a major sewage backup problem and most of our (already limited) available toilets are considered “out of order.” We would have been completely fine if the plumbing truck had come to drain our septic tank on time. However, if you’ve been keeping up with the rest of this blog, you know that if there is a slight chance something can happen, it will happen. The truck got in a road accident on its way to Oceans Edge, and we had to wait for its tank to be welded before it could come and try again.
So, with the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt as our witnesses, we stood in line in the driveway in front of our hostel. Kneeling on a pair of Chaco’s to keep wet sand and jagged pieces of concrete off our knees, we took turns with the freezing cold garden hose, turning our chins up towards the moon so one of our teammates could make sure all of the shampoo was out of our hair. Soap ran down the pavement, bubbling and iridescent in the soft glow of the stars. Selah, Oceans Edge’s friendly, three-legged yellow lab, wasn’t as understanding about the concept of sharing, and she lapped up the water straight from the hose as we showered. We smacked mosquitoes off ourselves and each other, yelping in fake pain and laughing so loud it echoed across the entire missionary base.
“Every day, I do something I never thought I’d do,” one of my teammates said, grinning, her hair in a bubble mohawk as she misted her face with hose water.
And I’ve never heard anything more true. I never thought I’d have to rely on showering in a hose with fifteen other girls to get clean. I also never thought I’d have swim practice in a four-lane, 25-meter long, freshwater pool in the middle of Jacó, Costa Rica, but we did that for the first time yesterday, too. The lane ropes, which were quite literally made out of rope, were unable to be tightened. At times, our lane became so small that we had to stop and let one person swim through the blockage at a time, and we spent most of our practice simply trying to dodge each other’s swinging arms and powerful kick.
“It’s about the experience! It’s about the memories!” Coach yelled as she saw us getting frustrated. “It’s going to make you better!”
In a way, I think she’s right. Because I’ve never felt more grateful for the moldy shower in my college house in Sioux Falls. I’ve never felt more willing to return to the freezing waters of the Cariari Country Club in San José. I’ve never been more excited to jump into the Elmen Center pool, students and faculty looking in at us from the windows like we’re fish in an aquarium, the names of our past and current teammates plastered on the wall with their records like a promise of familiarity, of safety, of home.
I think that’s the thing about simplicity. It teaches us to find luxury in the small things, in the things we’ve always considered irrelevant or mundane. It elevates gratitude to new levels. Essentials teach us more about each other and ourselves than the excess ever will.
Today, the first obligation we needed to be awake for was breakfast at 7AM. However, a few early birds decided to set their alarms for 5 to spend extra time at the beach, running across the sand, swimming down the coast, or catching a wave by body-boarding atop the barreling waves. They all came back to Oceans Edge smiling, their lightly bleached hair plastered to their foreheads with salt—either the ocean’s or their own.
After getting ready and dreaming about our morning coffee, Oceans Edge’s cook, Coco, served us French toast and eggs. We ate breakfast the way we always have while at the hostel, with all 40 of us sitting on the pale blue couches, pulling up chairs to the kitchen’s island and dining room table, or finding a spot to sit on the concrete steps outside. Either way, we all found someone new to talk to while the dogs barked and the birds chirped, watching the sun glimmer in the sky, its morning light shining through the window-less hostel.
Shortly after we cleaned our plates and helped wipe down the kitchen counters, we loaded the buses for our main activity of the day: helping the Oceans Edge missionaries with their volunteer work. We were divided into three groups. The first group was sent to a nearby park to do yard work, like raking, pulling weeds, and moving logs. Hopping on a golf cart, the second group drove through downtown Jacó with soap-filled buckets and rags, stopping at every
brightly-painted streetlight to scrub off the bird droppings and scraping off stickers. And the last group, the group I was a part of, headed down to the beach to fill entire garbage bags up with trash.
Our group leader explained that because of Jacó’s location in the bay, much of the surrounding area’s litter washes up onto Playa Jacó. Oceans Edge dedicates themselves to cleaning up the area as often as they can. If they didn’t, the amount of human pollution would become overwhelming.
It’s funny that we don’t always notice things until we’re actively looking for them. Since we arrived at Jacó, it feels like I’ve spent more time on the beach than not. But today, as sweat dripped into my eyes before I could find a way to rub it off without using my dirty gloves, was the first time I had noticed the enormous amount of cigarette butts hiding in the sand. The bottle caps. The aluminum pop tabs. The straws. The rope, the sharp pieces of plastic, the mysterious broken tiles.
We found 32 cigarettes around one park bench alone. And as we filled our first trash bag with garbage, I considered the fact that humans are the only species on Earth that litters. Heat rose to my face, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the 85% humidity and burning sun or from sheer anger.
“We could do this all day and we wouldn’t have even come close,” one of my teammates said, her eyes dark and her face downcast.
Our group leader turned around, a sad smile on her face. “I know our work won’t save the world, but this isn’t just about picking up trash. It’s about inspiring people around us to help, too.”
And as I continued to clean up the beach, sand sprinkling off my rubber glove like glitter as I threw away gum wrappers and plastic silverware, I saw the inspiration catching fire right before my eyes.
A local man camping out under a beach umbrella watched us for a while, and then began picking up the trash around his area. Driving on the road next to the beach, a woman with a short blonde mullet pulled over to ask us what we were doing because she had never seen anything like it before. After shredding some waves, three surfers walked towards us with their boards and rash guards, asking us where we were from, thanking us profusely.
“Pura vida!” they shouted over their shoulder as they walked away, their sandy footprints following close behind them.
I know my simple act won’t save the world. But maybe it will save one surfer’s foot. Maybe it will save one scarlet macaw from eating some plastic, and, because they mate for life, she’ll be able to spend a little infinity with her partner. Maybe, just maybe, more people were watching than we thought. Simplicity, on its own, is not enough. But if all 8 billion of us were to do one small, simple act, we could change the world.
And as I removed the clutter from the beach I have spent so much time walking on, I could feel the Earth take a shaky breath beneath my feet.
After our volunteer work, we returned to the hostel to switch out our sandals for tennis shoes. Loading the buses yet again, we headed towards a gym, located on the grounds of a local church, for another training circuit put together by Dr. Scholten.
I’ll be totally honest. Looking at the gym was like looking at Las Nubes pool for the first time. In other words, I had to take a deep breath in order to stop myself from audibly saying, “How in the world are we going to make this work?”
The outdoor gym wasn’t really a gym at all. Instead, it was an incredibly short basketball court with concrete floors, the hoops’ rusty chains for nets twinkling in the almost absent breeze. Three rows of bleachers sat across the side of the court. In the corner, a small area was dedicated to weight-lifting, with a bench and rack for bench-pressing and a machine for lat-pulldowns.
Alright, Shane, I thought. Let’s see what you can make up this time.
And then he proceeded to devise a workout that had me sweating more than any workout I have ever done in my entire life.
With a focus on power and technique over speed, we sprinted across the gravel. We vertical jumped under a tree, trying to touch the highest possible leaf. We squatted, lunged, planked, jump roped, box jumped on the bleachers, did core exercises, and shot some layups with a deflated basketball, rebounding as fast as we could.
Basically, we did as much as we could with the very little we had. By the time we finished, most of us had lost our shirts. One of my teammates wrung his tank top out, and his sweat landed in a puddle on the floor. We looked like we had just jumped in a pool.
With Dr. Scholten’s simple acts, with his ability to see innovation when I only saw rust and empty space, he made us better athletes. We don’t need fancy weight rooms or million dollar facilities to become great swimmers and divers. We just need some space and each other.
We returned to Oceans Edge still dripping, trying not to think about the sweat leaking into our seats on the buses. At the hostel, we hosed off, ate some leftovers and ham and cheese sandwiches in our swim suits, and headed back to the beach for our free afternoon.
I spent most of my time in the waves, trying and failing not to get caught in the violence of the breakage, in the white water that picked me up and somersaulted me through the saltwater below before I finally found my footing in the wet sand, much, much closer to the beach than I originally had been. My teammates and I created a system to figure out which waves we could go over and which ones we needed to dive into.
“Duck!” we would yell, paddling toward the wave, half out of fear and half out of pure exhilaration, before it could crash over us. “Over!” we would scream, laughing as we floated on our backs, letting the blue water push us upwards towards the sky before dropping us back down to earth.
Most of us meandered back home from the beach between 2:30 and 4, our cheeks rosy, our suits leaking with sand, our faces crinkled into smiles. I took my 5-star shower and got ready for an event we had anxiously awaited all day, an event that had been labeled “Surprise Activity” on our schedule.
And Dr. Scholten, Coach Lindsie, and Coach Shelby wouldn’t budge on telling us what it is. They wouldn’t even give us a hint.
At 4:30, we loaded the buses, all of us wearing a wide variety of clothing—from athletic wear to dresses—because none of us knew what to prepare for. I looked out the window and watched as our bus took a route that was completely unfamiliar, totally unrecognizable to me. Surprises never feel simple. But I’m learning to not be afraid of them.
We told stories, sang songs, and giggled furiously as our buses crawled up the side of a very green mountain. Terrified of heights, I tried not to look over the side, but I couldn’t peel my eyes off the golden, glimmering trail the sun’s reflection left on the ocean, the ocean that, in this haziness and at this distance, looked so vast but also so small.
After pulling through the entrance of a very extravagant hotel, we were ushered out of the buses and up a steep hill. And then I saw the view in front of me, and the last seventeen days of my life fell into place.
For our surprise, they had taken us to an amphitheater on the side of the mountain to watch the sunset, to watch a flaming ball of fire fall into the waves we had spent most of our days swimming in.
Sunsets are simple, too. They’re a trick of science, a bending and scattering of light rays across the horizon. The sunset tonight didn’t paint the sky a golden yellow, and then a fiery orange, and then a pale pink and purple because it knew it would be beautiful, because it knew the entire Augustana swim and dive team was watching. It was beautiful because it’s the only thing it knows how to do. Because the sun falling into the ocean is the only thing it knows how to do, and the only thing it will do until it eventually burns out.
“There it goes!” one of my teammates gasped as the sun rapidly disappeared below a cloud and sunk below the horizon. “It just disappeared under us, and we’re all just little humans on a giant rock.”
And after 21 years of occupying my tiny human space on this giant, awe-inspiring rock, I’m finding my balance. I’m figuring out what is most important. As I learn the meaning of pura vida, I’m also learning that life is often as simple or as hard as you make it
Because pura vida is finding luxury in the small things, like a home-cooked breakfast or a warm shower or a pool big enough for your entire team. Pura vida is small acts that can be combined into life-changing, earth-changing service. It’s inspiring those around you to make a difference, even if it doesn’t seem like it matters in the grander scheme of things, even if it feels like a single bottle cap hidden in billions and billions of grains of sand. It’s learning that we were put on this Earth to be kind to each other, to the ground we walk upon, to the creatures that inhabit it with us.
Pura vida is learning that we don’t need material things. We just need people, our people, the people that encourage us and support us and love us. It’s why sloths don’t choose the comfiest branch. They choose the branch that will best support them and the baby on their stomach as they sleep.
Pura vida is simplicity. It’s the simple ways the sky works, like how the moon pulls on the rides or how the sun’s light scatters to paint the sky. It’s realizing that if these beautiful, vibrant things were born out of simplicity, we can be made beautiful through a simple life, too.
Pura vida, I thought, driving home from the sunset. I know what I need, and I know what I want. Right now, all I need is the people I love, and the people who love me.
And maybe some ice cream from Pop’s.
Hola Amigos. Kate Robbins and Clare Duplissis here and we have the opportunity to write today blog post. With limited time left here in Costa Rica, we are soaking in every minute of ocean, sun and memories as possible.
Today, Thursday, January 12th started with an early alarm for the both of us. To our benefit, we awoke to fresh fruit and granola prepared for us by the chef here at the hostel. Soon after breakfast, we helped load the surf boards into the truck and hopped on the bus, full of smiles, to catch some waves. The waves were bigger today, which frightened some but provided much of a challenge to those with competitive personalities, like us. Today was the last day with instructors so we tried our best to gather as much information as we could, considering we will brave the waves of the ocean on our own for the rest of our trip. The focus of today was on choosing the right wave, getting ahead of the wave break and when up, turning left and right to improve our riding skills. We were both able to catch multiple waves and ride them all the way to shore which was definitely a confidence booster. Once the second group arrived to start surfing, we passed off our boards, rinsed off as much sand as we could and loaded the bus back to Oceans Edge (our hostel).
Here at Oceans Edge, we enjoyed iced churro coffee from the shop connected and ran by the same missionary owners as our living space. The coffee shop is a very Christian based shop with various coffees, apparel and sweet treats.
Although waking up early isn’t always ideal, being in the first group does come with some benefits. While everyone else was still out surfing, we took on the town and got breakfast. There are so many local restaurants and places to shop within a couple of blocks from the hostel that it is easy for us to explore. For breakfast, we separated, which isn’t quite like us, and went to two different breakfast spots, the greenhouse and sunrise cafe.
Following breakfast, we went to the beach where we hung out, body surfed, soaked in the sun and made memories with teammates. Don’t worry, we have learned from our previous mistakes and made sure to apply lots of sunscreen.
After the short walk back from the beach, we grabbed some left overs for lunch and then relaxed around the hostel until practice. Some people took naps, others played games, talked to family back home, and sat outside in the sun.
Around 1:30 we all got ready for practice, applied more sunscreen, and drank lots of water. The swimmers left for a new pool and we walked down to the beach for a dry land workout.
Since we haven’t been able to access boards, we have done our best to substitute the missing time with dry land including modeling, balance techniques, and various strength exercises. Todays workout consisted of burpees, lunges, sprints, plank circuits, and other little things all of which were completed on the beach.
We returned to the hostel a little bit before the swimmers and were able to shower for the first time in a couple of days. We even got to enjoy our usual shower concert to some Morgan Wallen which has been missed dearly. We have found that there really isn’t much point to showering considering that we are either sweating or covered in salt water.
A little later, Ticas, or native Costa Rican women, came to the hostel to teach us about Costa Rican culture. We started with a lesson in culinary making empanadas. We worked together as a team to make the dough, filling, and fry the bean and cheese filled tortillas. We enjoyed them together while listening to the Ticas talk about history and traditions in Costa Rica. We concluded with a Costa Rican dance performance and coffee made through the cloth filter. Some teammates even got to try out the traditional garments and learned how to dance.
We concluded the night with “free time” which was filled mostly with a quick trip to the local ice cream store. This has become a nightly occurrence for most.
Upon return, we split off to play more cards, listen to each other days, and take in the last few days of our trip. Tonight’s conversation consisted of memories from the day along with a more serious conversation regarding the term often used here in Costa Rica, “pura vida”. Looking through pictures and thinking back to all the cool experiences we have had here, it is simply impossible to put a definition on the term. A few things that have come to our mind however are.
1. Living in the moment.
2. Appreciating what we have.
3. Finding the good.
4. Building relationships.
5. Making infinite memories.
We are so thankful for the opportunities that this has provided us and will cherish these memories forever.
Hello everyone! My name is Matt Pietsch and I get the privilege of composing today’s blog post and giving you a glimpse into life on our Costa Rica training trip! In addition to the traditional recap of our day, I will highlight the experience of living in a hostel, the dynamics of Costa Rica businesses, and the effects this trip has had on our team chemistry.
Today is Wednesday, January 11th. To begin our day, we ate delicious empanadas prepared by the chef at our hostel. The group was filled with energy as we reaped the benefits of sleeping in until about 7:30. It was a beautiful scene as we gathered around the tables in our temporary home, laughing and enjoying the meal, as well as each other’s company.
Following breakfast, some members of the team migrated towards the coffee shop as others began to prepare for our adventure to Manuel Antonio National Park. The coffee shop is by the entrance to the hostel, and it reveals a theme of Christianity throughout the cafe. From the “Jesús te ama” (Jesus loves you) t-shirts to the Christian-oriented apparel sported by the employees, it was near impossible to not feel somewhat spiritually inspired while we enjoyed coffee, pastries, and hospitality.
As the sun continued to rise over the touristy beach town, we loaded into the buses headed to Manuel Antonio National Park. After a bus ride that lasted approximately an hour, we began our adventure with a guided tour through the wildlife. Our team was led by four guides to find numerous sloths, monkeys, spiders, crabs, hummingbirds, mapaches (similar to raccoons), and (much to my displeasure) snakes.
As the tour concluded, we approached a gift shop and a restaurant, adjacent to a beautiful white sand beach with clear, blue water. This was the scene as the Vikings enjoyed sunbathing, exploring, swimming, and taking lots of pictures. Some decided to swim over to a group of seemingly unreachable rocks far in the distance, while others enjoyed the cool water as they floated near the shore. Some of the boys even started a war of throwing clumps of sand at each other (boys will be boys).
After the bus ride back to the hostel, (in which most took much needed naps) some of us went to the beach to enjoy the sunset as we bodysurfed, splashed around, and soaked in the final rays of the day.
The team split into groups for dinner to try and avoid overloading restaurants and they were able to eat some of the authentic seafood fresh from the ocean.
We enjoyed some quiet hang-out time before we turned in for the night and rested up for another great day packed with activities tomorrow!
As I prepared to write this blog post, I tried to think of a perspective that I could show that hadn’t already been included, thanks to the wonderful job that all of my teammates have done before writing these blog posts. I figured that as the first business major to write a post in the blog, I would try to tell you more about the commercial side of Costa Rica and some things that are done differently than the United States. First, when eating out at a restaurant, the tip is factored into the price of the meal, and doesn’t need to be calculated or paid after the fact. This has been a pretty easy adjustment for us to make and I have even heard some of my teammates claim that they wish a similar system could be adopted back home in The States. Another interesting thing that I observed is the influence that the American tourist has on the stores and restaurants scattered across Costa Rica. At almost every restaurant, there are options of food that is thought to be “American” such as burgers, chicken fingers, and French fries. Souvenir stores have prices in units of US dollars and not in Costa Rican Colones, while clothing stores can be seen in many spots with signs reading “Ropa Americana” (American clothes). I have heard before that the American consumer is the biggest source of demand in the world, and I think it is safe to say that holds true in Costa Rica.
