There is one compelling reason to get a Costa Rica driver’s license: the ability to get cheaper admissions to parks and attractions. For example, the tourist price to see Poas Volcano is seven dollars per person, versus only a little over a dollar for Ticos. You actually need to show your residency card, but other gringos say their Costa Rica driver’s license works just as well. It would be a considerable savings, so I agree to go to Motor Vehicles, a place with little promise of a positive experience.
I grew up only ten minutes away from the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles. The building sits next door to Rahway State Prison, a name later changed to East Jersey State Prison as requested by the citizens of Rahway. Apparently, many residents felt that having a maximum security prison named after their city decreased property values. I would argue that it was living near a maximum security prison that decreased property values, but what do I know about the economics of real estate? Regardless, changing the name of it made the fastidious villagers happy, and they all rejoiced in their cul-de-sacs.
I always thought the community should have embraced their semi-famous clinker. Movies are always shot there, and the prison has the distinction of being the facility where the 1978 Academy Award winning documentary Scared Straight was filmed. This is a small piece of trivia my father is strangely proud of. He found this a perfectly acceptable way to prevent juvenile delinquents from re-offending and would threaten my sister and me with this program if we continued smacking each other in the back seat. Since Motor Vehicles was next to the prison, I got to relive this endearing childhood memory every time I renewed my driver’s license.
At first, I didn’t want a Costa Rican license, thinking it was a great way to avoid paying a ticket. Where would they mail it if we were not in the system? Nevertheless, mail doesn’t seem to be an issue because we don’t get any. None. Unlike the American structure of mail service and basic common sense, there are no house numbers or street signs anywhere. I recently found out my actual address is something like “six hundred meters south of the mango tree.” I now have to listen to my dad argue with me that I am hiding my real address from him, for no other reason than I want to hide my real address from him. All this confirms the sneaky suspicion my dad already has about me; I left the States for some nefarious reason. It couldn’t be that I just hated my job, something everyone on this side of the hemisphere already knows.
After a couple weeks, I realize that getting no mail has greatly decreased my anxiety levels. I like not having a box full of credit card applications, circulars, and catalogs that keep coming even though my last purchase from that store was in 1995. It’s less clutter, not only in my house, but in my brain. The whole point of moving here was to simplify my life, and that’s impossible if you are saturated every waking second with advertisements, and although Domino’s new cheesy crust pizza sounds delicious, I don’t need to read about it every day. However, it would explain why I ate the new cheesy crust pizza three nights a week.
It’s great that you do not need to get mail to pay your bills. Their system is easy: while at the supermarket, you can pay for your electric and phone bills along with your groceries. The arrangement is surprisingly uncomplicated. Somehow, in the States we have a way of making some of the simplest things more difficult, exponentially making life harder and less fulfilling. Living here is teaching me to trim off the excess to make room for what makes me most content, and clearly, that excess includes a lot of junk mail.
Technically, there is a mail carrier gallivanting around. I frequently compare him to a folklore creature, like Sasquatch or The Loch Ness Monster: often talked about but rarely seen. I did catch a sighting of him as I drove down the mountain one morning. He was leaning against his scooter with a small messenger bag strapped across his chest. He didn’t appear hurried, considering he was in the same place when I drove back up the mountain an hour later. He spent sixty minutes of his workday talking with a beautiful woman who appeared delighted to share his company. The man was the happiest postal worker I’ve ever seen, and why wouldn’t he be? All in all, it looks like a great job. “Going Postal” probably has a completely different meaning here than in the States. It would not be synonymous with workplace rage, but with something as cheerful as eating dessert or climbing a tree. I can imagine the kids on the playground scream, “Let’s go postal!” before merrily running to an ice cream truck. There are really great reasons to live here. I hope that going to Motor Vehicles is one of them.
Just as we are about to exit Valley Ranch, we see Dolores and her dogs walk toward our car. We give her a short greeting and tell her we are on our way to get our licenses.
“HAH, you’re both crazy. Hope you get it, but you need a medical exam first. You know that, right… AN EXAM WITH A DOCTOR,” she barks. Her eyes protrude out of her head like someone who just heard raccoons are taking over the city and establishing a new rule of law.
“A what? I have to see a doctor before getting my license?” I ask.
“Yup, you sure do. They have a bunch of medical offices outside Motor Vehicles. Go to one of those shit holes. That’s what the other gringos do. They are all a bunch of shit holes.”
I’m not sure if the last “shit hole” comment was concerning the gringos or the medical offices, but I don’t ask her to clarify, worried her eyeballs might pop completely out of her head. We drive off with the troubling information that we have to go to a medical office first. I hop out of the car to open the behemoth padlock on the gate, possibly for the last time since the hydraulics will be fixed, as Carlos promised, next Friday for sure.
