Monday, June 2, 2014

COSTA RICA 101: THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS by Marilyn

I had several errands to run in downtown Grecia. I found a parking place on a side street and parallel parked with the help of a Watchiman (or Guachiman or Cuidacarro) one of many mostly older gentlemen who guard your car while you’re shopping. Watchimen, wearing official-looking Day-Glo vests, work for tips. (Realtor Ivo Henfling wrote a comprehensive article about Los Guachimanes click here.) The first two times I’d parked, I’d thought they worked for the city and I didn’t tip them. I know better now and have begun tipping between 500 and 1000 colones ($1-2), depending on how long I’m going to be.

Watchiman from Ivo's Blog
After about an hour of walking around town, loaded down with two large shopping bags, I returned to my car, only to find a flat tire. Before I even opened the way-back, I knew I wouldn’t find the lug nut wrench.

(A few months ago, we took our artist friend/neighbor and his monoprinting equipment down to the art festival in San Jose. Right before we arrived at the festival, he slapped his forehead. “I forgot the handle!”
Mi esposo Paul, always one to think on his feet, said, “You should be able to use our lug nut wrench.” He was right. The wrench made a perfect handle and our friend was able to do his demos. He promised to return the wrench once he got back to Grecia the next day. He didn’t. And we forgot to remind him.)

In the car’s way-back, not only was there no wrench, the jack was missing too. Then I thought back to a noise I’d heard several weeks earlier. I’d fallen asleep reading in bed and was partially awakened by what sounded like a car door opening and shutting outside of the bedroom window. The next morning, I asked Paul, “Did you open the car door sometime last night?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, I was sure I heard the car door open and close. I must have dreamed it.”

We didn’t think to check the car. We are really terrible about locking the car door; we rarely locked our cars in any of the places we lived in the states, so we never developed that habit. And because where we live now is basically a dead-end rural road, it didn’t seem that critical. But we’d heard that a few of our neighbors on the main road had had their jacks stolen recently. Apparently we had too. (Note to future thieves: we now lock our car -- mostly -- and we almost always take the keys out of the front door when we go to bed. So if you come to steal our new jack and the car is locked and the keys aren't in the front door, try again tomorrow.)

So now I was facing a flat tire with nothing available to fix it. The Watchiman seemed to think that a teenager who lived on the same street might be able to help. He couldn’t. So the Watchiman and the teenager and I walked a down the block to a lumber shop. The lumber guy couldn’t help either. A young man pulled up in Toyota Corolla. The Watchiman explained my dilemma. “I think I have a jack,” he said. In English. My day was looking up. Currently my Spanish works best at the butcher shop or the farmer’s market. I’ve focused my studies on grocery shopping, not car repairing.

Toyota Corolla guy dug around in his trunk and pulled out a Toyota Corolla-sized jack. We walked back to my vehicle, a Subaru Forester SUV. Toyota Corolla guy pumped the little jack all the way up. About four inches remained between the top of the jack and the bottom of the car. The jack was just too small. Moments later, the Toyota Corolla guy flagged down another guy in a shiny red Suzuki SUV. The Suzuki guy, who wore an official Municipalidad de Grecia shirt, had a much more substantial jack and it worked. Soon Toyota Corolla guy (whose name was David) was jacking up my car.

I hated to play the part of “helpless female” but all I could do was sit on the stoop of a small restaurant and watch.

The Suzuki guy stood on the sidewalk with the Watchiman. They watched.

The teenager who lived on the block watched.

Various neighbor-ladies watched. From a polite distance.

David removed the nuts on the tire. He tugged at the tire. It wouldn’t come off. He whacked the tire with the Corolla jack and it finally loosened. David rolled the flat tire over to me, pointing to a large nail head in the treads. “Well, that’s your problem,” he said.

“You are my guardian angel,” I said, all helpless female.

David picked up my spare and tried to line it up with the bolts. The car wasn’t jacked up high enough for the spare. The jack was pumped to its limit. So David sent the teenager down to the lumber shop for a block of wood. The teenager came back and David lowered the car and slipped the block of wood on the jack, re-jacking the car up. He tried to line up the spare on the bolts again. Still too low. He sent the teenager back to the lumber shop for more wood. The teenager came back with a meter-long piece of 2x4 with big nails sticking out of it.

David looked at me and shook his head. “Don’t cry,” he said, peering up at the ever-darkening sky, “the rain hasn’t arrived yet.” It being the rainy season and it being the afternoon when the rains typically came.

Waving the nail-studded 2x4 in the air, David spoke to the teenager in rapid Spanish that I couldn’t parse but figured it had something to do with the inappropriateness of the 2x4. The teenager took the 2x4 and headed back to the lumber shop. He returned with several chunks of wood of various thicknesses. David smiled. He turned to me, “Don’t cry,” he said for the second time. “This is going to work.”


I had no intention of crying. But I was grateful that someone who wasn’t me was handling all of this.
David slid the spare under the car and then stacked up the chunks of wood on the jack and began pumping. The parts of the jack handle that were supposed to connect to make the handle long enough were smashed in, so he couldn’t put them together. To get the proper leverage, he had to push the handle down with his foot and then pull it up with his hands. Slow going. Just as the car finally seemed high enough, the blocks slipped and the car came crashing down. Fortunately, the spare tucked under the frame kept the car from crashing to the street.

By now about 25 minutes had passed. David’s cell phone rang. He answered it and spoke again in rapid Spanish that I was unable to catch. He smiled at me, “If we’re lucky, the rain will come soon.”

 I moaned. “That’s supposed to be funny, right?” I said. He brushed the grit off his knees.

“My jeans are dirty,” he said.

“Lo siento,” I said. I’m sorry. “When you’re finished I’ll buy you a cervesa,” I said.

“Not necessary. Today you; tomorrow me,” said David. He smiled warmly. Very Pura Vida of him. 

An older man showed up, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. Without speaking, he took the little Toyota Corolla jack, grabbed a stack of wood blocks and slid everything under the back of the car. He laid down on the asphalt and carefully placed his lit cigarette on the ground next to him.

Now all I could think about was: there is a lit cigarette smoldering beneath my gas tank.

The little jack had a crank handle. Cigarette guy had to manipulate the crank handle from his position on the ground. It was very awkward. While he was doing that, David began re-pumping the larger jack. So now there were two guys pumping my car higher and higher. And one lit cigarette under the gas tank.

With both jacks holding the car up, David rolled the spare over again. This time it aligned perfectly with the bolts. “Not raining yet,” he said, turning to me with a grin.

Cigarette guy slid out from under the car, picking up the remainder of his smoke and replacing it on his lower lip.

“Gracias, muchas gracias,” I said. He nodded almost imperceptibly.

With the spare on, the guys picked up their various tools and wood blocks. I gave David a hug and slipped a 20 mil note into his hand. “Cervesas para todos,” I said.

“Forty-five minutes,” he said. He looked up at the sky. “No rain yet. Now,” he said, “drive very carefully and get your tire fixed right away.”


I thanked all the guys again and got into the car. I pulled away, blowing kisses to my guardian angels as the first big plops of rain hit my windshield. 
Post a Comment