Our newest living situation has been a new experience for many members of the team, including myself. We have been stationed in a Christian missionary hostel. This has been somewhat different than the living situations most of us are accustomed to, even while traveling. Instead of the typical two beds in a room, our hostel has rooms with anywhere from four to ten beds in them! This has been an awesome opportunity to bond with each other, because we are spending so much time together in close quarters. All of these rooms are located in the same house-like building that contains a full bathroom to go with each room, as well as two full kitchens and 4 open-layout living room areas. These areas are great places for us to hangout, play cards, and eat meals. Another great advantage of the hostel is the presence of the chef. The chef at our hostel has been preparing at least 2 meals per day for us to eat in the convenience of our own living room! Not only does this save us the time needed to travel to restaurants, it also is a great opportunity for us to try authentic, delicious Costa Rican cuisine, and eat with all of our teammates together.
Over the course of the trip, I have noticed the unmistakable bonding between teammates. As one could guess, we were already a very tight-knit group before we embarked on this study-abroad experience, but as we have spent more and more time together on the bus, in the hostel, at practices, and on our daily excursions, we have become closer and gotten to know each other even better than before. This is very easy to notice when one spends time around the team, as the noise level is consistently loud with jokes, laughter, and other banter (sorry coaches!). Another way this camaraderie is exemplified is the size of groups that can be seen scattered around the hostel, and downtown Jaco. In fact, when we were stationed in La Fortuna, we were frequently challenged to find a restaurant that could handle the large group that wanted to eat together as teammates refused to leave each other’s side.
To wrap up our second full week in the beautiful country of Costa Rica, I have good news and bad news.
Good news? Almost the entirety of Augustana swim and dive—both coordinated and clumsy, experienced and beginner— caught a wave in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Playa Jacó today.
And bad news? As fun as surfing is for 40 water-sport athletes, the ocean isn’t as forgiving as a chlorinated pool. It can be angry. Harsh. Also, although I was told sharks (mostly) stay away from the oceans around Costa Rica, warmed by the equator, I know for a fact that another creature lurks beneath the waves, waiting to strike against oblivious, uninformed tourists: jellyfish.
Upon arriving in Jacó last night, we were ushered into the “worship room” on Ocean Edge’s base. I was struck by how bright the room seemed to shine even after the sun started to set, ducking below the clouds and turning the sky a cotton candy pink. All of the furniture was white except for the pale blue cushions on the couches and wicker chairs. Paintings of ocean waves rested on every white-paneled wall, an abstract mix of every shade of blue and green you can imagine. Fairy lights were strung from the ceiling, casting a soft orange glow on my teammates’ sweaty faces, our shoulders and knees pressed together once again. The two tiny ceiling fans weren’t enough to combat the humidity that hung low and heavy in the hot air.
One of the missionaries, Aaron, stood before us, running a tan hand through his bleached blonde hair and then clapping to grab our attention. Not only does Aaron act as property manager of the base and our designated leader during our time at Ocean’s Edge, he’s also an expert in all things surfing, like rip currents, high and low tides, and prime wave conditions.
He led us through some household rules—8:30 PM curfew, avoid swearing, quiet time starts at 10:15–and then went over some safety guidelines.
If you feel yourself getting pulled out to sea, don’t panic. Tread water, control your breathing. The current will pass and you’ll be able to swim back to shore safely.
Always hold your board in front of you, the nose pointing directly at the white water. If it’s sideways, the waves will grab it, and you’ll most likely get a surfboard to the face. You’ll still probably make it back to shore safely, but you may have a beautiful new black eye.
When it’s time to bail off a wave, jump or fall backwards. The sand beneath you will be soft, so you won’t have to worry about a broken tailbone. And even if you do bruise a bit, that pain will be minor compared to the pain of puncturing the bottom of your foot with your surfboard’s fins.
Pat your head if you need help. Someone will come get you and bring you to shore.
After our short orientation, Aaron asked us to split ourselves up into three separate groups. Group one consisted of the experienced surfers, or those who were absolutely sure they could catch a wave on their first try. This group would leave the hostel in the morning first, arriving at the beach when the waves would be larger, more hostile (translation: at a time when it would be more fun for those who know what they’re doing, and more dangerous for those who don’t).
Group two was made up of those who were maybe less experienced, but were pretty sure they’d be able to get the hang of it quickly. They’d go out an hour after group one, when the waves were a bit more tame and they could get a little more instruction from our guides.
Lastly, group three was reserved for those who were almost positive they wouldn’t be able to stand on an unbalanced board on an unpredictable wave. It was for those who were unsure, nervous, or maybe even a little bit terrified. It was for those who weren’t even sure if they wanted to try surfing at all. Members of group three would spend their first session getting pushed into the waves by their instructors, being told when they needed to try and stand up.
And as a lake-loving, Midwestern girl who hasn’t water skied since she was like… well, six years old, and as someone who would rather be in the water rather than on top of the water, I humbly placed myself in group three.
Even though we had the opportunity to sleep in this morning, many of us were up before our alarms went off, the glimmering sunlight leaking in through our windows, our six to nine other roommates jumping down from their bunks and moving about.
After a short breakfast of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, corn tortillas, and beans and rice, we walked the twenty steps to Ocean Edge’s coffee shop, Roasted Edge, to enjoy our first true lattes in two weeks and wait patiently for the buses.
I was thankful to be in the last group, I really was, but unfortunately, it also gave me a lot of time to think about all of the ways I could fail, all of the ways I could embarrass myself. I thought about what would happen if I was the only person on my team who couldn’t stand up. I thought about Aaron’s informational session on how to avoid injuries, and how I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to avoid them at all if it came down to it.
In other words, I was the picture of anxiety.
“Are you ready, Cailey?” my coach asked as I loaded the bus, looking up at me from her seat with a smile.
“Um…” I responded. I didn’t have to finish my sentence. I think from my lack of uncontrollable chatter during breakfast, she just knew.
When we got to the beach, we watched as group two finished up their session. I couldn’t believe how fast most of them had picked it up, their arms hoisting their bodies to their feet with a certain elegance, their boards gliding through the smoothest part of the wave until they either jumped or fell off. As the time for their session ran out, they unstrapped their ankle strap, tucked their board under their arms, and ran towards us, their footprints chasing behind them in the wet, dark brown sand.
“It’s so much fun!” all of them raved. “You’re going to love it!”
And I tried to believe them, I really did. But looking out at the royal blue water, watching how it turned a haunting white before breaking against the sand in a thunderous roar, I wasn’t so sure if surfing would ever be my idea of fun. The ocean is beautiful to look at, and it’s occasionally fun to swim in, but finding my balance on top of something so unpredictable, so seemingly infinite?Count me out.
When one of the instructors handed me a board, my hands reached out to take it from him before my brain could scream at them not to. Like they remembered that I may only be in Costa Rica once, like they knew that this is the oldest I’ve ever been and the youngest I’ll ever be again. Like they felt in every vein my promise to say yes to adventure, like they understood that I wasn’t about to get left on the beach while my teammates played in the Pacific.
We practiced our technique on the beach before we even put our toes in the water. Lying in the sand, we practiced positioning ourselves in the center of our boards towards the back near the fins, leaving room for us to pivot forwards when it was time to stand. We practiced opening up our dominant shoulder and hip, bending our knee up so our foot was planted firmly on the board, and using the power from that leg to move our other leg to the standing position. We practiced squatting down, getting low for added balance. We practiced paddling with arched backs, avoiding a mouthful of saltwater as we swam out towards the waves.
Because group three was so small, two of us were assigned to each instructor. I let my teammate I had been paired with go first, partly because I wanted to watch more examples of good surfing techniques, but mostly because I was still scared out of my mind. From closer to the shore, I watched my teammates try to catch their first wave, barely getting to their feet before tumbling off into the blue and white abyss below them. I held my breath each time someone fell off, waiting until their heads popped up above the waves, laughing with them as they cackled, “Did you see that? Did you see how many somersaults I just did?”
When it was finally my turn, I walked towards my instructor carefully, slowly. His shoulder-length, blonde hair was covered by a black Rip Curl hat, and his skin was stretched like dark leather across his cheekbones. His hazel eyes turned to look into mine, crinkled and friendly.
“Are you ready?” he asked, motioning for me to climb onto my board. I jumped on, letting it rock back and forth beneath me before it finally steadied in the waves.
“Better now than never. Any last tips?” I responded, putting on a smile and a brave face.
“Sure. Number one,” he said, pointing out towards the horizon, the sun pouring into the ocean, making the waves in the distance glimmer like shooting stars. “Remember that you are here, in the ocean. Breathe it.”
I took a deep breath with him. “Number two. Patience. The most important part is waiting for the right wave.”
He began to turn my board around, the nose facing the beach. I can’t explain it, but I could sense the wave coming behind me. I couldn’t see it, or hear it, or feel it, but somewhere inside of me understood that this was it. This was the moment.
“Number three. No hesitation. When I say ‘up,’ you stand.”
And before I even registered that he had let go of me, pushing me into a wave, before I even registered that he had yelled for me to stand, I was hurtling towards the beach atop white water, the salty wind stinging my eyes, my legs desperately trying to push me to a standing position.
By the time I got to my knees, it was far too late to continue upwards onto the soles of my feet. I let the wave carry me the rest of the way, feeling slightly defeated, but also invigorated. That was pretty close for your first time, I thought.
During my next try, I made it up to my feet but refused to let go of my board with my hands. I thought the four-point position would add at least a little balance to my surfing position, but I was extremely wrong. Instead, I went tumbling off headfirst, flipping twice under the water, swallowing half the ocean and noticing how the salt immediately dried out my throat. I felt my surfboard tug on my ankle, and I let it pull me to the surface of the shallow water.
I turned around to look at my instructor. His eyebrows were knitted together, his hands thrown up in the air before they rested in frustration atop his head.
“Commit, Cailey!” he said, in a way I had never heard my name pronounced. “You have to commit!”
It was the best advice he could have given me. It’s one thing to say yes to adventure. But it’s another to commit to it, to want it so desperately that it hurts, that it burns like saltwater in my eyes. To crave it so openly and fully that you’re willing to do anything to achieve it, to succeed.
For my third try, I promised myself I’d get to my feet no matter what. I’d give myself completely over to this strange new sport, I’d feel the exhilaration of it all in my bones. It no longer mattered to me if I surfed or if I sank.
I started to understand why people who live in coastal towns treat surfing like a habitual activity, like an inherent part of living. It’s because the feeling of riding a wave, of turning the rough water to glass underneath your board, of taming something so large and wild and mysterious for even just a few seconds is the most addicting feeling in the world. So I kept surfing. Again. And again. And again.
I had wipeouts and crooked rides, but I continued to chase, to commit to the same feeling I felt during the first wave I caught. The sense of achievement. The sense of pride. The sense of admiration for the little girl I had watched climb up on her first try, the sense of respect for the water below me.
In a way, committing to adventure is very similar to being present. It’s soaking in every moment without distractions. However, commitment is more active. It’s feeling the purpose of your presence in every goal you chase, every dream you achieve.
If committing to surfing gave me that much euphoria, I wanted to know what actively committing to the rest of my daily activities would do. I committed to lunch—putting tomatoes on my sandwich even though I usually hate them. I committed to our afternoon team-bonding event, sitting in the driveway outside of Ocean’s Edge, trying to catch a tan without a burn, listening to Spanish music from my teammate’s speaker. I even committed to Dr. Scholten’s advice when he went dad-mode, reminding us to drink as much water as we possibly could before our open water swim in the afternoon.
At 3 PM, we were set to travel to one of Jaco’s bays, a much less wavy area for us to practice in on a day we didn’t have access to a pool. While we completed a 45-minute workout, swimming clockwise around two massive yellow buoys about one kilometer apart, the divers worked out on the beach.
I tried to commit to each stroke I took, trying to give it a purpose, trying to push as much water behind me as possible while staying above the waves. I tried to commit myself to adventure even when my eyes and throat burned and my lips cracked in the saltwater, even when a school of large fish swam beneath me. I even tried to commit myself to finishing the workout when I swam into a piece of seaweed. I grabbed it with my hand and pushed it down underneath me, and as I kept kicking forward, it wrapped around my thigh and stuck there.
And then I began to feel the pins and needles. When the subtle tingling turned into an intense burning sensation, like hot liquid bouncing off a skillet and burning my leg repeatedly, like being stabbed by millions of microscopic needles, I realized it wasn’t seaweed after all. A few of my teammates and I had swam directly through a pod of jellyfish.
We began to drop out, patting our heads and waving our hands as a sign we needed help from those on the paddle boards or kayaks. We were pulled back to the shore, sitting on the beach in tears, checking our battle wounds with an overwhelming sense of fear, itchiness, and pain. Dr. Scholten offered ointment and anti-histamines. I tried to offer comfort without knowing how to comfort myself.
When I finally stumbled onto the beach, one of the divers asked if I was okay.
“No,” I responded, my voice shaking, fighting back tears that stung my eyes, trying not to itch the jellyfish-induced wound that stung my entire leg. Right now, all I want to do is go home.”
Our coach ended our workout with a short team meeting. She talked to us about how important challenges are, how they make us both mentally and physically stronger. She told us how proud she is of us, how we’ve become bigger people, how we’ve learned how to pull ourselves out of a rock and a hard place, how we’ve begun to understand each other’s needs as well as our own.
I know that I wasn’t rational until everything finally stopped burning. I probably said things I’ll eventually regret. I recognize that I was wrong to take my personal pain out on the world that had done nothing wrong except simply exist. I understand now that all I needed was a lot of hydrocortisone, Benadryl, a hug from my teammates, and a talk with my mom.
But most of all, I can’t believe that I nearly let a jellyfish sting allow me to forget the complete and total joy I had felt just hours earlier when I had surfed over the creatures that had hurt me.
It’s funny how committing to adventure led to my highest high and my lowest low during my time in Costa Rica. But I supposed that’s how commitment always works. You can’t decide the outcome. You can only decide how you react to it.
Because that’s pura vida. Pura vida is the refusal to only dip your toes into being human. It’s to dive into your humanity completely like the nose of a surfboard under a completely white wave. It’s to feel your emotions deeply, to cry when you need to and laugh when you want to. Pura vida is remembering to find optimism and joy, always. It’s distracting yourself from itching a sting, from pulling out the stingers until you can get medicine, by watching how the sun bounces against the deep blue water. By seeing your teammates pride when they finish the swim, even when you didn’t or could barely finish it yourself. By remembering that you felt that same pride when you planted your feet on your board that morning, and knowing that they were just as proud of you, too.
Pura vida, at its core, is the commitment to the experiences that will make you feel the most brave, the most powerful, the most alive. It’s chasing adventure even if you have to face painful stings, food poisoning, a lack of properly working air conditioning, and backed up plumbing because the last group at Ocean’s Edge ignored the rule to not flush toilet paper because Costa Rica’s sewage pipes are too small.
Through all these trials, I remember the joy. I remember that I have my teammates to pull me through the lows. If the ocean can calm itself, so can we. We are all just a mixture of salt, water, and air.
Have you ever watched a team of water-sport athletes play a game of soccer? If you haven’t, count your blessings. And if you have? Well, I’m sorry you had to see that.
Soccer, or “fútbol” in Spanish, is Costa Rica’s national sport. Most sources state that football became so popular in Costa Rican culture because, when the economy was down and people struggled financially, one ball could be shared by many. Furthermore, football can be played almost anywhere.
From the window of our bus while driving between San José, La Fortuna, and the outskirts of the Alajuela province, I’ve watched children and adults alike run across green fields and kick a ball into broken nets, wearing wide smiles even when they weren’t wearing shoes. And when the locals aren’t playing football? They’re watching it. I can’t imagine the pandemonium of exploring this country during the World Cup, where Costa Rica’s national team, “La Sele,” has appeared four times. However, I can picture televisions blaring in neighborhood bars behind cheering and booing, men and women sharing Imperial or Pilsen with their friends.
In Costa Rica, football isn’t just a sport—it’s an essential part of the nation’s traditions, identity, and pride.
As for Augustana swim and dive, an essential part of our team is our competitive drive. Even though we’re widely considered as water creatures, if we can find a ball, two decent-looking nets, and a field to run across, you can bet we’ll create our own game of soccer. After our workout on Hotel Tilajari’s soccer field in La Fortuna, we sprinted down the field clumsily and tripped over our own feet while attempting to kick and pass a ball to each other. But although only a few of us knew what we were doing, we laughed the entire time. We picked each other up when we fell. Some of us still consider our makeshift soccer game as our favorite part of this whole trip.
Today, we were supposed to board our buses shortly after breakfast and head to the Liga Deportiva Alajuelense Stadium, the home of one of Costa Rica’s professional soccer clubs. Dr. Scholten even suggested that we may be able to play a short game of soccer during our visit. However, right before we planned on leaving, we got a call that there was a misunderstanding with our tour guide and our tour of the stadium had been cancelled.
I could tell that the most competitive among us were disappointed, that those of us most interested in Costa Rican culture were dismayed to miss out on this academic adventure.
But now, as I reflect back on our chaotic day, I considered what sports are truly about, the lessons we are supposed to learn from them, like the art of discipline, resiliency, compassion, character, and teamwork. And honestly, I think today’s events taught me more about teamwork than a tour of a soccer stadium ever could.
After learning that our tour had been cancelled, Dr. Scholten quickly jumped into action to alter our schedule. The best we could do was try and convince the bus drivers that would be transporting us to Jacó, one of Costa Rica’s bustling coastal towns, to pick us up a few hours earlier.
We spent the extra time we had unexpectedly found in Hotel Balmoral’s restaurant, catching up on our journals and working on our final video projects. A few of us ventured off to grab our final bite to eat in the city of San José, bringing back cheesy bread and chocolate strawberry cakes from the nearby bakery, or slices of pizza much larger than the average paper plate.
Around 11 AM, four hours after our breakfast, we heard news that our buses had arrived. We wheeled our suitcases down towards the parking garage, expecting to stack them on the roof once again.
Instead, we came face-to-grill with buses much more mini than the white minibuses we had been traveling on. The bus drivers insisted that there was enough room for all of our luggage to be stored in the back, but I was skeptical that even just the 43 of us would fit without any bags. Even so, we began an assembly line of wheeling the suitcases down the parking garage ramp, hoisting them up, and shoving them through the bus’s back window.
And when we still had about twelve bags left, we ran out of room.
