We have this car, right? The name of the car is Gris (grees). Gris is a 1988 Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon.
On earlier trips here, I drove Gris all the way to the Nicaraguan border, onto the beaches of Puerto Soley, to Esterillos Oeste, Puntarenas, and everywhere in between.
My last trip down here, I arranged with my boss to bring down a group of students, taking the first six-week shift of the boys’ three months. That way, Kim could meet me down here and we could gallivant around the country, Gris our faithful steed.
Suffice it to say that I was so excited for Kim to get here that I ironed my shirt the day before I went to pick her up. I reserved a room at Hostel Maleku. My plan was to buy wine and cheese and crackers and all sorts of other lovely surprises to share with her. Kim arrived late enough that we didn’t want to drive back to La Tigra. Moreover, the other staff member and four more students were arriving the following morning. We’d simply spend the night and help transport them back. Todo tuanis, right?
I drove off with unparalleled excitement under my foot, pressing the gas pedal steadily on the climbs up and down the mountain roads. Just a few miles from town, traffic began to back up. Truck engines whined up the hills and around the curves at an astonishingly slow speed. The sun shone brightly through the sunroof. Haltingly, Gris sputtered and stalled out.
I started it back up and carried on, conscious that there may have been a problem. Knowing full well the dangers of overheating an engine in such hot temperatures and low gears, I had the vent blowing harder than Rush Limbaugh.
With no place to pass a truck, my plan of action was to coast as much as possible, allowing the engine to spin more slowly as I carried on.
The line of cars, dancing hither-thither around the curves like a millipede, hit a straightaway. Now, passing in Costa Rica is a little different than in the United States. Drivers don’t just pass one another. They hurl themselves blindly with comet-like insouciance around the bumpers of the car in front of them. Drivers dart blissfuly back into their lane inches from the oncoming flat-nosed diesel semi careening toward them.
This attitude readily adopted, I downshifted to pass. Again, Gris sputtered and stalled out. Luckily, I wasn’t rear-ended. I kept the clutch in and tried to restart the engine. Clouds of inky smoke poured from the exhaust and from under the hood.
I kept the clutch engaged and coasted, just barely, into a soda on the right. In shock and with no idea what might be going on, I let the car rest.
Some readers may be familiar with the late comedian Mitch Hedberg: “I don’t know how to fix a car. If my car breaks down and the gas tank does not say ‘E’, I’m fucked.”
Consider me fucked.
I called Hugo, my coworker, no answer. I called Freddy, my other coworker, no answer. I checked the time. I called Hugo. I called Freddy. I called Hugo. I checked the time. I called Freddy. I checked the time. I called Hugo. I called Freddy. I checked the time. I waited.
And I waited.
And I waited.
When the phone finally rang, I jumped on it like a defensive end on a fumbled ball.
“Alo?, Freddy? / Hello, Freddy?”
“Eric, que pasó? / Eric, what’s up?”
“Se me jodió el Gris, mae. No se lo que pasa. Me morió y cuando intente arrancarlo de nuevo, me salió un montonón de humo del motor, mae. / Gris is fucked, dude. I don’t know what happened. It died on me and when I tried to start it again, tons of black smoke poured out of the engine, man.”
“Ah…ok. Vengo con el mecánico. Llegamos en media hora. / Ah…ok. I’m coming with the mechanic. We’ll be there in half an hour.”
By the time Freddy arrived, I had had plenty of time to sit and ruminate about how I wasn’t going to arrive in time to pick up Kim.
The mechanic, Dorian, messed around with the engine for a few minutes. Dorian concluded that because I was running the engine in such a high gear for such a long time up such steep inclines that the pressure in the engine was too great. The cap from the radiator had blown off somewhere along the way and all of the water in it had evaporated. The engine seized.
Astonishingly, we found the cap wedged down in the yoke of the passenger side wheel. Dorian filled the radiator, put the cap on it, and started the car. It ran flawlessly.
Freddy suggested the car would probably be fine now if I wanted to take it.
He then suggested driving me to the bus station in San Ramon (about 40 minutes further on down the road). There I could connect directly to the airport and be there in plenty of time to meet Kim.
