If you’ll allow me to backtrack a little, I’ll share with you one of very few photographs I’ve taken from aeroplanes. I took this six months ago (okay, backtrack a lot), when my Christmas return flight ascended over New York City at night.
I took this because I was marvelling at the sight of all the twinkling orange lights which appeared, if I tried hard enough, like embers amongst a coal night. I imagined I was observing a burning planet – Venus, perhaps – where the crust was composed of magma which burned day and night for as long as it lived.
I didn’t end up posting this because it was blurry, irrelevant and a little lame; but when my flight descended into San José one evening six short months later, I saw the very same scene set out below me and realised that, here in Costa Rica, those embers might actually be molten rock from any of the country’s active volcanoes – Arenal, Irazú, Rincón de la Vieja, Poás or Turrialba. It was, of course, just San José at night, but the idea sparked an excitement in me, and an eagerness to get out there and see a volcano for real.
However. That spark of anticipation was extinguished soon enough. A mere half-hour later, our plane had landed and I, having failed completely to learn my lesson from our last layover in Newark, ducked into the bathroom before joining the immigration queue. Handy hint: no matter how disgusted you might be at the thought of the W.C. on board, no matter how proud you are of yourself for going a whole 3/4/8 hours without rising from your seat; if you need to use the restroom, use it before you land. By the time you’re relieved yourself in the first bathroom you clap eyes on upon arrival, every other passenger on your and three other planes will be thumbing their noses at you and calling “Eat my dust, sucker!” as they head faster than a speeding bullet towards customs and eventual freedom. And you will be left waiting for nearly two hours while five Costa Rican officers man 15 immigration booths and you stare uncontrollably at the man in front of you and his double-tipped thumb.
I seem to be drawn towards second-person narrative when writing about this journey. I suppose I’m hoping you’ll feel my pain. I don’t know how successfully, though, I’ll be able to convey the sense of building frustration with every minute we spent not moving. Every so often it would just hit me that we’d been there for 25/30/40 minutes and STILL weren’t even half way there, or that we’d been travelling for 24/25/ 25½ hours and we STILL hadn’t been seen: and they STILL hadn’t put on another member of staff. It was, to say the least, infuriating.
So as I said, it was a couple of hours before we made it out to the taxi rank, where a man approached us, questioning “Taxi?”. We hopped in and he took us to Casa del Parque, where we would be staying for the next few nights… Oh wait, except we’d been conveniently ‘upgraded’ to the hotel Casa del Parque eight blocks away for that first night. By the time I’d showered, awkwardly conversed in broken Spanish with a lady who seemed to be telling me that she didn’t want to interrupt my shower so she’d just come in and use the bathroom quietly without disturbing me while I scrubbed away; broken down in tears from the exhaustion and the magnitude of what I’d just done, and sunk exhausted into bed for the night… it was well over 24 hours since I’d begun my most challenging transatlantic journey to date.
As I had reassured myself before falling asleep that first night, everything did in fact seem much better in the morning. When I emerged from my bedroom into the common area of the hotel, I was greeted by plenty of pure fresh daylight, beautifully eclectic décor, and the rich smell of real Costa Rican coffee.
The man who worked at the hotel (I hesitate to say ‘owner’ because I think Freddie owned the place) was named Christian, and he was just lovely. He showed us around his vivid garden, which thrusted mangoes, passion fruits and heliconias our way from every angle as we perused it keenly. He suggested we take a stroll down to the organic fair and support the local green traders (we did, and I had the best burrito de papa of my life). He helped us heave our luggage into a taxi and set off for the hostel we’d booked in the first place.
The Casa del Parque hostel is friendly and calm, and Claire the cat a welcome change from Christian’s large and bleary-eyed dog Lara. She is very regal and discerning, and way out of my league; but I live in hope that, one day, I will be allowed to pet Claire without her shunning me and turning haughtily away.
The time Mum and I spent in the capital was largely whimsical and wandering. We tried and failed twice to participate in a walking tour of the city, were rejected entry into the Teatro Nacional’s symphony orchestra because “The use of shorts during performances is prohibited” and Mum was blatantly flouting this rule; the Banco Nacional’s museum was ⅔ closed and did not allow access to the gift shop. We persevered, however, never running out of things to do: until the rains rolled in and set up camp early each afternoon and we were essentially confined indoors.
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I had been warned about San José. “It’s safer than most Latin American capitals,” they said, “but you’re still at risk of being mugged or ripped off if you’re not careful”. My question was “How bad can it be?” and the answer is this: it can be pretty bad, but if you take good care of yourself and act sensibly, it can be pretty darn great, too. I’ve had sketchy kids try to force their way into a taxi behind me, claiming to be going “wherever you goin'”; I’ve also had long and friendly conversations in Spanish with kind men on buses who are happy to see foreigners learning the language and discovering the land, without being robbed.
If you were ever to visit San José, Costa Rica, you would marvel at the mad juxtaposition of gorgeous, clean Neoclassical architecture, and dingy, run-down-looking houses with corrugated metal roofs and iron grilles over all the windows and doors. You’d be surprised to see how few upscale or even mid-range restaurants there are in the city centre, as the locals tend to opt for smoky, casual little café-bars known as ‘sodas’, not all of which even have names. And if, as I strongly recommend, you were to take in a short but sweet midday performance at the Teatro Nacional, (I say ‘short’, but remember – no shorts allowed!) you would be delighted and inspired to learn a little more about the rich and varied culture of such a fascinating nation.