Where Graffiti Paints A City With Life

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I stand here, in front of a spray paint covered wall along a street in San Jose, Costa Rica. I was on a study abroad trip with Purdue University the summer before my freshman year of college. One of those “leadership” trips with an amazing group of students and mentors. We spent two weeks traveling around the country of Costa Rica, using San Jose as a home base.

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Although the mountains, valleys and lakes were picturesque and more giving of their beauty than I ever expected, the city holds a place as my favorite in my memory. Bright with primary colors, the city had character.  The people stood in their homes behind bars as if a revolution was about to erupt and they were prepared to hide away. Each house blended into one another, creating gridded rows of massive compounds.

Even in the city you could feel the surf culture surrounding you. A Billabong store full of over priced clothes was nearby and too conveniently on our way to the super market and favorite restaurant. We stopped there often just to look around and try on familiar clothing that we most likely could find at home, maybe this was to remind us of home.

The van rides out of the city to this day were my favorite part of San Jose, a quick way to see the city as a whole and to watch it slowly fade into the suburbs leading to the rural areas of a third- world country that only rarely appeared third world.

In San Jose when you see the aspects of a third-world way of life they shine through timidly, like light peaking under a closed doorway.  The slums could be found both inside and outside the city but the ones that stood out the most were those that clung to the side of mountains. These we flew by on a highway. Decorated with sticks acting as pillars, supporting tin roofs, kids playing through and between these homes. Garbage blended in with grass, piling high, only going deeper into the soil.

Witnessing the everyday of these people lives only made me want to contribute in some way. Much of the country was already covered in tourism and many locals were trained to use the tourists to their advantage, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed walking through the deep, dark markets filled with hand made goods. As the week went on and I saw more of the country, my negotiating skills grew weak and I began buying hammocks at the primary price listed.

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Our departure from the city always varied, filled with surprise. On one trip we drove past what I thought was the start festival, horses galloping down the concrete. Instead they were farmers coming into town, buying their everyday needs.

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The trip to La Paz Waterfall winded through the both mountains and the diversity of homes. Small villages lined thin roads with children sitting on their front stoop while a clothes line hung behind them and a fatigued dog laid at their feet.  Before the clusters of houses came to an end there was a small school with children bouncing around, dressed in matching uniforms.

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Directly outside, the fathers of the mountainside village worked in a field, so high that the clouds framed the valley behind them.

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Even in the mountainside villages there was graffiti but it was not like the graffiti I was familiar with in Newark, New Jersey. No, a lot of it told a story with bright colors and joyful silhouettes. It interacted with the nature and was simply art.

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Candy on my mind

As I sat quietly in the back seat of what Raj called our “tachsee,” something bright went on in my head. I had spent the beginning days of our journey searching for a moment of insight and here it was; it finally dawned on me that Raj was a dirty gummy bear- one that had fallen in the dusty streets of Delhi and rolled around a bit. Our first “tachsee” driver was more like a mystery-flavored Airhead; we never knew what we were going to get with him- a “you are going to have a wonderful, adventure-filled day,” or a “You are going to have a screwed-out-of-your-money-and-tricked-into-purchasing-over-priced-EVERYTHING-after-I-pretend-I-don’t-know-how-to-get-to-your-hostel-and-run-up-your-meter kind of day. Good luck!” The German boys we had spent the last few days exploring Pushkar with seemed to me to be more like vegetables, perhaps celery stalks or pieces of long, lean asparagus, one with a leafy top and one without.  Clearly, they did not fit in. The women in the streets looked like skittles, all similar-looking in that they had the same long, braided, dark hair, matching nose piercings, and red smudges on their foreheads signaling that they “had a worry,” but each wore differently colored but equally bright and sweeping clothing wrapped around their bodies. Hundreds and hundreds of skittles walked around the chaotic streets. India is more spicy than sweet, but for some reason candy was on my mind and there really was no other way to describe our chubby, greying, weathered-looking, bubbly old friend; Raj was a gummy bear.

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Never Say Bomb(ay)

Annie and I are about to take flight to India.  She is on Emirates while I’m taking the cheapest AirIndia flight I could find.   I’m already nauseous imagining the cramped cabin and disturbing odors I’m about to endure.

The AirIndia space is very busy.  Many Indians travel between Dubai and India.  It’s takes only 2 hours to cross the Arabian Sea and land in the 18-million-person city of Mumbai (Bombay).  Indians make up a large portion of the labor force in Dubai’s booming economy, and UAE companies include roundtrip air fair once / year for all their employees as part of the HR package.

Mumbai (Bombay) is home of Bollywood, the Indian equivalence to America’s Hollywood.  It’s a thriving, creative, artistic scene and they were bombed this last week in a terrorist attack.  A series of bombs (3 in total) were coordinated to blast in different locations leaving 26 killed and more than 120 injured.

