Thursday, February 28, 2008

Drive Like a Tico

Driving in Costa Rica is WAAAAAAY different than driving in the US. Although they have many of the same traffic laws, not many of them are enforced. Also, to get from Point A to Point B on sketchy roads and through busy traffic, people come up with some very inventive driving strategies. We often joke about how driving down here is like driving in a video game, where you can drive all over the road (and sidewalk) to get where you need to go.
At first we were pretty scared to drive down here. People speed all over the place, families of four people pile onto little mopeds, and drivers change lanes suddenly and constantly. Now that we have owned a car for a few months and spent more time on the road, we feel more accustomed to the Tico driving style. We even think that these crazy drivers might be more careful and considerate sometimes than drivers in the states.
The roads in Costa Rica can be horrible. Heavy rains wash out all of the patches, and the roads are constantly covered in huge potholes, just waiting to pop a tire. A lot of people curse at the Costa Rican government while navigating around a giant hole or open manhole. There are also speed bumps (muertos) that are hard to see because they are not painted, so every once in a while you will be driving along until you feel a big THUD.
Other obstacles include the countless stray dogs that run around and sometimes sleep in the middle of the road. Today a couple of cows were walking in the street in front of our school, but that is a little more rare.
The narrow little streets here are packed with huge buses and delivery trucks. Often times you have to drive so close to an oncoming vehicle that you can almost here it scraping against your car. The streets here do not have names, so everything is identified by landmarks (eg 200 meters north and 100 meters west of the 2nd cemetery). To make matters worse, there are TONS of one way streets in Costa Rica, but hardly any of them have signs to warn you. You do not want to drive the wrong way on a one way street. It makes people so mad that they will cuss, honk, and gesture to the point where you are afraid that they might lynch you. The only way to know which street is which and where the one way streets are is to get to know the area. We are pretty comfortable driving around Escazu, but driving into San Jose or any other city is usually a stressful experience, with lots of honking and yelling directed at us.
Ticos are very relaxed people. There is even a thing called Tico Time, which refers to the way people show up late for everything. If you are invited to dinner at 5:00, you do not arrive before 6:30. With this said, Ticos hate driving in traffic, and there is tons of traffic around Escazu. They have many creative ways of dealing with traffic. They honk all the time. If there is a red light, people honk at it (maybe in hopes of making it change?). Also, pedestrians do not have the right of way here. Cars whiz by people trying to cross the street, and pedestrians learn to look both ways and sprint like there is no tomorrow when crossing.
When Ticos approach a two lane road that merges into one lane, they drive way ahead of the point where the lane merges and cut into the line of traffic as far ahead of everyone else as possible. Stop signs are just suggestions down here, and if you stop for too long people will try to pass you on the left. One of the craziest driving techniques that we have been introduced to is driving on the shoulder of the road. If traffic is backed up and you just want to make a right turn at the intersection up ahead, you don't wait. Instead, you drive onto the grass, dirt, sidewalk, or whatever it may be on the right shoulder of the road, and make your way up to the intersection. We used to gasp at this maneuver, but now that we know it is a perfectly legitimate way of driving, we use it ourselves if we are running late.
There are quite a few car accidents in Costa Rica. The law down here says that if you are in an accident, you cannot move your car until the police arrive and give you permission. So if someone is rear-ended (as they often are) the two or three cars involved must stay in the middle of the road. This usually causes huge traffic jams. Therefor, whenever we see a fender bender in front of us, we do whatever we can to get out of there so that we will not be stuck for an hour waiting. This law might sound crazy, but there is another one that is even crazier: if a person dies on the road, the body cannot be moved until a judge (?) comes and verifies that the person is dead.
For as crazy as the driving can be down here, there are still a lot of considerate drivers. If you are trying to make a left-hand turn into oncoming traffic, people will always stop and wave you through. People honk, wave, and flash their lights at each other way more than they do in the US. If you were trying to turn out into traffic in the States, you might be stuck waiting forever, as cars keep speeding up without letting you through. Here people slow down and help other drivers get where they need to. This courtesy seems to balance out all of the craziness on the road. It's hard to describe driving down here if you have not done it, but it is a really unique experience that is now part of our everyday lives.

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