Thursday, November 27, 2008

Crossing borders

At the Golden-cheeked Warbler Workshop in Honduras, I was asked would I mind going to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks to look for Golden-cheeked Warblers there? In other words, an all-expenses-paid birding trip to one of the world’s top birding destinations? No, obviously I said that I would very much be available for such a thing. So, last Monday, Alberto Martinez and I left the workshop a day early to drive from Honduras to Costa Rica. Easier said than done, as it turned out.

Getting to Nicaragua was easy enough. At the border, however, we were greeted by a bunch of boys who all claimed they could help us with the apparently complicated process of crossing into Nicaragua. They carried semi-official-looking quasi-government-approved cards that were meant to illustrate these kids were legit. “Pick me! Pick me!” they all shouted. So we picked one, who assisted us with what was indeed quite a lot of paperwork. We never had to wait, yet the whole process took us an hour, around nightfall.

It was dark as we drove into Nicaragua, through unlit winding mountain roads, until after a couple of hours we reached Esteli, where we had dinner, chatted with some very friendly locals, and stayed for the night.

The next day we left early because we figured we still had a lot of driving ahead of us. Around two in the afternoon, we reached the Costa Rican border at Peñas Blancas. Again, the same hustle and bustle of boys who could help us navigate the obstacles of Immigration and Customs.

I figured leaving a country is always easier than entering one, but I was wrong.

In the eyes of the Nicaraguan Immigration people, a Dutch guy and a Mexican guy traveling in a vehicle with Salvadoran plates fit the profile of drug traffickers. We were asked to park the car at the side of a building, where the Nicaraguan Immigration Service, Dept. Grease Monkeys, proceeded to take apart the whole car! At one point, seven guys were ‘working’ on our car, although in reality there was mostly just one or two guys actually doing stuff, while the others were busy distracting them with jokes and clowning around.

This had been going on for a good two hours, when I spotted an iguana walking around in front of the car. Soon, this animal also attracted the attention of the grease monkeys, who immediately dropped what they were doing in order to chase it around the various trucks parked there.

Eventually, they caught it. They had smacked it on the head with a hammer, and when they proudly showed it to me for a picture, I could see that the animal was almost dead, but not quite.

Work on the car was resumed. Knowing we didn’t have any drugs, I wasn’t worried so much as irritated, although it did give me the creeps when a little later cheers rose up from under the car, as if they had found something! But after four hours, they declared the car drug-free, and we were free to leave the country. They never bothered to check our bags.

Again, night had fallen and it was dark when we still had to get into Costa Rica. Again, the same circus with boys who could help us with this. Except this time, the boys weren’t boys but shady-looking young men, who told us that the border was about to close, but they could help us cross it in no time if we paid them. I thought they were crooks, but I did not know if they were speaking the truth. And I was pretty exhausted from all the driving and from being a suspected drug trafficker in a corrupt country. So we went with them. Here the process took another hour, and then finally we were in Costa Rica!

Alberto and I both agreed that next time, we fly into Costa Rica and rent a car there.

We drove for a few hours until we got to Liberia, a fairly large town where we found a hostel. The next day, as I inspected the car, it was obvious to me that the Nicaraguan grease monkeys had done a shitty job putting the car back together again. I was not surprised by this.

But just exactly how shitty became evident when we stopped for gas, and I saw how the gas that was pumped into the car splashed directly onto the street! Great. So we had that fixed at a nearby garage.

We weren’t done yet.

At our next stop, about an hour from final destination San Jose, the car alarm suddenly went off and would not respond to my frantic pushing of the buttons on the remote. So it dutifully howled for a few minutes and then went into auto-lock mode. Here we were, at another gas station, with a car that wouldn’t start, because it was locked by the alarm system. First we cursed the Nicaraguan immigration service, and then I took apart the remote, in order to clean the battery contacts, because the little light on the remote seemed weak to me. That did nothing. Then I took away the board right under the steering wheel, where the wiring of the car alarm was located. I checked and retightened all wires, then tried again. This time, the car alarm responded. After we screwed the board back on, we drove off, and as of this moment, have had no further problems with the car.

Next time, hopefully more on birds and less on stupid shit like this.

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