It’s not that difficult for an ex-pat to get a Costa Rican driver’s license. You just go to the license bureau in San Jose with your unexpired foreign license, copies of your passport, a medical exam (are you dead yet? No? OK you pass), and a lot of patience. Stand in the various lines as directed and voila — you have a Costa Rican driver’s license.
But if you don’t have a valid foreign driver’s license, or if you want to get a license for a different class of vehicle, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. I have a quad, aka ATV, which is basically a 4-wheel motorcycle. These wonderful toys are actually street legal in Costa Rica, but you need a motorcycle license, which I did not have prior to moving to Costa Rica.
My quest for legality began at Cosevi, the license bureau in San Isidro del General, southern Costa Rica’s largest city. Now San Isidro is enough off the beaten track that a lot of wink-wink-nudge-nudge transactions are still common. Not long ago, you could pretty much BUY a driver’s license as long as you knew who to pay. But times have changed, Cosevi has been computerized, a “house cleaning” occurred among the staff, and well now everyone has to follow the rules.
One fine sunny day last October, I donned a low-cut shirt, a short skirt, and went to the Cosevi office in San Isidro. (Now, I should point out that even though I am 57 years old, the “Girls” still work for me in this macho Spanish culture, so I bring them out whenever I think they might be needed.) Up to the desk I go, to speak with the Security Guard, who apparently has all the power here.
“I need to get my motorcycle license” I explain in Spanish.
He smiles, eyes moving down. “You need to sign up for the course. It is one hour a day for 5 days. ”
Now, just so you know, I live about an hour from the city. They want me to drive all the way in, every day for 5 days, to attend a one hour course? Sorry, ain’t happening. So I put on my best flirty-girly face.
“Señor, seriously? I have been driving for 42 years, longer than the instructor has been alive. I just want to drive my quadraciclo legally. Can I get out of the attending the course?” Shoulders back, chest out, big smile. I might have even batted my eyes. Shameless, I am.
“Well….for you…” he says, broadly (did I detect a wink? Yeah!), “we’ll let you out of the course, but you must pass both of the exams. First, you must pass the written exam on the computer. Go across the street and pay $10, then call this phone number and set up an appointment.”
Excellent, I think. This will be easy.
“The written exam is 25 multiple choice questions. You must get 20 correct to pass,” he said sternly, “here is a copy of the Driver’s Manual, study that before you come for the exam.”
“Muchisimo gracias, Señor!” I flash him a big smile and off I go, practically swaggering. Little did I know.
When I got back to the ranch, I did a quick perusal of the Driver’s Manual. Woah. Not only is it in Spanish, it’s fairly technical and wordy and I’m not sure this is going to go easy. So I got the brilliant idea of translating the entire manual. It was October, the height of rainy season, and things are kinda quiet this time of year. I had a lot of time on my hands, and a mission to accomplish. Translating the manual would force me to really read it in detail. So I fired up my trusty laptop, turned to Google Translate, and started typing.
For two weeks, I typed the text from the manual by hand into Google Translate, and copied the translated text to a Word document. I used to be a technical writer in my pre-ex-pat life, so I can type as fast as I can talk. No problem there. And I was learning, it was sinking in. Yes…..
I found it really surprising that the Drivers Manual did not contain any information one would consider to be important. Like how to drive. Or even basic rules of the road. No big surprise there. If you’ve ever driven in Costa Rica, you will agree that this country has among the worst drivers in the world …and I am from Boston, the city that usually holds that honor. If you realize that most of the people in my part of Costa Rica have only been driving about 4 — 5 years, if that, and combine this with no driver’s ed training whatsoever (the required “course” is classroom only), and what do you get? A country full of high school kids behind the wheel, with about as much common sense.
What WAS included in the Driver’s Manual was so completely useless as to be laughable. Let’s see, a whole chapter that categorized road signs and signals (informational, directional, etc.), a chapter on parts of the car (cylinders, pads etc make up the braking system…), environmental factors (important in an environmental-conscience country like CR), but very little about actual practical driving advice or Rules of the Road.