Annie is on her luxurious Emirates Air experience, probably receive foot massages from international soccer stars and drinking wine over jokes with some billionaire investor.   I’m imagining her with all the glamor of the commercials while I am conversely  sentenced to the hellish mess of an unorganized and overpopulated AirIndia experience her at the Dubai International Airport (DXB).  I await a snaking line that’s snailing it’s way through the first mental detector and bag scanner.   Upon passing through security I observe the security crew doing minimal observing, maximal chatting about cartoons in Hindi.  I don’t know if they were actually talking about cartoons, but given their gestures and tone, it was either that or one of them is plotting to drop an anvil on his buddy.

The time until departure is shortening and my advancement in this next line is not.  I’m feel a slight panic begin to creep in.   The first 20 minutes of my wait were passed  by guessing who, what and why people are flying today.  My imagination colorfully elaborating on the intimate details of their character, sexuality, occupation and so on as I begin to overlap their lives in a very “Crash”-like twist to my plot.

Then, all of a sudden, shit got real.   There it was, all alone.   Shifting my gaze around, I wondered why.   It was an unmarked metal suitcase, unattended, tucked out of plain sight, against a pillar.  It’s only a few feet in front of me.    I’m halfway through the line.  The clock is ticking.

“Who’s suitcase is that?”  I ask myself.   I look around, someone must be the owner, but where are they?   I’m slowly moving away from it, but I can’t leave the line, I’ll miss my flight.  Where is the owner?  Why is that suitcase alone?

“Who’s suitcase is that?”  I ask the man in front of me.  He doesn’t know, or care.

I’m inching myself further away, putting my luggage between me and the potential explosion, as if that might impede the dangers of a … (you know)  My mind is dizzying- everything is blur but the suitcase that stands alone and could erupt at any moment.

“Who’s suitcase is that?”  I ask the woman behind me.   blank stare.

OK, 3 bombs, 26 deaths.  that’s like 9 people killed in each explosion.   I start counting based on proximity to the suitcase. SHIT, I’m 4th closest.

“Who’s suitcase is that?”  I ask the man behind her.   He shakes his head in uncertainty and doesn’t seem to be even the slightest bit worried either!

If you see something, say something.. RIGHT?!!

Maybe the guy in the line next to me will be more responsive.  I act out my concerns.   He understands!  Oh, he thinks this is funny, then looks at his phone.

My pits sweat out anxiety into stains on my under sleeves. THATS IT!  I’m getting this under control/  I swing my bag of valuables over my shoulder, leave my backpack in line and dart off to find someone to assistant me in saving this airport full of innocent lives.   A vivid scene of chaotic drama blasts into play, with slow motion effects as people scream in terror with tears and blood, and shrapnel. NO! I snap back to reality.  I’m about to prevent all that, as long as I can get to someone in time!

T first man in an airport uniform I see  basically tells me to kindly F*** off.  So,I do.    I see a security guard- perfect!  I get his attention, express the immanent dangers and the very little time we have to heroically act.   He nods his head and brings me to his the guy who was telling cartoon stories instead of monitoring the baggage scanner.  GREAT- it’s either this guy’s incompetence or corruption that got us here in the first place!  However, what choice do I have.   I explain the severe problem we’re facing, clearly, calmly, and with conviction.  He no understand.  He stops the baggage belt to focus on me better.   The 50+  people waiting in the security line look at me with scornful contempt.   Little do they know I’m saving their lives.

I explain, again, that right over there is an unattended suitcase, suspicious, and without owner.  It is EXACTLY the kind of suitcase I would choose if I were in the market to pack explosives.

He very loudly says, “OHH You think it is a bomb”   With a louder emphasis on the word bomb.

People look at us…

“Umm, I didn’t want to say-”

He cuts me off.  “It’s OK, I can say bomb.  I’m Muslim.  Let’s go take a look.”

Not sure how that works, but I guess we’ll go check it out.  He leaves the line of angry and  about-to-be-stand-by people to wait as we go to check out the bomb.

I’m still not to anxious to get near to it, wisely staying at least 12 or 13 people away and point it out.  He walks up to it.  He lifts it.  He shakes it.

COME ON MAN, don’t shake the friggin thing.

An short, scruffy and potentially a career criminal of a man storms over with a disdainful scrutiny in his eyes.  He snatches the suitcase out of security’s hands and shoots a vicious look my way.

“Yo dosta (hindi for friend), your suitcase” is all I’ve to say to him.

He said nothing, but his eyes screamed evil.

Security shrugged at me and walked away.

Career criminal, turns, puts the suitcase in the same exact spot, and walks 20 people away to the front of the line.

