Alajuelan Monkeys — By Jennifer Shipp
Central America Costa Rica North America

Alajuelan Monkeys — By Jennifer Shipp

Alajuela Costa Rica Park near Cementerio Central
This is a park where pickpockets sit to scope out good targets near the bus station in Alajuela.

The distinction between traveling and tourism is an important one and it’s easy when you’re one or the other to get caught up in what’s happening on the other side. No matter what, when I travel, my experiences become the fabric of my daily life, but traveling or touring is meant to elevate me somewhat out of the patterns that are familiar to me. The fact that my experiences traveling become woven into what is mundane and typical in my life is a constant source of difficulty for me, whether I’m on a short trip or a long trip, a touring adventure or extended travel. While the journey is happening, I am impatient. I want the trip to be more exciting or interesting. I want more action, less walking from here to there or standing in lines or trying to find my exact or approximate location.

In my daily life, I have similar problems with impatience. I want for life to have substance, but I also want to be able to shut off the excitement and relax in my easy chair at night. I crave novelty in small doses that I can “control”. Familiarity helps me sleep at night. It helps me relax, but it also makes me bored. I live on the threshold between the suspense created by novelty and the boredom brought on by familiarity. Traveling can keep the normal and everyday aspects of life from becoming too familiar, but then the activities of daily living become exhausting. Locating basic items like shampoo and deodorant or, most controversially, tampons, can be harrowing. I may have to get used to cold showers every morning or a lack of potable water. But, once I settle into a place and the activities of daily living become mundane, I can branch out in search of novelty again. But novelty never lasts very long. I can suck the marrow out of just about any location in the world within 30 to 60 days of living there. So why bother going?

There is clearly something that I am trying to confront when I travel. It feels as though I am looking for something specific,

Lydian with her backpack looking at Cementerio Central in Alajuela
What kind of moral code is operating when a number of men and women in a city anywhere in the world think it’s okay to steal a 12-year-old girl’s backpack?

but in fact, I am probably trying to conquer some sort of internal frontier; a place inside me that is riddled with landmines and marshlands and heavy, tropical foliage. It’s similar to Costa Rica, but with fewer pickpockets. Indeed, pickpockets and petty thieves aren’t present anywhere near or within the utopian Promised Land inside my head. I haven’t even factored them into the no-man’s land on the threshold of this ever-elusive place. But they’re closing in on us wherever we go here in Alajuela. They don’t know that we know about them. In the United States, there is far more diversity in terms of the types of violence that we might encounter walking down the streets and thievery isn’t completely unfamiliar, but the sheer volume of pickpockets and thieves here is what’s disturbing. The number of people who are waiting in ambush, specifically to rip my daughters backpack off her shoulders makes me angry (woe betide the first one to lay his hands on her).

Our first day in Alajuela, there was a man at the park who saw us walk by. We saw him see us and we saw him target us. He followed us down the street for several blocks, but both John and I kept looking back at him and walking faster and faster. I saw him converse with a fellow and I thought perhaps that they would “work together” to pickpocket or attack us around the block, but eventually they gave up. Yesterday, we walked around for a while in Alajuela and I took the lead while John walked behind Lydian and watched all the people who got set up to rob us. Most of them targeted Lydi probably because she’s young (not knowing that she’s trained in martial arts, of course). A girl tried to trip her at the bus station and a guy at the grocery store got into position to reach into her backpack until he saw John coming up behind.

Thievery here is rampant, and it’s unfortunate because it is a beautiful place. While the thieves steal from us and from their kin, the tourists and their money go someplace else. Alajuela, Costa Rica could be a tourist destination, but there are too many thieves. They just keep stealing and stealing and never getting any richer. Like insatiable monkeys at Indian temples.

Alajuela isn’t scary enough or challenging in a way that I have to flee from, but nothing I’ve seen so far could motivate me to stay or ever want to return. I think that the Promised Land inside my head isn’t a landscape at all, but rather a social climate. It’s a place where people have a certain amount of open-mindedness and curiosity, as well as a respectable moral code. This is somewhat of a revelation wrought from two weeks of sitting on hard wooden chairs, walking long distances to get nowhere, and showering in cold water. But I’m grateful to know that what I’m searching for is a certain breed of people. The trip to Alajuela has, at least, yielded some worthy new thoughts. But today, at least this morning, I’m feeling pretty cold toward this place. I really like the thunderstorms in the afternoon and the moderate Costa Rican weather, but the social climate, at least in Alajuela, is very cold indeed.

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