Navigating by Alpha Centauri

The speech I had prepared for the car rental place was blistering. The memories were still fresh: the 19 kilometers on a mountain road paved with dust and broken stones; the announcement that we were within two right turns of our mountaintop lodge; the following announcement after that second right that we should make a U-turn and drive seventeen kilometers back down the mountain; the declaration, the next day, that the GPS would no longer display maps; the heartbreak of spending 8.5 hours driving from Monteverde to Quepos, a trip that should have taken us no more than three hours, because we had made such a ritual of being lost that we visited every gas station, every mini-mart, and half the pipa frio stands between Nicaragua and El Salvador pleading for instructions. At last Alexa found a plasticized, fold-up map that told us that Route 27 would lead us into Route 34 and that 34 would take us straight into Quepos at which point we could begin looking for our eco-lodge, which is buried in the jungle somewhere along the highway anywhere between 12 and 45 kilometers past the one-lane airport that dead ends smack-bang into a T with Route 34.

It turns out that the map really means to say that Route 23 runs into Route 34, but we stuck with 27 as long as we could, like Bobby Frost looking down the path that wanted wear in the yellowed wood he’d remember with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence. But probably not in Costa Rica.

Finally, we found 23; 23 joins up with 34 at the Caldera exit, which we dutifully took only to discover that the exit leads inexorably to a barricade manned by several sailors and two marines who protect the naval base from Yanquis who veer too far to the right when they take the Caldera exit and miss the little side-step onto the entrance ramp which, unmarked and mysterious, leads to 34. The sailors and marines were very friendly and obliging, raising the barrier and letting us make a U-turn to escape their security zone. Apparently, this traveler’s misstep happens regularly.

Some hours after nightfall we stumbled upon a small yellow sign telling us that we should turn left RIGHT NOW to reach the eco-lodge a couple of kilometers up yet another dirt road.(Dirt roads are almost always a signal that you are on the right path. Who knew?)  Hot and bedraggled, hungry and exhausted, we checked in and learned there was no dinner (we repaired later to the Lucky Lobster a few miles up the road) and no air conditioning (for which there is no reparation or recompense in this universe).

All this I was prepared to tell the rental agent who had fobbed off on us the only GPS device in captivity that refused to show its master the map. I had, however, enjoyed a few days to calm myself, and the drive from Quepos to San Jose—Route 34 all the way—was simple and relaxing, so I was prepared merely to ask for a refund without demanding satisfaction by duel. But then, exiting Route 34, Alexa navigating with her plasticized map, we ran into another Costa Rican habit: naming main streets for Costa Rican heroes. This is a fine cultural phenomenon, but it has long escaped my attention that we often read our native street signs in a kind of shorthand. “Wash….” is, of course, Washington Boulevard. Main, Market, Broad, Pinckney, Calhoun, Lincoln, Elm, Oak, Armstrong, Yogi Berra, Boutros Boutros-Ghali are all more or less instantly recognizable through a mental exercise that knows what’s coming by virtue of the smallest hint. But no one I know knows Costa Rican heroes except to acknowledge that they all have four names, none of which is abbreviated on the street signs. Consequently, the font is very small and, when the traffic is heavy as it always is in a capital city, the poor navigator has barely had a glimpse before the driver is in the wrong lane facing an oncoming bus that says Express prominently across its nose.

That is the beginning of city driving in San Jose. It turns out that Costa Rica has more heroes than San Jose has city streets, so following a long road through the center of town will reveal this: four word name of hero/Avienda 13/ four word name of different national hero/Calle 4/Pan American Highway/Avienda 13/ Calle 387/Pan American Highway—Welcome to Nicaragua. Somewhere along this route is a pipa frio stand that knows precisely where the Aloft Hotel is located. So God exists after all.

In this state of mind, I returned the car and the GPS, altogether prepared to be the Ugliest of Americans. “The GPS didn’t work,” I began. “Oh, no,” quoth the sweetest young woman you’ve ever encountered, lowering her doe-like eyes and letting her hand lovingly caress her abundantly pregnant midsection. “Oh, no. You’re the third customer today with this problem. We’ve already subtracted it from your bill.” Peace be with you, American.

I should have told you at the outset that a GPS system is de rigueur in Costa Rica. Most village streets in most towns have no street signs at all. Even on the outskirts of San Jose, you can drive miles without seeing a single sign. Hotels and restaurants identify their locations by GPS coordinates. A deficient machine is more a death sentence, a Sisyphean curse, a retreat into the 14th century. Indeed, we were told that driving instructions, even for long trips, sound like this: “Drive south till you come to a huge fig tree. Then look for two telephone poles, the second one covered with ivy. Take the next left.” After half a century as such a landmark, the old fig tree died and was chopped down and immediately replaced with a sapling. The instructions were amended: “Drive south to till you come to a wispy little sapling of a fig tree right next to where the huge one used to stand. Then look. . . .”

Been there. Ate those figs. Loved the drive but took no pictures from the road. So I leave you now with some flowers that grow in the hotel hothouse, the jungle byways, the shade along the beaches, and behind the pipa frio stands where you can get directions for wherever you need to go.





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