Lost Without Translation

Costa Rica News – ”Stop the car!” I yelled at my husband. “Maybe that guy knows where the place is.”This is an all too familiar cry when we are driving anywhere in the Central Valley. We are both excellent drivers, but the bulk of the driving has fallen to him. I invariably ride shotgun, acting as navigator, and that involves asking for directions more often than not.
giving directions in costa rica
The man I spotted had what I look for when making inquiries. He was older, trimming a big red bougainvillea that overflowed from his yard into the street, so I assumed he lived there. And he appeared to own a car. One was parked in his drive, anyway. This last item is almost essential, because, with luck, the directions he gives will be for a driver and not a pedestrian. I’ve gotten those, and we’ve run into one-way streets, alleys, and dead ends. I have used taxi drivers parked by the side of the road. They are great. And on more than one occasion I’ve actually taken the taxi and had my husband follow in the car to find the correct address.

On this particular day we were trying to locate a wrecking yard in San José, Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. The address on their website said—no kidding: in San José, La Uruca, Barrio Corazon de Jesus, 800 meters north (road to Heredia) at the intersection of Pozuelo.

This is not an anomaly; this *is* the approved address system of Costa Rica. If you are a local, you probably know right where these places are, but if you are an expat or a visitor, good luck. It’s a bit like directions the old farmer gives when you’re lost in rural America. “Go up this road until you come to the Burns’ place, turn north, and continue on… oh, maybe a mile or two until you get to the corner where that old oak was hit by lightening back in ’96.”

It’s hopeless. Even if you do follow the directions to a T, you often discover the hypothetical tree is no longer there. For instance, there are addresses that mention the Coca-Cola Building in downtown San José. Coca-Cola moved to another location—across town—years ago, and the building is now a flea market, but many businesses close by still refer to it in their address (From the Coca-Cola building 50 m north and 25 m east, between avenida…). That sort of thing. And the 50 meters north or 25 meters east address makes having a compass in the car indispensable.

We were familiar with Uruca, a section of town known for its traffic jams and the Office of Immigration. I had no idea where Barrio Corozon de Jesus was. I searched desperately on our old, and not very detailed, roadmap as we inched along in traffic.”Road to Heredia,” it said. Okay, I found Heredia on the map. Dot to dot. It must be the road we’d seen at the bottom of Uruca, at the huge intersection that was often a free-for-all of cars and trucks. We needed to turn right at that point, but what in hell was “Pozuelo?” I beavered through my trusty Spanish-English dictionary. No entries.

“We are going to have to turn right pretty soon,” I said. “You need to get over in the far lane.” Easier said than done. Costa Ricans, like the rest of us, are polite face to face but can be rude and pushy behind the wheel. As we edged across two lanes of traffic and a chorus of horns, I became vaguely aware of the smell of sugar baking, something buttery.

I was checking our map when we drove straight past the turnoff. A couple of blocks later we looked for a place to turn around. That is when I saw the man trimming his bougainvillea and yelled at my husband to stop.

I showed this portly stranger the address, and he pointed to where we had come from. He said we needed to turn left for Heredia. “But what is this?” I pointed at the word Pozuelo. He gave a me quizzical look and pointed up and across the intersection. I looked up and saw the huge billboard-sized sign: POZUELO. Of course, Pozuelo, the bakery, the one that makes all those sugary cookies. I thanked him, feeling rightfully foolish, and said I was lucky it wasn’t a snake.

We took another stab at it, made the left turn and headed toward Heredia. 800 meters later, not counting overshoots, turnarounds, and the need for more directions, we found Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. They did not have the auto part we needed, but suggested another wrecking yard that might, Repuestos Pana: in San José, North Granadilla, Curridabat, University Latina, 4 kilometers east.


Author: SC Morgan

I grew up in Oregon and learned not everything is black and white. Now I live in the jungles of Costa Rica where the shades of gray cover the full spectrum. I shoot my mouth off on my blog, social media sites, and sometimes I get published. You can find my blog here: https://scmorgancom.wordpress.com/

10 thoughts on “Lost Without Translation”

  1. This is exactly the kind of post I was hoping to see from this prompt. And even better, because I’ve lived a while in the kind of place where people give directions based on which tree is the one that marks your turn.

    And I have to admit–I had a groan and an eyeroll for you that Hermanos Copher did not have that part. Onward!


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kim. Glad you enjoyed the vicarious search for the parts house. It can be pretty taxing at times and Costa Rica keeps making noise about standardizing their address system, but I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. Blog on!


  2. Love this story! Reminded me of giving directions in St. Thomas where there are no street addresses outside of downtown Charlotte Amalie. Landmarks are the key..including nonexistant ones: “Turn where the big gris-gris was before (hurricane) Marilyn” is a perfectly acceptable way to give directions! Hope you found the part you were looking for!


    1. Ah, there you are, Lynne. CAPTCHA finally let me back into my blog… and you, too, I see. Yes, those rural, yet city addresses are confusing for the outsiders, but pretty fun, really. My family spent a Christmas on St Thomas when I was in junior high, I think. We motored around the island in one of those cart with pink and white fringe on the top. I think it was that trip that hooked me on steel drums forever.


    1. Thank you, Mrs. Mediocrity. I just love your blog name, by the way; it makes me laugh just typing it. Life is a place to get lost in, isn’t it? I suppose the only time I’ll be found is when I’m no longer in need of a map.


  3. I don’t mind following directions like that when out in the sticks…but round San Jose it gives me the willies as blood pressure rises with every about turn!

    Oddly enough I find driver behaviour pretty courteous after France where we’ve regularly been hooted for allowing cars ahead of us to filter on a one and one basis ….and that’s out in the provinces, not Paris!


    1. I agree, Helen. Driving in the country one expects these sorts of directions, because… well, because it *is* the country, but in the city? Not so much. I am flabbergasted that there is still no credible system (other than an PO Box #) to solve this. But I suppose if there are no regulations on block lengths, or number of buildings in said block, it will never change.


  4. Sarah, we both wrote about driving and getting lost for Day 9. I loved the detail here of your story and how you captured the very real sense of living in a different culture. it reminded me of our three weeks in Heredia in a lovely apartment complex where we also did get lost (but still managed to come home safely).


    1. How funny that we both opted for this prompt, but I suppose as travelers it makes sense. I just posted a comment on your blog. That is such a strong piece, Beth. You might look for a publication for that one. I loved the juxtaposition of getting lost on the road next to getting lost in life. Excellent essay. And I am so sorry for the loss of those two kids. And your sister. Tragic is the only word that comes close. Whatever else, write on!


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