The Day I Almost Died

Posted in Monthly, Travel at 12:59 pm by Pasha

My faith in God was summed up in the moment that my brakes failed on a mountain, and I looked over the edge of a cliff and into the eyes of death.

From the initial step of renting a car from Economy in Manuel Antonio, I should have known something was amiss. When I booked a new manual Hyundai online, but was handed the keys to a used and abused automatic Toyota Yaris, I should have listened to my gut. And when the shady man behind the desk requested I sign at each dotted line without even an explanation, I should have thought a third time about taking the car.

But when the Economy representative asked where we were going, to which we replied “Puerto Viejo,” and he repeated “Limon” with fear in his voice, I should have refused the keys to the clunker and insisted on a new machine for the coast to coast drive across Costa Rica.

Instead, I listened to my passengers about why a car that had already taken a beating was the best choice possible – because we couldn’t possibly damage it any further.

At first the Yaris drove like a dream. We even nicknamed her La Bandita - because it is good luck to name a car. So along we went to Puerto Viejo without a hitch, where we spent an enjoyed a peculiar afternoon on the beach.

On the way home we stopped in the rainforest for an afternoon swim. We climbed the rocks to where, in the rainy season, a high waterfall would be. Along the way, we happily ate rations of PB-n-Js, fresh pineapple chunks and Bolitas con Queso.

It was the last leg of the journey home and I had just moved into the driver’s seat. We were on the second mountain that separates San Jose and Jaco on the Pacific Coast. It was around 2pm on a bright sunshiny day.

At the tip-top of an especially grueling hill, I compressed the brake pedal. It felt weird. It wasn’t as touchy as it had been the entire trip. Instead it went almost to the floor without stopping the car totally.

“I think there is something wrong with the brakes,” I told Matthew and Lucy urgently. Matthew told me to pull over immediately. But it was too late. There was no way the car would stop, and if we pulled off the shoulder and couldn’t halt, we would plummet over the edge of a cliff.

“If we lose our brakes, slam into the Mack truck,” he said, as if predicting the future. We wound right around a tight corner, closing in on the massive dump truck.

I tried to slow us by completely compressing the brake pedal.

“They are gone, the brakes are gone,” I shrieked. Moments later we slammed, full-force, at about 40 MPH, into the rear end of the blue Mack Truck.

Instinctively, I downshifted to 2nd then 1st and finally slammed the car into park. But we weren’t stopping. I was petrified that the truck would eat us up and we would be crushed by the Yaris’ engine.

I jerked the wheel left, where another car came careening at us. Panicked and looking over the edge of cliff where I envisioned hitting trees on the way down, I pulled the emergency brake.

Screeching, screaming, and crushed, the green sedan finally stopped.

Lucy, Matthew and I exited the vehicle, thankful for our lives. We were shaken and astonished. It was like a scene from a movie, the brakes go out on a mountain and you are faced with death.

I silently prayed and thanked the lord for saving us.

Being in Costa Rica, the rest of the debacle was just as unreal as the accident. Nobody spoke English. We were soon surrounded by Tico men who assessed the incident. A tow truck driver felt all four wheels and determined that we had lost three brakes (the tires were frio) and the emergency brake on the fourth had saved us (it was mucho calliente.)

Three Policia showed up and still not one mobile phone would work high on the mountain. It wasn’t until the official traffic police came that we would call Economy.

Economy refused to send another car without another $950 deposit – the first thing the shiesty man there said was “I need another credit card. Otherwise I am leaving you there.” The tow truck driver wanted money to haul away the car. The official police wouldn’t write on the “ticket,” which he said was actually a traffic report that the brakes had failed.

And there we were; three gringos on the side of a mountain, who speak little Spanish, with barely 40 bucks to our name and a car that looked like an accordion. So we did what any fearless Americans would; we hitched a ride with an English speaking construction boss (everyone else had left us there) to the nearest bus station.

The bus was full, so we took our seats on the floor and took our shot nerves home. We made it to our bungalow before sundown.

Later, it was all we could talk about. It was an unbelievable thing to happen to anyone. And all of the variables seemed so ironic: how Economy gave us a car with brakes that had seen 90,000 miles of mountains before we got a hold of it, how we spoke about hitting the Mack truck instead of cascading down a cliff to our untimely deaths.

We talked about how it was Jesus who had saved us. And we talked about the reality of how our families would have felt to lose us in such a tragic accident.

I felt my own guilt about the accident. I was driving, what if the steering wheel had saved me but a best friend and the love of my life died?

Days later, I am still dazed and unsure about the accident. But there is one thing that I am absolutely clear about – that it is our faith in God that ultimately saved us.


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