Monday, September 29, 2008

Costa Rica Lesson #1: Putting The “Car” In “Cardiovascular Distress”


Two days before we left for Costa Rica, Brooke came home from running some errands with a frown on her face.

Brooke: “I have some bad news.”

Dan: “You made that face and now it’s stuck that way?”

Brooke: “Someone broke into our car.”

Dan: “What! When?”

Brooke: “Last night.”

Dan: “But you were gone half an hour just now!”

Brooke: “I ran my errands anyway, just swept the glass off the seat.”

Dan: “I respect that.”

It turns out I was wrong: Not everyone in the world has an iPod. Because that is the only thing the thief was after when he smashed the passenger side window: my iPod nano.

W. T. F.

It’s not even a video iPod! In fact, I’m pretty sure that the resale market is so saturated with non-video iPod nanos that you couldn’t even sell it if you tried, meaning that the sole reason this person stole it was because they didn’t have one, or maybe they did have one but their girlfriend kept taking it with her to the gym and getting it all sweaty and finally one day he was like, “Fuck that, I’m stealing my own.” I can’t decide which invasion of privacy bothers me more: breaking into my car, or listening to my iPod. I had playlists on there. Personal ones. Ones with titles like “Brooke” or “Puppy” (stuff Puppy might like, what?).

Worse still, this wasn’t just a hassle that added an additional caked-on layer of stress to our pre-vacation preparations; it was a premonition, a harbinger of things to come once we landed in San Jose, Costa Rica two days later . . .

(Fade out. Now fade back in.)

Despite the fact that we had reserved a car weeks prior, when we got to the rental agency (Dollar Rent-a-Car, spread the word, they have herpes) they had “run out” of the model we reserved. I immediately think of Seinfeld: “You know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation, and that's really the most important part.” And that was over a decade ago. How has this system not been changed by now? We can send dogs into orbit, but renting a car involves Middle-Eastern peace-talk style negotiations? I wouldn’t even mind if they continued doing it this way so long as they called it a “request” or a “maybe” instead. (e.g. “Did you book the car?” “Yeah, I made a maybe.”) But they insist on calling it a reservation, which, despite what your Native American friends tell you, has a very specific definition, one that, under normal, non-corporate douchebaggery practices, indicates a level of security and permanence.

Of course they offer to remedy the situation by giving us a better car for more money. Incredulous, Brooke steps in demanding a car for the same price. They have one, but it is smaller, and a manual transmission. (It’s here that I realize for the first time that I rented a car from a place called “Dollar.” I was asking for it, really.) Brooke pulls me aside and tells me not to cave to their hostage negotiation tactics. Just because we’re already in Costa Rica, and a tram took us outside the airport to their off-site rental location, and we hardly speak the same language as everyone around us, and right now these two rental car guys are kind of in charge of OUR LIVES doesn’t mean we should play their game.

Thankfully, in what we would later refer to as “The Decision That Saved The World” we opt to pay the extra $10 a day for the bigger, automatic SUV. Our first lesson in why Priuses will never catch on in Costa Rica came swiftly and forcefully. Fifteen minutes into our 3-hour drive south we hit traffic. Dead stop traffic. Here, we have two options:

1. Be smart. Stay on the only road we are familiar with in a country we have never been to before and have only been in for half an hour; or

2. Be stupid adventurers. Follow the many cars ahead of us that are veering off onto a dirt road.


We think “They can’t all live down that twisted, dusty ravine. It must be a shortcut.” Five minutes later, we had lost sight of everyone we were following as they either peeled off down various, even narrower and more dirt-laden roads or turned into driveways at shanty homes. (What are the odds?) We start doing that thing where we get to intersections and, for some inexplicable reason, instead of turning around and going back the way we came, we decide which way “feels right” and turn that way. I tell Brooke to look at the map. “This road isn’t on the map,” she replies. “Probably because it’s made of dirt.” Solid point.

We stop to ask for directions, but no one speaks English. We pull out some of our Spanish knowledge, but unless someone is telling us to go “right” or “to the bathroom,” the language barrier remains. (Further proof that a Spanish-English dictionary still has a place in the world, if not in my suitcase.) Brooke tries to mime “lost” by shaking her head and putting her hands up in the air. The farmer we are asking directions from seems scared.

Just about the time where we start resigning ourselves to the possibility that this is it for us, that our last remaining option (not an option at all, really, just a reconciliation) is moving into an abandoned home and living off the land and whatever gifts our neighbors may offer, we see a main road up ahead. It is backed up with bumper-to-bumper traffic. We exhale a sigh of relief. Somehow, we stumbled upon the road we were previously driving, perhaps even avoiding some of the traffic, as was our initial goal. We have, it seems, against the wildest of odds, succeeded.

EEENT. (That’s a buzzer making the “wrong” noise.)

