Sara Brenes-Akerman | Reconciling a tale of two cities
A Likely Story | How Philadelphia and San José, Costa Rica compete for my affection
January 11, 2012, 11:42 pm · Updated January 11, 2012, 11:42 pm·
A Likely Story
After five minutes on a public bus I have fallen in love with the boy sitting a couple of seats in front of me. He is listening to music through bright blue headphones, wearing orange shoes and glancing out of the window with intent.
When he gets up to leave, my heart sinks. In a few steps, he will be gone forever. I see him walk away and into a life I know nothing about.
As I continue to look out of the window, now a little heartbroken, the bus nears my stop and I’m taken aback by the sight of a homeless man pulling down his pants in the middle of a crowded street. He is kneeling, about to defecate, as people hurry past him. It’s shortly after 8 a.m. and the morning rush is far from over.
I was born five streets away from the spot the desperate man used as an improvised toilet in the middle of San José, Costa Rica, but I have never really walked these streets until recently.
At the age of 21, I finally convinced my mother that I could survive by myself in a place that she has always claimed to be full of people who might hurt me.
So I ventured into the downtown of my city for the first time, only to realize that I was raised a foreigner. I know the language, but the push and flow of the streets are unfamiliar and I have yet to learn the location of the central market.
Costa Rica’s status as a tourist’s paradise has made it a divided country — one that leads a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of existence. There’s the Costa Rica that Costa Ricans live in and then there’s the version that exists only in brochures. Or rather: one that exists only in bits and pieces — scattered throughout a much greyer and much noisier nation. One that is much less prone to sunbathing.
Back at Penn, I think about this as I listen to my roommates who have returned from studying abroad grumble about how much they miss London and how ugly Philadelphia feels in comparison. Even though it’s been months since they’ve been back, they are far from over it. I nod at their complaints, trying to understand. Who can blame them? It must be hard to leave a place that you’ve fallen in love with, for a city that SEPTA and homelessness have rendered less beautiful. But, then again, I’ve seen worse.
What makes their grievance both difficult and easy for me to understand is that, in a way, I’ve had a similar experience.
Switching back and forth between Philly and San José has afforded me the opportunity to become nostalgic about certain streets and foods whenever I’m away from either. I know what it feels like to really miss a place.
Yet the only reason I easily overlook the ratty, old Costa Rican buses when I’m home is precisely because I know my time there is finite. A Philly-bound plane is always waiting for me in the not too distant future. Arriving in Philadelphia unfailingly feels like a welcome change. It is nice to live in a place with street numbers and some sense of city planning at work.
So I can’t help but question the Philly-trashing that my Anglophile roommates are so eager to engage in. Sure, Philadelphia isn’t as breathtaking as I imagine London must be, but I can’t speak ill of a city knowing that 2000 miles south is a place that looks much uglier, and that — for better or worse — I’m always bound to call it home.
Naturally, I can’t help but feel like a traitor as I write this. Despite the stench (a unique mix of dripped gasoline, wet asphalt and freshly baked bread) there is something in the streets of downtown San José that makes me prone to falling in love. There’s warmth in the way strangers address you and easy laughter everywhere you turn. People hug often and habitually kiss each other hello.
I wonder if the general good humor is a form of quiet protest, a constant defense against the presence of the unsightly. I also wonder what my roommates would make of it.
Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.