Two Thursdays ago the choir changed classrooms and I couldn't find the new one. After 10 minutes of wandering campus, that uncomfortable feeling of obvious unfamiliarity started to take over and after 45 minutes I gave up. I was feeling, once again, like I didn't belong, which was frustrating after nearly a month of feeling at home.
So I gave up and stalked home. I got halfway though the park before I gave up on walking home. I threw myself underneath a tree and gave myself up to star gazing and pleading with the cosmos. The lightning bugs danced around through thick ropes of greenery and the bougainvillea bushes and the warm tropical air was sweat and thick and made me think of nothing more that that classic image of New Orleans. Why, I wondered, did I idolize the bohemian culture, but can't seem to feel like I'm living it? I always seem to end up on this side of socially acceptable and distinctly respectable?
I guess someone was listening, or maybe the stars were lined up correctly, because the next day I ran away with the circus.
Let me back up a bit. You see, there are these street-performers, mostly jugglers, who hang out at stop lights and perform in the cross-walk when the light is red. Ems and I sit at our bus stop, which is about 30 feet from a stoplight, and watch them while discussing the awesomeness of juggling. So imagine our surprise when, after an entire day of running errands we collapsed onto the bus and watched a gaggle of them slide into the seats across the aisle from us. It was even cooler, of course, because one of them had an accordion.
(I would like you to please now paint a mental picture of a band of classic bohemian gypsies mixed with a depression-era circus, to the sound of 1920’s accordion and harmonica music that would fit best in black-and-white Paris (or Amélie), with distinct flavorings of Peter Pan and the Moulin Rouge and completely saturated with that fantastic, although elusive concept of wandering artsy (which can obviously only be described with rather quirky coupling of an verb and an adjective, as opposed to the infinitely more conventional coupling of an adverb and a verb.) That’s essentially how I remember the weekend.)
To continue. So what with the circus sitting next to us on the bus and all, Ems got really excited and tried to convince me that if I talk to them, they’ll play something for us on their cool instruments. Actually, it will probably work better if we say it’s her birthday, NO! It’s MAGGIE’S! Maggie! Talk to them even though you are sitting by the window and trying to scrouch as far away from human interaction as possible because you have just spent 2 hours trying on jeans because the only jeans you brought with you to wear are indecently filled with holes and so now you are immensely tired and hungry.
But eventually Ems gave in and asked them herself, in nervous Spanish, where they were going to “play.” By the stoplight, of course, and do we want to come?
Now, I’m not exactly how this exchange went. I think a lot got lost in translation. I’m not sure if they asked US to come along, or if somehow we thought they did and tagged along anyway. I do know that they asked us what we were doing, and we answered honestly: nothing. And so we got off the bus with them? It was a little awkward at first, just randomly deciding to follow them. I was still carrying a bag with two pairs of jeans in it for cripes sake. When they started to set up under a stoplight, we plopped down and strove to look comfortable and natural by conversing casually. (Even though I spent most of the time suppressing nervous giggles.) Stephan was fiddling around on the accordion and David and César brought out the juggling clubs and promptly lit them on fire. Yes fire. Playing with fire is a funny thing. They’d juggle the clubs between them or they’d take three and balance them into a hat or they play like they were going to light someone on fire, getting the flame too close to this one’s back while he wasn’t paying attention or dangerously close to that one’s dreads while he was talking to us. At one point David extinguished his club in a cup of kerosene and these crazy whorls of white steam/smoke erupted up and out of the cup like an explosion of dry ice. I watched it and wished that I’d randomly brought my camera. He looked up and grinned at me “Wow, huh?” (They say “wow” here, but it sounds different. Like it’s more self-conscious of its English origins. Kind of like how I saw “no bueno”)
The stoplight wasn’t doing much for them because it was Labor Day, and in their words the day for “trabajo para taxistas y maravillosos.” (work for taxi drivers and jugglers.) So they told us they were planning on going to do a show downtown and then head to this bar called La Chicharronera. So we said “okay” and continued to follow them.
We walked all the way to downtown San Jose through the back streets, reciting stories, quips and poetry in between bars of accordion music, ringing doorbells and running and other such forms of goofing off in the streets. At one point we stopped in front of a small art-house theater where a line was waiting to get in. The guys set up a small show, jokingly directing traffic around their fire-clubs and jokes, and passing the hat afterward. Ems and I sat off to the side with that kind of smug thrill that I get from being “with the band” as it were.
At one point I looked around and realized we were walking through my favorite part of the city. It’s also probably the most sketchy part too. It’s one end of what is called the “California District” and it’s so cool. It’s bounded on that far side by railroad tracks and at one point there is an antique locomotive just rusting in its house. There are a few dilapidated buildings with artfully broken windows and overgrown grasses. But most of all there are expanses, like I’m talking multiple city blocks, of pure white wall that has been covered with extraordinary graffiti. Every time we bus or taxi through the area I tell Ems that I want to come back on foot and walk around and take pictures and she always tells me that we can do that as long as it’s during the daytime and in a REALLY BIG group. So imagine my glee at finding myself walking through it at 9 pm with a group of locals. We walked by this bar called Raffa’s which is so small that everyone sits outside on the curb. And they are the coolest people too. They’re all in black and safety pins, or plaid flannel and worn jeans and converse. Totally my kind of people. Further down the California district are other bars and music venues. It’s just really hip.
At Raffa’s we were joined by a group of girls who were friends with our jugglers. We found out later that they are all part of the drama department in the University of Costa Rica, where I go, which ends up saying a lot about them. As in they were really cool. (There are a ton of universities in the area, but UCR has a reputation of being the more artsy-hippie school.)
