For this, my second trip to Costa Rica, a Central American country that's impossible not to love, I rented a Mitsubishi ASX 4WD. Back home in Canada, we know this SUV as the RVR (or Recreation Vehicle Runner), while Americans call it the Outlander Sport.
I chose the ASX for its smallish size (similar to the Subaru Crosstrek and Honda HR-V, among others) which makes it as handy as it is economical, both at the pump and when renting. This is doubly important in this era of prodigious inflation that is affecting the cost of just about everything on the planet these days.
This ASX/RVR/Outlander Sport also has a bright and spacious cabin, enough to accommodate two passengers and a baby seat in the back.
The reason I mention a baby seat is because I actually had one behind me. a baby, that is. You'll soon understand why.
Let's start at the beginning: I left Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste, one of the country's seven provinces, for Samara, a seaside refuge on the Pacific. Once I passed the stopover town of Nicoya, I crossed mountains that took over roads with twists and turns, descents and climbs. In fact, the road zigzags non-stop. It can drive you crazy, but it can also offer an exhilarating slalom to those who like to drive, not only because of the topographical challenges but also because of the local vehicles of all kinds that add to the sense of adventure.
When it's not an antediluvian pickup truck, it's a tractor, a bus, a trailer truck or an equally dented car. Not to mention the two-wheelers that, though technically motorcycles, advance roughly at the speed of an asthmatic scooter.
In short, the roads of Costa Rica are cluttered with slow vehicles that, as a bonus, are often pestilential. So, we spent our time trying to pass them. Fun, but risky. The narrow ribbon of asphalt (when there is any) is single lane in both directions with, in the centre, a line almost always solid double. In other words, please do not overtake, por favor.
When in Rome...
Few, however, are the locals who care about that. And we can relate. Convoys of vehicles stuck behind a slow, lumbering behemoth frequent, plus anyone stuck behind is subject not just to impatience but asphyxiation. Regardless of the highway code, it's important to act. Take the inititative.
And so, I spent my time skimming the centre lines and stretching my neck to see past the traffic jam. Assessing my chances. Mostly my risks.
At one point, I dropped four or five dawdlers at once before attacking the pièce de resistance, a tanker spitting out who knows what from its radiator.
I calculated, I estimated and then I decided. It was a matter of milliseconds. (Note to self: never wear sandals while driving sporty again).
The ASX's 6-speed automatic transmission did what it could. Because of the jerky pace imposed by sudden braking, it sometimes doesn't know which gear to use. The 2.0L’s four cylinders work hard to produce 148 hp. But this is no rocket ship - 0-100 km/h takes about 10 seconds, so I kept that in mind when passing and even when cornering, when I was certain no one was ahead.
Most Ticos - and Ticas, the local name for Costa Ricans - play this Russian roulette. The only ones who hesitate and slow down are either locals who reluctantly face the reality that they don't have the power to risk it, or tourists who, in their rental cars, don't yet know that crossing a double line is one of Costa Rica's national sports.
Personally, overtaking is my national sport, no matter what country I'm in. And on that occasion, I needed this distraction which, paradoxically, requires constant concentration. To chase away my sadness.
Why sad? I'd just dropped off my only daughter and my two granddaughters at the airport in Liberia. They spent ten days with me in Samara, by the sea, in a small house located a few minutes from the beach.
Ten days of pure happiness. After the forced separations caused by the pandemic, the reunion was moving. When Claire, by now almost 10 years old, came out of the airport, when I hugged her, when I asked her if she was happy to be in Costa Rica and she answered. "Sure, kind of" (my daughter has moved to Maine and her tribe speaks mostly English), my anticipated joy didn't waver one millimeter. Any slightly mature adult knows not to take the comments of a ball of hormones flirting with adolescence at face value.
Her sister Zoë, 3 years old, climbed astride the wheeled suitcase I was pulling, her upper body held back by the extendable handle. Her head on her crossed arms wobbled with each jolt of the sidewalk leading to the parking lot.
As expected, our 10-day reunion flew by at lightning speed. I was back at Liberia's airport again far sooner than I'd wished. Goodbyes don't usually bring tears to my eyes, but this time my eyes got cloudy, and my throat tightened. I didn't want to let them go.
I was going to miss Claire's frowning face in the morning. In fact, all I had to do was ask her, "Would you like pancakes for breakfast?" and immediately her smile would emerge. Grandpa was ready to make as many pancakes as necessary to have the joy of seeing, even if only for two seconds, that smile as angelic as it was interested.
