I eyed the crowd on both sides of the highway. Most sang or clapped. Several swung oversized Costa Rican flags mounted on long poles into oncoming traffic.
I didn’t want to get whacked with a flag, but what was more worrying was the large number of those behind those crowding the road—the ones sitting on portable chairs with their feet propped up on coolers. The chairs and refreshments meant that this gathering of strikers (huelguistas) was not going anywhere anytime soon.
I looked over to my friend sitting in the passenger seat and said, “If there’s already this many of them at 8:00 I have a bad feeling about our chances of getting back.”
My passenger, who I’ll call Milton, grunted and used his one remaining eye to glare a hole into a member of the crowd waving a flag far to close for comfort. Milton, far tougher at age 80 than I’ve been at any point in my life, lost an eye to cancer last year but had not slowed down. He continued to drive his quad and motorcycle down our lousy roads, depth-perception be damned.
We were on the Pan American Highway (a grandiose name for a two-lane road without shoulders in this stretch) because of another vehicle that had recently entered Milton’s life: a used golf cart perched on a tiny trailer behind my oversized truck. Milton and his bride bought the cart last month, initially thinking they would just drive it around our zone without worrying about the pesky license plate, inspection sticker (RTV) and annual tax (marchamo). That plan and the potentially hefty fines it entailed was eventually scrapped in favor of a new one which involved jumping through several different hoops to make the cart and its occupants street-legal.
Hoop number one was RTV, and the closest inspection station with an opening was an hour away in Puntarenas. A large segment of the population in this port city lives without air conditioning, which is akin to living in the desert without water. If you ask anyone from San Jose about Monteverde they roll their eyes and say, “Ack. The roads are terrible!” Ask that same person about Puntarenas and they’ll clutch their chest and exclaim, “Good lord it’s hot there!”
The crowd, and the golf cart, now in my rear view mirror, we continued our journey unmolested. I stopped at a mechanic’s shop just a few blocks from the RTV station for a last-minute part for the cart. A variety of other clients visited the shop during our short time there. One man rented tires for his car. Yes, for a small fee you can rent just about any part you need from the shops located around the inspection stations, which explains how so many cars with both feet in the proverbial grave roam the streets with a new RTV sticker on the windshield.
Upon arrival at the RTV station, Milton presented his forms to the clerk. Several minutes later, after more rapid-fire Spanish than I could process in a week, we hit an impasse. The clerk pushed the papers back to Milton and shook her head.
Milton rubbed his top teeth against his bottom lip. Everyone knows that a good lawyer doesn’t ask a question if he doesn’t know what the answer will be. That rationale is even more important when you utter the word he used next, “Por qué (why)?”
More Spanish at unblocked highway speeds ensued. Eventually, the clerk declared that the customs identification number (DUA) had been entered incorrectly on one of the forms. Milton, a 40+ year veteran of the bureaucracy here, refused to yield. A debate ensued. Porque (which can mean both “why” and “because” when spoken aloud though the two words are spelled ever so slightly differently) was utilized extensively by all parties. The clerk eventually recognized that we weren’t leaving and, wearying of the battle, proposed a solution that I did not follow.
Milton, nodding, repeated back the proposal. “So, you’ll reset the system. It will look like we are coming back for the inspection tomorrow, but really I only have to wait 20 minutes before I bring the cart in? If it passes I’ll get the paperwork from you, but not the sticker, because I can’t get the sticker until I get the license plate, which I can’t do until I pay Marchamo, which I will be able to do with the document you’re going to give me?”
She nodded. Milton gathered his forms and we went outside to sit on the curb and sweat out the twenty-minute wait. During this span, the tire renter emerged victoriously with his inspection sticker and said he was going back to the shop to swap back to his original, bald equipment. We smiled and sweated.
45 minutes later, new paperwork in hand, we strapped the cart back down and prepared for our drive back up the mountain. We planned to eat at a restaurant halfway up where the heat of the lowlands typically lost most of the battle against the mountain breezes, but that idea came to a hard landing via the news from a recent arrival at RTV that the strikers had completely closed the highway.
