Pura Vida in Costa Rica


Dear Friends: Well, it’s April, and all I can say is, “There went March!” The first third of the month was taken up preparing for my trip to Costa Rica.The second third was taken up with the trip itself (March 14-23), and the last third was catching up on everything back in Cañar. So, here’s the story:

Some time last year my Costa Rican friend, Guadalupe Urbina, got in touch with an idea for a photography exhibit, concert, and community workshops in San José, based on our work together in the 1980’s in her home province of Guanacaste. She suggested the National Library could be the venue, with the director Laura Rodriguez as our partner/sponsor. Laura was enthusiastic, and we three became a team formidable planning and producing a proposal. The U.S. Embassy in San José thought so too, and after a few months of ups and downs and revisions, they agreed to finance the project: The Living Face of Guanacaste: An Afro-Mestizo Photographic and Sound Memory. I was especially pleased because I have wanted to donate my photos and materials from the six years I worked in Costa Rica (1985-91) to an archive there.

Guadalupe with Don Blas, San Vicente, Guanacaste 1986

Guadalupe and I have been friends since the day I heard her sing from a distant room in the organization where I worked in San José. I followed the voice, and there she was. Just 24, beautiful, a recent winner of  a big prize at the University of Costa Rica song competition. This was 1986, the same year I met Michael. I don’t remember how, or when, we decided to collaborate on a documentary project, recording and photographing the anonymous music, traditional musicians and storytellers of Guanacaste.This was not part of my official job, so we made the trips now and then over the next five years.

Guanacaste, the northernmost province of Costa Rica, was once part of Nicaragua, then for 125 years it was independent before being  annexed by Costa Rica nearly 100 years ago. So it’s cultural mix is of original indigenous inhabitants, Afrodescendents of former Jamaican slaves in Nicaragua, and settlers from all parts of Costa Rica who came to work in cattle ranching and small farming. Today, mass tourism along the Pacific coast has radically altered the economy and lifestyle of many Guanacastecos.

In our visits to Guanacaste, a women’s ceramic cooperative in San Vicente was one of our stops, and their member, Sofia Chavarría, became the face of our exhibit.

Guadalupe works with a terrific production team that brought their talents and attention to detail to our project.They designed the materials along with the exhibit photographs and text, plus they staged the concert and made a 24-minute video of the project. Ivy and Fran and their team were a joy to work with, and I will never want to do an exhibit without them. They also arranged social media that kept us busy before the opening and tested my Spanish to the max with live 45-minute Facebook and national radio interviews. The National Library of Costa Rica was built in the 1970’s with a huge open first floor. That’s Laura at the opening in the photo below, where you can (barely) see the photographs along the far wall; they extended all the way around in a circle. Behind her was the stage set for Guadalupe’s concert.

Guadalupe is now famous, and she doesn’t demur when I call her “the Mercedes Sosa of Costa Rica.”  She is recognized everywhere as the country’s premier folklorist/composer, considered an authority on Guanacaste music, history and culture. She’s even on a postal stamp, but we didn’t have time to get to the post office! She came to Portland around 1998 with a cultural exchange of performances, interviews and events, so many of our Portland friends remember her. She has a website and is all over YouTube, but I like this, a mix of images and music.

I had taken my art supplies, planning to do a lot sketching during my free time. Which turned out to be one single Sunday spent with Guadalupe and dear friend Fresia Comacho in her beautiful spot in the country, with the view you see at the top of this page. Here they are resting after lunch, with Fresia’s dog, LUCKY.

Ten days gone, leaving Michael alone in Cañar – he who refuses a cell phone or computer. So we talked daily by home phone on Skype. I would report all that was going on in San José, seeing old friends, meeting new folks, doing live radio interviews, preparing the exhibit. And he would report that a neighbor’s rooster got free and pecked at our front door. (Oh yes, there was the news of a 6.8 earthquake he felt in Cañar, but as we were talking I felt my bed move as a 5.5 quake hit Costa Rica.)  At the end of my 10-day stay, after a 15-hour trip and extra night in a Cuenca hotel due to a flight delay in Quito, AND a final bus ride, I was home to a freshly cleaned house, a fire in the fireplace, and a Michael-made-meal. Some would wonder why I ever leave!

Cañar Book Club

Settle in with a cup of tea or coffee for a delicious long meeting. We have a backlog of recommendations since we missed March’s Cañar Book Club.

With long travel days in March, I got in a lot of reading. Horse, by Geraldine Brooks, which some of you recommended, finally came as an eBook from my library, and I learned more about 19th century racing and horses than I ever imagined I would want to know. But I did, and enjoyed it. My friend Joanne recommended Trespasses, a first novel by Irish writer Louise Kennedy. Maybe the best fiction I’ve read in ages, it’s a complicated, jig-saw puzzle of a story set in Belfast during the “troubles” that fits together so beautifully that you care for every character and want to go back and read again. Desperate for a “real” paper book for my travels, I picked one off my own shelf, Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder. It begins: “Deo arrives in the United States from Burundi in search of a new life. Having survived a civil war and genocide, he lands at JFK airport with two hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts.” I was especially interested in this story as it relates to one our Aristata Press will publish in 2023: Women in the Crossfire: One Woman’s Quest for Peace in the Midst of Civil War by South Sudanese Abuk Makuac and Susan Clark. And remember, dear readers, that Aristata Press is open for submissions. You can read the details at: https://aristatapress.com/.

