Compro – The Costa Rican Car Purchase

The transmission that soon failed -- and the dog that stopped by for moral support.

The transmission that soon failed — and the dog that stopped by for moral support.

What distracted me first from my attempt to select a box of cereal was the high-pitched squeal of glee. By the time I’d turned left to see the source of this noise it had already passed me. I saw only Renaldo standing in the middle of the grocery store aisle, sporting a wide grin. I spun back to the right and saw my youngest son sliding across the recently polished floor at a high rate of speed. To maximize his velocity he’d arched his back such that the only part of him touching the floor when he crashed into the feet of the assistant store manager standing at the end of the aisle was his stomach.

The assistant store manager crossed her arms and strummed her fingers against her elbow, doing her best to convey that I was a disappointment as a human being. My son jumped up and, ignoring everyone, ran off to another aisle. I turned to enlist Renaldo’s aide in the explanation and found that he too had buggered off.

I was in this predicament, in the midst of Alajuela, Costa Rica, because I’d agreed to purchase a car from a person I’d never met who was no longer in the country but had left his driver, and as it turns out, his attorney in charge of the sale. I was at a grocery store with Renaldo (not his real name) because the convoluted timeline involved for payment and pick-up required us to spend a night in the San Jose area and Renaldo rents out a casita on his property through AirBnB. As we came to find out, he is part of the rental package and accompanies guests on their errands and sight-seeing trips. Renaldo won the heart of our youngest son when he bowled him down the slippery aisle in the grocery store and, per our son, became his role model. When we attempted to leave the grocery store Renaldo couldn’t be found. I asked our son where his role model was and he replied, dead-pan, that his role model was out having a smoke.

On the car purchase front I’d already wired the proceeds. This was done via my new bank in the US, who, to their credit, acknowledged the premise that people who now live in Costa Rica might need access to their funds. I should say, however, that the conversation around the wire itself felt a little awkward.

“Sir, to confirm. You want to send a wire to a person you’ve never met who no longer resides in Costa Rica but instead now lives in Switzerland. This person, who is Italian, has asked you to send the money to an Austrian bank?”

How could I say no?

Unfortunately, one of the vagaries involved with an international wire is that you never know when it will actually post. I received a confirmation e-mail from my bank after the awkward conversation later that same day, a Tuesday, that the money had been sent. I forwarded this confirmation to the owner/driver/lawyer contingency and asked that they let me know when the funds arrived in Austria.

Several days passed and I made the AirBnB reservation in expectation of an imminent victory. I fully expected some amount of delay and confusion, but was not emotionally prepared for the fact that both Felipe, his driver and his lawyer opted for radio silence. My wife asked me Friday evening if I was still comfortable with the fact that I’d just thrown a bunch of our money into the Alps. No, I wasn’t, but I wasn’t going to admit it to her. Yet.

Monday morning the silence broke and the lawyer replied to let me know that she’d heard from Felipe. He was purportedly working in his new position in Switzerland, but apparently not that much as he hadn’t checked e-mail for the past four days. He had also not bothered to query his bank regarding the arrival of the wire, but he promised to do so some time Monday.

On Monday afternoon Felipe sent an e-mail to all stating that the money had indeed arrived — on Friday — and that I was clear to get the vehicle. I set the already made plans in motion with my wife and our children to head south so that we could combine the car effort with an escape from the house as our boys would not start school for almost another two weeks.

The attorney conveyed via e-mail that noon on Tuesday was perfect. We could meet at a sandwich shop that sat between her office and the driver’s office. I quickly agreed and asked whether or not the driver, and the actual car, were going to make the meeting. The attorney confirmed that she’d spoken with the driver, but then added that he was once again on vacation and couldn’t confirm anything until morning.

Communication once again reverted to black-out and  I found myself alone late Tuesday morning, optimistically seated at the sandwich shop. At 12:15 the suspense was killing me so I again phoned the attorney. This time she answered, but sounded frazzled. She said she’d leave her office shortly and should be there right on time for our 12:30 meeting. Relieved, I said that I’d be the one waiting in the chair by the door — and that I’d somehow messed up thinking the meeting was at noon.

“Noon and 12:30 are the same thing here in Costa Rica.”

“Ah… Is there any word from the driver?”

“Not yet. I’ll call him when I get there.”

20 minutes later she arrived at the now completely full restaurant. We exchanged small talk in the spillover area where patrons use the equivalent of school desks with mini, built-in table tops. She texted the driver, who was still not there, and made a clucking noise when he immediately responded.

She leaned in and whispered, “I think he just left his office. I’m always on time and this kind of thing is unfortunately very typical here.”

I nodded, assuring her that I agree whilst telling myself there’s no need to point out that she just recently espoused that 12:30 is the same thing as noon.

The driver eventually arrived a few minutes after 1:00. We reviewed the documents the lawyer had prepared, in Spanish, and executed them on the school table. She handed me my copy in a manilla envelope. I, in turn, handed her a small stack of 100’s for the transfer fee and related legal fees, and the driver gave me two sets of convoluted key rings. The guy munching on his sandwich the next chair/desk over gave me an odd look and I smiled in return. Who doesn’t pass over a wad hundreds over in return for a manilla envelope at a sandwich shop whilst not ordering or eating?

