The word of the week is homologar, which here means to convert from a US (or other foreign country’s) driver’s license to a Costa Rican one. It turns out that, once one gains legal residency, one becomes eligible for a local license; and one’s US license is invalid after 90 days in the country. So I asked my lawyer how to proceed, and she told me that I had to go to a place called COSEVI Uruca, in San Jose, take a dictamen medico (medical interview), and then apply for my license.
On Wednesday, 2/07, I ubered over to what turned out to be a very large complex in downtown San Jose, with a long line of people backing up down the street. I went to the gate and explained that I wanted a CR license; he let me in and told me to walk to the back where I would find a line. After walking several meters, I saw a line across the driveway and joined it.
After an hour of absolutely no movement, I happened to see the guard who had helped me. When I asked him if I was in the right place, he said that I wasn’t; I needed to walk farther back to another line. However, when I arrived there, I saw that there was no line. I spoke to another guard, and he informed me that the office had closed two hours prior and that I needed to come back the following Tuesday or Wednesday between 7:00 and 11:00 am. I then asked if I could get my dictamen medico then, since I was there and had nothing to do. He told me to go outside. This caused me some concern.
During my ride to COSEVI, I had had a long chat with the driver. He warned me not to talk to any of the guys afuera (outside), as they were all crooks. When I originally arrived, sure enough, several guys called out to me offering assistance in getting my dictamen; a few asked if I needed help, for which, I imagine, I would have paid dearly. I said no then, and now I found myself out among them once more. I confidently walked away and, to my relief, saw a sign that said Parqueo y Dictamen Medico.
After entering, I found a man by an outdoors copy machine and asked him what to do. He told me to give him 20,000 colones (app. $35) and then wait in the room “over there.” I found nothing that looked like a doctor’s office, but I did see a closet-sized room with four chairs—in one of which was a young man. I asked him, and he confirmed that this was the waiting room. So, I sat down.
As I waited, I pondered what a dictamen entailed. I’d heard, of course, of an examen medico, but never a dictamen. So, imagine my surprise when I was called into a small office and another young man, who appeared to be a college student, began asking me questions. “Do you have diabetes? Do you have epilepsy? What diseases do you have?” I quickly surmised that we were on the honor system here, so I said no to everything. He then he pointed to an eye-chart on a wall and said to read line 10; I had to be careful here because some letters are pronounced differently in Spanish. “E” (long e sound in English) is pronounced “A”; “I” (long a sound) is “E”. Apparently, I got it right, because he moved on and gave me my clearance.
The following Tuesday, I got there bright and early, around 9:15, and found myself at the end of a long line. I read my ebook for a while, and then went to the front to ask if I was in the right line. He told me that I was, so I went back. Now, I had assumed that arriving before 11:00 meant being served— sad to say, this was not the case. Around 10:30, the guard informed us that he was going to take the next 15 people in a line of 30. I was probably number 20. Some folks drifted off, while I chose to stay for a while longer. Finally, around 10:50, I gave up.
By now, I was pissed. So I woke up very early and ubered over in rush hour traffic. I arrived at 8:30. And there was no line.
I was suspicious because people around here start lining up for things at 7:00 am, so I walked up to the entrance. There the guard pointed over to the side, where I saw a small alley with 15 – 20 people clustered together waiting. After ascertaining that these were the homolagistas, I joined them. And waited. And waited. The line never moved. I observed several new arrivals being allowed inside; it turned out that they were there to renovate (renew) their licenses as opposed to getting new ones.