Thankfully, if this trip has taught us anything, it’s to adapt and overcome. The buses didn’t come equipped with a tarp to cover the suitcases on the roof, but we stacked them and did our best to secure them anyways.
Finally, sitting four across in a tiny bus, luggage stacked ominously above one of my teammate’s nervous heads, sweaty shoulders and knees pressed together, our swim bags on our laps and our bus driver’s Spanish music blaring out of the speaker right above our heads, we began our drive to Jacó.
Until we hit a traffic standstill and our drive, which was supposed to take a little less than two hours, turned into four hours on the most claustrophobia-inducing bus I’ve ever sat on. Until the rainforest lived up to its name and the sky opened up, leaking tiny but heavy droplets onto our luggage. Until we finally couldn’t take it anymore and stopped for a bathroom break, but we has to pay to use the restrooms. While we waited for those willing to spend their colones, we looked over the bridge nearby and watched crocodiles lurk and play in the muddy river.
Pura vida, I thought, watching one crocodile get picked up by the rushing water, noticing that he didn’t try to swim against the current. Pura vida, pura vida, pura vida. But it wasn’t quite getting through to me today, no matter how hard I tried to stay optimistic. So instead, as I watched each tree we passed disappear behind us slowly, growing out of the sides of the mountain at such a steep angle that the branches looked like hands trying to grab us, I thought about philosopher Alan Watts’ “backwards law.”
The backwards law is the idea that wanting positive experiences so badly leads to negative experiences, while recognizing that negative experiences happen leads to positive experiences. For example, the more we crave money and riches, the poorer we feel, no matter how much money we have. On the flip side, if our trip to Jacó would have been perfect, sunny, and gone exactly according to plan, we wouldn’t have learned as much about ourselves and each other.
The day was going to go exactly how I made it to be. And I wanted it to be great.
For the second half of our excruciatingly long bus drive, my teammates and I asked “would you rather” questions, requiring an explanation for each one, laughing over the Spanish music that was (still!) playing louder than our thoughts.
“Would you rather have rainbow teeth or no fingers?”
“Would you rather be cat-called in Costa Rica or in the United States?”
“Would you rather be a squirrel or a cockroach… wait, that’s too easy.”
We confessed our growing levels of homesickness, confiding in each other about how much we miss our other teammates and families and significant others and dogs. We talked about how it only really hits us at night, when we’re alone. Maybe it’s because our experiences and adventures are a beautiful distraction. Or maybe it’s because during the day, we’re all together. Maybe it’s because our team feels like home.
We counted down the miles to Jacó excitedly. We told stories from moments that occurred earlier in our trip, and it hit me that someday, these stories will become some of my favorite memories. We laughed deliriously, joking that the sulfur from the volcano actually caused brain damage. We gave our shoulders to those in the middle seats without a headrest, letting them catch up on a few minutes of sleep.
And when we finally unloaded the bus at Jacó, our batteries were a little more charged, our hearts a little more full, our emotions a little more in check. We felt strong enough to make it through another physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually challenging week 2,000 miles from home. We reaffirmed that we can rely on each other through anything. Not just to get our hand on the wall first to win a swim meet, or to score a goal in a makeshift soccer game, but to uplift each other, trust each other, and to truly care about each other in the face of adversity.
We spent the rest of the day getting a better feel for our surroundings. In Jacó, we’re staying at Ocean’s Edge, a small hostel located on a Christian missionary base. The founders of Ocean Edge do not try to convert third-world locals to their religion. Instead, they devote themselves to community service through beach clean-up, painting murals on lamp posts and street lights, and providing a safe space for those in need in their many churches.
While walking through the front gate of Ocean’s Edge, we were greeted by a three-legged yellow lab, a calico cat, and two very blonde, barefoot children, the humidity seeping through their clothes and making their hair look as though it was floating. One of the missionaries referred to them as her “jungle children,” shortly after telling us that she had moved to Jacó from Virginia after graduating from college, wanting to dedicate at least part of her life to community service, and then never returned to the United States.
The children and the property manager of Ocean’s Edge, a blonde man with tan skin named Aaron, led us to the rooms we will be staying in for our last week in Costa Rica. Each room contains a small kitchenette, a bathroom, and multiple bunk beds, making it possible for seven to ten of us to stay in each room. Good thing we like each other.
After a short orientation and a safety lesson before we begin learning to surf tomorrow, we headed off for a free night until our curfew at 8:30. Yes, we’ll dabble in soccer. But we’re swimmers and divers at our core. Without thinking, most of us headed straight for the ocean.
The sky hadn’t stopped misting all day, and we watched as lightning cracked open the sky in a neon blue tear. Clouds drifted over the sun and, as the sun dipped below the horizon, the misty sky looked like it was on fire, lit up in a mixture of vibrant reds and oranges and pinks.
As the moon appeared as our nightlight, the sand turned a rich black, and I let myself wade out into the foamy white waves, watching as the water swirled around my knees.
Then, I turned to watch my teammates, some of them standing back cautiously, some of them diving completely under the dark saltwater. I watched all of their human interactions, their moments of teamwork. Their laughter was more thunderous than the crashing waves, more electrifying than the lightning.
“This is my first time in the ocean!” I heard one of them shout excitedly.
And that’s when another definition of pura vida hit me. Yes, pura vida is teamwork, and patience, and resiliency, and compassion, and optimism in the face of difficult trials. But even more than that, pura vida is the recognition that each of us are one drop, and together, we are an entire ocean. Pura vida is harmony, either a forced harmony on cramped buses or a harmony that reaches across borders, from the United States to Costa Rica, binding us all. Pura vida is the ability to see the good, even if you need a teammate’s “would you rather” questions to help you notice it.
Pura vida is what I’ve always known Augustana swim and dive to be: a safe space to be completely and totally myself, where I can wear my heart on my sleeve and at least one person will look at me and say, “Thank you for this gift.”
There’s a quote I really like by novelist David Mitchell that reads, “Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”
With only one week left of our adventure in Costa Rica, I’m starting to understand this quote as an inherent fact. Because every morning in this paradise, as I wake to my alarm clock of whistling birds or San José’s blaring human noise, I truly believe that I wake up as a slightly different person than I was the day before. I can feel the gratitude growing in my chest. I can feel new stars shining in my eyes.
I know, I know. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. Looking at a map of Costa Rica, I can remember how each little town, city, or province has transformed me. I can pinpoint exactly where I’ve left small pieces of my heart, from the Braulio Carrillo rainforest to the public hot springs outside La Fortuna. And strangely enough, with each piece I lose, I feel more like the person I’m meant to be.
Maybe it’s because of the people I’ve interacted with, from tour guides to waitresses to the man selling whistles on the side of the street, people whose language I cannot speak, but am still beginning to understand. Maybe it’s because I’m learning to be present, ignoring when my phone doesn’t have a connection and remembering how I’m connected to my teammates around me, how I’m rooted in our one, beautiful Earth. Maybe because I’m learning the true meaning of pura vida.
Above all, I know that, at the very least, my perspective on life has changed. In a country where nothing is truly mine except for the essentials—oxygen from the green mountains, rain from the sky, the rapidly depleting amount of clothes in my suitcase, and the relationships I’ve made and tended to, I’m learning what is truly important.
As for today? I learned that, sometimes, beauty is found in the darkest of places. Sometimes, you must adapt before you can grow. And sometimes, you can learn more about yourself by staring into a white abyss rather than the fiery mouth of an active volcano.
After our last practice at the Cariari Country Club yesterday, we had the morning to finally sleep in. In other words, we were still in Hotel Balmoral’s lobby for breakfast at 7 AM. With our sun screen, bug spray, and rain jackets tucked away in our bags, we finished our meal of omelettes, pancakes, yogurt, or the typical Costa Rican breakfast before heading outside to wait for our buses.
But our small white buses, with our unassigned assigned seats, never came. Instead, a blue charter bus, capable of transporting all 43 of us as well as our tour guides, drove up in front of our hotel, hissing as it parked on the street it appeared much too large for. All of us were giddy as we loaded the bus carefully, almost afraid of the luxury. The leather seats were wide and comfortable, and I could sit down without my knees touching the seat in front of me. It even had WiFi.
“Wow,” I joked. “This bus is nicer than my college house.”
“It’s going to be a much smoother ride,” my coach responded, in a terribly wrong case of foreshadowing.
Standing in an aisle and swaying back and forth as the bus weaved around cyclists and other slow-moving cars, our tour guide explained our schedule for the day into a microphone. We would be driving to the Alajeula province, roughly translated to “city of the mangoes,” to visit the Poás Volcano National Park. On our way back, we’d stop by the Doka Coffee Plantation for a tour.
As the city of San José became smaller and smaller in the bus’ rearview mirror, our guide began to give us a brief history of Costa Rica’s landscapes and economy. He explained that there are 120 volcanoes in the country of Costa Rica, and the two volcanoes in the Alajeula province are both active.
However, the potential danger of an erupting volcano didn’t seem to bother our guide. Volcanoes provide an excellent space for growing produce, especially as certain plants grow more efficiently (and soak up tastier nutrients from the volcanic soil) in higher altitudes. On different mountains and volcanoes, Costa Rican farmers grow different plants—like pineapples, coffee beans, bananas, and sugar cane—which bring in a lot of money for the country when exported, especially to the United States and Europe. Furthermore, it helps that tourists are interested in learning about volcanoes and Costa Rican plantations, as tourism makes up about eight percent of the country’s economy.
He told us about how it was difficult for Costa Rica to create a functioning government after their sudden independence from Spain in 1821. The French invasion of Spain led to Mexico’s independence, which led to the Kingdom of Guatemala’s independence, which ultimately made Costa Rica a free country. Unfortunately, the news of Costa Rica’s independence didn’t arrive in the country until almost a month after it was declared, giving political leaders very limited time to jump into action in creating an entirely new governmental system.
Costa Rica’s weak government made it easy for power-hungry men to try and take control of its beautiful forests, rich coasts, and expensive natural resources like gold and jade. Perhaps the best example of this is William Walker, a Nashville, Tennessee native, who attempted to become a dictator in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the 1850s. He tried declare himself President of Costa Rica, too, the people fought back. Walker was defeated by a combined force of Costa Ricans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorans in 1856.
In 1899, an era of peaceful democracy began in Costa Rica with the first truly free and honest elections in the county’s history. They began to commercialize and export their unique fruits and plants, improving their economy. They started to trust in the power of volcanoes.
In a way, Costa Ricans have always known how to fight back against the darkness. And when they can’t beat it, they let their flowers bloom there, too.
After a while, our tour guide sat down and let us contemplate his vivid stories and lessons. Looking out the window, I watched as we drove around winding roads, crawling our way up Poás. We crossed bumpy bridges and took wide turns to avoid hitting other cars and the small streams dripping down the volcano’s black stone.
And then I heard my teammates sitting in the back of the bus begin to ask for more air conditioning. For water. For a trash can, if possible. Others tried desperately to find a seat closer to the front of the bus, trying to escape the tail end that had been rocking back and forth, bouncing up and down for the entirety of our rocky ascent.
When we got to the parking lot at the Poás Volcano National Park, I watched as my teammates exited the bus with ghostly white faces, a green hue settling into their lips and cheeks. They gasped for fresh air, bending over with their hands on their knees, trying to focus on anything besides the breakfast they had eaten that morning because they really didn’t want to taste it again.
Once everyone had gotten over the initial bout of motion sickness, we began our short hike to Poás’ main crater. Although the volcano is 600,000 years old, scientists suggest that the crater is (only?) less than 5000 years old. However, in those 5000 years, the crater has seen much activity, with it’s last mild eruption taking place in 2017, covering the Alajuela province with a thick ash. While not actively spewing lava, Poás emits carbon dioxide, sulfur, and other potentially harmful gases into the atmosphere. Before entering the park, we read a sign that warned those with asthma and hypertension to not stay at the volcano for too long.
I could taste the sulfur in the air as soon as we began our hike, the rotten egg taste hanging hot and heavy between my teeth. My teammates and I shared our water with each other, swishing it in our mouths and spitting it out.
For the entirety of our hike, we were surrounded in a thick white fog, tickling our skin with a cold moisture, goose bumps appearing on our skin. While we walked up the steep hill, we stepped over rocks and climbed under tree branches that appeared black in the absence of sunlight. Dark green moss crawled like spiders down tree trunks and across the trail. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to focus on my oddly eerie surroundings or the burn in my calves.
Finally, we came to the crater’s overlook, stepping out onto the concrete that hung over the volcano’s mouth. And in the most anticlimactic turn of events in the history of the world, we looked down to see exactly what we had seen during our entire hike: complete and total nothingness.
Looking out towards what we assumed was the horizon, if we could actually see it, that is, it looked as though the plants growing along the side of the crater were superimposed on a white sheet of paper. The intense fog has settled into the wide crater, making it impossible to see anything.
Did you think 40 college students would be upset to see nothing after an hour-long bus ride that made half of us motion sick, a steep hike, a mouthful of sulfur, and the promise to see some lava? If so, you’d actually be quite wrong. We thought it was the funniest thing in the world.
“Wow, Dr. Scholten! It’s beautiful!” some of us joked.
“I feel like I could jump down in there and the clouds would catch me,” someone else said.
“Can we at least take some photos?” another asked. “This white lighting makes my skin look great.”
We laughed until we cried. We joked about our misfortunes. We knew that sometimes, life doesn’t work out in the way we want it to. But there is a power in numbers, and there is an especially humorous power in a group of close friends who definitely breathed in too much volcanic gas. We understood that we learn more when we have to find adventure ourselves, rather than following the road map given to us. And today, I think our greatest adventure was the way we came together to turn an invisible volcano into hysterical giggles, into jokes, into a bonding experience.
“I’m not on cloud nine,” one of my teammates exclaimed, laughing before he could even get the words out. “I’m in it!”
Our tour guide was slightly more disappointed than us, but we reassured him that we were totally alright with how the situation played out. As repayment, he promised we’d stop at the Fresas del Volcán market on our way to the Doka Plantation.
It turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the day. Pulling into a small parking lot on the side of the Poás, we hopped off the bus to see a small shop selling fresh cheese and strawberries. The microclimate on the top of volcanoes provides the perfect environment for strawberries to grow. We had the option to try plain strawberries, but we could also add whipped cream, chocolate syrup, or sprinkles.
I popped a plain strawberry in my mouth. It didn’t need any extra flavor. Natural sugar dissolved into my tongue. I thought about the irony of something so sweet growing on a mountain so dangerous, so explosive. But that’s true about life, too. Our sweetest, most valuable life experiences come from when we twist our losses into lessons.
Later, we made our way to the Doka Coffee Plantation. And just like the strawberries, the coffee beans grown on the Poás was the best coffee I have ever tasted.
Those who work at the Doka Coffee Plantation are mostly Nicaraguan immigrants who know the value of patience and tedious work. While growing coffee sprouts, farmers know that they’ll have to wait at least five years for the first coffee beans to sprout. At least coffee plants can live up to 100 years. Furthermore, once the coffee beans finally appear, coffee pickers must use their hands to find and pull all of the ripe beans off their branches. No machine has been invented to complete this process automatically because it is important to pick only the red beans and not the green, but both red and green beans are dispersed throughout every branch.
Each coffee picker fills about ten to fifteen small, wooden baskets every day, which is a lot of work considering each basket is only worth 2000 colones, or about $2. This process is made even more difficult because coffee beans are harvested between the months of November and January, Costa Rica’s dry season. During this time, poisonous snakes lurk and camouflage themselves against the green plants, waiting to strike.
Our tour guide took us through the six stages of coffee production once the beans are picked. First, the beans are soaked in a large tank of water for 24 hours in order to clean and filter the beans for good and bad qualities. The “good” beans then move on to stage two, or coffee peeling, where the beans are taken apart and the middle part of the bean is measured for size. High quality beans are larger and do not need to be mixed with any other flavors, while lower quality beans are small and must be mixed with chocolate, vanilla, or sugar in order to reach a desired taste quality. Next, the peeled beans are fermented for additional sweetness and acidity.
Later, the coffee beans are dried by the sun, and the length of time they are dried for affects the taste. The coffee beans are then stored and ready to be roasted for all those who enjoy a great cup of coffee.
It was a highly educational day, to say the least. I learned about Costa Rica’s landscapes, economy, and rich history. I learned the science of volcanoes and the process of coffee-making. But at the end of the day, these aren’t the lessons I’m going to take home to South Dakota with me.
I’m going to take home the lesson of pura vida, which means enjoying paradise even when it doesn’t quite feel like paradise. Pura vida means staring into a disappointing abyss and throwing your head back in laughter. It means learning to appreciate the people who are willing to turn disappointments into new adventures, the people who can turn adapted plans into a great story you can tell later. It means knowing that even the sweetest things come from explosive places. It means recognizing that there is sweetness in you, too, and you can make it around the volcanoes in your own life, especially when you have your teammates beside you.
Pura vida means knowing that travel doesn’t just mean you’re just moving around from place to place. It means you’re learning. Changing your perspective. Being moved.
When we returned to San José, two of my teammates and I went out for dinner at our favorite taco place, El Fogoncito, before stopping to find something sweet to eat at Pop’s. Walking towards our hotel, I watched as twilight danced across the roads, glistening from a light rain. I stopped to watch street performers singing into the night, their eyes darting between their small audiences and their tip jars. I let my sweet chocolate ice cream melt into my tongue, wondering if the dairy had come from cows on a volcano or on the ground.
But most of all, I thought about how lucky I was to be experiencing my last night in San José with my best friends. They’ve wiped tears from my face and then helped me to laugh. They’ve pulled me out of pools when I’m too tired to stand. They’ve given me grace when I’ve needed it most.
So, in an act of thanks, although it will never feel like enough, I’ll cultivate them like the strawberry and coffee bean farmers on the side of a volcano. I’ll help them grow through their dark places, too.
If someone asked me to describe this chapter of my life in one phrase, I would say “coping with my lasts.”
In four short months, I’ll be sitting at graduation in between “Team IV,” a nickname given to my class as soon as we stepped on campus in 2019 for being the fourth group of swimmers to commit to Augie Swim, for completing the first roster that saw freshmen through seniors. I’ll watch them adjust their caps, smooth down their gowns. I’ll watch them accept their diplomas, smiling, remembering the very early mornings for swim practice and the tragically late nights for studying. I may even feel prouder of them than I do for myself. That’s the thing about growth: it’s more obvious when you see it in another person.
