Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More than you may have thought you cared to know about Costa Rican bus terminals

Costa Rica has a postal system, and it works reasonably well, I guess. I generally advise people not to mail me things,* since I can get most anything I'm really pining for locally, and there's usually a "next trip" coming up if I really want something brought down from the States.

* Hi Meredith! Speaking of sending things, I appreciate the sentiment, but I worry about things making it all the way here...and even if they come through the system unscathed, sometimes the dogs get hold of the mail before I do! I'll get myself a really good chocolate bar next time I'm at the fancy grocery store, though, just because you actually offered!

My own contact with the post office has been limited to sending the occasional fax when our machine is acting up, and walking down to the gate to meet the motorcycle-riding mailman when my parents send the girls a card or magazine.

But there's another way of sending things within Costa Rica that actually works really well. You can take your item to any of the long-distance bus stations (different companies serve different routes), pay a dollar or two, and they'll send your envelope, package or...actually, I think pretty much anything...to the other end of the line, where the recipient can claim it.

It's how we sent the final surveys out to one of our clients last week, and today I sent Alex's official surveyor's ledger, a stack of contracts and a pad of receipts to him that way. He's been out at the east coast town of Puerto Viejo since the weekend before last, assisting a colleague with an apparently never-ending succession of small survey jobs. One day a local guy saw him working near the road and came over to ask if Alex was available to survey a lot for him. So Alex needs his own ledger and contracts to do that job after he finishes the other stuff.

ANYway, I'm actually here to talk about bus stations. Both last week and this morning, I looked up the bus route I needed by Googling (in this case) "Puerto Viejo San José bus" to find guidebook-style information on the location of the terminal I needed. Then I looked the spot up on both Google Earth and my CR map to figure out how best to get there, and how it related to the other places I needed to go while in town.

I had actually been to last week's bus station once before. I don't remember when or why, but I recognized it. Although you may not have a ready-made mental picture for the phrase "decent-but-still-third-world-public-bus-station," whatever you just came up with when you read that is probably not too far off.

A bit dismal, pretty grotty in the corners, but intact and functioning. No chickens in crates when I was there, but I won't say it couldn't happen. People standing in lines. People selling stuff to the people standing in lines. Hand-written signs taped up to modify/clarify the original signage over the various offices & windows.

A lady selling peanuts and bread pointed me to the appropriate window, where I got in line behind a massive messenger bag. The messenger himself was standing in the adjacent line and stepping over to move his bag forward whenever my line moved. He seemed to appreciate it when I nudged it forward for him. He finished in the other line just as it was his bag's turn in mine.

When I got up to the drop-off-your-package window, I put my envelope on the ledge and waited while the guy entered the name and city of the recipient into his computer, then took my 800 colones ($1.35) and printed out a receipt. That bit was all very civilized and high-end. Of course, then he grabbed a fat magic marker, scribbled the code from the computer printout onto my envelope and tossed it in the general direction of a stack of packages and envelopes destined for the next bus out.

Today's bus station was on a whole nother level.

It's newer, for one thing; I remember when there used to be a large restaurant on the site. Also, it serves a larger geographical area, so the whole operation is bigger. There are four or five long-haul buses sitting there loading, waiting or unloading at any given time. There are several sit-down lunch counters facing the vast expanse of bus lot (no cars allowed), and when I started looking for the ticket office, I discovered that there was a whole arcade of shops and offices inside the building as well. It was actually surprisingly attractive, in a "train station chic" kind of way. Each destination had its own little ticket window, with schedules posted and a clerk with a computer behind each. There were benches and plants and decorative indoor lamp posts.

Of course, the window I needed wasn't anywhere to be seen, but I waited behind the one person buying a ticket for the place I needed to send the package, then asked the clerk and was directed out of the building and around the back. It didn't look like a public access place, but I took a few steps closer and did, in fact, find not only the package office but also, perplexingly, yet another lunch counter hidden out in the back there.

The office was piled with packages and boxes, and staffed by two guys with a computer. They took one look at me and tried out a word or two of English. That actually doesn't happen all that often in my everyday life. I know I don't look Costa Rican, but I sometimes forget that because most people just address me in Spanish. But the bus station for the beach is probably frequented by a lot more tourists than the grocery store in my neighborhood, so I guess it's just a matter of context.

Anyway, they took my package and my 1000 colones ($1.95), and printed out one receipt for me and another to fasten to my envelope. While I was waiting, I happened to notice the office hours, which were posted above the window. They went like this:


I assume that what this really means is that they close the office whenever a bus arrives or is getting ready to depart, so they can load and unload the packages. In any case, it made me glad that I had stopped for coffee after my previous errand, because it probably saved me from arriving at one of their many half-hour closings.

All in all, I was impressed with today's bus station. It was large, clean, attractive and organized; the buses had plenty of room to maneuver, the ticket sales were orderly, and the facilities boasted everything the road-weary traveler might require. There were, of course, several sit-down lunch counters and places to buy snacks for the trip; that's par for the course. But there was also a tourist information booth, which was a nice touch. There was even a pharmacy, which can only be a good thing when you've got people getting ready to set out on 4-hour bus trips.

I did have to wonder, though, at the OB/GYN that decided on the bus station as a suitable location to set up shop.


Jennifer March 14, 2007 3:07 AM  

Haha! I guess you could always go in for a check-up while waiting for your bus. That's one way to kill two birds with one stone.

Julie March 14, 2007 7:22 AM  

Another theory is that a bumpy bus ride might put women into labor. Pull into the bus station and the doctor is at your service!

I'm trying to think of a similarly wacky combo from my time in Bulgaria. The only thing I can come up with is this: If you want oatmeal, don't look for it in the grocery store. You must go to the pharmacy to buy it.

And in England I was always surprised to see video rental and solarium within one storefront.

But I'm afraid they don't touch the bus station-OB/GYN combo.

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