ARE YOU SERIOUS!? So now, it’s confirmed to me that asshole is trying to blow the place up.  I go to the front of the line, not sure if I’m really about to confront this man who I’ve convinced myself is a terrorist.  What am I going to do up here? I wonder.  The woman behind the counter asks for my passport and bag…

Well, OK, I guess I’m up here cutting all those chumps. I hand her my passport, double back for the backpack.  She tags it, tosses it on the conveyor belt, and I go to my gate, get on my flight and safely arrive in India several hours later.

The security guard shaking the suitcase must have deactivated the bomb.   I suppose that’s the stuff they’re trained to do.  What a day!  Saving innocent lives is most satisfying when it isn’t saddled with recognition.  There is something more honorable, guardian-angle-like about it.

You’re welcome international travelers of the Gulf Region, it was a pleasure keeping you alive today.

Landing in Chaos

Ready to go

Stepping onto the tile flooring of the airport- maybe I should rephrase that- being shoved forward onto the tile flooring of the airport, made me feel like I had landed on another planet and everything around me was just a dream. However, as I double-checked the sign on the arrival gate and read “Delhi,” reality swept over me and I moved on. Wandering for a few minutes, surrounded by hundreds of people who all seemed perfectly in their element and aggressively pressing on, I found my brother sprawled out in the corner near the exit, behind a plant. Clearly, he was comfortable making himself at home anywhere and as he waited for me to arrive a few hours after his plane landed, his backpack served him well as a pillow as he slept and cuddled his valuables. As chaotic and smelly as the atmosphere felt, we were ready to start our adventure in India, completely unaware of what was to come.

The extreme heat and unfamiliar odor captivated my brother and me as we went through the automatic doors of the arrival area and onto the busy street. Eagerly attempting to keep our upbeat rhythm and smiling faces, we joined the taxi line and waited for our journey to begin. We caught the attention of at least five men ready to hassle and hustle us. In that brief moment, no doubt about our abilities to get where we needed to go clouded our minds; we were travel savvy and ready for anything, for we had done this before, we had taken trains, plains, buses, and ferries without trouble in countries and cultures near and far, familiar and foreign. Excitedly hopping into the steaming taxi, we glanced at each other, our seemingly happy-go-lucky driver, Raj, and the chaotic world around us and knew that we had it in the bag. Calm and self-assured moments like these tend not to last very long, though, when you realize that you and your big brother happen to be the only two naïve individuals in the city of New Delhi on your side. The brief minute of confidence flashed by.

Then there was chaos.

Without warning, Raj #1 (we ended up having a few drivers named Raj) pressed the gas and the wobbly taxi jerked forward; off we went… in the wrong direction. Unfamiliar streets, caked with dust, crowded with as many people as animals- white ox, black cows, brown monkeys, speckled goats, and countless dogs, most stray and all hungry- and lined haphazardly with a combination of unsteady, crumbling structures and stately buildings, overwhelmed our minds and took over our sights. The continuous echoes of honking horns served as a disturbing soundtrack for the bumpy, nauseating ride from the airport and we quickly learned a new and essential skill: to drown out unwanted material produced by keen human senses- as our journey continued, we gained similar talents in regards to our sense of smell too.

trash and a bedroom

 

Blinkers serve no purpose in India and neither do mirrors; to turn, change lanes, greet a person, scold another, or simply just to fit in, drivers constantly press down on the center of their wheel. The smell came from, well, everything. A mixture of body odor, feces, urine, and sometimes nothing (or everything) in particular, made the atmosphere reek. More often than not, there was a serious lack of proper ventilation, which happened to be true for our first taxi in this hectic region. The windows were broken.

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We continued to take in the disturbing scenery as we rode. Our eyes fixed on the sides of the roads, slick and damp with the morning’s downpour, still hot enough to emit steam and covered with feces, stick-thin children, cots, banana stands, and monkeys, and also on the dangerously busy road, clogged with mopeds, recklessly driven and sometimes transporting a family of four. My still optimistic brother told our driver where we wanted to go: Hotel Grand Godwin. Raj had other plans. Our new “friend,” as he insisted on calling himself, however agreeable he may have seemed at the time, had zero intention of giving us the privilege of actually granting us our wishes, and took us for a nice little joy ride in a scolding-hot vehicle with a fixed meter. Stupid tourists. We would later find out that this was just the way things were done; the best way for you to succeed is  to figure out what local is trying to screw with you the least, and go with them.

tuk tuk and moped

First, he told us the name of our hotel sounded unfamiliar and he would have to stop for directions. The tuk tuk- as the four-person, three-wheeled vehicles are called- stopped outside a storefront with a sign reading, “Government Tourism Office.” Skeptical that a tuk-tuk driver would not know how to get to the best-rated budget hotel on Agoda.com, we questioned his integrity. With a who-do-you-take-me-for puzzled look and a shooing of the hand, he quickly had us cooperating again; we rapidly assumed the roles of two naïve, first-world travelers, trusting too much and thinking too little.