In the morning I talked with Fabrizio about the global economy. He and his wife and child had immigrated to Costa Rica a few years ago, following “the crash.” They came here to escape a failing economy, just like the rest of us. Distraught and confused in a world that is falling apart at the seams, his family found prosperity in San Jose.
I shared with him my fear of returning to Italy, because having lived there in the 70’s and 80’s, when life was like a freshly opened bottle of champagne, I feared returning to a culture I suspected would not handle an economic downfall easily. The Italians would be a miserable lot to deal with when the glass was half empty, when doom was lingering on the horizon. There was no way I wanted to be there to witness its demise.
“Oh absolutely, the Italians are very depressed right now. They have so many problems, with what is happening in Greece, and Spain, well the mood is very bad.” Fabrizio said shaking his head and releasing a heavy sigh.
“Yeah, I don’t want to be around them when they’re in a bad mood. It can’t be pretty.” We both laughed.
Holding onto warm and fuzzy thoughts of Italy in its prime (and my prime) I headed for new frontiers. Since Sarah had announced so matter of fact that Costa Rica was the new Mecca, a paradise far removed from the rat race – hell, I was all over it.
“Well, I’m off to explore San Jose, see ya’ later.” I said throwing my camera on, with a heavy 200 mm lens.
“Watch out with that camera of yours,” said Eduardo, the manager on duty at the front desk.
“Of course, but, like, what are they going to do to me? Shoot me?” I asked, wanting to get to the bottom of the warning.
Eduardo, a 20-something and dressed in a crisp white dress shirt and black slacks burst out laughing.
“Oh no, there’s no guns here. People don’t do that,” he grinned.
“OK, great. So what, are they going to Stab me with a Knife then?”
“No no no. There’s no violence like that here. No, that would never happen.” He added still laughing at the absurdity of the question.
“So what’s the big deal? I don’t get it?”
“Because some times someone might take something if you leave it, or they might try to grab it if you are not paying attention.”
“Well, duh, that’s just common sense.” I answered.
“Here, I’m going to give you this map to show you where to go to get good pictures. Here we are in Barrio Amon, and here is Barrio Otoya. These are very nice areas, but don’t go over here, or here.” Eduardo made two big X’s on the map north and south of the Hospital Blanco Cervantes.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll make sure to avoid those areas.” I stuffed the map into my backpack for safekeeping, and headed out the door.
“Yeah right. I’ll make sure I don’t go there!” Heavens, if I’d followed that advice any time I wouldn’t have seen half the world. Especially Buenos Aires, when my girlfriend told me not to go into the barrio where even the police warned me not to go. I got my best shots there. Never listen to that crap. It’s so paranoid.
I wandered through the streets aimlessly, just following my instincts. It felt a lot like Palermo, circa 1978. The whole mood, the colorful buildings, and the way people were dressed. The people on the street, and in the shops were very friendly. I didn’t feel uncomfortable for a second. A few people stopped me on the street and with a gentle arm, touching my shoulder said: “Be careful with your camera.” I thanked them for their concern. Mothers and their babies were everywhere, with happy smiling faces.
The streets were busy with lots of traffic, and some areas were a bit run down. But I noticed how clean the streets were. It was an immaculate city, if you could look beyond what can only be described as certain “third world elements,” although I really don’t like that expression.
After a few hours, and thoroughly lost, I pulled out the map Eduardo had given me. Of course I was smack in the middle of one of the X’d out neighborhoods which only made me laugh. I made my way towards the city center, aiming for Plaza de la Cultura.
Whenever I go to a new country, or a new city, one of the first things I do is find a central crossroad, preferably in the heart of the city, where I can people watch, to get a good perspective of what the local culture is all about. Plaza de la Cultura, in front of the Teatro Nacional, and flanked by the Hotel Grand, with its elegant Café Parisienne is the perfect vantage point to study the cultural vibe.
A man was playing 50’s musical soundtracks on a baby grand piano in the lobby while I sat at a patio table with white linen watching classic waiters dressed in black and white scurry about giving 5 star service. The mood was so Casablanca. I ordered gazpacho soup. It was delicious. After a few hours studying the people, I was beginning to get a better sense of what ‘Pura Vida’ was all about.
I confess, the term had eluded me till now. Yes everyone says “Costa Rica is Pura Vida,” and before coming here, I’d heard it a million times. But I really didn’t get it beyond the literal translation “Pure life” and the assumption that Costa Rica was all about Chill.
