Where The Streets Have No Name: The Order and Structure of an Unruly City

Published: August 29th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Well, we're back in San Jose!

...at least, I think we are... it's hard to tell, since nothing is labeled and there is no order to anything.

See, I'm from Chicago. That place is a huge a grid with a clear, mathematical layout that would make any American proud; look, we're so organized and easy to maneuver! So of course, I'm inclined think that a city in Central America is a bit disorganized, city planning-wise. I knew that going into this trip, you can tell from looking at a map. The geography and history that has affected San Jose's urban orientation is different than my quaint Midwestern hometown. Fair enough - I've been in plenty of places where it's not completely flat and midwestern. The kicker is that while there are labels on a map, proving that someone at least thought to name the streets of San Jose - no one actually took to the time to transfer these names onto the actual streets.

Example: Finding our hostel. Hostel Bekou, 325 Metros Oeste de Spoon, Los Yoses. We get off the bus, and are immediately hoarded by taxis. It's night time, and my youngest sister is still having a nervous breakdown. We think it's wise to take a taxi since we have virtually no clue where we are, speak remedial Spanish between the three of us females, and are walking targets with our huge backpacks. Normally, I'd try to find a bus - but I don't know exactly where the hostel is, much less how the bus system works in San Jose (spoiler alert: I'll never figure it out, in fact - I don't know if anyone has figured it out).

So we get into our cab and rattle off "Hostel Bekou, 325 Metros Oeste de Spoon." The cab driver is confused. I'm tired, I don't speak Spanish, and given my awareness that Latin countries have an apt to give everything 8 names I think 325 Metros Oeste de Spoon in the forsaken house number and street name (another point: no one uses house numbers). I'm wrong. 325 Metros Oeste de Spoon is just a piece of information that is relative to another location: the hostel is merely 325 meters west of a chain restaurant called Spoon. Where is Spoon? Probably 325 meters east of Hostel Bekou. Great!

As we drive in the general direction of Los Yoses, we discuss with the cab driver where this place might be. Los Yoses, one of the neighborhoods of San Jose, is where all the embassies are as well as close to the University. Is it possible that we know which embassy the hostel is near? Is there any other major marker that we know is close to the hostel that we can tell the cabbie? Do we know the phone number of the hostel so we can call and get directions? Answer: no, um no, and ugh no. What I magically do have, I remember, is a map I drew right before I left. The hostel is between calles 41 and 39 on avenida 8! Damn... I have to give him directions with street numbers.

Fortunately, the cab driver knew - somehow - which streets were which and where he was. Phew - Latin crisis averted... this time. Miracle! The rest of our cab rides went to a similar tune unless the places we were going were very familiar: bus stops, mercado central, major hotels, etc. Otherwise, it took a good amount of luck that a cab driver (or a friend that might be riding along or on the phone!) was familiar with a certain location or that you've been going to the same place enough times that you learn which landmarks are around that cab drivers might now.

Two things were structured and reliable in San Jose. The first: the weather. As in the rest of Costa Rica, it's no surprise that it rains. It rains a lot. But in San Jose, it rains every day. The weather man of San Jose is the city's most reliable, trustworthy and honest public figure. Every day he'll come on, and say it'll rain sometime during the day for 10 minutes, and then pour around 7 pm. He has 100 % accuracy. It may rain in the morning or afternoon a little, and it will rain cats & dogs in the evening. I have to ask myself why I did not bring an umbrella to Costa Rica during the rainy season...

The second bit of structure came from the people, Ticos! They were wonderfully friendly, and when they did speak English, it was remarkable that there was hardly an accent in the speech. We did not come across a disapproving eye, snobbery, rudeness... anything of that sort. In fact, we met so many people on buses, on the streets, at restaurants - all around the country. Despite all of their friendliness though, everyone kept warning us to stay safe and keep our belongings close... and we weren't even being reckless. Even the police warned us on a few occasions. I don't want to sound naive, I know there is petty crime and perhaps even violent crime after dark... and it'd be easy for someone to take advantage of 3 young females by themselves in some darker areas of the city. I never felt threatened. But as often as it rained, someone would approach us and tell us that San Jose is not safe for us, to keep our cameras out of sight and that we should take care to return to our hostel before dark fell. Everyone I met was perfectly pleasant, and if anything, it was nice that so many people took the time to look out for our wellbeing.

I know a lot of people don't care for San Jose. And really, it's not the Paris of Central America. But it was interesting enough for a day or two. There was a beauty in the little sodas, the colors, the chaos and the corrugated iron homes. If anything, it's a good jumping off point for the rest of the country, especially since the buses mostly all spoke out from San Jose. Tomorrow is our last full day in Costa Rica, and we'll be spending the time in Heredia doing a coffee tour at Caffe Britt. We are very, very excited... coffee! Until then... buenos!

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