Because all roads in Costa Rica look the same (bumpy pavement, no signs, drivers swerving with the recklessness of terminal cancer patients) it was a solid two hours before it was determined we were going the wrong way. Wrong as in north. We wanted south. What finally tipped me off was a sign for Nicaragua. Thankfully, while planning for the vacation I had done some research, looking up Costa Rica on Wikipedia. I remembered few details about the country itself other than the fact that it was bordered by Nicaragua (to the north) and Panama (to the south) – two countries that I have always thought of as “scary,” the kinds of places where people are kidnapped for sport and killed for mistaking libro for a feminine noun.

While the chaos that ensued was tragic in many ways, we would come to fondly look back on it as “our impromptu driving tour of Costa Rica.” The seven-hour driving tour. Down erroneous unmarked roads. Stopping every 20 minutes for Brooke to harass another person who didn’t speak English with her inexplicably disturbing “We’re lost!” mime routine.

Finally, hours later, we find our way onto the right road. No the originally right road, but a different right road, one that has been described to us as both “scenic” and “bumpy.” The sun has already set at a confusing 6:15 (it has to do with the equator – I looked it up) and I tell Brooke that I need a break from driving. We switch; I immediately fall asleep. Mere moments later (or so it seemed to me) I am awakened by what feels like a mortar shell exploding under our car. I jump up.

Me: “What happened!”

Brooke: “We’re off-roading.”

Me: “Shouldn’t we get back on the road then?”

Brooke: (frazzled) “THIS IS THE ROAD.”

We presume a road this rocky, a truly primordial road, cleared by the hands of men who removed everything save the cratered bedrock beneath us, could last but a short amount of time. This is, after all, no road at all. It is a clearing, a piece of earth there to remind man of his small place in a world where he can do so, so much, but he cannot smooth out this tract of land, not in any way. It was a brief piece of perspective, and nothing more.


68 kilometers. Converted to American measurements, that’s way-too-many-fucking miles, miles that the human body wasn’t meant to endure – SUV or not. Asses catching air off seats, heads whiplashing from side to side. Mechanical violence.

We speak to each other as little as possible, like workers trapped in a mine shaft conserving energy and air. “You OK?” “Yup.” More staring straight ahead, eyeing the trembling horizon, fighting back vertigo. It starts downpouring. “Good thing we upgraded the car.” “Yup.” Every long while another vehicle passes us. I think, “I know why I’m here, but why are you? I’m here because my American middle-class background makes me rebellious against structure, while craving adventure and glimpses into worlds in which I don’t belong. But you?”

We approach a clearing and a group of cars is collected up ahead, tail lights glowing in the night. We stop behind the cluster, staring ahead at a bridge. Turns out, the bridge is one-lane. And it’s not our turn to go, it’s the other side’s turn to go, so we have to wait there patiently while huge trucks carrying God-knows-what rumble over the bridge past us into the night.

Suddenly, the cars on our side start filing over the bridge, and we follow, completely oblivious to the process and its inner workings. There are no signals, so signs, no attendant watching the bridge. Somehow, locals know whose turn it is to go when. You can’t get this shit in Pasadena, that’s for sure.

Finally, like a gift from the pitch-black night, the rumbling stops and everything goes smooth. Perhaps we’ve died and in an improbably ironic twist heaven is just a paved road? But wait! In the compilations of malinterpreted directions we’ve collected throughout our journey, there seems to be one coincidental fact: Once you hit the paved road, you’re almost there. And lo and behold, not 18 kilometers away we roll into a town, make a left, and start down the road to the resort. Except you’ll never believe what the road was made out of. Dirt. More rocky terrain, and I’m not sure Brooke can handle it. Physically? She needs a chiropractor. Mentally? A whole lot more. It’s come to the point where we stop in the middle of the road, roll down the window, and ask the first person who happens by if they know how we can get to the hotel.

First Person Who Happened By: “Are you Brooke and Dan? We’ve been waiting all night for you.”

Shit. We really are dead, and St. Peter is an older gentleman who speaks good English with a thick Spanish accent.

His name was Javier, which doesn’t exactly rhyme with “savoir” but damnit it was close enough for me. Javier jumps in our back seat and says, “Our driver will lead you up to the resort, but first your back tire is flat. We should fix that. Have you eaten? Let’s get you some dinner and some cerveza while they fix your tire.”

Brooke leans over and whispers in my ear, “I would totally make out with Javier right now.”

After taking us to the only restaurant in town for food, the only grocery store for beer, and the only gas station to fix the tire, Javier leaves us with the resort’s driver and says, “You follow him. Remember, just be confident. Drive with confidence.” At face value, I take this as a bit of folksy advice, maybe even a metaphor for life. “Drive with confidence.”

