Then they pulled out their photo albums and made me listen to their stories

A day in San Jose is only a miniscule slice of its full story.  But still, it tells us some things… what it wants to reveal to us, with a few surprises.

Everything looks better in the morning.   I snapped a picture of our hotel and it was so lovely, I couldn’t help but forgive it for its rude behaviour the night before.

Loved the contrast between this pink, historic escuela and the yellow, modern school bus outside its doors.

Police presence always seems more imposing in other countries, but I’m sure when tourists came to Barrie, Ontario and see our police in their shorts and bicycles doing the Lakeshore Drive circuit, they’re intimidated too.

Here’s an oxymoron: respectful graffiti.  Windows only? “Street Art” was prevalent, mostly on park benches and streets.  No Banksy sighting, though.

I was going to buy this, wear it all over the place this week, and annoy a whole lot of people.  Not a bad return for 2,500 colones, or $5 USD.

Costa Rica has a huge surf culture – even surfer missionaries! Here you can look the part whether you hang ten or not.

We were quick to discover San Jose’s obsession. Almost every other store (sometimes many in a row) was a shoe store.

When in Rome…

This is me practicing my Private Eye skills, by holding the camera at hip level and hoping for the best.  I was tired of asking ¿con permission? every time I wanted to take a picture.

Successful PI photo.  During our time in Costa Rica, we didn’t see much evidence of “religion” besides this store and a large Roman Catholic church at the city centre.  J-M’s books told him that RC is a holdover and is not widely practiced.  We saw a few country iglesias, keeping in mind that we drove A LOT, but no signage to determine which denomination they belonged to.  Oh, and we did spot a couple Jesus fish on cars.  Otherwise, religion did not seem to be central to every day life in Costa Rica, at least not from outward appearances.  We didn’t meet enough people to determine if it was important to them personally.

I did not take this to explain the sculpture of emaciated gremlins climbing the world to ride the dove, but to draw your attention to SCOTIABANK.  It’s all over the place here – surprising!

Love the movement in this picture, the little girl feeding the pigeons in the park with a mixture of terror and delight.  As for the dude in the back right corner, I didn’t notice him till I uploaded the photo.  The next picture I took revealed that he wasn’t break-dancing – unforch! – but bending down to tie his shoe.

Spot the tourist.

We found the indoor marketplace where we could buy traditional souvenirs, such as silk dresses and leather sandals. What the average Costa Rican never wears.

Big Village
owners and crunchy mamas, Karen and Leisha, would appreciate the inclusion of natural remedies sold at this healthcare stall.

Pet food stall.  How else would you feed ALL THOSE DOGS?

The problem with pictures – Sophia and Mallory asked me why I didn’t bring one of these cuties home for them??  Because. They are tacky.

Same with the piggy banks.  We saw these everywhere in San Jose.  I have to research what the attraction is (perhaps historical) because it didn’t come to me naturally.

Lottery booths are everywhere, in the shape of a fold-out table and usually an elderly person minding them.  This lady just woke up from a nap on her scratch cards just before I snapped her photo, PI style.

Here is a picture of the mix of pedestrian, car and bus traffic at the best marked intersection downtown.  Everywhere else, the simple rule is that vehicles take priority over pedestrians.  Walker beware!

They must ice donuts like this elsewhere, but I’d never seen them before and my low blood sugar goggles told me they looked so attractive!  J-M and I shared the brown and orange one on the bottom left, picking it for purely aesthetic reasons.  Even halved, it was a whole lot of sweet.

Eating the donut was a great excuse to sit down and take a break.  Looking out the window, I told J-M, “I absolutely LOVE observing human behaviour!”  To which he replied, “Some of us call that people watching.”

He also thought it was appropriate that I had a WiFi sign over my head that looked like a thought-bubble.  Profile Pic!

Don’t you just love this?  A full-sized woman honoured in the public square.  I have named her Gordita (the Costa Rican term for buxom beauties) because I couldn’t find anything that told me otherwise.

Looks like I got made in this PI photo.  At each block you would see native women like this, each in traditional dress, with a baby in their arm.  The cup is the receptacle for your pity.  Whether it’s contrived or not, this makes my heart hurt.

One regret we have is that we expressly came to San Jose to visit the National Theatre.  We decided to shop first, go to the NT afterward.  We got there at 5 p.m., just in time to miss the last tour.  The concierge, suggested we take pictures of the foyer and the grounds at least?  There’s our excuse to make a return trip.


