I’ve picked up a number of hitchhikers in my time here in Costa Rica. My collective experience with this pastime is a mixed bag.
Generally, I’ve benefited from interesting conversations that yielded useful nuggets of local lore in the form of a free Spanish lesson. The positive experiences are counter-balanced by rides that went ugly early—like the time the hitcher coughed up enough phlegm to re-upholster my car, which is essentially what he did by using the interior to repeatedly clean off his hand.
Gringo back-packers quickly became an obvious no vote. I’m sure there are exceptions but the majority of my experiences involved significant, pungent smells, a general sense of confusion about their actual destination, and a desire to potentially save some money by inviting themselves to stay with me for an extended period.
These collective experiences forced me to tweak my approach, while still maintaining Pura Vida, by only offering rides in town. Admittedly profiling against sneezers and the great white unwashed, I happily give short rides to others. If things go awry my final destination can change to the next block, and I now keep a rag handy just in case someone slips past the phlegm radar.
There is still, however, one puzzle I have yet to solve: what to do with those seeking a ride down the mountain to the metropolis of San Jose (somewhere from 2.5 to 4.5 hours away depending on traffic, road closures, weather, and acts of Dios)? I should confess that I have been diagnosed as being three adult beverages away from being an extrovert. The majority of the time I am, therefore, very much at peace within the confines of my capacious head.
There are also physical considerations. My car, which I have previously, accurately described as a hunk of junk, has no functioning air-conditioner. During the dry season, this means the windows go down—which also means the entire interior and all occupants are plastered in a thick layer of dust. During the wet season, any additional breathing creates that much more fog on my windows which I am unable to pierce.
In all seasons my creaking, groaning mistake from Korea makes so much noise that a conversation involving people with good hearing is a challenge. My time with loud music throws me clearly out of that category. I also find that my ability to understand Spanish goes down about 75% when I can’t see the other person’s lips move—and the rocky, guardrail-free road down the mountain makes keeping your eyes on the road a priority.
Another factor that defies screening is what I call the equivalent of, ‘Oh, while you’re up…” All of us have likely used that line on our significant other. It is mostly harmless. “While you’re up, can you please: turn on the light; turn off the light; turn it up; turn it down and–at least in our house–get the cat out of the kitchen sink.”
On several trips to San Jose I’ve found it to mean, “While we’re down here I just have a couple of other stops I need to make.”
San Jose was a town designed for traffic involving horses. Skinny horses—and not that many of them. Objects appearing on the map are actually much further away than they appear, and a twenty-minute shift in the time of day can mean the difference between smooth sailing and the step-mother of all traffic jams.
My favorite (now that it’s over) story on this front started with a request from someone who wanted to join me for a trip to the hardware store. I warned this prospective passenger that my main goal for this trip was the x-ray machine at a hospital for my suspiciously, permanently swollen hand (we do have a machine at a private clinic on the mountain but apparently there is no one trained to use it). “No problem,” I was told. “I’m in no hurry.”
I felt something might be amiss after I’d picked up my passenger when an odd, unclean smell wafted through the car. The smell wasn’t backpacker bad, but it definitely wasn’t good. I sniffed at myself and confirmed that the shower I had just taken was still performing as hoped. My clothes were clean. My passenger also appeared to be freshly showered. As we bounced down the dirt road I wondered about the large, leather bag my passenger had put on the floor of the backseat. The bag was odd to begin with—skinny, but nearly two feet wide and equally tall.
I nodded towards the back seat. “What’s in the bag?”
My passenger tensed for a moment and then, keeping his eyes on the road, said, “Oh that? It’s nothing.”
I stared at him for a moment but he refused to make eye contact.
As we drove down the mountain I mentioned that we would use Route 27 once we got off the mountain. Route 27 is a newer toll road that enters the southern part of San Jose. Generally, 27 is much quicker and much less populated than the heavily utilized Pan American Highway (Route 1).
My passenger stiffened. “My recommendation is Route 1.”
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. He was still staring straight ahead but was much more anxious about our route than anyone hitching a free ride should be.
“The hospital for my x-ray is just a few blocks off of the spot where 27 ends in San Jose.”
He clenched his hands again but didn’t respond.
I continued driving. A few moments later he repeated, “My recommendation is Route 1. 27 is very bad, There is always lots of traffic and all of the big trucks use it.”
I knew my passenger rarely left the mountain, and when he did it was on the public bus that used Route 1.
“Um…have you ever been on 27?”
My passenger avoided my gaze and stared out his window, answering softly, “No.”
I let a couple of moments pass, still confused by his odd insistence, but stuck the landing with, “Well, Route 1 comes in the wrong side of San Jose for me. We’re using 27.”
