Field Notes from San Jose, Costa Rica

I have just edited some field notes I found from 20-some years back when I went to live in Costa Rica for a semester in a study abroad program. My oldest daughter, Elsa, just returned from Ecuador from her semester abroad and it made me curious to look at my old journals.

Here is my first impression of a new country:

The lights were different. There were no sky-scraper lights, or blue, purple, orange neon lights. Nor were there white lights. And they were not jumbled together in one place or another. All were pumpkin-colored, placed fairly evenly across the city — the porch lights of homes, I assumed. San Jose, Costa Rica is a city of residences.

The airplane landed. Everything was hushed. I walked into the airport lobby and looked around at its orange and yellow 70s decor. The colors of the lobby are louder than the lobby itself. There is no one here but ourselves. Where were all the people? Shouldn’t an airport be bustling and busy?

Our voices no longer sounded like normal conversation against the background of Spanish, that tongue-loving language where everything clicks across the lips, being spoken quietly in a corner. The emptiness of the place resounded loudly in my ears. How odd it was to be in a large building with a handful of people.

We walked toward the baggage area. All the stores were closed and barred. The items were like those sold at an American gas station positioned in the middle of nowhere. They sold toothpaste and soda crackers, sharply contrasting with the gaudy stores in Miami, where I had just spent a long layover. They sold Fendi bags and cocktails there.

I asked the leader where the bathroom was. He lead me to one and offered to take my bag, “You know, just in case.”

I walked in and paused to adjust to its strangeness. The room was short. There weren’t twenty black stalls, all exactly alike, but four, each distinct. I chose the last because it was the biggest. I felt Gulliver-like in Lilliput. As I opened the door, a cockroach scurried to the edge of the toilet and a large spider continued to walk across the stall at a steady pace. I stamped my foot and they both scuttled into the cracks behind the toilet. I removed my jacket because the air was heavy and moist, especially in the last stall of the only bathroom in the airport. There wasn’t a hook. Nor was there any toilet paper.

When I finished, I returned to my group. Everyone was in a line marked off by white rope. I dug out my passport and waited. I must get used to people staring at me, I thought. I was taller than most people and blonde.

I climbed onto a bus with my group and looked over the heads of people out the windows. Each store was a cacophony of color. Every store, every truck, every sign was painted in brilliant hues — usually red, yellow or green. There were no designer shop-fronts of muted, quiet tones or houses painted in subtle shades of beige and taupe. All structures were barred with 10-foot iron fences which separated each residence and the windows were also barred. These bars were painted brightly too.  The colors were strong, boldly clashing with each other, and randomly chosen. Like hummingbirds, these people were irresistibly drawn to the shiny, dazzling colors.

There were a few billboards, most of which were American products — a blond-haired, blue-eyed Marlboro man stared into the distant hills of a desert. There were a few non-”gringo” ads, but these models were also blond and white also. Later, I would learn of the oppression of the oligarchies in Latin America and realize that these ads were a natural extension of them. Yet, Costa Rica claimed to be different than the other countries, boasting a thriving middle class and a hundred years of peace. But their ads belied their slogans.

We passed a cemetery, very different from my beloved graveyard at home which I would visit on my way to the river. I enjoyed this graveyard because it felt like a secret, hidden by brambles and forgotten. In San Jose, the gravestones were lightning white instead of grey. The tombs rose above ground and the markers towered over whomever would walk among them, with colossal crosses and garrish monuments. It seemed a happier place than our graveyards at home. Less sacred and revered. Certainly much more visited. It was not tucked away behind a church, but smack against the busy street.

“Death is a part of life, here,” it seemed to say. “We embrace it as one of the family.”




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