On my first day in San Jose, Costa Rica, I, “the dental tourist”, decided to take an exploratory walk around the neighborhood of my modest but clean and friendly motel. Forget the stereotypes that some Americans may still harbor about sleepy, tropical countries south of the border. That might hold true for small villages where bananas grow in large clusters but then we’ve got exotic places in the U.S.A. like Hazard, Kentucky, Killdeer, North Dakota, and Chugwater, Wyoming that aren’t exactly bustling beehives of activity either. And bustling is the operative word for the central valley that encompasses this capital city. “America Works!” goes the popular refrain, but “San Jose Works!” too.
As I walked past storefronts, eateries, and businesses I was impressed by the upbeat energy of a city I hadn’t seen in thirty years. I looked across six lanes of congested traffic to Sabana Park, and everywhere it was the same, people were busily coming and going at a determined but not frantic pace. At curbside I saw a group of students all wearing the same neat blue shirts, joking and teasing each other as they waited their turn to board a local bus; mechanics in a tire repair shop were busy barking instructions over the din of a pneumatic air-gun; sharply-dressed office workers were on the move, the men sporting hip sunglasses, their hair slicked back with macho gel while women in high heels twitched seductively as they entered a Mayan temple-style office building; red taxis wasted no time breaking out of jammed intersections. And always, the constant background sound of Latin tunes, happy and romantic, a refreshing change from the angry, profanity-laced rap or screaming death metal that I’m often subjected to back home in Virginia. This might be the nicest hub-bub I’ve ever seen in a capital city. I found the Ticos (as they call themselves) to be bright and hard-working without the rudeness of some big cities. Here most everyone seems quick to smile, to return a greeting, to open a door, to laugh; and healthy too. Tanned and well groomed was the norm, and why not? At 4,000 feet elevation and south of the Tropic Of Cancer, this valley boasts a near perfect year-round climate; no cold drizzle under gray skies, no sweltering dog days of summer, no artic blasts, no miserable L.A.-style smog or “June gloom” inversion layers. With year-round daytime highs of 74-84°F and balmy overnight lows in the 60’s, its downright intoxicating, literally and figuratively of course. Looking south towards the Cerros de Escazu’ from the second floor balcony of Hotel El Sesteo. From this view you’d never know your smack dab within the busy, sprawling metropolis of San Jose.
However there is the occasional hurricane off the Caribbean or Pacific, the searing advance of pyroclastic flows from volcanoes that can explode anytime, and the dreaded end-of- time rumbling of powerful earthquakes that have leveled eHntire communities more than once throughout the centuries; but that’s the price of living in paradise, an uneasy truce that folks in southern Cal and Florida understand all too well. Most of the time you can count on caressing breezes and blue skies as advertised in those slick web sites of American real estate companies that are gobbling up beachfront acreage for their fun-in-the-sun gated communities and exclusive mega-resorts of the rich, thus driving up prices and squeezing out most Costa Ricans from ever thinking of being able to have a small place near the water. However, buyer beware, there is a flip side to this vacationland of coconut milk and honey. Rural areas remain pretty safe, but crime in San Jose has skyrocketed in recent years. Most of it is robbery, assault and battery stuff but killings are on the rise as evidenced by a per capita murder rate that rivals Bogotá, Mexico City, and Caracas. Very few people risk walking the streets at night, especially downtown, so travelers are wise to erase any Latino romanticism about strolling around the plaza on warm moonlit nights.An all-too common sight, modest home in San Jose defended like a citadel
Thirty years ago I hitchhiked from San Bernardino, California to Panama, safely I’m happy to say, and in 10 days believe it or not; despite being woken up while I was sleeping in a truck while the driver was inside a whorehouse, we got caught up in a firefight between Sandinista guerrillas and government troops, all hell broke loose, but thats another story. Yea thats right, I digress, anyway, I passed through San Jose briefly; and the city I remember then hardly resembles what I saw now; homes and buildings resemble armed-compounds or detention centers rather than places to raise a family or welcome customers. Windows and doors have metal bars, walls and fences average 10-12 feet in height, most are topped with gleaming razor wire, lock boxes bolted to the floor are routine in most hotel rooms, banks and government offices are guarded by Terminator wannabees in a conspicuous display of power and authority. With so many rent-a-cops, sliding remote-controlled gates, and electrified barbed wire galore, some blocks resemble NBC Nightly News footage of Falujjah or Kandahar rather than the streetscapes of a country that boldly abolished its military decades ago. On that fateful day in 1948, like the Germans scaling the Brandenburg Gate or the Iraqi wrestler type I saw wailing away at the fallen statue of Saddam Hussein, the brave President of Costa Rica, with Congressional approval, took a sledgehammer to the walls of the Bella Vista army barracks and then proudly handed the keys to the Minister of Education. Remarkable, especially given the caudillo-worship history of most other Latin American countries. All crime stats aside, there’s no mistaking the lockdown atmosphere that permeates daily life in and around San Jose, but this just makes Costa Ricans innate hospitality all the more remarkable for it shows they haven’t allowed a few bad mangoes to spoil the national character. To be fair, I can only imagine how horrified the Ticos must be when they see crime headlines of massacres in the shopping malls, high schools, and one room schoolhouses of Gringolandia.
