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.


Driving Miss Sarah~

I wrote to family and friends recently about a hair-raising trip I took from the capital, San Jose, to my home in Talamanca. So I thought I’d attend to the blog and write a bit about driving in Costa Rica. 

Ticos are not the worst drivers in the world (regardless of what you’ve heard or believe); a couple of years ago that honor went to Italy, but it’s hard not to imagine, what with all the Italian immigrants here now, that Costa Rica hasn’t passed on a blind curve—one of the favorite driving maneuvers here—and pulled ahead for that coveted status. In all fairness, though,  I believe the statistics for Asia were left out of the equation. My guess is that many countries could vie for first place. I’ve heard driving in Thailand is a bit like WalMart the day after Thanksgiving. 

The statistics for Costa Rica are pretty dismal though. According to a Tico Times article, “Some 340 people died in traffic accidents last year [2007], and about 530 were seriously injured, according to the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT). Nearly 40 percent of the victims were between 20 and 35 years old.” 

I think one of the issues here is an attitude shared by all the Ticos I know. It is best summed up by a small story. Many years ago Alan and I heard a nightmare tale from a friend whose husband died suddenly. That was bad enough, but it soon became apparent to his widow—our friend—that she was about to loose their property because there was no will. We decided to see a lawyer and ask about the issue. After relating the problem, I asked whether we could be assured if, God forbid, something should happen to Alan that I would be protected by the current paperwork we held on our property. The lawyer smiled and said she thought so. I pressed her further asking, “If he dies will I have ownership of the land?” 

To which she replied, “I think so. I don’t think you have to worry. Something would have to happen.” There it is in a nutshell. Costa Ricans live by this motto. They drive by this motto, and that is why they pass on blind curves: something would have to happen. 

But, the Costa Rica legislature wants to do something about the spine-chilling ordeal of getting out on the road. In December of last year—yes, that would be close to ten months ago, now––the legislature proposed a whole host of fines for dangerous driving. They slammed their foot down on the break pedal and swore to punish those offenders. 

Bad Drivers Have It Coming screamed the headlines in the Tico Times (/Dec 12-18 2008)  and to be sure many of them are stiff. Here is a brief rundown:

I particularly like the “driving while tipsy” category. I’d bet that on any given weekend six out of ten drivers on this coastline violate this law. And that’s a conservative estimate.

I would be worried about the speeding fines (and/or jail terms) but it’s hard to get up to the speeds they speak about here. For instance, what is this a picture of?

Is it: (a) the moon, or (b) a stretch of road outside Puerto Viejo?

The road is so bad in our little community that it often takes us thirty minutes to pick our way over the four kilometers into Puerto Viejo. Some stretches are so bad the truck has one foot or another in a hole and resembles a lunar lander clambering up and wallowing down into holes. There are faster drivers than us, for sure, but their cars aren’t on the road for long. Alan’s 1987 Jeep pickup is now the oldest running vehicle in this area. No small feat.  

Most speed limits in Costa Rica range from 60-90 kilometers and hour (about 35-55 miles an hour). The most likely offense listed would be 20 kilometers above the speed limit, and the cops do love to nab you on this one while you are trying to overtake a slow car. We carry a radar detector. 

But I digress. The legislation. What about the legislation?

According to the Tico Times: The bulk of the new law was supposed to go into effect Sept. 23. But lawmakers have found flaws as well as a political concern. The flaws involved misnumbered paragraphs that would void some penalties. Lawmakers also consider some of the fines disproportionate, they said.

But what about the political concerns?

Again, The Tico Times: The March 1 date would have the law going into effect after the Feb. 7 presidential and legislative elections. [However] One aspect of the law is the obligatory vehicle insurance that would have a heavy financial impact on Costa Ricans when they sought to pay their road tax before the first of the year.

Oops! Don’t want to piss off those voters. 

Yesterday’s news:  the legislature voted last Thursday night to delay for six months the effective date of higher fines found in the new traffic law. (Until after the election!) That vote was the first. A second and final vote is planned for this coming Monday.

They also seek to correct misnumbered sections of the traffic law passed in December, and to eliminate an increase the cost of obligatory insurance of vehicles.

The vote last Thursday was 37 to 4.  I bet next Monday’s won’t be much closer. 

The good news here is that the laws for drunken and reckless driving have already gone into effect. 

But what does all this really mean for us drivers?

When I was in San Jose a couple of weeks ago, I saw big reader-boards on the main drag in San Jose extolling the new law and the fines. I said to my taxi driver: “Boy, looks like Costa Rica has some tough new laws.” 

He grunted.

“Or,” I said, “this is just an alert to all drivers, that the mordida for the cops has just gone up.” 

To this he laughed out loud, shook his head, and said: “You must have lived here a long time. You know us too well!”