Every night I risk my life driving to rehearsal. The play opens tomorrow, then runs 3 weekends, 3 performances each. It’s been six weeks of driving every night and so far, so good. I’m alive. To add a nice layer of panic, the boys are working the play so now I have them in the car for the perilous journey.
I may have mentioned that driving in Costa Rica is terrifically confusing and often downright dangerous. There are perils everywhere and almost all of them unexpected. Pedestrians die here at an alarming rate. Once you’ve driven thru any villages (and Costa Rica is mainly villages except for the heart of San Jose), you understand why. No sidewalks, no place to walk except the side of the road, no shoulders. Most people don’t have a car so walking is the mode of transport, even if you are just walking to the bus stop or taxi stand. No TV or computers so at night, the village social life consists of walking to a neighbor’s house or to the square to hangout. Or in just taking a walk, pushing a baby carriage.
And, of course, the roads are skinny. With deep yawning ditches along the sides. Add to this dusk, dark and rain, pedestrians wearing black or dark colors, no effort made to be visible… no wonder they die in droves. I have narrowly missed pedestrians a couple of times, just because unexpected forces conspire at the last minute… being passed by a motorscooter with an oncoming bus, meaning to swerve, planning to swing wide to miss the peds but unable to at the last minute. It’s breathtaking, to be sure.
The highways are another matter, just as dangerous. No shoulders, so if a car or bus or 18-wheeler dies on the "side" of the road, they actually block a lane. You are required by law to carry those triangle reflector things so you can set them out to warn oncoming travelers that a lane is blocked. But many people don’t have these… imagine. So they set out what they have: a car seat, a towel, a yellow plastic bucket, a wire basket, a new box of diapers… you see it all. If they don’t have anything in the car and there’s a tree handy, they pull down a branch and lay that in the road. If you are driving and see a tree branch in the road, particularly on a village road, that means there is a car blocking the road up ahead. SLOW DOWN.
Merge lanes on the highway are a joke. I’d say 75% of them are stop and look lanes, not merge lanes. They are short and they dump onto the highway, no merge space provided. At rush hour, cops put up cones blocking off one of the highway lanes around an entry ramp, creating a merge lane. But don’t come here expecting people to know how to merge, even with opportunity. It is downright dangerous.
Part of the reason it is so dangerous is because when people tell you that lovely peaceful warm and friendly Costa Ricans become rude selfish assholes behind the wheel of a car, BELIEVE IT. I am constantly amazed at how rude the drivers here are. If you are trying to get onto a highway or turn into a packed road, people move up to keep you out. Go out of their way NOT to let you in. I used to give drivers the benefit of the doubt: "they probably didn’t see me" or "s/he is having a bad day" or "someone’s probably in the hospital"… but no more. The rule is first come, first served and to hell with everyone else. Driving in Costa Rica makes driving in New Jersey look tame.
Last night, I let a guy in who was trying to gain entry onto the crawling freeway and he was so grateful, he blinked his car lights AND rolled down his window and waved. In the pouring rain. You get really really grateful when you meet a nice-guy driver. It’s so unexpected.
So as I drive every night to Escazu to rehearsal, a drive that takes 20 minutes with no traffic but that has taken 2 hours with an 18-wheeler blocking a lane in the rain, I have plenty of time to ruminate on how to arrive alive when driving in Costa Rica.
1. Use your blinker every time. People roar past you, arriving out of nowhere, from all sides. Drivers switch lanes with no notice. If you are giving notice, you have a chance. I have never been a heavy blinker, but I am in Costa Rica!
2. Stay well back from the guy in front of you. Well back. The old rule "one car length for every 10 miles of speed" is critical. Coming over a hill onto a car/truck stopped in your lane – and it could be the far left, far right or middle lane – could spell curtains if you aren’t a safe distance back.
3. Pedestrians cross the highway all the time. In the dark. In the rain. They must have a death wish. Which is often granted. The other day, we saw an entire family: mom, dad, 4 kids, mom holding a baby, crossing the highway. They had made it across one half, climbed over the waist-high median and were smushed up against that median in the 12 inches of "shoulder" waiting for an opening to cross the other half. They were grinning. Big fun. One car in the inside lane a little too close to the median and smush indeed.
