I still haven’t got to the bottom of why Costa Ricans, better know as Ticos, like to adorn their beautiful homes with barbed wire. I guess the five bullet holes in the bedroom window where I sleep provide a clue.
Yet, I’m living on the good side of the tracks in San Pedro, just a 15-minute mas o menos bus ride from the bright lights of San Jose, the capital. The host family I’m staying with are well to-do and appreciate some of the finer things in life such as expensive groceries, white goods and furnishings. Similar to Australia really except they are locked up inside their home, fenced in by security grills and watched over by a neighbourhood security guard as a daily reminder that something more sinister possibly lurks outside.
Since arriving I’m yet to witness any danger, except when walking around the streets. There are few intact footpaths; the pavement looks like it has had a sledge hammer taken to it. Thinking back to the earthquake here in September last year, I innocently asked my host what was up with the poor maintenance of sidewalks. To my astonishment she replied that the local government, or municipality as it is called, fix them only once, then maintenance falls to the home owners!
So of course, it is the last thing they worry about.
With this in mind each day as I walk less than 10 minutes to the local school where I’m teaching as a volunteer I’m forced to traverse terrain, the pavement, with the attitude of cross-country runner. At times, the concrete is above my head and I have to clamber up to get to the next flat surface. And then there are those gorilla tactic holes in the ground where I’m sure some nasty type covers over to catch unsuspecting gringo shoes, or feral cats and dogs of which there are a few! It is the strangest juxtaposition: such a modern group of people living in such poor conditions. And it doesn’t seem to bother them!
Slow things down
Everything is tranquilo, muy tranquilo! Ticos like to live life in the slow lane at work and at home … that is, until they step outside!
Out in the open it’s a free for all and most gringoes come off last. Never get in a Tico’s way in the street and on the road. They’re all on a mission!
It’s the same trying to catch a bus at the weekend or in rush hour. Line up and jump in head first preferably so you can pay the driver as you’re swept to the back.
Once seated, everyone reverts to a more “gentle” way of treating fellow passengers. Apart from this minor flaw, the people themselves show little of their violent past. Yet I’m reminded often that there’s violence on the streets. Gangs, drugs and alcoholism are everywhere in Central America, so keep your head down and play it safe. Be home by dark, or get a cab. Apparently people here are very jealous if you have something they don’t. In their minds, all foreigners are well off. You only have to look left and right in downtown San Jose to witness the poverty on the streets. Good paying jobs are hard to come by, especially post GFC.
So people assign themselves to self-imposed jobs like watching out for car inspectors now that new meters have been installed. They hope if they save someone from being fined the owner will be grateful and throw them a few coins. And in the mall there’s watchers for unlicensed street vendors. A cat call goes out and they all disappear. Once the coast is clear, the municipal police have walked on by, they reappear just as quickly.
I guess that’s what you have to love about this city. It is so vibrant and colourful, so poor yet so rich in tradition. It’s really a city you wouldn’t want to miss despite the overhanging threat of violence.
Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer, currently volunteering as an English teacher for a school in need in San Pedro, east of San Jose.