Februry 16, 2013
My new friends are hipsters, Costa Rican hipsters, in the part of town called Escalante where businesses mix with residences and people come out of industrial looking buildings with dark glasses, old Vans or flip flops, sagging skinny jeans and holding cigarettes while they double lock their doors. Of course, I know none of this as I step out of the bus in a sketchy part of San Jose, Costa Rica. We’ve just passed the transvestite sex workers standing near Parque Morazán and by now I’ve lost all the feeling in my legs and just woken up from a delirious sleep.
It’s been a seventeen hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa to San Jose so I stumble out into the night, bid my farewell to my Mennonite friends and take the nearest red cab to the “Art House” I am staying at. I’ve never met Juan or his partner Oscar, but I liked the idea of staying with artists in this jewel of Central America and the bastion of democratic principles. The house, I soon learn, is unmarked and can only be found within a certain number of meters from a known landmark. “A 75 metros este del Farolito.” Why 75 meters? Because not all blocks are created uniform, but meters are, Oscar tells me, minutes after the cab has dropped me off and we’re back on the street catching a cab to el “planchaton“.
I barely have time to throw on a sweater before they invite me out to dinner and the once every three months event that is marked by a DJ playing old romantic songs from their parent’s time and hundreds of young people singing at the top of their lungs both inside and outside a well-known club close to the new Chinese quarter which still has not attracted any Chinese people, but the mayor hopes that will change soon, Oscar informs me as we walk. The pungent smell of pot wafts down the street long before we reach the bar, see the crowds pouring out into the pedestrian street lined with red cabs and a few police texting on their cellphones. Inside the DJ looks like she’s about to fly off like a bird in its spandex red skin and there’s moose heads, antlers and manual typewriters on the wall. An iron deer sculpture separates the line of people paying for drink tickets and the ones in line to pick up their drinks. There’s a system here, it’s obvious.
Planchaton, Oscar tells me, is a year-long tradition now. It gets its name from the songs women would sing while they were ironing their husband’s clothes. It’s gone from a few people at a small bar down the street to hundreds of young people, many of them gay, taking over the entire bar and street well into the night. I get introduced to everybody, one kiss on each cheek, and the required nonchalant chit-chat while everyone drinks and smokes their choice, and suddenly I realize I am the oldest one in this small group.
But my hosts are inviting, open and warm, taking great care that I am included in everything and checking in regularly throughout the night. After a couple of tequilas, I’m done, and I tell Oscar so. He tells Juan and both of them walk me out into the street and talk to the cab driver who has some hip thin leather jacket on and skinny jeans. As the cab drives off I see Oscar and Juan in the rear-view mirror watching like two parents dropping off their kid at kindergarten.
Oscar is a quiet, soft-spoken twenty-one year old with large unassuming doey eyes and who has shaved off most of his hair except his subtle moustache. He is of a small stature, moves like a cat and is very aware of the details in life. Like most Costa Ricans, he is incredibly well-educated, articulate, diplomatic and analytical. He is also a political science major at two state universities, a historian and a member of the Gen Z who treats his cellphone like his hand. In the middle of conversations he’s lowered his head to look at his text messages so many times I can’t count. He continues to nod at what I’m saying and I, inadvertently, begin talk to his phone as if it were him.
Juan is eight years older, has pink short hair, wears flip flops everywhere, doesn’t believe in undershirts, wears sagging shorts and half the time looks like he should have a surf board under his arm. He’s a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, a painter and enjoys electronic music played very loudly while he’s painting. They are both foodies; they party hard, have tons of friends coming in and out of their house and tonight I’ve just stepped into the usual rhythm of their lives.
How did I find Oscar and Juan? Air B & B, of course. A few years ago it was Craigstlist, but Air B&B has managed to penetrate Central America in a way that’s very practical and useful in a region that is often very difficult to navigate, unsafe, impossible to build trust in and increasingly more online and more connected. That lifeline of pixels is what’s creating a universal culture of the digital native and the urban hipster. It’s a hipster that has nothing to do with Brooklyn or the rest of the United States. It’s increasingly a more universal term designating a way of life that young people are seeking and creating for themselves.
The Urban Dictionary informs us that hipsters are “a subculture of men and women typically in their 2o’s and 30’s who value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.” Ultimately, it is a lifestyle which prioritizes freedom, usually achieved through creativity, out of the box thinking and a liquid and nebulous economic status. For example, I have no idea how Oscar and Juan make their money, or enough money to meet their lifestyle which involves a good number of expensive clubs, drinking, cabs and eating out. And Costa Rica is expensive, make no mistake, more than Panama and El Salvador which have the USD as their main currency and definitely more than Guatemala and Honduras. In a twenty-four hour period I go through $50. In Honduras, it takes me two weeks to go through $100, cabs and all. I also find out that wages don’t necessarily align with the living costs here. Oscar tells me the average wage is $500 – $700 per month and taxes are around 25 percent which many locals can’t afford. The socialized medical system is also in a state of crisis with the influx of Nicarguans and undocumented immigrants. Everybody gets health care, but not everybody pays. It’s a recent problem and there’s no clear way to deal with it.
But life is good and safe in Costa Rica, or at least it feels that way when you compare it to other countries in Central America, namely Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, right now the pressure cooker of impunity, corruption and narco-trafficking. Perhaps that’s my undoing because when you ask most Ticos about safety, responses range from you can’t walk after 9 PM, to people will stab you first and then rob you, to narco-trafficking is ruining our country or “Soon Costa Rica will be just as bad as Honduras.” Right. There’s a clear feeling of dissatisfaction with the current state of Costa Rica’s democracy, the presence of corruption and denial of the bigger danger of money laundering in the country. The drug trafficking happens outside Costa Rica and then the money gets cleaned in the most stable country in the region known for retiring Americans, eco-tourism, diplomacy and no national army. The elections are coming up next year and consensus among the young people I’ve met is “Please, not her.”
My friend Jenny and I talk about all these woes over sushi. Jenny works at HP, she’s worked there for ages, she’s gone back to school to learn management, and she looks forward to the small vacation time she gets to travel to places like Mexico City. I met her in Chile a year ago during a Digital Natives with a Cause conference that produced a book written by many of us who attended. Jenny tells me she’s going on thirty-four and things have changed, she prefers staying home, sweating over her math. She makes it clear, she’s not into going out the way she used to in her 20’s and she’s definitely not a hipster. Lately, it’s been hard to understand how so many of her friends make it or how they have incurred so much debt through credit cards with very little to show for it. It’s a problem I also hear about in Honduras where I watched an Honduran film called “Quien Paga La Cuenta?” which has a very Robert Altman story structure centered around the lives of four people, the debts they owe and the debt collectors who visit them all. It’s a tense and nerve-racking film and it stayed with me even after I left Honduras and learned about the new credit card legislation there that would create more oversight. Because Honduras excels at oversight.
Is debt and financial crisis universal too, I wondered, as I watched the sun set outside the main Cathedral in San Jose. Mass had begun, so I walked into the park where you could hear the sounds of hundreds of parakeets flying into the trees, see couples making out in the grass, the skateboarders flying off of stairs, children feeding the droves of pigeons parachuting in from every rooftop while the old people sat on benches watching them. Costa Rica, it proved, was just a difficult to grasp as the rest of Central America.