Before coming here, I’d combed the Internet and travel guides for images of Costa Rica, and San Jose. It was very disappointing indeed. I never felt satisfied in my search. Despite all the homework, I didn’t get sense of the place. There were nice photos of the beaches, and some historical monuments, but I definitely didn’t have a real sense of the country I was about to visit. And Pura Vida? It didn’t translate through the images and YouTube videos I’d watched online.
But now, I was beginning to get it.
The Costa Ricans, or Ticos, are very gentle people, and very loving. That is in their core spirit. You can see it manifest in many ways. They are extremely affectionate and attentive to their children – to all children. Strangers respond to other people’s babies with charm and concern. It feels as if all children here are held in the collective arms of its citizens. It’s obvious through the body language, and the facial expressions, and how the children are ‘handled.’ There is so much love it oozes out of people.
Now let’s talk about the elderly. Lots of old people walking around, fit and smiling. The ones who are really getting up in age have a lot of obvious support. Young teenagers escorting their grandparents gently by the arm across the street is commonplace. Elderly people get hugs often, and the youth talk to them with care and respect. It’s awe-inspiring. The young people are very affectionate and cautious with the seniors, and it’s quite obvious the family structure is thoroughly intact and well supported by all.
There’s also an overall lack of ‘stress’ in people’s faces. It’s just not there. Also, you know how you can tell if someone is all agro, or wigged out, or in a bad way? Well there is absolutely none of that here. I don’t care if the person is poor, or seems down on their luck. There is no sense, no element of distress in their faces. There is an overall feeling of contentment, and lack of pressure in everyone – young and old.
Strangers are friendly. Old men without teeth, a few who looked potentially homeless (but only a few of those), beamed with joy and enthusiasm when I engaged them in a conversation about their day. Everyone just seems….happy.
I am embarrassed for the people who told me how scary San Jose is, and to “leave the city a.s.a.p.”
Silly Americans. San Jose dangerous? Bah Humbug.
One more critical factor that deserves noting. The bathrooms: This is an important and critical factor when observing the “cultural health” of a society. It’s part of my three-ring circus to test whether a country is safe and well-balanced. It sounds nuts but I assure you it really works. You just have to look at three things: How the people treat their children. How the people treat the women and elderly, and finally, how the people maintain their bathrooms. Don’t laugh, it’s true.
I don’t care what kind of business, how run down or poor, I’ve seen a ton of bathrooms, and every one is absolutely immaculate. There is pride, and attention to cleanliness and plain old decency. I can name several countries where that is not the case, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Since everyone had warned me about how San Jose had nothing to see, I’d scheduled my departure with the Interbus for the next day at 2:30 p.m. That night I went to Club Jazz in the Escazu district – an upscale suburb outside the boundaries of San Jose – reputed to be the best jazz club in the country. There was a cool tribute band playing Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I sat next to an American guy who had bailed from a high paying job as an engineer in the US, only to become a lowly English teacher at a local language school making one-tenth of his prior salary.
“I’m happy here. Wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m so happy here. I’m done with that American rat race,” Mark said.
The next morning I was up early because I only had a few hours to canvas the city before leaving for Manuel Antonio in the south-west. I took a different route and found out that the Yellow House was right across the street from the hotel, and in front of that was a whole other world completely different from the city scape I saw yesterday. The Yellow House occupies the Embassy of Foreign Relations for Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful building with a sweet guard who mans the front entrance.
“Damn. This is all messed up. Why do I listen to people?” I went inside a restaurant/casino (yes there is ample gambling in Costa Rica), and after ordering a sandwich, I asked the waiter if he could call my hotel, since I didn’t have my phone hooked up here.
“No problema Signora, con mucho gusto.” He handed me the phone after dialing the hotel number.
“Ciao, ciao. Hi. Listen, I know I’m scheduled to leave at 2:30 on the bus, but can you cancel it? There is no way I’m leaving today. There is so much to see in this city, and the people are so amazing, there’s no way I’m going anywhere today.”
“No problema, con mucho gusto.” And I was good for another 24 hours in the capital city. Whew.
Silly Americans, I’ve got to stop listening to them. They can be so culturally retarded.
* * * *
After another day hoofing it through the streets of San Jose, and falling upon street fairs galore – and the National Museum – I wanted to grab a bite before the bus arrived to transport me south to the National Park Manuel Antonio, three hours south-west, on the Pacific coast.
“Eduardo, where can I grab a bite at this hour?”
“There is nothing nearby, I’m sorry. Perhaps down the street near the Hemingway Hotel?” He answered, with an air of apology.
I didn’t want to go there. Didn’t feel right, so I headed around the corner where, halfway down the street I saw the sign: Sportsman Lodge. Outside, there was a security guard with a pistol strapped to his waist.