We executed that plan, and everything worked out swimmingly. Kim and I rented a car and toodled about the country on a beautiful and romantic trip.
Based on that experience with Gris, last weekend when Hugo, Freddy, and my boss Stateside suggested I take it to Esterillos Oeste, I was more than a little leery. Everyone assured me that the car was fine and there would be no problems with it. I said, “ Well, if it breaks down, it’s all part of the adventure.”
With unflappable optimism that only a warrior can exude, I loaded my stuff into Gris and hit the road.
Not fifteen minutes into my drive, I had already scarfed down my two Yipys bars and a bag of Trolli Sour Bright Crawlers. Pleasantly sugared at this point and enjoying the audiobook I was listening to, I went to downshift when climbing a hill. The shifter slid around, sloppy and slack, but I could shift.
As I came to one of the many one-way bridges characteristic of secondary Tico highways, I clutched in and downshifted.
I said, I clutched in and downshifted!
I SA-AID, I CLUTCHED IN AND DOWNSHIFTED!
I managed to roll across the bridge in fourth gear and pull into the space on the side of the road. The shifter was completed flaccid. I rolled it around like a joystick at the arcade.
I pulled out my phone. No signal. My optimism still unflappable, I grabbed my camera bag and wallet and started walking back toward La Tigra.
Within minutes I got a ride from a taxi driver on his way back from the airport. I figured he’d flip on the meter. However he informed me he’d just made something like $160 to drop somebody off at the airport. We chatted about this and that; he had lived in North Carolina, working in construction for over three years. He saved himself enough money to buy the taxi I was sitting in, then returned to Costa Rica.
Much of the rest of our ride was in silence. We arrived in La Tigra and I pressed 5,000 colones into his hand.
“Una propina / A tip.”
Freddy, whom I had gotten ahold of ten minutes or so before, picked me up shortly and we were off to the mechanic to retrieve the Trooper.
When we arrived at the mechanic, the Trooper was in disarray. Its lights were hanging off of it like Christmas ornaments off a navy blue tree. The rear seats had been dismantled and were sitting on the other side of the garage. The hood was up and the doors were open as though it was a great blue whale exposing its yellowed baleen to feed.
The mechanic and Freddy assured me that the car was in proper working order; it would be ready in twenty minutes. So, in my impatience, I snapped a few photos, picked my belly button, laid down in the back of the other car, played with my phone.
Before long, the car was ready. I hopped in it and rallied on down the road toward Gris to retrieve the rest of my belongings and head off towards Esterillos.
I stopped in San Ramon at the MaxiPalí to buy some provisions: a bottle of 12 year Flor de Caña, a bottle of red wine, another package of Yipys, peanut butter, graham crackers, and some coconut candies. The ideal diet for a man training for a 25k race, no?
By the time I arrived at Esterillos, it was after dark. I bought a beer at the supermarket, drank it while I talked to the security guard where to find a place to stay, and finished it on my way to the hotel.
I love Costa Rica.
I stayed at La Sirena, just on the outer edge of town. That night I indulged in an entire 16” pizza. I drank two more beers. I had a sip of the Flor de Caña; it was good.
The rest of the weekend I surfed, ran, read, played music, and relaxed. Saturday night I was in bed by 8:00 P.M. to get up at 5:30 A.M. to surf. I met a man on the beach who showed me some classic songs he’d learned on the street in San Ramon. I explored the beach under the scalding sun. I reveled in the sights of the huge families playing on the beach, the old men drinking guaro at 8:00 A.M. I surfed with sea-turtles, Ticos, and Gringos.
Hugo told me about a sculpture of a man and woman having sex that someone had carved into the rocks. At low tide Saturday I searched for it for a while, but couldn’t find it. I was about to give up. I turned around and it was six feet behind me.
I came back relatively early on Sunday, seeing as how I was up so early that morning.
The weekend was exactly what I’d needed. A dash of adventure, a few cups full of relaxation, a pinch of surfing, and a couple of tablespoons of indulgence.