At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, Leon’s parque central enlivens to a cacophonous tune. The clamour of market stalls, murmur of hymns and crackle of fireworks add to the joyous yelps of children opening their new presents in the town square. A young Nica boy acquaints himself with the controls of his new remote-controlled toy car as it accelerates from the commotion toward a quaint cafe.
It speeds through the heated scent of roasted coffee beans, before braking suddenly beneath the eatery’s artsy wall decor. Next to portraits of Nicaraguan revolutionaries is the chalked quote of the day written in swanky italics, today’s is from Bertrand Russell; ‘the Good Life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.’
The good life or the pure life, La Pura Vida, is a phrase adopted by Nicaragua’s southern neighbours, Costa Rica, yet synonymous with the wider Central American region. From Guatemala’s colonial town of Antigua, through to Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Viejo, people are unified by their unique pace of life. Here an unhurried, restful and contented demeanor largely underscores everyday interactions and transactions. Its as if the chase for a further buck is outweighed by the stress it necessitates.
Russell’s quote perhaps resonates most with Costa Rica. Following victory in the country’s civil war in 1948 the then President abolished the army; a constitution that still remains today. Instead, finances have been channeled toward education, which has aided in improving living standards and the country’s welfare system. La Pura Vida has become about living sustainably, with economic growth not only in harmony with the environment, but also with lifestyles. For critics, a culture that checks the pace of life also arrests economic development, and is therefore seen as complacent, lazy and inefficient. Yet La Pura Vida advocates would argue that its viability avoids the stresses and the ‘rat race’ induced excesses of modern-day capitalism.
Along the PanAmerican Highway at Penas Blancas, on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, scores of Costa Rican women meet crossing tourist buses. They offer wholesome hot empanadas, crisp plantain and sandwiches to hungry travellers. Despite the urgency of their situation, they approach in laughter, bantering among one another and not competing for customers. There is a somewhat genuineness to the services they provide, offering disposable plates, napkins and water at no extra cost. A stark contrast to what may be more common in the ‘western world,’ where the centrality of money almost devalues the humanness of service into purely a ‘transaction’. The women at Penas Blancas cherish the esteem and satisfaction, in addition to the finances, that their occupation brings.
For the Central American region as a whole, historic circumstances may have built the foundations for current lifestyles and culture. A long suffering people, from the time of Spanish conquest through to extensive periods of civil war, the populace is arguably inured to the plundering of its wealth. ‘Seven families own Guatemala, we are not part of any’ adds Jairo in laughter, pointing down the cobbled street, as he polishes a mustachioed man’s shoe under the shade of Antigua’s iconic Santa Catalina arch.
Poor governance and rife inequality have humbled these people. There is a somewhat gratitude for the possessions they do own, and a worriless approach to life that maximizes on community ties and minimizes on greed. From Plaza Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador, to Plaza de la Independencia in Granada, Nicaragua, families and friends congregate each evening to share platos tipicos and enjoy card games. Perhaps a difficulty to dream beyond the confines of what they do have has sharpened their sense of the present, and desire to obtain total satisfaction from it.
Now the clatter of horse hooves join the pandemonium in Leon, as carriages shuttle families to and fro. As lemon and guava juice mixers run low, locals share white rum shots by handing out cups to any sober looking passers. Like the wayward toy car there is a seeming disorder to proceedings here. Yet like the boy at its control; the beat of Central America is driven by gratitude and steered by a smile. La Pura Vida