San Jose, Costa Rica—Spiders on Acid, Love in a Juice Glass, Hell on a Street Corner
*** This is a chapter from Voices of Reason From the Ends of the World by Doug “Ten” Rose and is part of the Fearless puppy project. ALL profits from all book sales sponsor Wisdom Professionals and their charitable concerns. http://www.fearlesspuppy.org
Did you ever see that National Geographic special about the effect of drugs on wildlife? One particularly impressive experiment featured a spider. They gave the unsuspecting little arachnid a bit of LSD, in the hope of observing behavioral changes. They got their show. Our eight-legged hero began spinning for the camera. The web resulting from this marriage of spider and hallucinogen resembled an Escher staircase scene after a visit from a psychotic bulldozer.
Welcome to San Jose, Costa Rica, an architectural schizophrenia unparalleled anywhere in the known universe. An average city street can house a white stately-columned mansion next to a dilapidated red, yellow, and black Rasta restaurant next to a rococo masterpiece of a building in powder blue that neighbors an orange grocery store sitting next to a soot-charred auto repair shop beside a massive post-modern glass-front high-rise office building adjoining a cemetery fenced in protectively by concertina wire while the ornate church on the same grounds sits with doors wide open and gold crosses exposed—and the beat goes on.
When I first got off the plane and was waiting in the immigration line, a fellow traveler from America and I struck up a conversation. He was making his fifth trip to Costa Rica. I asked him for the one thing he would think most important to tell a first time visitor who had nine months to spend in the self-proclaimed Land of Pura Vida. He replied, “Stay out of San Jose. It’s the asshole of Costa Rica. The rest of the country is beautiful.”
Of course, he didn’t know I was involved in a mid-death experience and that San Jose was the perfect place for me. There are plenty of opportunities to die here—and several more opportunities to be reincarnated.
I’m staying in an apartment recommended by the dentist’s office. It turns out to be owned by the dentist’s sister. It costs twice as much as the rents I have recently paid in Vermont or New Mexico, and of course much more than the nothing-at-all I’ve paid for rent during most of my forty years on the road. Admittedly, everything is relative. Many Americans would look on $650 a month as pretty reasonable.
There are none of the monkeys from my brochure in the courtyard. It’s just a twenty foot concrete slab with a few potted plants in a corner. The landlord team of husband and wife are good-hearted people but obviously of the “entitled” class. Several of their sports cars occupy the concrete slab. Most of the view from my window includes massive industrial metal garage doors and a less than attractively built stone wall. There is a musty, moldy, backed-up-sewer type smell from a leaky wall between the bed and bathroom that makes breathing less fun than it should be. I’m going to the dentist this afternoon to see how fast we can set up the work schedule so I can get out of here. Those monkeys are out there somewhere. I’ll find them as soon as my mouth is reincarnated.
I’ve had more severe withdrawal symptom experiences in much less hospitable places, so my program to get healthy should be easy to follow here. Quitting booze, cigarettes, sugar, fried food and coffee in an apartment will be easier than quitting heroin and meth on the street was thirty years ago.
Things looked pretty bleak upon entry to San Jose that first day. I was disgusted and almost ready to go right back home. But by the end of the third day Tico (that’s what Costa Ricans call themselves) hospitality kicked the shit out of my jet lag, and at least part of the withdrawal symptoms. Maybe that Saint John’s Wort and the stepped-up meditation time have also helped. Maybe the assorted withdrawals are just naturally starting to lighten up as they run their course. I’ve been through withdrawals, physical pains, and similar problems so often that the physical and psychological pain aren’t much of a bother anymore. It still amazes me just how much a person’s attitude is responsible for sculpting that person’s happiness or misery in almost any circumstance. Sure, there have been changes in my external reality over the past two days, but nothing to account for how much better I feel now than I felt when catching my first gaze of San Jose. The people were just as nice and the neighborhood was the same when I felt so badly about being here a couple of days ago. The streets, the trees, the flowers were all just as lovely then as they are now. George Harrison was right. It is “all in your mind.”
