This is a country in which 50 percent of the population does not own a car, so buses are an absolute necessity. They are clean, on time, and run hourly day and night, even up on our little mountain road four miles from downtown Grecia. (Last week, they raised the fare from 415 colones to 420 colones; or from 83 cents to 84 cents.) Today, we will shop for groceries.
At our bus stop, a yellow line painted on the asphalt, we see the familiar faces of neighbors, whose names we will learn in the months to come. But for now, a smile and “Buenos” suffices. Since we live near the end of our bus line, the bus is empty and we have our pick of seats. The driver is a handsome man who clearly loves his job and the people he transports into town daily. He makes change from his money tray without missing a beat. (I am muy impressionado. It seems like in the U.S., the ability to make change has gone by the wayside, with high-tech cash registers doing the math for the clerks.)
Costa Rican coins are mostly gold-colored and come in six sizes: 500, 100, 50, 25, 10 and 5 colones. The 5 colones coin is stamped in aluminum with the thickness of a disposable turkey roasting pan.
As we progress down the road, the bus fills with Ticos, many of whom greet each other with little pecks on the cheek. Young people offer their seats to the old folks, all wizened, wobbly and bent over. Down the mountain we go, past the local bodegas and countless free roaming dogs. Now and then the driver hits the horn to say hello people working in their little yards by the road. In the US, the bus would be quiet and eye contact would be avoided. Here, there is no fear. School age boys and girls ride the bus in their uniforms unaccompanied by parents.
The clouds are gathering in the east as we arrive at the bus station. The sidewalks are bustling with people on foot. The doors to all shops are open. I don’t mean simply open for business; I mean open to the outside world. This is normal here where the climate is generally in the 70’s and insect free- especially mosquito/fly free. For Norte Americanos, strolling down the side walk is like a trip back to the 1950’s in the US. You pass a pharmacy, an appliance outlet, a dress shop, a bank, an ice cream parlor, a café, and a variety of little stores selling men’s clothing, jewelry, fabric, shoes, hardware, and cell phones. (As in the US, everybody has a cell phone.) This vitality is not interrupted with silent parking garages or vacant lots filled with empty cars waiting for their drivers. This small city has not been repurposed for the convenience of cars. Cars park on the street. (There are no parking meters, by the way.)
A delightful hodge-podge of human activity is present here. A delivery truck double parks, and the driver unload appliances to the whirr of the hydraulic lift. A man in a Hawaiian shirt disappears into a produce store with a huge bunch of bananas on his shoulder. An attractive Tica in tight blue jeans and high high heels crosses the street pretending not to notice the stares of all the men. But her splendidly exposed cleavage and heavy eye makeup leave no doubt that stares are welcome. Traffic lights are few, and stop signs are no more than a nuisance; but somehow people and cars get along without injury.
A block away is the town square shaded by massive trees who spread their grandmother arms over the Ticos as they have every day for a hundred years. Here is where young couples stroll, moms sit and chat watching children romp in the grass, old men nose through the morning paper, various hombres doze on the cement benches while others just sit on the corner watching all the girls go by. A sprinkling of gringos snap photos. They try to fit in, but somehow, like us, they stand out.
Facing the park is the Cathedral de la Mercedes, a towering, deep red structure constructed of steel plates. Its doors are always open for people to wander in and out. Here, during the noon day hustle, a few people kneel or sit quietly in meditation before ornate wooden statuary carved by skilled local craftsmen. It faces west as apparently all Costa Rica churches do, and we can see its twin steeples from our patio four miles away.
While we are shopping, the rain begins, hammering on the tin roof above the open air market.
We have three shopping bags of food, so I can’t hold the umbrella. Outside, people are huddling under the overhangs and in doorways of the shops. Many have umbrellas since this is the rainy season, and downpours visit each afternoon. There is a lot of smiling and joking. Though it’s late October, the rain is warm and friendly. We have 45 minutes to kill and so dash down the street to an open air café for coffee and a pastry.
Totally drenched and happy, we sploosh into an open air café, The Café Delicias. We order café con leche and two cinnamon rolls. Feeling like two characters in a Woody Allen movie, we watch people dash through the puddles and between cars. We can’t help our idiotic smiles. With five minutes to spare, we lug our three grocery bags a block to the station and climb aboard the bus for El Cajon, our neighborhood up on the mountain ridge. I dig out 840 colones for Marilyn and me ($1.68 US), and we head home.
Out of town the bus make a hairpin turn right, and the engine slows. The driver downshifts and downshifts again as the pavement begins to rise steeply. The windows are fogged up, perfect for drawing silly faces. Up front, our driver is joking with the passengers. We wipe away the steamed-up glass and watch for our stop by the saddle maker. We get off and walk down Calle Echoes, our little street, which descends steeply. We are the fourth house, the last house, before the road disappears steeply into undergrowth. Our new family member, a sweet little stray we have nicknamed “Mama dog”, runs up the road to greet us, tail wagging. At our driveway, we hear Lily and Charlie barking excitedly. This is it. We are home, soaked and smiling.