Tuesday, 1 November 2005

The Amazing Race 8 (Family Edition), Episode 6

Panama City (Panama) - San José (Costa Rica) - Parque Nacional Volcan Poás (Costa Rica) - Doka Coffee Estate (Costa Rica) - Jacó (Costa Rica) - Quepos (Costa Rica)

"You Can't Get There From Here"

(Special guest column by By Erin Van Rheenen, author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica and LivingAbroadInCostaRica.com )

"Tica!" shout the contestants as they rush around the Panama City bus station. "Tica-Tica-Tica!" They're searching for the counter of Tica Bus, Costa Rica's best-known bus line. What they probably don't realize is that they're also calling out frantically for a woman -- a Costa Rican woman, to be exact. "Tico" is the Costa Ricans' nickname for themselves; "Tica" is the feminine of that word.

When you're trying to navigate in unfamiliar territory, it's good to ask (not shout) for help. But be careful what you're asking.

And be sure your pronunciation doesn't mangle the word beyond recognition. Once in Costa Rica, contestants have to find their way from the capital city of San José to the Pacific coast town of Jacó. I was happy to see that many of the teams at least attempted to speak Spanish, but most of them seemed not to know that a "J" in Spanish was pronounced the way an "H" is pronounced in English. If locals knew what contestants were talking about when they called out for "Yeah-ko", it's only because the San José - Jacó route is one of the most heavily touristed in the country, and most tourists in Costa Rica don't speak a word of Spanish.

"English is widely spoken" is a common and patently false claim of many a travel guide to Costa Rica. And just because someone speaks English doesn't mean she or he can help you. Later in the episode contestants stumble across an older English-speaking man who looks like he's bellying up to the bar at 9 o'clock in the morning. This is one variety of the species American Ex-Paticus , the habits of which should make you doubt its ability to know anything but the way to the bar's toilet.

And while getting around a foreign country is always a challenge, it's especially difficult in Costa Rica, where streets are often unnamed and buildings unnumbered, even in big cities.

I remember my first week in Costa Rica. I asked the desk clerk at the hotel (in Spanish) how to get to a restaurant a guidebook claimed was nearby. The clerk gave me my first taste of Costa Rican addresses, which translates as: "From the radiologist's office, go 200 meters north, 100 meters east, and 75 meters south. Pass the tree with purple flowers. The restaurant was pink when the Señora was still alive but now it's white. You can't miss it."

"So what's the name of the street?" I asked the clerk.

"No name," he said, and began to recite again, "From the radiologist's office..."

I couldn't take this in. It just wasn't in my frame of reference to have a shifting frame of reference -- to count off meters from a doctor's office or a flowering tree. I wasn't yet ready to wrap my mind around a completely different way of calculating location. Much to the clerk's dismay, I kept asking him for more information, for a way of thinking that would make sense to me. I couldn't take in what he was telling me, no matter how exact his instructions.

We do that in many different ways when we travel: cling to our old paradigms because we don't yet have new ones. It would take me a while to realize that 100 meters was a block, and that the style of addresses in Costa Rica was often quite exact -- as exact and often more helpful than "345 Maiden Lane" would be. But for a while I just couldn't take in what people were telling me: Why couldn't they just tell me what I needed to know, in a form I could understand?

Besides a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, and a willingness to receive information in forms you're not accustomed to, asking for navigational help in Costa Rica means taking your time. Locals are more than willing to help, but are understandably put off if you scream out the car window the mispronounced name of a town and then speed off when you're pointed in a particular direction. Like most things in Costa Rica (and in many places around the world), it's all about good manners. Saying please and thank you. Taking your time.

In my book, Living Abroad in Costa Rica , I tell my readers:

Human interaction is far and away the most important thing here, and people take time to say hello to neighbors or to make small talk with clerks and taxi drivers. This is true even in the relatively fast-paced capital city but is much more pronounced in small towns. I heard the story of some gringos in a rented 4 × 4 stopping on a dirt road to ask an old man for directions. "I'll be happy to tell you the best way there," replied the man. "But first: it's a pleasure to meet you."

Amazing Race contestants don't have a moment to spare for the niceties of human interaction. Which is a shame. If they did, not only would they get better directions; they might even slow down enough to actually enjoy the ride.

[Copyright © 2005 Erin Van Rheenen. Erin Van Rheenen was the editor of the 2nd edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World and is the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica . If you're thinking of moving to Costa Rica, see her Web site for more on relocation seminars and other services and information.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 1 November 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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