My Experience Seeking Directions
By Dana Garrison
Finding your way around a new place can be a trying experience even for the most seasoned traveler. The language barrier is only one of a number of different problems you will encounter during your travels in Costa Rica. Ticos (Costa Ricans) have many different rules and a completely different mindset when it comes to giving directions. To illustrate this point and help you understand the differences, I would like to recount my first experience trying to find a new place in San Jose. It was definitely a lesson from the school of hard knocks.
Like most first time travelers, I thought that as long as I had the written directions, address, my pocket Spanish phrase book, along with a map of downtown San Jose, I would easily find my friend's house. So, with the utmost confidence, I set out after language class thinking that it would be a piece of cake. First thing I had to do was find the correct bus stop. This was supposed to be located on the corner of Avenida Dos and Calle Tres. I took out my map and easily found the corner in question. But, just because avenidas and calles are clearly marked on a map doesn't necessarily mean that they are likewise clearly marked on the streets.
I started off in the direction that looked to be east. After only walking for a few minutes, I began to feel that maybe I had been mistaken in that assumption. I was looking for signs at the street corners and even when I could find some, they didn't correspond with what I thought they should be. I did not know at the time that most streets are not marked by a sign. Rather, the mark, if there is one, is more likely to be on the side of one of the buildings near the corner. This is by no means uniform, but it is a good rule of thumb.
I spent the better part of the next half hour walking around, trying to get my bearings. Finally, I began to ask for directions from some of the people I met. With each new set of directions, I became more and more confused. One guy would tell me that I was close and that all I needed to do was go a little this way. Then the next guy would tell me something completely different. My trusty phrase book gave the word for a city block used in most Spanish speaking countries, cuadras. The only problem is, Ticos don't use this term when giving directions. Each time I was given directions I made a point of listening very carefully for them to say blocks, but each time I couldn't make it out. They weren't telling me to go this many blocks south or that many blocks east. Instead, they were telling me to walk this many meters this way or 200 meters that way. I finally figured out what the heck they where talking about and tried to go the exact amount of meters that were called for. Of course, being from the states, the metric system was not necessarily my forte.
Anyway, I would walk for what I thought was about the correct amount of meters only to end up somewhere different. I finally discovered that 100 meters in Costa Rica is the equivalent to one city block, even if that block happens to be only one house long. So, when a Tico tells you to go 25 meters, go about a quarter of the way down the block. Also, to complicate matters further, Costa Ricans don't use the Spanish words, right or left, when giving directions. Instead, they use north, south, east and west. Trying to figure out which way was east, while surrounded by tall buildings during the rain was not the easiest of tasks.
When I finally made it to the bus stop, thanks to a nice gentleman who spoke some English, there was no sign to mark the place except for a line of people waiting near the corner. Only problem was that they weren't the only line of people on the street. And as far as I could see, there where no signs saying which bus stopped where. My friend had told me to ask each bus driver if they were going to Kentucky and if so to please let me know when to get off. Try doing that during rush hour, when the buses are packed and people are pushing in order to board, was not easy. I soon discovered that even if I were able to ask the driver my question, I couldn't always understand, or hear, the answer. A lot of different buses used that same stop and I must have asked a dozen drivers before luckily finding the right one.
While I had been waiting, trying to find the bus, I made sure that I had plenty of change so that I could have the exact amount of the fare. While I found out later that that is a good idea, it is not necessary, as bus drivers in Costa Rica will make change, as long as the bill is not too large. If you are in San Jose and you don't know the exact amount of the fare, just give the driver a five hundred colones bill and he will give you back the change. It is any easy way to avoid any possible embarrassment or language difficulties.
While riding the bus, I was thinking about my destination, Kentucky, and how nice it was that Costa Ricans would name a part of their capital after one of our states. In fact a number of students at school were staying in a neighborhood called Roosevelt. I stayed near the front of the bus and the driver was kind enough to let me know when to get off. Upon alighting from the bus I quickly discovered why this stop was called Kentucky, there was a KFC restaurant right there on the corner. It also turned out that the reason the neighborhood was called Roosevelt was because there was an elementary school named Roosevelt that was donated to Costa Rica in the 1930's by the U.S.
Later, I learned that all directions in Costa Rica are given using landmarks such as churches, parks, schools, tall buildings; or basically anything that can be easily identified. I was once given a big tree as a landmark only to find out that the tree had been cut down ten years earlier. The locals still used the location as the starting point for all directions in the area.
From the KFC, my trip was relatively uneventful and I finally arrived at my friend's house. As it turns out, even though I was almost three hours late, he was not in the least bit concerned. But that is a different story for another time. Suffice it to say, that first trip through San Jose taught me a lot about how Costa Ricans give and receive directions.