Friday, July 22, 2011

San Jose the city

I had visited San Jose, the capital and principal city of Costa Rica, once before, on the occasion of a Tica college friend’s wedding. Memories of grime, mistrust, and exhaust gave me no reason to ever think I’d return. But though I’d assiduously avoided it during my journey towards the peninsula, I found myself this time wanting to give The City a chance to redeem itself, and so stayed there for two days on my way back home.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed San Jose this time around. Located in the bowl-like Central Valley, ringed steeply by volcanoes, the city is steeped in the stew of its own smog and effluvia. Narrow, unmarked, paved streets divide rows of 1-3 story buildings. Architectural styles range from the basic universal shack to modern 1960s hilarities to imitations of Spanish colonial forms almost cartoonized in their simplification. Construction materials are dominated by corrugated tin and cement blocks, with colors of rust and bold solid paints dulling the eye. Steep hills and deeply-cut drainage ditches make traversing the narrow sidewalks somewhat treacherous. Crime is high, necessitating not only constant vigilance on the part of pedestrians, but also prompting window bars and fences and barbed wire everywhere, making street scenes look like long narrow prison yards.

The city is much cooler than the coasts, which is pleasant, but its urban density and modern economy strip away almost everything I enjoyed about the culture elsewhere in the country. A third of the country’s population lives in this dense metropolitan area. Shopping malls, chain stores, business suits, fast cars, and general bustle have taken over. I am somewhat resigned to this as a necessity, though, along the lines of the cultural scapegoat: San Jose’s commerce, industry, universities, transporation hubs, etc., allow the placidity of the rest of the country to remain unaltered while providing the influx of resources that permit the country to thrive above the poverty level. It’s as if they have condensed and quarantined all of the less pleasant aspects of modernity to this valley.

The city sadly lacks the cultural institutions and opportunities that usually balance out urban frustrations. There are museums, but they are very small and sad (with the exception of the gorgeous underground Museum of Gold). There are very few music or performance venues. The visual arts are largely unrepresented. The food is repetitive and stale. There are stores, but they are uninteresting and usually are chains. And the people are similarly dull.

Overall, San Jose manages to be simultaneously boring and stressful. I think next time, I’ll return to avoiding the city again.

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