Costa Rican Gas Can

Circa September, 2015: I asked my landlord where I could get a gas can as I needed fuel for the thirsty, ancient mower that came with the rental house. He gave me a strange look, pondered the question for a moment and then shrugged.

“I usually use a gallon jug.”

It occurred to me as I digested his answer that in the three-plus months I’d been in Costa Rica I’d yet to see an actual gas can. There were, however, a lot of guys holding weed eaters over one shoulder and a plastic jug in their free hand. The jugs, which looked like something that originally held an industrial amount of vegetable oil, often had a scrap of plastic secured by a rubber band as a lid.

I had no large, empty plastic jugs on hand.

“Do you know where I could get a jug?”

“Usually at the gas station.”

I had gone along with the idea that the standard Tico solution was to procure a jug, any old jug, for gasoline storage. I had not, however, fully wrapped my mind around the notion that the state-controlled gas stations sold used plastic jugs for gas cans.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

I went later that same day to one of the two gas stations in town. A quick tour of the store inside revealed no gas cans.

“Excuse me.” I gently prodded the sleepy clerk. “Do you have any gas cans?”

He quickly took on that same odd look my landlord had given me. I couldn’t tell if it was my Spanish, or my question. Or both.

After a couple of seconds of awkward silence he rubbed his eyes with one hand and gestured somewhere behind his counter with the other. “No, but we do have these.”

He reached down to the floor and then produced a white, used, plastic jug which he set on the counter. Based on the remains of the label on the dirty exterior it did indeed appear that it had done a tour of duty as a cooking oil container. He plunked the empty jug on the counter and smiled.

“Ah. How much?”

“500 Colones.” This was slightly less than $1 U.S.

He took my money with one hand and fussed with the green plastic cap on the jug with the other. He set my money down and unscrewed the cap, which then fell apart in his hand. He clucked with disapproval and chucked the remains of the cap onto the floor behind the counter. He reached down and fiddled around on the floor and reemerged with another dusty cap. He screwed the “new” cap into place and it seems to fit. Mostly.

I took the used plastic jug to the guys who work the pumps — all service here is full service with varying amounts of wait time depending on the intensity and quality of the conversations already in progress with the other patrons. The friendly worker held the jug in the air and quickly filled it.

He handed it back to me and I screwed on the cap. After paying for the gas I walked back to my car and noticed that gas was oozing out from beneath the poorly-fitted cap on my Costa Rican gas can. I retreated back to the pumps and rummaged through one of the trash cans until I found a plastic bag. I screwed a portion of the bag under the cap to act as a seal and it did the trick. The workers nodded their approval to the approach and sealed the deal with the standard uttering, “Pura vida!”

It occurred to me as I set the jug down in front of the passenger seat of my car that this is the kind of thing that would lead to police action in the U.S. — where gas can only be put in approved containers that feature proper venting and new-fangled, nearly inoperable spouts that are supposed to limit the escape of the fumes into

My new gas can -- with the optional plastic bag seal in place.

My new gas can — with the optional plastic bag seal in place.

the air (but generally require removal of the fancy spout entirely so you can actually get gas out of the can, which leads to some degree of spillage, completely contrary to the intended design). All filling in the U.S. also has to be done with the can firmly in contact with the ground to avoid the remote potential of an explosion created by static electricity.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing that Ticos are using used cooking oil containers as gas cans. I also don’t know how much of a difference all of the regulation in the U.S. has actually made on the safety/spillage front. I do know that the next time we manage to finish something that comes in a gallon container I’ll be holding it back from the recycling bin in favor of adding it to my garden equipment.