Hal spent a year in Germany in his youth. During that year, he traveled all over Europe. He said in every country but France, you could hold out your hand with money in it to pay for something and get back the right change. They’d count it out so you’d know.
Do NOT do that in Costa Rica. At least not in heavily touristed areas, like along either coast. You will NOT get back correct change. For the first time in Costa Rica, we had money flat out stolen from us, starting with that cab driver. Over and over again. I didn’t like that one little bit.
The very first rule of thumb is DON’T BUY ANYTHING UNLESS YOU ASK THE PRICE FIRST. And in heavily touristed areas, there are rarely prices on anything. They charge what they think you can pay. Like, at a soda in Parismina, the boys got cheeseburgers. There was no menu anywhere, no chalkboard. I didn’t ask how much because I didn’t know to protect myself yet. They ate. I went up to the window to pay, asking The Girl: "Cuanto cuesta, por favor."
She looks at her mom who is next door in the yard, on the other side of their extravagant altar where I am assuming they spend quite a bit of time on their knees asking forgiveness for any sins, and asks in Spanish how much does the gringa owe for two cheesburgers? The mom says: "Un mil quinientos." [One thousand five hundred colones, about $3.] With a PERCEPTIBLE nod to her head at me, The Girl asks: "UN mil?" Mom looks at me, then back to The Girl and says: "DOS mil quinientos." [The price just about doubles to $5.] I am stunned at this audacity but I tell myself I’m imagining the whole thing. I do not imagine anything else.
I give The Girl a 10,000 colon note. She gets the change together, stacks it neatly and – while chatting me up – carefully hands it back to me with a 5,000 colon note on the bottom, a heavy coin in the middle and a 2,000 colon note on top. I know what is happening and I don’t want to catch her stealing from me. I turn away and see that she has indeed given me a 100 colon piece instead of the 500 colon piece I should have gotten. I watched her pick that coin carefully out of a bag of coins next to the register. The Girl has done this before. It makes me very sad. She scoots out from behind the counter looking very satisfied.
To me, it’s only 80 cents. To her, it’s 1/2 hour’s pay, which I guess is real money. But I got the distinct impression the episode was more about the sport of stealing from the uppity gringa than about needing the money for food. We decide not to eat there again.
Later that day, Mo bought a coca [coke] in a pulperia for 500 colones. He gave a 2,000 colon note to pay and got a 500 colon coin back in change. He asked for the other mil [thousand] note and got it with a shrug. If you know the money, you know this was not a mistake.
There were a few more instances of out and out theft, but we got used to it pretty quickly. I started adding up all the bills and counting my change, something I don’t feel the need to do in the central valley. We started to always ask how much and, if it seemed unreasonable, we didn’t buy. This continued through PV: you have to ask how much. Once I started asking, I never found a mistake on a bill and I always got back correct change. Asking how much first tells them you are paying attention. I think it’s like walking in the dark in Manhattan: if you look alert, you are less prone to attack.
There was one old man on Parismina who had icy cold cokes at prices that were not only reasonable, but the same every time we went. A lovely respite from the heat and the theft.