Sunday, August 04, 2002

HANGIN WITH HOOKERS, LATINA-STYLE: A DISPATCH FROM SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA

My favorite hangout during my three-week stay in this capital city of Costa Rica has quite unexpectedly – and quite embarrassingly, I’ll add right off the bat -- been a place called the Hotel Del Rey. The Hotel Del Rey is a four-story, faux-Neoclassical building a few blocks north of the Avenida Central, downtown San Jose’s pedestrian Main Street. From the outside, the edifice to the Del Rey, at least at night, looks like a transplant from Miami’s South Beach with its pink exterior and gaudy, rooftop neon sign; it stands out as a bright oasis in stark contrast from the dark, grimy streets surrounding it. On the inside, you might mistake yourself for a casino virtually anywhere from Monte Carlo to the banks of the Mississippi: no windows or clocks on the walls, card tables in the center, and flashy slots on the perimeter.

Gringos like myself chancing upon the hotel/casino and entering its doors for the first time can’t help but make the immediate observation that there are two groups of people at the Hotel Del Rey. The first is extranjeros – that is, foreigners, mostly Americans and almost all male. Specifically, lots of paunchy, spouseless, somewhat sleazy white men in the 30-50 year-old cohort, many of whom are in town on fishing trips or for work-related purposes. Just imagine middle-aged frat boys dressed in Hawaiian shirts in ‘fun mode’, blowing their annual bonuses on the roulette table and screaming obnoxiously the only Spanish word they know: Rojo!

The second group – both lured by and luring the foreigners -- is latinas, and lots of them at that. They’re everywhere at the Hotel Del Rey: at the bar, in the shadows, in front of the bathrooms, at the craps tables. You walk in and they’re lining the hallways, eyeing you hawkishly. Foreign-looking males who walk by will sure as night and day receive a wink and a few blown kisses, and the lucky ones (or unlucky, depending on what they’re in the mood for) will get touched not-so-subtly in places where the sun don’t shine.

My third night in San Jose, I walked in off the street, looking for a bar to pass time with some Red Sox v. Angels on ESPN while waiting to meet up with a fellow student at my language institute. Immediately, a girl in the foyer passed by, reached down and squeezed my left butt-cheek (or was it my right? I was too startled to remember). Another lady whispered in a voice equal parts husky and seductive, ´Chino...Chino...´ I walked up to the bar, where there was a line-up of single latinas standing around. One of them approached me, asked my name, told me she liked my lips, and I suddenly found myself trying to remember whether I’d ever been to any other bar where the women hit on men and not the other way around. A few seconds later, a tall Canadian expat sitting next to me woke me up from my reverie when she leaned over and whispered, emphasizing the last three words: "Welcome to The Hooker Bar..."

I can’t say that I’ve had much firsthand experience with prostitution but the ‘employees’ (trabajadors, they call themselves) at the Del Rey defy many of the Hollywood-driven stereotypes we Westerners have cultivated of ‘the oldest profession’. When I say the word ‘prostitute’, what’s the first image that pops to mind? Chances are you’re envisioning something along the lines of the Julia Roberts archetype in the ‘80s classic Pretty Woman: high-heeled boots, wigs, leather jackets, dark lipstick. The prostitutes at the Hotel Del Rey look little like that -- not too many wear revealing tops or mini-skirts that all but scream out ‘I’m for sale!’

In contrast, they look like what you’d find in a lot of clubs wherever there are young people (Landsdowne Street in Boston comes to mind): mostly-young women of all body types from heavy-set to bulimic; dressed to kill and wearing that extra layer of make-up that signals they’re trying too hard; a sizable portion of them you could call ‘hot’ but most definitely not ‘beautiful’. Prostitution here in Costa Rica seems to be a little more subtle than you’d expect. In the States, there’s a thick line that divides Legal Mating, which involves a few drinks and forced conversation in a bar or club, and Illegal Mating, which involves an upfront fee in a seedy strip-joint or deserted street somewhere. In places like the Del Rey, that line is blurred.

One reason for this phenomenon – how prostitutes here don’t quite conform to the American stereotype – may be that prostitution is officially legal in Costa Rica. Prostitution here is out in the open, it’s accepted by many here, and – for the most part -- it’s not forcibly snuffed underground the way it is in other places where prostitution is illegal and stigmatized. (The only other time I’d ever been solicited by a prostitute was at a hair salon in Yangshuo, a backpacker’s stop in central China two years ago). Legal prostitution has engendered norms around the industry here -- for example, in certain bars in San Jose, all the women there are working as hookers and other female visitors are frowned upon – thus prostitutes don’t need to stand out by wearing outrageous clothes and can fit it rather unobtrusively.

