Cab Drivers can be good listeners…in Costa Rica too

You hear a lot of interesting things when you drive touristas around.  I’m not one of the official Costa Rican cab drivers, the ones with the red cars with the yellow triangle on the door. That’s a tough job, long hours and having to turn on the Maria as soon as the passenger gets in—so much a kilometer, maybe a tip if you’re lucky. I’m more like an entrepreneur. I like that word. I learned it in New York when I spent a year there with a girlfriend—way back.

Entrepreneur. Ha! I’m just trying to make a buck with a twenty two-year old car held together with clothes-hanger wire and connections—people at hotels and posadas and bars and restaurants who recommend me as reliable. I’m reliable all right…for a sweet cut of the fare which, by the way, I set before we take off. No meters for me. I can make in one day what the city cabbies make in a week.

Part of my shtick is branding. I use my old car so the fares think they are getting a deal. If I showed up in a four wheel drive SUV (like the one I have in my garage) they’d think they were being overcharged to help pay for the gas guzzler. So, I keep my car in good mechanical shape but just a little—okay, a lot, ugly—so folks think they’re getting their money’s worth. Then I charge exactly what the fancy cars get.

Besides the good money and random hours, I get a kick out of playing the illiterate campesino who knows only a couple of words of English. Gringos resent it if you know more English than they know Spanish. So, I’ve learned to let them stumble and stutter and butcher my mother tongue. After all, they spent two years in high school studying Spanish and maybe even took a course at a community college. And for them, I’m a captive audience for the length of the ride they’re paying for. So, I listen and smile and compliment their command of the language. Some drivers will correct a foreigner’s Spanish. Not me. I’m not a teacher. I’m an entrepreneur. Teachers don’t get tips.  Besides, if you keep a low profile, the riders will eventually forget about you and talk about things they think you wouldn’t understand or find interesting. Like the time two older women decided to split a fare to the airport in San Jose. One of them was a widow as you can tell from her story…

“Well, there I was shivering and damp in light summer clothes, trudging up the steep slope to Poas volcano. I hadn’t brought any warm clothes, you see. It was my daughter’s fault. She kept telling me, “Mom it’ll be warm and sunny in Costa Rica. You should get away from winter. It’ll be good for you…especially now.” Sunny! Ha! It was a cold, wet, misty mess. When our tour guide had described it as a frente frio, a cold front coming down from North America, everyone on the bus had looked at me like it was my fault, like I was the one brought the chilly weather with me all the way from Wisconsin.

“My Harold would have been complaining all the way about the cost, and the cold and having to get up early to have a driver drag us all over town to pick up all the other people on our tour. I could just hear him…‘How come they didn’t pick us up last…could’ve slept longer.’ God, I hated his crabbing. But I miss it, you know.

“About then, my glasses were misted over with tiny spits of rain or is it cloud? You know, the kind of thing that would cause freezing rain back home, ice all over everything—tree limbs breaking, power out, car accidents.

“When I think of back home, I’m glad it’s finally over. Helping Harold let go was such a strain.

“So, finally I made it to the edge of this grand volcano. I pushed my way through the other tourists and all their plastic ponchos crinkling and snapping in the wind. You know, sometimes you wonder why you wanted to do something in the first place. I found a spot at the rail, looked down and saw nothing but cloud, a huge round bowl of fog that was creeping up and up around all of us. Well, I had enough of that, I tell you.

“On our way back down the mountain, the cloud seemed to have slid into the bus as well. All the windows were fogged, including the driver´s. I asked myself, ‘Don´t his defroster´s work? How can he see this skinny, twisting road let alone oncoming traffic and motorcycles and people walking alongside?’ I wanted to shout, ‘Use your wipers for crying out loud. And wipe the inside of the windshield.’

“Through the steamed up window, I saw a pair of red brake lights glowing ahead. We slowed down and stopped. I decided to take my own advice and rubbed my hand on my window. Through my little porthole I saw that we were at a one lane bridge taking turns to cross. A man was standing on the side of the road, the mist swirling around him. He held a white plastic box full of strawberries. Fresas.  Bright red, ripe strawberries. ‘Wait. Stop. Alto!’ I called out to the driver. ‘The fresas,’ I stammered. ‘I buy fresas.’

“Our guide said, ‘Not here. We’ll stop later.’

“Well, you know what he was getting at. He wanted to stop at the same little tourist trap we hit on the way up so we could buy cheap rain ponchos. I´m sure he was getting a commission on sales from them. But I wanted those berries. I needed these berries right then. I was tired of being pushed around by doctors and nurses and undertakers and ministers. I was sick of being grateful for casseroles and sympathetic hugs and well-meaning children.

“The driver started to pull ahead. I got up and started shouting…well, screaming, actually. ‘Stop. Alto!’ When the driver hesitated, I stepped into the doorway and banged on the door. He finally stopped and let me out.

“I stood in the dripping wet on the side of that volcano and bit into the taste of summer. Summer would come, I finally realized. I told myself that I would take my grandchildren berry picking like we always did. And we´d freeze some and make strawberry shortcake and I´d put up some jam like Harold and I did every June.

“Then I climb back aboard the bus, nodded to the driver and said, ‘Gracias.’

“Yes. Now we could cross that bridge.”

See what I mean? I would have never heard that story if I hadn’t eavesdropped. People pay to see my country. I get paid to see their lives. Pretty good? Huh?

3 thoughts on “Tico Cabbie

  1. David: Both the outer cabbie’s tale and the interpolated widow’s tale are charming in different ways. You have, as I’ve said before, a gift for creating very authentic characters from a nuanced perspective which blends empathy and humor.


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