San José’s Nightmares: Arriving at Night in a Foreign City

I board a cab outside of San José International Airport and sit in the back seat with the windows rolled down.  As I wend my way through Costa Rica’s sprawling capital the wind clutches at me with ethereal fingers that smell of car exhaust and a mysterious odor I can’t quite place.  It’s an odor that is unique to every city.  When I return home after a long time away, the wind and the scent of home it carries with it collide with me as I leave the airport.  The weight of home bears down on me in humid gusts saturated with a lifetime of memories.  Home wraps its airy arms around me and knocks me about like an old friend annoyed that we’ve fallen out of touch.  In like manner the San José wind buffets me, screams at me, and with these gestures and its smell of otherness it is the first of the elements to announce that I’ve arrived somewhere new.  “I don’t know you,” it says.

A soft layer of clouds presses down on the city like a padded lid.  The cottony sky glows red, as if the city below were aflame and on the verge of destruction.  Mountains surround San José and stand black against the reddened sky.  Through the window I see pedestrians scampering across busy streets.  They run, they pause, they dodge headlights.  Somehow they manage to ford the rivers of traffic.  Cars honk and squeal their brakes.  Police sirens wail in the distance.  I pass block after block and they all look the same to me, with the same ten story concrete buildings, the same plazas, the same people milling about, the same bands playing the same music in a never-ending repetition of the same park.  I imagine that the city sleeps and that through the windows of the cab I’m seeing visions of its nightmares. 

At night the whole world shrinks around me.  My only reality is the city itself.  It’s as if I’ve woken up beneath a thick quilt and in my hands I hold only a dim flashlight.  I may point the light in any direction but I will see only the checkered underside of the quilt and the red glow that the quilt reflects back at me.  I don’t know where the quilt ends and where the outside world begins.  I may thrash about.  I may crawl first in one direction and then another, yet the edges of the quilt will elude me.

I arrive at my hostel and I fall sleep on my bunk.  Monsters populate my dreams and strange faces parade before my closed eyes.  Morning comes and the city wakes with me.  Its demons retreat into the shadows that pool beneath buildings and trees and lamp posts.  Slowly the sun rises and dapples the urban landscape with light.  It splatters reds, blues, whites, and yellows on those same ten story buildings from the night before.  Parks glow green and trees spindle upward toward the sun.  Plazas and the people milling about them acquire detail and stand out from one another.  The sky no longer presses down on the city; now it soars and opens clear and blue above me.  The mountains that loomed darkly last night now cradle the city in their verdant lap.  San José makes sense now.  It exists in the wider world.  What I thought were its demons dancing around me were in reality my own demons projected on the unknown.   

I feel confusion and menace of this sort on arriving in any new city at night.  The place could be Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Lima.  Maybe I’m walking from a Greyhound station in Portland, Oregon or stepping off the train in Fargo, North Dakota.  In each case, at night, I feel the weight of the unknown bearing down on me.  The slight twinge of fear I feel on these occasions is electrifying. 

San José, Costa Rica

 

Park, San José

 

Site of the old San José Airport; now el Parque Sabana

 

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The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica

 

In March of 2011 I traveled to Costa Rica to escape the chaos of Dallas and swim in the warm, green waters of the Pacific Ocean, peer into steaming volcanoes and immerse myself in one of the friendliest cultures in all of the Americas.   I planned to travel alone, but what began as a solo trip quickly morphed into a social adventure.   Saturday morning, during a layover at Miami International Airport, I met a Harvard MBA student named Faith who, like me, was traveling alone to Costa Rica.  We agreed to visit a volcano together the next day, and Faith invited me to join her and the rest of her friends when they arrived later in the week. 

Manuel Antonio

Meeting Faith set in motion a chain of events that introduced me to a platoon of boisterous Harvard MBA students, occasioned a whitewater rafting trip on the Chirripó River in the Costa Rican rainforest, and made possible an overnight stay in Manuel Antonio, a small town on the Pacific coast where the rainforest stands tall and Capuchin monkeys leap about high in the canopy before swinging to the ground eager to observe people observing them.  Here, in Manuel Antonio, cliffs loom high over the Pacific, rocks thrust out of the green water like fins of ancient sea monsters frozen in time, and waves crash against the rocks and cliffs in their perennial quest to prove the dictum that nature is both patient and persistent in its pursuits, and that nothing, not even the hardest stone, outlasts eternity. 

Manuel Antonio, Pacific Ocean

 

I enjoyed the three days I spent with the Harvard crew.  Their numbers included six men and three women.  Seven came originally from India; one, Faith, from the Philippines; and one from St. Louis.  I laughed with them.  I joined in conversation about health care, auto insurance, education, love, power, fame, and ambition.  With Gaurav, paddling on the Chirripó River, I felt like I forged the sort of bond that only shared physical exertion affords.  I’ve never been around such raucous laughter and fluid conversation, in which some set of unspoken rules governs the group’s collective behavior.  Everyone gets a hearing.  Everyone understands that most, though not all, of the topics of conversation fall in the category of banter and so merit a degree of lightness and jocularity befitting banter. 

El Volcán Arenal

Yet at times I felt like the outsider I in fact was.  I’m a school teacher, not a Harvard MBA, by which I don’t mean to signal any sort of elitism on the part of my companions.  They were kind people, and they graciously included me in their group.  They simply exist in a different world.  They strive after different goals.  Drive and discipline as much as intelligence explain the trajectory of their lives.  As a group they share circumstances and experiences that only members of their group would understand. 

Manuel Antonio

When the loner in me took over, I left the group and wandered the beach at sunset.  I talked with local restaurant owners and beach bums.  Enrique, an extreme biking aficionado who bore all over his body the scars of his pastime, compared relationships to “la guerra” and marveled at the power women have over men.  Late in the evening, still in Manuel Antonio, I sat alone on the beach and sipped a bottle of Imperial beer.  I breathed in the heavy salt air and stared at the surf rolling in.  The whites of the breaking waves glowed phosphorescent in the moonlight.  Palm trees cast shadows across the white moonlit sand and boats winked their lights at me from the sea. 

The Central Highlands Near San José

In Costa Rica I wove in and out of different worlds: physical worlds, social worlds, internal and external worlds.  In a span of three days I was a loner wandering aimlessly in a foreign country; I was a school teacher laughing and singing American rock classics with Harvard MBA students; I was a foreigner talking in Spanish with a local about the travails of relationships, or with a restaurant owner about his road trip seventeen years ago through the western United States.  I was also a nobody sitting on a moonlit beach with eyes closed, listening to the ocean whose roar cancels out everything else in existence and becomes the one true thing in this world.

The Harvard Crew

In case there was any danger of my remaining in the trance I had fallen into on the Rich Coast, soon after I returned to DFW reality served up a dose of the harsh truths that govern our day-to-day lives, the truths that society determines and perpetuates.  At school on the Monday after my trip, in the course of a conversation about careers and goals, one of my most thoughtful and perceptive students asked, “What profession could be lower than teaching?”  The ocean may roar in Costa Rica, but whatever truth it contains remains hidden from view here in the big city.  It’s around here somewhere, but you have to look pretty hard to find it. 

San José

Central Highlands, near San JoséSerene park inside the ruins of the the cathedralBird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal

Ruins of a Cathedral in Cartago, near San José

Serene park inside the ruins of the the cathedral

Bird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal