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Blog

Why Pandas Shouldn't Be Allowed To Drive. In Costa Rica Or Anywhere Else.

Amber

The first thing I did in Costa Rica was almost kill a local. This isn't the kind of thing you put on your itinerary. Red-eye from San Francisco to Miami. Drink ridiculous amounts of coffee. Fly from Miami to San Jose. Wave driver's license and credit card and get handed a car. Almost kill someone. Drive through the jungle like Indiana Jones. Eat burrito.

When you're on the wrong end of a 24 hour journey, the first thing you should do when you step off the plane and into a foreign country is drive across half of it. Sure, you don't understand the signs or the rules or the etiquette or the traffic patterns. Sure, the stick shift bears only the slightest resemblance to your stick shift at home. Sure, you're trying to avoid mowing down the family that appears to be walking in the center of the road while also listening to what the tiny voice in the GPS is telling you.

All this to say, I don't know exactly what happened as I tried to merge onto the highway in Central America, I just know there was a lot of honking.

Sometimes you have to barrel forward even though you know you're doing it wrong. Doing it wrong is better than sitting there paralyzed. So barrel forward I did.

Driving in Costa Rica is like playing a video game, something I could say with more authority if I'd ever actually played a video game. You never know what's coming next: Dogs darting out in front of you, chickens pecking at intersections, entire families strolling down the center of the road, mountain paths so bumpy you feel like your teeth are going to fly out of your head.

I was in the car a solid hour before I saw my first traffic light. I'm not saying there weren't any traffic lights, I'm just saying I didn't see them. Fires were burning on the side of the road and the rooster to person ratio seemed heavily in favor of the roosters. Signs made no sense so I just gripped the wheel and hoped everyone would emerge unscathed.

The one sign I did understand was Fiesta de Pollo. I figured it out even before seeing the juicy birds turning on their spits, an accomplishment of which I am very proud. If I didn't have to drive all the way across Costa Rica before dark, I absolutely would have stopped for a chicken party.

Occasional gripping terror aside, driving from San Jose through...wherever it was and toward...wherever I was going (getting GPS was a good move for me) was well worth it. The road curved through mountain ranges under a deep blue sky and I forgot to roll up the windows before getting on the highway, so my hair was blowing cinematically in the wind. Until two minutes later, when it went from cinematic to rat's nest. But it was a spectacular two minutes.

Then the GPS started merrily chirping about falling rocks and dangerous bridges. Really? Is this something I should actually worry about or is it more an FYI? BE MORE SPECIFIC, TINY WOMAN IN MY GPS. Turns out, the falling rocks weren't my problem.

June is the rainy season in Costa Rica and torrential downpours start about 2 p.m. and keep a nice, cheerful pace throughout the afternoon. As I was parading through one of the villages, a kid right in front of me hit a wet patch and his motorbike slid out from under him.

This isn't something I'm proud of, but I probably shouldn't have been driving. I was exhausted. I was nodding off. I had to pull over a few times and rest just so I could keep going. I probably should've given up and found an alternative to a six hour drive at the end of a 24 hour travel day, but I was so tired I couldn't think to do anything but stay on my previously plotted course. So when I saw that kid go down, I thanked whatever power helps me out when shit gets bad that I was awake at that moment.

I slammed on my brakes and realized in a weirdly calm manner that the brakes on the car I was driving weren't nearly as responsive as the brakes I'm used to. He was on the ground and his bike was on the ground and I was almost on top of him and I still wasn't stopping, so I angled the car to head into a ditch. The brakes finally did their job as I skidded perpendicular to his head. Not to mention way closer than either of us enjoyed.

When I jumped out to see if he was hurt, he just stared at me in confusion.

It took me a few seconds to realize I'd spoken to him in English. I might have managed, "Are you okay?" in Spanish if I wasn't so exhausted and had, like, twenty minutes to prepare. Unfortunately, the nature of accidents is that you don't have twenty minutes to prepare. But he got to his feet - he had tied plastic bags to his shoes to keep them from getting wet - and walked his bike to the side of the road where people without cars and with local language skills were waiting.

Once my heart stopped racing, I followed the GPS through valleys and over jungle dense mountain tops where I finally found Nosara, a town that is - apparently - known for making tourists want to cry. I did not cry. I did curse the sky a few times and perform a lot of three-point turns and gingerly feel my molars for cracks after jolting down the bumpiest roads my skull had ever encountered.

When I finally found the place, I face planted on the bed and woke up ten hours later to find howler monkeys, mangos, and a view of the ocean.

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Ocean. Bonus: Zero death.