Within a few more days the leak in the wall was being fixed for the next tenant and the landlords moved me to a second floor apartment with hardwood floors and a large outdoor patio that views the mountains. These landlords get nicer every time I see them. He works for the Costa Rican government’s foreign service and she comes from a family of clothing manufacturers. These folks adopted a pregnant street dog whose back legs were destroyed by a car. Esteban and Suantzy built the crippled dog a set of strap-on training wheels. They take the dog for regular wheeling walks. They kept one of her pups and farmed out the rest to good homes.
Knowing these people a little better makes it hard to think ill of them for owning an excessive number of cars, but I don’t like the lord-of-the-hacienda tone they use with their laborers. The gap between socio-economic classes is certainly more severe and blatant than it is in America.
Looking around San Jose for a few more days reinforced first impressions. It seems an odd mix of hip, pretty small-city bits thrown in a blender with what post-apocalypse Detroit will probably look like. Some sections seem like a lovely little country town at first glance, but not for long. A few minutes watching the bizarre traffic flow responsible for the barely breathable air makes it hard to think of any part of this monstrous city in relation to a country village.
But the East End of San Jose rocks! There are Japanese, Argentine, Italian, and Caribbean restaurants within two blocks of my apartment on Fifteenth Avenue. The Caribbean place has live Calypso music on Thursday and Friday nights. Within a ten block radius are a Cultural Center featuring a large theater, an architectural university, a language school, a Brahmin meditation center, a kindergarten school, a bowling alley with pool tables, a public elementary school, several restaurants serving local dishes, and a vegetarian tea house/restaurant with a yoga and massage school attached to it featuring freshly squeezed fruit juices for two dollars.
I’ll be less clever than usual for a few weeks while the poisons move out of my brain and body, and the adaptation to a new environment takes place. Today was no exception. I tried to give the juice-bar lady 10,000 Colones (@$20 US) for a juice. She insisted on only 1000 Colones (@ $2) and took fifteen minutes to explain the monetary system to me, in Spanish with sign language. The same friendly honesty may not be available throughout the city, but folks in this neighborhood seem consistently nice. Most of the folks in the ‘hood are, so far, as friendly as anyone I’ve ever met anywhere. It has become obvious that my rent is as much a payment for the neighborhood as it is a payment for the apartment itself.
Besides the restaurants and cultural places, the more mundane businesses are also packed within this ten block area-—a supermarket, gas station (@$1.10 US per liter), pharmacy, computer repair shop, busy streets with lots of traffic and air pollution. There are also quiet streets resembling country suburbs, just a few blocks from the noisy ones.
It is expensive to live in Costa Rica. Food can be less expensive than in America, but it depends on what you buy. Great fresh fish is below the US price. Anything locally produced is cheaper, but a massive import tax is responsible for things such as cars, computers, and appliances costing upwards of 50% more than America price. A bottle of Listerine costing $4 in the US costs $6-$10 here, depending on where you buy it. Morningstar soy burgers are available at three times the average US price. A $10 jar of Vitamin C is $22. Anything manufactured out of the country has a price tag on it that would scare even folks with executive salaries and trust fund kids on vacation into Wal-mart.
Food is not as much of a concern for the East Enders as it is for some of their downtown cousins a couple of miles away. Some of this city is charming if not beautiful, but central downtown contains some of the most gruesome sections of city in the world. The streets are crowded with pedestrians, and in places log-jammed to a standstill by long lines of people waiting for the public busses. Traffic is insane. Drivers are so aggressive they make New York City cabbies and LA road-ragers look like Monks and Nuns. Potholes are massive. They are everywhere in the central district and can eat half a chassis quickly. Cars don’t live very long downtown. Neither do some of the people. Open drainage ditches and pits are a deadly hazard to pedestrians. Safety concerns need to be rethought, but the ditches are very necessary. Deadly flash-flood-caliber runoff is not unusual during the rainy season.