As for now, I’ll revel in each little moment that I’ll never experience again. My last first day of swim practice. My last dual season, my last midseason swim meet. My last time wearing a pink swim cap in October.
Here in Costa Rica, where everything feels so new, I haven’t been rattled by any “lasts” in particular. However, it has occurred to me that my dirty white sneakers may never touch the streets or soil of this country ever again, so I’ve been drinking every second in with a certain fervor to ingrain everything in my memory in some way, somehow. Even if it means buying too many cheap souvenirs. Whoops.
But today, a certain last hit me harder than I had expected. It was our last day of swimming in the dizzyingly cold waters of the Cariari Country Club.
After having to end our pool practice early yesterday (because ice water and a biting wind don’t create an ideal swimming experience), our coach was able to reschedule our practice for two hours later.
“It’s still cold,” one of my teammates had told Coach after we finished warmup.
“Yes,” Coach responded. “But at least we have the sun.”
Our bus drivers expected extreme traffic, so even though our pool time didn’t start until 8, we began our 20-ish minute drive to the country club at 6:45. It was an odd phenomenon to see San José at a time of day I had never seen it at before. Because strangely enough? Although the roads were busier, the sidewalks were emptier, quieter than they are before the sun even rises.
One morning, I asked our tour guide about the amount of people walking through the city at such an early hour. She shrugged nonchalantly.
“They don’t all have cars. They have to wake up early to walk from their towns to the bus stop. Some people walk all the way to work.”
I stopped for a moment to consider their journeys, their early morning walks across suburbs and into the city in order to just survive, to keep their families afloat. If these Costa Rican locals can wear holes in all their shoes and still show a group of 43 lost tourists kindness, offering directions and shouts of “Pura vida, turista!” I can find joy in my own journeys, too.
Luckily for us, the traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as expected, and we ended up making it to the pool around 7:20. As the divers began to head towards the nearby gymnastics club for practice, the swimmers laid out their towels on the rough pool deck, letting the intense morning sun soak into our skin. I didn’t want to take the burn on my skin for granted because I knew that, eventually, I’d be so cold. I looked up at the only tree large enough and close enough to the pool to offer us some shade, and I noticed how its vivid green leaves glistened even brighter against the brilliant blue sky.
Want to know what else we lucked out on this morning? We still haven’t had a chance to do the 20x100s best average set. Instead, our coach had us do 6x100s all-out sprints from the starting blocks. While we swam, Dr. Scholten performed an exercise science experiment on one of the sprint group boys, measuring the amount of lactate in his blood as we progressed through the practice. The conclusion? His lactate rose, indicating that he had worked really hard, and, as a result, was really tired.
In between each set, we keeled over on the deck, our hands on our knees, desperately trying to bring oxygen to our sore muscles with labored breathing. But at least we were warm. At least the sun evaporated the chill off my skin.
After one of my especially painful 100s, the soreness setting deep into my legs and spreading across my shoulders and back, I noticed one of my teammates looking at me. “We’ve done three, we have three left. As soon as you dive in for this one, you’re already more than halfway done,” she said with a small smile.
Maybe during swim practice the destination is greater than the journey. But she’s right-sometimes, the journey is halfway over before it really even hits us that it started. My time on this team has moved so fast, too fast, and I can almost see the hourglass running out. I don’t want to wish a single stroke away. I want to enjoy every second of the chapter of my life that is Augie Swim to the point that when I flip to the next page, I realize that I enjoyed reading every word far more than I enjoyed the satisfaction of finishing it, of reaching my destination.
And if we’re keeping with the journey theme, you’ll never guess what our activity was today. After a rushed breakfast at our hotel (where more and more of my teammates have become brave enough to try the traditional Costa Rican breakfast of rice, beans, plantains, cheese, and toast), we headed to a nearby farmer’s market to begin Dr. Scholten’s 2023 San José Scavenger Hunt.
Our scavenger hunt ended up being a five to six mile adventure and, although it was hot, we were rewarded with food from a hidden neighborhood, ice cream, and food from San José’s oldest soda. My group made it to ten of the fourteen major stops.
1. Féria Verde Farmer’s Market. We began our hunt at a local farmer’s market about a half a mile from our hotel. Because practice was pushed back, we had to half run, half walk up steep hills, down green-painted sidewalks, across railroad tracks, and through barbed wire fences in order to make it to the market before it closed at noon.
Luckily, our tour guide knew of a shortcut, and she led us to the steepest, most treacherous flights of brick stairs that I have ever seen in my entire life. Weeds stretched across the path like tentacles, and none of the steps were flat. They all sat at an angle, as if they wished to dump adventurous tourists off of them.
“Is this really a shortcut or a recipe for disaster?” one of my teammates asked, tiptoeing down the stairs one-by-one, placing her palms on the wall next to her as if it would save her.
“It’s an adventure,” Dr. Scholten responded, turning around with a wide smile on his face.
And the adventure was so worth it. At the bottom of the stairs, we came across an explosion of culture. Men of all ages played basketball on a small court, the two halves divided by a garden hose, the chain nets clanging loudly every time they made a basket. In little tents down the entirety of the sidewalk, Costa Rican merchants sold jewelry with rings far too small for any of our fingers, essential oils, and coffee beans. Dogs sat behind every tent, curling up under every table. Holding a microphone, a woman in a long pink dress serenaded the shoppers with Spanish music, her loud, strong voice blaring through speakers in every corner of the street.
I felt out-of-place, but I did not feel uncomfortable. That’s the beauty of exploring, of staying in tune to each lesson you learn while traveling, while taking extraordinary journeys. Your comfort zone becomes uncomfortable. You interact with people who have built a society, a town, a country so different from your own. And you learn what it means to live a truly pure life.
2. Universidad Hispanoamericana. Our next stop was a beautiful college campus consisting entirely of large, white-painted buildings with royal blue accents. The Universidad Hispanoamericana is a major private university in San José, and students who attend this university most often specialize in business administration, engineering, psychology, and medical studies.
Other than the color of the buildings, the paint peeling at the edges, the campus looked as though it could be picked up and placed in the United States without question. The facilities were incredibly modern, but I think that goes to show Costa Rica’s goals in innovation: to keep up with the rest of the world. Students at the Universidad Hispanoamericana earn internationally recognized degrees through incredibly up-to-date programs and learning techniques.
Although there wasn’t much to explore, it was one of my favorite stops. As a college student myself, I loved feeling connected to this country, to its people. Maybe somewhere on this campus is someone who loves to write as much as I do, I thought.
3. Barrio Escalante. After leaving the university, we walked a few blocks to Barrio Escalante, a very hip, modern neighborhood centered around food services and serving the people near it–so mostly college students.
My teammates and I passed restaurants with a different hit song blaring through each of the speakers. We ducked under fairy lights hanging between the roof of the restaurants and the trees that grew in the middle of the street. While building the neighborhood, while putting down the roads, Costa Ricans didn’t move the forestry, reaching far up into the sky as they had done when a forest existed around them. Instead, they built and paved around the trees. They knew that the trees had come first, and they honored it.
It’s beautiful to know that while serving the next generation of professionals, the next generation of the world, the people who built Barrio Escalante set an example of respect for all living things, all non-human creatures. By carrying that message into the future, I’m confident that students at the Universidad Hispanoamericana, no matter what field they decide to go into, can change how we treat our earth.
4. Central Market. Next, we made our way to the Central Market, a lively, mazelike shopping experience with vendors selling their produce, fish, coffee, and traditional crafts. The hallways between the shops were only about three feet wide, and we squeezed past each other, not wanting to bump into or break anything that was hanging ominously from the ceiling. We smelled spices, piled in high piles in wooden baskets. We watched as a man reached into a dog kennel and pulled out a puppy the size of my fist, its chest fluttering wildly, placing it on a scale before handing it to an eager customer. We smiled respectfully at vendors who watched us with wide eyes, repeating, “Look! Look! Look at my things! It’s free to look!”
It was overstimulating to say the least, but I’ve never felt closer to understanding the Costa Rican culture than when I’ve been thrown into the deep end. Good thing I know how to swim.
5. Lolo Mora’s Ice Cream. Craving something sweet while walking through the overwhelming Central Market, we stopped at one of the most famous ice cream shops in all of Costa Rica: Lolo Mora’s. Lolo Mora’s has been in business since 1901 and serves ice cream made of natural ingredients only. Watching the locals, I ordered the only kind of ice cream the shop offers–a yellow concoction that tasted of vanilla and cinnamon when it melted on my tongue. It definitely wasn’t the United States form of soft serve ice cream, but perhaps it was even better.
6. Soda Tapia. Although we were no longer hungry, we thought it was only right to stop at Soda Tapia, Costa Rica’s oldest “soda,” a local eatery where servers are used to the same locals coming in every day. All of the food is home-cooked, and Soda Tapia remains a must-visit because it feels like eating at a table of a local family. It’s the most authentic way to experience traditional cuisine. Watching from the street, I saw Costa Rican locals laughing with their waiters and waitresses, throwing their heads back to the ceiling, crow’s feet stretching across their eyes. In front of them sat empty plates that used to contain Soda Tapia’s famous dish–a layered combination of rice, beans, salsa, fried pork, and tortilla chips.
Where do you find happiness in Costa Rica? My gut tells me that it’s found in a soda.
7. SJO Sign. Stopping back at our hotel to rest our feet, we walked past a sign we had seen several times before, but had never stopped to actually recognize, to contemplate. In big, blue, block letters, the sign read, “SJO Vive,” or, in English terms, “San José lives!”
And it most certainly does. Usually surrounded by swarms of pigeons and locals who pour corn in tourists’ hands, if they’re willing to pay enough, so the birds flock to them and rest in their palms. It’s the perfect example of a city so alive, so awake to the world, so loud and vivid and brilliant. San José has everything–art, education, social work, and spaces for familial and friendly leisure. It’s where anyone can stare in the face of culture and feel the adrenaline, but not the fear.
San José is both a pathway, a journey towards knowledge and cultural appreciation, and also a destination.
8. LaSabana Park, National Stadium, & Art Museum. After resting our feet (and maybe our eyes for s bit, too), we began the long walk to LaSabana park, our last stop on our scavenger hunt. Considered the “lungs of Costa Rica,” LaSabana is the largest and most significant urban park in the entire country. Becoming so used to small, cramped spaces while walking through the market, even I was surprised to slowly abandon my claustrophobia, to take a breath of fresh air.
LaSabana features the country’s National Stadium and the Costa Rican Art Museum upon the park’s green space. But other than the infrastructure, LaSabana is also known for its large artificial lake, multiple soccer fields, running and skating tracks, and a gymnasium.
It’s a place where people can go to relax in a city surrounded by green, breathing mountains. It’s a place abundant with life, but here, it’s abundant with people rather than trees, people all on their individual journeys towards a happy, healthy life.
And as beautiful and culturally eye-opening as each destination was, I think I enjoyed our walks in between each stop far more, the people we talked to in painfully broken Spanish, the street art we pointed out to each other, our deep conversations and the laughs we shared. We looked up at the intensely violet and burning orange flowers hanging over the sidewalks, joking about how we could pretend we were walking down the aisle at a very public wedding. We ducked our heads under power lines that had fallen out of their thick bundles between their posts, dangling in front of our faces. We sipped ice tea and finally enjoyed some bread because while rice and beans are abundant in Costa Rica, pasta and other wheat-products are not. We laughed with our waitress when she didn’t understand our translation for “strawberry lemonade.”
Because although the destination may be beautiful, pura vida is recognizing that the journey carries far more emotional, spiritual, and mental weight than wherever it is we end up. It’s ignoring the burn in your legs, in your shoulders. It’s knowing that each step, each hand gliding through the water is worth it. It’s not wanting to take a single second for granted, even when life feels like an uphill battle against cold water, against the burning heat, against long walks and hard swim practices. It’s recognizing that your time is almost up and feeling excited for the future, but also knowing that, if you could, you would do it all over again. You’d turn back the clock.
Pura vida is how I feel when I’m with you, Team IV.
Pura vida is the realization that the kindest people aren’t born that way, they’re made, and I see it in almost every local here. They have souls that have experienced so much at the hands of a third-world life. They understand gratitude. They have dug themselves out of the dark, and it’s why they deserve this glimmering sun. They chose to soften themselves when the world tried to harden them, and I see them soften even more every time they smile at me, recognizing my blonde hair as foreign, tossing a friendly “Pura vida!”
And with each “pura vida” I give back to them, I feel myself become kinder, softer, too. I learn to remember that this journey is in paradise, and each lesson learned here will make our destination of South Dakota, of home, so much sweeter.
¡Hello again, and buenos días from San José! I hope you enjoyed hearing about our little sliver of paradise (the one we’ve been living in for double-digit days now!) from new perspectives.
As for me, it was nice to step back from my laptop for a couple of days and journal on paper, smearing black ink across my notebook as I wrote furiously about my adventures, what I had learned, what I had seen, how the city screamed awake at night and how the air felt on my skin.
If someone asked me what my biggest fear was while trekking through Costa Rica, I wouldn’t say the language barrier, or pick-pocketers, or cat-callers, or getting lost through the mostly steep, sometimes narrow city streets. I’d say that my biggest fear is forgetting. I want to remember every random fact, every conversation, every moment.
So, I’ll scribble as much as I possibly can into my notebook, I’ll type until my fingers hurt. But in a way, both of these acts are very different. When I write for myself, my thoughts are kept secret, stuffed between the pages like pressed flowers in a book. When I write for the blog, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I bare my words and my way of thinking to the cyber-universe, to an audience of close friends and complete strangers.
I am completely, totally, unequivocally vulnerable.
Travel is a lot like that, too. In Costa Rica, we have to be vulnerable enough to mess up, to speak in broken Spanish, to immerse ourselves in a culture, in values, in a group of people that are, in many ways, so polar opposite from the culture and values and people back home.
I’ve always had the travel bug. I’ve always itched to walk through the world with my own two feet. Even so, when I was young and would hear stories of friends or family members traveling to different countries, I would immediately think, “Wow, they’re so brave.”
And I think that’s true for a lot of people. The pursuit of adventure is so often intertwined with bravery that people forget that bravery isn’t all that we need. Courage only shows up when fear is present first.
Today was the most vulnerable I’ve felt throughout our entire Costa Rican experience. Why? Because other than training in the morning, we had the entire day to ourselves.
For the third day in a row, we woke up before the sun revealed its burning head above the mountains and volcanoes on the horizon. With an entire bench seat to myself, as the divers had headed to the University of Costa Rica for another practice on the boards, I looked out the window, watching the wind blow through the trees.
We’ve done a great job at getting used to the cold, getting used to the Cariari Club’s bone-ringing ice water. But today was different. The sun took longer to make its way across the cool, bathing us in its warmth, and the morning breeze bit at our cold skin. My teeth chattered. My hands felt numb. My knees shook, knocking together, no longer wanting to help me stand.
“One hour,” our coach said. “We’re going to make it through one hour.”
We did a small aerobic set, barely stopping at the wall for breath before we left it again, not wanting to stop kicking, pulling, moving our bodies against the stinging water, not wanting to stand up in the stinging air. We huddled together, throwing our arms around each other, sharing our body heat as much as possible. Today, for the first time in a long time, if not forever, I was totally okay with group hugs.
Instead of the second hour of swim practice, Dr. Scholten made up a dryland circuit instead. We did core exercises, push-ups, stretches. We jump roped, we threw medicine balls in the air, avoiding an imminent concussion on their return to Earth by searching for their shadow against the blinding sun.
And we laughed. A lot. We danced to the music blaring from the stereo. We encouraged each other as we wiped the dripping sweat from our own faces.
On the way home, we tried to think of songs we all knew and then sang them at the top of our lungs. We didn’t even need music. We just needed each other, a group of people so diverse and different but so similar.
“This is why they swim,” our Coach said to the bus driver as we unloaded the bus, a smile across her face, too.
There’s a vulnerability in waiting for the sunlight, and there’s a resounding level of bravery in jumping into the pool anyways, unable to see the light, unable to guess if it will ever feel warm.
There’s a vulnerability in letting yourself feel like a little kid, and there’s a bravery, a maturity, in knowing that sometimes, unleashing your inner child makes you stronger. Happier. More alive.
There’s a vulnerability in sharing your voice, in screaming at the top of your lungs to lyrics you can’t quite remember, and there’s a bravery in knowing that you deserve this moment. You deserve to be here with teammates who care about you, who want to lift you up, who try (and fail) to harmonize their voice with yours.
After eating breakfast at the hotel, we split up and began our individual adventures. I felt the nervous excitement with every bite I took. It had been so long since we felt truly independent.
As for my group, we had remembered José Pablo, our first tour guide who had walked us through the city of San José during our first day here. He had given one of my teammates his number in case we wanted a more in-depth tour, an exploration of the city while looking for an athlete’s favorite beverage: coffee.
So, in a group of six, we walked to the National Theater to give our entire day to a Costa Rican local we had met once.
And it turned out to be one of my favorite days in Costa Rica.
José began our tour by pointing out a plaque on the side of a knock-off shoe store. The plaque marked the place of Father Felix Velarde’s coffee farm, the first coffee farm in Costa Rica.
Eventually, Costa Ricans learned that coffee beans grow better at a higher altitude, in fields on the mountains and the volcanoes. They also learned that they could reap more vivid flavors from the coffee beans by planting them in volcanic soil and ash. Coffee beans grown in volcanic regions are more mineralized and more acidic, making Costa Rica’s coffee much more fruity.
José took us to his favorite coffee shops, explaining that we have to be careful in which stores we choose because some of them buy their coffee beans from the supermarket instead of harvesting from the mountains. He explained that the United States likes dark roast coffee because it hides the bad flavor of our coffee. He laughed along with us as we made cultural jokes about Lizzo and TikTok, and I wondered if he truly understood. I wondered if all cultures are braided together, at least in a way.
At the end of our tour, we stopped at De Acá Cafeteria, a vegan coffeehouse that is completely owned and operated by women. Our barista, who explained to us in Spanish that she had gone to university to become a barista, filtered the coffee in front of us.
