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Welcome to Costa Rica

Barrio Dent: armed guard courtesy of the Colombian embassy. Thanks.

This place looks nothing like a travel brochure, but here I am, in beautiful Costa Rica, a country the size of Connecticut home to roughly 4.5 million people - most of whom live in what I'd consider greater San Jose - or, the Central Valley.  I am in Barrio Dent, San Pedro which is to San Jose what Drew Valley, Brookhaven is to Atlanta. San Jose could actually be Atlanta's Central American counterpart in size and traffic. The same terrible traffic, but with a very casual attitude about what constitutes a road and absolutely no emissions control.  Nearly all of the larger roads consist of two lanes, but the drivers themselves use the process of selective convenience when considering the number of lanes a small, busy street will have at any given moment - three lanes on a one lane road is not uncommon, nor is one lane on a three-lane if someone finds it convenient to park in two lanes for a minute. Or an hour. There is no rude New York laying on of the horn here, but there is the constant short staccato beeps of entire blocks of cars who refuse to slow down for continually jay-walking pedestrians and the massive number of scooter and motorcycle drivers who weave in and out and around vehicles of any size or speed or proximity.

My house in Barrio Dent is two blocks away from the University of Costa Rica. It doesn't have an address or even a street name. But it is 100 meters west of the Taco Bell and directly across the street from the Colombian Embassy, which makes us feel safe, I think, with their armed guards. There's nothing remarkable about our street - at first glance it is little more than a well-travelled alley enclosed by various steel bar or garage door enclosures - and armed guards. There is nothing inviting. Inside though, it is a jewel - certainly by Costa Rican standards. Many of these old neighborhood compounds in Barrio Dent were the homes of dignitaries and their extended families.  Two adjoining homes are in our little compound.  Closest to the street lives Melba, whose brother was one of the original jefe's, adjoining her is Jon and Mari, with whom I am currently living. At the back, our humble looking building opens to walls of windows, hard wood and stairs leading to the second floor living area. The ceilings are teak paneled, every conceivable wall that could be a window is one. It is warm and breezy and open - a place you simply want to be. Even when the train, whose track is roughly ten yards from Jon and Mari's "tranquility garden" (something my hosts neglected to mention) and it's black-hearted conductor announce their approach by absolutely laying on the horn for an area the length of a football field in order to warn the swarms of people and cars at the alarmingly unsignaled intersection. This warning, I'm told by a young German girl named Anya who lives in a small apartment on the first level, is universally unheeded, as during her one year of commuting downtown on the train she was subjected to the sudden jolting, screeching stops that result when the train has hit a vehicle or a human being.  Once a week. She says.

According to the ex-pats I know here, Tico's are people of the morning, they arise at 6:00 a.m. and go about their business. I know this is so in my house. Both Jon and Mari arise at that time, cook breakfast and leave it for me in the microwave. One entire wall in my room is windows - four panels, with the outer two slatted from ceiling to floor in order to coerce the breeze.  There are no curtains on this wall of windows, which makes me careful in the evening. It is because of these curtainless windows that I can tell you decisively that the sun sets promptly at 6:00 p.m., and that it rises precisely at 5:30 in the morning without fail. And if that's not enough to wake you up?  There is the black-hearted train conductor who moves people back and forth behind our house four times a day. Twice beginning at 6:30 a.m., and twice for good measure at 4:30 p.m., when you are unwinding in the tranquility garden with Tommy the dog who shits in the very center of the gated driveway when he doesn't get to go in the car with you.


In addition to my wonderful hosts Jon and Mari, who are Canadian and Columbian, respectively, I have befriended Anya, the beautiful young German lady downstairs who took me bicycle riding on the pot-holed hell that are called roads in Barrio Dent; her Tico boyfriend, Andre; Melba, the aging sister of an aging diplomacy who lives in the front house; Anita, of Chinese heritage but born in Costa Rica, and who brought me a native wooden pencil and banana paper binder during high tea; Guillermo, who always offers to take me to the mall and to spend a few hours of intense Spanish language with me; Sharon, who lives in Cuidad Colon (think Lawrenceville), has lived here for more than 30 years with her American husband and who, although never having met me, has invited me for Christmas.

I have to add that after explaining my initial embarrassment of trying to speak the very limited Spanish language that I know, every one of these people have gone out of their way to encourage me to speak Spanish badly, as that is the only way to get better - they are patient with my comprehension of palabras, but ignorance of frases.  They cheer me when a fully correct sentence pops out of my mouth unbidden. And they correct me when I confuse the word for dog with the word for farts.

I have stories to tell of visits to the central downtown district, the mall at San Pedro, the grocery store, the San Jose equivalent of Walmart - Hiper Mas (think hyper-much - or lots of things, seriously it is owned by Walmart), the bus - but that will have to wait as I am tired tonight.


I'm tired for a couple of reasons:  First, the reason for this trip at all - the writing.  Writing is happening here in the compound at Barrio Dent. It is excrutiating, this begininning of a continuation of a story that was started years and years ago. But there are times, such as last night, where all the beauty of the world can be seen through the eyes of a little girl who didn't know what color meant, even though she followed it around every day; a young man who was blue like the sky, like unwanted M&M's; and Homer's own black Ulysses, finally home.  My friend Bob gave me a book (based upon his creative writing lectures) to read while I'm in the process, a book of words that have made me feel in good company with the torture of being in the zone again (or even finding it), and which has reminded me that maybe I should write in the morning, before I'm spoiled by the collective dialog of the day. So I'm going to thank Bob for his recommendation and do it. 


I'll post this now, and get settled for the sounds of the evening: the guard dog next door who barks until dawn, and car alarms. Music of the night.

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