December 12-15: the tour’s toughest time

We left paradisiacal Playa Gigante around 7AM on December 12 in order to reach the border with Costa Rica as early as possible. In Ricas, the nearest town to El Gigante, we said good-bye to Leela whom we’d given a lift. We reached the Nicaraguan side of the border at 9:15AM. And that’s where a horror story began.

The usual hassle by tramitadores was oddly subdued. They swarmed around la bestia as soon as we were approaching the Nicaraguan checkpoint, but with the exception of one stubborn guy (who yelled at me when I did not follow his bogus “orders”) they all left after I told them that I would not avail myself to their assistance. I parked la bestia in the shade, went inside the main building, waited for less than five minutes, had my passport stamped and my Nicaraguan temporary vehicle import certificate reviewed, and felt that I was already well on my way to the Costa Rican side.

“No,” the Nicaraguan customs officer said after he had inspected my passport and temporary import certificate. “You need to get a stamp on this [pointing to the certificate] as well.” Alright, I thought, no problem. I went back into the ‘exit’ line and when it was my turn, asked for a stamp. “No,” the immigration officer responded, “you get the stamp from the police officer who sits in front of the little hut.” I walked over to the hut and approached the police officer. He took a look at my passport and the certificate, asked me a few questions about the nature of my trip – and then decided that my vehicle required a full inspection. “Over there,” he said pointing to a building on the other side of the trucks lined up to cross into Costa Rica, “that’s where you’ll take the car, and they will inspect it.”

I drove over. Another customs official knocked at the driver’s side window. “I have been ordered to get the car inspected,” I explained. He looked befuddled. “Who told you so?”, he inquired. “The police officer over there,” I replied. “That’s rubbish,” he responded. “We only inspect trucks. We do not inspect cars. Go back and tell him that.”

So I did. Now the police officer looked befuddled. “Okay…,” he mumbled, “go inside the building and speak to the lady behind the computer.” When I entered the building, I saw a young woman behind an aged computer who was writing messages on her smart phone. I walked over. “Where can I get my personal vehicle inspected?”, I asked. She didn’t look up. “Excuse me, ma’am, I was told to get my vehicle inspected. Where do I need to go?”, I repeated. She reluctantly abandoned her chat and gave me a bored look. “What?”

[Daniel] “Where is the inspection station for vehicles that aren’t trucks?”

“There is none. We only inspect trucks.”

[Daniel] “But I have been told to get my vehicle inspected.”

“By whom?”

[Daniel] “By the police officer out there.”

“Go back and tell him that we only inspect trucks. He probably made a mistake.”

I walked back to the police officer and, in the friendliest voice I was able to come up with, explained him what the lady behind the 1990s computer had told me. “Okay,” he responded, “in that case you should get your vehicle inspected by the other officer.” “Which one?”, I asked. “The other one,” he replied and pointed to the main building.

At that point my patience was used up. “My friend,” I said. “You have been sending me around in circles. I think I understand why you are doing this, but it won’t work. Now show me where that other police officer is.”

He looked at me. He was sweating. The poor guy had probably been sweating the whole day, and maybe for his whole life. “I don’t know,” he said slowly and pointed to the main building. “He’s somewhere over there.” With that, he walked off to the men’s room.

I walked back to the main building. “Excuse me, I am having trouble finding the police officer who inspects cars,” I explained to one of the fruit vendors. She turned around and pointed to the back of the building. “I think he’s there.” I went over. And there he was, seated rather comfortably. “Please come and inspect my vehicle,” I requested. “Where is it?”, he asked. “In front of the building.” “Bring it here.” “No, my friend,” I replied, “we’ll walk over together.”

He looked at la bestia for a quarter second. “It’s okay,” he said and turned around. “What about the stamp?”, I asked. “Where’s the form?”, he shot back. I handed him the form, and he stamped it. Stamped form in hand, I returned to the customs officer who had sent me back initially.

“Let’s see… oh, what about the bicycle?”, he asked. “You are exporting this bicycle?” I explained that I had been carrying the bike for over five months and that I had brought it to Nicaragua with me. “Did you indicate that on your entry from?”, he inquired. “Yes,” I replied. “Then you need to get a customs official to certify that you are now leaving with it. But, you know… you seem to have a lot of problems with the whole process. Why don’t you give one of the guys some money, and they will take care of it?” I figured that what he was actually saying was, ‘why don’t you give one of the guys some money who will then give me half of that money, and there won’t be any problems.’ I looked at him. “You know what,” I said, “I love problems. I find them fascinating. Thank you for creating them for me. I look forward to continue solving them.”

I was back at the young lady’s desk. It took her about as long to mentally disconnect from her phone. After explaining to her that she had to certify that I was taking my pseudo-imported bike with me, she simply wrote “lleva bicicleta” [“carries bicycle”] on my vehicle certificate and went back to her smart phone chat. This time around the customs officer had nothing to complain about anymore. “Go,” he ordered. And so Harry and I finally entered Costa Rica.

