“Endless power, invincible thunder” Photo: one of the Aguilar boys

Llevame- [2nd person imperative, informal]. Carry me. Take me away.

Rule #1 for getting around in Costa Rica: DO accept rides from strangers.

Many people in this area struggle to feed their families anything beyond rice and beans, meaning the majority don’t have cars. Lots have motos and bicycles, but a car is a luxury.

But even though a car is a luxury, it’s a luxury that’s shared. If someone is driving in the same direction you’re going, they’ll always offer you a ride. Before someone with a car goes to leave, he (it’s usually a man driving…for various cultural reasons) will offer to take anyone else who is going that way. Almost every single farm/mill visit I’ve been on someone has either offered to pick me up or drive me back afterwards. Sometimes both. But they don’t do it because they just want to be generous, they do it because they also have something to do in that direction. Several of my visits were scheduled according to when someone would already be in town to get me.

Driving is not taken lightly. Gas is extremely expensive, quickly eating a large chunk of a family’s income, and when someone starts the engine of a vehicle, that vehicle better be full and have a good reason for going where it’s going. (Moto drivers save more gas by not even starting their engines when going down hill). “Full” is also a relative term. The same way it’s common courtesy to offer someone a ride because they’re going in the same direction, it’s also common courtesy to never deny anyone a ride.

After the entire pueblo of Jimenez went to play a soccer game in a nearby town, 14 people packed into the bed of the one person in Jimenez who had a pickup truck in order to get home. There was no way the driver could just take some people and leave the others hanging, so he took everyone. The women with babies got the seats in the cab; the rest of us got in the back.

It’s also common courtesy to stop and pick up someone you pass who looks like they need a ride. This could be because it’s raining, it’s getting dark, or he/she is carrying something heavy. I’ve been given rides for all 3 reasons. (The practice offering rides also seems to extend from the personal sphere into the commercial. I’ve seen delivery trucks that are clearly on the clock stop mid-route and pick someone walking down the street, probably just a friend of the driver. I’ve also been given rides by the Fuerza Publica (Civil Police) and an out-of-service bus with just the driver and another bus company employee, headed back to the depot. But those might have been because I’m a gringa.)

The other obvious reason to give someone a ride is because you know them. The day I picked coffee at Aguilar family farm up on the mountain, Ana and I rode most of the way back down to her house with a truck full of day laborer coffee pickers. The pickup trucks that transport laborers have a metal frame around the edge of the bed so that the men can stand up and just hold on- almost like an instant subway car. Same is true as in the subway, you can fit more people standing than sitting. As the truck “drove” (quietly rolled in neural) past us, two of the men, who live near the Aguilars, waved and said hi to Ana. The driver instinctively stopped and we hopped on the back. If you’re driving and you pass someone you know on foot, the rule is that you stop and pick them up. No vehicle is ever too full to not give someone a lift.

Getting around in Costa Rica is not an individual activity, for visitors or for residents. But that’s not a quality unique to Costa Rica, transit everywhere does more than get us from point A to B; it creates communities of its own. How many people do you recognize on your morning commute? Probably quite a few. People who take the train at the same time every day also tend to choose the same train car, one that’s conveniently located near the entrance where they get on or the exit where they get off. You may have never talked to fellow commuters, but you know them.

Think about the train on Saturday night at about 10pm. That’s an entirely different community-in-transit experience. Compared with the library silence of the kindle/Wall Street Journal reading at 6am, the about-to-go out crowd talks, laughs, (maybe even takes a swig from a flask), and clicks Instagram pics of each other. People are riding the train with people they already know, versus being cosmically deposited next to strangers with similar wake up calls. Rather than creating a sort of accidental community, it shuttles one that already exists. The buses here do the same.

Turrialba is no New York; neither is Costa Rica. The country’s entire population is less than that of Brooklyn and Queens. There are obviously no subways out here in the mountains and valleys, but there is public transit, and the communities here would not exist without it.

Getting a lift from someone is a nice treat, but the ratio of people with cars to those without is a wide one. These small pueblos nestled in the mountains survive because there are buses that go there, or at least within walking distance. Turrialba centro is in a valley, and the buses that head along the 5 roads out of the valley and through the sugcar cane fields, coffee farms and mountains to all the surrounding villages leave only 4 or 5 times a day. But those times are posted and I’ve never been on a bus that has left from the main hub more than 5 minutes after its scheduled time. Of course if you’re waiting at dusty roadside stop somewhere along the way, you just have to be patient. New potholes, high rivers, or slow tractors hauling harvested sugar cane to the mills can all make for slow going.

As the buses bounce along dirt roads and up winding mountain hair pins, children come running out of their houses and everyone sitting on their porches looks up and waves. It’s a rule that you wave at every bus that passes; you must know someone on board. And sure enough, someone always hangs out the window to wave back, often accompanied by shouts of greeting.

The buses are essential to the survival of these small towns because the only stores in the area are in Turrialba. There are a handful of scattered “sodas” (kind of like a bar that serves one kind of beer, two kinds of soda, a few bags of chips, and maybe a hot plate of rice and beans) out away from the center, but if you want groceries, the only place to get them is in town.

People here might not have cars, but they do have cell phones. And cell phones combined with a relatively on time bus service yields a sort of DIY FreshDirect. It’s not uncommon for a woman to be waiting on her doorstep for the bus, and, when it stops, a woman on board to walk to the door an hand her a bag of groceries, with a kiss on the cheek. If you have to stay home with the kids, call your friend and ask her to grab bread, milk, veggies at the feria, whatever you need. When the bus gets close to your house she’ll call you and push the ‘stop’ button (‘stops’ are open to interpretation. The bus driver also knows everyone who lives along his route, so he’ll always let people off at their houses, even if there’s no little awning indicating an official stop. No one else on board minds; they all get the same treatment). Then you just walk out your door, hand her whatever you owe her, and grab your bag of groceries. The bus is not just a public service of convenienc; it’s a tool to keep communities thriving. And like all tools, it’s only as useful as the people employing it.

A couple times I’ve also seen someone put a bag on the bus at one stop, just sort of tuck it in the space right behind the driver, and then someone a few stops later will come and grab it. It could be a wife giving her husband dinner or a businessman sending his partner paperwork. The bus becomes a sort of courier. This is not the land of, “if you see something say something,” it’s the land of if you need to get something- as much as someone- somewhere, use the bus. It’s going there anyway, why not send your stuff along for the ride?

With a little bit of coordination and a significant amount of trust, the buses here show just how little you actually need to drive. Sometimes it might be the faster or easier option, but rarely is it necessary. Here, if you’re indulging in a drive, you take someone (or lots of someones and a few somethings) along for the ride.


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s