Before she took over as the Ambassador of Costa Rica to India, Mariela Cruz had been to India 16 times. A lawyer and an environmentalist by education and a yogini at heart, Cruz says despite that being born in Costa Rica, she has always thought of India as her home. She was hurled into the spotlight by the media last year when the air quality in Delhi went down in November and newspapers claimed that she went to Bangalore to escape the Delhi smog. In this freewheeling conversation with Hardnews, an extremely articulate and pleasant mother of seven children, Cruz touches upon various things, ranging from the impact of yoga on her life, her thoughts on sustainable development and environmental conservation, to what makes her homeland one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. Here are the excerpts:

You have been to India 16 times before you took over the job of the Ambassador. What was your first impression of the country?

I think the year was 2002 and I had landed in Chennai. I came out of the aeroplane and the smell filled me up. Now that I live here, I have gotten used to it. But when I go back to Costa Rica, my children hug me and say, Mama, you smell like India.

The first time I came, I could only stay here for a week because one of my children got sick. So, I had to go back. However, it was only two months later that I was back again in India. And that was when I met my yoga guru in Mysuru.

At the time I recognised yoga as my calling, I was in Delhi and had just a week left before my trip got over. So, I took a train to the south. It took me three days to get there. That experience of witnessing the culture at such proximity, seeing people and trees, sleeping and reading on the way, and then meeting my teachers in Mysuru, was so beautiful.

What was your moment of epiphany which made you realise that yoga was your calling?

I was very young and had four children from my first marriage. At the time, I was 33 years old and going through some personal crisis. And I felt like there was something I needed to find to fill my soul, which I couldn’t find in the West. And then a friend of mine invited me to come here and all the answers I was seeking started pouring in. It was very pure, that’s how I see it. In the west, yoga gets watered down. I used to go to the gym and do fitness yoga and other kinds of workout, but I realised that was not ‘it.’ That quest ended only when I met my guru.

What is it that makes yoga more wholesome in comparison to other kinds of workout regimens?

Well, yoga is a spiritual journey. Even though it makes use of the physical body, it is used as an object of meditation. So, the body functions just as an instrument to know yourself and calm your mind through breath and asanas. Ashtanga yoga although looks very acrobatic but it actually is meditation in motion.

The International Yoga Day (June 21) is just a few days away and it is a very important day for the whole world. I applaud the efforts taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to get the UN to recognise June 21 as Yoga Day, and now it is celebrated all over the world. If you know yoga, you know peace. There’s always something or the other going on in life but at least my mind is not contributing to more chaos. You are receiving things and trying to take the best out of it.

How would you now describe your relationship with India now?

I always say that I am half Costa Rican and half Indian, half iguana and half elephant. Because my dream was to live in India. But I have seven children and the prospect of moving to a faraway country along with them looked a bit difficult. And then when this job came, that was my chance. I am in love with this land and no matter where I am, my heart is here. It feels like my home, even though it requires a big sacrifice since my children are away. But India has so much to offer that it’s worth it.

Your country has demonstrated farsighted environmental leadership by placing a lot of focus on environmental conservation. Tell us about what has made it possible.

We have a new President and he really wants to go for carbon neutrality in 2022, which will mark 200 years of our democracy. I think we have to work together for the world because otherwise, it is not going to happen and the new generation is going to drown in plastic, their health is going to get affected because of consuming food that has pesticides. We are working closely with Dr Vandana Shiva in Dehradun on organic farming. They have an amazing bank for seeds that is meant for farmers, who, in turn, learn about how to cultivate the earth sans fumes and pesticides. It requires a change of paradigm but I believe that India does have the spirit to do that and Costa Rica is like the jewel in America’s crown when it comes to environmental conservation.

In times like these when we have someone like Trump saying that climate change is not happening and pulling out of the Paris climate accord. Do you think that has dealt a big blow to global efforts to curb the impact of climate change and reduce carbon footprint?

I think what it means is that the rest of us have to take the responsibility. Each one of us needs to start making a change to live simply and in an environment-friendly manner. We are geared towards a capitalist model that is killing the planet. So, if each one of us becomes an agent of change, we can make a difference. That is why yoga is so powerful. It calms your mind and makes the right questions pop. And those questions are very important if you want to inspire any action in the world.

