Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fender-bender in Costa Rica

(Driving in San Jose can be hectic, but the dangers of driving in rural areas in Costa Rica are just as real.)

I stayed remarkably calm throughout the entire event; my wife was a bit less so.  When I saw that motorcyclist fly off his cycle onto the trunk of a parked car, my heart stopped for a minute.  I was turning right into a parking space without my turn signal on, he was passing me on the right, so there was plenty of blame to go around.  Fortunately, he was physically all right.  The damage was minimal, mostly lights on all vehicles concerned, but the official reporting took half a day.  We waited in the center of Uvita, a coastal Costa Rican town, until the police and an insurance guy from a town 90 minutes away arrived to fill out all the reports.  I was instructed by the transito that I could show up in court in Ciudad Cortez within eight days, but my car rental company told me that they will do that; that is why I signed all those papers when I got the Nissan 4x4 on day 1.

After all these years of driving in my favorite country, it finally happened.  Nice that it didn't occur during one of those times when I was driving over the Cerro de la Muerte in the dark, in the fog, with trucks passing on blind curves, with a thousand feet of drop off the side.  That would have ruined my year.  I guess this is why I have never been a fan of cars or of driving.  I learned at an early age how these machines can change your life forever.

When a fender-bender happens in the states, it is inconvenient, but it is really not that big of a deal.  If your vehicle is undrivable, we take it to the shop and we get around some other way for a while.  We take a cab or a bus or our neighbor who has a car delivers us where we need to go.  Heck, most of us have a second car anyway, so we use that one until the first one is repaired.  But in places like Costa Rica, it is a big deal to have your only mode of transportation down.  Bus transport in the capital is great, but not out here in the boonies.  Most ticos do not own a car or truck, some have a motocycle or a bike, and most walk nearly everywhere.  So this guy who richoched off my rental car will not be able to drive his moto until he gets the money to fix it properly.  Life gets instantly more difficult---to get to work, to get to market, to conduct business at the bank. (He will apparently receive insurance money, but it will take months.  I will have to pay for damages to the rental car up to the deductible amount.)

You could gauge how important this incident was in the daily life of a tico because of all the locals who stopped by to get the story.  The cyclist must have described his version of what happened a dozen times to friends and relatives while we waited for the authorities.  When gringos passed by, they barely noticed.  I didn't get to explain to anyone what happened.  There was an American eyewitness, however, who was drinking coffee only a few feet in front of where the accident occurred.  Terri Peterson gladly came to my rescue and volunteered to be a witness, if necessary.  Turns out she runs eco-tours from the southern part of the country, so this is my chance to give her a plug.  But from the crowd of ticos, you would have thought there were 2-3 bodies lying on the pavement instead of some pieces of broken glass and plastic.  Fortunately, the owner of the parked car was a guy named Eddie that I had just met 15 minutes before at the nearby gas station.  He had lived in the states for 16 years, so he served as my interpreter with authorities.  My Spanish is perfectly fine in a bar or restaurant, but explaining a car accident to the police is another matter.  All in all, I guess it made for an interesting morning for Uvitans.

In the mid-80s, we lived in a mountaintop village in Costa Rica with our three children for a year.  We had no car, so we walked everywhere.  It was really work to get food and to do errands.  And then, whatever you bought, you had to carry home. After a while, we bought a horse, and life got immensely easier.  I lost 25 pounds that year, and I was not overweight in the least when I got there.  Can you say emaciated?

So I feel badly that I caused, or was involved, in a disruption of the normal flow of events in this man's life.  The accident gave me something to write about; it only gave him a problem.  I wonder how often this is the case.  We tend to weigh our economic setbacks against our own standard of living, not against those for whom the event is much worse.  It even seems there are parallels here with the effects that U.S. international policies have on millions of less fortunate people in other countries.  But that is another blog.


  1. April Horowitz MoulaertFebruary 7, 2010 at 8:37 PM

    I married a Costa Rican, and my dad lives there as well, so I can relate to your comments. Glad u are all ok!

  2. I had no idea your husband was tico. I figured Moulaert was French or something.

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  4. As America lurches forward in its race to the bottom, this story will take place in Placerville, or Indianapolis the next time you need to write it. We can only hope Americans will lose weight from this sort of mobile inconvenience, probably though, they'd shoot themselves first instead of walking.