“Are you sure?” I asked. Prior experience told me that the air here was as thick with rumors as it was with birds.
I looked over to Milton, who shrugged. A few minutes later we sat in a cafeteria perched along the local road that led to the highway. We chewed and watched as exactly none of the cars or trucks moved. This particular rumor, it turns out, was true. The highway was blocked. We ate our food quietly, the ceiling fan above us providing a small amount of relief against the heat.
About twenty minutes later the scenery changed. I pointed to the road and shouted, “It’s moving!”
Milton and I jumped up from the table and, post a visit to the men’s room to avoid the need to make water alongside the highway, raced to my truck. The long line of cars in the road marched forward at speeds approaching five miles per hour. It wasn’t much, but it was movement.
By the time I maneuvered my large truck and the attached trailer through the parking lot the traffic had again come to a complete halt. We made about a mile’s worth of progress over the next couple of hours and nearly reached the highway. We passed the time watching busses and 18-wheelers threatening to hit one another in an effort to gain a few feet in a merging process they refused to obey.
Sweaty and tired, I tried to distract myself by thinking of something positive.
“I wish my bride were here to see this,” I eventually offered.
“Why?” asked Milton.
“Because she thinks I’m impatient. Just look at how patient I’m being.” My pride swelled.
Milton’s brow furrowed. “So? What’s your other option?”
I opened my mouth to reply, then realized that Milton did not understand my desire to lay on the ground, kicking, screaming and ranting at the way the world was treating me. I shut my mouth and continued to stare at the traffic.
Thirty minutes later we’d moved a couple of hundred yards. The merging process complete, there was nothing to watch. Boredom settled in.
Without warning, southbound traffic began to pass us on the other side of the double yellow line. Most of the cars and trucks were full of the huelguistas, who brandished flags and waved happily at all of us they had trapped on the highway. I didn’t see anyone waving back. Milton desperately wanted to offer them all a gesture that would indicate his feelings on the matter, but I reminded him that we sat in my Narco truck dragging a golf cart. We were not exactly inconspicuous, so it might be best to save heartfelt feelings until we were actually moving once again.
When we reached the spot where the strikers had blocked the road we saw that the bulk of those sitting in their chairs had disappeared. There was still a contingent of huelguistas waving flags and walking along the road. Milton ignored my directive and shared his thoughts with them (fortunately my Narco truck has tinted windows).
Eventually, we made it back up the mountain. After we backed the cart off the trailer—and post a frustrating ten minute stretch of trying to back up the trailer I could only see when it jackknifed —I drove my weary self back to my house with various thoughts about my adopted country bouncing around my head.
The strike is a topic as hot as Puntarenas, and not something that I, or anyone, can readily fix (as of today, the 30th, the latest rumor says that it will end as early as this afternoon, though even if that is true I suspect the debate around the finer points will continue for months to come).
I don’t know that I can get behind the idea of blocking roads as a way to win a debate. It’s not just chunky Gringos like me who suffer, it’s people like 80-year-old, one-eyed Milton and everyone else trying to get to work, lead their lives and feed their families.
I do appreciate the fact that all of the protests have–mostly–not involved violence. There have definitely been unkind words, but there has been just enough respect on all sides to avoid sliding fully into the vitriol that is dominating the news, and life, in the United States (I do give the US props for a vehicle inspection process that is not contingent upon short-term part rentals).
To pick on my homeland a little further: I give a lot of credit to the mindset of those within the Costa Rican government who want the country to get its arms around the financial problems. Costa Rica’s government debt to GDP is (as of 2017) about 65%. That same figure for the US? 105% — and set to worsen.
I’m going to avoid the Pan American Highway for a little while. I wish everyone a little luck in this time of unrest that is by no means confined to Costa Rica–and I hope that all the countries around our increasingly small world manage to get their finances in order in a peaceful way. Lastly, I warn those crowding the roads in Costa Rica that if you stick a flag in Milton’s face as he drives by you should expect to receive a large, unhappy finger in return.