BY HARRY WILLIAMS
Photos by Danielle Doggett
Enrique shouted ‘Vamos, vamos, vamos’ or something similar to those effects. His muttering had always been unintelligible to me, but was growing to a constant stream of consciousness that I could now only interpret by the increase in the already rapid speed of syllables, the shocking rise in volume, and the wild gesturing of the old man’s arms and, though hidden in the footwell next to me, legs. I duly slammed my foot on the accelerator, left the handbrake on and the headlights off, got the clutch all wrong, just about managed not to stall, gave it more revs and lurched out of the gas station on to the wrong side of the road accompanied by a spray of gravel and screech of tyres, which was quickly becoming my trademark.
We had to turn on to the wrong side of the road because the correct, right hand side of the road, which I’m used to being the wrong side, was full up. The drivers of the trucks that filled it were already starting their engines, whilst the drivers of the coaches that filled it were frantically waving at their passengers trying desperately to get them on board so that they too could start their engines. It was our intention to drive up the free, wrong, side of the road and nip in front of one of these coaches whilst the driver reluctantly acknowledged his passengers – casually waiting around talking – did not have the urgency that he or we felt. Enrique signalled this to me via his increased perspiration, the waving of his legs and the gesturing of his one free hand as we accelerated up the road. His unfree hand was at the time occupied by leaning across me to the wrong side of the steering wheel to turn the headlights on. This was also the method by which he conveyed urgency via increased perspiration.
Unfortunately, what we thought was the blockade opening turned out to be somewhat of a false start. The engines that had been starting were now stopping and no one was moving. This was when lights of what appeared to be a police car turned on ahead of me and started driving towards us. Enrique became still for the first time in hours. What was I going to do now? The gap on the other side of the road would not open because the road block was clearly still well and truly blocked ahead and I was driving head on towards a police car. I slowed down and pulled into the biggest gap between truck and coach I could see. This gap was not quite big enough for the taxi I was driving, which meant the back end was sticking out and blocking the road. I stopped the car, realised I hadn’t taken the handbrake off, held it for a second to pretend to Enrique I was just pulling it on, turned and gave him a shrug. He looked at me blankly and carried on muttering what he knew I couldn’t understand.
We couldn’t stay in this position long enough for the line of traffic to start moving because the police car driving towards us was now only meters away and we blocked it. A standoff in the dark ensued. I looked in to the headlights with an expression I hoped the police would understand meant I didn’t know what the #!*% I was doing. The police of course could not see this expression of innocence and began to angrily flash their headlights at me. Enrique started waving towards the back of the car and I was happy to follow instructions. I began to back up the wrong side of the road to let the police out, in the process reversing past all of the coach drivers now positioned at the wheel with a full complement of passengers no doubt looking down on us with smug disapproval as we passed them sheepishly followed by a police car.
We pulled back in to the garage forecourt we had come from. I stopped the engine and said ‘#!*%’ to signal to Enrique I assumed our opportunity for jumping to the front of the queue was lost. I then repeated the exclamation louder than before realising I’d left the handbrake on. Enrique’s determination however, was far stronger than mine and he would not let the opportunity pass. The police car drove past us, which again freed up the wrong side of the road and the barricades must have opened now as the line of traffic was actually moving. “Vamos, vamos, vamos!’, rapid leg movement, arms waving, sweat pouring, a loud screech and I was accelerating again down the wrong side of the road faster than we had been before, this time with the hand brake off, but I still hadn’t managed to remember to turn the lights on.
I passed the coaches who were moving now looking for that gap that we’d needed before. The coach drivers were not playing ball and for some reason appeared to be blocking us from overtaking them. Enrique’s determined shouting however gave me faith that we would be alright. I tried not to worry about consequences and I accelerated with exhilarating speed enjoying a burst of adrenaline, which helped relieve the stress I had been suffering with for the last hour. The blockade and protesters came in to view ahead and sure enough a gap appeared to be opening just in front of it. I continued to accelerate and managed to get a loud screech out of the wheels as we pulled in to the right, right hand, side of the road, just in time to pass the blockade and just as Enrique got the headlights on. Hundreds of protesters stared at the car wondering what the #!*% the little taxi was in such a rush for and who the #!*% was driving.
I wondered the same thing, except I knew it was me driving. I’d been in Costa Rica for six hours, five of which had been spent in Enrique’s taxi. I had been at the wheel for the last hour in the pouring rain, the dark, and on the wrong side of the road. In the previous 35 hours I’d been on two trains and four flights and had slept only on airport floors. I really wanted to go to bed, but I was also just beginning to enjoy my time here.
