U-turns are illegal in Costa Rica

Yesterday, just after noon, I went into the nearby ATH (A Todo Hora, which is the Costa Rican version of “ATM”) to check my Scotiabank balance. Lo and behold, after two weeks of wrangling account, Swift, IBAN, and beneficiary numbers back and forth with the Bank of Montreal, my money finally arrived! I danced a little jig.

That led to a few furiously-dialled phone calls to arrange for another trip out to Grecia to finally pick up the car. This, I should add, ended up being yet another interesting chapter in my life living here in Costa Rica. ‘Cuz this is how I found out that u-turns are illegal here.

Trust me, this is a good one…

It all started when Hermes came to pick me up around 14:00. I don’t have any car and really couldn’t ask my colleagues to take off the rest of their day to do the same. I need the car for Friday’s adventure (more on that in a future blog entry), and frankly Alex needs the car more than I do. Thankfully, Hermes was there to help.

Short sidebar: Hermes and Luz have helped us immensely while we’ve been here. And I found out yesterday that aside from payment for the gas that they used in the first three days Mark, Jason, and I were here back in May, they’ve never been paid a cent for their time. This leaves me feeling unbelievably guilty for using so much of their time. And also intensely angry at Crown Relocations — what the hell are we paying them for?! I digress.

The first stop was the Scotiabank. The money had come from our account at the Bank of Montreal, through an intermediary bank in New York. My problem with this is simple: The intermediary bank are assholes. They only would ever say that the transfer information was wrong — not what was wrong. Somewhere along the line, we’d missed one number. One stinking stupid number. One number that no-one else around here seemed to need, oddly enough. (That is the part that bothers me most.) After all this, I’m going to be a master at wire transfers, I tell you!

Which, while I’m at it, I’ll give you the details. To (successfully) send money from any one bank to any other one bank (assuming wire transfers are permissible), you need the following:

Not all this information is needed — you seem to need more if sending US dollars (which I wasn’t, yet I still had to provide it … confusing), and going through a third-party is always a little unnerving. You lose some in the transit, but it usually gets there in a couple of days.

Now I had to get it out of my account. Language barrier: the teller didn’t speak English, and what I knew of “I need to withdraw money” I read from the services sign near the door. Fortunately, I had the number written down, so it wasn’t too bad. But withdrawing 7,900,000 colones is always something that raises eyebrows. They even asked me what I needed all that money for.

Another interesting thing of the Costa Rican system — it’s hard to get a bank draft or certified cheque. Most of the banks don’t have agreements to allow them freely. So the only way to go? Cash. And the biggest bill there seems to be in Costa Rica is 10,000 colones. Which means 15 packs of 500,000 with a 400,000 wad chaser.

Walking out of the bank with all that (thankfully stapled in an envelope) was more than a little nerve-wracking. This is more money than most Ticos see in a year, let alone at one moment. People are mugged here every day for way less than that. I’d never bought a car with cash before. I should point out that we’d had to sell two cars in Canada, one of which was a 2007, and we didn’t get nearly as much for either of them. Cars down here — used cars — aren’t cheap. (New ones are insanely expensive.)

The drive out to Grecia was met with an insane amount of rain. The last two days have had heavy rains that are even much for lifetime Ticos. Hermes is a very good driver, though, and it wasn’t an issue. By the time we finally got to Autos Diego just south of Grecia, the rain was a mere trickle.

First, the dealers had to count the money and make sure it was all there. I don’t blame ’em at all, but I was a little nervous: I hadn’t counted it myself! What if the bank short-changed me? I couldn’t afford to be out more money — this was already far more expensive than I had been prepared to pay. But your child’s safety doesn’t come with a price tag.

Thankfully all there, the next step was to go to the lawyer’s office. In Costa Rica, you have to use a lawyer. It’s the way things are done. Buy a car here is like buying a house in North America — lawyers check for liens, holds, loans, etc. to make sure it’s free and clear. But they’re not exactly zippy. I’ve bought three houses in Canada, and I’ve spent less time collectively in a lawyer’s office for three soul-crushing debt-laden houses than I did for buying a car with cash here. Most of it waiting around.

The lawyer’s note literally spells out who sold the car, who bought the car (including ID/passport numbers and addresses), the VIN of the car’s chassis and even the engine number, type of car, manufacturer, year, colour, model, transmission, and even that it uses gas or diesel.

Remember this letter. It’s important for later in the story.

