Rid­ing waves in Costa Rica

Surf­ing stu­dent learns ‘pura vida’ way of en­joy­ing life ,


They say that Costa Ri­cans are the hap­pi­est peo­ple on Earth. Whether it’s the World Data­base of Hap­pi­ness or the Happy Planet In­dex, Costa Rica reg­u­larly comes out on top in self-sat­is­fac­tion about life. No sur­prise, given Costa Rica’s “pura vida” life­style.

Cu­ri­ous about this pure life, I ven­tured to the town of Ta­marindo, to seek some higher learn­ing at surf school.

Af­ter a re­fresher les­son with a gen­tle in­struc­tor on Day 1, I was paired the next day with in­struc­tor Percy Lawrence. He had an in­fec­tious smile and spirit; I knew my surf ed­u­ca­tion was about to change.

As we walked out to the ocean, I was keen to jump on the board, but Percy kept me on the beach, ly­ing on the board and pad­dling into the sand, a sure sign of a novice surfer.

“Pad­dle, pad­dle,” Percy in­structed. “You have to prac­tise, and build your mus­cle mem­ory.”

I fi­nally passed the “pad­dle the sand” test and stood up, but Percy con­tin­ued to keep me from the water, telling me to watch the waves.

He asked, “How long did it take for those waves to get here?” Still in ul­tra-an­a­lytic city mode, I did some quick cal­cu­la­tions in my head, des­per­ately try­ing to re­call late-night news ex­pla­na­tions of how long it takes a tsunami to travel across the Pa­cific.

“Umm, three weeks?” I said, ten­ta­tive in my re­sponse, but con­fi­dent there was a right or wrong an­swer.

“Maybe,” Percy said slowly, “Maybe less, maybe more. But it doesn’t mat­ter any­more. What mat­ters is that the wave has trav­elled all the way here, and now, you have the priv­i­lege of rid­ing it.”

Af­ter briefly rolling my eyes at his philo­soph­i­cal rhetoric, I had a re­al­ity check. Not ev­ery­thing had to be right or wrong here. In that mo­ment, I left my city men­tal­ity be­hind in favour of a pura vida at­ti­tude.

Over the next sev­eral days, Percy al­ter­nately en­cour­aged, yelled, praised and crit­i­cized.

I limped out of the water at the end of each day, but ev­ery morn­ing re­turned for more. Be­yond gain­ing con­fi­dence on the board, I couldn’t help but draw some par­al­lels be­tween surf­ing and life. Look ahead, don’t look down Too of­ten, we find our­selves in a hunched po­si­tion, look­ing down — at our desks, hold­ing snow shov­els or over a key­board. In surf­ing, you have to keep your eyes up, and trust that your feet will land on the board where they need to be. On the water and in life, the waves will keep com­ing, whether you ride them or not. But life’s more fun if you raise your head and choose to ride the waves.

On the third day, I seemed to be do­ing ev­ery­thing right, but just as I stood up, the wave would get in front of me, and I would lose mo­men­tum and sink into the water.

“Pad­dle, pad­dle!” I could hear Percy cry. Af­ter a few missed at­tempts, he swam over to me, sens­ing I was frus­trated.

“Lis­ten,” he said. “Why do you stop pad­dling when the wave starts to push you? That’s when you need to give two re­ally hard pad­dles. Why do all that work and then just stop?”

He was right. Never stop at 90 per cent. The last 10 per cent is the hard­est work, but of­ten pro­vides the best re­wards.

Surf­ing is as much about the peo­ple around you as it is about the waves. In ev­ery­day life, we have lead ac­tors in our lives, but we also have a huge set of sup­port­ing ac­tors. Some en­ter our lives for a scene or two; some be­come part of our life­long cast. This is par­tic­u­larly true when trav­el­ling. Change up your sup­port­ing cast reg­u­larly, and you’ll gain a broader per­spec­tive on life.

On my last day surf­ing, I was out prac­tis­ing on my own and caught a great wave. As I gazed to shore, I soon re­al­ized I was go­ing to run down Percy, who was coach­ing his next dis­ci­ple in the white­wash.

As I ap­proached, I al­most jumped off my board to avoid him, but when he saw me, his sig­na­ture grin reap­peared. ‘Yeaaah!” he shouted, mov­ing out of the way and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally wav­ing me through. “Pura vida, man.”

Back at my land­locked desk, 41 de­grees lat­i­tude north of Costa Rica, I find that I think about waves at some point ev­ery day.

I think about how next time, I’ll get on my feet faster and pad­dle harder. And dur­ing the ebb and flow of daily life, I hope my own tide takes me back to the surf soon.


The surf scene in Costa Rica might just be the rea­son Costa Ri­cans reg­u­larly come out on top of the World Data­base of Hap­pi­ness and the Happy Planet In­dex. It’s all part of the ‘pura vida’ life­style.


Surf schools are widely avail­able.

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