It was unfortunate how I’d ended up in this situation and few can be blamed for the turn of events that had brought me there. I’d arrived in San José with clear instructions to get to the shipyard and a warning that there might be a few travel disruptions. On arriving at the bus station several taxi drivers cheerfully informed me that no buses were operating due to country-wide protests and road blocks, and that my plan on arriving at the shipyard that evening would only work if I took one of their taxi’s. Following some negotiations, I ended up sitting next to Enrique on the three-hour journey to the shipyard. He had offered me the best price and I’d felt a bit sorry for him because during the negotiation process he had been widely mocked by his fellow taxi drivers who’d boasted that their cars were better than his, which unfortunately for them had the effect of endearing me to Enrique’s old but functional saloon.
The ride went smoothly for the first hour and a half. I was enjoying the new, green and impressive scenery, as well as practicing some of the little Spanish I knew by talking with Enrique. At this stage he was very relaxed and a very contrasted character to the one I came to know as he proudly described in Spanish the nature and beauty of his country. This calm disposition lasted until we hit a line of traffic, which was the first of the road blocks we would come up against. Enrique quickly began to twitch. He tried to creep in gaps, sneak round lorries, sneak up sidewalks, in, out and around all of the cars, hit a bump, a loud crunch and when we finally stopped water was leaking across the road from somewhere under his taxi. In his shirt, black shoes and grey pressed slacks, Enrique looked distraught when he pulled his head from under the car. Dust muddying his previously clean attire and sweat dripping from his moustache he exclaimed grimly that something was broken. This was the beginning of his constant, stressful muttering. His face began to take on a more purple complexion and he repeatedly mopped his brow with what must have been a soaking wet handkerchief while getting the car up on a jack and fixing it with cable ties… presumably a temporary measure.
After an hour and a half, the car was fixed but traffic was still not moving. Enrique however, was in a rush. He insisted on weaving through as much traffic as possible in a futile effort to get to the front of a seemingly endless line of enormous trucks. His face at this stage seemed to be chameleon-like in its ability to shift colour between grey and purple depending on whether there was a gap in the traffic or not. I began to watch him intensely, both in awe of this ability and also in an effort to work out if he was speaking Spanish or some other language. It was Spanish, but I think he had invented a new version only he could understand, perhaps developed for stressful moments such as this when he only wanted himself to be understood by himself, possibly talking to himself in the first and third persons. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to work it out.
The sun set, the rain started pouring, and finally the road block was lifted for the first time. We were cruising down the Pan American Highway and it looked like I might not be too late arriving at the shipyard when suddenly, at 60km an hour, Enrique inexplicably stopped the car in the middle of the highway, took it out of gear, took his foot off the brake, and we started drifting backwards into the traffic behind. I looked at Enrique confusedly, he jolted on the brakes and we came to a standstill. He looked at me in panic and just said, ‘Fuerte, fuerte.’ I thought there was something up with the engine and got out of the car to have a look . We were in the middle of the highway parked at an angle, while angry trucks which had been stopped in road blocks all day passed us in both directions blaring their horns through the rain. This was a highly dangerous position and I quickly got back in the car wondering what the #!*% we were doing. Enrique was the palest I’d seen him all day; his health was clearly deteriorating. He explained to me he needed sugar. He suffered from diabetes, and was currently not in a fit state to drive. The hours stuck in traffic, the efforts undertaken to fix his car, and the lack of food, had clearly taken it out of him. ‘Puedes andar?’, he asked. Next thing I knew I was careering towards the next road block with the headlights off and the handbrake on in the midst of the debacle described above.
Worried about his health, I made sure he something to eat before I dropped myself off at my destination and he drove the 3 hour journey back to his house in San José. Enrique had been laughing at himself for being the world’s worst taxi driver and he had lightened up by the time I arrived. We had been united through our struggles on the road. I said as much of an emotional goodbye as an Englishman abroad can handle consisting of an awkward handshake, some badly pronounced Spanish and an attempt at a friendly but knowing smile. I really hope he made it all the way back home again.
I was exhausted, but very glad to arrive at the shipyard for the beginning of my stay in Costa Rica. By the time I arrived everyone living there was already in bed. Charlie greeted me and showed me where I would be sleeping for the next 3 months and I gladly got in to bed having been travelling for nearly two days straight. I’d been quite nervous about what I would find and who I would meet. Costa Rica was a new country but from the people I’d met so far and the amazing landscapes we’d been through I knew this was going to be an interesting and exciting country to be in. I already had a good story to tell and there would surely be more to come.
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