It’s always the cities I find myself stopping in accidentally, on the way to another destination, that cast a certain kind of spell over me. Perhaps it’s because they’re the ones for which I hold the least preconceived notions.
This is how it was with Barcelona, and so it was again a week ago with San Jose. I had flown out of Minnesota in the 1 a.m. hour of the same day, planning to take two buses after arriving in San Jose to make it to the first destination of my 11-week Costa Rica journey (La Iguana Chocolate, a permaculture and chocolate farm, near the tiny town of Mastatal) by nightfall. Plans changed; the customs line was so long that I wasn’t going to make the bus that only ran once a day to Mastatal. Scrambling to find a place in San Jose for the night, I asked one of the taxi drivers outside the airport where to find wifi. He had an even better solution – after offering me a wifi hotspot from his phone, he set me up at a hostel near the bus stop I’d need to go to the next day.
At the hostel, I befriended my roommate – a woman from Canada – and we set off into the city in search of bus tickets, a bank, and dinner.
The sun had illuminated Costa Rica’s blue mountains, red roofs and lush greens on my ride from the airport, but rolling storm clouds had overtaken the sky by the time of our departure from the hostel. I was still reeling from the change in weather compared to the place I’d left – below-freezing temperatures had risen to those of a warm summer evening, the snow had disappeared, and a later sunset promised to stretch the day further.
But everything else was new, too. My roommate confidently wound us through the streets as I lagged slightly behind, taking in as much as I could. Buildings of every color competed for my attention – sea foam green, sunshine yellow, papaya orange. Pockets of smells I couldn’t place wafted through the air – some pleasant, some odorous, all striking. As we walked, the sky continued to roil above us, turning every shade of blue and grey, mixing together to create a wild blend that was both terrifying and beautiful to be ethereal.
After getting bus tickets, we spotted a church steeple rising above the buildings and decided to explore. We walked in its direction, stopping into a clothing store along the way. Twilight was setting in and the sky had turned even more violent, though continued to withhold any drops of rain.
We reached the church as its bells began to toll. They went on for longer than we expected, a constant clanging that changed rhythm and pitch as it held us hostage, staring up in wonder at its dusty navy domes and the churning sky behind them.
We began the trek back through the darkening streets soon after, still dazed from the moment. We sobered only after stopping for dinner at a pastry shop on the way home, where a woman warned us we were in a bad part of town. Eventually we found our way back to our hostel, feeling we’d experienced something magical, ephemeral. Exploring San Jose with my roommate had felt a little like another excursion with a stranger I had taken in Barcelona. It was a comforting feeling – something familiar in the midst of something new.