The maple syrup I had taken care to pack in my luggage turned out to be the idea of the century.
And that was why my Mitsubishi and I attacked the mountainous curves with such audacity. Better to drive with all my senses alert than to feel sorry for myself. It was a nice change of pace.
Several small bridges punctuated the road. One end always has the right of way, but those going in the other direction must wait because the deck is not wide enough to let two vehicles pass at the same time. When the mandatory stops are on my side, I still looked over the bridge. If I didn't see anyone, I went ahead. Sometimes, however, a car would come along at the last second, going the wrong way.
No matter who got there first, no one honked their horns or glared. The Ticos love this game as much as I do. It's from watching them that I understand that here, double lines are only a vague suggestion.
I finally arrived at the entrance of Samara. The isolated road turned into an artery flooded with activity. Not a square meter wasn't occupied by a business. Cars, motorcycles, and ATVs were parked wherever possible. The ASX's user-friendly size, which had already proven itself on these crowded streets, is perfect for taking over a parking space that repels larger vehicles.
The stalls were overflowing with souvenirs, fruit, and surfboards. In the middle of the hustle and bustle were tourists whose arrival date can be estimated by darkness of their tan (or sunburn).
Ice cream cone in hand, now it was time to try to cross a road, the tide of cars on which will slow down (no one wants to crush anyone), but not stop for a pedestrian. Doing that as a driver is to invite getting your back end spanked by a local. What we find courteous (and prudent) elsewhere is not that well-seen here, put it that way.
A good deed
As I turned onto the gravel road leading to our rented villa, I noticed from the corner of my eye two young girls with very black hair, their two thumbs outstretched. One of them was holding a baby. They were in front of the bus stop, but they were trying their luck in case a good Samaritan should pass by... in Samara.
At that moment, my grandpaternal instinct was in full blossom, remember. I'd just reluctantly seen off my girls, in fact the baby seat was still harnessed to the back seat! How convenient.
And so I pulled over. In a flash, one of the girls opened the door and put the child in the seat. Then she went around the car and got in next to the toddler.
Her friend sat beside me. Neither of them bothered to look for the seatbelt. In a country where you regularly meet families of three or four people perched like trapeze artists on a backfiring scooter, I wasn't surprised.
The conversation was rudimentary. I only know five or six words of Spanish and my pronunciation is terrible. I've always thought that people who sing well have a better grasp of foreign languages and you don't want to hear me sing.
The house was less than a mile away. What was I thinking? I can't just drive these girls around for a minute and then say "End of the line! Everybody out!"
With my right hand, I signaled that I intended to drive straight ahead. But how far? I found out soon enough. My cabin mate held up a brand-new map of Costa Rica and announced "Nosara".
I know the name. It's a city (or maybe a village?) in the north of the country, on the Pacific coast, just like Samara. I also know that it's not really nearby and that the way to get there is surely not easy.
The road from the Liberia airport to Samara may be busy and bumpy, but at least it's paved. The secondary roads are not. Even the few paved sections are potholed like Swiss cheese. Moon craters everywhere. Hence the common sense of selecting a high-clearance, all-wheel-drive vehicle like my Latin RVR.
I also admit that I felt like doing a good deed. Probably a strategy to chase away the heaviness weighing on my heart.
Some distance away from us, two young Ticos were talking near a scooter. I stopped the ASX near them and lowered the window on the passenger side, hoping they understood a little English. "Hola! Nosara, that way?" I asked, pointing with one hand in the expected direction.
"Si," they answered in tandem.
That sounded good!
"How far? How many kilometers?"
The first one shrugged but translated for his friend, who answered in Spanish. I thought I had it figured it out (long live the similarities between romance languages!): it sounded like 35?
To be sure, I opened both my hands three times and then only the right one. The guy imitateed me and confirmed "Si. Treinta y cinco."
As I'd suspected, it wasn’t nearby. But it was so beautiful, the sky a blinding blue. The heat outside was searing, but the Mitsubishi is air conditioned. And there is a radio. And a CD player. And a USB port. Comfortable seats. What more could you want?
Besides, it wasn'tt 2 pm yet. Even if the road was bad, even if I got lost, I'd have to be very unlucky (a flat tire) or very disoriented or both to not be back in Samara before sunset.
During the exchange with the two boys, I noticed that the girl next to me raised the road map in a way to hide her face. Was she trying to protect herself from the sun? I was careful to stop in the shade of a large tree. Unless she didn't want to be recognized. Either way, it didn't matter. My decision was made.