There were no tramitadores on the Costa Rican side – just a ton of bureaucracy. In the interest of relative brevity, let me summarize the process as follows:

 

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Daniel [D] goes to building [B] 1 and obtains immigration stamp.

D proceeds to B2 [watch out, there are five buildings in total] to obtain a customs form for temporary vehicle entry.

D completes customs form and has photocopies made in B3, a building that doubles as the ticket shack for one of the local bus companies.

D returns to B2, hands in the original form and its copies, receives stamps an all of them, and is told to return to B1 to complete the animal import process [note: since I am hoping to leave from Costa Rica by plane and with Harry in tow, I figured that it would be better to formally import him].

D goes back to B1 and asks around for someone to initiate the animal import. He is given a handwritten note with an account number and is told to deposit US$15 into that account.

D goes to B4 [the bank], deposits US$15 and receives a receipt. D returns to B1 with the receipt and is told to proceed to B5 where the quarantine officer will inspect Harry’s papers.

D walks over to B5, which is located around 300 meters away, and asks for the quarantine officer. D is told to wait. After twenty minutes D is called to a small window and asked to hand over Harry’s papers and the receipt. Five minutes later he receives Harry’s papers back, with a stamp on them.

D returns to the customs office in B2. He is told that he needs to purchase mandatory car insurance in B5.

D walks over to B5, waits for half an hour for the insurance agent (who, as D later learns, had been out to the bank—B4, see above—to obtain change), purchases mandatory Costa Rican car insurance, and returns to B2.

At B2, D is told that he needs to obtain a photocopy of the car insurance policy. D walks over to B3 [the bus ticket shack with a photocopier], obtains a photocopy of the insurance, and returns to B2. The customs officer reviews all forms and advises D to proceed to B5 for his customs inspection.

[I know: it gets pretty confusing at this point. As it turned out, B2 was only the revision step of the customs process; the actual inspection is done in B5.]

As D anticipates that B5 will be the final step, he figures it would be smart to drive the 300 meters to B5 to avoid having to walk back to la bestia after completing the customs process. So he walks over to la bestia, turns the key, and…

Nothing. No cranking, nothing. La bestia doesn’t move. D opens the hood and futzes around. Catholic priest A(lfonso) approaches D and la bestia and turns out to be a former car mechanic. He looks into the situation and diagnoses a broken alternator. [An alternator converts engine power into battery charge; if broken, the battery eventually runs empty and the car cannot be started. Therefore, changing the battery on December 10 did not solve the problem – it merely replaced an empty one with one that was charged at the time of purchase.] D figures that he would make it to B5 with the help of his auxiliary emergency battery and is able to drive the 300 meters with it.

As he enters B5, D runs into P(aul). D had already noticed P in B1 two hours earlier and had asked him whether he knew F(raenzi) and M(artin) of team Uyarak. P had indeed met F and M a week earlier in Belize. Like F and M, P drives a Land Rover Defender. In addition, P is about as frustrated with this particular border crossing as D – and thankfully he is happy to help. But first P and D need to clear customs. Both customs officers have gone for lunch, so they wait for half an hour in an insanely hot waiting area. The customs officers return, and after another twenty minutes it is D’s turn. Everything goes smoothly, and after a few minutes D joins P outside B5.

 

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P connects la bestia’s battery to one the three batteries he carries in his Defender. While P and D are waiting for D’s battery to charge, they chat with J(odi) and S(ean) who are on their way from British Columbia to Patagonia on their motorbikes.

After half an hour la bestia’s battery is charged sufficiently to start her engine. P and D proceed slowly toward the final checkpoint. They pass it after a border crossing procedure that, in total, took 4 hours and 40 minutes.

La bestia ran for exactly four minutes, then she stopped again. All I could do was to quickly get her off the road. Paul noticed that we weren’t following him anymore and he turned around to look for us. Thankfully he, too, very much knew his way around cars. He swapped la bestia’s empty battery for one of his that was fully charged. We agreed that I would continue to Liberia, the nearest place for me to deposit money into a shipping agency’s bank account, and I would then return to the campground a few kilometers behind the border where Paul was planning to stay for two days.

Harry and I reached Liberia an hour and a half later. I took care of the deposit and returned to la bestia. Again, she wouldn’t start. Several taxi drivers noticed that we were in trouble and offered to help. One of them even denied a lucrative ride in order to help us start the engine. A combination of changing Paul’s battery’s contacts and the use of my emergency charger was eventually successful. I gave the selfless cabbie a good tip and headed back to the campground. It was already getting dark.

And then, around 35 kilometers before we would have reached the campground, la bestia died – for good. Nothing, not even the emergency charger, could get her back to life. The sky was stunning… a billion stars.

