In search of Pura Vida: Finding the Macaw

A loud squawk wakes her. Startled, she forgets where she is for a moment. The hot, humid air quickly reminds her. She smiles and inhales the smell of tropical rain. Paradise. She lies back on the pillow and closes her eyes, listening to the screeches of the beautiful scarlet macaws she sees every morning perched in the mango tree in the back yard. “What a life”. Things have changed so much since she arrived in this tiny seaside town in Costa Rica.

After a good stretch, she gets up and goes to the kitchen to put the coffee on. While it’s brewing, she goes to the bathroom and splashes freezing cold water all over her face. Refreshing. She looks at herself in the mirror. Her skin is tanned and glowing. Her hair, a cascade of curls framing her face. She has never looked so healthy. The sun and sea are definitely doing her a world of good. The aroma of fresh coffee wafts into the bathroom. She takes in a deep gulp of air, savouring the scent. She pours the coffee into her favourite cup. It’s handmade and glazed with different shades of turquoise and blue, and reminds her of a macaw’s tail. She loves the macaws. “Big, beautiful & loud, just like me”, is her explanation whenever anyone questions her obsession with them, “my spirit animal”.

She takes her coffee out onto the balcony. They seem so content, so free. She remembers back to when she went to the zoo as a kid. She’d always loved the macaws, but she had hated seeing them locked up in cages. There was always an air of sadness about them, and now she understands why. They need their freedom, they need this climate. They need this incredible blue sky and the sun beating against their wings as they fly over the mango and papaya trees. She sips at her coffee and thinks about the day she arrived in this beautiful place.

5 months prior:

Cold rain lashed her face and the biting wind seemed to rip straight through her winter coat. Bright, flashing lights were all around her and the sound of multiple cars beeping at the same time was enough to drive anybody crazy. The light turned green for the pedestrians but just as she took her first step into the road, a black car zoomed through the red light, causing her to jump backwards. She let out a loud, exasperated sigh. She was tired. She finally made it home and

trudged up the stairs, praying that she wouldn’t encounter any of her housemates in the kitchen. She was not in the mood for small talk. Was she ever? She couldn’t really remember the last time she’d been up for some basic chit chat. Depression had hit her hard since he had died and she no longer really knew how to be sociable. She occasionally made a feeble attempt, but more often than not, she was in her own world. She quickly put the shopping away and went to her room, Kicking off her trainers, she sunk to the floor against the door, her eyes closed and her face resting in her hands.

Enough was enough. It was almost the third anniversary of his death and she was still living in this limbo. Couldn’t even call it living really, she was just existing. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had fun or felt happy. She picked up her phone and opened the photo app. Memories. Three years ago today. There he was. She missed his face so much. His voice, his scent, his laugh. She scrolled through the photos and laughed. It was the day they’d taken that trip to Ikea and he’d got stuck in one of those reclining armchairs. They’d spent the whole day there planning how they were going to decorate their flat after the wedding. The accident happened a week later, and even though she’d escaped almost unscathed, he died at the scene. She stroked the scar on her arm, a constant reminder. A part of her had died with him. Tears began rolling down her cheeks. 

Something had to change. It was him that had died, not her. She still had a life to live. He wouldn’t have wanted to see her like this. He would want her to be happy. She could hear his voice telling her off. “What is this? You, giving up? Never!” He’d always been one to motivate her. 

Standing up, she took a deep breath. It was time. She stripped her clothes and entered the tiny en-suite bathroom. She turned the shower on and watched as the room filled with steam.

The scalding water was like fire on her skin, burning away the fear and apprehension, and filling her with fight and hunger for change. She imagined a phoenix, burning to ashes, only to be reborn. It was time. She got out of the shower and wrapped herself in a towel. Still dripping, she sat at her desk and opened her laptop. She needed a fresh start, But where? Latin America had been calling her for years. She’d finally be able to perfect her Spanish.

