EXPAT FOCUS – In October of 1989 I found myself steering a wheezing, smoking moped down a dark road. My good friend and college roommate sat behind me, his fingers digging in to my sides as he continued his lengthy complaint about the fumes coming from the obvious gas leak.
We’d found this relic at a garage sale hosted by a local friend’s family. No money changed hands—the family was just grateful that someone was willing to haul it away. Our treasure was really more of a bicycle than a moped, and it featured the worst characteristics of each.
My efforts to ignore my friend’s death grip were interrupted by the glare of headlights in the one, mostly broken mirror perched on the handlebars. We were a long way from our shared apartment on the north-west side of Austin. It made me uneasy that these headlights had seemingly come out of nowhere.
A few moments later I was blinded by the cue-beam from an Austin Police Department cruiser now beside us. I’d apparently driven past the cruiser, which had been laying in wait for a speeder (one of the few offenses the moped was not capable of committing). The red and blue flashing lights looked peaceful in the smokey air, and I felt surprisingly calm up until the loudspeaker mounted atop the cruiser crackled to life.
“Get that hunk of junk off of my streets. Now!”
I’d done any number of stupid things up to this point in my life, but this particular time I ignored the urge to argue that the streets belonged to us all, and instead pulled over to the curb. My friend and I watched as the cruiser disappeared in the dark, which soon enveloped us again as the headlight on the moped didn’t work any better than the muffler, the carburetor or the brakes.
I often think about that night when I see the Transitos (Policía de Tránsito – Costa Rica’s Traffic Police) operating in our zone. Many of the motos and quads being ticketed by Transitos share traits with my free moped: broken, smokey, loud, leaky mechanical beasts that should have been retired long ago. The unlicensed, uninsured drivers bear a lot of resemblance with 1989 me as well.
It is therefore easy for me to empathize with the plight of those ensnared by Transitos—until I appreciate just how quiet and peaceful the streets become when Transito is in town. Car traffic converts to pedestrians and bicyclists. The pirate taxis disappear back into whatever dark corner from whence they came, and the chirping of birds replaces a non-muffled engine as the song of the street.
The change is swift, and it begins ever before the Transitos arrives. Those of you who saw the movie “Black Hawk Down” will remember how the Somali scouts perched on rooftops far away from the action called the bad guys and held up their phones to let them know the U.S. Army was inbound. The Transitos have a variation of this same challenge when they attempt to sneak up the mountain. Many of the people the Transitos pass on the few available routes up the mountain immediately warn their buddies here in the Monte Verde district via broadcast texts to one of several different WhatsApp groups dedicated to this effort.
This game between the Transitos and the unlicensed/uninsured/uninspected portion of the population would therefore seem to be hopelessly tilted on behalf of the offenders. What works against the offenders is the fact that there is just one main road connecting the better part of the Santa Elena/Cerro Plan/Monteverde expanse. Transitos are well aware of that fact when they sets up shop right in the middle of the zone—often switching to the pickup that belongs to the local police to further camouflage their presence.
Motorists with jobs will often take the chance that they can make it across town before Transitos arrive in the morning and can probably count on the fact that the Transitos will be long gone by the time they get off work and return home. Transito personnel do not appear to enjoy working in the dark, or in the rain.
Yes, there is a public bus that runs along this same stretch, but those with early starts to their work day usually get the Transitos word too late to make the early bus. Those who choose to accept the lengthy wait for the bus to lumber back through town are then late for work (an outcome which might eventually conclude with the loss of the job). Also, many of the workers trying to get across the zone live far away from the public bus route or work for an employer well off the main road. Note: back in the fall of 2015, service was suspended for several days when Transitos stopped the public bus and found that the driver didn’t have the proper licensing.
For all of those that chance it, there are many others who can’t afford the risk, the fines or the potential loss of their vehicle. Transitos’ presence in the zone therefore has a chilling effect on workers, and work in the area. Many times over the past two years I’ve received an apologetic text from a worker that couldn’t come as agreed as they were stuck home because of Transito.
However easy it may be to root for the underdog, and against the Transitos, it remains equally true that living, walking and driving are better when the problem vehicles are off the streets. Besides the noise and congestion, some of the worst drivers in the zone are apparently part of the group that disappears when Transito is around. Extended wheelies up the main road or attempts to round a corner at 6G’s are not quite as attractive when a ticket lurks around the corner.
There is the added benefit that the tourist vans, with overly aggressive, mobile-phone centric drivers from all over Costa Rica, are also better behaved when a Transito is around. At their very worst, when the vans are empty as they’ve already dropped off the tourists/witnesses, the driver of a tourist van will gladly cut in front of you so closely that you have to jump back to avoid having your feet run-over. Any objections are often met with a screamed reply urging you to go back to your own country, which is clearly something the driver whose job depends on tourism hasn’t fully thought-through.
Lastly, there is one more element to consider in the love/hate relationship with Transitos: the average daily wage in Costa Rica versus the costs of purchasing, insuring and maintaining a vehicle. A quick look at the minimum wage scale here in Costa Rica quickly reveals the challenges.
How is a gardener earning ¢10,000 colones (less than US$20) a day going to afford a good, reliable car, moto or quad — particularly with gas hovering 600 Colones a liter (a little over $4.00 a US gallon at current exchange rates)?
Yes, this is a minimum wage salary scenario, but particularly here in tourist-centric Monte Verde district the bulk of available jobs are low paying, service industry positions which often disappear in the heart of the rainy season when tourists are scarce.
And so, with no easy answer in sight, we continue to find ourselves embracing, or at least accepting, the Transito dance.