Friday, January 24, 2014

San Jose, Costa Rica: Conversations with Drug Dealers and Prostitutes

I remember looking at a bungee tower as a little kid in the late 80's and thinking "I have to do that!" Unfortunately, it wasn't until my mid 30's that I decided to fulfill that promise to my former ten year old self.  Once I had my heart set on it, I went to Google to find the location for my jump.  After hours and hours of online searching, I came to the realization that there was nowhere left in the U.S. to jump!  All the towers had been shut down due to liability and insurance concerns so I came to the only possible conclusion. I had to travel to a third world country to do the jump!  I needed to go somewhere the attorneys and insurance agencies hadn't covered with red tape, a place I would be able to jump to a possible messy death without anyone caring! Once I widened the search outside the U.S., I had numerous options.  I finally settled on an outfitter in Costa Rica that would be more than happy to push me off a tall bridge towards the rocky rapids hundreds of feet below!

When I boarded the plane to San Jose, I introduced myself to the captain.  "So, are you going surfing on the coast?' he asked.  "No, I'm going to San Jose." I replied.  The captain and first officer looked at each other suspiciously.  "Uh......What are you doing in San Jose?" the first officer asked. "Well, I'm going bungee jumping." I replied with a little hesitation after sensing some tension in the air. The pilots both laughed and exhaled with a sigh of relief.  They explained that the only reason people go to San Jose is for sex and drugs.  "Well not me, I'm going bungee jumping!" I explained with a smile. The pilots smiled and nodded to each other with an unspoken understanding that jumping off a tall bridge is a much better option than sex and drugs.

When I got to San Jose, I contacted the bungee operator to arrange a ride to the bridge.  The operator explained to me that just that morning, the Costa Rician government had shut down all bungee operations to investigate safety concerns. He said that he was unsure if they would be able to resume operations in the future.  I should have been distraught.  I had wanted to bungee jump since I was a little kid!  I had flown all the way down to Costa Rica for that sole reason. Surprisingly, I wasn't disappointed. I knew that some of my favorite adventures had started with an abrupt change of plans just like this. I would soon find this to be no exception. So I hopped on my folding bike and decided to see some of the city.

I made it half a dozen blocks from the hotel when a man yelled at me from the sidewalk "Hey Gringo! Hey Gringo!" I looked over to see a man dressed like Dr. Dre. Everything about him told me to keep moving. A voice in the back of my head screamed "Pedal you idiot!" But as my fight or flight instinct kicked in and the adrenaline started coursing through my veins, I looked at his face.  It wasn't the face of a gangster or a hardened criminal, it was the face of a kid!  He couldn't have been more than 20. Disarmed by the look of innocence, I kicked common sense to the curb and pedaled over to say hello.

"Hey man what do you need"? the guy asked in broken English.  "I don't need anything. You're the one that called me over, what do you need?" I replied.  I could tell the man was confused by my response.  "No, what do you need? Coke? Weed? Extacy?" the man asked.  Now that the situation was a little clearer and it was apparent I was talking to a drug dealer, common sense definitely dictated a quick departure. That's not what happened. I was intrigued with the man.  After making it clear that I wasn't interested in drugs, I held out my hand and told him my name.  Victor and I quickly became friends. Through his broken English and my broken Spanish, we seemed to get by alright. He told me that he learned English by listening to rap music. From his awkward use of slang and expletives, I knew he wasn't lying. When I told Victor that I was from Florida, his face lit up.  "I've been to Florida!" he exclaimed.  Turns out that Victor stowed away on a ship in an attempt to make it to the U.S. but he was caught as soon as the ship got to port.  Apparently the only part of Florida that Victor saw was the inside of a holding cell in Jacksonville before he was deported.

I think Victor was flattered that I showed interest in him and he offered to show me around a little. I was excited to see his side of the city and soon learned that Victor was more than just a drug dealer.  Just as many airlines increase their revenue by selling headsets and snacks, Victor was augmenting his drug sales by bringing clients to the prostitutes for which he would get a kickback. "You want a girl?" he asked.  "No Victor, an STD is the last thing I want to bring home from Costa Rica!" I joked.  From the look on his face, I could tell he didn't get it. "No Victor, no girls." I clarified. "Well if you want a girl, don't go there." Victor said as he pointed to a large purple building with a big sign. "That's where the Americans go. It will cost you $200." I smiled at Victor and told him that he didn't have to worry about me going there.