After about two weeks I finished the translation. I felt more than ready to pass the written exam on the computer. Shoot, 25 questions? Only 20 to pass? Piece of cake, right? Hah, was I ever in for a surprise.
I made my appointment to take the exam. Showed up at the Cosevi office, wearing the requisite Helpful Shirt, 30 minutes before the appointed hour, manual in hand, feeling rather confident and, I admit, maybe a tad smug. Heck I just spent two weeks immersed in this silly book, I’ve got this down.
I got into the exam room with the other, slightly more nervous, students. We all took our place at the computer. The instructor gave us a brief set of rules (once you answer a question, you can’t go back). Also for me there were extra rules: no dictionary, no translator. Sorry, it’s a Spanish country, buck it up sweetheart.
Question 1: good God. I have no freaking clue what it says. These words don’t even look familiar. OK calm down, take a deep breath, let the brain synapses kick in. OK, I remember that word from the translation, so maybe they are talking about the environmental stuff. I look at the answers. Hey, these are silly. It’s fairly obvious that one answer is the correct answer and the other ones are throwaway answers.
In my former life, I wrote a lot of training courses for businesses. That included making up exams like this and creating multiple choice questions. You try to make the answers similar enough so that you really need to know the material to select the correct answer. Throwaway answers are time wasters, space fillers, when you can’t really come up with a good series of answers to test the student effectively, or you’re having a bad hangover day and/or you’re just feeling lazy.
For example, if the question is “What do you do when you come to a red light at a traffic signal?” you could be given the following multiple choice answers: a) Speed up, b) Come to a controlled stop, c) Slam on the brakes and squeal to a stop, d) Drive into the car in front of you. Gee which one is correct? And the questions on the driver’s exam were of this caliber of difficulty…if I could only understand the Spanish.
So I struggled through the exam, one question at a time. It was Really Difficult. I learned just how limited my Spanish actually is. And squinting at the screen did NOT help me understand the Spanish any better. Sometimes a question was clear as a bell, and I breezed through it. Some questions could have been in Chinese for all that I understood, so I just took a wild guess. Hey, it’s multiple choice, you never know.
After I answered the final question and pushed the final button, the screen popped up my results. 19 questions out of 25 correct. I missed passing by one question. FAIL. Ugh. How embarrassing. The instructor smiled at me condescendingly (probably thinking “stupid gringa, haha”), and I just smiled and shrugged in return. “OK, next time I will get it.” I said, and left the office, determined to pass this exam on my next try.
They told me I had to wait 10 days before I could make an appointment to take the exam again. So I went and paid another $10, called to make another appointment, and ….
The next time I got 18 out of 25 correct. Shoot. And the time after that only 16 out of 25. Crap. I’m going backwards. This is not acceptable. I can do this! Can’t I?
Finally, finally….on my FOURTH attempt to take the exam, I went into the Cosevi office at my proscribed appointment time. I’m becoming good friends with the examiner, we laughed about how stupid this gringa really is. He wished me luck, and actually let me use my iPhone to translate some of the questions. I got 20 of the questions correct! Yeah! We all did a little dance around the exam room.
One down. Now, I have to pass the driving exam, on my quad, here at the Cosevi office. Phew. No problem, I’ve been driving this puppy all over the back roads of my valley for a couple of years. I can drive this thing blindfolded if I have to. This should be a piece of cake.
Didn’t I say that before? Hah.
On the day of the driving exam, I loaded my quad into the farm truck and my worker drove me into the city. We unloaded the quad in front of the Cosevi office, he took off in the truck to go run errands in town, and I waited to take my exam, fully confident that I would pass and would be driving the quad home, on the highway, finally legal.
When it was my turn, the Helpful Guys outside the Cosevi office gave me advice: stop here, put on your signal there, etc. I put on my helmet, donned my reflective vest, and drove in, cocky and confident as could be.
The examiner was like all license examiners I’ve ever met in my life — arrogant and obnoxious. There was only myself and a Tico on a motorcycle. We showed him our registration papers for the vehicles, and he asked us to demonstrate that the stop lights and turn signals were working on our bikes.
