Hitting the Road


in Archive


The cab dropped us off at a gas station, and we started to walk down a side street. The asphalt glowed in the early morning sun. My wife and I had never visited this part of San José, and we were too groggy to appreciate the new sights. We followed the directions specifically: 100 meters east of the gasolinera. We found the specified corner, and then we stopped and gawked.

We had expected one man and one vehicle — a Jeep Grand Cherokee, parked on the curb. Instead we found two men, wearing camouflage cargo pants and bandannas over their faces, and a Jeep half-covered in tarp. The men glanced at us. They looked like cartel hitmen. Then they went back to work, waxing the exposed half of the car.

The owner appeared, trooping eagerly toward us. Sergio had severe facial features and a receding hairline. He welcomed us briskly and then pointed to the car.

“How do you like it?” he demanded.

“Why is there a tarp?” asked Kylan.

“Oh,” he said, and strode over to the car, then lifted the plastic out of the way. “Because of this.”

This was a massive concussion in the side of the Jeep. This was a bent chassis and two missing doors. This was a car that had clearly been T-boned at an intersection, and for whatever reason, Sergio had never fixed it. This was damage so serious that we would have to spend thousands of dollars on repairs and replacements to even legally drive it home.

“What do you think?” said Sergio hurriedly.

“There aren’t any doors,” said Kylan.

“Oh, well, there was in an accident,” said Sergio.

“Right, but in the pictures online, it didn’t show any missing doors.”

Sergio closed his eyes, as if pained by our nitpicking. “I could only upload five pictures. There was a sixth picture that showed this side of the car, but I couldn’t upload any more.”

“Okay, well, I don’t think we’re going to take it,” said Kylan.

“No?” He looked disappointed that he had wasted his time.

“No. We need a car…” How to describe it? Kylan finished: “We need a car in better condition. Sorry.”

He nodded dismissively and mumbled, “Hasta luego,” then sauntered away.

The only positive side to waking early on a Saturday and schlepping across San José was that we could post our story on social media. In summary: “The car was perfect, except for the missing doors.”

We received a flurry of sarcastic responses on Facebook, from our Costa Rican friends and from friends back in the U.S.: “Doors are overrated,” and, “If you wanted a car that worked, why didn’t you say so?” We had a good laugh, but the fact remained that we still had no vehicle.

We had spent nearly a year in Costa Rica, and we had been content to walk and take the bus. Taxis were in ample supply, and for very short distances, I could ride my bicycle. But as much as I loved the Costa Rican transportation system, some destinations were strenuous to reach. I once had to attend a concert at the Pedregal Event Center in Belén, a nondescript suburb northeast of San José. I took a $25 cab to the event; afterward, I waited more than an hour on a dark street corner for a bus to San José, then spent another $10 on a taxi from San José to Escazú. Belén is only about seven miles from my house — I could’ve walked that distance, if the roads were remotely direct and safe — but in Costa Rica, distance is deceptive.

In every other respect, our lives had exponentially improved in 11 months. We had finally terminated our AT&T contract and started using our iPhones in Costa Rica for a fraction of the U.S. price. We could retire our cheap temporary cell phones and loan them to friends when they visited. Our once empty apartment was gradually accumulating kitchen implements and décor. We even bought items we had never owned, like a wok and a quality grille.

But we only invested in small things, because our Costa Rican life seemed so tenuous. Would our jobs remain intact? Would immigration laws change? Could we sustain our modest network of friends? Each month we felt surer than the last, and our resources felt less piecemeal. Buying a blender was a major step. Could we, in fact, buy a car?

The truth is that I have long feared driving, and I have never bought a serious automotive vehicle. Kylan and I shared her Volvo for several years, and I had overcome my phobia, but actually registering a car with the DMV was a level of commitment I had never considered in the U.S. To truly enjoy Costa Rica, to really cement ourselves to the country, we had to accrue some wheels. A car would unlock entire chunks of the country that were inaccessible by bus or on foot.

