Jan 02 2014

Driving—and Learning—in Costa Rica

When I was 16 years old, I learned to drive a car. I went to drivers’ ed at my high school. Mr. Ball, who also taught math, was my drivers ed instructor. I drove the big, white, Ford Galaxie 500 that my father had bought me at the used car lot. It had an automatic transmission and I remember how excited I was to learn to drive. But I was scared too. It was something new, something big, and potentially dangerous. But I was a good student and practiced driving with my father after school and on weekends. When I went to take my drivers test, I did fine…until it was time to parallel park and I jumped the curb. Of course, that mistake caused me to fail and I felt heartsick. But a week or two later, after practicing parallel parking in the Westview Mall parking lot, I went back, and this time I passed the driving test with flying colors.

Fast forward 40 years and I’m living in Costa Rica. When we first arrived over 4 ½ years ago, we bought a 1996 Toyota 4-Runner with a manual transmission. It was definitely the right car to buy for driving in Costa Rica, but the only problem was that I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift car. Actually, if I’m being really honest, there was another problem: I was afraid to drive in Costa Rica. There. I said it. People always talk about the crazy drivers here, plus there’s the fact that there are no street signs, and all the other signs are in Spanish. And, even worse, what if I discovered that I couldn’t do it, couldn’t learn at the ripe age of 56. One day I’d learn to drive a stick shift, I always rationalized. But that day never seemed to come, until now.

It was time, I’d decided. What if there was an emergency and Paul couldn’t drive for some reason? Or, what if I wanted to take the car into town while Paul is doing something else? As many married couples do, we quickly came to the realization that it’s better not to have your spouse teach you something like driving. Our friend, Dean, who had taught others to drive, offered to help and so the lessons began.

We went to a quiet area in town with little to no traffic. Clutch. Brake. Shift into 1st gear. 2nd gear. Stop. First gear again. Both my feet working the pedals. My left hand on the wheel and my right hand doing the shifting. So much to remember and coordinate. Some things come to me quickly and some don’t. I found out that driving a stick shift is something that doesn’t come easily for me. But each lesson, ever so slowly, I began so see progress.

Our driving circuit gradually widened to include the town and even the highway. But that put me into situations where I had to demonstrate what I had learned, live, in traffic, with other cars, trucks, pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, skate boarders, street dogs, and the occasional chicken. Most of the time I did really well. I was shifting and turning and stopping mostly effortlessly. But there were also times when I made mistakes. I stalled out at stop signs with traffic behind me, honking their horns. And, in those moments, I felt just like I did when I jumped that curb taking my driving test when I was 16 years old. I felt flustered, embarrassed, like I should have mastered this by now, like I wanted to quit and go home. Maybe driving a stick shift just isn’t for me. Maybe I can’t learn. Blah, blah, blah. But I gathered myself, took a deep breath, restarted the car, and continued on. Dean commented that I just needed more time behind the wheel. I just needed to practice.

It was then that it hit me. No, not the car behind me — the truth about learning anything new, at least for me, at least at my age. It takes the willingness to try and make mistakes and maybe even be embarrassed. It’s the same as trying to learn another language — in my case, Spanish. It’s not enough that I go to class every week. It’s not even enough if I would study every day. (I don’t.) What it’s going to take is getting out with Spanish-speaking people and risking making mistakes, risking being embarrassed. It means struggling to find the words in Spanish to express what I want to say. It means being uncomfortable at times. Just as it doesn’t do me any good to know how to drive a stick shift if I’m too afraid to drive, it doesn’t do me any good if I “learn” Spanish and don’t use it to communicate. The benefit is bigger than just the knowing of something, though knowledge for knowledge’s sake isn’t a bad thing. The benefit comes with using the new skill, whether it’s driving, speaking Spanish, or learning how to cook or ride a bike. It might require some courage and the ability to not take yourself too seriously. And it definitely takes pushing through when it gets uncomfortable, but it’s worth it. Learning a new skill can keep your brain active, open new doors, and keep you young.

So, it’s poco a poco, little by little, whether it’s driving a stick shift car or speaking Spanish. It takes a lot of practice, lots of time “behind the wheel.” And when I make a mistake, it just means it’s time to stop, take a deep breath, and begin again. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll enjoy the ride.

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