Pura Vida

Creative Nonfiction
Matt Mannino


You know how when you’ve eaten too many bananas you start noticing things that nobody should ever notice, for instance, if you push a piece of banana against the back of your teeth it will gently divide into three perfectly equal and intact sections? No? Well, having been in Costa Rica for only ten minutes I hadn’t yet reached this level of understanding either. Things were fresh and new, and I was buzzing: a natural reaction to walking on new land.

The airport wasn’t crowded and after fetching my pack I found an information booth where the man, without listening to my question, demanded that I stay at the San Martin hotel. I found this amusing and in English responded, “Hey, aren’t you guys suppose to be neutral and provide objective information about every—”

“I can’t understand what you’re saying.” He shrugged and picked up the phone to call the hotel. “You’ll stay here and like it. Pura vida.”

Simple enough, I thought. I was too hungry to argue, and besides, this guy’s plan seemed solid.

Five minutes later a van met me out front, and the driver threw my pack into the back seat. I began speaking, just to improve my Spanish. “Is that your friend back there at the airport?”

“Who?” he asked. Then, after thinking, he said, “Oh, yes. That’s Luis. He helps people find my hotel.”

Just as I suspected.

Jorge, the driver, also owned the hotel, and though his breath stunk of whisky he drove faultlessly and even provided a decent tour of the area. At one point he informed me that “this is the center of the city.”

“This is San Jose?” I asked, surprised at how low, dark, and empty everything looked. “The big capital?”

“We’re in Alahuela.” He glanced at me, amused. “San Jose’s about a half-hour north.”

“Oh.” I looked out the window. The fact almost completely slipped over my head but I bobbled it back and held it in view. “Wait a minute, stop,” I demanded, sitting up slightly panicked. “I’m supposed to be in San Jose!”

He shook his head and asked calmly, “Why, where are you going tomorrow?”

“Puerto Jimenez,” I answered. “I need to be at the Stanset terminal by two-thirty.”

“Well, then.” His leathery face, like Deniro’s, but shorter and thicker, smiled warmly. “My hotel is much closer to the terminal than any place in San Jose. No worries, my man. Pura vida.”

Pura vida, I thought. What does that mean? But fair enough, let’s go, vamos.

We turned into a dark urban neighborhood that, for some reason, reminded me of a concrete swamp and soon arrived at the spectacular San Martin hotel. The hotel boasted one story, and besides a splay of amber light that spilled onto the sidewalk, it sat indistinguishable amongst its dark, cramped, and low neighbors.

A smiling young man, skinny and quietly proud, greeted us, took my bag, and asked me where I was from.

“New York,” I said, and he reacted with a gasp and large grin.

He then told me how big NY is and that his cousin’s friend lives there.

Of course he does, I thought.

He showed me to my room. “Now leave everything here if you go out, understand?” he said politely and professionally. “You must leave your money, your camera—” He eyed my camera on the bed. “—your passport, and whatever else is of value inside the room. It’s safe here.” He smiled, shook my hand, then exited.

No offence, buddy, but that’s not gonna happen. I piled my money, credit cards, passport, and camera into my pockets. I took off my shirt and slammed on a new one. I hurriedly brushed my teeth while frenzied thoughts of what to do next crashed into my skull, floating down dumbly afterward; in fact, my thoughts were too light and scattered to form any solid plan, so I listened to my stomach and parched veins that cried loudly for food. I headed towards the lobby to ask directions to the nearest restaurant.

Que tal,” I said when I saw Jorge at the desk.

Hola Muchacho.” He smiled.

The boy came in from outside and explained that Costa Ricans don’t say que tal, they say pura vida, which means pure life. “It’s because the pace of life here is slow and tranquil, and we live life somewhat purely.” He added, with a smile, “And the people are also kind. Like us.”

“Well, pura vida, friend. I’m hungry, where’s the nearest place to eat?” I asked.

He pulled me through the gate and pointed down a stretch of ugly street where yellow light weakly gathered on each block corner. “Do not go there,” he warned, then looked at his watch. “Yup, lots of prostitutes are there now… and drug users.” He turned me around and pointed down the other half of the dark street. “Go up here and take a left. Don’t go further cause that’s also bad. Go up here, take a left, and then at the top of the hill are lights and many restaurants. Jani’s Soda, a great cheap restaurant, is at the top of the hill and down a street to the…”

My mind didn’t quite capture everything, but, in any case, I was already heading towards that first left, propelled forward by my hunger and the thrill of being in a new city.

It’s funny. After taking that left, passing some blocks and seeing some lights, I stopped on a corner, looked in each direction, and realized I had no idea from which way I had come. I focused, but my gaze slipped off every building and street corner, catching nothing familiar. I walked towards more lights and soon became strongly conscious of people’s eyes. They stared. It was my skin. It seemed bright, more brightly white than those fluorescent bulbs, and I tried unsuccessfully to cover its glare by stretching the sleeves of my T-shirt. I walked on like this, passing streets two, three times, but could find no point of reference. Soon my hunger was no longer an issue and I was driven by a new goal: to remove myself from these strange eyes and streets; they held nothing familiar or friendly. It was already 11. But where was the hotel? I walked on.