A few blocks later, Victor pointed to a much smaller building.  This one didn't have a sign but there were a few girls standing out front. "If you want a girl.." Victor started. "I don't want a girl!" I quickly cut in. Victor paused for a moment, I could tell he was trying to figure out how to phrase something. "This is the place where the Costa Ricians go. It's much cheaper here, $14 for sex." I nodded to Victor and tried to hide how blown away I was with what he had just told me.  As we approached the building, A young girl in a miniskirt and a tube top strutted over to us.  She said hello to Victor but stared at me the entire time.  Victor told her in Spanish that the gringo doesn't want sex.  To my surprise, her body language relaxed, her smile changed from one of seduction to one of kindness and she asked me my name. She told me her name was Bianca and I immediately had a strong curiosity about her life just as I had Victor's. Bianca didn't speak any English but she didn't seem to mind my broken Spanish.  A minute or two into the conversation Victor started to get fidgety. "I have to get back to work." he said.  He shook my hand and turned to leave.  "Victor wait!" I said. I reached into my pocket, took out ten dollars and placed it in his hand. "It was nice to meet you. Thanks for the tour" I said. From the look on Victor's face, I could tell it had been a hard year slinging dope in San Jose. He put a hand on my shoulder. "Thank you my friend!" he said with a toothy smile.

I said goodbye to Victor then turned to say goodbye to Bianca.  As I began to leave, Bianca started asking me questions in an attempt to make small talk.  At first I was confused. She knew I wasn't interested in what she was selling but then it dawned on me.  It was still morning time and the street was dead. She was bored out of her mind and just wanted someone to talk to.  I stuck around and chatted with Bianca for a few minutes but eventually the conversation ended the same way all my Spanish conversations end, awkwardly and out of vocabulary words.  I turned to leave and this time she said goodbye with a grateful smile.

In the few minutes I spent with Bianca I learned a lot about her.  I learned that she was originally from Nicaragua and she hadn't seen her family since she left because it was too expensive.  At the age of 14 she got pregnant and had her first child in Costa Rica. At 16, she had her second child. She was now 22 years old. Even though the money was much better at night, she only worked mornings so that she could take care of her children when they got out of school in the afternoon. By the way she talked about them, I could tell her kids were her entire world. The more she told me, the more I wanted to ask.  I knew that human trafficking and child prostitution were in big problems in Central America. All the signs pointed to it but I wasn't sure. I wanted to ask but didn't know how.  Vocabulary words like kidnap, and human trafficking weren't taught in my Spanish 101 class. Anyways, it didn't seem right to ask.

For the rest of the day, I rode around the city of San Jose but I couldn't stop thinking about Bianca and Victor.  Inside I felt broken and torn. I'd spent the morning with the scum of the earth, a drug dealer and a hooker. They were supposed to be terrible people. The problem was that I liked them. Victor was in a dangerous and unprofitable profession that barely maintained a life in the slums.  He tried to move up and get out but was sent back to Costa Rica.  Bianca was putting food on the table for her children one strange man and fourteen dollars at a time. These were miserable ways to survive and these two suffered every day. It was so easy to see them in pain when I viewed them as a  filthy prostitute and a crack head. When I was able to dehumanize them, it was Ok to see them suffer but now that I knew them, now that I liked them, the knowledge was unbearable. They weren't bad people. They were good people in desperate situations. The problem was that the more I biked around, the more people I saw just like Bianca and Victor.

As much as it hurt to see the poverty in Costa Rica, I needed to see it. That's what I had come for. My entire life, I'd lived in some of most beautiful, most affluent places in the world.  My paradigm was that of the American Dream. When I started this project of traveling around the world with a folding bike, I did it because I was tired of my skewed view of reality. I knew there was more to life than grande mocha frappuccinos, Apple products and the thousands of other frivolous things that filled my time. I knew there was more to the world than what I could learn from Fox News and the USA Today. So as painful as it was to see the poverty and suffering in San Jose, it was exhilarating to live life, to take the blinders off and view the world with eyes wide open. As I rode around in Costa Rica, I simply observed.  I didn't judge, I didn't condemn, I just took it all in. Yes, it was miserable to see the conditions in Costa Rica but God, it felt good to see this world for what it is, to witness a gritty, uncensored version of life I had never seen.  It felt good to be alive!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Slab City, California: A Magical Shithole

I was admiring the artwork in Slab City when I heard the bang of a trailer door slamming behind me. I looked towards the sound to find a large man barreling down on me fast. His long blond dreadlocks flew through the air behind him as the gap between us rapidly closed. I braced for a collision and expected the worst. Just as I was certain the man would plow me into the ground, he dug his heals into the dirt sliding to a halt just inches from me surrounding us both in a cloud of dust. The man had a giant intensity about him. I wasn't sure if he was going to hug me or hit me. I looked at his Grateful Dead t-shirt and marveled at how well the tie-die pattern hid the stains and grime.

