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The airport we arrived in is in Alajuela, a province that soon became familiar to me. I and my friend had two choices of where to arrive in Costa Rica – San Juan International Airport or Liberia Airport. Liberia is the Caribbean side of the country (think beaches and the like)  while San Jose is mountains, hills, valleys and forests, rivers and some of the Pacific sea. We chose the latter because we had both seen beaches in the Caribbean before and heck the country in which we live has beaches in abundance if we were that hungry for warm water.

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It was the right choice.

San Jose is in the province of Alajuela. The first thing I noticed were the mountains. They surrounded San Jose like a mother surrounds her children, there were no gaps for hawks to steal from, no pathways for its children to lose their way, the covering was complete.

That first night, we walked downtown and to the Mercado (market in Spanish) where almost everything reminded me of a typical Lagos market. There was even train tracks and traders with their wares on the floor calling out to potential buyers (Yaba!). There were bands playing the local music and at one point I and my friend stopped to dance and fall in love with the sounds of this new and unfamiliar land.

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We stood out. Not so much as a result of our skin color but because we were clearly tourists, taking photos of everything. Our skin stood out as much as our fellow blonde American brothers and sisters’ did.

Street food was everywhere; churros, rice and black beans, casados, empanadas, delicious stick meat, fruit stall after fruit stall. In the end we settled for a nice restaurant where the waiter made us laugh so much we overtipped him and the fried plantains made me close my eyes in pure rapture. (I have the recipe but I am not sharing)

I reckon everyone in San Jose fancies themselves some kind of artist and the streets their canvas. It was shockingly beautiful, the street art. Shocking because I kept wondering if it was some sort of rebellion against rules. Beautiful because the colors were so expressive and provided a beautiful contrast against the backdrop of tarred roads.

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Everywhere we went, there were smiles and ‘Hola’s. One morning I tried running but because San Jose is mountains and valleys, I gave up not too long after starting out. I walked instead and was surprised as person after person I passed greeted me first, calling out “Buenos Dias” or “Hola”. I was mostly surprised at my being surprised. I had grown up in Lagos after all where it is customary to greet strangers. But after a few years in North America, it seems I have learned the New England art of avoiding people’s eyes and smiles.

San Jose and all of Costa Rica made me make a promise to myself; to be kinder, to say hello to strangers, to smile more…

San Jose reminded me a lot of Lagos. It made me ache for what Lagos could be but isn’t. As most new places I visit do, San Jose made me mad about Nigeria. There is no reason why such a small country has three times our GDP. Why their per capita is more than twice ours? It is easy to argue that Costa Rica has a smaller population and so yeah. But this is a country that has little or no natural resources and less than 10% our land mass. Its biggest export is tourism. Yup! Yet they have found a way to be richer than one of the world’s largest supplier of oil.

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Like I said, visiting new places means I develop new frown lines. Maybe someday this will not be the case, someday when I learn how to stop being Nigerian.

It is the little things that make the difference. The most delicious plantains and yummiest coffee, good-natured people who actually care about one another, a determination to cause no harm, even to trees and rivers that can’t fight back…it is the little things that make a people, a city, a nation great.