 

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I secured the site with a reflective triangle and emergency cones, put on my reflective vest and waited. I wasn’t really sure that I was waiting for, but I figured that something would happen eventually. That “something” was a Costa Rican police officer in his truck who drove past us half an hour after la bestia had stopped running. I waved at him, and he turned around.

After explaining the situation to him, he agreed to lend me his smart phone so I could look up the campground’s phone number. I called and asked to speak with Paul. Blessed Paul then offered to pick me up and bring la bestia’s now charged battery along.

 

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I opened one of the Quilmes cans I had bought the day before. The beer was warm, but it was beer nonetheless. Paul arrived after an hour, together we swapped batteries. La bestia started up without problems, and I followed Paul to the campground where we were able to recharge the battery manually thanks to a device that Paul had bought in the U.S. a few weeks ago.

The next morning I woke up sweating. There ain’t much of a breeze in the jungle… I opened la bestia’s rear door and let Harry out. He sniffed around for a few minutes and then disappeared. Two minutes later the campground owner came looking for me. “Is that brown dog yours?”, he asked calmly. “Yes,” I replied. “Why?” “Because it just killed one of our turkeys and is now swimming in the lagoon near several crocodiles.”

 

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Harry (seen above feasting on regular dog food twenty minutes after the incident) rarely disappoints. He had apparently chased the poor turkey down a hillside and into the water, where he killed it with one fierce bite into its neck. Several Swiss and U.S. tourists had witnessed the chase and were shocked. “Your dog killed that turkey!”, they shouted and pointed at the dead turkey in the water. “It’s dead now. Dead!” [Please note that–as far as I am aware–killing is only termed as such if the action actually results in at least one death, so the claim that my dog had killed another animal that was now dead seemed somewhat tautological.] I dragged Harry out of the water. Meanwhile, the campground owner showed courage and waded toward the dead bird to fetch it before the crocodiles would — one of the crocs had already approached and was resting on a rock around 15ft (5m) away.

I had to buy the turkey post mortem. Given that I stopped eating meat half a year ago, I figured the best I could do was to donate my purchase back to the campground owners. While not particularly delighted, they did seem to appreciate the gesture and said they would cook the bird for dinner.

 

centroamerica map route 15Dec

We left the campground around mid-day and, thanks to a fully charged battery, drove past Liberia and on to Barranca. Ten kilometers south of Barranca is Puerto Caldera, and from there I was hoping to ship la bestia to South America.

 

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I had already contacted a freight forwarder based in Costa Rica’s capital San Jose the week before, and documents had already been prepared accordingly. (This is also why I had to make a bank deposit the day prior.)

 

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On December 14 I left Harry in the room we had rented and took a taxi to the container warehouse. However, it turned out that the loading procedure could not be initiated as scheduled because all deckhands had spontaneously taken the day off.

 

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I did what I could, i.e., enter the vehicle, cancel its temporary import certificate, and prepare the remaining documentation.

 

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After spending hours in the blazing sun, I treated myself to ceviche and two Imperial beers.

 

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While enjoying the first upbeat moments of the day, I spotted a young soccer player sporting a Borussia Dortmund jersey. I convinced myself that it was a good omen.

 

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On December 15 I rose early and was back at the container warehouse when it opened. The day all started out well: the container had finally arrived!

 

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I spent the next hour taking everything out of the vehicle and organizing it on top of two large pallets that were then wrapped by two of the warehouse workers.

 

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Then I finally drove la bestia into the container. A forklift added the remaining cargo.

 

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After some haggling over how best to secure a truck in a container, one of the workers took heart and crawled underneath her to complete the job.

 

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And there she is. And shall be. And won’t move — because the freight forwarder apparently submitted one of the forms late and customs has not yet signed off on it. The container cannot be closed without the form, let alone carried to the port for loading, and the driver who was supposed to take it there left after five hours of fruitless waiting. That’s it. No happy ending for today. It looks as if Harry and I will have to stay for another day and hope that the container can finally be closed tomorrow morning. Whether it will still make it in time for the ship’s departure is a different matter altogether.

I feel tired. Very tired.

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6 thoughts on “December 12-15: the tour’s toughest time

  1. Daniel, that saga left me speechless. So I will just leave aside the bad and hazard a thanks for friends on the road, the kindness of strangers, beer, and Borussia Dortmund (btw the other great passion in the life of my late, lamented accordion teacher Walter Kuehr) — and a hope that we cross paths in Colombia!

    David

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, David.

      I just ironed out some typos etc. and am now sitting here in the warehouse manager’s office waiting for customs to stop dragging its feet. It’s all been rather crazy. I try to envision the remainder of my trip, and it works more or less. This won’t stop Harry and me.

      All the best,
      Daniel

      Like

    • Thanks a lot, Jonathan. Let’s just say that I am not particularly eager to ever tackle anything like intercontinental car shipping again.

      With this being said, the trip has fortunately been so wonderful overall that I have enough fuerza to look beyond this little shit show — slowly, but surely.

      All the best,
      D.

      Like

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