The whole medical thing sounds scammy. A bunch of doctor offices around Motor Vehicles? The only thing I know about this process is I have to pay for something at the bank first. I don’t know what it is, but Rob doesn’t seem bothered by this. As a perpetual organizer, my brain cannot work this way. I must know all the details, unlike Rob, who says, “Hey, how bad can it be? We will figure it out when we get there.” This might be okay if we spoke the language; however, Rob does not consider this an obstacle. His method works most of the time, and due to default, my life has taken on this quirky solution to all my Costa Rican predicaments.
As I previously mentioned, there are no street signs in Costa Rica. It is impossible to get directions from anyone, so we spend the majority of our time just finding a place, sometimes to come back the next day to do what we had intended to do the day before. But we get lucky this time and find the location, only because a guy is standing in the street with a dirty, ripped cardboard sign that reads Medical Exam, a sign I would more likely expect to see on the side of a dirt road at a refugee camp. We find a parking space and ask the kid with the sign where to go.
Donde esta doctor? Por favor?
The kid points to a garage.
It looks like a place where, at the very least, we can place a bet on dog fighting… buy a kilo of coke… or plan a hit on your spouse. We stand there confused and unsure what to do. However, after seeing people walk in, and with no better option, we decide to follow the crowd.
We enter a dirty waiting room with plastic chairs and a man behind a counter asking us for ten thousand colones each (approximately twenty dollars). In return, he gives us a small piece of paper and points to the chairs. Across from us is a standing, decapitated female mannequin wearing a pair of soiled corduroy shorts. The room looks like the opening scene of a horror flick. Wasn’t Hannibal Lector a doctor?
My mind races, and I am sure I hear screaming victims in the back room trying to claw their way out of a twenty foot hole. My heart starts to pound, and I look next to me at a woman casually reading a romance novel. Nobody would read a book with Fabio on the cover if she were in mortal danger, so I calm down and take in my surroundings. I start to think about all the attention I placed on my waiting room when I was a chiropractor: beautiful wallpaper, scented candles, and relaxing music. Would my patients appreciate the dirty chairs and the stained walls, not to mention, The Silence of the Lambs theme? Not surprisingly, there is no suggestion box to voice my concerns.
I go into the untidy exam room first and answer a variety of questions regarding my health. Thankfully, the doctor speaks English. He is in his early thirties and presents himself with all the authority of someone who wants me out of here as quick as possible, a position I find myself in more times than I’d like to admit. I take no offense as I quickly read an eye chart, get weighed and measured like a steer up for auction, and finally walk out with a stamped piece of paper with the instructions to bring in the next patron. It probably took no longer than seven minutes. As Rob goes in, I start talking to an American couple who tell me I need residency to get a license. Rob and I have not even begun getting all the paperwork needed to apply for permanent residency in Costa Rica, and I never considered I needed it to get a license.
“You need to be in the system,” they say, “but, like anything else in Costa Rica, that might not be the case today.”
This totally ticks me off; we just blew forty dollars for a ridiculous medical exam and might not even get a license. I tell this to Rob after his exam, and as always, he is calm and says we should at least try since we are here.
We go to the bank and pay the fee for something that I am unsure has anything to do with getting our license. We take that receipt, walk next door to Motor Vehicles, and stand in line to get the copies of our passports stamped. Costa Rica is all about stamps, and I am inclined to get a bunch of generic ones and stamp the hell out of my documents. I really don’t think they would know the difference. Now the rest of the story is surprisingly similar to America: lines, then another line, and then another. We sit in chairs, and as the next person is helped, we each have to move down a seat. The room looks like we are doing the wave at a sporting event: up, down, up down. We have no idea what each line is for; we just go through the motions. Nobody here speaks English, and all I can keep saying is that Costa Rica is beautiful, Muy bonita Costa Rica, in some Tourette-like, Rain Man sort of way. Some look irritated with me, and some feel downright sorry for me. I feel sorry for myself right about now.
Finally, we are the next people in the last line, and we get our licenses. “Gracias, mucho rapido, muy bonita Costa Rica,” I exclaim in jubilation. I don’t think I would have done this without Rob. No, I definitely wouldn’t have even tried. With each hurdle I cross, I begin to feel more optimistic. This strange road I walk, one leg physically in Costa Rica and one mentally in America, is slowly becoming easier. Instead of a bumpy, jolting ride, the road is becoming a bit smoother.
In the end, I don’t know if we actually needed to be residents, or if maybe it was our lucky day. It took a mere five hours, and Rob confidently announces, “I knew we could do it. It really wasn’t that bad, was it?” To answer that question, all you need to see is the picture on my license. I look as if I am trying to claw out of a twenty foot hole.