The noise was what I noticed first. Or I should say the blend of noises. I was behind the wheel of a microscopic blue Daihatsu, a rented machine deep into middle age. It had four-wheel drive, five on the floor and a device that looked like an aluminum sewing machine in the tiny compartment where the engine would have been in a real car.
I had just pulled out into traffic in San Jose, Costa Rica. Weeeeeeeeerrrrrrowww went the little engine as I banged it into third at 60 KPH. Chunkachunkachunkachunka rattttattattatatttatttaatttatatttatata went all the loose parts behind the door panels as we stumbled over a road that had been paved in shifts by people who were strangers to the task. In the side mirrors I noticed loose plastic trim fluttering in the wind.
As I sneaked a concerned peek at the loose molding we hit what I was sure was a land mine. WWHAAAM!!!! The car lurched as the left front wheel disappeared and miraculously reemerged from a spectacular pothole. My bride in the passenger’s seat uttered an astonished prayer, “GAWWWWD,” she said.
The locals signaled me and each other in a cheerful tattoo played on their car horns. I thought of my early Boy Scout training in Morse Code. No help. There was some sort of communication going on, but I was out of the loop.
Above the background noise periodic ejaculations issued from the passenger seat. I understood them just fine. “THE DITCH, THE DITCH,” she squealed in a choked gasp that reached above the whine of the little engine. She referred not to some unusual geographic feature but to the rain gutter along the side of nearly every road — a concrete culvert two or three feet deep and just as wide. Put a wheel over the edge and you’ll have to climb straight up to get out the driver’s door.
An oncoming car swerved suddenly across the centerline to avoid a pothole. I swerved toward THE DITCH to avoid him. I’m sure I ran half the tire over the edge. OH, JESUS, screamed my wife, praying louder now.
That was my moment of epiphany. I was beyond prayer. In my mind I heard myself laughing madly, HAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA! My inner wheelman hollered “EAT MY DUST, SUCKERS!!!”
I was God’s own 14-year-old at the wheel of a smoldering hot bumper car. I was flying through a maze populated by other speed-crazed adolescents. What luck! No one over the age of 16 is allowed to drive in this country. I LOVE this place!
I knew the precise location of the tiny wheels on the road. The screaming engine vibrated a message of total control through the shifter in the palm of my hand. I wore a grin of goofy glee as I topped a rise going waaaay too fast. I slammed down into third gear and dove into the hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill. Weeeeeerrrroooooowwwwww my sewing machine whined in protest as I shaved the edge of THE DITCH on the inside of the turn.
I wasn’t in the mood for whining. The rattling, roaring, banging and bumping nearly drowned out the flow of urgent advice and terrified screams from the passenger’s seat. The roar of blood running hot through my hardening veins deafened me to whatever got through the din.
Pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, trucks and magnificent potholes, potholes like strip mines, were part of the game. I swerved boldly between craters on a section of road that looked like it had suffered a recent mortar attack. I whipped around a bus stopped near the top of a hill. I tapped out a message of life everlasting and glorious redemption on the horn as I crested the blind rise in the wrong lane.
There’s our turn! Whip down the tiny back road now to the bridge at the bottom of the hill. THUUUMMP, no pavement on the other side of the bridge. Second gear and up the rutted gravel track…steeper… steeper… shift down to first. The rattling and banging reaches an impossible crescendo while all four wheels shoot gravel and dust back behind us.
There it is, the cobblestone drive of “Finca los Guayabos,” the coffee farm where we are staying. The driveway is so steep I wonder if we will tip over backwards going up. We don’t. Stopped in front of the little house we rented, the silence is deafening. The view over the valley stuns us. We speak in whispers. It’s sunny. The temperature is perfect. A cool breeze wafts birdsong and the aroma of flowers over us.
As we get out admiring the view, a rocket streaks up 100 yards in front of us from the valley below. BLAAAM! BLAAAM! Two thunderous blasts rattle the windows. Flocks of birds explode out of the trees.
We notice later that the explosions always come in pairs. The locals are celebrating the season. BLAAM! BLAAM! — FELIZ! NAVIDAD!
Welcome to… BLAAM! BLAAM! — COSTA! RICA!
I can’t wait to get back.