The driver leads us down the dirt road leading to the resort. There are no street lights, which I suppose isn’t really a problem because there’s nothing around to light up, proper road included. But then the driver veers off to the left, up a narrow, steep hill. “What a dangerous driveway,” I think. And it was. An incredibly steep, curvy, dangerous, two-mile long driveway up a dark mountain of death. Adventure went out the window 500 feet back: My vacation is officially terrifying.

Before I know it, probably because I blacked out from the stress, we are sitting in our room at the resort. We eat our food, wash up, and go to bed.

The next morning we wake up with the sun and look out the window. Turns out we are perched on the side of a mountain (who knew!), looking down over the ocean and the coastal road that we drove to get here. And you know what? They were right: The scenery was fucking beautiful.


Blogger Jillian said...

I read in my Lonely Planet Guide that they pave rocks into the road in Costa Rica to help 'encourage tourists to hire local drivers'

They got my money...and it sounds like they should have gotten yours.

September 29, 2008 at 3:21:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Robin Noelle said...

Ah, memories. I was trying to get back to the main highway by using the compass in my SUV and ended up driving in and out of riverbeds and through corn fields for something like five hours (and this was just outside of Puerto Vallarta!). I will never forget the lesson I learned that day when I finally made it back to civilization: Estoy Perdido means I am lost.

September 29, 2008 at 4:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger LivitLuvit said...

I'm heading there in a couple of weeks for the first time... and now I am terrified. Perhaps we won't be renting a car...

September 29, 2008 at 5:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Natasha said...

How long were you driving around with a flat tire?

September 29, 2008 at 5:32:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Camels & Chocolate said...

OMG, my friend and I went to Austin last week and booked a car through Dollar, and when we showed up to pick it up, they were all out (despite that we had our confirmation printed out and all)! WTF??? They said the other rental agencies would honor our res but not the price, so instead of paying $130 at Dollar, we paid $400 elsewhere. Fucking ridiculous. How can rental agencies get away with this shit?

Also, my bf and I are renting a car and touring Guatemala in a week. This story made me petrified for our own vacation...

September 29, 2008 at 6:24:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot stop laughing.

September 29, 2008 at 8:18:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Christina said...

Yeah, been there. Only it was in a small jeep with a hard cover and there were 5 other people smashed into the car with me (each of us taking turns riding in the back with our luggage). Oh and there was a tropical storm the night before so not only were the roads treacherous, but there were rainforest trees and strange animals all over the "roads". I have such fond memories of Costa Rica.

September 30, 2008 at 1:50:00 AM EDT  
Blogger sid said...

1stly Brooke has gained my respect for simply wiping the glass away and then continuing with her errands.
2ndly sorry about the iPod. I know how much time goes into putting all your special songs on there.
3rdly - the rest of the tale was hilarious. All I want to do at the moment in time is get out there and have an adventure.

September 30, 2008 at 6:12:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Dana said...

Awesome! I started laughing at the playlist for Puppy and didn't stop. Can't wait for the next installment.

September 30, 2008 at 1:16:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Peter said...

We need to know more details about Brooke's terrifying miming.

September 30, 2008 at 1:49:00 PM EDT  
Blogger sarahsays said...

Someone broke into my car for my ipod as well! Except my ipod was the first one ever made. It didn't even have a color screen. Maybe they were antique shopping.

September 30, 2008 at 9:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger kris said...

Best. travelogue. ever.

Must go rewrite mine now.

October 1, 2008 at 11:50:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant story. I can totally see myself getting into that much trouble "it can only get better, right?" EEEENT

October 1, 2008 at 2:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger -J said...

Yes, many people that frequent Costa Rica will tell you if you get a car, get a gps. You can rent both and it's worth every freaking penny.

October 1, 2008 at 5:38:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apparently there's no military in Costa Rica. In most "third-world"-ish countries, the military is responsible for road infrastructure.

A tiny tidbit from me to you.

October 1, 2008 at 8:28:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Meg said...


While I appreciate the You Tube video of the bridge, I'd also like a You Tube video of Brooke miming "lost." Can that be arranged?

October 1, 2008 at 9:36:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Meow said...

you are SO domesticated, dan.

October 4, 2008 at 2:02:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Im from Costa Rica and things here are a little bit different, we do not have enough money to make nice roads, we use the money in education and health. I laught a lot reading the story, because its something normal in my country, the roads sucks, and when its rainny season, the roads get destroyed.
When i was in Germany i was amazed by everything just because everything was different, the same must happens to you.
We are good people, most of us dont want to con you guys, next time try to contact some "tico" and ask for advices.

October 17, 2008 at 7:16:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Amy said...

same thing happened to me (the care break in, not the whole costa rica driving extravaganza) broke into my car and only took a VERY old ipod. sad.

January 15, 2009 at 11:01:00 AM EST  

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