Imagine you’re Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. You swallow the red pill (the painful truth of reality), get shot out of a pod, and find yourself in an unfamiliar world. That’s what Costa Rica motor vehicles is like.
Rob and I have to renew our driver licenses once again, which in itself doesn’t seem like a difficult endeavor. “What can possibly go wrong?” you ask. The problem lies in the fact that I received my first license way before I got residency (you are no longer able to do that now). Consequently, the number on my license does not match the number on my residency card. This is a problem I need to rectify in San Jose. Renewing my license is starting to look like a Mission to Mars, an assignment that will ultimately have me careening back to earth in a fiery display of aggravation.
My husband should not have this problem because he went through this two years ago when he lost his license. (You may have read about his matrix experience at Costa Rica DMV in The Costa Rica Escape Manual). In that escapade, they demanded he go all the way to San Jose to fix it because they had never put his license number in the computer. But after a couple of hours, Rob was able to convince someone in Liberia to give him a new one. However, this is Rob. People generally like Rob. He’s cultivated a laid back attitude that makes others comfortable around him. I tend to emit a force field of anxiety: It’ll inadvertently zap you if you get too close.
Even though the consensus is that I can not renew my license in Liberia, my husband insists we give it a shot. I’m hopeful but know how this will probably end: me driving five hours to San Jose only to find the motor vehicle building has moved, or is on lunch hour, or is closed for two weeks honoring the patron saint of patience.
But before I can even think about going to motor vehicles, I have to receive a medical exam to certify that I’m capable of remembering my name and staying awake during questioning. These are the type of exams I excel at.
While speaking with the physician, who is profoundly over qualified for determining if I can sit at a 90 degree angle, I start to bemoan my dilemma.
“It’s not just you,” the doctor says. “After I graduated, I needed to go to many government buildings in order to get papers stamped, then back to others for more stamps. Ultimately, I ended up at one office that couldn’t find my name in the computer, and I had to start all over again. It was maddening.”
It makes me feel better knowing a Costa Rican orthopedic trauma surgeon also wrestles with bureaucratic red tape. He will save someone’s leg one day, I’m lucky if I can come up with a good fart joke.
After getting my exam in one building and paying a license renewal fee at the bank (you never pay fees at a government building), Rob and I are finally off to motor vehicles. An hour’s drive later, we find ourselves leaning on a chain link fence outside with the rest of the refugees before a big, barrel chested guard personally escorts us inside. It’s like a red carpet for the beleaguered.
From here on out, I plaster a smile on my face even while staring at a wall. When dealing with Costa Rican bureaucracy, I’ve learned to be a mix of agreeable and stupid at the same time. A woman immediately grins at Rob and escorts him into a room. She tells me I have to wait for the boss. I know what’s coming.
The boss arrives and takes me inside his office. He shuffles papers around, prints out a few documents, and makes me sign my name in a big, blank composition book. There are always these books in government offices, which makes me believe they are in cahoots with the ACME composition book industry. I dutifully sign my name, wonder if it will ever make it into the computer, and are then instructed to wait for the woman in the hallway.
Rob exits the room and the lady invites me inside. She instructs me to sit in front of the camera. She doesn’t even have to ask me to smile since I’m still wearing a dumb grin on my face which is now causing facial cramps. She takes the picture and tells me that she had to take four snapshots of my husband.
“His eyes were closed, duh. Then I take another picture and he blinks. Duh,” she laughs. I’ve never heard a Costa Rican use the vernacular “duh” before, which makes me perk up and immediately chime in until we both agree he is an imbecile. I’m not particularly proud of this, but I’m not going to screw this moment up by defending my eyelid-challenged husband. We both continue laughing while I hear the sweet sounds of a printer.
So this story triumphantly ends with me renewing my license here in Liberia, confirming results may vary when living in Costa Rica. Things are always changing in this country and these tiny details may or may not be getting easier. Perhaps being happy here is more about swallowing the blue matrix pill (blissful ignorance), and having a better attitude when dealing with these situations.
I’m learning that the pura vida way of life is a combination of both: staying blissful while keeping one foot in reality. It’s a balancing act that can become exhausting and may require you to keep a smile plastered across your face for an inordinate amount of time, but in the end it always works out.
Duh. I should have known it would.