The great paradox of life in San Jose is that its a very friendly place in a very paranoid setting. But there is a pot of gold at the end of the tropical rainbow. From its mean streets and traffic-clogged avenues there are enticing views of beckoning mountains in the distance, and there’s always the certainty, for foreigner and native alike, that less than a two-hour ride from downtown can put you in some of the most pristine, Eden-like settings on Earth. From misty cloud forests to roaring cascades, to lush hillsides covered in strawberry fields and coffee farms, to banana plantations and white sand beaches, to Robinson Crusoe-like islands and turquoise waters; it truly lives up to all the superlatives. On a remote stretch of Pacific shoreline I chanced upon a clear mountain stream that meandered through a sun-dappled palm grove and dumped into the warm surf, idyllic beyond measure. Small wonder that the words Costa Rica and paradise are used so interchangeably in conversation.
Well, steady growth and a stable democracy never come without a few surcharges. There’s some trouble in paradise but it sure ain’t chasing away multitudes of fair-skinned tourists or Fortune 500 corporations like Intel and other North American out-sourcing behemoths who’ve relocated operations here. Costa Rica is also a welcome haven for thousands of Nicaraguan refugees and significant numbers of Panamanians, Salvadorans and others. This is particularly noteworthy when you consider that working-class Costa Ricans still face their own struggles in pursuit of their daily bread.
As usual, my sharp driver, Jose, picked me up promptly for my last appointment at Meza Dental Care. I received excellent treatment at a price that no American dentist could ever match. Later, on the patio of the motel in the late afternoon I gazed at clouds and shafts of sunlight on the high ridges of the Cordillera Central. The motel has its own small oasis of palms and shrubs within an enclosed courtyard; you’d hardly know you’re surrounded by over two million people. A tiny bird fluttered among some flowering vines, its solitary chirping interrupted only by the occasional sawing of carpenters working in the alley nearby. What a perfect metaphor I thought, for my last evening in paradise.
Like many a sun-tanned tourist I was pretty bummed out to leave Paradise, but upon returning home I was grateful to be on American soil again. On my first morning back I drove into the small “Mayberry” that I call home to run a few mundane errands. Looking around I marveled at all the nicely landscaped yards, the orderly parking, the rolling pastures nearby, the general cleanliness of the streets, and the small stores and businesses devoid of razor-wire and heavily-armed goon squads. Later, I walked out to my mailbox just as my miserable neighbor, a transplant from up north, came driving up the street. As he has done for the past 20 years, he drove past me expressionless, without offering a hello or a wave, as did another stoical local resident who drove by a moment later. Damn, I thought to myself, a week ago I was walking down dirt lanes in the Sierra de Talamanca where I saw sandle-clad Indians in tattered pants tipping their weathered hats at strangers like myself, and now I return to the most affluent and prosperous nation on Earth, and I can’t even enjoy the simple courtesy of a nod of the head or finger on-the-steering-wheel greeting in my own neighborhood, with people who live right next door, people that know me for Christ’s sake. Oh well, like I said before, there’s always a few bad mangoes wherever you go.