San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Asking Directions: The Rules of the Game

Everyone who has spent time in Costa Rica knows that the game of obtaining information is hard to play because of the extreme difficulty of the rules.

Rule Number One: We must ask the right question to get information, even though we have no idea what the question is.

Rule Number Two:We must be extremely specific in our requests and give as much information as possible about what we want.

Rule Number Three: We must not expect specific information in return and may have to keep digging or find other sources.

Rule Number Four: Costa Ricans have the right to invent an answer rather than say, “I don’t know.”

I’ve known about these rules for a long time, but I always assumed it was only we foreigners who had problems with them. I thought that somehow or other, Ticos, through a series of subtle cultural understandings, knew exactly how to handle the obtaining of information in their own milieu.

Wrong. They just don’t complain about it like we do. I recently found out the hard way one long, hot day in San José.

First of all, I live in a place where nobody reads. So, when the only bookstore in Cartago closed its doors, I was left like a surfer in the desert – doomed to make periodic trips to San José in search of books.

It had been forever since I had been to the best store I knew for used books in English: Libros Mora in the OmniCenter in San José.

I remembered only approximately where the OmniCenter was, and my Tico husband had not spent time in San José for years. So when we got downtown, we yelled out the window of the car to a taxista, “Disculpe, ¿dónde está el Centro Omni?”

¡Aquí a la vuelta! (Just around the corner!)” he called back in answer.

We duly turned into the first parking lot, got out and went around the corner. What I found was a tall building, rather than the low one I had expected, but there was a large parking lot in front of it, just as I remembered.

“They remodeled it,” I said. “Let’s go ask the guard.”

“Didn’t Pizza Hut and a movie theater used to be here?” I asked.

“Yes; they’re gone now,” the guard answered.

“And Mora’s Books was here on this floor?”

“Yes, but it’s not there any more.”

“Do you know to where it moved?”

“No. It’s been gone a long time.”

Thus began our two-hour odyssey of wandering from one building to another, but not at random. Not at all, because, you see, nearly everyone we asked remembered Libros Mora, and a great many knew exactly where it had gone.

A man who sold lottery tickets in front of the first building we went to remembered not only the store, but also the owner.

“Oh right, I remember that guy,” he said.

“He left several years ago. Didn’t say where he was going.”

A man in a restaurant sent us down the street a couple of blocks to what turned out to be a street-side book stall. The woman there sent us to the MetropolisBuilding, which, it seemed, no longer existed. This went on for some time.

One exception to all this wisdom regarding the location of the store was a guard in one of the buildings to which we had been sent. Despite my husband’s questioning, he was never able to understand the concept of a store that sold books,much less that someone might want to buy books.

In desperation, I called my editor at The Tico Times. She had never been to the store.

At this point, my husband was quite, well, bravo.

“¡Basta! Vámonos.”

I really couldn’t argue with him. He had been more than patient and had done his best to help me. I was going to have to go back to the mountains and face – oh horrors! – the prospect of nothing but television.

Dragging my feet on the way back to the car, I passed a couple of men speaking English.

Un momento,” I said to my husband. “Ya vengo.”

I ran back up the sidewalk and stopped the two Gringos.

“Do you guys happen to know where Mora’s Books is?” I asked.

“Oh sure,” one of them answered. “I was just there yesterday. It’s right up here. Come with us.We’re going that way.”

I gestured to my hot and tired husband to follow us.We walked up a block and turned the corner.

There it was, big as life, the OmniCenter, just as I remembered it, unchanged: Pizza Hut and the theater on the bottom floor, Libros Mora on the second floor.

The first building we had gone to had not been the OmniCenter. The OmniCenter was one block over.

At no time in our long search had I ever said the magic words, “Centro Omni.”

Uh oh … I had forgotten about Rule Number Two.


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