There are two things that are proving inevitable in Costa Rica — sunburn and corruption.
The first can be soothed but there is little that can be done to quell the fury of being shaken down by the cops.
In the four months we’ve lived in this Central American country we’ve heard countless tales from other expats about the chronic problem of corruption and theft.
We listened with some skepticism and aside from the odd ripoff by a taxi driver never once experienced the kind of problems people spoke of. I might not have actually believed that police and other public officials still readily accepted bribes had it not actually occurred.
We were driving back to our new beach house from San Jose, where we had returned for what ended up as two days to deal with a problem with the used vehicle we purchased (which, of course, experienced problems only an hour after driving it away from the mechanic we paid almost $1,000 to make a series of recommended repairs to ensure it was in tip-top shape.)
Stuck behind a slow-moving truck through the mountains, we relented to the growing cacophony of horns behind us and grabbed an opportunity to pass, crossing over a double yellow line. Of course, passing when there’s the double yellow means the same thing here as it does back home (that is if you do it and manage to avoid a head-on crash) and it just so happened that a pair of traffic officers were waiting at the bottom of the hill.
We pulled over to the side and prepared for a ticket, nervously wringing our hands as the officer approached the window.
After explaining, in perfect English, that we would receive a ticket for the violation, the officer told us that he would also be keeping my husband’s driver’s licence.
At this point, I went berserk and demanded the officer show me where it said he could legally withhold a driver’s licence for a simple traffic violation, upon which he scolded me with wagging finger.
“I don’t like your attitude,” he scoffed, then walked away.
Some moments later he returned to my window, with a code of traffic laws and began madly flipping through it, showing me different pages and citations he claimed allowed him to do this.
Who am I to argue? I don’t read Spanish, at least not well enough to decipher Costa Rica’s traffic laws and certainly not in a matter of seconds.
It was painfully obvious this was a simple case of extortion: my husband’s driver’s licence for a price.
After running through various scenarios in my head, I realized there was only one way out — pay the man and get on with it. With two little kids sitting in the backseat, asking if the police were going to take us to jail, I just wasn’t prepared to call his bluff and tell him to keep the driver’s licence and see how it unfolded.
“What can I do to resolve this?” I asked the officer, whose face suddenly broadened in a smile.
“You’ll have to talk to the boss,” he replied, walking back to the older officer with him.
The second guy, diminutive and weathered looking, came to the window along with the first, who asked if we spoke Spanish.
“Poco,” I said, upon which time the first officer walked away.
I told the second man, in Spanglish, that I would like to pay the fine right now. He simply nodded, walked to the back of the vehicle and began writing in his ticket pad.
Then, he walked back to my window, pad in hand and stood there until I asked him how much.
“I don’t know,” he replied in Spanish, “ten thousand colones?” he asked, although I’m certain it wasn’t really a question to which he expected a reply.
So, I handed over the cash in exchange for the licence, he closed his ticket pad and walked away leaving me fuming and out of pocket $20 — half the amount I would have happily paid in a legitimate traffic fine.
I’d file a complaint if it weren’t for the fact that bribing a traffic officer carries with it an even stiffer fine and likely a one-way ticket out of the country.
So, I’ll have to quietly seethe and ensure we abide by the traffic laws even when no one else in Costa Rica does because, well, traffic cops almost never actually enforce them.
But I will never forget the parting gift we received from the menacing officer who launched the whole charade, wagging finger and all.
Before we could resume our drive, he came back to the window, his smile broader than ever, and reached his bulging arm into the vehicle to shake both our hands.
“Pura Vida,” he said, uttering the words that directly translated mean “pure life.”
I’m beginning to see the ironic nature of the phrase.