“It’s good coffee if it bubbles,” José said, as mesmerized at the smell as we were.
The color of the coffee was like no other. It burned a brilliant amber, maroon on the inside and fading, in a gradient, to a bright yellow on the outside, where it touched our coffee mugs, the coffee mugs that would soon feel far too small.
It looks like a supernova, I thought. A star burning bright in the sky, the sky we see here, the same sky we see at home in South Dakota.
We waited until all of us had our coffee in front of us to take a sip. And as soon as the warmth melted into our tongues, I saw all of my teammates’ eyes widen for a moment, and then close, experiencing the moment with their taste buds, with their noses. Sometimes, the most beautiful things aren’t seen with our eyes.
It was fruity, acidic, unlike anything I had ever tasted before. It was an explosion of flavors I had never felt on my tongue.
“It feels like it’s dancing in my mouth!” one of my teammates exclaimed excitedly.
“I feel so fancy,” another said, holding the petite handle of her coffee cup, sipping it elegantly.
“If you feel fancy, it’s because you’re supposed to feel fancy,” José said from the head of the table. We fell silent, turning to look at him. I’m sure our mouths would have fallen open had we not been holding the best coffee we had ever tasted in our cheeks. “You deserve to. Enjoy it. Love your life. Love your moment.”
A day dedicated to coffee-drinking ended up being so much more. Not only did we taste coffee and bounce between hidden cafés, but José took us through his favorite (or in his words, “cute”) neighborhoods.
He asked us to stop to soak in five elderly men playing calypso music in the street. He pointed out artwork on the sides of hotels and on the posts of streetlights that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. He told us about his favorite books, about Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who he called the Spanish Shakespeare. He told us about the Bible-sized book titled Don Quijote, about how children are required to read it in schools but most end up just watching the movie. He told us about his mother, about how she was a schoolteacher but she’s retired now, enjoying the “good years.” He told us about how he grew up with four other brothers, but she instilled values of kindness, compassion, and the ability to be vulnerable in each of them.
José didn’t know it, but he had reached across every physical and metaphorical boundary. He helped us to understand him and his culture, and he genuinely cared to learn about ours, too.
Our free time made us vulnerable, and we were brave enough to devote it to José. José was brave enough to take on six noisy blondes and vulnerable enough to share a large piece of himself with us to help us learn, to help us grow, to help us connect.
José knows an essential truth about life, and now, we know it too: bravery and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. They hold hands while they’re pumped through our blood, sometimes walking, sometimes running, especially while standing on the edge of a muddy cliff, or dangling from a zip-line, or staring in the face of a Costa Rican local while he speaks about his family as if we’d known him our whole lives.
That’s pura vida. It’s vulnerability, felt deep in our bones like the cold of the pool, and it’s bravery, like watching a sunset knowing that your eyes may linger on the burning sun. It’s trying things, like tasting a kind of coffee with an incomparable flavor. It’s opening your heart to the possibility of a very strange day, only for it to be the most culturally, morally, and socially eye-opening day of your entire life.
Because pura vida is walking a mile in another’s shoes and today, I saw the world through José’s dark sunglasses. Pura vida is knowing that we only truly learn, we only truly understand, by living a pure life, by looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand, and saying, “I don’t quite get you yet, but I’m trying. I can’t understand your language, but I want to know.”
¡Adios for now! Join us again tomorrow as we stroll through a farmer’s market and take off on a scavenger hunt throughout San José.
Introduction: ¡Hola Amigos! It’s finally time to hear from the guys. We are here to discuss history, culture, and everything else that we learned today from the beautiful nation of Costa Rica. I’m going to do something a little different for my portion of the blog. I must stay true to my roots as a Journalism major and employ a “Smart Brevity” model [Dr. Janet Blank-Libra, I hope you are reading this and happy I’m using the model you showed me, but please don’t be disappointed in the lengthiness :)]. This is saying more about a topic, with less words to allow for easy and obtainable information. So, follow the bold heads, and get ready, because it’s time for an Augie Swim/Dive adventure!
Swimmers’ Practice: The cold water of the Cariari swim club seeped into my skin and covered me with a cloak of unwelcoming, yet not unfamiliar, numbness. This was our second consecutive day of 6:00 a.m. practice, and although constant chattering of teeth was heard across the pool, being surrounded by my best friends in one of the most beautiful nations in the world was unmatched. Lindsie, our wonderful coach, prepared two separate sets for the sprinters and mid-distancers. She’s a fantastic swim coach, but getting through her practices is anything but easy. I looked to my teammates for reassurance, laughing over the sheer pain that swimming in a long-course-meter pool is as short-course swimmers. But hey, that’s what pura vida is: smiling and laughing through the pain with loved ones. I would not be able to survive 2,000 meters straight of backstroke without my brothers and sisters on the team alongside me.
Divers’ Practice: Spiders, scary diving boards, and sleeping in. The divers, lucky to sleep in a bit, went to the University of Costa Rica to touch an actual board for the first time in weeks, but that luck would soon run out. Caden Kavanaugh, a strong man with a deathly fear of spiders, found himself inches away from “a giant tarantula” (tiny house spider) climbing up the ladder of the 3-meter board. The boards were too thick to dive on safely and lacked holes on the bottom, making it difficult to dive on. Clare, a freshman diver on our team, said that “it was a unique experience being outside,” but that they were not “able to work on big stuff” aside from entries. They rushed from the college and joined us at what I am calling “brekky” or breakfast.
Brekky: Breakfast was wonderful, per usual in this magnificent nation. I ordered my usual “café con leche” to go with my pancake breakfast. I swirled my spoon around and watched a black coffee merge with white milk to form a creamy brown asking to be in my stomach. So I obliged. I downed my coffee within minutes, savoring the perfectly bitter Costa Rican coffee bean’s flavor. This was a common occurrence for much of the team, complementing it with eggs, sausage, papaya, pineapple, pancakes, rice, beans, and lots of flavor. Upon eating, most people went to the showers, ready to freshen up for the day. I, on the other hand, joined a few others to find another café and quench our caffeine cravings (that were somehow not met by the hotel coffee). We wandered the streets of San José, in search of something to catch our eyes. We went around the lively streets for blocks, seeing musicians play Latin American music that forced your body to move and ears to listen, workers flaunting products to sell to anyone walking by, and others simply enjoying the charming city. We finally arrived at a quaint restaurant called The Spoon, full of pastries, loaves of bread, coffee, and numerous other delicacies. We ordered our coffees and headed towards the hotel, anticipating our journey at the Pre-Colombian Jade Museum of Costa Rica. I sipped on my vanilla latte, letting the warm vanilla spread across my tongue and allowing the frothy milk to wash it down. If there’s nothing else you get from this blog entry, at the very least listen to this: Costa Ricans will forever trump us Americans at making coffee.
Pre-Colombian Jade Museum: Now, I know you all would rather me discuss coffee the rest of the blog, but I don’t think my editor would feel the same way. Instead, I’ll talk a bit about the culture and history I learned about. At 10:00 a.m. sharp, we made our way to the Pre-Colombian Jade Museum to immerse ourselves in the culture and learn about what the place we currently stand on, was like many years ago. As you walk into the museum, on your left you are greeted by a breathtaking work of art, coated with many different colors of paint. The picture itself is abstract-esque, with markings that look nearly identical to those of the metallic pieces that hold stained glass together in Roman Catholic churches. The colors look similar as all, with the blue purple, and yellow all placed purposefully. On the right side of the painting is a family of (what appear to be) indigenous people to some Latin American country. This includes a father at work and mother nursing a child. Tucked in the bottom right corner is a yellow stone table or seat, with the head of an animal at its base. This painting is title “La Vida Precolombina” created by César Valverde in 1976. The entrance and painting place in the front of this museum is very symbolic of San José; by that I mean that at first glance it seems normal and like any other city/museum, but opon closer inspection you can learn so much with so little.
Anyone could easily chalk up this museum to be merely about Jade, but experiencing the museum itself, is to truly throw yourself into Pre-Colombian culture all across Southern America and truly understand what it is. This culture is so unique compared to many I’ve learned in my 20 years on Earth, and the fact I’ve heard so little about it is sad. For example, the burial ritual of many Pre-Colombian cultures was fascinating.
In one section of the museum it talks about burials, funerals, traditions, etc. and they specifically mention bundle burials. The museum has a replica of said bundles, that you are encouraged to touch, feel, and explore. Next to the replica, is a description of how bundle burials came to be: 23 of these bundles were discovered in the Nicoya peninsula off the coast of Costa Rica. The bones would be defleshed, and buried separately from the body. The body being buried was considered a primary burial, and the bones a secondary.
The museum offers many different ways to learn about the culture and creates opportunities to learn in different ways/make it exciting. This makes learning hands on and makes students (like ourselves) want to learn even if it is just feeling some plastic bones. Being an education major as well, I loved this aspect of the museum that could be found in most exhibits. There were puzzles, games, audio, artifacts embedded in the floor to discover through glass, statues, videos, and so many opportunities to learn from. I feel confident that people of all ages could walk out of the museum and have learned something, and enjoyed something.
Pre-Colombian Gold Museum: I also went to the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum with a few friends and our director Dr. Shane Scholten during free time. It was interesting and so cool to see the amount of detail put into gold that people who we believe to have such primitive technology had created. This goes the same way for their ideologies, and how they differ from the past to the present.
In a section about gender, there are words bolded “We are the same.” The text under it describes how men and women during the 16th century (through sources) had the same responsibilities and jobs in the Pre-Hispanic times. I thought that this was a very interesting thing to read, seeing as in society today there are still preconceived notions about what are “male” jobs and what are “female” jobs. Maybe the Pre-Colombians and Pre-Hispanics were not so primitive after all.
My favorite part of this museum dealt with the Bribri and Cabécar people. It talked specifically about their worldview and belief system. They believe that the world is divided into a cone-shape and then divided into different sections, where different beings (living or spiritual) exist. There was a little pole in the middle with the sections along with their names, that you could move a piece of metal over each section. Once you did this, on a screen it would show what that section of the universe would look like. It was extremely neat and we all were fascinated to see what each section may look like.
We went through the whole museum and saw art that would take your breath away, as well as art that would make you debate its meaning for hours. We saw colones and Costa Rican currency that was no longer in use. This experience was worthwhile, and I loved learning so much about a culture that American schools neglect to go in depth about.
Ice Cream: To celebrate the accomplishment of enriching our brains with Costa Rican knowledge we went to Pops for ice cream. I ordered a Dulce De Leche Milkshake and let the salty, yet sweet ice cream melt in my mouth. The sun that had been out during our trip in the museum had quickly disappeared, now being enveloped in the clouds. The clouds were accompanied by numerous gusts of wind that made me regret wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Not to mention, that this was all while holding a freezing ice cream. But, luckily, I was prepared for this, because swimming in the freezing cold water this morning had ensured no wind nor snow could rival the feeling of the pool at Cariari swim club. After getting our ice cream, many of us (myself included) took a much needed brain break at the hotel and napped.
Dinner: For dinner, I was starving coming off a fresh two-ish hour nap, but finally after days of exhaustion from busyness, I was wide awake. So where else was there to go to feed my grumbling stomach other than on the streets of San José to explore yet again? The answer is rhetorical: nowhere. So a few of us ventured off to see the streets flourishing and the Costa Rican people and tourists no longer being separated from one another, but rather combining to form a sea of humanity surging to thousands of different destinations. We were no different. We found ourselves at a little rooftop restaurant and bar called Pub 3 with many swimmers and locals. I ordered food and looked at the men and women around me. I said a little prayer in my head because I felt simply blessed. Where else in the world would I rather be than with people I love in a country I have barely begun to fully understand and grasp? Again, nowhere. Costa Rica is magical and so is pura vida. They are both synonymous with many different things and, as a person who loves words I find that perfect.
Pura Vida and Costa Rica: I would love to tell you all what pura vida means to me, but to do so would be the same as asking God why humanity was created the way it is. Costa Rica is the same way. To the indigenous it was a land of natural beauty that they needed to worship and understand. To a present-day Costa Rican it may mean a home that their family has lived on for generations and will continue to for many more. To me, Costa Rica has been a beautiful place that I have been able to learn so much from. I have been able to leave the safety of Sioux Falls and see the dangers, the beauty, and the marvelous works of God in Costa Rica.
Pura Vida is a phrase Dr. Scholten asked us to learn and understand because he knew there was no right answer. It is a phrase that I think best connected with another phrase: “Carpe diem.” Carpe diem means to seize the day, and that is all the Costa Rican people do. They lie in cold and hot springs, they wake up early to sell goods in the markets and streets, and you can bet all your life-savings that there are Costa Ricans alongside us in the Cariari Country Club pool. Pura Vida literally translates to “Pure Life,” and I ask you, what purer life is there than one where you always live in the present? What purer life is there than one where you take life moment by moment and do not stress about tomorrow, but live in today? That’s another rhetorical question, because I believe that a purer life than that does not exist.
Today we are switching things up! The other half of the “ailey’s” is taking over. Yep, that’s right, it’s me Hailey who will be covering our eighth day in beautiful Costa Rica.
Our morning started bright and early as we needed to be on the bus at 5:20 to head to practice. The bus was silent on our way, but I’m sure the other bus was busy playing music and singing along, but for us we chose to sleep a little bit longer. We arrived at the pool to drop off the majority of the team so that the swimmers could get into the pool to get their practice started. The divers headed out to a gymnastics gym so we could do a little more diving training than we have been able to thus far into our trip. As we walked in we were beyond excited to see multiple trampolines, a foam pit, and balance beams.
My inner gymnast was thrilled to be back in the gym. We started our practice by doing tuck jumps on a very gushy mat. While this may sound fun to most, trust me your thighs will be burning. We then proceeded to do various stations to help with our dives. The stations included 1) modeling our dives on a balance beam, 2) flips onto a mat or on the floor, 3) a series of different handstand rolls and core work, and 4) doing our dives on the trampoline. All four of us had a blast, we were able to flip more and focus on our technique. After our time at the gym, we headed back to the pool to pick up the swimmers and head to breakfast.
When the clock hit 10:00 am the team met downstairs to head to the National History Museum of Costa Rica. As a history major, I was beyond excited to learn about the rich history and culture that is Costa Rica. We walked down the streets of San Jose in the direction towards the museum. It was surprising to see how close it really was to our hotel, because on our tour we took the long way around. It just goes to show that we are starting to know the city. When we arrived at the museum, we entered and headed through doors that led to a terrarium. Inside was home to various Costa Rican plants, trees, butterflies, and other insects that call the area home. After walking through the terrarium, we headed to the exhibits.
One of the first things we all noticed was a plaque on the wall that stated,
“Weapons give victory, but only laws can give freedom.” – Jose Figueres Ferrer
On this wall, on December 1, 1948, Jose Figueres Ferrer gave a blow to a battlement of the Bellavista Barracks and with this symbolic act, affirmed the abolition of the army in Costa Rica. His action ratified the triumph of civility over the rule of force.
This was a very powerful statement that moved me. This is the first artifact you see when you enter the museum. It was meant to be seen. I choose to believe that it was intentionally put there, to serve as a main idea to keep in the back of your head as you walk through and read/look at the other exhibits. And from what I can tell, the message served a purpose. That does not necessarily mean that it served the same purpose of each exhibit, but connections can be made everywhere. We are all connected in a way if you think about it. There is not one thing that couldn’t exist without the other.
I started my journey through the museum with a few teammates. We formed a smaller group that started our trek in the basement otherwise known as the jail. We noticed that the exhibit cards that gave information on artifacts and photos were only in Spanish, and I know very little Spanish. My teammate knows how much I loved history and she could see that I was eager to know and understand what was pictured. She pulled out her phone and showed me a way where I could take a picture of the text and the app would translate the text into English. You can guess how happy I was.
Through looking at the first few photos, I immediately recognized that if we were in the United States, some of the photos would probably not have been put on display. However, I admire Costa Rica for not being ashamed of their dark history, instead they show people how things were and how as a country they have changed and developed to be better than they were before. I think that is something we shy away from back home. Facing the hard truth and publicly admitting and showing that we too have a dark history, and maybe we too should put it on display for all to see.
Anyway, I could go on and on about that forever, so I will keep going. After we made it through the jail exhibit, we went to what looked like an art exhibit. The first thing I noticed was the colors, everything in Costa Rica seems to be more vibrant. As we were walking around the exhibit, we heard a voice say, “if you have any questions, I am the artist.” I was shocked, the creator and artist of the exhibit we were in was standing in the same room as us.
We immediately complemented her work as I have no doubt that it was exceptional and beautiful. A couple of us, including me, were shocked enough that we didn’t know what to ask her, but thankfully one of my teammates asked, “what inspired your pieces?” She gladly answered us with the most beautiful response, “A friend of mine from Spain and I went to Nicoya, to the blue zones. There are five blue zones in the world, Spain, California, Japan, Greece, and Costa Rica. Blue Zone is the place where people live longer and live a very happy life. So, we went there and spent like two months in the place, and we are both artists so she displayed what she received in the other place (referring to the next room over), and this is my place. So, what I received from Nicoya and the people is what you can see (referring to her artwork that was on display). Wherever you go in Nicoya they have these chairs and it is a moment where they have time to spend. They have time to spend with other people and just to enjoy life, and talk.”
The artist (Ariane Garnier) then walks over to another one of her pieces and tells us that it is meant to be a reflection. Within her art you can see your reflection looking back at you. She stated that “we have to reflect on our lives, we are all beautiful, special, and different.” I thought that what she had to say was beautiful and it moved me in a way where I realized that maybe I should reflect more, and not just on myself, but everything around me. She amazed us all with her wisdom and art and how we can learn from others’ life and experiences.
While walking through the other exhibits we were faced with a question, who makes history? It was a question that was striking and undoubtedly forces you to answer the question, or if not answer, at least to think about it. One person who truly made their mark in Costa Rican History is Jose Figueres Ferrer. Figueres Ferrer knew that the violence in his country would one day destroy it, so to create change, he decided to abolish the army and turn the barracks into a museum. That is the same building that we visited today. All the pain and violence came to an end because one man saw the opportunity for his country to grow and prosper. He saw the need for peace, and we can all use a bit of peace in our lives.
