December 01, 2005

Costa Rica: Do you know the way through San Jose?

The men in the family lost their drivers’ licenses. Not get-a-lawyer lost but physically lost. Misplaced. Dropped. Left behind. Adam’s wallet slipped out of his pocket, and there went ten bucks, gym membership card, New Hampshire boat operator’s permit and four-month-old license. Happily, no credit cards yet.

Mike lost his license at the Hertz airport rental counter in Buffalo, New York. He gave it to a rental clerk who never gave it back. We’re mildly concerned, as Mike’s license is the old-fashioned “YES! THIS IS MY SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER!” kind. We’re imagining an illegal alien or identity theft ring operating up there in Buffalo on the Canadian border, with purloined documents supplied by the occasional corruptible rental car agent. Mike reads people well, and the fact that his particular clerk never looked him in the eye bothered him. We smell something fishy in Buffalo.

Father and son became license-less within hours of each other, so they spent an afternoon bonding at the purgatory that is the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. They returned home with temporary paper that keeps them legal until their new plastic arrives in the mail.

This drama was rather easily resolved (if you discount the specter of identity theft hanging over our heads) because we were on home turf. It’s a tad tougher when your stuff is lost (or stolen...) in another country.

We'd been on the ground in Costa Rica no more than 10 minutes when the money belt I was wearing under my sweater disappeared. Thankfully, our passports and credit cards were in a separate neck pouch under my shirt, but we’d lost all our traveler’s checks. Somewhere between the plane and the airport exit, our money went missing. Welcome to San Jose.

We picked up a rental car, checked into the San Jose Holiday Inn, and called American Express. It was midnight. The voice on the phone told us to go the office of TAM Travel in the morning for replacement checks. Sounded easy. The address? “Avenida Central Primera.”

At 6:30 in the morning, the Holiday Inn took the holiday part of its name very seriously and blared Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” (which you can now download as a ringtone) through the hallways. It seeped like spilled eggnog under our door and through the pillows we held over our ears. Hopeless. There was nothing for it but to use the croon as a wake-up call and start the day. Good morning, Central America!

At breakfast, where we gorged for a good long time on eggs, bread, fruit and chewy Costa Rican coffee, I asked the maitre d’ if Avenida Central Primera was close to the hotel. “O, si!” she nodded. “Muy cerca.” Just three blocks this way and two blocks that.

We packed up, checked out, got in the car and found Avenida Central in a flash. As primera means first, I looked for Number One Avenida Central. No such animal. We soon realized that Avenida Central was miles long and that the buildings had no numbers. We tried the three-blocks-this-way-and-two-blocks-that tactic but found nothing that linked Avenida Central to anything vaguely Primera.

As we spiraled deeper into the vortex of San Jose’s clogged, carbon-monoxide-infused chaos
of one-way streets, I wished I hadn’t violated one of my own travel rules: carry a street map of every city you may visit. A good map puts you in control. We hadn’t planned to spend more than our first night in San Jose, so I’d chosen not to bother with the extra paper. We'd come to Costa Rica for Jaco Beach (above) and Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific coast.

For nearly three hours, we crisscrossed and circumnavigated the unwieldy metropolis. I told a traffic cop we were looking for Avenida Central Primera. “Calle Ocho,” - Eighth Street – he said, and pointed off in the distance. What Eighth Street had to do with anything we didn’t know, but we drove in the direction of his finger. And drove. And drove some more.

I asked three more cops, and each used the word “calle” several times. “Cual calle?” Which street?

I began to get it. Building locations in San Jose are all about where Avenidas meet Calles. To find a place, you need to know its closest avenida-calle intersection. We’d found the right avenida, but to find where TAM Travel sat on it, we’d need a calle, too.

I wanted to call TAM to pinpoint their location before we wasted more time and energy, but I had no Costa Rican colones. Mike double-parked at a bank, and I hopped out. The police kept shooing him away from the bank, so he circled the block for an hour until I emerged, having waited in a colossal queue to change a small American bill into Costa Rican coins to feed a payphone.

The woman on the phone at TAM cried, “No es Avenida Central Primera! Es Avenida Central, Calle Primera!” Eureka. Then she unknowingly added insult to injury: “Es cerca del Holiday Inn.” We recrossed the city and found TAM, three blocks this way and two blocks that from where we’d started so many hours ago. At the American Express desk housed inside, gracious people treated us kindly and gave us new checks.

As we’d seen enough of San Jose to last several lifetimes, we headed north out of the city. In the pretty town of Alajuela, where we stopped to buy groceries, a cop gave us a 1,000-colone ticket for parking in a taxi zone. I flashed some money, mumbled a contrite apology, and in short order he swapped the ticket, which required a court appearance, for a 500-colone payment that went straight into his pocket.

An hour later, on a deserted coastal highway, a three-foot-long iguana emerged from the brush in front of our car. We pulled off and watched his rough, beautiful body lumber across the asphalt.

All thoughts of lost money and time, urban gridlock and baksheesh disappeared into the ether. The iguana reminded us why we'd come.

Where shall we go next?