So we all sat down at the fountain in the very middle of the center of San José and the boys started gathering a crowd around. Teasing, cajoling and pushing people into sitting down, which, because of the clownish way they did it, drew more people. They commenced with their routine fire show, the feats of dexterity, the humorous stories all mixed up with perfect improv when it was appropriate. Like then a soaking wet drunk wandered into the middle of the show and they had to entice him out with a fake phone call from a nearby payphone. Or when they drew a crowd member up and made him take off his backpack and David pretended to walk off with it with exaggerated motions while Jason yelled at him that “that’s not for now, we do that later…” They then told the poor bastard that Stephan was going to walk over him juggling fire, and he had to watch while Stephan did a few practice rounds in which he kept dropping the flaming clubs while his friends shouted encouragement. “Good try! You’re doing great! One more time!” It was really cool to watch people we knew, people we’d been interacting with and hanging out with do this entertaining, professional-quality show which was, to all intents and purposes, impromptu.
Finally, the show was over and we headed to La Chicarronera with the girls, walking down the street, laughing and joking as if we’d been friends for AGES. We grabbed a couple of drinks at La Chica, sat on the low stage upon which, one month earlier, I’d watched some of the most awesome break-dancing, under crazy-colored lights and chatted. When the boys showed up we exchanged card tricks and magic. We finished the night singing “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette and “Zombie” by the Cranberries with our new Tica friends in one of the karaoke bars on La Calle, the row of bars that juts off campus. By the time we got in the taxi at 2am we’d been speaking Spanish for 8 hours straight and forgot to switch back to English as we reveled in our new friends and our awesome day.
And that’s about where we thought it would end. The next day was designated for finding a café and studying. We sat for four hours in this café where they make awesome chai tea and Indian food and the walls are yellow and red and the roof is but an awning. When it started to rain, I got distracted and stared out at San José existing around me and the mist-shrouded mountains rising up around it and thought about how cool it was to be sitting, essentially, outside in the rain, but not being cold and not getting wet, with a hot mug of tea. So like Berkeley and so different.
After four hours of studying we started to walk home. We walked instead of taking the bus even though it was kind of raining because I had absolutely no money on me (as per usual) and didn’t really want to borrow MORE money from Ems. But as we got close to the mall, (and Ems stopped at a street vendor to inquire about crocheted bikinis) we ran into on of the jugglers! It was a little awkward, mostly because of our being caught off guard and thus not being able to speak Spanish with much confidence. But he asked us if we were doing anything that night, and when we said no, he said there was a party at his friend’s place in Heredia and if we wanted to come, we could meet them at Raffa’s at 11. We thanked him but didn’t sound hopeful about it. The night before had been draining and after four hours of studying we just couldn’t conceptualize going out. But as we started to walk home, we started to talk about it. Should we go out to cement our friendship with these guys? Or would that be too creepy-soon? Would we seem too pushy?
Long story short we spent four hours discussing it and waffling. Yes, we’re going. We’re only going if we can get MK to come. We’re going even though MK isn’t. Maggie, I asked four online 8 balls and they all said we should go. Well, I checked my horoscope AND yours and it’s not giving me a clear indication. Ems, I don’t want to go to Raffa’s in a taxi, that’s just too uncool. Ems, I have a bad feeling about this. Maggie, I’ve just called the taxi, be outside in 4 minutes. Crud.
I think I just got nervous. I’d gotten ready to go out, so obviously I was planning on going out, but when I got in the taxi apparently, I looked like I was going to be sick. Raffa’s is one of THE coolest bars in San José. It’s in a dangerous enough neighborhood that the tourist welcome mat, so to speak, isn’t really out. It’s more of a place to go and bump into your friends, which is hard to do if you’re a transient gringo and don’t HAVE friends there. I practically DRAGGED her up to the bar because “I really needed a drink” and then we went and leaned against the wall just outside the door, framed with graffiti, trying to construct some sort of semblance of cool. It was around 11 and we couldn’t see them, so we assumed that they’d left. Oh well. That’s cool. No Heredia party tonight. It’s probably for the best. And as long as we’re here, let’s enjoy ourselves and chat. Blend. Eventually a drunk kid came over and wanted some of my drink. I thought it was funny because he was trying to convince us that he’d never tried a Cuba Libre before. (Here they come in cans, already mixed. It’s genius. And it’s also almost as popular as beer.) Then later he told us it was his favorite drink… Anyway, Ems told him we have swine flu and refused to share and then they started talking about places to go in Costa Rica. At one point she leaned over and hissed “I see them. Right. There. No over, leaning on the fence.” We waited, but the douche walked RIGHT past us into the bar and back out again. At that point we figured it was over. Obviously he’d seen us. Obviously he didn’t want to hang out. Obviously we were being creepy desperate.
So we shook off our new “friend,” bought two more Cuba Libres and decided to make the best of it. After all, we had ended up at a way cool bar. We chose a spot off to the side and chatted for a little while longer. FINALLY Jason came over all “hey! You guys made it!” and we were all “yea! Hey, we thought you’d left.” You know how it is when it’s obvious that everyone is lying? Yea. Then it was established that we were, in fact, still in for the party in Heredia. But first we have to wait for David and César who are doing a fire show at Club Latino Rock for one of the bands that was playing.
We ended up waiting outside Raffas, and Ems ended up talking with some drunk guy. Some drunk guy who turned out to be the sopping wet drunk who had wandered through the show the night before. They chatted about his broken life and sang Frank Sinatra and the Mammas and the Papas. Finally the other guys joined us, char smudges on their white collared shirts and big grins, and we headed off, laughing and joking. It’s good to have friends.
In the end, the party didn’t happen, and when I woke up the next morning to a white sky and the sound of the rain on a Sunday morning. The perfect kind of sleepy day to cap off a whirlwind weekend.