If you are driving in Costa Rica, you need to know about the quirky way they handle railroad crossings.
See the sign in this photo? These are before and after railroad tracks. Sometimes. Sometimes only on one side. And only some tracks. Not all, not by a long shot. And mostly in this shape and worse: bent, faded, scratched, pitted. Sometimes you get a sign and no track. Whatever.
You don’t see those arms that lower down at a U.S. crossing. Or flashing red lights. Or hear "ding ding ding"… None of that. Way too fussy for Costa Rica.
The tracks disappear into dirt. Or are covered with pavement in spots. Unusable. In fact, we’ve never seen a track that looked like a train could run on it. Never seen a train or any evidence of active train life. We used to stop at crossings, look both ways… we finally realized there are no trains in Costa Rica. Certainly none in the bustling city of San Jose.
So imagine our surprise when we happened upon an actual living breathing train. Or rather IT happened upon US. Trains seem living and breathing when they are less than 20 yards away bearing down on you, blowing that freaking whistle.
I need to backtrack a little… It’s 5:30pm, we are leaving San Jose in rush hour traffic. Rush hour in Costa Rica is intense due to relaxed traffic laws, sparing use of signals, and the low deference paid to any existing laws/signals.
We are taking a different route to our sleepy little village when we hear what sounds like a fire truck horn. There is a brief bit of siren, too, which we realize later must have been a coincidence, but which now only serves to further confuse us. The boys are in the back seat – train bait – Hal and I in the front. Hal driving – oh, sweet justice to get hit by a train while HE is driving and not ME, the Bad Driver! Not that I would have gotten to revel in this.
Anyway, we keep hearing this fire truck, and look to see which way it is coming. You rarely hear a siren here. Never a fire truck. Ever. People here blow their horns at everything and there are so many cars and pedestrians all going every which way…
We find ourselves on one of those funky old railroad tracks. No sign. No warning that this is a railroad track. An active one. Nothing. Just the track.
Your warning, it turns out, is that horn. Which turns out to be a Freight Train Horn. We are on the tracks, in 2nd gear – it’s bumpy, we are going nice and slow when we hear that horn loud and CLOSE. We look right to see a FREIGHT TRAIN BEARING DOWN ON US BLOWING THAT FRICKIN HORN FOR ALL IT’S WORTH.
Hal hauls ass off the tracks and saves our lives. The train passes behind us not two seconds later. If we had happened upon those tracks one second later… Anyway, Hal gets to be the Hero, not the Bad Driver. There is so little justice in the world.
We are speechless for 30 seconds. Even Mo. Silence. Finally, Hal and I find our voices and say profound things like "OHMYGOD WE ALMOST GOT HIT BY A TRAIN!" The boys remain quiet. Actually, that’s the most amazing thing: Mo didn’t say a word for probably two minutes. We should do this more often.
Why didn’t we see the train moving along before we got on the tracks? Because there is a cluster of big buildings blocking the view. And masking where the sound was coming from.
Where were we coming from? From finding out Hal doesn’t have cancer. Pretty ironic to find out you don’t have cancer, then get smashed by a train. Yeah, that would have been hysterical.
By the way, Mo’s fine, completely recovered his voice. 100%. Why, I can hear him talking even now… and he’s ASLEEP.