A few years ago, I was on the receiving end of the only “road rage” incident I have experienced in over 20 years in Costa Rica. It was near the airport, at night, at a stoplight on the multi-lane highway from Alajuela. I had unknowingly moved in front of another car while coming to a stop at the red light, concerned with positioning myself for the upcoming airport exit. While awaiting the green light, the driver began flashing his high beams and blowing his horn. When the light turned green, he blew around me, cut dangerously in front of me and braked. When I attempted to pass he sped up and when I returned behind him he slowed down again. Obviously whatever I had done while approaching the previous stoplight had angered him enough to risk an accident while he worked out his anger toward my benign driving error. (He was actually very lucky, as I was driving a sleek, compact rental car, on the way to pick up my teenage son and daughter at the airport. Had I been driving my Trooper or Pathfinder—whichever aged and battered model I owned at that time—I might have just rammed into him when he cut in front of me and slowed abruptly).
I sometimes think of that driver when I am driving the roads of Costa Rica. Every day, I encounter numerous situations that could push me over the edge— were it not for the fact that I practice what I like to call “road tranquility” while behind the wheel. An endless soundtrack of soothing harp music plays in my head, the smiling face of Maharishi Whoever appears in my mind’s eye, and I calmly adjust to whatever highway idiocies are thrown in my path. That pirate taxi driver coming around the curve at high speed well over the faded double yellow line? No problem, I will just move quickly to the right while also slowing enough to avoid the family of four walking side by side, backs to the passing cars. That guy in front of me driving 5 miles per hour through town while he waves to his friends and neighbors as if to say “Look at me! I’m driving a car!”? Tranquilo, mae, we’re in no hurry here.
I long ago accepted that a higher than average percentage of adults in this country suffer from some form of attention deficit disorder, so that when a driver slows from 80 kph to 20 kph for no visible reason, I do my best to slow down with him, and pass him if it is safe to do so, without blowing the horn or flipping him the bird. Those pedestrians who step in front of me even when I have the right of way are greeted with a friendly wave of the hand and a smile. That Maharishi in my mind’s eye smiles too, as I resist the urge to stop my car and lecture the pedestrians (“See this car? It’s made of Steel. Steel is a very hard object. A ton of steel moving at thirty miles an hour would easily crumple and crush your flesh and bones.”).
Most of my driving is done far from the Valle Central Metro Area, so my practice of “road tranquility” is not tested as thoroughly as it would be if I lived around San Jose. Driving there presents its own set of patience destroying challenges. It is as if the city planners of San Jose (if there is such a thing here) want to create an atmosphere of total driving confusion. Lanes that merge abruptly, center lanes that suddenly become left turn only lanes, unmarked and unnamed streets, faded street signs, important road signs with letters the size of the bottom line of an eye chart, are all part of the mix of driving in San Jose. Recently, while driving there, I made the mistake of attempting what I thought was a shortcut to get from San Pedro (east of San Jose center) to Escazu to the west. I got on a road with a sign for Escazu; over the next couple kilometers I came to three different forks or rotundas, none of which featured a sign indicating the direction for Escazu. My shortcut cost me an extra half hour. All of which reminds of something that happened recently while I was at home, watching a movie with my wife and 11 year old daughter. The movie featured a few uses of the “f-word”. My daughter and I had the following exchange:
Me: You know that’s a bad word in English, right?
Me: You don’t hear me use it do you?
Her: Only when you’re driving in San Jose.
What I could not possibly explain to her was that those f-bombs help me maintain a state of road tranquility under the most trying of circumstances; after all, there are occasions when all the imaginary harp music and smiling beatific visions of holy men just aren’t enough.