I turned on the directionals as commanded, and….shoot. My left rear directional won’t turn on. The examiner growled at me & made a motion like “OK that’s it, you’re done.”
“No, wait!” I jiggled the wire under the quad. Voila, the signal works again. I showed the examiner and he just sneered at me.
“The quad is dirty,” he snarled.
Well no shit Sherlock, it’s January, everything is dusty right now, I thought, as I smiled and shrugged and put the Girls to the forefront. And he let me continue. Oh wow, thanks.
Now that we’d passed the first step, the examiner proceeded to tell us what we needed to do to pass the driving part of the exam, but all I heard was “Blah blah blabbity Spanish blah.” He rattled off the directions so fast I didn’t understand a single word.
“Por favor, señor, I didn’t completely understand what you said, but if you let the motorcycle go before me I’ll just watch him and then I’ll understand.” I said in my pitiful Spanglish.
“No, you have to go first.” Well, you ARE a prick, aren’t you? I thought.
He motioned me to drive into the parking lot, and I figured out that I was supposed to slalom in and out between a set of traffic cones spaced out about 2 meters apart in a line. But before I started, the Prick grabbed another cone and put it in between two others, effectively making a space so small that my quad would never fit through. Gee thanks. Guess the Girls weren’t working for me today.
I started out, driving slow, around one cone, turn sharp, just breezed past second cone. Then I got to the space with the extra cone in the middle. I had to stop, back up to get the quad angled right, and then…TWEET! He blew his whistle at me, shaking his head.
“What? What did I do? I didn’t hit the cone….”
“No, you failed. You can’t stop, you can’t back up. You are done, you can make another appointment in 10 days. ”
“What?!! Are you FREAKING KIDDING ME?” I was outraged, I know how to drive for Christ’s sake, I was….embarrassed beyond belief. But also royally pissed. I know that the Prick set it up so I couldn’t possibly get around those cones with my quad. Impossible. I know how to drive. This is stupid. I am an idiot, but he was a Total Prick. Dammit.
I had to call my worker to come back with the truck and drive my sorry unlicensed ass back to the ranch. Which of course made me even more determined that I would pass the stupid driving exam next time. In fact, I’m going to bring witnesses. I’m going to bring the Goddamn Tico Times reporter with me, so they can see how I was completely screwed, blued and tattooed. That’s right, I’ll show them. Stupid Ticos.
But I waited to make my next appointment, because by now we were in February, the height of tourist season, and I was super busy taking folks out on my horseback tours to the beautiful waterfalls we have here in the Diamante Valley. I didn’t get another chance to schedule the exam until a couple of months later.
And I failed it again. Same Prick, but no extra cones this time. I just failed. I could not get the quad to turn sharp enough to slalom those damn cones, and my tires brushed up against one. TWEET, you’re done, you’re a failure. Make another appointment in 10 days.
Well, I’ve yet to go back and subject myself to more embarrassment. I’m going to have to actually practice slaloming around paint cans before I go back to Cosevi. In the meantime, I’m happily tooling around my lawless valley on the quad, picking the bugs out of my teeth because I’m smiling so much. Occasionally I take a chance and drive over the mountain on the back roads to the beach. I haven’t been caught yet, and I WILL get legal someday, but right now, I’m just not in the mood to go through the whole hassle again.
Postscript: Since the time of my experience, Costa Rica has changed the driving laws so that you can now legally drive an ATV (under 500cc) with your car driver’s license. I never did pass the exam, but was super happy to hear about the change in the law.
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Written by VIP Member Linda Gray who has lived in Costa Rica over nine years. Originally starting with 200 acres of raw land in the Diamante Valley, she created what is now a small community of organic farmers, including the raw food wellness center Finca de Vida. For many years she ran a successful horseback tour business (Rancho Tranquilo), and even sold pizza out of the back of her Hilux. Find out how a mature, single gal made it happen in Costa Rica!
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