Sunday, August 30, 2015

Epic Border Crossing

This vision kept me going

The epic border crossing was weeks in the making because Oggy had decided to remain in Nicaragua beyond his visa date. I knew this would involve a fine at the exit migration booth but the chaos it set in motion is worth describing in detail.
I was in San Juan Del Sur, a small costal village in southern Nicaragua that I had visited around 12 years earlier when my eyes were filled with dreams of Los Angeles screenplay fame and publishing a book about the Red Sox. The town is the same size but there are more hostels and restaurants and a gated community somewhere. It’s more lively and the tailor’s shop where I had a shirt modified is now a ukulele shop. I had some pizza that rated above average on the Oggy Pizza scale and chatted with the local cocaine dealers. A sex worker tried to give me a hand job on the street with such lazy disdain that she didn’t even get to first base. Sex work is like any other job because if you don’t give a damn or show some pride in your craft then you remain at the bottom of the pile. This girl could’ve had 100 pussies and she still wouldn’t be as interesting as my guitar so she soon evaporated into the night. I met an Italian family from the heel of Italy traveling in an old Canadian International school bus and chatted with the father about Little Walter and The Rolling Stones. A shadowy figure attempted to open the door to the van while I was laying in my hammock inside and I grabbed my hatchet and surprised the guy with a bloodthirsty battle cry, but at the last second I confused the word Hatchet for Machete and I yelled, “PUTA, VOY A MACHACA TU CABEZA CON MI MATCHET!” Which basically means, “Whore, I’m going to chop your head off with my matchet!” He fled into the night. Nicaraguans in general are probably no more lawless than other people but in my stay in Nicaragua I found them the most grabby, thieving, begging and untrustworthy people of all the countries so far. Also the most hospitable. If you are the kind of person to give someone the shirt off your back you will quickly have no more shirts left. Every single item in my van was coveted.

I was also battling the gasoline problems that had plagued me since Leon, a month earlier. Cleaning the carb, tuning the carb, cleaning the jets, checking the plugs, timing the ignition….it went on and on and I couldn’t fix it. I knew I would have to clean the tank of gasoline eventually but felt I was only a day or two away from my destination in Costa Rica so I postponed that project.

Finally, I woke up to the sounds of a street fight and a nearby Hawaiian Shaved Ice remodeling had turned into a street fight between the owner and a Nicaraguan laborer. I couldn’t get the details as it appeared the owner was most upset with the laborer, who had examined the van during my residency on the beach front road. First the owner and then another man beat this one laborer up in the street until he screamed for mercy. This was my cue to move south.

I picked up two British Hitchhikers who happened to be going to the exact same location in Costa Rica that I was aiming for. Cool! Finally some company during my border crossing. Not long after that I picked up two more hitchhikers from France also heading for Costa Rica. So the 5 of us drove south after many attempts to get the van to start as now it was taking all kinds of effort to get the engine to start. All my tuning and adjustments had done nothing and the van motor was having the worst possible time starting. I figured it was the fouled plugs from the bad gas that looked like Fresca Fanta with a little bit of gasoline mixed in. Finally the van started and we drove south until a line of trucks stopped me and the van stalled and the French couple got out and said goodbye. The British chaps remained loyal because they were gambling I would make it through the border quickly and get them to their destination quickly. That gamble would not pay off for them although I should mention that when I picked them up I said ¨No Drugs¨ because I figured we would get searched, and they said they didn´t have drugs, but the truth came out soon and they were smoking their ¨last joint¨in a park near the border. 