However, just in case, a little verification was necessary. I borrowed my passenger's road map. I found Nosara. Yep, by the sea, as I thought.
Come on, vamonos!
Well, let's see!
I tried to engage in a semblance of a discussion with my passengers. My neighbor explained to me in a few words of tortured English that they come from Nicaragua, which borders Costa Rica to the north.
"From Managua," added the other from the bench.
"Walking. Five days," said her friend.
Huh! No way! You walked for five days with a baby!
My face must have communicated my emotion better than any translator. The girl nodded sadly, as if to let me know, "Yeah, that's how it is..."
Oh, the images that rushed through my head!
Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable boats. The picture of a drowned baby, washed ashore like a piece of wood. All these oppressed, persecuted people, fleeing war, dictators, arms dealers, famine, poverty, horror.
And now I had in my air-conditioned car three human beings who have abandoned everything in the hope of finding a better world.
I mentally played this dramatic slide show to myself when the girl in the back brought up a baby bottle next to my face. Empty. Traces of milk at the bottom.
"No milk for the baby."
I turned around. I looked at the baby. A handsome, chubby little boy with thick, black hair like his mother's. How long had it been since he had milk? Despite everything, he found the strength to smile at me. Brave little guy. Brave like his mother!
On the way back from the airport, I had stopped to buy a bag of chips and caramel rolls. When the girls got into the car, I surreptitiously shoved these treats under my seat. Now, I quickly grabbed them and offered them up. They hoovered them up. For the next few minutes, the drive was punctuated only by the ound of chips being munched. Even the child took part. I felt a little relieved.
As expected, the potholes were innumerable and scary. In large parts, there are more holes than pavement. Fortunately, for several kilometers, a battered Corolla wasahead of us. The driver obviously knew this obstacle course well. I imitated all its movements with the ASX, which iI can confirm offers obedient steering and a capable suspension.
Between three cracks and two bites of cake, the girls dropped more bits of information. They were looking to reach family members.
This was good news. At least they were not alone in the world. The family in question lives in Limon. The girl pointed to a spot on the map that I coudn't quite make out because of the constant shaking of the car. But I understoodd that it's on the Caribbean coast and that they'll have to cross the country from west to east. Quite an odyssey in sight!
They were not going to walk... As if she had read my mind, the girl said "Nosara, bus."
Oh well, that's better. They will take a bus.
"Three buses" she said.
Well, three is more complicated, but it's still possible. It's still better than walking...
Oh boy! Of course, they have no money. They don't even have money to fill the bottle. They're not out of the woods yet. What to do, for God's sake, what to do?
"How much is the bus?" I asked.
One hundred dollars!
But that doesn't make sense! Limon may be miles away (I checked later on: 400 km), but it's impossible that a bus ticket costs $100 per person! Not here, in Costa Rica!
"US dollars?", I asked, as if to add to the surrealism of the situation.
But what will happen to them? And how will my lift help them if it is only to leave them stranded in Nosara?
But no, I said to myself to encourage me, they are resourceful. Look! You took them in, you, a gringo who doesn't know the country. They will surely succeed in finding another charitable soul. Or several.
Unless I turn into a Mother Teresa, I can't see myself going any further than Nosara. I'll have to unload them and let them face their fate. Maybe they can hitch a ride to Limon...
What do I have on me? A pile of change in the center armrest of the Mitsubishi. Maybe the equivalent of five or six dollars. In my pockets? I would say 15,000 colons, maybe a little more. About $30 Canadian. I'm sure I'll give it to them.
As we drove, I was lost in my thoughts. Then I saw a peasant wearing a straw hat walking on the road side. I wanted to check if I was still going in the right direction. Yes, everything is fine, Nosara is straight ahead.
This time my passenger didn't hide her face behind the road map. Maybe it was just my imagination. On the other hand, if they entered Costa Rica illegally, it's probably better that they don't stand out too much.
I, on the other hand, am not against the idea of Costa Ricans seeing us all together. Because despite my fervent desire to be elected tourist of the month, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd picked up two crafty grifters? If the baby was just a ruse?
Yes, I know, it's terrible to think like that when three seconds before was wondering if I had it in me to be canonized. But it's not my fault. It's Hollywood's and the news.
Finally, I arrived safely in Nosara.
Another typical resort on the west coast of Costa Rica. Tourists in flip-flops. Burnt noses. Booths all over the place. Yoga classes. Buildings under construction with non-existent safety codes. All was well.