4. You will encounter bicycle riders in the dark, in the rain with no lights coming from all directions on the highway. Brace yourself.
5. NEVER take your eyes off the road. I used to wonder why it took me so long to remember how to get anywhere. It’s because I can never look up from the roadway to take note of landmarks… I’m too busy watching for potholes, pedestrians, ditches and oncoming traffic to notice anything else. If you use your cell phone while driving in Costa Rica, you should go to jail. The other night I was behind someone driving out in the country who had a tv on where their rear-view mirror should be.
6. Highway merging is out. Entry lanes are short with no merge lane. It is stop and look, no way around it. And when you do have a chance to merge and there is someone in front of you, LEAVE ROOM FOR OPTIONS. People here do not know how to merge, even when the chance presents itself. They will still stop, so if you are behind them and see the lane is clear, expecting them to speed up and roll along, you will be sorely disappointed. They will stop anyway and merge slowly. So f^&#^*(&*@ slowly, you will want to choke something. Careful, you will run into them before you can die of a coronary.
7. There are bus stops on the highway. So watch that far right lane. The bus stops in that lane. And the "bus stop" is often just a bare spot on the side of the road where people are standing. And sometimes the waitees step into the highway, two inches from oncoming traffic, to peer down the highway looking for the darn bus!
8. Do not drive a stick with flip flops on or any kind of slide shoe. One accidental "slide" and you are SOL. But everybody knows that.
9. Drive slow on country roads. You need all your options available to you. Once you know the roads, the urge to speed along when it looks like there is no one there will come up. A couple of close calls will remind you that you need all options open all the time. There are plenty of people speeding along who shouldn’t be. They will cause you enough trouble.
10. The minimum driving age is 18. Probably helps.
11. Everything is worse in the rain, just like everywhere else. Just because it rains everyday and rains hard for 2-3 months a years here apparently doesn’t help. People still freak out and drive erratically in the rain: either too fast or too slow. Careful.
12. Here’s something to note: when you have an accident, no matter how small or insignificant, you must leave your cars exactly where they are as they were at moment of impact until the police get there. Which could be an hour or so. This causes quite a huge jam no matter where it happens: on the highway or in the villages. And fender benders often occur at intersections. Ooooh boys, that’s fun. Cars backed up for miles for hours. Plan ahead.
BTW, in the U.S. we exchange cards and go about our ways. Don’t even think of that here. I’m not sure if it’s against the law to leave even if both parties agree, but there are stories about both parties agreeing to walk away. Then one party changing his/her mind and suing the other party for damages (or whatever they sue for here). Don’t even think of walking away. Plan ahead and drive carefully. You DON’T want to be in an accident.
13. There are working trains in Costa Rica.
14. Avoid San Jose and immediate surrounding towns from 4:30p to 7p unless you enjoy gridlock. On Fridays, start avoiding at 3pm. You have NO idea.
15. Most streets are one way. And you don’t know which way it is unless you see a No Virar Derecha/Izquierda [no right/left turn allowed] sign. There aren’t many of those, so you are often left with slowing down as you get to the corner to see which way the cars are moving and/or parked. And people park on both sides of the road facing both ways so just seeing parked cars all facing one way on both sides of the street is no guarantee that this is a one way street. And you can have one way streets going the same way in a row… unlike in Manhattan, for instance, where one street goes north, the next goes south. AND they have often changed their minds about which way a street is going to head. So you see painted arrows in the road that indicate you can turn right… but you notice that arrow is slightly faded. Then you get to the street, and guess what? It’s going one way to the left. Just to keep you on your toes.
16. Potholes. Have I mentioned potholes? We’ve taken to judging potholes by the number of ponies and/or puppies it will hold, i.e. "That thar’s a 2-pony." Both Nicaragua to the north (an incredibly poor country, second in the world in poverty – there’s a claim to fame) and Panama to the south have good roads. Smooth, wide, lined, delicious roads. Costa Rica’s roads make you want to cry.
There’s more. So much more. This page to be updated as I think of it…