Certain streets are thickly lined with homeless drug addicts who sleep singly on cardboard, or three to four on a discarded mattress that any self-respecting dumpster would evict. Crime is increasing rapidly. Pick pocketing is the crime of choice on the streets. Violence infrequently rears its ugly head, but even at its worst San Jose is still a good deal tamer than major US cities. Murders and muggings are rare. A local informed me that the three million people of San Jose suffer as few murders a year (fifty or so) as some major US cities experience in a month or two! But there are only so many crack freaks a neighborhood can hold before the crap hits the fan.
The relatively Ghandian Tico temperament is shocked by the recent present and frightened by what the future may hold. This nervous caution has woven itself into the urban fabric very suddenly. The locals and expat Americans tell me that squalor, danger, and degradation in central downtown are increasing exponentially. I’m not sure exactly what “exponentially” means, but there’s no other word big enough to describe the disappointment Ticos have regarding the increase in negativity appearing in their capital city, and to a lesser extent throughout the country. Many locals attribute these problems to the large influx of illegal immigrants from other countries in Central America. Twenty-five percent or so of the city’s rapidly growing population supposedly falls into this class. These arbitrary aliens from just a few miles down the road have come to a more reasonable place to find a more reasonable life. Some have succeeded and become valuable assets to their new communities. Many others have not.
Some locals say the decline of the city was going to happen anyway, and that there are at least as many Costa Rican nationals out on those hellish streets as there are immigrants.
It doesn’t matter where these suffering folks originated. Many forgot where they came from a long time ago. They suffer a daily death that may never know reincarnation. It is a tear-provoking sight that spreads its threads throughout the entire city, although the worst of it is contained in an area of ten square blocks.
Locals may blame immigrants, fellow Costa Ricans, or the times we live in, but everyone agrees on blaming drugs. Most seem happy to see the recent influx of eight thousand or so additional US troops, and a few US ships patrolling their waters. This troop movement was supposedly inspired by the drug problem and designed to remedy it. Even those who doubt the potential effectiveness of this process are at least happy to see an effort being made. Of course, whether this troop movement really has to do with a drug war or the rumored resurgence of the Contra movement in neighboring Nicaragua, or US soldiers on leave, or a US counterbalance to the recent increase in Chinese influence in Costa Rica is questionable, but the Ticos seem to believe the first option. Most of the locals that I have spoken to so far are still naive enough to picture America as the planetary guardian riding on a white horse. Those who have prospered and benefited most directly from the large US military presence here are its most vocal supporters. There are many Ticos, from the ghettos to the universities, who think differently.
The Chinese influence is a disappointing stain on the fabric of Pura Vida. In 2007 the Costa Rican government abandoned a long time alliance with Taiwan to change its UN vote in favor of Communist China. The Chinese then built an Olympic caliber stadium here at no charge to Costa Rica. I’m sure it cost more than 30 pieces of silver, but there are correlations to the better-known story. China is now one of Costa Rica’s major trading partners. It seems that even Paradise is for sale. In Costa Rica’s defense, their political corruption is probably no more severe than that of most of the world’s nations. But it is disappointing to see the fabled Central American Shangri-La as a place where fat cats run rich while school kids don’t have enough books, thousands of homeless live in the streets, cars die in a deeply pot-holed infrastructure, and the nation’s integrity gets sold cheaply to Chinese Communist gangsters.
In all fairness to the area known as downtown, it stretches out for a long distance in every direction and a lot of it is no worse than any big city. Much of it is pleasant and some of it is culturally wealthy. Some of it is even beautiful–but the most central district itself defines hell as a street corner.
No description of San Jose would be complete without the following information. You will certainly see evidence of it, if you ever visit. It is not on every street corner, but you will run into it throughout the country and especially in the capital city. Prostitution is legal. Oddly enough, pimping isn’t. I’m not going to do any first hand research, but from what I hear many of the prostitutes are single moms supporting children in a society that offers few other opportunities.
