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