We rented a cute little SUV for our foursome jaunt around Costa Rica. Several websites said driving in the country could be dangerous, but I knew my husband would do just fine. We found the roads were in pretty good condition, and the $10/day GPS was a life saver for getting around easily.
So the roads, they were in pretty good condition, but they were all single lane highways. It got pretty frustrating to be stuck behind a truck going about 50 kph, when the speed limit was 90 kph. We got pretty proficient at passing, making our merry way along the north part of the country, headed for our cabin on the beach. (Cue upbeat driving music montage for my life’s soundtrack.)
All that came spiraling to a halt with one flick of a policeman’s wrist, indicating we should pull over. (Cue the wha wha whaaa sound for my soundtrack.)
We had not been paying too much attention to the various police we saw along the way. We were driving fairly safely, anxious to get to the beach. And, since it was Latin America and most people were driving in typical Latino somewhat disorderly fashion, we assumed they didn’t apply their traffic rules as rigidly as the U.S.
We lowered the window to speak to the approaching man in a white police shirt and leather motorcycle boots.
“I’ve got you on three infractions,” he said. “Passing in a no passing zone, passing on a bridge and speeding as you overtook. Each offense is a 220,000 colones fine. Let me see your driver’s license!”
As he looked at the license and my husband’s passport, we quickly did the math and the exchange rate.
220,000 CRC x 3 = 660000 CRC
660,000 CRC / 500 (CRCs are about 500 to one) = $1320.
Yes, that’s right. He was about to give us a ticket for $1300.
I argued with the guy. Pleaded with him. Told him I felt the fine was too high. Told him that a US cop might let us off with a warning. I asked him for a break. I told him we were warned and would respect the traffic laws from then on. I asked him for a little grace.
There was no grace. He showed me his hand held ticketing machine that quoted the fines for each of our offenses, clicking through each one slowly so I could read it. He walked back across the street to take down our details.
I translated the conversation for my friends. Inside the car, we panicked. How would we come up with $1200 cash? Would the rental car company know what happened? Could they somehow charge us for the ticket? Was this cop legit, or was he trying to pull something over on us since we were tourists?
He came back up to the window, asking my husband to show him where the passport number on his passport was. I noticed his thick, black eyebrows, perched above his eyes like lazy caterpillars. I asked again. “Sir, can’t you just give us a little mercy? Give us a ticket for just one of the offenses, and we’ll be very careful as we drive from now on.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” he told me. “You’ll have to follow me to the ATM in town to get cash to pay for your ticket. Now turn your car back on before the people in the back suffocate without air conditioning.”
He walked back across the street. My mind raced, trying to decide the best course of action. Should I ask to see a judge, someone with greater authority just to make sure this story was true? Where were we going to find $1200? Even if I had that much, most ATM machines will only let you take out $300 at a time.
The policeman came to the window again. “You’re going to have to take off your license plates,” he told us.
I clarified, “The plates on the car? We have to remove them? Why?”
“If you take off your plates and we confiscate them, you can’t drive legally. When you will return with the money for your ticket, we’ll give you back the plates,” he answered.
He strode to the back of the vehicle, seeming to note the plate number. Then he asked us to get out of the car, and he met us at the trunk door.
“Look,” he said.
“What can we do so that we both don’t have a problem?” he asked me.
I suddenly realized he wanted a bribe. Is this really happening? I thought. I made him repeat his request.
Again, my mind whirled. Is this the right thing to do? Am I going to get in trouble for bribing a police officer? On the other hand, I didn’t have $1200 I was willing to spare.
He turned to take a phone call, and I went to grab my purse. I wondered how much to give him. I asked my friends in the car what they thought, but no one knew what to do. I stuffed $200 in my pocket and walked back to him.
“So, do we have an agreement?” he asked.
“Sir, I don’t want to do anything illegal,” I told him.
“No, no, no problem, ” he told me. “We need an agreement that makes us both are happy.”
“All I have is a couple hundred dollars,” I said.
“We just need to make it so we both don’t have a problem,” he told me. Then he handed me a little plastic case. “Put it in there.”
I nervously stuffed in two $100 bills.
“Hey, how much did you put in there?” he asked as I handed it back.
“$200,” I said.
“No, no. That’s too much,” he said. “Take one out.”
I lifted out one bill and handed back his plastic case.
“Now be careful,” he said. “Where are you going to?”
“Cahuita,” I answered.
“There are five more speed traps in between here and there,” he told us. “Make sure you don’t get caught by one of them.”
With those words of wisdom, he tucked his plastic case under one arm, and headed back across the street to his colleagues, with a polite nod goodbye as we pulled back out into traffic.