Pura vida

A column in today's New York Times, "The Joy of Quiet" by Pico Iyer, reminded me that our intention in coming to Costa Rica was to enjoy a few months of quiet. We have not found that, though it seems unimportant now; we have grown accustomed to the daily sounds surrounding us. Iyer's focus is about saving silence and quiet time for children, but all of us who depend on the Internet and electronic devices already know we are losing something inestimable.

We rely heavily on the Internet here, for communication, news, and entertainment. Ray uses a laptop and I use my iPad. An iPod is plugged into portable speakers through which we hear music and news. Photographs are electronic and can reach the world in a few seconds. This is all good, and helpful in its way. But it is a far cry from true silence, a gift that was with us from the beginning and should be still. Now we are lucky if we recognize scattered increments.


"To what?"


Because our house is right next to a worn and pot-holed road and a speed bump, we hear, not cars and trucks driving smoothly past, but cars and trucks braking, driving through a gravel patch to avoid the bump, and bouncing over the bump. We hear the merchandise headed to the little living-room grocery down the road slamming and bouncing in the truck beds (the trucks are nearly as big as the shop). We hear souped-up cars scraping bottom and motorcycles accelerating across it.

Other daily sounds include the footsteps of our upstairs neighbors, the crying of the teething baby next door, the voices of conversations and calls up and down the street, the pounding rain, the barking dogs, the occasional singing of Dago, our neighbor, and when we're lucky, bird calls. In the depths of my illness I slept through it all and now it's part of my life and seldom noticed. It's also part of the culture we came to explore and thus easier to accept. ("Different culture, different customs.")

As a writer, I've always found describing sound a difficult chore. Onomatopoeia, words that suggest the sound they describe (cackle, boom, tinkle) do good work but they lack that missing element, the effect noise has on the human body. For we hear not only through our ears. Our entire body reacts when a truck bounces over a speed bump 20 feet away, or firecracker goes off unexpectedly outside the window. Our heart pounds, our nervous system twangs, our brain orders a shot of adrenalin. Even when we don't acknowledge the sound, don't hear it out of custom, our body hears it and filters it and reacts to it. Sometimes it replays, altered, in dreams. That's hard to capture in one short sentence.

Fortunately, firecrackers don't often explode outside our windows, but the constant drone of ever present noise, even when it comes from YouTube or an iPod, has a wearing affect on the body. Finding silence is one of the best things you can do for yourself, and though we misjudged its presence here, we'll never stop pursuing it. Maybe 2012 will be the year.


The convenience of instant communication did make it easier to meet up yesterday with an old friend from San Francisco. Robert and I worked together in the News and Publications office at Reed College when he was a student there in the early 90s. Robert stayed on after graduation to work for a year on a fundraising campaign and we occasionally commuted together. We lost touch about ten years ago and reconnected through Facebook (much as I dislike it, it does have its uses). Yesterday we had lunch together at Cafe Milagro and caught up with news of family and friends; it was though we'd spoken only a week ago.

Ray, Karen, and Robert

Back at home we had a bit of excitement when we heard a new and surprising noise. Three motorcycle policeman chased a wayward driver down our road, sirens blaring. Naturally we went out to look so we were handy when Daniel, one of the officers, came over to ask for two glasses of water, please. We watched as the car was moved and searched and we waited while the young officers stood around and flirted with young women passing by. Finally the traffic truck came and issued a ticket—or something, and Daniel returned our glasses and the excitement was over.

A motorcycle policeman and supervisor await the traffic truck.
(The suspect's white car is in front of our house.)

Daniel and Ray share a smile.

Before he left Daniel carefully wrote his email address on a piece of paper so Ray could send him a photo. Then he put an arm around each of us and speaking in broken English said very seriously, "Life is good. And the world is small." 

Pura vida is difficult to translate; the closest is "plenty of life." You see it everywhere here, on teeshirts, caps, paintings and pottery. People have said it to me on the street, always accompanied by a big smile. It's used to express many things but I like to think it's what Daniel was trying to say. Life is good, and we're all in it together.

May 2012 bring you everything good you can wish for, and may it bring all of us—together—peace, contentment, and a little bit of silence.

Pura vida!