I UNFAIRLY JUDGED Costa Rica before my arrival. Although I only spent a short time in the capital, I liked the feel of the place. My opinion had been coloured somewhat by the stories of other travellers: the country is full of American retirees; it's twice as expensive as other Central American countries etc etc. It didn't sound promising, to be honest. But I was only passing through, on a journey from León to Panamá City, for a flight to Ecuador.
The journey hadn't been so bad; the bus was a typically latin hour late, but there's no point complaining. I was the only gringo at the depot, and when I arrived at 6am I was puzzled as to why several men were fanning their faces with leafy sapling branches, sheaves of paper and anything else to hand. As hordes of tiny flies descended on me, trying to crawl into my eyes, ears and nose, I was rapidly reaching for a few available branches myself. The locals smiled and continued their wafting.
At the border, we were again stood around in the heat, belongings exposed. While waiting, a female rep of the bus company was moving along the line collecting change from people. I thought it was another fee, and asked the woman next to me what we were paying for. She was as puzzled as me. The rep had a gaudily-painted, 20-something woman in tow. As they got to me the rep shook the change in her hand and demanded "plata", the slang for money. I shrugged and said I had no change, and asked what she wanted the money for? I couldn't understand exactly what she said, but she gestured to the woman and moved on. I lost sight of them, but 20 minutes later, they were back asking for more. This time I got the gist of it: the woman had no money, and they were collecting for a ticket. I'd seen the woman with a couple of shifty-looking men earlier on, and didn't see why we should cough up?
I asked the rep why we, the passengers, were being expected to donate money. She sniffed at my proffered dollar's worth of change and said that the woman was $5 short of a ticket. Ah, so the rich gringo was being expected to make up the rest? No chance was I being bullied into that, simply on principle. I could tell that the rep thought I was being mean, and she told me that we had to help this Nicaragueña get home. I put it to her that it should be the bus company offering charity, not her dragging the girl round begging for cash. Would a simple phone call to the boss not have sorted this? A few fellow passengers nodded. The rep wasn't happy. I had to laugh as we waited on the bus to leave...the supposedly penniless woman got on. If she was trying to get back to Nicaragua, she was going the wrong way.
We arrived in San José. The place reminded me of the cleaner parts of Manila, but with more intact colonial buildings. If the country had been occupied by the Japanese during WWII, then it would have looked exactly like the US Army's 1945 facelift of Manila. Anyway, one dubious taxi meter later I was at Pangea, the capital's mega-hostel. This place is immense: 25 dorms with 4 beds in each. A small swimming pool and a rooftop cafe and bar complete the impressive set-up. The cost of building the place was reflected in the prices...perusing the beer menu caused a sharp intake of breath: I certainly wasn't in Nicaragua any longer. I locked up my valuables and picked a bed in the windowless room which smelled like a squash court. You'll get used to it after five minutes, I told myself.
The only other occupant of the room looked up from a book and said Hello. We got chatting, and he told me he was from Tel Aviv. When I asked if he was travelling alone, he said he'd been with a friend from Israel, but they'd split up for a while. "You meet more people travelling alone" he said, and I laughed. When I explained what I'd found funny in that, he agreed. "I know...us Israelis have a reputation for not mixing, but that's just the large groups." I told him my theory about only the lone Israelis being the good ones, and it was his turn to laugh. He even said that he avoided hostels that had gangs of his countrymen staying. I had to go eat, and he recommended a few cheaper places than the hostel.
I grabbed my book and headed out in search of dinner. Just a quiet one tonight after the long journey, right? Couldn't have been more wrong if I'd penned the report on Saddam's Weapons Of Mass Destruction.
The heavy, reinforced door of Pangea slammed behind me, and I was out on the shady streets of what looked to be the red-light district. At every corner I was propositioned while waiting for the crossing signal, painted faces looming from the shadows. I resolved to make it three or four blocks at the most, and take the first half-decent-looking eaterie I came across...I had to get away from these persistent hags. There seemed to be nothing around, and I was loathe to walk too far into the city on a first night, preferring to explore by day and suss a place out initially. Minutes from giving up and buckling for the hostal's pricy menu, I suddenly spied a tiny, modern-looking Italian cafe. Warm and inviting, the staff as well as the environment, I was soon happily tucking into the best pizza I'd had in a long time. I read for a while, checked the time, and decided to head back for an early bed.
