The secret to driving in Costa Rica.

Driving in Costa Rica is pretty much the most nerve racking thing I’ve ever done.

If you’ve never driven in a developing country, simply imagine any action movie’s violent, high-speed car chase – one that includes speeding the wrong way down a one way street, splitting the difference between two cars and zipping between them, playing chicken with an oncoming bus, and every other moment where you thought to yourself “That is so stupid!” or “That would never happen!”. Seriously, imagine that… Ok, now take away all road signs and street names, add a bunch of motorcycles, dirt bikes, ox drawn carts, heavy machinery, and stray dogs. And that is what it’s like to drive here.

In the beginning, it was kinda scary for me. Without street names or addresses, I was sure that I would get myself lost, to such a degree that I would never return. Whacky directions are kind of a thing here. Take our home “address”, for example, which looks like this:

2 Kilometers from Heredia, 250 meters East of where Mabe used to be, 200 meters North from the old bar (which is now a chinese/pizza place – weird!) East to the first entrance of the neighborhood called Cozumel. From the guard shack, 100 meters North, 100 meters East, to the clay colored house on the far corner.

Not. Even. Kidding. (Have at it, stalkers, I’m pretty sure you’ll never find me.)

So, the obvious and inherent problems are, duh, I’m from the U.S., I deal in miles, yards and feet, not kilometers, or meters, or any of the measurements that go with them. And even more duh, I have NO IDEA which way is North, or which way any other way is, for that matter. I know right and I know left. And sometimes I get those mixed up. So there’s that.

But even worse than figuring out where I’m going, is the actual being on the road part of driving. Everybody drives so freaking close to each other here. Most of the time, I can easily put my hand on the car next to me. Or on the bus. Or the ox.

Now, it’s taken me awhile, but I’ve actually gotten pretty comfortable on the roads here. I don’t even really think about it anymore. The secret to driving in crazy town is – are you ready for the this? – It’s swearing under your breath….No wait, that’s not it. That’s the secret to driving your husband bonkers…. no, no, the secret to driving around here is knowing your limits (ok, and sometimes swearing under your breath, but you did not hear that from me!)

Ok so, I know – You really could’ve come up with that without me.

But, as simple as that may sound, it’s true; the key to driving very, very close to other cars, the trick to navigating through an itty bitty opening in traffic, is to be keenly aware of the sides of your vehicle, and to have a clear understanding of your car’s capacity. You need to know exactly how far you extend in every direction, how fast you can pick up speed, what you can carry, and how your load impacts your cars performance, and then – this is the important part you need to move only within those specifications.

If you aren’t clear on these things, you will – for sure – end up getting t-boned by a bus. And then they’ll show your bloody carcass on the evening news without even blurring anything out and your gory accident will cause four hours of grid-lock and non-stop honking which will give the blonde missionary, now stuck in her car somewhere behind your wreck, a head ache and might make her pound on her steering wheel while shouting something like “Let’s go people! There are dead bodies on the road here ALL THE TIME – this is NOTHING new!! Come on now you bunch a sleazy rubber neckers, GET MOVING!!” which, yes, is reeeally insensitive.

So, basically, this is super good advice. Especially if you don’t want to cause a missionary, who is working hard to bear the spiritual fruit of patience, to stumble.

Last week we invited two friends/coworkers over for lunch to tell them that we are taking a step back from their ministry (one which we love). It’s a decision I’ve been struggling with for a year. Or maybe it’s better to say that I’ve been struggling to figure out my limits for a year, struggling to understand my capacity to serve, here, in this foreign context, and how the load I carry impacts the way I bear other things. I’ve been feeling sort of crushed by it. Like my inability to clearly see how far I extend, has been t-boned by an awesome ministry that is chugging along, full-steam ahead. The result has been a disappointing show in ministry and added chaos at home.

The truth is, as a family, we’ve just been carrying too much weight – certainly not that I have – but, as a whole, our family has. So, we told our friends that we are taking a step back, which will allow us one entire day each week to spend together, free of other obligations (or the guilt of flaking out on other obligations). After a very full work week for El Chupacabra, an exhausting school schedule for our sons, and me, ya know, doin’ whatever I do, and then Saturdays spoken for by Football, and Youth Group, and about a million other things – We now have Sundays all to ourselves! Sundays to love and invest in each other, and to refocus on living out our values in our own home. (Which kinda seems like a pretty good thing for a family of Christian missionaries to do. But, whatever…)

Learning my limits has been a lot like learning to drive here. The rules of engagement are different, and if you don’t respect them, you will crash and burn. But I think I’ve got the driving thing pretty much figured out, so I’m hopeful that I’m on the right path here, too. I guess time will tell.

