A Night in La Zona Roja (San José, Costa Rica)
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that booking the almost-cheapest lodgings closest to the bus terminals in San José (the Mepe line to the Caribbean coast and Transportes Deldu line to Peñas Blancas on the Nicaraguan border) was a bad plan. Bad, in the hairy way that many inner cities of the ‘third world’ often turn out to be and not surprising because we had, after all, stayed in a barrio of San José before. We should have known better.
What made this experience particularly vivid, is that once again the taxista had a good amount to say about what we were doing and where we were going (much shaking of the head, muttering in expletive Spanish, gesturing and raising of bushy eyebrows), and while I’m sure he meant well and wasn’t only trying to steer us to his auntie’s hostel, what he didn’t (and none of them ever do) seem to realise, is that to the fragile, travel-weary and battered psyche, this kind of talk is kryptonite. Maybe we would have been better off not knowing that we were staying in San José’s “red zone” or maybe the threat of violence saved our bacon. Who knows. What is sadly less likely is that because we once were ‘from Johannesburg’, we were STREET, radiating a steely, devil-may-care and do-not-bloody-even-think-about-it attitude.
Under duress the taximan did eventually just throw his hands in the air and stop (on what he thought might be the right block), leaving us quaking on the sidewalk. It was late-afternoon rush hour. An insane glut of busses, cars, pedestrians, hooters, taxis, motorbikes, vendors, howling schemers, hustlers, dealers and (although none too obvious) also countless crack addicts, pickpockets and murderers, packed the streets. Rarely have I seen such humanity jostled and jammed and trampled together. Nobody seemed to have the faintest idea where the hotel was or worse, had even heard of it, and Google Maps had lost all sense of purpose (it also never regained its composure while we were in San José, so I know it wasn’t my fevered brain, projecting).
After circling the block a few times, dragging our luggage over the bumpy sidewalks and weaving our way through the throng like shell-shocked bomb victims, we eventually fled into a panadería (or bakery, by which I do not mean to describe anything that in any way resembles a French patisserie), where we tried to come to terms with the fact that the hotel might simply not exist at all and where the boyf valiantly tried to teach me about ‘resting Russian face’ – an expression rumoured to prevent getting stabbed or mugged – something my ‘sunny disposition’ is very bad at. From our baggage-blockaded corner in the shop, fortified by two super negra, super fuerte coffees, we dared to rabbit forth on little sorties to have fags, top-up on mobile data and scope out the area. Just outside the shop and sort of spilling over the corner into it, it was bristling. The occasional white face in the crowd blanched at the sight of us and never hesitated to stop and warn us about being out in that area and while the locals were more difficult to understand, their surprise was plain and the word ‘peligroso’ featured often.
It was during one of these sorties that I finally spotted a tiny red sign with the name of the hotel hanging off the roof, right outside the bakery. Upon later inspection of the online photo, it turned out that the panadería was quite obviously front and center below the hotel on the street. On said advertised picture the hotel looks OK, like any somewhat older building in a vaguely 70’s style (reminiscent of the manufactured cheer of Apartheid South Africa or the ‘projects’ in London). What only becomes clear once you finally fit the building into the landscape overhead is that the jolly multicoloured blocks down the sides are not quirky architectural features, but windows with ragged curtains in every colour of the rainbow.
By now I was so relieved to enter a lobby, any lobby, I was even happy to see the far eastern features of the receptionist (I still don’t know why that was a comfort). She was kind enough to give us the key to our room without much more than my first name in return, but then again, we might have been the only guests that month (or year). She helpfully ushered us into the lift, switched it on and then instructed us to just ‘please wait’ – it had to warm up first. So we stood tall, sweat trickling down our backs, trying not to stare at her, while we debated in whispers whether to take the stairs instead – in a feeble, aimlessly shuffling kind of way (much in the way of sheep en route to the abattoir). The machine around us grumbled and wheezed, groaned and spluttered and sighed. The very moment we finally decided to grab our bags and make a run for it, the door closed. We were in it, and not entirely alone. The metallic smell of old steel rode with us, every lurching heartbeat accompanied by its cold comfort. We shuddered four floors into the sky and then, as if bestowing upon us a particular blessing, the door opened.
As is its wont in the tropics, night descended like a guillotine, with only the vaguest whimper of dusk. The sky over the roofs of San José was spectacular, broody and towering. The sound of the city undiminished and relentless. We had wanted to be safely ensconced before dark, but after lengthy deliberation, we decided we could risk the boyf running to the corner and stocking up on pastries. If we were still unsure about the status of the panadería as everything-but-a-patisserie, the snacks we had for dinner absolutely confirmed it. It did sweeten us up though, and we were soon delighted to discover that the shower had hot water (our first hot showers in three months), that the Discovery Channel in Spanish with its measured tones was almost understandable, and that the incessant din outside would ever so often be punctuated with bright and cheery fireworks right in our piece of night sky… and so, without much, we started to feel like maybe we were in the luxury of a real hotel after all. A tiny, ancient, slightly grubby, post-apocalyptic Hilton even.