Thursday, August 07, 2008

Border Crossing

Bjorn and my plan was simple: there was a bus direct from San Jose to Managua that would leave early Wednesday morning. We'd get in around two or three, find a hostel, and bum around for the next few days. We had passports, credit cards, and a Lonely Planet, which long ago I decided is all you really need. Upon reflection, it's clear that this conclusion was made while traveling in a first-world nation.

We hit our first obstacle upon arrival at the TicaBus station where we informed that not only had we missed the bus we were planning on taking, but that all buses for the rest of the day were booked. No matter; we walked over to the TransNica station. There we were informed that all buses were booked until Saturday. Another bus station with had Nicaraguan flags and a sign that said "Managua" informed us that they only go to Panama. I wondered if we'd somehow ended up on a new reality TV combination of the Amazing Race and Candid Camera. Fortunately, it turned out we were right next door to the bus terminal for Penas Blancas, the Costa Rican town on the main Costa Rica-Nicaragua border crossing. If we couldn't get to Nicaragua, we'd at least get as close as we could.

The bus ride itself was fairly painless and involved fewer chickens than we'd expected. Lonely Planet promised that the border crossing would be easy as well and that we might even be able to take a golf cart from one side to the other. I fell asleep for most of the ride, so I was only half awake when we stopped at a cement building surrounded by lines of people and were told to get off the bus. Welcome to the border.

There were no signs indicating what any of the lines were for, but there were hordes of "coyotes" carrying wads of cash and promising they could help us across the border. Being cheap, poor teachers, we politely declined by pretending we didn't speak Spanish (not so much pretending for me) and got in a line that some other people from our bus had joined. I don't know what the other lines were for, but eventually we ended up with stamped passports and found ourselves back outside the building.

Now what? Where were these golf carts that would take us to the Nicaraguan side? Where were the buses we could catch from here to Managua? Partly because we were being bombarded by coyotes and partly because we didn't know what else to do, Bjorn and I walked the 1km through the weird DMZ-ish area to Nicaragua.

I like to consider myself at least a somewhat seasoned traveler and feel like I know what to expect at passport control, customs, etc. Again, this is a conclusion that I clearly came to under more posh conditions. The only other time I have entered a country not by air is going into Canada, so I would now like to make a list of things that the Canadian border has the the Nicaraguan border does not:
1. Friendly Canucks
2. Any semblance of order.

On the other hand, Nicaragua did have many things that Canada does not: a small group of unmarked cement buildings, a lot of children begging for money, and a creepily persistent cab driver who was clearly excited about the prospect of swindling some Americans. Despite his creepiness (or perhaps in service of it), he gave us the immigration forms and took us to the cement building where we paid US$5 for a passport stamp. There were no customs whatsoever; if only I had known ahead of time so I could have smuggled something in.

In an attempt to get away the persistent cabbie, Bjorn went in search of a less creepy cabbie and found a very nice one who said he would take us and a Dutch family to Granada for only $40 total. Seemed like a good deal, he swore that he could fit us all into his car, and he had a limp so I figured we could take him if he tried to kidnap us. Outside what I guess would be considered passport control, some people told us we had to pay another $2 in exchange for a "tourist card" to keep with our passports. It definitely didn't look legit (another small concrete building) but it also didn't look any less legit than the people who had stamped our passports. Two dollars seemed a small price to pay for avoiding a hassle and getting a bonus piece of paper for my scrapbook.

Our non-scary cabbie loaded Bjorn, me, the Dutch couple, and their nine-year old son into his car. As he peered through the view-impairing crack in the windshield and rubbed two wires together to start the car, we headed off into the sunset. Our Nicaraguan adventure could finally begin.

1 comment:

Liam said...

Man, you do some fantastic things with your time, Geetha. Hope all is well.