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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Random notes on living in San Jose

By Ole

I'm bored and I've nothing better to do. I should go swimming or something constructive like that, but I'd rather write. So, since I don't really have anything specific to write about, I'll just conjure up a hodgepodge of information. This is mostly relevant to people who don’t speak Spanish. Note: For some reason most of the apostrophes are tilted, often the wrong way. No idea why.


There seem to be several different types of taxies in this city. Some charge you for distance, and some apparently charge you for something else that I’ve not quite been able to figure out. There are expensive and cheap taxis and I don’t know how to tell the difference between them, but it generally appears that the red, relatively new taxis with yellow signs charge you more than most. I’ve crossed San Jose in taxi and paid both 2000 and 5000 colones.

Explaining directions can be somewhat tricky if you’re used to relating to maps and street names. That’s not gonna work here. The local geography is based on landmarks. For instance, to explain how to get to my hostel from downtown, I tell the driver to go to KFC on Paseo Colon, then two blocks north and one block east. That’s also how addresses are typed out here. Again, example: “JC and Friends. De KFC en Paseo Colon, 200 Norte y 100 Oeaste.” That’s the address. Generally, most people will give you directions based on landmarks. Regardless how obvious it seems to us how to find the corner of 10 and 4 without referring to landmarks, especially since the city is built in a grid, well, I tried that a couple of times and in both cases the taxi driver ended up calling our destination point to get directions he understood. Just a matter of having learned two totally different systems of reference, I guess.

Getting a taxi is effortless downtown but in the smaller suburbs may require a phone call. Shops and pubs will usually help you out with this, and if you need a bus....


Both Bruce and I have talked a bit about buses and here’s more.
Finding your bus stop is futile without help from people in the know. Don’t even try because you will almost surely fail. On the stretch of Paseo Colon I live nearby, there’s eight bus stops and none of them are marked. Some have sheds. A couple are just a specific place to stay on the sidewalk to indicate to the bus that you’re waiting for it. Two or three of them go in generally the same direction, but the rest go all over the place. To get the correct bus, you need primarily to know the name of the area you’re going to. That will help you to the bus that at least is more or less correct. You also need to know the name of a landmark or two nearby your destination, to get the correct bus stop. Everyone around you will help you out, especially if you make an effort, however atrocious, of speaking Spanish. Bus in Spanish is ‘autobus’ with an accent over the u (which I can’t find on this keyboard), and is often referred to as simply ‘bus’, pronounced like, well, like bus is said in Norwegian. I bet that helps you out. I’ve no idea if this is correct, it most likely isn’t, but what I do is go ‘Disculpe. Por favor, autobus de [destination]?’ and indicate the bus or the bus stop. That gets me to the bus. If I’m unsure of the exact stop, I will usually ask someone in the bus (middle-aged ladies are a sure bet). What precisely I ask depends on how certain I feel of my Spanish skills on any given day, ranging from simply saying the name of the landmark I’m aiming for as a question, or ‘Disculpe, parada de [name]?’ (again, I’ve no idea if this is correct Spanish but it works for me). It’s a good idea asking this as the bus is entering the area in question, since any reply that involves something that sounds like a number and ‘mas’ is good. The natives will usually answer in full sentences, but mostly I can glean the piece of information I need and repeat it back to them: ‘Dos mas?’ Two more?

Asking for directions

There’s no way around knowing what 1-10 is in Spanish to get by in San Jose. Any number of directions, both on a bus and on the street, will involve numbers, just like in English and Norwegian. In other parts of Costa Rica, namely the heavily touristed ones, you can usually find someone who speaks English. That’s not the case in San Jose, which is not very touristy. While you can find people who speak English (try kids and teenagers if you can get them to talk to you), you’ll have to get by on Spanish whether you like it or not. Key phrases are ‘disculpe’ (excuse me), ‘habla despacio’ (talk slower), por favor (please), ’mi no habla Espanol’ (I don’t talk Spanish) and gracias (thank you). Using these, and armed with the knowledge of some major landmarks (to know where north is, primarily) and numbers 1-10, you will be able to find your way. It’s a grid system, as mentioned, so distances are usually measured in number of blocks. I’ve no idea what left and right is in Spanish so I use a lot of sign language to support my questions and answers. There are two things you should do to make sure you get to the right place. 1) When you ask a question how to get somewhere and they reply, repeat their answer to them in your own words using gestures as needed. This is a simple correction mechanism for errors in understanding. 2) Ask more than one person. This is very important in San Jose because Ticos will give you wrong directions for a variety of reasons (they dislike not being able to help). The longer the distance involved, the more people you should ask on your way for both direction correction and making sure that you are actually headed to the right place.

You may have heard a lot about how dangerous the city is. But in full daylight and in crowded streets you shouldn’t worry about betraying the fact that you have no idea where you are or what’s going on. Use your discretion, and if you get into a seedy area (which can be detected by a number of different ways), either keep on walking and act as if you know, or simply go around the block to get back to the more crowded areas (which is what I do in the rare case I get into an area I really feel uncomfortable about walking in).

Well, that's it for now.