On to the many recommendations from dear readers:

Claire from London: Mariana Leky’s “What You Can See from Here” is the book that restored my love of reading after a truly terrible book year. It’s delightful. Those who don’t like a touch of magical realism can step away now, but for the rest of us I suggest getting stuck in. We Are All Birds of Uganda, a debut novel by a young woman of Ugandan Asian heritage is a good read though flawed in several places. Strengths lie in its understanding of the British-(south) Asian community, the immigrant experience in the UK and the best illustration of what are now referred to as “micro-aggressions.” A very compelling story and an easy bed-time read. Finally, This is Happiness by Niall Williams, an Irish writer who conjures up, through the most incredible, rich and often funny sentences, a beautiful, backward, loving, characterful rural Ireland of the 1950s. 

Mary Day in Colombia. Jill Lepore’s enormous and beautifully written history of the US, These Truths, is a long and intense read with lots of connections and facts I never knew. I am working my way through Diario de una invasion by Andrei  Kurkov, about Ukranian-Russian history and the details of life since the invasion. My next book, on Kindle from the library, is Solito by Javier Zamora, a memoir of a Salvadoran child coming alone to the U.S. from El Salvador. I am also reading  Born in Blackness by Howard French, a history of Africa and its relation to Europe, the Americas, and Asia and the enormous role African gold and people played in creating the Europe-centered “modern” world.

Patricia from Cuenca who is recently traveling in Italy. Can’t you tell?  Reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard,I am beginning to identify with the Prince who understands how his beloved world is vanishing. Mary Taylor Simeti‘s andOn Persephone’s Island, Bitter Almonds Pomp and Sustenance, Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food: all highly recommended, as is The Florios of Sicily by Stefania Auci, a more recent, engaging historical fiction which casts light on the changes of the three centuries. Julius Norwich for a thorough if somewhat dense history, Sicily a Short History, from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra.

My sister Char in Austin: Circe by Madeline Miller. If you think humans are crazy, meet the Gods! Very well written, enlightening and entertaining. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. A conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Everyone, sincerely, should get this book and just have it by their bedside.

Lee in Whidby Island, WA: I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s newest Demon Copperhead. So good! Also Mary Roach, science writer, Fuzz – When Nature Breaks the Law – humorous, informative, captivating. And now I’ve just started one recommended to me, Horse, by Geraldine Brooks; I’m only 50 pages in, but it has grabbed me; I love a good wordsmith who has done their research.

Jennifer in Toronto: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. A wonderful story based on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, looking at how words were selected and defined in the several decades’ process, and which words in common use – especially words used by or about women – were not included. 

That’s it for April, dear readers. Please send me your reading experiences – good, bad, or ugly – for the May Cañar Book Club. Until then…




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11 thoughts on “Pura Vida in Costa Rica

  1. Just finished “Dinners with Ruth” by Nina Totenberg. A lovely read on friendship and how we can support each other when times are tough.

  2. Congratulations, Judy! It looks wonderful. Such a beautiful library. So great to be able to expand on a project started many years back. Very valuable record of a place changing, like so many.

    And coming home to a lovely meal! Makes up for delayed flights and other traveling horrors.

    Books: I’m really enjoying The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt was remarkably prescient in emphasizing the interconnectedness of life forms and recognizing human’s impact on these systems, particularly in the colonial invasion of the so-called New World, which he observed and recorded in his groundbreaking journeys in South America, Mexico and the Caribbean in 1799-1804. Sounds dry, but it isn’t.

    On a very different time and place, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, takes place in post Civil War South. Two ex-slave brothers trying to head north in search of their mother encounter help from a former yankee landowner and his wife. Their son, returned from the Confederate army, has secrets. Hard to describe it but it’s a very strong first novel by a pretty young black author who grew up in Ashland OR. Highly recommend it.

  3. Judy, Tu viaje a Costa Rica inspira asombro. Tus logros creativos son ilimitados!

  4. You continue to amaze me ole friend of mine!! Congrats to you with all of your accomplishments. Always enjoy hearing about your adventures. And lucky you, having Michael as your maid and chef. I think he might be a keeper!!

  5. Thank you Susan.These will go in our May book club. I loved The Invention of Nature a few years ago. And I’m going to order The Sweetness of Water from the library right now!
    Good to hear from you. Remember that Aristata Press is actively looking for submissions. Pass the information on to friends and contacts.

  6. Thanks Irene – that is one I will order from the library. And it will go into our May Book Club list. xoxo J.

  7. Thanks Colleen. Always good to hear from you, ole friend. Yeah, when I first met Michael in Costa Rica friends would ask, “Could we have him cloned?”

  8. I am filled with so much respect for all you do. The exhibit looks amazing and I will find a way to hear Guadalupe sing! Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

  9. Dear sister , wonderful photo story again, thank you. As usual, I’m in awe
    of your work, and how it’s managed to end up just where it’s supposed to be!
    It’s exciting to think we can go to Youtube and maybe hear some of Guadalupe’s
    music. I’m going to search for it right now.
    Love, your sister Char

    PS, Book Club
    Latest best new find. Natalie Haynes , A Thousand Ships. The Trojan War from the
    women’s point of view. About time.

  10. This is a wonderful account of what sounds like an amazing, stimulating, fulfilling trip to Costa Rica. And major congratulations on the exhibition and all that went with it. It’s such a fantastic achievement.
    As for books … hmm I’m back in a funk. Plodding my way through Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety but neither loving nor hating it. Too many characters who do not yet connect and I can’t keep them in my head when I read late at night and invariably fall asleep mid-chapter and the can’t remember what on earth was going on when I pick it up again the next day! But I’ll keep going while I ponder alternatives.

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