One of the biggest challenges before India as a developing economy is the need to strike a balance between development and environment conservation. How has your country achieved that delicate balance?

It isn’t only about sustaining the environment but also about re-generating the environment. You need to take the message a step further. I studied to become a lawyer and took a master’s degree in environmental damage. When companies use natural resources and dump their waste into rivers, the responsibility for cleaning it should be with them. The government needs to impose stringent fines on them. Someone needs to tell them you can’t do that. The atmosphere belongs to everyone.

India has a big impact because it is home to 1/6th of the world’s population. At one point, I was working on this project that involved cleaning the main river in San Jose which had been polluted by industries. Tackling pollution requires awareness, of course, but it also requires authorities to take strict action against those flouting norms. Fines need to come in.

So this system of imposing penalties has reaped dividends in Costa Rica?

Yes. But more than that, what has worked the most is that companies go for certification, where they get a tag of being sustainable and environment-friendly. That, for consumers in Costa Rica, improves the profile of a company. For example, we have coffee that is organic or produced by women. So, if a product has those certifications, it’s value goes up automatically. People today want to buy things that have a purpose and meaning.

When Delhi’s air quality plummeted in November last year, you were one of the people from the diplomatic community who spoke very ardently against it. How have you reconciled with this reality of life in India’s national capital?

Yes, I had to sacrifice my health to be here. But having said that, I also love India so much. If you love someone, you don’t abandon them. What appeared in the papers about me leaving Delhi to escape the city’s severely bad air quality was just not true. I never ran away from Delhi. I went to Bangalore to deliver a speech and took ill. And then I returned when I felt better. Staying here and witnessing the climate change first hand with temperatures rising every year, has given me the inspiration to work for the environment. In Costa Rica, the temperature never goes extremely hot or cold. So, living there, one wouldn’t know if anything is missing. But living in India has been like a wakeup call for me.

India has had a tradition of living in harmony with the environment, as I see it. People in India eat in plates made out of leaves and use environmental-friendly glasses. And then plastic came. For me what needs to be done first off is a ban on the use of plastic.

What is your view of India-Costa Rica ties and do you think we have managed to explore the scope of this relationship to its best possible extent?

I do think that India and Costa Rica are going to get closer in the future. And I am working towards that. And whoever takes over as the Ambassador after me, that would be the intention because both the countries share values and are moving in the direction of awakening. Our democracies are precious. And India is the biggest democracy on earth.

I strongly feel that going forward, we should all be guided by ideas of peaceful co-existence, freedom and respect for human rights. We are thankfully not surrounded by aggressive neighbours, so we can afford to have the luxury of not having an army. It is commendable that India has never attacked anyone or initiated a war, it has only used its army to hold its space.

We have a new President in Costa Rica and I want them to come to India on their first presidential visit. I also wish that India opens an embassy in Costa Rica because we have a 200-strong community of Indian people living in our country.

Costa Rica has one of the most stable, vibrant democratic systems in the world. What are the values that have allowed you to achieve that?

In 1948, we were just coming out of a civil war and our leader José Figueres was a visionary. The dissolution of the army has been the wisest decision taken by our government. Because our defence lies in being defenceless. We trust international law and international courts. We have won our conflicts through law and diplomacy in the past, not fighting. Costa Rica has a very stable democracy that is respected the world over for its emphasis on human rights. At the heart of it, I think, is our belief in equality. We respect all beliefs, sexual choices. We have a new Vice President who is the first Afro-American woman to hold that post. And the president of Costa Rica’s Senate is a woman who bikes to work every day. That in itself is exemplary.

So, we are a progressive society that places a lot of value in living closely with the environment. Around 25 percent of our territory comprises protected forests. We hold 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. We have been privileged but we have a lot to do to preserve that. There’s a phrase we use in Costa Rica when someone asks how you are doing — Pura Vida, which means pure life. That should be our aim and to achieve it, we should take care of the environment. Pure life is the basic right of every human being.

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Mariela Cruz is Costa Rica’s Ambassador to India who has been to this country 16 times before she took over as the envoy. A lawyer and an environmentalist by education and a yogini at heart, Cruz says despite being born in Costa Rica, she has always thought of India as home. She was hurled into the spotlight by the media last year when the air quality in Delhi went down in November and newspapers claimed that she went to Bangalore to escape the Delhi smog
‘Stringent fines can go a long way in conserving environment’