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La Costanera Sur (Costa Rica)

June 12, 2016


    Fahrvergnügen: The pleasure of driving. A pleasure derived from the ineffable, affective force that connects the body to the road. The Volkswagen company created this term for their 1990 ad campaign, but if we peel away its marketing wrapper it does contain something real…that rush of emotion that one feels when driving on the open road. It is difficult to put into words (hence, being “ineffable”), but it is similar to what long distance runners would call the “runners’ high”. For me, I feel it as soon as I strap into the driver’s seat and contemplate the direction of the route ahead of me. San Jose to Paso Canoas. 355 kilometers (about 215 miles) of highway that wraps around the sprawling Costa Rica coastline and plummets into and out of the dense, heavily protected jungle. The thought of beating the road for 5 hours conjures a set of emotions unlike any other activity in my life. Here I am. No shirt, no shoes, a bag of fresh mangoes that I picked up from a mobile road-side vendor, and endless views of beach communities, jungle, and animals (macaw, toucan, crocodiles, and a variety of species of monkey among those that venture near the roads). For me, there are few things in the world more enjoyable. But, what is this sensational feeling that I attach to ‘road trips’ and where does it come from?

Follow Me!

   Ok, let’s try some reverse engineering in order to make the ineffable…well, effable. Over the last 32 years of my life, I have used long drives as a tool to free myself from the daily grind…to search for places where things are 'different' from those that have become so monotonous in my life. Vacations, field research, weekend getaways. These experiences have trained my mind to equate the road with freedom, excitement, and adventure. The trance-inducing sound of the rubber tires slapping against the variable patterns of the concrete. The rush of adrenaline as I grind the gears of the Suzuki Gran Vitaro through the dangerously steep mountain streets of Manuel Antonio. The ephemeral interactions in the communities of Jacó, Playa Hermosa, Parrita, Quepos, and Dominical; where I stop off to stock up on snacks, top off the gas tank, or take in a beautiful view during a much needed break. While the locations change, the road feels the same (but, we must be careful not to overgeneralize here as different parts of the road may elicit more specific memories, both positive and negative). The smells, the sounds, the sensations of touch…a total inundation of the senses. The road unleashes a cavalcade of sensorial and material information that sends signals to the brain to recollect my pleasant memories and therefore evoke the positive feeling that I receive from road travel. These are the roots of the ecstasy that rushes over me as I buckle my seat belt and start the engine of the SUV.

   As I tear through Costa Rica’s coastal highway—right around the community of Uvita—I catch a glimpse of a memorial mounted to a palm tree that hangs over the road. It’s a simple wooden cross accompanied by a framed photo of the Virgin Mary and some red, tropical flowers. It’s reminder that the highway can also be a place of where tragedies occur. A space where families lose loved ones. As an anthropologist, it is important to use my experiences to think about how others’ histories with transit infrastructure shape their emotions and perspectives of mobility. I am lucky to have had encounters that have left a generally positive mark on my body. But, what about others who equate highway travel with a terrible accident…or physical violence…or deportation? What about the family who returns to that wooden memorial to replace the rotting flowers with a fresh bouquet? For these people, the emotions that they feel as they engage with the road may be ones of reluctance, terror, and sadness. To tell the full story of the Pan-American Highway we must collect a variety of these ‘road stories’ to understand how infrastructure can take on a multitude of meanings at once. We must contemplate how this eclectic mix of experiences comes together as highway users encounter one another on the road. Continuing down that highway, I am left to observe the various faces as they go about their business on the side of the road. Fruit vendors, taxi drivers, bicyclists, school children…all being shaped by the material structures of the highway that passes through their communities…all with varying experiences with joy, sadness, fear, and all of the other emotions that are bound within the concrete of this highway. 

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