Friday, January 8, 2016

Strange Familiarities

We arrived on the day after Christmas, tired and faintly out of place.

Christmas had been as it always is, the gentle candlelight and song of Christmas Eve worship followed by a quiet day with family, simple shared meals and gifts under the tree.   But then, we took to the sky, and found ourselves somewhere completely different.

We were Yankees right at the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica.  Being in a new place was, well, it was a little bit strange.  Here, we had traveled thousands upon thousands of miles, across seas to a culture I'd never encountered before, and I was expecting strangeness.

And strangeness came that evening as the sun was setting.  Our bags were unpacked, we'd rested up, and it was time to explore the city a little before dusk settled.  From across the corrugated tin roofs and down the peculiarly paved streets, there was the sound of ruckus, of thousands upon thousands of voices, of shouting and music.

It was Tope, the annual horse parade and festival through the heart of the Costa Rican capital, and we wandered a few blocks over to take a look.  I'd expected, well, something like Poolesville Day, only with horses instead of cheerleaders and old cars.  Or perhaps the Macy's Day parade, with horses all neatly in a row.

It was not that.  It was an equestrian bacchanale, with horses and riders by the tens of thousands posting and displaying in what felt like utter chaos, stretching out as far as the eye could see.  Mariachi bands trumpeted and strummed.  There was no evident order, no visible organizers, only a couple of grinning cops every couple of hundred yards, and occasional EMTs bearing stretchers bearing the bleary and the bloodied.  The dress code was Urban Cowboy, jeans and boots and ten gallon hats.  Everyone, riders included, seemed to be drinking beer, and the men's room evidently extended out into every nook and cranny of the surrounding buildings.

It was a riot of sound and smell, like a frat house party through which a herd of mustangs is stampeding.  It was totally outside of any frame of reference I had, beyond maybe a couple of Western films.  It felt, suddenly, like the 19th century.

With one exception.

Everywhere you looked, people were taking selfies.  Selfies.

There were clusters of Costa Rican cowgirls in their high-heeled boots, duckfacing into their iPhones.  On a huge prancing white charger, a barrel-chested sabanero held a beer in his rein-hand and a selfie-stick in the other.  A member of a marachi band one-handed his trumpet, videoing the band while playing.

In the midst of the wildness, it was strangely familiar, a new pattern of life peculiarly layered over the old.

And in that peculiar juxtaposition, of new experience and the familiar, of the old and the modern, it seemed an appropriate marker for the coming of a new year.