I found myself drawn to the exoticness of the bar scene at the Del Rey so I came back last night, looking conspicuously like a tourist (with camera bag in tow) though intending to blend in as a fly-on-the-wall. I simply wanted to observe the marketplace in action – the interactions between the staff and clientele – and make something out of the psychology and sociology of prostitution, very much the same way a nosy anthropologist might savor the opportunity to observe the daily routines and rituals of a Samoan tribe. Although prostitution is officially legal in other parts of the world (Canada, England, Israel, France), there simply aren’t too many opportunities for a curious American to see it in action in a safe and sanitary place.

I walked in at around 11pm, and the bar was hopping. It’s easy to see what makes this place so appealing for guys, even for those who have zero interest in paying for sex. As a friend of mine from Mississippi commented, “I’m not into prostitutes but I just like having hot women around when I gamble.” What brings many foreign males there is the ego-placating illusion, even if for only a fleeting few seconds, that attractive women really do find something redeeming in them. With that in the back of my mind, I sallied up to the bar and took just about the only empty seat next to a short, older looking lady, clearly ‘at work’. Maybe it was the stoic look on my face (“Porque serio?”) or just the schoolteacher aura around me, but it became clear pretty quickly that I was of a different breed from the other gringo visitors interested in some fast, easy action.

Soon enough, I was embroiled in conversation with that older prostitute sitting next to me, an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua named Elizabeth. After I bought her a drink (a Coke with ice; water for me) and charmed her with my three weeks of broken Spanish, the two of us engaged in a back-and-forth serious discussion for over 20 minutes. When I probed into her motivations for prostituting, Elizabeth opened up and told me that she didn’t like the job but didn’t have a work permit needed for a mainstream job; that she needed to send the money back to her parents; that she worked 4 days a week and pulled in $600 on a good week; that she didn't have to pay the hotel a cut of her revenues; that most of the customers actually treated her ok. When I asked what she told her 6 year-old son she did for a living – a question that's always intrigued me -- she responded that she’s “honest” with him, though I wasn’t sure how to interpret that.

According to Elizabeth, many of the other prostitutes at the Del Rey see their job in overtly pragmatic terms: that is, what they desperately want is an American kid, which means a visa and possibly a new life in the Promised Land. In turn, the American guys, Elizabeth told me, like the women with black hair because it’s more exotic and they can find women with blond hair in the states “all the time”. The most attractive women at that scene were actually the five female bartenders behind the bar – Coyote Ugly with a latin twist – and, I was told, they all have American boyfriends. When I asked why women in Costa Rica found American guys so desirable (“Was it money?”), she replied, “No…some do have money, others don’t. Americans here are more relaxed.” My hunch is that there was more there left unstated, but I left it at that.

Indeed, during my three weeks in San Jose, I found the influence of Pax Americana pervasive in latin culture and society: from the fact that the only movies showing in cinemas were American (“Hombres de Negro 2”); to the lyrics of Enimem’s “Without Me” spewing out of my host brother’s computer every morning; to the anti-U.S. political graffiti spray-painted on walls in my barrio. If America is the Prom Queen of our global village – a winner, both admired and envied at the same time – then I found myself like the Prom Queen’s less-attractive, groupie friend unknowingly riding her coattails. At bars and clubs and at the gym where I worked out, I found that unbelievably attractive latinas would give me their numbers, mostly – perhaps only -- because of where I was from: the gleam reflecting off the Prom Queen’s crown evidently making me look a helluva lot better (or at least better than the local tico competition).

The big ethical question eating away at me was whether or not I should feel guilty about this – about my being perceived attractive and the object of desire solely because I lived in the United States. That is, I didn’t do anything to earn the attention; it was completely by chance that my parents immigrated from Hong Kong in the ‘60s and it was my good fortune to be born at St. John’s Hospital in St. Louis 25 years ago. Despite trying to rationalize it any other way, I did feel guilty, perhaps in the same way Prince William of Wales might feel pangs of guilt for the inherited good looks, impeccable bloodline and hordes of female fans that he had absolutely no control over. I’d tried all my life not to lower myself to superficiality – to become someone of some substance – and yet latinas were drawn to me only by what was on the surface.

All of this was running though my mind as I chatted with Elizabeth. After a while, the bartender came by and asked me if I wanted another water; I checked in my wallet, realized that I was out of colones, and got up to leave. Elizabeth said in Spanish, “You’re different from the others,” and not knowing how to properly acknowledge that, I returned with a warm smile. We shook hands and as I looked at her one last time, I saw her in a different light: not as the objectified hooker of half an hour earlier, but just as a friend with a wistful look on her face. At that micro-moment, I realized that we had more in common than I’d thought: a longing to be understood for who we really were, and a tinge of guilt for being seen as what we weren’t. I then walked out, never to return again.