Nothing was said for several minutes, then my passenger began furiously talking on his cell phone. I caught snippets but for the most part, it was too fast for me. One thing was clear — it was all about our route.
After several calls and a lot of talking he turned to me and said, “When we turn off for 27 we need to stop for a minute.”
This was getting stranger by the minute, and it was not lost on me that my passenger’s wish was apparently my command.
“I have to give the bag to someone. It will only take a minute. There’s a gas station right after the turn. We can stop there.”
I tried arching my neck to look at the odd bag but was largely hidden on the floor of the back seat.
“What’s in the bag again?”
He again turned towards his window and muttered, “Nothing important.”
A little unhappy and a lot leery, I stopped a few minutes later at the gas station. He immediately jumped out and said, “I’ve got to find his wife. She doesn’t have a phone.”
“Who is he? And why are we looking for his wife?”
He smiled and jogged off in the direction of the neighboring hardware store. I checked e-mails to distract myself from the bag. A few minutes later my passenger, now sweaty, returned. “She should be here anytime.”
I checked the time. My appointment for the x-ray loomed. “How long is anytime?”
I knew from experience that this could mean anything. “Really?”
He smiled and said, “More or less.” He then ran off in the other direction.
About twenty minutes later my now very sweaty passenger opened the back door and grabbed his bag. The ends of a couple of tail feathers from a rooster now protruded from the top. He slammed the door and yelled, “Be right back.”
I noticed that my car almost immediately smelled better. It wasn’t me that stank. It was a rooster that had been amazingly quiet the entire way down the mountain. A rooster that quite likely was used in the illegal but quite popular underground cock-fighting ring in the area.
When he returned the rest of our drive was quiet but still uncomfortable. I had my x-ray, which showed that my surgically repaired hand was still screwed together. I fired up my beast in the hospital parking lot and gathered my bearings for the drive to the hardware store on the northwest side of San Jose. Just as I was about to let out the clutch my passenger noisily cleared his throat. I turned, confused and now expecting the worst.
“What about the lamp?”
I bit my tongue a little. “What lamp?”
He pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket with the name of a shop. I had never heard of it and had no idea where it was (a given for me in San Jose). He pushed the paper towards me.
“Where is this?”
To my surprise, the same guy that had used his phone to track our progress every step of the way on 27 —which I already knew by heart—shrugged.
“You don’t know where it is? I don’t understand.”
He pulled out his phone and began furiously typing on Google Maps. I counted to ten, then twenty. We needed to make this pass by the hardware store—that was on our way back home—and then get the heck out of San Jose before the traffic descended. I sighed and pulled out my phone too. Within a few seconds, I found a name that was very similar to the one written on this piece of paper. It was all the way out of San Jose close to a neighboring area to the east (Cartago). The exact direction I did not want to go.
45 minutes later we continued to reroute through dead-end streets in some rough looking neighborhoods. It was clear that the Google map car had never been through this area—or had not survived the trip. Neither of us had any idea where this store was, or if it even existed. The third time I passed over the same highway I pulled over to the trash-laden side of the road and declared that I was done.
“I have no idea where we are. I’m sorry but we’ve got to make it all the way across San Jose before the traffic and I don’t want to drive up the mountain in the dark.”
He opened his mouth. Then shut it. He turned and looked out his window again, obviously unhappy with me.
I felt a little guilty as I tried to find directions to the hardware store. It’s not my fault, I reasoned. He doesn’t even know where this place is—and he didn’t tell me anything about this lamp, or the rooster.
We made a series of turns back through the shady neighborhoods and soon found ourselves queued up in traffic at a red light. As we waited, I looked around this part of Costa Rica that I had never seen and my stomach dropped. To our left was a derelict shopping center. On the weathered, broken listing of businesses was the name of the store scribbled on his paper.
A few minutes later we found ourselves in the middle of a shopping mall that had long ago died but had not yet had the good grace to acknowledge it. The store with the magic lamp turned out to be one of the few things still operating. It wasn’t actually a store but was instead a repository for things ordered on the internet via monthly installment plans. Another half hour of waiting later, my passenger happily clutched a small white box to his chest as we walked back to my car.
I eyed the box dubiously. It was too small to hold a rooster. It also looked awfully tiny for a lamp.
We hit the worst of the traffic and it took well over an hour just to make it back to San Jose—to sit in even more horrific congestion as we tried to make our way to the hardware store. Many hours later I finally got home with little to show for it other than an empty gas tank.
The memory of this journey, like the odor of a smelly farm animal, will eventually fade. Until then my trips to San Jose will likely be solitary experiences that involve Route 27, only planned stops, and no chickens–unless they are purchased frozen and reside in the cooler.