Day 29 (Jul. 02):
Alajuela, Costa Rica
Just one more border crossing into Costa Rica and then it’s time to head back to the States. After the ill-reputed crossings at Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, this one was supposed to be simple. It’s Penas Blancas. I’ve been through this border 3 times already and there are never too many problems. But, this is Central America and anything can happen. To add to the traveler’s karma, I haven’t encountered any major problems thus far and all that stands between me and my flight home tomorrow is a 6 hour bus ride to San Jose, Costa Rica. I know better than to put a border crossing on the agenda the day before a scheduled flight.
The line moves smoothly and I quickly make my way to the front only to see a semi-dry customs agent who stares at me with an annoyed, “I hate my job” type of stare. This is something that you should pay attention for before choosing a line at any customs office, but I was too busy fumbling about with my wet bag to remember the rules of the road. Following my typical routine, I remove my hat, hand over my passport, and greet the officer with a pleasant “Buenas. Como está usted.” The attempted pleasantries receive zero response and the officer disparagingly fingers through my damp passport. He finally raises his head and with an emotionless stare to tell me the one thing that no border crosser wants to hear. “I cannot accept this passport. It’s too dirty and it’s wet.” This is not a good situation. He goes on with his spiel, “You need to call your embassy in San Jose and have them ship you a new passport." Ok, now this is really bad. My emotions start running a little high and my voice raises to a yell, “What do you mean you…”, but I catch myself in mid-tirade and decide it’s best to lower my voice. “Sir, I don’t understand why you cannot accept it? I’ve been through this border twice in the last month and the condition has never been an issue. Plus, it’s only wet because it is raining and there is nowhere for the people to stand.” I thought for sure that he would eventually come to his senses, but he only remains emotionless and reiterates his previous statement. “Please calm down and step to the side. There are a lot of people waiting and I don’t have time to argue with you. It’s not my problem. You need to call your embassy.” Maybe he just wants a bribe? So, I ask him if I can just buy a stamp for my passport and this only generates a brief death stare. Ok, so I can’t even bribe the officer. He must be having a really terrible day.
The process of prioritizing my options helps to sooth the mix of anger and panic that is growing in my stomach. In times of crisis it is too easy to “lose it”, but you must remind yourself that there are always other options. They might not always be good options, but they exist nevertheless. I decide to commence with option #1, so I lurch in the back of the office and peruse the available customs agents for one that looks rather pleasant. Stall #1: an ornery looking man with a stern face. Not again. Stall #2: Dick face. Stall #3: A young woman who is happily chatting away and handing out stamps without a care in the world. Bingo. The key here is to act casual and stay out of the other agent’s line of vision. If he makes eye contact with me he will definitely throw me out of the building and then it’s on to options 2 and 3…maybe even 4. Luckily, there is a large man that enters the young woman’s line. I slip beside him and use him as a blocker keeping a close eye on the agent’s line of sight. In due time I make it to the young woman’s window. This time we share a few pleasantries and she looks through my documents playfully laughing at the miserable condition of my passport. She reaches for her stamp and slams it down on the open page. “Gracias. Buen día,” and she hands me my passport without even raising a single question. I gather my things and quickly make a run for the first bus to San Jose.
After a smooth exit out of Nicaragua I see the first sign of things to come as I approach the Costa Rica customs office. Droves of early travelers stand outside of the gates waiting for three agents to slowly check and process their paperwork for the crossing. Adding to the frustration, the late morning rains have started to drop creating a soaking wet line of border crossers who are now huddled under the one, small section of the building that happens to have an overhang. Twenty by twenty the lone, dry police officer wrangles people into the actual office for the entrance procedure. Roughly two hours trickle by- which isn’t all that bad- before I actually slosh my way into the customs office, wring out my sopping wet belongings, ad hop in line for the final bit of processing.
I decide that it would be in my best interest to step away from the counter and take a minute to collect my thoughts. There's nothing worse than getting into an argument that has serious implications in a language in which your ability to express yourself is limited. I’m always impressed by the amount of Spanish that naturally pours out of my mouth when things get serious, but I still feel like I am always at an extreme disadvantage. I return to my luggage and start to process all of my options: 1.) I can circle around the building, hide from the officer’s line of vision until I can reach another officer, and hope that the new customs agent is in a better mood (I could try this right now so this is a feasible short term option). 2.) I can call the U.S. embassy to check how long it would take them to ship me a temporary passport (probably days, so this is a terrible option, but an option nonetheless). 3.) I can take a bus back to Managua, go to the airport, and buy a ticket to the States (this would cost half a day and a couple hundred dollars, but solid if option 1 falls through and much better than option 2). 4.) I can sneak into the pile of chaos waiting outside, follow the masses into one of the buses headed to San Jose, and hope customs overlooks my missing entrance stamp (not really an option, but it sounds exciting).
As I plop into my seat, I give a large smile and try to stop my hands from shaking. There is a piece of me that is happy that I made it through, but there is another piece that is thankful that I had the chance to experience one good border dispute. This trip has been too easy and let’s be honest…these experiences provide solid data for my research. So, in the end I guess it’s all for the good of science.