Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Warning: Slow Everything

This is TicaBus. TicaBus is not a company I have ever used, but TicaBus would like you to think that they go super fast. Look at that deer leaping up mountains and into valleys. This is all an illusion, you see, because in Central America nothing is done quickly, and more often than not things are done with almost deliberate slowness.

Monday I began my journey home. I travelled from Bocas del Toro, Panamá to San José, Costa Rica in boat, taxi, and bus. I travelled from Bocas del Toro to Almirante by water taxi. Once there, I travelled a total of 296km  in 11.5 hours. That rounds out to an average speed of 26kph (16mph). For comparison, I just returned to Nebraska by plane over some thousands of kilometers in 9 hours.

Let's recap: eleven and a half hours at sixteen miles per hour.

I'd like this post to have a Adventure Excitement Against Time! tone as opposed to a #FWP Gringo Angst! tone, but the truth is I was one angsty gringo on Monday having rousted myself at 7:30am to finally arrive at the airport at 7pm. In those 11.5 hours of my life I changed in profound ways, by which I mean I devolved into a bitchy, angry, panicky American Tourist.

Interesting things were going on in Almirante, the gateway to Bocas del Toro. As soon as we docked, the tourist taxis began to usher us around saying they couldn't take us to Changuinola (the departure city to San José) because of a strike. All I remember hearing was the word huelga (strike) over and over and something about the streets being blockaded. We arrived at the blockade to Changuinola at about 8:30am to find dozens of school children standing in the street among fallen trees they had dragged across the road. It was a downpour. They were chanting, singing, and dancing in the streets.
Students chant as others watch from under the bus shelter

Our taxi driver took the time to explain the situation: the local school didn't have running water or electricity that day, and being this not an isolated occurrence, the children (ages 14-18, I would guess) decided to make their dire conditions everyone's problem by blockading the only major road through Almirante and practically bringing the tourist mecca of Bocas del Toro to a standstill for the morning. Busses were backed up behind the intersection for blocks in either direction. Our taxi driver got us through the blockade by his deft having of two taxis--one he drove up to the one side and the other he had driven to the water taxi dock. We sprinted through the blockade and downpour in order to arrive on time for our bus to San José.

Once aboard the bus, the next big hurdle was customs at the border. Going through the border upon entering Panamá was not unlike the early computer game Myst. The world is unknown to you, and you must rely on your insight along with tiny clues to find your way through a dream-labyrinth. No exaggeration. Panamá customs had four doors, two windows, and three buildings. You needed to go to one building, one window, and then one other door. You would think signage (or simply 1, 2, 3 ordering of buildings/doors/windows) would aid this process, but you would be lost, wrong, and probably crying. The only help we received was from our future taxi driver, who'd seen enough troubled gringos flounder up and down, flailing their passports at every open window and door. Somewhere, I thought, there must be a table with a bottle marked "DRINK ME" so that I would be able to shrink down small enough to fit through the real customs door at the foot of one of these windows. Then, the cake afterwards, saying "EAT ME". Normal size, giddyup!

I have digressed. We were returning through the same three-door circus we met on our way in, only this time with 30 needing to pass before we were allowed to move on. At the passport checking line things were moving extraordinary slowly. When I finally approached the window, I could see that the passport checker was being handed bundles of passports to stamp from drivers of private transportation. They pay a little money, they get ahead of the line. Ours were only checked once there was a break in the flow of these private drivers. This came after waiting in the line for 15 minutes only to find out we were in the line for the wrong window of the wrong buliding and we actually needed to be going in the door in the last building first. Imagine my joy when the men in this third building began to laugh at us for not knowing where to begin our process.

Back to window number one we went with the pay-as-you-go passport stamper. After getting stamped, one must walk across a bridge between Panamá and Costa Rica. This is that bridge:

It was a slippery 1/2km walk over the river. Finally, at the Costa Rican customs window (which seems to have about 33% more understanding of how to accommodate unfamiliar sheeple) we waited for the final stamp that would release us from the white rat race. There I found a defining moment of Central American life speed: with more than 30 people waiting in line behind me, the agent took my passport and declaration, scanned the passport, looked over the declaration, checked the boxes, stamped and signed my passport. He then handed me my pa--he then realized he was getting a text message on his iPhone, so of course he held my documents in one hand while typing with his thumb a two-paragraph reply. Misspellings? Just backspace and try again. Autocorrect error? Shuffle through the possibilities til you find it. After 30 seconds I offered, "Con las dos manos más rápido, no?" ("It'd be faster with both hands, right?"). He smiled and kept going. I was finally reunited with my documents a short time later.

The horn, the horn, the horn is so forlorn.

The trip moved swiftly through Caribbean towns Sixaola, Puerto Viejo, Limón, and then inland through Siquirres and Guápiles before our next major obstacle. A trucker pulled off to the side of the road yelled ¡Ehtá cerrao! ("It's closed!") as we approached the ascent of one of the most notoriously dangerous sections of Costa Rican highway that passes through the mountains of Braulio Carrillo National Park north of San José. Due to heavy rains and low visibility on tight corners, this heavily trafficked pass is often a pileup waiting to happen. So it was this afternoon, yet we ventured forth anyway rising about half way up before we joined the creep-n-stop rhythm of the rest of the semis, cars, and buses. Over the course of the next two hours some dozen ambulances went up and down the mountain. We had heard there was an overturned semi but never found evidence of this if there was one. My panic reached an all time high when I realized that without cellphone reception in the mountains I was handcuffed regarding the plans I had made to reunite with my luggage at the airport. The initial plan made early in the morning was that my generous maleta hosts would would meet me at 7:30pm at the airport for the handoff. I was two hours deep into a traffic jam that could potentially delay my arrival for much, much later. My travelling company, Sofi, made it easier to not fly into cursing rants about the former passengers of cars that began to populate the highway while they waited. She did well to stonewall my outrage at the growing claustrophobia of time.

All told, I arrived at the airport at 7:15pm. The descent to San José went much more quickly than I expected, and life returned to a manageable level of anxiety when my maleta bearers also brought gallo pinto and a thermos of coffee to send me off with one final, full Costa Rican meal. There were more hurdles on the way, like a 60 minute window in Denver to get to my next flight while also rechecking my bag and passing through customs and security again (they took my peanut butter! not a liquid!), but I now find myself among the comforts of home and no worse for the wear. Slowness has its advantages, but experiencing such a heavy dose of that reality in the 24 hours before I had to fly home made me miss the pace of life here (or at least the multiple lanes on highways).

I had a wonderful evening last night with my favorite friends in Omaha, Kim and Jeremy. I rode my bike to lunch with others today. High summer in Lincoln is upon me.

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