Tuesday, August 27, 2013

When getting directions, it may help to know where the cemetery is located

When you live in Costa Rica, one of the first things that strike you as odd is the fact that there is no standardized system of address. What does exist is what locals affectionately call, “Tico directions” aka “Costa Rican directions”. In other words, directions that will involve an oriented distance (e.g. 200 meters west, 100 meters south) from a local landmark (cemetery) or business (gasoline station) rather than your typical 123 N. Main St. Unfortunately, a recent study pointed out that almost a quarter of all mail in Costa Rica is returned undeliverable. According to one mail carrier, a typical envelope addressed to a family could read something like: From the west side of (city name) cemetery, 100 meters north, 50 meters east, cross the train tracks, yellow two-story house with a guard house in the front. As one can imagine, being a mail carrier in Costa Rica can be an exhausting and frustrating job.

I should not have been amused when a funeral service clogged up traffic near our home a few weeks ago. Just as I was returning home after a long walk with our dog, a taxi pulled over to the side of the road and asked me if I knew where the neighborhood Catholic Church was located. I told him he needed to go 400 meters south and then head left at the stop sign. A few minutes passed and another car also pulled to the side of the road and asked me the same question. Each driver was kind and courteous in their questioning but I was beginning to sense an important event was taking place at the local parish. Low and behold, less than five minutes passed and a third driver rolled down his window and before he could ask me the proverbial question, I told the driver how to locate the church. The passengers in the vehicle laughed and suggested I should charge for helping the family and friends of the deceased with finding the funeral site. But what happened next really made me chuckle and understand I had come far along in accepting a culture where streets aren’t named and buildings don’t have numbers. What did I do? Well, I stood at the corner of the street and pointed south while yelling 400 meters and head left at the stop sign. The response of the drivers that followed was hilarious.  Passengers yelled, “Gracias” and I waved as I smiled back.  My walk with Pierre was longer than usual but in the end, I was relieved most folks that passed by the neighborhood that day where able to attend a special ceremony even when street signs don’t exist and Google Maps can’t help you.

Pierre and I on our routine walk around the park
Taxis waiting to make their right turn onto the neighborhood