Today Pura Vida to me means peace, whether that means big or small. Taking the time to understand that we don’t have to move at such a fast pace in life, but yet there is still room for us to grow and change. This is how we make history. It is in our human nature to make mistakes, but it is how we learn and grow from those mistakes that defines us. Peace can mean forgiving ourselves and others. Peace can mean sitting in silence and listening to the birds sing their song. Peace is whatever it means to you, but you must cease the opportunity, take it, and make something of it.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be connected. I don’t use the word “connected” from a United States perspective, where being connected means to be
“plugged in,” where WiFi is easily accessible and cell service is available almost everywhere. In our Costa Rican paradise, most of my teammates haven’t even had access to phone calls, text messaging, or social media unless they can connect to the internet in hotels or restaurants.
Instead, when I say “connected,” I mean the invisible string that weaves between all creatures, tying us to each other, tying us to the Earth, tying us to the birds above, the ants below, the stray dogs walking alongside the road next to our buses. I mean “connected” as an inherent trait of being alive, of living and breathing and interacting with each other through our senses and our understanding of the world.
In a religion class I took at Augustana, we discussed the theory of “six degrees of separation,” the idea that anyone on the planet can be connected to another in only six “friend of a friend” statements. Through just five other people, I too am connected to the Costa Rican locals I cannot speak the language of, people who have existed 3,500 miles away from me for 21 years of my life, strangers and friends who I have existed among for a week now.
And I feel that connection, I really do. But more than anything on this trip, I’ve learned what it feels like to become even more connected to my teammates and coaches. Maybe it’s because we’re in 80 degree weather and our hearts are happier, more open to each other. Or maybe it’s because we feel responsible for each other as we fly down zip lines, slip through muddy trails on the side of a mountain, step through white, rushing water, or climb across wet rocks near hot springs or blue pools.
Regardless of the reason, I’m thankful I’m only one degree of separation away from the members of Augustana Swim & Dive.
This morning, I woke up before my 6:15 AM alarm, streams of sunlight falling across my face. I gave myself an extra few minutes to take in the moment, listening to the sound of the chirping birds, knowing this fresh and natural morning would soon be replaced by the crunch of tires on the pavement and the echo of car horns through the city streets.
But surprisingly, I still felt excited to head back to San José. The city, where everything we needed was less than a 20 minute walk away, offered an element of freedom that the countryside, where we needed to drive 30 minutes to get everywhere, didn’t.
When I finally rolled out of bed, I got dressed and threw on a swimsuit underneath my clothes, getting used to this additional accessory as part of my everyday wear. Opening the door to my room at Hotel Tilajari one last time, I felt the thick, wet breeze soak into my skin, taking a deep breath, wanting to remember how different Costa Rican air feels in my lungs.
Before breakfast, we dropped off our luggage at the buses, and our drivers got to work once again in their mini assembly line, where one hoisted the suitcase above his head, and the other, on top of the bus, reached for it and pulled upwards with a grunt, strapping them down and covering them with a tarp. After our final breakfast at our hotel, complete with pancakes, fruit, and freshly-squeezed blackberry juice, we hopped on the buses for our two-hour commute to Alajuela, the home of the Río Agrio waterfall and its famous blue pools.
The Río Agrio waterfall and the blue pools are located in the Bajos del Toro Amarillo area of Alajuela, a popular hiking destination for locals and a prime destination to get away from the noisy city of San José.
During our drive to the waterfall, I let myself close my eyes and listen to the sound of pavement and gravel underneath the bus’s tires. I had become so used to anxiously watching, gripping the sides of my seat with white knuckles as our driver weaved around potholes, stray animals, and people walking or cycling on the street in the absence of sidewalks at 60 kilometers per hour. With my eyes closed, I imagined I was on a boat, swaying back and forth, listening to my teammates talk and laugh and shush each other when it was time for them to fall asleep, too.
When we pulled up to the entrance of the park surrounding the Río Agrio waterfall, I was struck once again by the beauty of it all, by the obvious connection Costa Ricans feel to the Earth around them. A man with a large hat and deep wrinkles in his face and hands tended to the vibrant purple and orange flowers at the entrance, taking care of each and every bud. Two other park employees stooped down to pet one of the four stray dogs lying near the entrance to the restaurant, their hair matted, their tails swatting away flies. All of them looked like a conglomeration of two dogs that don’t mix: a black lab with incredibly short legs, a poodle with straight fur, a maltese that looked both malnourished and far too large for its size.
While the Costa Ricans can’t feed every animal in need of a home, they seem to have an unspoken policy about strays around here. If the animals show up, let them stay. Provide if you can, when you can. Connect with them through their fleas and their flaws and their intense need for some belly rubs and love.
We decided to head towards the waterfall first. As the park also doubled as a tourist trap for children called “Dinoland,” we listened to the sound of dinosaurs roaring the entire time we walked up and down the steep inclines towards our destination. While crossing trickling streams, we listened to the sound of the bridges creaking beneath our weight. The stray black lab with stubby legs led our group the entire time, finding shortcuts to get through the trail faster, but waiting for us to catch up when we got too far ahead. And in the distance, if we squinted, we could see the outline of the famous Poas Volcano.
Because of the short distance between the volcano and the waterfall, Río Agrio actually translates to “Sour River. As the nearby volcano emits acidic ash and gases, these materials, which are toxic to humans, collect in the watershed and run downstream. On a typical day, the pH of the Río Agrio is anywhere between 1.4 and 2.5, which is about the pH of a lemon. Therefore, it’s unsafe to swim near the Río Agrio, but as the water drifts away from the waterfall it becomes safer and more diluted, which also results in the vibrant blue color of the pools.
But it’s not like we could swim in it, even if we wanted to. The Río Agrio was far larger and far more rapid than the waterfalls we had chased and bathed in on our earlier hike. We watched as the top of the cliff spit white water at us with immense speed, and I blinked as the mist began to rest upon my eyelashes, upon my contacts. The sky looked iridescent, sparkling.
Before we went any further, our coach asked for a team picture in front of the Río Agrio. As she pulled out her phone, we began piling onto the trail’s final bridge, getting situated so everyone could fit and be seen in the photo.
And then we heard the most horrific sound of metal screeching against metal, of concrete ripping in half, of our teammates’ shrieks as the bridge began to buckle in the middle, as the railing we were holding onto began to pucker outwards, beginning to snap.
Reacting quicker than my brain could, my hand grabbed the arm of one of my teammate’s and my legs carried us to safety on solid ground. Unable to process what had happened, I looked around, half expecting to see some of my teammates drifting down a river of acid as the bridge dangled lifelessly.
But the bridge still stood, although bent, crooked, and very obviously unsafe to use. Silently, our faces white and ghostly, we stared at each other from across it, half of us on the “safe” side, half of us on the side that needed to be crossed again in order to get back to the trail.
We coached each other across it. One by one, my teammates on the other side crossed the bridge, the little dog walking back and forth with them, almost silently cheering them on.
“Don’t run,” we told them.
“Don’t panic, it’s okay.”
And I tried to calm myself down, my heart still beating in my ears. Some were brave enough to cross it once again, wanting one last look at the Río Agrio, the waterfall we had (unknowingly, but literally) almost given everything trying to find. TLC was right. Don’t go chasing waterfalls.
But as we always do, we continued onwards. We followed the dog up to a viewpoint to get a closer look at the Poas Volcano. With huge, wooden scarlet macaw wings, the viewpoint also offered a photo opportunity for swimmers and divers who were still nervously chattering about their near-unwilling swim.
At the end of our hike, we headed back towards the main entrance to load into the back of a truck to take us to the blue pools. When we arrived, we unloaded and walked down steep, slippery stairs, using an old electrical cord as our railing. After stepping through mud, scaling rocks, and helping each other up when we lost our footing, we came upon one of the strangest, most beautiful sights we had seen on our journey through paradise thus far.
The blue pools were a color unlike any I had ever seen before, not blue in a sense that it looked like water, but blue in a sense that it looked like paint, like someone had pointed to the sky above and said “Yes, that color will do,” and dumped it into the river. The water wasn’t transparent in the slightest, and we had to feel around with our feet to find if there were rocks below the surface, or if we were about to fall into a hole or drop off, soaking ourselves in the icy cold water.
Yes, the waterfall was awe-inspiring. Yes, the pools were the coolest thing I have ever seen. But I think the most beautiful part of my experience today was our newfound appreciation of each other, how we helped each other when we were in need, how we wanted to save each other first when we thought our entire bridge was going down.
During our last night in La Fortuna, as I stepped out of the Lava Lounge restaurant, my eyes were caught by a quote written in large bubble letters on a sign. “Love for all living creatures is the most noble human attribute,” it read.
And today, I saw love everywhere. I saw love in the way we comforted each other, the way we supported each other through a scary experience. I saw love in the stray dog’s dark eyes as he turned around to look at us, fleas bouncing off his shiny head, as if to say, “Hey strangers, are you coming?” I saw love in the way we sat next to each other, sunbathing on the black, volcanic rocks beside the pools, reminding each other to wear sunscreen. I saw love in the hands offered to each other to make sure we didn’t slip, to pull each other across wide gaps and over fast-moving streams. I saw love in the “One…two…three!” before we dunked ourselves under the blue pool’s icy water and came up shrieking, laughing, gratitude ringing in our bones.
It’s not every day that we’ll feel a bridge buckle and break underneath our feet. But sometimes, we need our connections, our small acts of kindness, our large acts of unspoken love in order to make it through the ordinary struggles.
Because pura vida is connection, both human and non-human. Pura vida is teamwork. It’s friendship on the surface, and family, blood or not, at its core. It’s seeing the invisible string between us and being thankful for it, knowing that it keeps us alive, knowing that it connects every single person on this terrifyingly large but surprisingly small earth. Pura vida is reflecting on connections, on the collective human experience in the countryside, only to see it with your own eyes when you return to the city, in the way the taxi driver makes eye contact with you before waving you across the street, in the way the waiter laughs at your joke even if he didn’t truly understand your English. Pura vida is knowing that connection with others means you have a place in the greater scheme of things, knowing that you matter, knowing that when the bridge does fall, there will be someone there to catch you.
¡Buenas noches from San José, once again! For the next two days, I’ll be stepping aside so we can hear about the Costa Rican experience from diver Hailey Handevidt and men’s team members Jackson Dircks and Jack Johnson. ¡Adios!
On our first day in Costa Rica, Dr. Scholten stood at the head of our lunch table and announced that, for this class, we would have four homework assignments:
As part of our journaling, we’re required to keep a log of our daily PEMS scores, a weighing and evaluation of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health on a scale from one to ten. By averaging out the scores, we can get an idea of our overall being in a place where it’s hard to admit we’re tired and rundown, even when we are, because we don’t want to miss a minute of paradise. Personally, I’ve found that writing down my PEMS scores are a way of finding out how I feel before my brain can even process it.
And if I’m completely honest, if I had written down my PEMS scores during our 4:30AM wake-up call, the average would be looking pretty questionable.
Physically? I‘ve definitely felt better, but I’ve also definitely felt worse. My ankles are swollen and sore from the altitude and trying to stay upright on muddy hiking trails. And I’m not quite sure what to think about the random scratches, scrapes, and bruises scattering my arms and legs from tripping over roots, walking through branches, and jumping over running water.
Emotionally? Gratitude still sits deep in my chest, and I still feel in control of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But this morning, my mind did entertain the idea of turning off my alarm and sleeping for at least 7 more hours.
Mentally? Still upbeat, still blessed, and still handling the stress of travel and intense physical activity well. But I recognize in myself, in my coaches, in all my teammates, that a day of relaxation would do us well.
And spiritually? I would have written down a ginormous question mark in the “S” column in my smeary black pen. How am I supposed to give myself a score if I don’t even really know how to define spiritual health in the first place?
Today, the plan was to meet in Hotel Tilajari’s restaurant at 4:45AM, pick up a grab-and-go breakfast, and meet on the buses at 5:00. I watched as my teammates chewed on their ham and cheese sandwiches soundlessly, their eyes staring off into space, their faces downcast and tired.
From the hotel, we planned to make the half hour drive to Ruta Maquenque, a 30-mile long cycling loop featuring gravel trails and harsh hills. While looking at the schedule, most of my teammates, more inexperienced in biking, declared this day as the day they were dreading the most. As for Dr. Scholten? He was giddy.
I, for one, certainly had my reservations. But when I got dressed, filled my water bottle, and reached down to tie my originally white, now completely brown tennis shoes, a small patch of green caught my eye. Caught between the laces, a small clump of miniature leaves stared up at me, the same leaves my teammates and I had declared looked like “green rain droplets” the day before in the rainforest.
And I remembered my promise to myself. I remembered that I wanted to say yes to adventure, to the experiences that move me out of my comfort zone. I remembered the meaning of pura vida.
So, I tied my shoes, ate my breakfast, and loaded the bus, watching as bees and mosquitoes flew through the open door and swarmed the fluorescent lights. 5:00 AM. I’m ready.
But then it became 5:05. 5:10. 5:15. And our coaches and Dr. Scholten still hadn’t loaded the buses. I pressed my forehead to the seat in front of me, listening to the heavy rain pound against the roof, making bets with myself on which trail of water would reach the bottom of the window next to me first. One of my teammates used her Spanish skills to ask the bus driver to turn off the lights, and, stepping outside into the downpour, used her phone flashlight as a beacon to lure the growing number of bugs back outside.
Finally, Dr. Scholten loaded the bus. I remember thinking that his eyes must look far more awake than mine.
He informed us that with the weather conditions, the gravel trails would be unfit and unsafe for a 30-mile bike ride. Although he considered trying to push it back later in the day, the forecast showed a possibility for it to rain late into the afternoon.
So, what did we do? We unloaded the buses. For the rest of the morning, some sat in their rooms, watching the rain, scribbling in their journals. A few others went back to the restaurant. One tried to feed a bird by sticking a papaya to the end of her shoe.
Along with a large majority of us, I went back to bed. And then I called my parents, listening to my mom and dad’s voices for the first time since I had been in Costa Rica. I tried to do my PEMS scores, but I still couldn’t rate my spiritual health. All I knew is that, in many ways, I felt revived.
At 10:30, we headed towards La Fortuna, a small town featuring a central park, stores commercializing the Arenal Volcano nearby, and about a million tourist traps. Stray cats bounded between gates. Groups of locals walked by, laughing loudly. A young couple sat on the grass in the park, staring up at the cloudy sky. We walked past a multitude of restaurants with the word “lava” in their name, like Lava Lounge, Lava Café, Lava Rocks, live music streaming like the rain on my window out of each.
I swear I’ve heard Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” played live at least a dozen times since I’ve been in Costa Rica, but I don’t mind. At the end of the day, it’s beautiful that some people dedicate their entire careers, their voices, their lives to making strangers feel comfortable in their home.
After we finished eating our meals (are you surprised that my food was called the “lava wrap?”), we made our way back towards the Baldi Hot Springs we had visited on our first day outside of the city. We passed the resort and continued on. Today, our experience in hot springs would not be dimmed or muted by human influence. Driving past brightly colored huts with hammocks hanging in their trees, clotheslines with drying clothes strung nearby, and mangy dogs sleeping on the porches, we drove toward “El Chollín,” a public river that the locals enjoy as their personal hot springs while the tourists enjoy their resorts.
Climbing over wet stones and up the trunks of trees, we placed our belongings on high rocks and branches to keep it from getting wet.
But we had to be careful. One wrong step and we could be swept away in the roaring, rushing water, falling over drop offs or in strange underwater caves that seemingly had no end. I tried to sit for a while, but I could feel large rocks and small chunks of hand slip beneath my Chaco’s and my hands, clutching desperately to whatever I could find to hold onto underneath the water, and I got scared that I might slip away, too.
“Let’s go up,” I told some of my teammates. “Maybe it’s calmer up there.”
Walking through a concrete cave, graffitied with neon bubble letters, we came to a clearing where the water moved significantly less fact and significantly less loud. Finding a small pool to sit in, we watched as some members of the men’s team stacked sturdy black volcanic rocks into towers.
Finally settling back to relax, the upperclassmen began talking about how strange this interim class has been. We have gotten so used to January’s that are so cold, so dark. So… boring, with nothing to think about but one class and the amount of hours we have to dedicate to swim or dive practices that day.
“Does it feel kind of weird that we haven’t practiced in two days?” one of my teammates asked.
“Kind of, but training isn’t everything. I’m considering Costa Rica my spiritual reawakening.”
And looking around at the trees weaving together around us, feeling the rocks press into my palms and the warm water soak into my skin, watching as fresh fruit and twigs rushed past us, I finally understood spirituality.
Spirituality is the recognition, the intense epiphany that there is something out there much bigger than myself. It’s the belief that there is a reason this one strange and beautiful life has meaning. It’s knowing that there is something more to being human than just what I can see, smell, hear, taste, or touch.
Yes, spirituality can come from the telling of creation stories, from believing in a Divine Creator, in Mother Earth, in the energy inside of us that cannot be created or destroyed, or all of the above. But spirituality is also found in small miracles, in the moments that make us feel connected to the earth, to each other, to ours selves. Spirituality is found when we experience something that makes us feel wonder, or fear, or gratitude, or awe.
This morning, I was supposed to be going on a 30-mile bike ride. Instead, I found myself among Costa Rican locals with my best friends, trying to keep my head above water. I walked the right rope between restfulness and fear, wonder and oddity. But I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
When we got back to the hotel, Dr. Scholten led us through a thirty-minute fitness circuit, where we lunged, squatted, sprinted, did balance and core exercises, and roasted in the afternoon heat. But I saw a change in all of my teammates: we were rested and recharged through our ability to adapt and overcome. We laughed louder again. We smiled wider. We looked strong and capable, and we finished our workouts glistening with sweat and content with the events of our day.
Pura vida, at its very core, is a spiritual awakening. It’s understanding that you can find what it means to be human through simple joys, like the baby in the restaurant dancing to another live rendition of “Stand By Me,” like the fluffy cows in the pastures on our long bus drives, like the sound of your parent’s voice, like knowing that the hot springs weren’t made for humans, but we enjoy them anyways. Like understanding the meaning of “ex nihilo nihil fit,” that nothing comes from nothing, so something must come from something. Because pura vida means knowing that there is a reason we’re here: to gives ourselves over to the Earth’s many gifts, to recognize wonder and fear as superhuman emotions, and to lift each other up as puzzle pieces in the greater whole of the cosmos.
