February 21-24, 2008
It was a long bus ride to San Jose. Despite the small size and good roads of Central American countries, it still takes a full day to go halfway across the country because of frequent bathroom breaks, multiple flat tires, and engine breakdowns in the middle of a busy urban highway. It was still dark when I left the jungle this morning and almost dark again by the time I got to the capital.
I had told myself that I wouldn't visit any of the capitals in Central America due to a lack of interesting stuff to do, but when I was in Boquete and a fellow hostel-goer named Steve invited me to visit him, I couldn't pass it up. Steve was a psychologist from Chicago married to Miriam, a Tica (a Costa Rican woman) from San Jose. They were living in San Francisco for over a decade, but a few years ago they retired and moved back to her hometown.
I think the psychologist in Steve constantly had him playing mind tricks on me. He assured me that he was brilliant, and when I informed him that every brilliant person I had ever met didn't feel the need to inform others of their brilliancy, he told me that he was, in fact, so brilliant that he had no need to be humble. We spent a lot of time in coffee shops talking about travel, and Miriam spent most of her time rolling her eyes at Steve's highly intelligent remarks.
We also got to meet some of the most upstanding members of Costa Rica's ex-patriot community. Steve's friends (actually, he referred to them as 'acquaintances') were mostly single American men in their sixties with a surprising lack of American women at their sides. Steve told me that virtually all of the Americans living in Costa Rica were societal outcasts, whether running from the authorities or their ex-wives, or simply being unable to handle the pressures of a "normal" life back home. Steve, however, assured me that unlike the rest of them, his closet was free of skeletons.
Besides the Americans living in San Jose, who were easily distinguishable because they hung out in the same haunts every afternoon, there were a lot of normal tourists meandering the city as part of their week-long vacations. I wondered why they chose Costa Rica when there were so many other places in Latin America with equal, if not better, sights and amenities, and lower prices. Steve explained that when people researched Costa Rica as a possible vacation destination, they only read about the good stuff. The country abolished its military back in 1949 after a civil war left the government in shambles. There are rain forests, volcanoes, and beaches withing easy reach of the capital. There is a large middle class and generally a high standard of living, including a free social health care system. At first glance, Costa Rica looks like a gem surround by other Latin American countries that are marred with problems.
However, the level of violent crime in San Jose was as high as anywhere I had seen. Reading the local newspaper, I discovered that a few days ago, two immigrant engineers working outside got robbed at gunpoint of thousands of dollars worth of equipment by several men. The police caught the assailants but they were inexplicably released after a night in prison. That sparked a wave of vigilante justice, in which scores of frustrated citizens pummeled a man who was known as a thief, yet who had nothing to do with the robbery, nearly to death. The message was clear: The police won't protect us, so we'll take the law into our own hands. Steve also told me several stories of people and businesses, including a jewelry store just last week, being robbed in broad daylight in the supposedly safe downtown area with hundreds of people around. Of course, the robbers never got caught in those stories. He also warned me of the increasing problem with street gangs with nothing to lose in Honduras and El Salvador. I missed the days of traveling through South America when all I had to worry about was high altitude, hungry jaguars, and drug cartels.
The photo album for this entry is here.