Reactions to San Jose were mixed. Some of the girls loved the excitement and the bustle of a big city others found the Americanisation too much. Personally, I dislike the overarching control that global organisations like Coca Cola and MacDonald’s have in developing countries such as Costa Rica. However, that is not the fault of the Costa Ricans; they are sucked into the promises and the glitz that these companies bring in just the same way as the rest of the world. Scratch beneath the veneer of the main streets – La Avenida Central and La Calle Central – walk a few blocks away, and the poverty is evident. The homeless litter the doorways amidst the rubbish and the decay of the buildings. The smell of the sewers and the waste is pungent and, as we walked through the streets to get to the bus station to pay for our tickets to Puerto Jimenez, the girls that were with us were visibly upset. Not so different from other big cities around the world – the wealth and shininess is but a mask for what lies beneath. However, when most of us visit Auckland it is for the shopping or the theatre and we see no more than the surface of the city, the part that wants to show itself off to the world. The poverty is there if you look for it.
But the central part of San Jose is vibrant, the parks and the squares hum with people shopping, working, eating, drinking, socialising. The centre is pedestrianised so the challenge of dodging cars in a city centre is minimised. There is smile and an “Hola” (or “Pura Vida”) on everyone’s lips and although I held on tight to my bag and was conscious of keeping myself safe, I didn’t feel threatened at all as I walked around. What we did notice was the very strong police presence; there were towers on most of the corners with police manning them and pairs of police either walked or cycled around the city.
Our plan for the day changed when the white water rafting company failed to pick us up at 6am as arranged. Some miscommunication and incorrect information meant that they had cancelled our booking. We were disappointed but looked for the silver lining in the cloud and made the most of a day to explore a Central American capital city. We also managed to change our dollars into Colones and buy Costa Rican sim cards so that we could communicate with each other and safely let the girls explore in small groups.
I have noted over the years of taking students away that their comfort zones are a factor in keeping themselves safe. Rarely do they go far from where they feel comfortable. Those who felt totally overwhelmed by the size and noise and bustle of the city stayed to the main street we had walked along together from the hostel. Others ventured a little further afield exploring down the side streets for a little way before turning back to familiar ground. Once they had eaten, they made their way back to the hostel and then went the other way to a large park we had discussed visiting earlier. They were prompt at checking in regularly via text message to assure us that they were all fine and tell us where they were going next.
It was the girls who were most unnerved by the city centre who made their way to the park. It marked a turning point in their impression of San Jose. Whereas the centre for them was alien, impersonal and scary, the park which was full of families playing football together on a sunny Sunday afternoon, or riding horses or feeding the ducks or going on pedalos around the lake, provided them with the reassurance that this was a city with real people who had real lives. I too enjoyed a walk around the park which was littered with interesting sculptures. Some were a little the worse for wear but indicative of a city’s desire to develop cultural heritage.
They also visited the museum of Costa Rican life that I disappointingly arrived too late for and loved it. One girl said that she had thought that San Jose was devoid of any culture until she went to the museum and learned the history of the country and the city.
But our stay was short and the next day we were up bright and early and on a bus bound for Puerto Jimenez. Eight hours to gaze at the magnificent scenery, doze, and gaze again. We climbed high in the hills surrounding San Jose and then seemed to follow the range which forms the backbone of Costa Rica southwards before cutting across westwards to the Osa Peninsula.