I’m proud that my puzzle piece fits among the members of Augustana Swim & Dive. In my journal, I cross out the question mark in the “S” column and write “10.”
¡Adios for now, and goodnight from the countryside, one last time! Tomorrow, we’ll head back to the city for more training and museum tours.
Hola, 2023! This morning, I woke up to a brand-new year, a brand-new beginning, a brand new opportunity for a changed mindset by the sound of birds chirping outside my room at Hotel Tilajari. With my eyes closed, I paid attention to the slight breeze that blew in through my cracked window, carrying fresh and humid air with it. I turned my head to listen to the gentle rustling of every leaf on every tree, to hear and understand the call of every tropical bird, recognizing that their songs sound much different than the crows and sparrows back in South Dakota. Like they can carry a tune. Like they know they live in paradise.
For a moment, the world seemed to conform to my timeline, to sit still while I sat in the peaceful space between asleep and awake. And then my eyes shot open, like I had slept through my alarm and missed morning practice, or I remembered I had an exam that I didn’t study for.
I forgot to make a New Year’s resolution. Okay… maybe I’m being a little dramatic, especially for someone who usually adamantly opposes setting concrete goals for the new year. Why wait until January 1st to become who you want to be? Time is a human construct, so why not create a new beginning whenever you want?
But come on. When the clock struck midnight for me, I was in the middle of a random hotel dance floor with 37 of my closest friends, in Costa Rica, the most beautiful place on earth, sweat dripping down my face as I turned my head towards the scary night sky to scream the lyrics of “Despacito, laughing until my cheeks hurt, feeling so big and so small at the same time. If I can’t make a New Year’s resolution and set myself up for success here, where can I?
And as I watched as streams of light danced through my hotel window, it came to me almost immediately. I want to say “Yes!” to every new opportunity. To every precious memory waiting to be made. To new foods, new places, new people, new experiences. I even want to say “Yes!” to the dreams and goals that terrify me because I know that, in a way, my fear of them means they’re big enough for me.
So today, to mark the first day of 2023, I said “Yes!” to everything.
Today was the first day we’ve been able to sleep in for a little longer, which meant I was up at 6:45AM before my alarm. I threw on a swim suit and made the poor mistake of wearing white tennis shoes before walking to Hotel Tilajari’s restaurant for a buffet-style breakfast. While downing the freshly-made blackberry and passion fruit juices, my teammates and I talked and laughed about the strange coincidence that is life. With our hometowns spread out across the United States, it’s already a coincidence that we all met, that we came together to share our passion for swimming with the same team. And now, with people we never would have met had we not been drawn to the water, we were opening a new chapter together in Costa Rica, watching as an iguana basked in the sun on the roof of the hotel rooms next to us.
Shortly after breakfast, we loaded the bus and made the thirty-minute drive from our hotel in Arenal, a small, countryside town, to the Burrito Forest just outside of La Fortuna. Contrary to popular belief, the Burrito Forest is named after the Spanish word “burro,” which means donkey, not because burritos grow on the trees there. Instead, the Burrito Forest literally means “little donkey” forest because of the horses, cows, and other farm life that live in the pastures and grasslands just outside of the forest’s thick tropical trees.
We knew in advance that we would be making a 7-kilometer hike in the Burrito Forest’s “lost hills” at a height of 600 meters above sea level. We knew that the altitude we were at would provide us an incredible view of the Arenal Volcano, a natural landmark that hasn’t erupted in a while, but can and will erupt when nature decides it wants to. We knew we had the possibility of getting muddy. Of getting wet. But that’s about all we were prepared for.
At the base of the forest, we unloaded our original buses because their manual transmission, weight, and smaller tires wouldn’t allow us to make it up the steep hill to the beginning of the tour. Instead, our tour guide, who insisted we called him “Bryan with a Y,” ushered us into the bed of the pickup truck with rails around it.
“Stand,” he said, “and hold on.” He began to close his car door but then stopped, opened it again, and looked up at us with round brown eyes. “And don’t pet the dogs at the top. They’re José’s security.”
And we were off. While whizzing over the unpaved, steepest road I’ve ever been on, it felt more like being in a boat than a car. We felt unbreakable, invincible, laughing hysterically into the wind as the truck rocked back and forth. The higher we went, the more the pale white fog settled in. It occurred to me that we could be in a cloud, and I let the moisture settle into my skin. It’s like flying, I thought. My feet just haven’t left the ground. I am so glad I said yes.
At the top of the hill, we unloaded the truck with shaky knees and, as we waited for the rest of our teammates to be transported to the top, we met José Antonio, who, to an English major like me, is basically the Costa Rican version of Henry David Thoreau. Maybe both José and Thoreau went to the woods because they wished to live deliberately, but I could tell by the deep lines in José’s face, the dirt under his nails, and the machete strapped to his pant leg that he lived, breathed, and understood the forest around him. He respected it. He learned from it. And although he didn’t speak a single word of English, I understood and learned from him.
“José makes everything he owns. He even made the trail you’ll be walking on,” Bryan with a Y told us.
José offered us a tour of his house before we began our hike, a small hut that he lives in completely alone, unless you count his two dogs who sniffed or growled at every single one of us as we walked through the entrance, acting as his furry body guards.
Without any windows, the interior of José’s house was completely exposed to nature’s elements. His toothbrush sat atop a wooden table next to a bucket of water. Leaves larger than my head reached from the forest and into his house, but he seemed unbothered. One lightbulb hung from the ceiling, but everything else? He truly had made it himself. He pointed at his homemade, wooden coffee maker and smiled a proud smile at us.
“Café,” José said with a toothy grin.
Before we began hiking, we each were required to grab a walking stick, a smoothed-out branch meant to help guide us and keep us from falling.
“That’s your third leg,” one of the tour guides reminded us. “Use it. We want you to come back in one piece.”
José ended up leading our group through the trails, with a few more tour guides dispersed in between us for safety. We stepped on shaky rocks, jumped across streams, walked across layers and layers of wet, fallen leaves, held onto ropes to keep us upright during the steep climbs upwards, and tried not to look over the edge, tried not to think about what could happen if we slipped on the mud or tripped on a branch.
But as I drank Costa Rican spring water from a stream trickling down a cliff, as I munched on a tea tree leaf José picked for me, as I giggled nervously each time I lost my footing, smearing mud on my arms and legs, turning my white shoes a dark shade of brown, I remembered why I chose to say yes.
Because nature said yes to me. It accepted all 37 of us, it allowed us to explore the home it has made for every ant, every bird, every sloth sleeping in the trees, every leaf. It would respect us if we respected it.
Thank you, I thought, for all of this. I breathed in a breath that cleared my lungs down to every single alveoli. And when I breathed out and the sky opened and began to rain, I swore it was the forest’s way of loving me back.
My teammates and I pointed out everything to each other. Every irregular rock, every cool-shaped leaf, every vibrant insect. I didn’t think it could get any better. I didn’t think I could feel more alive.
Then, we heard the sound of rushing water.
And as much as the band TLC has tried to warn us about chasing waterfalls, I swear we all started hiking a little faster. After turning a corner, we looked between a clearing in complete and total awe-stricken silence, finding the source of the noise. Pure white water fell rapidly from a high cliff, each droplet dancing like midnight stars against the obsidian backdrop.
“What are your New Year’s resolutions?” I asked my teammates as we hiked closer, breaking the silence.
“To be the best version of myself, even when I’m alone,” my teammate in front of me said. “To live my life for me, not for others.”
“I want to stop being such a people pleaser. I have to make myself happy first,” my teammate behind me responded.
“To choose to be happy everyday!” another yelled from afar.
And all of a sudden, no matter where we’re from, my teammates and I became a lot more similar. Our friendship became less of a coincidence and more intentional. Whether we want to say yes, choose happiness, or become our own person, all of our resolutions had the same undertone: abandoning complacency.
If you’re complacent, you’ll never move. You’ll never achieve big dreams, explore your passions. You’ll never stumble upon a waterfall in the middle of Costa Rica.
And you’ll certainly never jump into it. When all 37 of us had gathered around the pool at the bottom, we followed our falling to the water once again. With tennis shoes and shorts still on, we swam in the icy water, we let it fall over us like the heaviest rainstorm we’d ever experienced, we appreciated every single drop, every single step, every single one of José’s trails that led us here. We hugged and splashed and kicked and laughed like children.
Because we deserved to. Because we all made the active decision to say yes, to each other, to our team, and to the moment.
When it was time to move on, my teammate looked at me and said, “This is only the first day of 2023.”
That’s what pura vida is. It’s appreciating everything, both the big and the small. It’s respecting the earth and all of its gifts. It’s holding onto each other tight because time moves too quickly, because the edge of a treacherous cliff always exists near our feet. It’s knowing that even when we return to South Dakota, we can still chase waterfalls. We can make the mundane extraordinary, the familiar completely new. Pura vida means saying yes. Yes. Yes!
As we rapidly come to the end of the chapter that is 2022 and begin to turn the page to 2023, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be still. To be present. To be okay with sitting in the sun for a while, enjoying the warmth on my skin, even when I know that in a short two weeks I’ll be returning to the heart of winter in South Dakota, weathering another blizzard or storm.
As student-athletes, being content with doing nothing is a hard feeling to reconcile with. We’re so used to moving, to go-getting, to striving for perfection while we’re sprinting from practice, to class, to lift, to more class, to more practice, and then to our dorms or houses to study and (hopefully) find time to socialize before finally succumbing to sleep once again.
And honestly, I think this is because when we’re constantly doing something, we don’t have as much to lose. A busy schedule is comfortable. It’s familiar. It’s predictable.
But when we allow ourselves to just sit, paying attention to our senses and feelings? That’s when we’re the most vulnerable, and it’s terrifying. It’s completely unpredictable. When we aren’t paying attention to our progress, we’re forced to recognize the kind of people we are in the present. Relaxation forces us to look down at where our feet are planted in the dirt. Sometimes, we get so lost in the pursuit of greatness that we forget to recognize the beauty of simply existing in the here and now.
While riding the aerial tram through the rainforest with my teammates yesterday, looking out over the vast sea of green leaves, recognizing the vibrant colors of birds, snakes, and flowers only when we actively looked for them, we fell silent. We listened to the sound of the rain on the canopy of leaves, the way each individual droplet trickled down vines and trunks until they were absorbed into the pitch black soil. I stretched out my arm, catching it in my palm, watching it drip down my arm like happy tears, like crying when you know you’re in the presence of something so much greater than yourself.
“Isn’t it sad?” one of my teammates asked. “That this will all be gone one day?”
“But it’s protected,” another chirped, reminding us that 30% of Costa Rica’s forests are untouched, virgin, unharmed by humans who wish to steal and destroy.
“I know, but it’s more of a premature sadness. Like sadness in knowing that when the sun swallows the Earth in a billion years, this will disappear, and no one else will get to enjoy it.”
How lucky we are to exist now, in 2022 and on the brink of 2023. At the same time as the rainforests. At the same time as each other.
January 1, 2023 will mark the first day of my graduation year, the year I will close the short chapter of my time as an Augustana University swimmer, a chapter that has been incomparable to any other. So, on the last day of 2022, I decided to allow myself to relax, to sit back and observe, to be present in this paradise.
Our day began even earlier than the previous two days, allowing us time to pack up our suitcases and check out of Hotel Balmoral in San José. Over the next three days, we will step out of the bustling city and make the three-hour journey to the countryside of Arenal, trading swim and dive practices for hikes, cycling, and hot springs.
Shortly before 5 a.m., we made our way down to the hotel lobby to turn in our keys and wait for our buses, our suitcases and swim bags in tow. Nothing in Costa Rica is made for tall people, and I half expected a larger bus to pull up on the narrow side street next to our hotel in order to transport the 40 of us, as well as all of our belongings, to the pool and then our next destination. Instead, the same two smaller white buses parked in front of us once again.
“Where are our suitcases going to go?” I asked aloud.
“On top,” our tour guide responded with a shrug.
For the next hour, our bus drivers lifted our luggage over their heads and heaved them on the top of the bus, covering them with a tarp and strapping them down. And while I’d usually be nervous about two and a half weeks’ worth of my belongings baking in the Costa Rican sun, I reminded myself: I trust myself and my surroundings. I am where my feet are. Pura vida. Pura vida. Pura vida.
The process of lifting, covering, and strapping 40 plus baggage items to the top of two buses took longer than expected, and we ended up being nearly an hour late to our practice at the Caliari Country Club. My teammates had begun to spread rumors that our last practice of the year would be best average, a set in which we swim as fast as possible for as long as possible, otherwise known as coach’s favorite sets and a swimmer’s biggest nightmare.
Because we arrived late, Coach Lindsie switched our practice from 20x100s (scary) to 23x50s (still scary, but less) to ring in the new year and successfully complete our last practice of 2022. But even if it had been 20x100s, I would have been okay. I paid attention to the droplets of cold water flinging off my arms while I swam backstroke, scattering in the sunlight and shining like diamonds across the pure blue sky. I listened to the sound of the divers’ feet as they sprinted across the pool deck and practiced front and back flips. I let my coach’s words resonate deep in my chest as I gasped for air and felt my face burn hot in effort against the cold.
“Don’t think. Just keep swimming.”
Sometimes, being present means ignoring the thoughts that make you want to exist in the future. I don’t want to wish away practices, no matter how challenging they are. Because I know that someday I’ll look back on this moment and want all of it back. And I’ll have to force myself to live in the present again.
After practice, we sat down for a short breakfast before loading the buses once again, beginning our drive to the Baldi Hot Springs. We used the time on the bus to journal, read research articles on the exercise science behind swimming and surfing, and catch up on sleep, not recognizing how tired we truly were.
Halfway through the drive, our buses pulled off the highway and we stopped at a local market to buy fresh fruit. Dr. Scholten bought us 40 large bananas for $3 and 30 small ones for $1.50, and not surprisingly, they were the best bananas I have ever eaten in my entire life.
We spent the rest of the day at the Baldi Hot Springs, a tourist attraction revolving around thermal spring waters free of all contamination. While most of us suspected we would be visiting muddy waters in the middle of the jungle, the springs are actually located in the middle of a 5-star resort.
Within the 25 thermal pools, Baldi Hot Springs features crystalline waterfalls with separate pools that become hotter the closer we became to the source, and multiple water slides (sorry parent, these waterslides aren’t restricted by any of those dumb United States “safety rules”) that had us laughing like we were children again.
It seems like no matter how old I get, no matter how close I get to the finish line of my time at Augustana University, I still feel like a little girl inside, wondering if I’m doing things right, waiting to be told I’m not. But today, I didn’t care. I folded my hands behind my head and let myself scream and giggle in complete and total joy, waiting until the warm water overcame me, opening my eyes underneath the surface to see the constellations of bubbles explode around me. Waiting to be thrown across the surface of the water like the rocks I throw against the surface of the lake back in my hometown.
But most of all, I let myself be… myself.
Today, maybe the best synonym for pura vida I can offer is gratitude. Pura vida means feeling grateful for every one of my teammates’ laughs, reminding me why I wanted to be a part of this team in the first place: because I wanted to make connections with people who desired to understand me, who wanted to learn about my stories and history as much as I wanted to learn about theirs. Pura vida means savoring and appreciating each bite of fresh fruit, no matter the price.
Pura vida is taking the time to look at the sky, to turn your star-gazed eyes to the volcano in the distance (while silently cursing your 7th grade science teacher for making you watch a documentary about super-volcanoes) and feeling wonder and awe rather than fear. Pura vida means learning it’s okay to breathe, it’s okay to stand on the solid ground, it’s okay to relax while waist-deep in water 100 times warmer than the water we’ve been practicing in.
But above all, pura vida means learning through experience, learning through a silent observation. It means learning to fall in love over and over and over again, with yourself and with the world surrounding you. With people, with murals on every street corner, with the sweet smell of flower blossoms while walking beneath low-hanging trees. With smells, with flavors strong enough that we don’t need salt and pepper on the table. With trees, with rocks, with every stone on the jungle trails and vine in the forest. more of the littlest things.
Today, I welcome 2023 with a new perspective. I don’t have to rush into it. If the moment is mine, the moment will come to me because pura vida means feeling optimism in the face of uncertainty, accepting the sun while awaiting the winter. It means listening to your heart and staying in tune with each beat as it pounds in the present.
So, Happy New Year, and I hope that in this new chapter we can all learn the meaning of living a pure life. ¡Buenas noches, and talk to you next year!
Have you ever felt nostalgic about a moment before you’ve even left it? Like you know that someday, in the near or far future, you’ll look back on your current reality and you’ll miss it down to your bones?
I’m a firm believer that life’s most beautiful moments are the hardest to put into words. To me, language has always been an art form, a way to explain my human experience while saying to my readers, “This is how it feels to be me. Is this how it feels to be you, too?” But as much as I write, and as much as I journal, and as much as I ponder every adventure my teammates and I have conquered during our journey through Costa Rica, I still can’t find the words to describe exactly how the sun shines in the sky here, or the way the rain glistens on the waxy leaves, or the way that I’ve never heard so much laughter, from both my teammates and complete strangers. I think this is also why I’ve always had a hard time writing about swimming, or the core memories I’ve made with my teammates and closest friends, or stolen glances across a crowded room, and I think it’s why I’m really struggling to put words to what we experienced in the Braulio Carrillo Rainforest today. It’s just too beautiful to reduce to the constructs of our language.
But hey, I didn’t get on a 700-meter long, 100-meter tall, 50 mile per hour zipline while screaming “Do it for the blog!” for nothing, so I’ll try my best.
The Braulio Carrillo National Park is located in the Heredia province of Costa Rica, just outside of San José. Ironically, the park’s two most iconic features oppose each other radically. For one, Braulio Carrillo hosts an enormous expanse of completely virgin forest, untouched by greedy human hands and the need for natural resources and industry. On the other hand, however, the park also features a highway that gives Costa Rican residents and tourists easy access to the rainforest’s breathtaking views, exhilarating adventure park, and its strange yet beautiful inhabitants.