Not all of the working girls are independent operators. Some of the sex trade involves slavery. The government is not at all sympathetic with the slavery aspect of its sex trade. Steps are being taken to uproot it, but these steps have not yet been very effective. For those of you innocents reading this who may not be aware of the facts, sex slavery occurs in every country in the world—even America. In a country like Costa Rica, where prostitution is legal, there are increased opportunities for the criminal tragedy of sex slavery to slip under the radar.
There is a government department that does hooker health inspections monthly, but counterfeit documentation is not uncommon. Even if a working girl has a card saying she has been inspected, it may well be a falsified one.
There have been isolated incidents of hookers luring tourists into pocket picking situations, but not many. However, as holds true for sex-for-sale activity anywhere in the world, if you roll around in the muck you are bound to get some on you—in one fashion or another.
The Costa Rican legal system saves its most potent weapons for a different type of sex crime. If you like screwing around with kids, I’d like to see you come here to do it. By the time Costa Rica gets done with you, you’ll wish they had buried you under the jail instead of putting you in it.
On a lighter note, there is a small but thriving gay/lesbian scene in San Jose. Here’s another area where I won’t be doing first hand research, but I can tell you what I’ve heard. It is generally friendly, but there have been isolated incidences of a twenty year old making himself or herself available to a fifty or sixty year old, and the older person having his or her wallet stolen. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, whether in a gay, straight, or not-at-all-sexual situation. This is true anywhere in the world. Locals suffer the same fate as tourists in this department.
Much like the hell-town of El Centro, the sex trade is more prevalent in certain districts. Luckily, there is a lot more than potential sexual satisfaction, disease, and danger to be found in San Jose. Here’s some info about a few of the more pleasant sections. The city has many monuments of historical interest, and several lovely little parks featuring touches of nature and fantastic people-watching opportunities.
The National Museum on Second Avenue houses one of the most amazing pre-Columbian artifact collections ever assembled. The building is a restructured military fort that personifies Costa Rica’s move toward a peaceful temperament. Jade, stone, well-preserved wooden and gold pottery, jewelry, musical instruments, and other cultural treasures trace the Tico people’s history back through time into an era long before the European conquest and debauchery began in this hemisphere.
The Plaza de Cultura in the museum area can be the most entertaining spot in town, weather permitting. Street musicians, prophets, and artists are available to the public in a 1960s Greenwich Village type free-for-all. The main action is, coincidentally enough, on East Fourth Street.
Several casinos are available to the gambler, often accompanied in the same or adjacent buildings by whorehouses for those interested in a different type of gamble.
Costa Rica is a very religious, and often spiritual country. Catholicism is the main religion and cathedrals abound in the capital city, as they do in most of Latin America. But CR also has the highest concentration of Buddhist activities in all of Central America, noticeable Brahmin and Jewish presences, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and several other factions of Christian. Herbal spiritualism akin to the Wicca tradition is strongly present. There is also a good deal of New Age activity here. Yoga centers, Pilates, and various other forms of spiritually related exercise systems are very popular. Legitimate massage and acupuncture are readily available. There are even tiny smatterings of Goth and Satanism.
San Jose’s central market takes up a few full city blocks and offers every type of meat, fruit, vegetable, and medicinal herb available in the country. There is a much smaller but very colorful organic market on Saturdays at Collegio Mexico.
The National Theatre is the architectural pride and joy of San Jose, and the nation. It is well worth visiting. A result of the vision of Belgian architects and Italian decorators in 1897, this masterpiece of design seats a thousand people and still hosts live performances.
There is no end to the number of daytrips that can be taken from the city. Within striking distance are hot springs, volcanoes, jungle canopy zip-line rides, beaches, and a beautiful, unique array of flowers and wildlife.
In spite of its problems, San Jose can be a wonderful city that is as safe, often friendlier, and has as much to offer as any major city in America. If you can stand to be in any place that has over two million people living in it, you would enjoy parts of this one.
This is a chapter from Voices of Reason From the Ends of the World by Doug “Ten” Rose and is part of the Fearless puppy project. ALL profits from all book sales sponsor Wisdom Professionals and their charitable concerns. http://www.fearlesspuppy.org