A young man in dirty clothes, with an open scar under his nose—a sure sign of his habit—confronted me as I walked passed a depressing discotheque that blurted out some dreary Latin beats.

“I don’t speak Spanish,” I said, not meeting his eyes when he asked for money.

He followed by my side, and asked me again.

“I don’t speak Spanish.” I walked quicker, leaving him behind.

He yelled something derogatory and I turned to face him, non-confrontationally. Using my finest Spanish accent I asked him how to find McDonald’s. I figured McDonald’s must be lit, and the people there could surely tell me how to get home. He seemed taken aback by my question, and as I had hoped, it seemed to place us on more of a similar level; I was less of a gringo to him. With a cautious face he pointed and explained the way. He almost seemed pleased to help.

The road he pointed to was dimly lit and flanked by sordid gutters that rolled garbage out onto the street. My mind was louder than the skidding trash and it demanded first and foremost an assessment of my safety. But before I could assess anything my hunger resurfaced and chimed in: should I eat at McDonald’s? Yeah! Good idea. Nah, that’ll kill me at this time of night. I’ll just head back to the hotel and eat a big breakfast tomorrow. But where’s the hotel? I could ask the people at Mc Donald’s. But, oh yeah, I’m not go—

Scuffled steps, and then a bony arm seized my throat and dragged me to the cement, hard. Two more men swung in from the sidewalks and converged on my face, pounding with bare knuckles. I went limp—my surrender. They ripped at my pockets, almost tearing them off, and ground my neck into the hard pavement. I felt their eyes, but not on me; avoiding me, rather. I was a car, or a coat, and soon I was empty and they were up and running, swiftly merging again with the darkness that lined the streets.

The reality touched down in layers. What did they get? I felt something in my right cargo pocket. It’s my wallet! No, just a phone card. They got my wallet: $120 and all my cards. What else? What was in my bag? My camera, my notebook, ahhh. What else? My passport! I checked my left cargo and felt my passport’s laminated cover. Thank God. I checked and rechecked each pocket but found nothing else.

I stumbled into the light and watched my blood hit the street. God. I grabbed towards them in my mind as if I could catch their image and drag it back into reality. I’d beat them back this time and reclaim my money and pride while dancing over their broken bodies. They were weak and bony. I could have fought back. Why didn’t I fight back?

Where am I? I was scared and wanted lights. I ran towards lights and soon found myself in a busy section, the object of many eyes. With people came embarrassment. My white skin screamed like a strobe light now, but not as loudly as the blood that dripped down my face, splattering the street below. They watched. I half spun, hopelessly. Each direction was the wrong direction so I walked straight, past a group of kids who laughed. It was them. I stopped. I spit blood on the ground before them, then walked on, past more people who did it, more ragged youths who held my wallet in their hands, greedily counting their plunder with resin-stained fingers. Everyone did it, and before everyone I stood up, semi-straight, and spit to prove that I wasn’t defeated. But I was. I clotted the blood with my shirt and dropped my damaged body onto a bench, covering my face with shaking hands.

I arrived at the hotel, brought to its gate by a sympathetic cabbie, and walked in ashamed, attempting to remain in the shadows. Jorge, almost asleep at the desk, jumped up in disbelief when the light finally touched my face. He took me under his arm, cleaned me up like I was his son, and comforted me as I contacted my unsuspecting parents.

The room was free, he said, and I could stay here until I sorted out my situation.

How would I get to Puerto Jimenez? I need to leave tomorrow! I have no money. What will I do?

He told me not to worry about such things. “You’re alive and talking and that’s what’s important.” He smiled and fetched some whisky for the both of us.

I explained away my anger and he listened. His eyes, still and old and resting in pillows of wrinkled skin, absorbed me. We talked all night, discussing everything from his kid’s birthday to leaf cutter ants and how they terrorize people’s gardens in the south. He spoke slowly, pausing between sentences, and soon my breath and heart slowed to match his pace, a pace that pervades Costa Rica, a pace that remained with me for the rest of my stay there. Our conversation lifted my spirits and soon those three shadows and my lost possessions felt distant and no longer so important.

Then Luis, the information booth man, arrived, still dressed in his work clothes. What? This struck me as bizarre, but I guess Jorge had called Luis and told him the bad news. Luis showed the same disbelief, shaking his head as if he were personally responsible for the actions of his countrymen. He offered compassion and even handed me my first Costa Rican banana, which I peeled past the toes and shoved in whole.

Gracias amigo,” I said with a full mouth. “Pura vida.”

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“I’m 23 years old. After graduating from university last May I traveled around Europe and Central America. I love to travel and write and plan to continue these passions until I die. I currently live and write in upstate New York.” E-mail: Angelo83mm[at]yahoo.com.

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