Photo above: A New York sidewalk defect, suitably marked with orange cones.
I love traveling and have done a lot of it, including in Mexico and Central America. Right now I am in Costa Rica. Love it here! The people are super friendly, the climate is awesome, the food great. The countryside is spectacular – active volcanoes, dense pristine jungles, and sandy beaches both on the Atlantic and Pacific costs. What’s not to like?
So far I can think of only one thing: Their tort law. Though I have not read their laws, I have to assume – from what I have seen – that someone injured through the negligence of others does not have much of a remedy in Court. Take a look at this video I shot today before you read any further:
Unbelievable, right? This is right in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. It is absolutely one of the busiest pedestrian streets I have ever seen. But the street is punctuated every so often with three-foot deep openings where some kind of metal grating used to be, and which no one has bothered to barricade, fill in, or fix. Not the City of San Jose. Not the nearby shop owners. Not a concerned citizen. No one.
So in Michael Moore fashion I decided to investigate why no one bothered fixing or marking off the hole. I approached the nearest sales clerk, the one wearing the orange shirt in the video. He was standing in the entrance of the shop closest to the hazard. I wanted to know why he, or his employer, or someone, did not mark off the hazard with an orange cone or a barricade, or better yet cover it with a metal sheet or fill it in.
I did not beat around the bush. I plain-out asked him. (I speak Spanish). He at first seemed puzzled by my question as he stood at the threshold of his shop entrance casually glancing at swarms of pedestrians passing by, some of them stepping dangerously close to the gaping hole. “Not my job” he said. “And besides, only a sleepwalker would fall into that hole. You have to be alert or what befalls you is your own fault”.
Wow. I stood there for a moment with this young man while we both watched more strollers — many seemingly oblivious to the hazard — treading just inches from the pit.
I couldn’t help pressing the sales clerk a little further: “But hasn’t anyone ever gotten hurt here?”, I asked. Hasn’t anyone ever stepped into that three-foot deep opening? “Yes, of course”, he responded. “It happens a lot. But it is their fault. They should watch where they are walking”.
To be honest, this was not a new experience for me. I have seen the same kind of sidewalk and street hazards – and nonchalant attitude about them – in other parts of Central America. Once in Guatemala I met a young American who had accidentally stepped into such a hole on an dark street and had suffered a terrible leg fracture.
No doubt a large percentage of sidewalk/street hazard victims in Central America are foreigners. Unlike us tourists, native Central Americans seem to instinctively know you can’t trust a sidewalk. Not even in the commercial heart of town. They know they can’t count on hazard-free walkways anywhere. So to compensate, they (subconsciously) visually scan the sidewalks in front of them even as they chat on their cell phones or talk with their friends. But even so, their visual scanning is not foolproof. That shop clerk I was talking to admitted that Costa Ricans also sometimes step into that unguarded hole.
Folks, as I said in the beginning, I love travel. I travel because it breaks up the monotony of everyday life. At home I take for granted my culture and surroundings, hardly noticing them because I am so steeped in them. But when I am faced with a new and different culture, cuisine, way of thinking and speaking, I feel more alive. The world seems like such a big place with so much to offer.
And experiencing different cultures makes me appreciate my own culture and see it in a different light. For example, traveling through Central America makes me appreciate good-old American tort law. Although tort reformers rail against us personal injury lawyers, a City or shopkeeper in the good ol’ USA wouldn’t dare leave a hazard like the one shown in the video without fixing or barricading it. The fear of personal injury lawsuits makes them act responsibly.