Word on the Street – Part I

I decided to give our downtown a little love yesterday.  I’ve been neglecting it for some time. I know it’s harder to appreciate store-to-store shopping in this weather, but there are advantages to being inconvenienced. There are the wider-reaching benefits of supporting local business… but even that seems to be shifting as retailers relocate to the large plazas in the south end where the world shops. On a personal level, however, those big plazas don’t give you the unique shopping experience of these old century buildings with their creeky floors, and exposed brick, with unique shopkeepers and their stories.  Our downtown core is also our cultural and community centre. It’s where you hear about what’s going on around town, including business seminars, live music events, festivals and art crawls.

But yesterday, after taking a three-hour tour (and returning), I left with this question: why isn’t our downtown thriving?

Photo from mikey_e at, who describes downtown shopping as “interesting to walk along for a bit, but unless you’re into paraphenelia it’s unlikely to retain your interest…”

It might be that it’s March. It’s the worst time of year for most retailers, whether downtown or not.  Until that sun starts shining again, people aren’t out in full force.  There could be several reasons for that: vacationing, catching up from Christmas, too cozy inside to go outside…  I have to keep in mind that I went out on a weekday in the middle of a snowstorm.

Does that explain the rotating FOR LEASE signs in the windows and the empty shelves inside the stores, though?  Is downtown itself to blame for the lack of interest?

Here are some things that people have to contend with, when shopping downtown, which might be a hindrance:

  • Parking is a hassle.  You probably can’t find a convenient place to park and/or you have to pay for one. And you have to PARALLEL PARK, which brings back fear-filled memories of your Driver’s Licence Test. I’ve been known to decide not to shop downtown because of lack of parking space.  Again, come the warmer months, this becomes less of an issue as it is enjoyable to walk to where you shop.  The walk becomes part of the experience, especially with all the work Parks & Rec put into beautifying downtown in the spring.  In winter, though, the parking sucks.
  • Inconsistent hours from store-to-store.  Downtown shopping usually means Saturday shopping for the average person who works 9-5, unless you plan to go straight from work to fit in shopping within half an hour to an hour.  There are some people who stay open later, but you cannot expect to experience everything downtown offers when there are no guarantees if and when a store is open.  You’ll see lots of handwritten Be Back in 10 Minutes signs.  Even went to a store today that posted a handwritten sign in the window, closed for two days.
  • More expensive. In order to support an independent retailer, you’re probably going to have to spend more money than at a big box store.  That’s just the logic of economics.  Buy at wholesale quantities, get wholesale prices.  As a consumer, it’s harder to pay more for what you know you can get for less. As a business owner, you must make it worthwhile for the customers to pay extra, either with unique products, better customer service, or more of an experience.  We will gladly pay this “Downtown Tax” if you provide at least one of these things for us.
  • Hooligans. What a great word that is. What about riff-raff?  There aren’t enough opportunities to use those words, except when you’re referring to downtown. Of course, I have no problem with anyone at all enjoying our downtown.  It’s free and lovely space to be enjoyed.  But there is something to the notion that if downtown shops share space with bars and restaurants, there is the consideration that things can get out of hand after closing time.  I spoke with a shop owner last year who told me she can no longer get insurance for her display window, which has been broken so many times, her insurance company ditched her.  A  couple years ago, I was considering renting retail space downtown, but I was told by customers that they would have a hard time supporting the idea, especially in the evenings. I wasn’t afraid of potential hoodlums, but my customers were.  Which might also attribute to the early closing times of the downtown business.  If no one is coming, why remain open past 5?  Actually, I’ve had an ugly experience of a man making violent and rude gestures at me and a friend when we were in a store downtown after dark. Thank goodness we were able to lock the door just before the man tried to get in.  He was obviously drunk.  He eventually got bored with us and left.  But I didn’t feel great about having to walk to my car after that.
  • Confused identity.  I wonder what our downtown is trying to be.  Is it a restaurant and bar district? Is it a shopping district? An arts & culture district?  Something altogether different?  One thing I do know is that I walked past a lot of payday loan places and convenience stores in order to find something of interest.  This identity is determined by two sets of people: customers and owners of the buildings.  The owners obviously want someone who can pay rent faithfully, but they have become indiscriminate about who that should be.  The customers determine the identity by which stores they support.  Strip clubs, loan sharks and bong stores don’t seem to have a problem garnering business downtown.

What about you?  Do you feel our downtown is thriving?  If not, why?