Within the green walls of the rainforest, more than 500 species of birds and 150 species of mammals call the Braulio Carrillo their home, including howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, peccaries, and sloths. I think I can speak for all of my teammates when I say, while looking at our itinerary, this is one of the days we were the most excited for. Our day in the rainforest included a “6-in-1” tour in the Braulio Carrillo Adventure Park, including activities such as an aerial tram, zip-line, butterfly garden, terraniums, hanging bridges, and trail walks.
As a self-proclaimed “definitely not a morning person,” I’ll admit that when day three actually got here, it was a little harder to get out of bed than I had originally planned for. Our day started with another 5:00 AM wakeup call in order to make it to the Cariari Country Club for our second swim and dive practice in Costa Rica. Clouds scattered the morning sky, and the sunrise looked vibrantly pink and smoky, like the mountains surrounding us were breathing fire. I watched as my teammates pressed their heads to the bus windows in exhaustion. But even I recognized these yawns and heavy eyes as different from the tiredness I’ve seen in Sioux Falls during our snowky treks to morning practice. It was an appreciative exhaustion–we’re tired, but at least we’re tired here, in paradise.
To my dismay, the pool didn’t magically become 15 degrees warmer overnight, so it once again felt like we were diving into a sheet of ice. I bit my cheek, and I didn’t complain. There are palm trees to your right and a volcano to your left, Cailey, I thought. Pura vida. Swim it out. Suddenly, I became thankful for my mistake in forgetting to reapply sunscreen. My sunburn kept my shoulders warm.
After practice, we enjoyed freshly squeezed orange juice and “café con leche” on the patio of the country club’s golf course, warming up with sunshine and laughter over pancakes, eggs, sausage, and of course, beans and rice. With our stomachs full and our workout complete, we stepped onto the buses with a newfound jubilance and began our one-hour-long drive to the Braulio Carrillo Rainforest. One of my teammates turned on his speaker and I listened as they sang along and strummed the air guitar to Don Mclean’s “American Pie” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
And somewhere between Axl Rose singing his persistent questions, “Where do we go? Oh, where do we go now?” to the entire bus, and Dr. Scholten telling us about the Adrena-line, the park’s largest zipline, I remembered an essential fact about myself: I am terrified of heights. And through reasoning skills, it would probably make sense for me to be terrified of zip-lining, too. As soon as we got off the bus, we were ushered down a long path where we were met with park employees who helped us dress in the correct ziplining gear, complete with a helmet, straps that fit like a diaper, and a chest strap that prevented us from literally hanging upside down while sliding down the wire. They taught us how to prevent ourselves from spinning, how to cross our legs and lean backwards to reach maximum speed, and reminded us not to put our heads too close to the cable. Pura Vida, Cailey. Pura vida.
Braulio Carrillo Adventure Park features ten cables in total, with six short ones at the beginning as “practice rounds,” where we could get the hang of getting into position, steering, and landing. I tried to remain calm and collected, but I noticed the man hooking me to the first cable flash a comforting smile at me after his eyes drifted across my shaky hands, refusing to let go of the tree I was latched to. While riding the first few ziplines, I refused to look directly downwards, keeping my eyes locked on the finish line, on my idea of safety.
But I don’t want to be the kind of person who only exists for who I hope to be in the future, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who regrets the past. During our steep trek up the side of a hill to reach the longer ziplines, between gasping for breath in the humid air and trying to ignore the burning in my calves, I promised myself I’d be exactly where my feet were. And if they were hanging in the air, it meant that I needed to look down at them. I’d bloom where I was planted.
Maybe I can’t explain how exhilarating it felt to ignore my heart beating furiously, cowardly against my chest. And maybe I can’t explain how it felt to laugh into the fresh wind, zipping between carved-out mountains and over trickling streams and through every possible shade of green and below the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. And it’s hard for me to find words to describe my teammates’ faces as they took off into the open air, smiles turned upwards toward the sun before their eyes darted in every direction, drinking in the view, letting themselves exist not only as successful students and athletes, but as people. People who deserve to remember every moment of this experience. People who are learning what pura vida truly means.
Today, pura vida meant bravery. And yes, maybe I was encouraged to zipline not out of my own will but simply out of my own competitive nature to rival my teammates’ courage, but I still did it. Pura vida means picking up the pace when you must, but slowing down when you need, ziplining down a mountain in one moment and taking the aerial tram in the next, watching butterflies flutter by with their royal blue wings and toucans caw in the distance. Pura vida means respecting your own fears but not letting them consume you. Fun fact: when trees in the rainforest are covered by a large number of diverse flowers and plants, it means the tree is actually dying. The other life forms live by hollowing out the original tree and then using that spot to grow and flourish themselves. Life overtakes life. Sometimes, we need to abandon parts of ourselves in order to grow. Today, I abandoned my need for words as I watched the rain trickle down the waxy leaves, long vines, and enormous trees in silence, trying to understand the sacrality of it all, watching as the rain gave the trees life so the trees could give me breath. We breathe in reciprocity with each other. Respecting the little things–every raindrop, every spider’s web, every flower–helped me learn to respect my own role in the world, too.
But pura vida is not meant to be experienced alone; instead, pura vida is a collective courage. Pura vida is the tiny ecosystems on the back of a sloth, the bugs that protect themselves by hiding in the sloth’s hair and feeding on the hair’s microscopic grime, while also protecting the sloth by camouflaging it to the color of the rainforest, covering it in their green excrement (gross, but come on, think about the metaphor). Pura vida is the family of ants carrying pieces of leaves back to their hills in a long train of green, but perhaps more importantly, pura vida is the humans who put up “ant crossing” signs so the tourists remember not to disturb them, not to step on them in their process of building a home. Because that’s exactly what pura vida is, too. It’s making your body, your mind, and your spirit a temple for yourself, just as the rainforest acts as a home for hundreds of beautifully strange creatures. It matters how we lift each other up, how we take care of each other, both human and not. It matters how we choose to be brave, when we choose to ignore our fears. It matters how we tell stories, how we give words to the wordless, how we define a term as broad and as narrow as pura vida.
¡So pura vida, and buenas noches, friends! I’ll catch you here again tomorrow after our visit to the Baldi Hot Springs.
It may sound crazy, but my teammates and I already feel significantly more comfortable navigating the city of San José. We can recognize certain landmarks, like the salmon orange “Hotel Balmoral” sign on the corner of the main avenue, or the little bakery on the corner with the freshly baked and frosted strawberry cakes, or the brightly lit Fiesta Casino with the masked bouncers whose eyes always show an expression somewhere between suspicion and boredom.
I think I can speak for all of us when I say it feels as though we have been here (much!) longer than two days. The sun has already turned my shoulders and cheeks a rosy pink, and I see more lion than girl when I look in the mirror due to the intense humidity. But at the same time, it doesn’t really feel like I’ve changed or traveled anywhere at all. I told one of my teammates that I don’t feel like I’m actually in Costa Rica, just that I’ve been transported to an alternate universe where everything is made of sunshine and the Spanish language. She reminded me that that’s all traveling to another country really is, after all.
Our day today started with our first 5:00 AM wake-up call to make it to practice at the Caliari Country Club. For maybe the first time in my life, my alarm didn’t incite a primal rage in me this morning. I crawled out of bed and looked at my tired eyes in the bathroom mirror, lazily throwing on a swimsuit. “Pura vida,” I mouthed to my reflection. “Pura vida.”
After loading ourselves and our swim bags onto our buses, we watched as the sun began to rise, painting streaks of pastel pinks, violets, and oranges in the sky above the mountains like watercolors. I had considered going back to sleep during our thirty minute bus drive to the pool, but instead, I pressed my head against the window of the bus and watched the colors smear and blur together behind the clouds.
By the time we arrived at the country club, the sun was still hidden behind the half-indoor, half-outdoor gym, complete with treadmills and ping-pong tables. I liked the way it painted the pool deck a burnt golden hue, and I liked the way the wind blew softly, creating ripples on the water’s surface and provoking the greenery around the pool to dance, reaching to us like tentacles, calling us to our non-oxygenated home.
However, I really didn’t like how, without the sun, the unheated pool had time to cool to the 60 degree air overnight. While the divers began their strength and conditioning exercises, lunging and sprinting across the pool deck, the swimmers dove in one-by-one, each of us gasping for air as the cold soaked through our skin and into our bones. Our entire team found ourselves in desperate need for some amount of thermodynamic equilibrium–the divers wanted relief from the sun, the swimmers wanted relief from the freezing water.
But as we continued to swim, I watched as the sun rose higher and higher, stretching her rays farther and farther across the lanes of the pool. Turning it into a game, my teammates and I tried to spring through the dark, cold stretch of the pool until we reached the bright warmth. Throughout practice, I knew I felt tired and out of breath, but the funny thing is, I can’t remember if practice was incredibly hard or not. As my teammate so eloquently stated, “Coach could literally tell me to swim 40x100s right now, and I would be all in. But I’d probably ask if I could swim it on my back so I can get a tan.”
Pura vida is that, too. Finding joy through hardship. Finding warmth in the cold.
After practice, we returned to our hotel for yet another meal with fresh fruit, rice, and beans before we continued on with our guided walking tour of San José. Our tour guide, José Pablo, told us that the goal of this activity was to learn more about the culture of urban Costa Rica, but also to learn what makes Costa Ricans… well, Costa Ricans.
We began our tour at the Plaza de la Cultura, a city square dedicated entirely to the question of “What is art?” The answer? Art is anything that you want it to be, and art exists in any sphere you want to interpret it in. Art can be paintings, drawings, photography, and sculptures, but it can also be the careful way we craft our words to comfort, describe, or entertain. It can be the way we critically think in order to create something completely unique and new. And it can definitely be defined as innovation–something that Costa Ricans value greatly.
This need for innovation was best seen during our next stop: Costa Rica’s National Theater, an extravagant building decorated with original marble statues of significant writers, musicians, and artists, as well as paint mixed together with real gold. Costa Ricans paid for their National Theater by literally taxing themselves, placing a commodity tax on one of their most prized possessions and one thing I desperately needed after practice this morning. Coffee! However, after Costa Rican government officials found that only rich people, or people who could actually afford coffee, were attending the theater, they extended this tax to include rice and beans, two foods featured at every meal, including breakfast.
When the theater began to gain more popularity and success, Costa Ricans attended the theater not only to watch shows, but also to “ooh” and “aah” over the latest technology in the world. In fact, Costa Rica’s National Theater was the first building in San José to feature electricity, making Costa Rica’s capital city one of the first global cities to be considered “plugged in,” just behind New York City and Paris.
Costa Rica has always been advanced in architecture, as well, as this country has prioritized the funding of innovation and technology that allows it to keep up with the rest of the world even through tropical temperatures, earthquakes, and hurricanes. After Paris constructed their famous Eiffel Tower, Costa Rica also desired to construct and own a completely metallic structure.
Naturally, then, as part of our tour, we visited Costa Rica’s first and only completely metal building: a salmon pink-colored elementary school. Although many worried that the material of the building would “cause the children to bake like cookies,” according to our tour guide, the school has been successful in keeping children cool as well as holding up against strong earthquakes.
None of these Costa Rican accomplishments are meant to make the country sound prideful, “uppity,” or vain; in fact, it’s actually quite the opposite. Through every advancement, Costa Ricans have a high tolerance for mistakes. One of the most historically beautiful mistakes is found on the back of the bill worth five colones, Costa Rica’s currency. After commissioning an Italian painter to paint a large mural for their National Theater, Costa Ricans found that the Italians know very little about their actual culture. In the painting, the women are featured wearing clothing far too colorful for traditional Costa Rican women, and the women are dressed in traditional European wear rather than clothes that are effective for the Central American weather. Furthermore, everyone in the painting is wearing shoes, which was uncommon for the time, as shoes were far too expensive for everyone to own and make use of, and the workers are picking the coffee beans and bananas in a way that Costa Ricans know would kill the plant. Above all, perhaps the most obvious mistake is the electric lamp post found in the middle of the beach.
After laughing about and considering how laid back Costa Ricans must be in order to put an inaccurate mural in their most prized building and on the back of their currency, José Pablo led us past my favorite monument on our tour, and his favorite part of the tour to give. On a shady street corner, a seemingly unnoticeable, insignificant sundial is placed on the wall of a museum. At the right time of day, the sun casts shadows down onto the sundial and the time can be read; however, due to an architectural flaw when it was built in 1941, the sundial was built in such a way that once the sun starts setting, the time reading is completely inaccurate and, once the sun passes over the wall behind this natural clock, it is unreadable altogether.
But did the architect fix his mistake by moving his prized sundial to the sidewalk or a more sunny place? Nope. Instead, he accommodated for this mistake by including a corrections board made out of marble underneath, so passerbys can always know what time it is no matter where the sun sits in the sky or what season it is.
Before we moved on with our tour, one of my teammates asked what the Latin words above the sundial–tempus fugit–meant. Smiling a bright, toothy smile, José Pablo looked at our group and slyly stated, “Time flies. And since it does, we better keep moving forward on this tour.”
This is pura vida, too. Pura vida is recognizing our mistakes, but not erasing our progress completely in order to fix them because time is precious. Valuable. Pura vida is laughing at and learning from our own foolishness because ignorance is supposed to be pointed out and fixed (like calling ourselves American when we come from the United States. Costa Ricans are American, too!). Pura vida is forgiving others and yourself because this life is large, and strange, and mysterious, and none of us really have any answers. Our feet are all walking upon this earth for the first time, and I cherish each step I take on the sidewalks of this paradise. Pura vida is waving back at the government worker who waved at our tour group from his truck, welcoming the very obvious tourists to his country. Pura vida is buying the hippo-shaped whistle from the local when you can gamble down the price. Pura vida is wearing Nicaragua’s native flower behind your ear, breaking open the eucalyptus leaves and smelling them, and accepting people for their beauty above their mistakes.
Because pura vida, above all, is human connection. My favorite poet, Raymond Carver, once wrote, “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” To understand pura vida, I’ve been staying in tune with our collective human noise. Pura vida is the two young boys weaving between our tour group in the park, their sneakers slapping the pavement as they played tag. It’s the old women giggling like teenagers on a bench in the plaza. It’s the man riding a bike with a cart full of mangoes, stopping to help a blind man cross the street, guiding him with his Spanish-speaking voice. It’s every single, “¡Pura vida!” yelled in public, meant as a greeting, or a thank you, or a goodbye, or a reminder that paradise is exactly what you make it to be.
¡Buenas noches! I’ll catch you here tomorrow for a recap of day three, where we’ll be ziplining and hiking through the Costa Rican rainforests.
At 5:00 AM this morning, 37 of my Augustana University Vikings swim and dive teammates, our two coaches, and I boarded a plane in the brutally cold state of South Dakota. After a short layover in Atlanta, Georgia, we made our way to Costa Rica, a little piece of Central American paradise tucked between Nicaragua and Panama, for a study abroad and training trip led by Dr. Shane Scholten and head coach Lindsie Micko.
While here in Costa Rica, my teammates and I will be taking an exercise science course titled “Cultural and Outdoor Adventures in Costa Rica,” a class that seeks to weave cultural experience and human health together through a diverse opportunity to apply scientific concepts in a third-world country, where health and wellness are viewed from an entirely different perspective thanin South Dakota.
We will study Costa Rican health and wellness culture using kinesiology, biomechanics, and nutrition by applying these concepts to physical activities such as swimming and diving, soccer, surfing, hiking, ziplining, and mountain biking. Throughout our time, although our main goal is to deepen our understanding of personal and social responsibility in Costa Rica as it relates to sports, health, and performance through civic engagement, we also hope to understand how intellectual practices, research, and studying can also make us better swimmers and divers.
For Augustana’s swimmers and divers, our mornings here will start the same way they start in Sioux Falls: far before the sun rises. We will begin almost every morning with a training session–swim practice for the swimmers and strength and conditioning for the divers–at the Cariari Country Club outside of San José, which features an 18-hole golf course, 12 tennis courts, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a gym, and other sport and social facilities for its many members.
However, this is not to say that our time here will be all work and no play. We will also be visiting Braulio Carrillo National Park, which features an aerial tram, zip-lining, butterfly gardens, terrariums, hanging bridges, and nature walks through the homes of howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, and peccaries, as well as more than 500 species of birds. When we’re not swimming or diving, we’ll find ways to cross-train by cycling through the mountains, hiking in the Burrito Forest, and learning how to surf on the beaches of Jaco. Even better? We won’t have to worry too much about our sore muscles.
While researching whole body cryotherapy and hot water therapy, we’ll also aid our bodies in recovering by visiting Rio Agrio’s Blue Pools in Alajeula, as well as Poas Volcano National Park’s hot springs. We might even find ourselves taking advantage of the caffeine offered on the Doka Coffee Tour.
Above all, Dr. Scholten has encouraged us to be present, to take time upon how we are feeling or what others are feeling, and to consider how we might lift up one of our teammates or a local citizen. Throughout the day, we are asked to keep a journal in order to pay attention to all of our senses. Although it’s easy to take photos, Dr. Scholten wants us to remember smells, sounds, tastes, and the way the Costa Rican sunshine feels on our skin.
After my first day in Costa Rica, I’ve found that I’m often driven to a contemplative silence. Not because I have nothing to say, but because I don’t want to miss a single thing. Nothing here is muted–not the colors, not the sounds, not the smells, not the people. I keep wondering if my teammates are seeing the same things as I am, like the kaleidoscopic flux of tin buildings, old hotels, and beautiful, pastel-domed churches. I wonder if they recognize all the different people, with their smile lines carved deep into their faces from sun exposure and grinning bravely through tourists’ broken Spanish. I wonder if they keep their eyes on the mountains looming in the distance, clouds covering the peaks in a misty white breath, holding this country in a living, breathing hug.
But even if my teammates and I pay attention to different things, or our eyes are caught by different types of architecture, or we experience our daily “Wow!” moments because of different research, I think we’ll come to understand Costa Rica’s motto in a similar way: “pura vida.” As an English major, I’ve come to make the distinction between the denotation, or dictionary definition, and connotation, or how the word makes me feel, of this term. Pura vida, in a literal sense, means “pure life.” However, as I’ve made my way through this first day in an entirely different country, I’ve made a short list of what emotions the phrase “pura vida” incites in me:
My connotations may change, but that’s all for now. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another 5:00 AM practice tomorrow (but maybe even that’s pura vida because at least it’s in the sunshine).
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