A few doors down from the hostal was a small, dingy bar. Inside were a few older westerners, some locals and some women of apparent ill-repute. Bearing in mind the price of a beer in the huge gringo-nest I was staying at, something told me to go in. Ordering an ale at the bar, I got chatting to the middle-aged barmaid. She had the air of a retired madam about her, and was nice enough. On hearing an English accent, a middle-aged German next to me turned and introduced himself. His name was Michael. He'd arrived the previous night from Panamá, having worked for an NGO in the infamous Darién province, home to Colombian guerillas and Panamanian smugglers, for 12 months. Tired and off-guard after two days on the road, he'd been pleased when his friendly taxi-driver suggested his uncle's hotel nearby. Arriving at the place, the taxista directed him down a passageway and told him to tell Uncle Pablo that Miguel had sent him, while he waited in the car...just in case he got a parking ticket. Michael followed the corridor, and emerged in a courtyard where a family, having dinner, regarded him with some surprise. He asked for Pablo and, met with bemusement, said Miguel had sent him. Miguel who? A wave of nausea hit him as he doubled back and sprinted back outside. The taxi was gone. So was everything Michael owned besides the clothes he stood up in...including his passport. He was quite embarrassed by his naivety, but told me that he had met some amazing people who had given him money, clothes and a place to stay for a few days. The kindness of strangers, and all that.
A blonde white woman walked in with a very diminutive Tica (a Costa Rican). I'd seen them down a side-street, passing a joint between them. Assuming them to be on the game, I'd decided against going and asking them for a couple of puffs. Who knows what you'll get yourself into asking that question on these streets? Besides, I didn't know where their mouths had been. The blonde said she'd seen me on the street as I'd walked past, and had I smelled the joint? I assured her that I had, and she told me she'd wanted to call me over. We got talking, and it turned out that she wasn't a hooker...she was amused I'd thought so. Not surprising on these streets, I told her. Turns out she was an Italian, Gina, who'd been working in San José for quite some time. The dwarf was a mate of hers, and she made introductions. I asked if they'd let me know when they were having the next smoke. They told me they were going over to a friend's hotel, to see some pole-dancers and the like. I laughed and said that nothing would be more frustrating for me right now than sitting on in front of a gyrating, naked woman...and then going home with an erection. The German laughed and agreed. Gina said it would be close by, and that the drinks would be free...come on, just one? I relented, and she introduced me to Eric, our host.
We squeezed into a cab, and a few minutes later were outside a large house. The building didn't look much like a hotel to me. Not even a sign outside. Eric's burly doorman admitted us, and we were shown to the bar. The penny dropped. Eric's clientele were wealthy Americans, with more money than morals. As we entered the main room, walled with mirrors, I saw two men in their mid-50s sat watching a pneumatic, dancing Russian blonde giving her nether regions an airing. On either side of each man was a latina, lithe and beautiful. But these depraved characters had their eyes locked on the Russian's concha as she slid up and down the pole, mouth open in a state of professional arousal. The latinas didn't care, they were getting paid.
Eric explained the set-up. It was a strictly private establishment, available for hire by whomever could afford it. Eric assured discretion, and had paid to have the hotel's existence wiped from the Web, and de-Googled. The men could invite as many hookers as they liked, but had to pay each girl a flat fee to ensure they had sufficient funds to get home if they were not needed. Recently he'd had a Russian group in who had stayed four days and insisted on forty girls. Eric says he believed that they screwed the whole lot, but they'd insisted on sleeping in just the one room together, while the girls had the run of the hotel. Didn't want to know why, and didn't want to imagine. Oh, the depravity of it all. An American group were coming back down in a few weeks, he said; they'd liked some of the Russian girls Eric knew. As two of them told the Yanks that they hadn't been home to Moscow in a few years, they offered to take them home for a weekend in a Lear jet. The hire of the plane was $100K, Eric estimated. The lengths some men will go to?
I took all this with a pinch of salt. But watching the men cavorting with the girls, the endless cocktails, sniffing returns from the toilets with the girls, money being thrown around, I didn't have too many reasons to doubt. And the place can't have been cheap. Eric showed me around the building next door, and outlined his expansion plans. Pity he avoids publicity, as he might have had a decent budget for a website? His girlfriend runs the bar, and keeps a close eye on things, including Eric. He said that he's quite happy to make his money this way, but he keeps a distance from his clients. I have to say that he seemed like a decent fellow. But I would say that, he was throwing drinks at us all night.