"THAT THING IS FUCKING AWESOME!" the man screamed as he pointed at my folding bike.  My reply of "Um...thanks." seemed completely inadequate given the man's vehemence.  "I'LL TRADE YOU SOMETHING FOR IT!" the man yelled in a voice that was still inappropriately loud. Taken back by his offer, my mind was slow to produce a polite refusal.  The guy pounced on the silence and blurted out "I'LL TRADE YOU MY WEED FOR IT!" as he held up a mason jar full of something green.  I quickly came to two conclusions.  First, if I knew how to sell weed, that would be a hell of a deal because that much pot was worth a lot more than my folding bike. Second, the man was completely stoned and wouldn't make that offer otherwise because that much pot was worth a lot more than my folding bike.  I explained to the man the he had made a gracious offer but that there was a random drug testing program at my work and I couldn't risk getting fired.  For a second, the enthusiasm drained from the man's face but it quickly returned.  "WHAT ABOUT LSD? I HAVE SOME LSD IN MY TRAILER, THEY DON"T TEST FOR THAT!" The man spun back towards his trailer.  "No wait! I can't trade the bike, there are other places I have to take it"  The man hardly turned to acknowledge and sulked slowly back to his trailer. In most places, this exchange might have been a little strange but this wasn't most places, it was Slab City.

 Slab City artwork made from recycled materials

The Slabs, as the city is affectionately called by residents, are located in the middle of the California desert.  In 1956, the Marine base of Camp Dunlap was dismantled leaving a few concrete structures and a sea of slab foundations.  According to Slab City legend, it was Leonard Knight who then founded Slab City when his hot air balloon crash landed onto the slabs.  Upon arriving at The Slabs, Leonard received a revelation from God that he was to stay there and spread a message of love.  While the legend isn't entirely correct, there is more truth to it than most.  Leonard did build a hot air balloon but it never flew and by the time Leonard arrived in Slab City in 1984, it had already been populated by squatters for decades.  Leonard did however go on to spent the next 25 years of his life, until he was put into hospice care at the age of 80, creating a monument to God in Slab City.  It is a three story mountain covered with adobe and paint proclaiming God's love.

This truck was Leonard's first residence in Slab City with Salvation Mountain in the background

There is no running water in Slab City, no electricity, no sewage and no waste disposal.  With temperatures that surpass 120 degrees in the summer time, it's hard to imagine living there year round.  While there are hundreds of year-round residents, it's in the winter months that the Slab's population swells to well over a thousand.  While Slab City is an eclectic place to say the least, it's the people of Slab City that make it so fascinating.  Motor-homes, tents and buses are filled with hippies, vagabonds, retirees, drug addicts, artists, musicians and kids looking to find themselves.

One of the many residences in Slab City

I arrived in Slab City just as the sun was breaking the horizon.  I rode my bike up the dirt road and a man stepped out of his trailer completely naked.  He walked ten steps and began urinating onto the sand.  As I passed, he raised his hand high into the air and yelled "Howdy Neighbor!"

Most of the people I met in Slab City, welcomed me with open arms. One of my favorites was a young musician named Neil who described The Slabs as his winter home. The first time I saw Neil, he was walking down the road. With his thick beard and long black hair, I couldn't help but think he looked like Jesus with a lambskin coat.  "Hey man, there are a few of us up the the hill there. We're going to jam, you want to join us?"  I accepted the offer and walked with Neil to meet the others. There was a girl with fiery red hair and an accordion,  a skinny guy with a harmonica and Neil with his guitar. I sat down on a log and waited for the music to start when Neil handed me some maracas.  "Here man, you're percussion!" I told Neil that there had been a misunderstanding.  "I thought I was just going to listen to you guys jam, I can't even hold a beat!" Neil laughed and assured me it was easy.  We started up and Neil soon realized I wasn't being modest. "Hey man, It's easy, just watch my foot. Shake them every time it hits the dirt."  That helped a little. Neil had a fanatical love for music, the kind you need to make it anywhere in the music industry and I'm certain that if I'm ever able to say I once met someone famous, there is a good chance it might be Neil. Here is one of his music videos that was filmed at Slab City. 

 Neil Mallick                                                      Photo: Erin Audry

On the way out of Slab City, I ran into a man named Cuervo and his mule Rock-n-Roll. For a small donation, he offered to let me sit on the mule.  It was an offer I couldn't refuse.  I told Cuervo that I was thinking about heading down south to Mexico but I was concerned about safety and the drug cartels. Cuervo explained that he spends much of his time riding back and forth in the Mexican desert and that I had nothing to worry about.  He told me that he had even worked for the cartels smuggling marijuana into the U.S. with Rock-n-Roll. "You won't have any problems with the cartels, they always treated me well." he said.

Cuervo with his mule Rock-n-Roll

As I've traveled around the world, I've realized that my initial impression of a place is usually completely different from my final impression.  How strange it was then that my first and final impressions of Slab City were exactly the same.  I couldn't help but think that Slab City had to be the most magical shit hole on the face of the earth!  It was a place where absolutely anything and absolutely nothing could happen at any moment.