Costa Rica 2013, Part 2.

San Jose! San Jose is an interesting place. Even though it’s the capital of Costa Rica, only 290,000 people live in the city. Almost everyone who works there (about a million people) commute in from the ‘burbs via the bus. Here’s something that blows my mind about San Jose  – they don’t have street names or numbers. They just don’t. If you want to go somewhere for dinner, you need to ask the restaurant what are some landmarks near it so you can tell the cab driver. That’s how he knows which direction to go. The Moomins bought a painting from a gallery in the center of town and I took a picture of their label.

That’s a legitimate gallery, and their address is “Diagonally Across from The Holiday Inn”. How, HOW, does the mailman deliver the mail? Do the envelopes say things like, “The Hernandez Family, pink house with green shutters, large tree in front, San Jose, Costa Rica”? They’ve started labeling some streets and avenues so at least there are blocks and corners now, but still no building numbers. If I lived there I would explode like a phoenix in a ball of fire completely fueled by frustration every time I had to go somewhere.

The city, similar to places I’ve been to in Africa and Israel, has that hot-climate stucco cement faux-Bauhaus architecture all over. The whole city looks like they hit 1974 and stopped, which is unfortunate, because 1960s and 1970s architecture is often plagued with a case of The Cube-y Borings.

Most of the buildings are no more than six stories tall because Costa Rica gets earthquakes pretty regularly. There are some faults running right through the country. I don’t know whether this fact is true or not, but I want it to be true so I’m going to believe it. One of the tour guides we had said the ridge of mountains running down the side of the country was originally part of the Andes from when Pangaea broke up. There are now some tall(er) buildings, built by Japanese architects using their earthquake-resistant techniques. There actually used to be a railroad weaving all over, but earthquakes ripped up the tracks and it was easier to switch to buses.

First stop, The National Museum of Costa Rica! We didn’t go in because we didn’t have time, but it is a lovely jaunty yellow building that vaguely resembles a castle. The really interesting thing is outside. There’s a weird round building and inside of it is a stone orb.

Costa Rica has about 300 ancient stone orbs scattered all over the country, like Stonehenge or those guys on Easter Island. The balls are really close to perfect roundness, at least the ones that haven’t been unevenly worn away by erosion, so many archeologists are trying to figure out how people from 200 B.C. figured out how to make giant marbles, and why. Here’s one theory:

In the cosmogony of the Bribri, which is shared by the Cabecares and other American ancestral groups, the stone spheres are “Tara’s cannon balls”. Tara or Tlatchque, the god of thunder, used a giant blowpipe to shoot the balls at the Serkes, gods of winds and hurricanes, in order to drive them out of these lands.

And here’s a picture I found of them on the beach so you can get a sense of scale. BIG balls.

Next, the Cathedral! Services were going on so I couldn’t really delve too far in, but I saw quite a bit and I was pleased to see excellent stained-glass windows and polychrome (painted wallpaper, common in the Gothic cathedrals of Europe).

I’ve mentioned several times that purple is a very difficult color to achieve in glass, so I was really impressed by this window in particular.

And this window was nice as well.

Then, The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum! I was blown away by the workmanship. These people hadn’t invented pants yet, and they were already using the lost-wax method of casting, and they had figured out that if they mixed copper in with the gold it would make the metal more malleable, etc. I mean, seriously, look at these lobsters.

The gold figures are almost always representations of animals. There was a jaguar, and a bat, and crab, and some lungfishes.

They had some pre-Columbian pottery as well. Two pots in particular caught my eye. One was a pot with the silliest-looking face on it.

And one was what I assume to be a armadillo, or perhaps a coati, shyly hiding his snoot in his paws. I loved it.

• | • | • INTERMISSION  • | • | •

I like the Costa Rican fire hydrants. They’re red and there’s knobs and chains all over, they look like they’re very important and have very important things to do.

• | • | • INTERMISSION OVER  • | • | •

Finally, the National Theater! It was built in the late 1800s by Italian craftmen and boy does it show. No one does ornate like the Italians. They are not afraid of some frothy gold decoration. All the marble is Carrara marble, the same kind Michelangelo carved his statues out of. It was a nice touch, though, that in the round paintings going up the staircase the painters put moonflowers and fruit, things that are common in Costa Rica, instead of Italian motifs.

And much to my delight, when I was outside looking at the facade I saw my familiar green obnoxious parrots, the ones who totally convince you they are laughing at you, right to your face. Because they are d-bags.

Despite the scary fences surrounding the houses, Costa Rica has the lowest crime rate in all of Central America, and the most common crime is theft which can be avoided to a large degree by using common sense, the same common sense you would use in any heavily populated city. I didn’t feel scared or uncomfortable at any point. San Jose is covered with beautiful parks all over, and there are bands rockin’ out in them and artists selling their wares and people playing chess and trying out stilts and doing tai chi and yoga and gymnastics. It’s life-affirming, I tell you.

Three other interesting things about Costa Rica. One, they have no army. It was abolished in 1949. If you want to attack them, go ahead, they ain’t gonna fight back. Two, even though they are a super-wee country, they contain 6% of the world’s biodiversity. And three, something like 97% of their population is literate. The rule is: if your village has kids, you need a school. Sometimes is a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher and five kids of differing ages, but it’s a school. I think that’s great. I would feel so lost if I couldn’t read.

Tomorrow, we will go into some of the fantastic beasties I came across during this week abroad.

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