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Discovering Pura Vida in Costa Rica

Date added: Tuesday 6th August 2013

Pura Vida: The heart of Costa RicaEmma Baker is an American graduate who took time out between high school and college during which she spent time in Costa Rica where she came to appreciate the meaning of Pura Vida.  She has since written a memoir of her gap year experience (KTHANXBYE: A Year of Hellos to Howler Monkeys, Hookers, and Hope). The Pre-prologue and Prologue that follow sets out some of the thoughts she had when planning her gap year.


In this post-Frances Mayes/Elizabeth Gilbert era, it seems that suddenly everyone is writing down his or her story. Going to the travel narrative section of the bookstore is like the first visit with a long-winded friend after she's been on "the most amazing trip ever!" - only without all the slides. Then you go to the memoir section, and it's like visiting that same friend after she's lost her job/broken up with her boyfriend/had a kidney transplant and is now moving on to her new, life-affirming, enlightened lifestyle, and by golly, isn't that heartbreaking-but-also-inspiring?  Especially after Eat, Pray, Love. It's like the Helen of Troy of memoirs: the book that launched a thousand pivotal stories.


And I do love these tales. It's like the romantic comedy genre in film: even when it's been done to death, it's not done. I can say this unabashedly because, in the classic sense, I don't have one of these stories to tell. I'm too young to be sage and too poor to be well-traveled. My love affair with Italy is less metaphorically akin to a sensuous, rapturous fling and more akin to the young-teen-and-her-heartthrob-poster relationship: incredibly sincere but one-sided, distant, and informed by tantalizing tidbits from whatever literature I can gobble up. (Only in this case, it's travel books and memoirs, not those weird special-edition biography magazines that feature Justin Bieber's face from every possible angle, accompanied by tantalizing blurbs promising "The Biebs' Biggest Secrets!" and "What Justin Looks for in a Girl!"). [1]


This is not just a travel memoir. During my gap year, I could only afford to explore for two and a half A newly hatched turtle heads for the sea and a life in the oceansmonths, but I made an adventure of - and gained wisdom from - all twelve. I have a sneaking suspicion there are plenty of people these days who worry about not knowing what they want to do, or worse, pursue what they think they're "supposed" to do and later realize that they are not enjoying what they've chosen for their life. When I told one friend I was taking a gap year, she said, "Really? I never even thought about that. I always just assumed I would go to UW-Madison after high school." She didn't simply assume she was going to college. She assumed she was going to a particular college, the way you automatically go to the grocery store that's closest to your house. I think most people - me included, until this point - don't realize life is for the shaping all along, not just when education is complete, or families are started, or job ladders have been successfully ascended. That was the sort of shock I had when I first chose to take a year off.


The flip side (that is, if we lived in a world where things were so accommodating as to be dichotomously coin-like) is that as much as you try and choose your own path, life usually has something else in mind. I learned that as well when I tried too hard to do what I thought I wanted - something that, in reality, was colored by a self-imposed "should," something I thought would make an impression on the outside world.


This book is not just about the perspective you gain from throwing yourself into the outside world, but from exploring the full extent of your own, more immediate world, and learning from that, too. Because occasionally, it's only possible to do part of the whole "finding yourself" thing in Prague or Guadalajara. For me, it wasn't just about finding the elusive things in life, but finding out what life itself was worth and what made it worth living. And although I knew I wasn't going to find a simple answer - Douglas Adams didn't construct our world, after all - I wasn't going any further until I'd had a chance to try.



The cover of Emma Bakers bookWhen I first told certain people about my gap year, their faces would light up and they'd say, "Oh! That's the thing British people do!" This pleased me immensely, as I'd long harbored the desire to, well, be British. The accent, whether the billowing vowels and pleasant staccato of the Queen's English or the just-barely-recognizable-as-English cadence of Cockney, seemed infinitely sexier than my Midwestern accent. (The latter prompted fascinated requests by anyone outside my region for recitations of the word "shower" or questions about whether I'd seen Fargo - wrong state, people.) However, the fact that gap years were actually heard of in my beloved Britain did not influence my decision to take one. The main motives included, amongst other things: my English Channel depression, my fear of (not) making friends in college, unfulfilled outlandish travel plans, and, of course, burnout. What senior doesn't leave high school never wanting to see a color-coded note card ever again?


But that'll come soon enough. I also probably ought to mention a couple other reactions I got that speak to the current American perception about gap years:

A) "But you're so smart!"

Because I did pretty well in high school, people just assumed college was next. Even though it's beginning to shift for the better, the general perception is still that the "gap year" is either a euphemism for the beginning of the rest of your life in the work force ("I'm just going to work and save money for a year...or three...or twenty") or an extended summer vacation for the half-ass students who can't bring themselves to enroll now that school is no longer mandatory ("Dude, I just need a break from freaking algebra, you know?"). It doesn't seem to cross people's minds that perfectly hard-working kids might want some quality bonding time with the outside world before, as Edward Eager put it, "the prison doors yawn" to swallow them whole for another four to eight years.


B) "I wish I'd done that!"

This was either said sincerely, in a "Kudos to you!" sort of way, or condescendingly, as in "Oh, you sweet aimless thing you, I'll humor you and pretend I once entertained that notion as well before coming to my senses and getting my accounting degree."


Regardless of the reaction, I always felt the need to explain myself. I didn't even plan to take a gap year in the first place. Like many kids of my generation, I grew up just assuming that, finances allowing, college would follow high school as surely as high school followed eighth grade. What this pattern did not guarantee was an ensuing sense of excitement. As June of 2008 approached, and with it graduation, I got into fits of anxiety more and more often. These were the sorts of responses more appropriate for an impending meeting with a loan shark rather than a high school counselor. I figured I was going through normal pre-college nervousness. But the end of the school year drew closer and closer, and my feelings didn't change. I was afraid to reveal just how unexcited I was for fear of cocked heads and strange looks - "What do you mean, you're not psyched?"


Finally, one summer day, it dawned on me: I really didn't have to go to school right away. There was no predetermined path to follow anymore; I could actually make big life choices.  And so, in mid-July, about five weeks before I was meant to head off to college, I made the choice to defer. And with that, I gave myself permission to take Robert Frost's old adage to heart, and take the road less traveled.


If only I knew what was in store.


[1] As an aside, I did once do a temporary tattoo-tramp stamp of the Biebs's face in honor of his birthday. However, it was done in an ironic manner, something my mother did not grasp when she asked enthusiastically, "Did you wear a short shirt so everybody could see it?!"]

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