Sunday, December 16, 2007

August 09, 2007 - Where Am I? 101

Where Am I? 101
Or, finding your way around a Costa Rican town.

First, REMAIN CALM! All will be well – don’t panic. Every time I panic, I get lost.
I finally feel confident stepping off the bus in a new town. OK, proud. Cocky even. I don’t expect to find everything on the first trip, and I know I will find plenty of interesting places that I didn’t plan on. Here’s what I do.

Do some planning ahead, but don’t get anal – this (the latter) was the difficult part for me, but I’m getting better. If the town is fair-sized, look it up in a guide book. If you are staying in a hotel, see if they have a hand-drawn map. If not, make your own. Get some grid paper (or just any paper), and lay out a basic pattern, with a central park and cathedral in the center. These are usually a full block each, and within a couple of blocks of the center of town. If the guide book has a map (this is important), COPY it onto your paper – guide books usually show no more than 10 square blocks. Add some of the landmarks, like banks and perhaps a hotel. Mark the bus stop (coming and going) if this information is available. Mark a couple of avenidas and calles, and mark the compass directions. If you have any specific destinations, mark them on the map. Of course, if you are starting from scratch, your map will start out with nothing but a street grid and a central park & cathedral. That’s OK, because you will add to it as you go! Also, if you start with another map, keep in mind that parts of it could be wrong (or changed since it was published). This is also OK, since you will be marking it up.

Bring your map, a pen/pencil, and a compass (not always needed, but nice to have). Leave the guide book at home. The guide book is conspicuous and distracting – you are exploring! If you don’t know “enough” Spanish (“enough” is individually defined), bring a small dictionary or phrase book – if it makes you feel like a newbie, guess what? You are! You’ve never been here before! Most important, bring a smile and a “buenas.”

Which brings us to a very important aspect of this excursion – Attitude! Be flexible. Don’t expect to find everything you look for. Treat this as an adventure. When in doubt, know that a taxi is always near; relax and enjoy yourself. Accept that you and your travel companion will have moments of stress and get snippy – let it go. Best of all, go with Rick – he’ll let it slide unless you go off the deep end, *and* he’ll let you apologize gracefully (I know, that *could* be sarcasm, but it’s not).

As your bus is coming into the town, look for landmarks – Tribunales, parks, churches, banks, taxi stands, etc. Have your compass out, and try to fix North in your head (if you can’t, that’s OK – it will come). The bus ride is where I still get anxious. I often end up getting off WAAAY too early (click on “bus” in the tag cloud, and you will see what I mean). Wait till you can see the central park and/or central market, then ring to stop. Many bus terminals are within a couple of blocks of the central park (bigger towns have multiple terminals, and many small towns don’t have terminals). Sometimes it is difficult to tell if you are even in the right town. I find that bus passengers are very friendly, and love to tell you that your town is still ahead (and they aren’t pulling you leg).

Stop, look, and listen. When you get off the bus, your first instinct is to walk - anywhere. Don’t! Find a place to sit, or stand out of the press of people. Pull out your map and compass. Be discreet but not paranoid. Notice which direction most of the people are going. Notice which compass direction is uphill (most towns have at least a slight incline), and mark it on your map. Look around for the park, market, church, or other landmark. Look for the bus stop sign – it usually has some (but not always all) interesting information, like where it continues, schedule, and whether the return is from the same place. Keeping up/down and North firmly in mind, put away your compass and map, and start walking. You are looking for the park. Turn a few corners. Look for trees and spires.

Stop and smell the orchids. When you find the park, have a seat! This is a good time to update your map. Mark the bus stop and any landmarks you noticed on the way. I like to do this several times in a visit, and add stores, restaurants, schools, whatever. Mostly I just like parks . Don’t worry if you can’t remember exactly how many blocks or turns. Just mark what you think is right, and check it on the return. I once added an entire block to Grecia’s downtown – it stayed that way for nearly a week (no one seemed to notice the longer walk).

Ask and ask again. I have rarely had trouble finding the park within a few blocks, but in larger towns, you may want to step into a shop and ask. Also, if you have any destination in mind, like a bookstore or a Chinese restaurant, but you don’t have an “address,” just ask around. I have had conversations in parks that turned towards recommendations for restaurants and stores, and I have asked bookstore owners for directions to a close Chinese restaurant. I’ve asked bank guards and bus drivers about which street we were on. Sometimes you get an answer that is wrong, because (as my Spanish teacher says) Ticos don’t like to say they don’t know something, but most of the time you get the right direction. If you don’t find what you are looking for, ask again (and remember, stay flexible).

Helpful information:

· Este (East) and Oeste (West) are the directions that start with vowels. Avenues (with a vowel) go East and West. Towns are a rough grid, with street numbers (rarely names). Calles are even (2,4,6) West of the center and odd East of the center. Avenidas are even South of the center and odd North of the center. The saw to use is “North-Easterners are Odd.” What do I know about Odd – I’m from California.

· You can usually see the tree-tops of the park and the spires of the church many blocks away.

· The central market is usually within a couple of blocks of the central park.

· Streets hardly ever have signs. Sometimes even bank-guards do not know which street their bank is on.

· Usually the wait between buses is half an hour or less.

· Banks usually have bathrooms available.

· Most of this will also work in San José, but there is so much more to deal with. I start with an actual city map here.

I’ll post some of my maps soon – you can see how messed up things can get :(

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