There was a young, tall Chinese woman in front of me who, in both English and Spanish, explained repeatedly to all who would listen why she absolutely needed her license that day. She informed us that her parents had arrived from China, and she noticed, to her chagrin, that she was two days past the 90-day period when her license was valid. She then, in what I perceived to be a case of cultural insensitivity, tried to storm the gates by telling the guard to tell everyone inside that she would pay them to give up their place to her. This surprised me somewhat because, since one is not eligible for a driver’s license without a residency visa, she must have been in the country for at least a year. One must be particularly tone-deaf not to realize that flashing one’s money at a roomful of Ticos is extremely offensive; they quietly resent wealthy foreigners who come here and buy up the available properties and jack up the prices, all the while demanding to be accommodated. When I suggested to this young woman that her strategy was flawed and that she was unlikely to get her way, she waved me off. Hey, at least I tried.
The lesson was a good reminder for me because, when I soon realized that, for the third time, I was not going to get in, I had to come up with a plan. I was getting annoyed that my little group, who was out of sight of the guard, was no longer in a line. New arrivals kept joining us and standing in front of me. (This in a country good at lining up) So I went to the guard, whose accent I believe was Nicaraguan (and incomprehensible to me), and tried the following: “Excuse me, but I need your help. I don’t mind waiting and don’t want special treatment, but I’m worried that I’m not going to get in because people keep arriving and stepping in front of me. I don’t think that’s fair, do you?”
He looked to the side and said something which sounded like “What do you want me to do?” So I replied that I wanted him to have the group make a line with a clear beginning and end. He then said, more clearly, “No, sir, What do you want to do?” I said I wanted to homologar my license. He asked me how old I was, so I told him I was a senior citizen. He then conferred with a colleague, whose accent I could understand, who then waved me inside. Praise the lord!
Inside, I saw one group waiting in rows and another along the wall. A nice lady saw me hesitate and pointed to the nearest row. I thanked her and went to the end. This particular line moved quickly, and I was hopeful, but wary. Since very little happens as expected, I wasn’t completely convinced that, once inside, everyone got served. By the time I was second from the front, I had noticed that everyone was holding what appeared to be identical papers which didn’t look like mine. I then waved at the guard, who told me I was in the non-homologar line and needed to go sit against the wall. At 10:45, he sent a group of five people upstairs to get their licenses; I was number six. Another guard then directed me to sit in a chair in an area by myself; I wasn’t clear if I was being punished or about to be expelled from the room.
At last, the guard whistled in my direction and pointed me upstairs; I mustered what was left of my dignity and followed his directions. There I noticed that there was only one person issuing new licenses. One. I finally got interviewed and showed my documentation, after which I was sent downstairs to join another, smaller group. After a few minutes, I met with another nice lady who asked me questions, including blood type, which I didn’t know. She then said it was OK and that I needed only to pay the fee of 4,000 colones ($7) and come back. When I asked where, she said it was near the exit, but did not say which of the five exits. At the last of the five exits, back near the street, I saw a sign that said Caja, which in this context means cashier. I got behind three other people and waited.
A side story: While waiting at the cashier, I experienced one of those moments which I had never realized I had been longing for:
I was close to the caja, with only one Costa Rican gentleman in front of me, when I saw something going on off to the left. I looked and saw a large man falling face down on the pavement. Closer scrutiny revealed a young man with his pants around his ankles. It turns out that he was a victim of that absurd and very-last-decade gangsta fashion trend of wearing pants with the waistband under one’s butt-cheeks and the crotch down to one’s knees. Now, I know I’m old, but I think I still possess a pretty good appreciation of trends for which I am far too old but work for hip, younger folks. This particular look, however, has always struck me as, well, dumb. So, without thinking, I blurted out “Perfecto” (only after, of course, I saw he was unhurt). I then saw the guy in front of me, in a moment of old men bonding, burst out laughing and we both watched the young man pull up his pants and run off.
Once I paid and returned to the office of the license lady, she took my picture and handed me my license. As she was across a large desk, I had to stifle my impulse to high-five her and, instead, I proceeded to shake her hand and the guards hands as I made my exit. As I passed the group outside where I had first waited, I thought it better to avoid eye contact with the fuming Chinese woman who, sad to say, was left to try again another day.