Drive along any longish stretch of road in Costa Rica, as we just have going from the coast at Samara to the Manuel Antonio national park, and you will see a bunch of signs by the side of the road that say nothing more than CostaRicaHappy.com. This would seem even odder if we hadn’t known flying into Costa Rica that it sits in the enviable position of being the happiest country on earth. Officially. Perhaps it’s the very envy of other states that stops them from getting there, which I guess becomes self-fulfilling once you’ve declared your first ‘happiest country on earth’. But that’s a small logical digression…
People in Costa Rica seem to be aware of the results of this formal happiness survey, and are in overall agreement with its findings. Given that most of the people we spoke to hadn’t travelled much outside Costa Rica, I wondered how they felt qualified to make this comparative judgement, but this was usually shooed away as pedantic…
Yesterday, after about 25 years of procrastination, I realised one of my ambitions. I surfed. I had a lesson in the morning, and got a disproportionate amount of pleasure whenever the instructor said “esta es tu ola”, which means “this is your wave”. That was the signal to start paddling with my arms like mad, catch the wave (or more accurately, be caught by it) and leap to my feet as soon as it took hold. And occasionally (and we have photographic evidence), reality followed instruction. However, what I really loved was the thought that this was MY wave. Regardless of who was catching whom, regardless that this was an experience that could leave you in no doubt as to your own weakness against a barrage of barrelling seawater, and regardless of a record where the waves won far more contests than I did on that first day, it felt good to know that this was MY wave. And I did ride a few.
Even better was that my eldest two sons also had their first surf lessons today. With a 34 and 36 year head start on their dad, I would hope they’d be surfing some monsters and having a phenomenal time by the time they’re my age. And Alvaro at 7 was paddling out to catch his waves, unlike everyone else who was merely walking out there like a novice as instructed by the teacher. Both Omar and Alvaro were standing up like old pros within the hour.
But even that wasn’t my favourite experience that day.
That came later. The boys had put away their boards. Actually, Alvaro had been ordered to put his away when he came to shore in tears an hour after his brother had finished, demanding that they wax his board as he was unable to stand up. The instructor rather sagely suggested that perhaps it was tiredness rather than the lack of wax that was making it difficult to stand up, and that maybe Alvaro should switch to a boogie board (or belly board) instead now. And that made way for my favourite experience that day.
The waves and tide in Samara are somewhat predictable to the locals, and they can usually forecast the swell to within a quarter hour. Maybe all sea-dwellers can do this, but to an urban ignorant like myself it seemed quite impressive. So by around 5pm, novice surfers were pretty much out of the sea, and the instructors and their playmates all went in, with pirouettes and dolphin dives off their boards.
Much closer to shore, though, Omar and Alvaro had taken to their boogie boards. And for what must have been over 2 relentless hours, they bashed waves, got flipped by them, perfected high fives from one board to another, and revelled in waves unlike those they’ve seen before even in the beautiful Atlantic seas in the South of Spain. And the look of pure and uncorrupted happiness that was on their faces was more profound than I had seen on them any time before. Mixed no doubt with a level of exhaustion as it was clearly too enjoyable to be stopping within any reasonable time. But it had taken deep enough root for it not to look like the passing fun of playing with their computer games, but like a deeper, more contented happiness. When I eventually had to call them in, they asked for one more go, after which they came in with a look of having had their fill.
And that was probably my favourite moment of this trip so far.
Which brings me back to the start. Is it a coincidence that this happened here in Costa Rica, the “happiest nation on earth”? I’m sure it is. It could have happened in any location where the waves were right and the boys were in the mood to take them on. Regardless, it didn’t happen in Mexico or Cuba, where the opportunities for them to go out on the waves would have been there without much effort. So I am choosing not to take it as a coincidence. I have decided that this must be the place from which to launch a Global Happiness Revolution. And I will. It will be simple, hopefully effective, and definitely fun. Watch this space.