Now,…if I could only figure out which way is North…



  1. Aydan on February 22, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Having visited Costa Rica once, I know what you mean! You have my admiration for driving there, that's for sure.

    And then came the serious part of the post, out of nowhere, and oh-so-relevant! Thanks for that. I hope your day of family time is rewarding.

  2. Kirk on February 22, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Sounds like the same advice El Chupa gave me about focusing on what needs to be focused on.

    Focusing on your family is always OK – they are your first Mission.

    PS – whatever happened to the sexy beast? Did you get it back and running OK?

  3. curiousceridwen on February 22, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    I just got a shout out in this post. I'm terribly giddy. Also, I notice it was plural. Clearly you've gotten a big head and think there are others, but I'm sure it's only me.

    We've done some re-assessing at our house lately and have decided to step away from the church where my husband leads worship and to which we commute an hour each way. An easy decision because it's time, but a difficult decision because we've grown to love the people so much. Thanks for your insight on managing loads and navigating crazy roads.

  4. Carrie on February 23, 2010 at 2:48 am

    I completely understand the driving thing (except we don't have oxen. We have cows, donkeys, horses, goats, sheep, and even goose crossing).

    I also understand having to step back for the sake of family. It's wisdom!

  5. Rob on February 23, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Great post. Brought back memories of my week in Costa Rica when we were picking up our daughter.
    My wife and I decided to rent a car for the week. That's right. I'm a bad-ass biker after all.
    Dring in San jose was … interesting. The first day I cried like a little girl.
    Then, we headed out to see the rest of the country. Driving in cloud mountain with a transport on my tail was wonderful.

    By the time I got back to San Jose, I was a pro and was cutting off other people like a proud Costa Rican. Even my daughter was proud of me.

    The best part was coming back to Canada and showing the drivers in my home city how to REALLY drive a car!

    Thanks for the memories!

  6. Matt on February 23, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I love your posts. Enjoy the time off with your family. Every family NEEDS that.

    North ———–>

  7. Jeff on February 24, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Driving in the U.S. has turned into a mindless activity which requires no intuition, skill or decision making (unless you're driving a Toyota that suddenly accelerates to 100 mph). The last time I was in the states I was driving a car with gps and I never had to look at a map or think about where I was going…it was just a series of turn right here, turn left here commands. Driving in Costa Rica, however requires navigating roads with no names or addresses, dodging dogs, motorcycles and small children with their elderly grandparents…so much more stimulating.

  8. Zac on February 24, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Haha, If I put that address on an envelope and a million stamps, will you get it?

    A couple of years ago our church went on a missions trip to NYC and I got to drive one of the vans. I loved cutting off buses and basically the risk of switching lanes brought adrenaline. My wife, however, had to close her eyes. I like a challenge when it comes to driving, but traffic jams definitely bring out my road rage so that might not be a good recipe.

    I am glad your family is able to have a day of rest!

  9. The McClain's on February 25, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Our move was the gift God gave us after a year and a half of exactly what you described- being blind to how far we really extend, as individuals, then a couple, then parents and as a family…it is tough, humbling and makes you feel really yucky sometimes, but only if we continue to listen to the lie of the enemy…God gives us a spirit of power, discipline and love and what you do NOT do for ministry to invest in your first ministry- your family – will bring Him great glory. Enjoy your family day! We LOVE ours! 🙂

  10. Shauna on February 26, 2010 at 12:36 am

    You are a braver woman than me! I have driven all over Costa Rica but still am too chicken to attempt it in San Jose. Too crazy for me! I hope you guys enjoy your family day…it sounds like a delicious plan. Peace!

  11. Susan on March 3, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Can I steal what you wrote and change it up as something to send our friends? I really liked what you had to say! Kari's high school principal used to say that you have to "drive creatively" here. That really helped me to see it in a different light! And, I agree with Jeff – I only like to drive in urban areas in the US because they at least provide a little bit of challenge!

  12. Jamie, the Very Worst Missionary on March 3, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Sure thing, Susan! Help yourself to whatever inspires you!! 🙂

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