The girls explained to me that the bus stop is in front of the "kafédepali". I made them repeat three times and I still didn't understand. But even with the sound, it must be there.
My dust-covered ASX slalomed between the holidaymakers. I decided to ask a native. I chose a guy in shorts and bare feet squatting in the parking lot of a surf school. If he's not a surfer himself, I'll eat my hat. And he must speak English. In fact, he spoke it very well.
"Hola! I have two girls and a baby with me looking to take the bus to Limon. Would you happen to know where the station is?"
"Limon! Hmm, that's a long way," said the young man. "But, yes, I know. The bus stop is in front of the Café de Paris."
Ha! The "kafedepali"! Eureka!
Yes, that's it, the Café de Paris!" I repeated happily. How do I get there?"
With great kindness, the surfer explained it to me. It seemed simple and, well, not too far. That's exactly what I told the girls as I triumphantly slip behind the wheel. "It's not far from here.
"Yes. We saw it."
I took two seconds to absorb the news. They saw the bus stop and didn't say anything? I took it they really liked the air conditioning in the car. They probably didn't want to be out on the street too soon.
I turned back and we found the said Café de Paris in a few minutes. We indeed had driven passed it. I parked my car. I opened the central armrest.
I grabbed the small removable plastic bin that is overflowing with change. I signal my passenger to hold out her hands. She advances one.
No, both please...
She stuck out both her hands. I spilled. Coins fell to the ground. I picked them up and placed them on top of the pile. While the girl made the change disappear into her purse, I reached into my pockets. I grabbed my crumpled wad of bills and handed them to her.
They both said gracias, but to tell the truth, they whisper their thanks. I felt a sense of disappointment in the air. The mouth said thank you, but the eyes pout a little.
I understood. The bus tickets cost a fortune and here I was giving them peanuts. But that's all I had and, no, I was not going all the way to Limon, I was not going to drive six or seven hours (actually, nine). By then, to be frank and selfish, I just wanted to be back home to rest from my adventures at Samara Beach.
They got out of the car, the mother taking her little boy in her arms. I waved. They smiled. Just a little. I left.
I returned whence I came the same way, over the same ruts. The Mitsubishi didn't flinch any more than it had before - really, I made a good choice - but it must have be looking forward to relaxing its shocks like I was.
The same questions followed me. What more could I have done? But the blazing sun was doing its best to melt my doubts. And then, well, it was a funny thing. This whole adventure, this awakened awareness of the state of the world in general, had somewhat erased my sadness.
I'd temporarily replaced the absence of my family by another one, and I compared my misfortune to the much more serious ones afflicting these Nicaraguan women. I consoled myself.
A surprising ride
The next day, an email from my daughter confirmed that the return trip had gone smoothly, that my three pearls were back in the snow.
Thank you, Daddy, for this beautiful vacation!
Welcome back, my dear. If you only knew how much you have enchanted my stay.
My heart was lighter afte that email.
I thought about those Nicaraguan girls and I mentally wished them once again the best of luck.
Well, off to the beach. How could I get tired of it?
I left the Mitsubishi ASX 4WD alone. Its reward for surviving our rough adventure. But as my backside was almost asking for its daily dose of shocks, I decided to pedal along the coast of Cangrejal until the borders of Samara. The whole crescent must be three kilometers long.
The very low tide leaves behind an almost black, wet and hard sand. An ideal surface for the big tires of my rough, but robust bike. The headwind didn't even bother me since I knew it would soon be at my back. From enemy to friend.A fair return of the pendulum.
The sea was full of bathers. Families. Tourists. Locals. Children. Lovers. I looked at all these people with contentment in my eyes.
Everyone was having fun. Like these two girls laughing while taking selfies. While a little boy plays in the sand.
But... wait a minute.
I slowly ride my bike closer.
The girl who was sulking the most in the car? It was her. She had undone her hair, which now danced on her brown shoulders. Her friend has the same hairstyle as yesterday.
They didn't pay any attention to me; they were having a great time while the boy pushed a plastic tractor in the sand.
Bought with my colons?
I snuck away on my big bike... and laughed.
I've been fleeced, I thought. Which would explain why the girl was hiding her face when I was talking to people from Samara. Maybe she has a reputation?
But I decided right away that it didn't take away from my "good deed". And that all my thoughts on human misery, on the luck of some and the misfortune of others, deserved my philosophical considerations as bumpy as the roads of Costa Rica.
After all, isn't it the intention that counts?
PS: Back home, a quick online search told me that a bus ticket to Limon from Nosara costs $10.