She decided to not to overthink it. Too much of that had been done over the last couple of years. Costa Rica had been on her bucket list for ages. Boom, done. She booked a flight. Three days. She had THREE days to prepare. She opened her wardrobe and panic instantly set in. Drab grey cardigans and baggy black tracksuits lined the rail. The only pop of colour came from his basketball jersey, hanging at the end of the rail. It was the only item of his that she still had. 

“I do not have clothes for this trip”, she said. The Great British climate didn’t really call for summer clothes too often. ‘Time for some shopping’, she thought.

The next few days were a blur. It was time. With a suitcase full of brightly coloured beachwear, denim shorts and floral maxi dresses, she boarded the Piccadilly line at 5am to Heathrow. She shivered. Was it cold or excitement? Hard to tell. Maybe both. Once at Heathrow, she checked in her luggage and went through security. After grabbing some breakfast, she found herself at the gate, looking out the window at the planes lined up on the tarmac.

“Now boarding Flight 1372 to San José, Costa Rica. Group one please board now!” She gathered her things and joined the queue. 

“Will all passengers please return to their seats, the seatbelt light has been switched back on”. She woke up with a jolt. Her neck was stiff from the awkward position she’d been sleeping in

“Flight crew, prepare for landing!”

She opened the blind and saw the lush green landscape sprawled out below her. Wow. This was her first solo trip. She was really doing this. A couple of hours later, after making it through border control and the luggage hall, she stepped out into her new life. 

“Welcome to Costa Rica! Bienvenida!” The taxi driver’s huge smile made her feel at home immediately. He dropped her off at her hostel and waved her off. “Pura vida!”

She felt as if she were dreaming. Costa Rica. She was here.

There were lots of people at the hostel, but she’d never done anything like this before. She went straight to her room and showered. Afterwards, she sat, trying to build up the courage to go out and talk to people. She cracked the door open and peeped through. All these happy faces around the pool. It was a bit much for her, so she decided to go for a walk and get some food instead. As she walked through the reception, the guy at the desk called out to her. 

“Hola! Hey!” 

“Hola”, she replied, nervously. She wasn’t ready for a full conversation in Spanish just yet.

“Your first time in Costa Rica?” 

‘Thank God,’ she thought. “Yes it is!”

“De donde eres? Where are you from?” 

“London, England. And you?”

“De acá de Costa Rica! My name is Luis, y tu?

“Kareemah, encantada, nice to meet you”. She smiled. This was easier than she thought. 

By the end of their conversation, she’d discovered the best place to go and get some authentic Costa Rican food & also had a pretty good idea of where she was going to go next. 

The following morning, on Luis’s recommendation, she took a taxi to the Coca Cola terminal at the bus station. Next stop, Playa Jacó. 

5 months later:

She was only supposed to stay a month. But one month turned into two, and everything had fallen into place so quickly. The hostel she had stayed at when she first arrived had been a massive catalyst. The owners were Edlyn & Cseke, a Hungarian couple who had fallen in love with Costa Rica ten years earlier. They had immediately made her feel so at home and worked hard to help her rediscover herself. Through their contacts she was offered a job at a bilingual school as a 4th grade teacher. Not long after she found a beautiful house with a pool in the backyard and the beach about 30 seconds away, although she still spent a considerable amount of time at the hostel. She had thought about going back to London, but all she pictured was grey skies and misery. The thought of swapping the scent of clean, fresh, seaside air and the hot sun for the smell of pollution and cold drizzle was depressing. How could she go back to that? She wasn’t that person anymore. She had finally found herself again. She was happy.

But what of university? She had deferred her course for the year but time was ticking. She loved her life and her job here but what about the future? Could this be a long term thing? She didn’t particularly like teaching and although she loved the kids in her class, she couldn’t imagine being a teacher forever. Her dreams of completing her law degree & becoming a high flying human rights lawyer were still very much alive. 

She wondered what would happen if she went back to uni, to London, to dark winter days and crowded buses. Just the thought of it filled her with despair. Since being here she had transformed into an active, happy woman who brought smiles to everyone around her. Would she lose it if she went back? Could she be this person in England too? She doubted it. 

A loud squawk startles her out of her trance. She looks out into the yard. Then a voice spoke.