The rule is this: Costa Rica exports fruit and coffee, and it imports everything else. The prices of everyday items are markedly higher than in the U.S., cars in particular. As far as Costa Rican banks are concerned, expats have no credit history, so there was no way to finance our purchase. We would have to buy a car outright, just as all our foreign friends had done, which meant finding something second-hand.

Kylan was optimistic about finding a car — she loved surfing the Internet and scrolling through pictures — until the doorless Jeep incident. Sergio had singlehandedly soured our trust in online vendors. If someone could try to sell us a car with vital components so obviously absent, what else could be missing or broken that we wouldn’t discover until we were bombing down the highway at 100 kilometers per hour?

What’s more, Costa Ricans don’t just sell each other things: They require an attorney to file the paperwork, and oftentimes the attorney actually creates a company name — on behalf the client — in order to register the car. In other words, if you see a well-off Tico 20-year-old cruising around in a Lexus, he might unwittingly be the CEO of a corporation, a corporation that does nothing but own his car for him. Buyers who pursue this option generally budget in an extra thousand dollars.

These were daunting problems, but the final hitch was more personal.

“Can you drive?” my friend Alejo once asked during a road-trip to Guanacaste.

“Of course,” I said.

“Can you drive stick?” he said.

“Just automatic.”

“Ah,” he scoffed. “So you can’t really drive.”

Costa Rica’s topography is rough-and-tumble, and although the economy is the second-best in Central America, the roads are generally considered the worst. Most cars on sale are manual, and most student drivers learn with a clutch. Even if we found the ideal car, I might require days or weeks to learn how to drive it.

Buying a car was among our proudest achievements, because we did it in the most Tico way possible. We didn’t find the right classified ad or spot a “Se Vende” sign in a car window. We simply met the right person, and he introduced us to his father. This is how real business has been done since time immemorial, and it is the rule by which most Ticos live: If you can’t do it yourself, find a relative who can.

Kylan had volunteered at the Children’s Hospital since the month we arrived, and she had met a lot of people. One young physician, Mario, was doing his rounds at the hospital, and although he was disappointed to find out that Kylan was married, they became good friends. One day, Kylan mentioned our search for a car and how much time and energy we had burned.

“Oh,” said Mario, who brightened. “Well my Papi sells cars. You should meet him.”

“He sells cars? Like he has a dealership?”

“Actually, he flies to the United States, finds cars, drives them to Florida, and then has them shipped to Costa Rica.”

Indeed, used cars are so expensive that Mario’s father’s business was actually more lucrative than selling cars already in Costa Rica. The most expensive part, said Mario, was paying the impuesto — import tax — when the vehicle arrived in Puerto Limón. In fact, Mario’s father had a Nissan Centra at that very moment. The car was cheap, reliable, easy to fix, and automatic.

Kylan had set her heart on a more muscular vehicle, a Jeep or SUV that could roll over rubble or barge its way through flash-floods, but I had suggested otherwise.

“Most of the places we’re going are on regular highways,” I said. “And frankly, if we’re headed to a place like Monteverde, I’d rather let an expert drive us.”

Old-fashioned as Costa Rica can be, the country is astoundingly automotive. While ranchers still mount horses and farmhands ride bicycles to work, the vast majority of Costa Ricans rely on engines to get around. Buses are always packed, and they stop in the remotest villages. Winding mountain roads have transformed into well-trafficked highways. My friend Andres said that to reach Jacó, the nearest beach town to San José, his family used to drive six hours; now it takes less than two on the four-lane pista. The roads aren’t always smooth, but a regular sedan could take us far and wide.

So Kylan relented. We would try for the Nissan.

Of all our hurdles in Costa Rica, buying a car was by far the most pleasurable. Mario introduced us to his father, Paco. Paco’s wife brought us iced tea. We sat on their living room couch and talked about the car. Paco invited us into the garage and we inspected it. Kylan hopped into the driver’s seat and drove around the neighborhood. We said yes. We returned a few days later, after Paco had personally installed a radio and spare tire and washed the car down. He drove us to his attorney, a chirpy woman in Desamparados, who prepared all the papers in her cluttered home-office. Then Paco drove us to various offices to have the car registered and inspected. By the time we were done, we wanted to adopt Paco as our surrogate grandfather.