“Hum. What’s this all about?” I said in a whisper. Acting as if I owned the place, I walked past the guard with authority, and saluted him “Bon Dia.”
Inside was an open patio, and a check-in desk with a woman in fancy clothes who asked me if I wanted a room. “No thanks,” but seeing a restaurant and bar in the center of the patio, I answered “I’m here to eat.” She motioned me ahead with a smile, while the guard eyed me with curiosity.
Seated at the bar, which was a horseshoe in the center, surrounded by small round tables with high chairs where men and women giggled and touched, I immediately knew I’d fallen into a brothel.
OK, got it. Now I knew why Eduardo had not mentioned this location as an option for food – it was probably against policy to support this business, despite the fact it had a restaurant, and was around the corner from the hotel. I get it.
I had read that Costa Rica ranks no. 3 in the world for childhood prostitution – that is, girls under 18 years of age who are engaging in the business of sex and companionship. It’s almost counterintuitive, because the family structure is so intact here, and I don’t see any obvious issues with the women, or the girls for that matter. Being pro-prostitution, in terms of legalization of the business, I got the impression from the Sportsman Lounge that there might be girls 16 or 17, maybe…
For the most part, the girls looked beautiful (all 8 of them- I asked) and quite content in their job making sad American men who are alone in the world happy to have company with a beautiful girl for a few hours. I didn’t see anything wrong with that. It’s fine in my book. Now 12 or 14- year-olds would make my hair stand on edge, and I would probably do something drastic. But here, at the Sportsman Lounge, it was all-cool; a good business worth maintaining, in my opinion.
All these men, they looked so sad and lonely, like they needed help. The girls were beautiful, well manicured and proud, and they seemed smart. That was my impression.
“So, how much does a girl cost here?” I asked my waitress who served me the chicken sandwich.
“Well, it works like this. You can have a girl for an entire day for $100. Or, if you don’t have that much, say you have only $80? Most of the girls will work with you, and give you a break. But say you only have $60? The girls will work with you just the same. You just have to make a few adjustments about what she will do and what you want. It can all be worked out. The girls are very flexible,” she said with the authority of a Madame although she was only 20 and change. It was obviously a business run with strictly loose boundaries.
“Do you want a girl?” she asked me.
“No no, I’m just curious how it works. That’s all.”
“Ah, bien,” she smiled, in her cute tank top and hot pant jeans. “So, what’s with the soldier man with the piece at the front? Are you expecting a raid?” I asked half joking/serious. “No not at all. It’s in case someone gets upset. Usually it’s the girls fighting over a man. The gun calms them down when they’re upset. It’s for intimidation only, because it never gets used. Just to make the girls calm down when they’re arguing. You know how girls can be.”
“I sure as hell do. Girls can be nasty mean,” I said laughing.
Back at the Mansion Bolivar, I chatted with Eduardo before the bus arrived. “I love this country. It’s perfect for me. I should live here. But I need a job. I think I should work for the Tourist Authority, writing and taking pictures of all the beautiful places, because I was a tour guide, and now I’m a writer, and this seems like the perfect country to write travel stories about your country, because let me tell you how bad the PR about Costa Rica is – on the internet. I didn’t see anything that I considered really helpful. It definitely needs work, the PR department for this country. Geese.”
It was a verbal hemorrhage, but Eduardo got the drift.
“For example, I didn’t understand Pura Vida before I came here, but now I do…” I stressed with enthusiasm. “I want to work here!” Eduardo was exhausted listening to me ramble on about publicity shots for the nation.
The bus arrived 20 minutes late. No biggie, obviously. It was a small 15-person pass van, and for $45 I had a ride across the country to Manuel Antonio National Park, smack in middle/edge of the rainforest.
“How many people will be traveling together today?” I asked. “Four. One person down the way, and the other three much later on the drive south,” Manuel answered.
Traveling out-of-town, I almost climbed out of the window to escape leaving San Jose. Crossing through neighborhoods surrounding the city center, I saw people and buildings I wanted to photograph. I almost died. “Oh my god, this is soooo amazing,” I said jumping back and forth from one end of the bus to the other to grab shots outside the windows. “I have to come back here. I shouldn’t have left so soon…”
About an hour later, the bus stopped in front of a hotel in the town of Orotina. A woman got on board dressed in professional attire and carrying an elegant bag. I introduced myself, and inquired about her voyage. Her name was Emilia. She told me she worked for the Costa Rica Tourist Board, in the department of international public relations.
“Really? Wow. That’s amazing,” I answered, in awe.