Costa Rica Diary: Social Strata and the City of San Jose

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Costa Rica Journal

I really enjoyed the city of San Jose. It has a distinctly different flavor than the North American cities I know. I never saw a central business district with skyscrapers; everywhere, buildings are low, mostly one or two stories, even though they are crowded onto narrow streets winding around between the mountains, which surround the city in every direction.

The socio-economic strata are unabashedly evident in a way very different from the US. Shiny high-end stores display imported goods for prices —in dollars— that startle me (not being a recreational shopper, myself). At those stores, you approach the door and wait for someone to buzz you in. A few minutes’ drive away, grimy buildings with peeling paint press against the street, bathed in a sauna of diesel fumes. And everywhere, every store has gates. Every residence of every size has a tall stucco wall around it, painted in a pretty coral or sky blue, with razor wire spiraling along the top.

The strata were particularly evident when we went to the bank. It was late on a Friday afternoon and we wanted to change some money before we left the city. Kevin and I took a cab to the only bank in the area that was still open. It was at the Multiplex, which turned out to be a large, brightly-lit mall with trendy shops, some whose names I recognized from malls in the US. Who shops at this place? I wondered. I guess tourists and rich ticos.

When we were in Costa Rica twelve years ago, we noticed the guards at the banks always had automatic weapons. So I wasn’t surprised by the security at the bank; but the system was complicated and the guard didn’t apparently speak English. We had to wait for him to buzz us in, then go through a tiny metal detector booth, then choose our purpose from a menu on a screen, to get a number. Fortunately a kindly tico hippie boy who knew English explained the system to us.

The lobby was filled with rows of chairs, mostly taken. Why did I feel like such an obvious tourist? Let’s see, maybe it was the bright tie-dye dress I was wearing, in contrast to the black jacket and super-tight jeans sported by every other woman in the room. We waited for a while. I kept my eye on the nice hippie boy, thinking he would get called shortly before we did, so I’d know when our number was about to come up. I looked at a screen above the waiting area and tried to translate to Spanish, but it turned out that my poquito Spanish was even more pathetic than last time we came to Costa Rica. The screen showed a series of messages, including exchange rates, but only for colones and euros. Kevin was doing something with his phone, until the security guard came over and told him in Spanish that using cell phones wasn’t allowed. “Oh yeah,” I said. “See, it says on the screen, ‘está prohibido el uso de teléfonos celulares.'”

A few minutes later I heard the guard speak perfect American English to another person. I think he was from California.

We waited some more. We watched the numbers carefully as they came up on the screen. Finally it was our turn. Kevin had the money and he changed most of our money to colones, as well as some that his mom had asked us to change for her. Naturally it added up to a larger transaction than either of us makes regularly at home. We aren’t rich by a long stretch at home, I’m not even sure we’re middle class. But to a poor Costa Rican, we might look obscenely wealthy. I thought it was a good time to watch our backs. While Kevin handled the transaction, I turned and looked back toward the waiting area. No fewer than three people quickly looked away. One was a broad-shouldered man in a pink t-shirt. As we walked away from the counter, he stood up and walked toward the door. We went out and I tried not to be too obviously keeping an eye on Kevin’s pocket with the money in it, while scanning the crowd for Mr. Pink Shirt. There he was. We needed to get a cab away from here. I saw two men in uniforms, mall security, and I quickly walked up to them. It turned out we were right by a cab stand, and there was one ready.

Driving away from the mall, I settled back into the cab and enjoyed the ride through the winding, busy streets. I could write a lot of stories about this city, I thought. But I’d have to stay here a while to find out what they are.