THE RED ZONE
As we turned the corner into San Jose’s red zone, a woman with her eyes to the sky staggered toward us. She wore years of hardship on her face and a hopelessness to her gait. I’m sure the three older women that we were with could protect us. At least they wanted to. They did not need to be here either, but they wanted to help feed the children in the red zone.
I was carrying a bag of cupcakes that our host, Ana, baked the night before. Trin carried a bag of children’s clothes that were being donated by Ana and her sister, Frances, who also was with us. Together with Juanita, who was our contact to the soup kitchen, all five of us progressed further into what is locally known as the Zona Roja in San Jose.
We walked past the two men sleeping on the sidewalk which smelled of urine. Vendors cluttered the streets and garbage lay where it was thrown. This zone is seemingly left to rot on its own.
I pulled out my iPhone to take some pictures, but Frances gestured to keep it out of sight. “Muy peligroso,” she said in a low tone. She has an edge to her that, at first, I could not put a finger on, until I found out later that she lives in Ticoblock, a tiny neighborhood that itself could be considered a red zone in the suburb of Guadalupe.
Another woman stormed by stoned out of her mind in a bikini top and short jean skirt. A liquor bottle was stuffed in her waistband. Her skin was leather and hung on her frame like it was an old coat, instead of being part of her body. A man with clothes twice his size that dragged ragged around his bare feet stood up from where he was lounging against a soot-covered wall and stumbled toward the garbage can to look for his lunch.
CHILDREN OF THE RED ZONE
Juanita stopped and knocked on a metal door squeezed between two storefronts, right across Terminal 7-10. Eventually, someone opened the door and we followed a man up a dark stairwell.
Upstairs was a small meeting room and a kitchen where lunch would be made for the forgotten children of the red zone. I swept the kitchen floor and then began to mop. It was a hot day, and there was no airflow. Sweat dripped from my face. Trin was washing dishes when he heard a noise above his head. He looked up toward a hole in the roof where a stray cat poked its head down and meowed at him.
Frances took over the mopping for me while we sat down with the director. He told us about how they are trying to keep children off the street and help drug addicts get clean. They also work with an indigenous group in Northern Costa Rica. These are people devoted to helping those who are forgotten or overlooked by society. Loving people where they are, not stopping to ask if a choice or uncontrolled circumstances got them there.
At noon, the children came and gathered in the meeting area where they sang worship songs and the pastor spoke to them. Then we ushered the children to the meal area where they enjoyed the meals that we prepared and the cupcakes that Ana baked. We sent them home with the donated clothes.
A SECOND LOOK AT SAN JOSE
Despite our foray into the red zone, we had a much better impression of San Jose this week than we did five months ago when we were here for the first stage of Trin’s dental implant surgery.
There are probably a few reasons for this:
First, the Airbnb home where we are staying is much better than the run-down cheap hostel that we stayed in the first time.
In fact, I think we found the best deal in town and it feels like home. We are staying with Ana who has a quick and easy laugh and a kind persona, and her wonderful family in a tranquil gated neighborhood.
Second, we were also able to see more of the nice parks in San Jose.
Third, Trin was in pain when he had his jaw drilled. This visit is much more exciting as the dental crowns were installed and he is able to eat on both sides of his mouth for the first time in six months.
Lastly, maybe because the first time we came here, it was directly from the US, while this time we came to San Jose after two and a half months in Nicaragua. I always try to be objective in each new place we visit but it is difficult to keep all subconscious comparisons from influencing my perception.
It’s all about perspective. Seeing past all the noise that often obstructs our viewpoints and seeing people for who they really are.