Keep Calm and Ride on: The Bus in Rural Costa Rica

I don’t know why I was so panicky.  I had done this many times before with the composure of a tight rope walker over a 50 story building.  The volunteer traveling with me couldn’t be bothered one bit as buses pulled in and out of the station, she kept on reading quietly without a worry in the world.  I was trying to portray the same, but for some reason something was shaking inside me.

I knew we had to get on a bus soon.  Our ticket said 11:50am but it was already 12:15pm.  I wasn’t people at bus stationbothered by that, as we were waiting well before then and anything in writing almost never translates to reality, especially in rural Costa Rica.  This was a throwback trip for me, to my first voyages into Costa Rica as a baby faced recent college grad looking for his place.  Back then, time seemed to go slower and curiosity trumped speed.  

Before I had a vehicle, the bus and my feet were my modes of transportation.  It didn’t bother me one bit if I had to wake up at 5am to take a 2 hour bus out into the countryside, get off at some random point along the road and then walk into the forest another hour before reaching my destination.  It was a cheap way to take an adventure and the cultural insights are so much more interesting when traveling via public transportation.

If you spend anytime at a bus terminal, within minutes you begin to pick up on the culture.  You notice the lady that is there everyday selling newspapers at the entrance, how she greets pretty much anyone that walks by.  She doesn’t greet strangers because nobody is a stranger to her.  She knows the times and routes and which people should be at the terminal at which times to get their bus.

You feel the jolly demeanor coming from the bus drivers as they collect your tickets and store your luggage.  They notice that you are not from around here and pay special attention to make sure your destination is one actually serviced by their route as anything written at a bus station can and is often orally overruled.  Some buses depart 20 minutes late from the listed time, others charge a different price from the listed price, and some may go a completely different route to arrive at their final destination.  Nothing is ever totally accurate but it doesn’t seem to stress anyone out.  After you do it a few times, you know what to expect and you don’t even bother reading the signs on the wall anymore.  

I was anticipating this for my recent journey out to the Pacific coast and was therefore on edge at the terminal, not knowing if I should trust my ticket, what was written on the wall, what other locals were saying, or to even believe the bus driver.  Sure enough my ticket was wrong, the bus’s sign was incorrect, but after consulting with the passengers and bus drivers, I felt pretty confident I’d found the right bus.  God speed.

sacks on bus
The Amazon’s Amazon

This bus was going to one of the more rural parts of the country and I had had experience on buses like this before, but this one reminded me that not everything in Costa Rica is first world and country is country.  One of the first things I noticed about the bus, was that the outside was caked in mud and dirt.  Note to self: we’ll be off roading a bit on this adventure.  Due to this, they were not storing any luggage underneath the bus.  Luggage, you might say?  It’s not really luggage, but rather sacks filled with rice, beans, cooking oil and all the basic staples of the Costa Rican diet.  We lost a few seats on the bus as we had to find a place to put all these bags.

I remember my mother-in-law joking with me when I got married that I’d have to take a sack to the market, fill it with food, and carry it back to the house over my shoulder like a good Costa Rica husband.  That was back some 40-50 years ago before roads and buses existed in most parts of Costa Rica.  I thought that practice was an urban legend until now.  Once the bus was loaded (people and goods) five minutes were set aside for vendors to peruse the aisle one last time to sell soda, snacks, books, umbrellas, newspapers etc.  The lady in the seat next to me wanted a “cono”.  I wasn’t sure what this was but when the vendor jumped off the bus to retrieve it, I was half expecting him to come back with a live chicken or something.  Luckily, she only wanted ice cream.

Finally, we were off and I could relax a bit knowing I was on the right course to my final destination.  Since I am usually driving everywhere, rarely do I have the opportunity to just sit and stare out the window and take everything in.  It had just rained and there was quite a bit of humidity coming off the ground, which in turn made everything greener than normal.  There were also little fog clouds hanging around the rainforest covered mountains, providing my-so-called mystique effect, where I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not in a Jurassic park movie.   

Sure enough, we entered the rainforest portion of the route and the pavement turned to dirt.  We were going along pretty good, making stops, letting people off, and slowly but surely the bus began to empty out, but we still had these sacks of food with us.  Eventually, we began making stops where nobody got off, but the sacks did.  Usually, it would be at a makeshift crossing, there would be a motorbike waiting to take a sack off on another dirt road that ran into the mountain.  Other times we’d just stop, toss the sack on the side of the road and continue on our way.

You could sense we were getting out of town, as the stops became more leisurely.  Nobody was in a hurry and at every stop there was a pause for discussion amongst the driver and the passenger.  Usually, it was to catch up on the local gossip, or tell an inside joke only community members would know about.  After awhile it seemed like we were traveling on a family vacation and Dad would be telling a story from the driver’s seat.  It didn’t matter that we were crossing some highly questionable bridges, or driving through streams of unknown depths.

Listening to their conversations and observing our surroundings put me into a trance like state, that was abruptly interrupted at one of the stops when the driver shouted “Ostional!”  I looked up and he was looking right at me.  Sure enough, he remembered my request back at the terminal and as anxious as I was, turns out I just had to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

We got off the bus to start our next leg of the journey on foot.  We looked at our surroundings and saw a small path leading towards the beach.  This must be it, I thought.  I felt a wave of anxiety about to fall over me, but I brushed it aside, took a deep breath, and headed down the path, looking forward to the next adventure…

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