“They’re eating your mangoes!” It’s Bryan, the guy who delivers the water, standing by the gate. She laughs. “That’s ok! They belong to them anyway!

She doesn’t mind the macaws eating the mangoes. She goes down to let Bryan in. After he restocks her water supply, she gives him a couple of mangoes that she’d picked from her tree earlier. “Pura vida!”, he smiles, joyously. Pura vida indeed.The Costa Rican motto had had a big impact on her. ‘Pure life’. The Ticos use it by way of greeting and to say thank you, among multiple other things. It’s written everywhere, and people genuinely live by it. Life here feels very pure in comparison to London. She’s so in tune with nature in this place. Jungle hikes, waterfalls, swimming in the sea, beach bonfires, fresh fruit – how could she leave all of this behind? 

Deep down she knows she has no choice. She has to go back. She can’t run away from reality forever. Her family, friends and career are all in London. If anything she can always move back here at a later date. ‘This is it’, she thinks, ‘better make the most of the time I have left.’ 

She decides to hike up to the Mirador to watch the sunset. It’s one of her favourite places: an abandoned, half finished building that had been meant for a hotel & restaurant, until they realised that the journey up the mountain to get to it would put too many people off going. She doesn’t mind the hike at all. The view is incredible up there. Totally worth it. She climbs over the balcony on to one of the flat roofs just below and opens the box of delicious ceviche she’d bought at the bottom of the mountain. She takes a bottle of hot sauce and some crackers out of her backpack. She was going to miss this. Suddenly one of the trees right next to her begins to shake violently and a loud cackle erupts almost in her ear. Her eyes sparkle as she sees gorgeous scarlet, turquoise and blue feathers spread right in front of her as the macaw emerges from under the leaves. She gasps, filled with excitement at being so close to her favourite bird.

The bird stops and looks her dead in the eye. So majestic. She stares back, lost in it’s beauty. She shuffles closer, slowly, carefully, so as not to scare it. She reaches out her hand a tiny bit at a time. The bird cocks it’s head, watching her every move. It doesn’t seem scared at all. The macaw stretches it’s neck forwards and she feels it’s beak against her hand. Wow! This is a dream come true. She reaches a little further and strokes it’s head. All of a sudden a jolt shoot through her body, as if she’s being electrocuted. She feels different. Lighter. She looks at her hands. ‘Huh? What’s going on?’ All she sees is a blur of bright colours. She starts feeling dizzy. She realises that she’s looking down. The ground seems so far away. Further than usual. ‘Why on earth am I so close to the edge?’ she thinks. The ground is getting further. Or is it closer? She looks around and sees moving flashes of bright turquoise and deep blue, with patches of green. It’s still blurry.

Surprisingly she feels calm. There’s no need to panic. ‘Pura vida’. She feels the air rushing past her and the sun on her back. Trees rush past her, their leaves brushing against her body, except it doesn’t feel like her body anymore. She isn’t sure if she’s falling or dreaming, but for some reason she’s flooded with a deep sense of tranquility. “I’m definitely not falling’, she thought, ‘I’m getting higher!’ She has a bird’s eye view of the whole town. Incredible. ‘What a beautiful dream!’ 

3 days later:

“Hola? Hellooo?” A voice shouts in between frantic knocks on on the door. A key turns in the lock. Isabel, Kareemah’s landlady and friend, pokes her head in. “Amiga?? Are you here?”. She enters the apartment and looks around. No coffee had been prepared this morning. Everything is very still. She pushes open the bedroom door. Nothing.

Her phone rings. “Did you find her?’ A panicked voice asks. “She’s not here”, says Isabel. “I don’t know where she could be.

“She’s been missing for two days now!’ The voice on the phone says. “See if you can find anything that might give us a clue!”

Isabel moves around the bedroom, straightening the bedsheets instinctively. As she pulls the top sheet, a solitary scarlet feather falls to the floor. She picks it up and looks at it, confused.

A loud squawk makes her jump. She steps onto the balcony and sees a beautiful macaw perched on the edge, looking straight at her.

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