One copy went on file, they gave me one, and after a few minutes of discussion that I could barely follow (legalese is hard enough in English, let alone Spanish), we were off back to Autos Diego.

To wait. More.

This time for a “permit”. It’s a simple piece of paper that says I can drive my car home. (Remember this, too.) Nothing more. We don’t have placas (license plates) yet — we get those this afternoon. Loaners, actually, since we don’t get the real plates for another month. Mark got his right away, so I’m led to believe that the lawyer (or at least that Marco guy) is a shmuck. Not hard to believe, since the jerk (Hermes explained this to me later) refused to bring the plates to Heredia, which is where I work, and is instead making us drive to the other side of San Jose to get them. He’s actually going to drive past us, just to be difficult.

That’s right folks, assholes are universal.

Permit in-hand, we finally hit the road. Already I noticed an issue, where the dashboard lights wouldn’t come on. (I fixed this later using the oldest tool in the book — whacking the dashboard.) Filled up with some gas (Costa Rican used car dealers put only enough gas in to run the car for 20 minutes, just in case someone tries to steal the car on the lot), and returned home.

No, this story isn’t over. Here’s where it starts to get good.

The highway had a bit of traffic, but no big deal. The drive was easy, care-free. When we got to the east-end of the Juan Santamaria airport, I turned right to head into Santa Ana, Hermes continued on in his car to Heredia. As I passed by the east-end of the runway, I caught a wonderful glimpse of the sunset over wet tarmac with the runway lights gleaming.

How could I not resist?

I overshot the runway, so backed up and turned around to drive back. I hopped out, and snapped a relatively decent picture.

I wished I’d had my SLR, but beggers can’t be choosers. I at least brought a camera of some kind. I returned to the car, hopped in, started up, checked the mirrors, pulled a u-turn to head home…

…and got pulled over by a motorcycle cop.

At first I thought it was an airport cop who wanted me to delete the pictures (it happens a lot in other places). But then he asked — in English — for my license. Already, my “uh-oh” filter was going off. He didn’t even try to speak Spanish to me. He knew I was gringo. An easy target.

You see, there’s a problem in Costa Rica with cops who stop gringos for minor things, and demand the payment of the fine on-site. This is not allowed — cops can’t collect money. You have to pay it at the station. It happens a lot, but unfortunately it’s a difficult thing to … well, police. Ticos don’t have this problem, it’s usually tourists. And shmucks like me, who did something actually illegal.

U-turns are a no-no here. If I’d backed up into a short road behind me and driven forward, I’d probably have had no trouble at all.

Doesn’t like my license. Asks for my passport. And my registration. I had him everything, including the lawyer’s letter (remember that, now?). Doesn’t like the letter. This isn’t a registration (yes it is, it even has the registration of the car attached to it), this isn’t official. Complains about my permit (remember that, too?) — it’s a copy, not an original (okay, I might have to give him that one).

Then he goes too far.

Ticket, I can handle. But then he blows it: I’d lose my license for 6 months (I don’t even have it yet, numb-nuts), I’d have to go to court, and see that guy over there? (points to a shitload of traffic on the highway behind me), he’s going to come and tow your car. (Uh huh. You were driving towards the highway — not from it — and magically know your “friend” is over there?) Oh, and I’m in a hurry as I’m going to Puntarenas now. (Funny, no-one goes to Puntarenas on a Wednesday night except truckers and buses … and I don’t care about your time, buddy.)

I make a phone call to Hermes, who’s quite a ways further away than I would have liked at that point. He tells me to not to give him any money or leave the car. He’d be right there. The cop, of course, is trying to speed things up. He wants me to cave, ask for any way to avoid this, pay him some money so he’ll leave. He asks me to call Hermes again (probably thinking he’s too far away and won’t actually come). Problem — Hermes is almost here.

Suddenly, the cop writes up the ticket, says he has to leave, and speeds off. Hermes arrives less than a minute later.

Officially, yes, a u-turn is illegal here. So that was my bad. But the ticket, from everything I can read, amounts to a hill of beans. First, it’s for a mere 5,000 colones. About $10. Second, there’s not even any identification that it’s even me! All it has is my name (which anyone could give if you had it) and some chicken-scratch in Spanish. Not even the officer’s name.

Hermes told me not even to bother paying it.

I got home without further issue. I’m not annoyed at this little adventure. I’m actually pleased. It’ll make me prepared for the next time it happens — I’m sure it will — and how to handle it better than this time.

And hey, it makes for a good story, right?