Paco was sparkle-eyed and gentle as a saint. For every requisite wait, Paco had another question for us — where we got married, why we lived in Costa Rica, what we did for a living — and time eased past. The car itself seemed as solid as a 1998 Nissan could be: The white surface gleamed, the interior smelled fresh, the cushions had been vacuumed of every spec of dust. The engine vibrated a little, but it ran nicely. For $5,000, we couldn’t possibly hope for better.

When we returned to Paco’s house, Mario was standing outside. Everyone hugged and kissed cheeks and exchanged the usual well wishes: “Hasta luego” and “Gracias a Díos” and a dozen other exhortations. Finally we slipped into the car, Kylan revved the engine, we waved at Mario’s family through the windshield, and we headed down the street, frantic with excitement.

Two days later, Kylan sheepishly asked me, “Is it wrong that I love driving in San José?”

“No,” I said. “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”

We had long feared Central Valley traffic. The chaotic one-way streets and devil-may-care drivers struck us as a perfect vehicular storm, and every block was saturated in danger: Cars switched lanes on a whim, motorcycles weaved everywhere, unattended children strayed into the shoulder, and vendors stood in the middle of highways and waved bags of cashews. The potholes were cavernous. Speed bumps were often left unpainted, and we had to brake at the last second to save our axle. We had no idea why some intersections bore both stop signs and blinking traffic lights. Buses and motorcycles weaved perilously around each other, as if they alone enjoyed right-of-way.

Yet for those first few days, the experience of dodging pedestrians and guessing which lanes would abruptly end thrilled us, and we found every excuse to run an errand and therefore drive somewhere.

The first weekend, we decided to drive to Jacó. At long last, this was a trip we could take on a Saturday morning without hours of planning. No taxi to the bus station. No overcrowded autobus. No consulting a jumble of online itineraries. No more feeling like a tourist. We could just go.

On the way to Jacó, the highway crosses the Tárcoles River, a chocolate-colored waterway that bends lazily through its valley. The highway bridge is long and low, and beneath its concrete pylons lies a bask of enormous crocodiles. The man-eating reptiles are famous and attract visitors from around the world. Shops cluster together just before the bridge, and there’s always a guáchiman ushering cars into the gravel lot.

On a bus, you can’t stop. You simply watch the sodas and souvenir shops drift past. On a hot day, I might not even notice, because I would be asleep, my skull pressed against the bus’ window.

But in the car, we could stop. We could chat briefly with the guáchiman about the weather in conversational Spanish. We could enter the soda and ask for a pipa, and we could drink its water through a straw. We could browse the tapestries hanging from a clothesline and pick our favorite, then buy it on the spot, because we had been seeking a wall hanging for our bedroom for ages. We could stroll down the bridge’s walkway as trucks flew past, then look down at the crocodiles sunning themselves below. We could shake our heads and smile in disbelief, because this wasn’t some luxury safari but our actual lives. We could whip out our phones and call scores of people and make dinner plans for that very night. We could finish our coconut and chop it in half and scoop our the rubbery white meat with a spoon — a skill we had never known before — and then discard the biodegradable shell. We could hop back in the car, toss the guáchiman a 500-colones coin, and reverse into the road. We could fly over the bridge, rise into the hills, take curves, drop toward the sea. For the first time in nearly a year, we felt like we could do damn near anything. • 6 November 2014


Robert Isenberg is a writer based in San José, Costa Rica, where he serves as a reporter, videographer and photojournalist for The Tico Times, Central America’s most respected English-language newspaper. He is the author of The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and the poetry collection Wander, as well as numerous plays and stage works. Originally from Vermont, he spent 15 years living in and writing about Pittsburgh.