Michael the German, had told Eric about his recent misfortune, and talked him into giving him a trial as a chef for the establishment. By now he was absolutely leathered, his bleary eyes popping out at the girls dripping off the arms of the rich Americans. One girl caught my arm as I went to the bathroom, and asked me if I'd spend the night with her. A gorgeous latina who'd been smiling at me all evening, I told her I'd love to...but that my Mum would kill me. She said not to tell my Mum, then? I laughed and extricated myself from her grasp. Very pretty, but I wasn't going to be part of this perverse circus, just be the fly-on-the-wall and then tell you lot all about it.
I smoked with Gina and the huge-breasted Tica dwarf, who seemed intent on defying the law of Gravity. The three of us were equally amused at the spectacle before us, and the randomness of the evening. Eric wouldn't let us go...beers were almost finished and we'd make moves to leave...another beer would appear. I was pretty wrecked by this point, and danced salsa with the girls. After a turn with the dwarf, drunkenly uncaring how it looked, I slumped on the bar next to Gina.
"My friend said something bad about you earlier..." she slurred in my ear, slouching against me.
"Oh really...do tell?" I laughed.
"No" said Gina "it was nasty...mean..."
The dwarf had returned with a drink by now.
"Come on...I'm pretty thick-skinned" I told her.
"She said that you shouldn't drink beer any more, as you need a bra" she confided.
I laughed, well-aware I'm rather out of shape at this moment in time. But cheeky bitch?
"Well...they're paid for, at least."
I turned to the short one, who was climbing atop a barstool. "Oi...got a bone to pick with you."
"Noooooo..." said Gina, panicking at her imminet unveiling as a shit-stirrer.
I waved her protest away. "What's this about me needing a bra?"
"I didn't say that!" she glared at Gina.
"Well it's a bit rich, coming from a...." I sensed myelf about to hugely overstep the mark, despite her insult. I looked down and was rescued by her feet "...a chick with weird toes." Thank fuck for her ugly feet. Her second toes were half the length of her big toes, and sat squashed atop the big and third ones. Pretty grotesque.
"What's wrong with my toes?" she asked indignantly.
"Nothing, if you like freaky feet" I replied.
"Well I've been told that I have really cute toes" she huffed.
"Who by...Stevie Wonder or Helen Keller...?"
A taxi was ordered. Eric was obviously going to be hanging around, although whether he'd get a Tica hooker offering solace for the evening due to his recent robbery remained to be seen. I thanked Eric for a very entertaining evening and jumped in the taxi with the girls. Tempted back to Gina's for a few more drinks with the vertically-challenged one, my hostal flew by in a blur. Gina's was miles out of town, and we had to sneak in; she lived with a Tico family. One which wouldn't appreciate a strange man on the property, so at 5am Gina turfed me out. Still pissed, with only a general idea of the direction of San José central, I set off through the darkness. I found the highway we'd arrived on, and started walking. There were no lights, and I lost count of the number of times I had to jump into the storm drains to avoid the suction of a passing juggernaut. I thought I was going to be killed, and cursed my stupidity in chasing another drink. After a mile or so I crossed a bridge and could see the city twinkling in the distance. Then I saw a bus stop, and waited around in the gloom, stashing my wallet down the front of my pants. After twenty minutes a local bus turned up, and this dishevelled Englishman boarded and levelly returned the curious stares of the migrant workers aboard the vehicle.
The journey didn't take long, and I jumed off on the edge of town. I knew the rough direction of the hostal, and made my way through the streets of early morning workers arriving for the daily slog. It had been a while since I'd been out all night and headed home amongst the commuters. I used to love doing that in London, drifitng homewards under the dirty looks of the workers up earlier than they'd like. You go to work, mate...I'm off to bed. The joys of freelancing.
I was a block away from sanctuary and my bed now. Two Tícos in a worse state than me were hanging around looking shifty outside a greasy takeaway joint. One of them proferred a bag of white powder, leering at me beneath sunken eyes. "Amigo...friend...my friend. Cocaine. You want to get high?" I laughed and gave him a wide berth, wagging a finger silently and smiling. Amigo...it's way too early for that.