A few minutes later I cranked the engine and immediately saw that the driver had left me with less than no gas. When I drove it roughly a week before it was nearly full and the owner hasn’t been in the country for a month. Huh…

Scanning for gas stations, and finding none, I ended up stopping at a local business asking for directions to the closest gas station. I returned to the car and tried to follow the whimsical directions I’d been given that reflected about 50% of the actual street layout. Purely by accident I did manage to find a station and choked up to the pumps. All gas stations in Costa Rica are full-service, so I asked the attendant to fill it up. Several minutes later he returned and congratulated me.

I gathered from the gas station guy’s rapid commentary that I must have some sort of special gas tank as he’s never seen a Land Cruiser take that much fuel. He then announced the total owed, which was also very special.

After an aborted attempt to obtain new keys and fobs from the Toyota dealership (I declined the opportunity to pay $900 and wait 28 business days) I dialed in a landmark close to Renaldo’s AirBnB house via a navigation app on my phone. Roughly 20 minutes into this journey the freeway became a parking lot, and the navigation app proactively rerouted me.

I soon found myself in an extremely rough neighborhood where taking out the trash involves opening the front door and pitching it across the street. Several strapping young men strode down the middle of the street, refusing to give ground to me or my car. For the first time in Costa Rica I was nervous.

I wove around the belligerent pedestrians and checked my phone repeatedly, trying to figure out where the app was taking me. My stomach did a light, uncomfortable roll as I eventually realized that somewhere along the way the app had latched on to a completely different destination that had nothing to do with where I wanted to go. It wasn’t pointing me to a city in Panama — which had happened before — but it was trying to end my life by taking me to the wrong side of San Jose via the worst possible neighborhoods.

Keeping an eye on a guy wearing a tank top and sporting more muscles than anyone needs walking in the middle of the street, I attempted to reset the destination on the app. Suddenly concerned about my safety, a message appeared stating that changes to the route were unavailable unless the vehicle was at a complete stop.

I drove around Tank Top, who never missed a beat, and searched for a place where I could safely, or at least relatively safely, park. I ended up picking one of the large, long piles of trash along the side of the road and slid to a stinky stop.

An hour later I was finally back at the AirBnB house, talking with our host. Renaldo was Swiss once upon a time but had been in Costa Rica for 14 years and now spoke in a mix of Spanish, French, Italian and a smattering of English (all at the same time as a mash-up). Renaldo is ten pounds of fun in a five pound bag. He’s excited about everything, including the idea of going with me to the tire shop to get new ones for what he’s already calling his next car — “You regresa a Texas, I get car. Perfecto!”

A few minutes later we’ve pulled up at what he advertised as the best tire shop in the area. Renaldo immediately attempted to sell the very used tires being taken off of my car to one of the other patrons while simultaneously making fun of most of the employees for standing around doing nothing (his theory, which has proven to be fairly accurate, is that there is a 4-to-1 ratio of workers watching vs. workers actually working). That particular sale didn’t go through, but he did indeed sell the used tires to one of the employees, Alemán.

Alemán was a long way from German, so Renaldo pushed him for his story. Alemán put up a good fight, unfazed by Renaldo’s charms. This only fueled Renaldo’s fire and, as Alemán was the only one of the six employees actually working (theory tested and confirmed) he’s unable to escape as Renaldo pursues him around my car, questioning every aspect of what was taking place. The non-working workers followed Renaldo around in a small pack. Eventually Alemán’s resolve shattered and he began laughing along with Renaldo. Alemán revealed that his family tree goes back to aborigines in Australia, which is why he looks different than all of the other Ticos. There was no explanation of why this led to him being called German — and yes, Renaldo asked. A lot.

Throughout all of the banter, I learned that Felipe had been using tires two sizes too small for the car — but that the spare was the correct size. If Feliipe had had a flat, the trip home on the spare would have involved a lot of circles. Renaldo celebrated his success in selling the used tires as well as his newfound friendship with Alemán by getting the cashier’s phone number. He tore off part of my receipt and used it to scribble down her number, blowing her kisses as we drove away.

The driver had conveyed a folder full of receipts for oil changes, brake jobs and other required maintenance that claimed to involve my new car but reality later confirmed otherwise. Much like a street map of San Jose, they existed for entertainment purposes only. I was also eventually able to pin down Felipe’s odd interest in transmission fluid (via numerous articles on the topic intertwined amongst the receipts) when I had to have the transmission rebuilt.

I had so much fun with this first foray into a Costa Rican car purchase that I did it again a few months later. For this second effort I drug my mechanic, and his father — who is also a mechanic, with me. One would think that having two mechanics pore over a vehicle would eliminate some amount of potential problems, but then one has to recognize the powerful, destructive force that Costa Rica exerts on all vehicles within its borders.

Pura vida.