I did it. I’m here. In spite of a semi-harrowing arrival, I’m sitting in an airy bus station food court facing the colorful mish-mashed sprawl that is San Jose and the gently sloping mountain behind it.
To back up, I barely managed to sleep at all during my flights and the time between them. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve and was too wired up about the upcoming travels.
The real adventure began after the plane touched down in San Jose. Shouldering my huge backpacking backpack, I wondered why in God’s name I had thought it a good idea to pack 38 pounds’ worth of shit, albeit mostly important shit. I weaved my way through the gauntlet of hundreds of taxi drivers clamoring for customers. The bus station should’ve been right outside the airport, or so I thought, but I couldn’t find it… all I saw were a handful of covered shelters where buses rolled up to, but no station. In my creaky Spanish, I asked a couple girls where I should go to get the bus to Jaco. They both smiled and shrugged.
It felt like I asked half the country, and everyone’s answers contradicted each other. One girl said I should walk down the street three blocks, back towards the airport; an older cab driver said I’d need to cross the street to catch the proper bus. It wasn’t until I practically interrogated an actual bus driver that I understood that I’d need to take a bus to the center of town in order to catch another bus to Jaco. He seemed friendly, talking to me in the exasperated yet parental way you would if you, too, had helped plenty of other confused tourists. I was so thankful for an answer that finally made sense.
Still in Spanish, I asked if I could take his bus to the Coca Cola Center. He didn’t say yes or no. Instead, as he turned to walk back towards the front of the bus, he waved, pointed backwards, and yelled “detras” (behind) a couple times. I looked at the back door to the bus. It was still just as wide open as the main front door. Did he mean I should hop on? Why else would he have pointed backwards and said “detras” in a conspiratorial tone like that? I didn’t have a chance to ask before he had disappeared onto the bus. In my fogged-out and sleep deprived state, I didn’t think, didn’t question… I just darted through the back door of the bus and up the narrow set of stairs as fast as I could with so much weight on my back. It wasn’t until I was standing in the middle of the aisle, a spectacle for all the chill ticos watching me, that I looked out the back window of the bus. Pulling up behind us was a big orange bus.
Time moved in slow motion as I took a tentative step back towards the doors only to hear a loud beep and watch them close in front of me.
I fell into the nearest seat as the bus lurched forward and thought about what an idiot I was. Of course the driver had meant for me to board the next bus. What the hell was I thinking? I was in too deep. I couldn’t ask the bus driver to stop because we were already moving along a congested highway, and I didn’t want to get stuck on the side of the road. Why on earth would I have thought the bus driver meant I could hop on the back of the bus? I hadn’t even bought a ticket.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I hunkered down lower in my seat as the passenger in front of me, a guy with a shaved head and burly arms covered in tribal tattoos, cackled to his girlfriend. Unlike me, he seemed to be having a great time, amusing himself by tossing Pringles cans and soda bottles into abandoned lots and hocking loogies out the window.
I was scared to even ask anyone where the bus was going. I sat paralyzed by my own stupidity, jumping from conclusion to conclusion. What if I ended up in Nicaragua or something? What if the bus’s last stop was some tiny village and I had to haul my pack miles to even reach a semblance of civilization?
The only good thing about the haze of sleep deprivation that had gotten me into this mess was that it also dulled the sharp fear that pulsed through my body. I finally started to get my mind under control by reminding myself that hey, at least I wasn’t spending another mind-numbingly boring day at the office. I took a few deep breaths and turned to the soft featured middle aged woman sitting in the row across the aisle from me. “Excuse me, where does this bus go? I needed to get to the Coca Cola Center but I think I made a mistake.”
“We’re going just a little bit past the center, don’t worry.” The way she responded, I knew she took pity on me. I silently thanked my luck that I possessed a soft voice and big eyes that probably made people think I was innocent and not the kind of unpitiable dumbass who just gets on buses without knowing where they’re going.
I thanked her and slumped back into my seat, relieved. I could handle a little detour as long as I knew I was headed in the right direction. It was clear that we were indeed headed towards the center of town. The buildings, rough and dilapidated houses wedged between stores and fresh-looking commercial properties, were clumped closer and closer together.
As the bus slowed down at an intersection, my savior waved at me and said I should get out there to be closer to the center. I jumped up and tried to heave my bag onto my shoulder, but the bus began moving. She yelled at the bus driver to wait and he stopped immediately. Thanking her profusely, I hurried off the bus as fast as I could.
Luckily for me, the corner that I’d stepped off onto was directly across from some airline office building. Half a dozen bored-looking uniformed employees milled around out front and the youngish bright eyed guy I spoke to seemed happy to help.
After I explained my situation, he scratched his chin and replied to my Spanish with perfect English. “If you go to Terminal 7-10, that’s where you need to go to get to Jaco… you could also go to the Coca Cola Center.” As he stood pondering, he waved over a coworker to discuss it and agreed I should go to Terminal 7-10.
“How far is it?” I asked. I wouldn’t have minded walking if it wasn’t for my backpack, and for the fact that I wasn’t sure how safe the neighborhood was.
“A couple miles… you need an uber.”
“What about a cab? My phone doesn’t work without wifi.”
He shook his head. “Here, I’ll order you an uber.” I couldn’t have been more grateful that, in spite of my stupid decisions, these welcoming people were looking out for me. It made me think about how different things might have been if the tables were turned. If, instead, I’d been a Spanish speaker asking for help in the U.S. with less-than-perfect English, I wondered if anyone would go out of their way to help me.
I was able to buy a ticket at the station for 4pm for less than $5, so no harm done. Just a minor (terrifying) detour. I got to relax in the airy bus station, safe and dry, watching the afternoon rain coat the city streets in a glossy sheen.
The ride to Jaco took 2.5 hours. It started in stop-and-go traffic, motorbikes whizzing between the lanes and darting in and out of rush hour traffic, and was all the more exciting because I had a front row seat, literally. I got to see how close it was when the bus driver nearly hit another bus, and the time he nearly smashed into the arm of a toll booth that clearly had taken longer to open than expected.
My trip, which consisted of two planes, a bus, an uber, another bus, and a taxi, finally ended around 7pm when I found the hostel and walked in to meet my new international family.
So yeah, I made it, and it’s safe to say I learned a lot on the way. Until next time!