The worst
I got the van started again and drove the rest of the way to the Nicaraguan border…where I felt the bite of the law once more. I already had been pinched by a policeman who discovered my insurance was expired because my visa and insurance had been purchased at the same time. He took every Cordoba I had in my wallet in order to not arrest me. So I forged new dates onto that insurance paperwork (I should´ve done that earlier) but now the migration officials discovered I was not merely 9 days delinquent, but 21 days delinquent…because they did not care that Nicaragua had given me a 30 day visa…no, that meant nothing. All that mattered was that I had 90 days from the last time I entered Guatemala back in May…and I was now on my 111th day…so I would have to pay for every day I was in violation. I pleaded with the officer and all the hospitality vanished and I found myself in a private interview room with special migration attention. “That vehicle visa has no application here,” he insisted. “You are in violation for 21 days since you entered Guatemala.”  I tried to play dumb like I didn’t understand Spanish but I was in the anteroom to the torture room so I felt if I escalated things further it would enter the rubber hose to the kidney phase so I went back and paid $3 a day…for $60. Ok, nothing to panic about. We Americans are made of money because we exploit coffee plantation workers and fruit pickers. I had a feeling this was not the end of my problems and I was correct because in order to leave I needed an exit pass for my vehicle. I tracked down a DGA official and he quickly determined that my vehicle was 10 days in violation of the visa I had been given. This was the 10 days that I knew I was in violation based on the visa. I remember thinking that since the van had been given 30 days then I had 30 days on my personal passport, but this was not true. My personal passport only applied to the days since entering Guatemala…and the overlap between my van and my person was simply meaningless. Furthermore, I had overstayed my vehicle visa too…and that involved another trip to a special interrogation room, where I explained that I had been building a bridge in the coffee country, all at my own expense, damage to my thumbs from poisoned cactus thorns and hernias and blood loss and knee pain and broken hearts and van destruction. All at my expense and I had lost track of the days and had no phone service or means to extend the visa and the vehicle import permit and the insurance etc. etc. etc. This fell of deaf ears, though the official did thank me for building a bridge. And I was sent across the land on foot with an official escort to a bank to pay the fine of $50 plus $1 per day…so another $60…which was all the money I had. We Americans are made of money due to 300 years of Imperialist exploitation so I handed it over to the bank, brought the paperwork to a window where they were going to give me the stamped receipt and of course the computer mouse decided that was good time to break…and then the next computer mouse broke and finally the computer shut down so it took an hour to get a hand signed paperwork…back to the other office…then a final bribe to another policewoman…and I am officially approved to exit Nicaragua after lying through my teeth that my 1974 Vespa moped is in fact a bicycle and everyone in Nicaragua thinks they can keep it running and I have insisted that no one in Nicaragua could keep it running for more than a few days and the roads would kill it eventually. I find the two English blokes and we load up to get out of the busy parking lot full of buses and tourists who were wise and took buses and I can’t get the van started again. I’m also tired of the van stalling and think I will adjust the running idle so it will not stall. So, together we take all the crap out of the front part of the van and I take the engine cover off and discover puddles of gasoline from where the carb is overflooding. 
What the hell is this junk in my carb? Note gold float filler jet?

So, I get on my mechanic apron and get busy…and discover a piece of metal or rust has blocked the float bowl needle from seating. Perfect. I clean that float bowl filler tube. Start it all up…adjust idle…check it…all good. Put all my shit back in the front and do a walk around as I throw away a gasoline soaked rag…and suddenly see a puddle forming under the front of the van. What the hell?? I had only just checked the engine…and the puddle is gasoline. Is the gasoline so fouled with crap from Nicaraguan gas that it will repeatedly clog the filler tube and cause the float needle to fail to seat? No, this is too much gas…again, we take everything out of the front as a crowd forms watching the long haired gringo in the red apron fix his 46 year old van with what appears to be a full sized digital piano leaning against the van. I suspect and hope the problem is a gas line rupture…and this turns out to be true. Installing a new in-line fuel filter was enough abuse to twist the old rubber line from the fuel pump and it ruptured and demonstrated that the pump is working great with great pressure as gas was spraying everywhere, including my eyes. I hunt and find some replacement hose that I have been carrying…and replace the 3’’ length of hose. All fixed. The van starts, runs great! We pass through the final exit checkpoint without a bribe and now comes the entry into Costa Rica.

So, the exit from Nicaragua is officially the most complicated border crossing I had involving fuel leaks, bribes, broken computers…torture, interrogations, fines…everything that travel involves. All future border crossings will be measured against that one. The worst case scenario came true in all cases; I had to pay the maximum fines. No leniency was shown. I got away with no infractions. My personal passport visa was expired and I paid a fine. My vehicle permit was expired and I paid a fine. My insurance was expired and I paid a fine. The van developed two serious fuel leak problems in the actual no-man´s land parking lot of the migration office that required immediate repair. I don’t see how you can get more complicated than that but I’m really like a pit stop mechanic who saw nothing but the problems and ignored the chaos…I merely dealt with one problem at a time until it was resolved. One of the stoned Brits said in a Hugh Grant accent, ¨That was an impressive performance.¨

But it’s not over…as Costa Rica involves a passport stamp and then a vehicle inspection where I again must lie that I have a bicycle and not a moped…and then I guy insurance for about $35 for 3 months at a window to the immediate right and about 100 meters of the immigration office. I had thought it was $35 for one month, but no, the Costa Rican insurance shop gives you 3 months…With that, I needed copies but the copy machine breaks when I get there. So the vehicle permit man shows me mercy and makes a copy of the insurance…and I have all the other copies and the inspection stamp and get the entry permit into Costa Rica….although not before I tell the two British guys that I am not confident I’ll get to Montezuma that evening since nothing seems to be going right. They take off hitchhiking.

I get the entry permit…and drive to La Cruz, Costa Rica and pass a big mechanic shop with a car wash and it is night so I spend my first night in Costa Rica on the side of the road with a large moon shining down.

Oh, I see, it is Nicaraguan gas company gift to me. Maybe the worst possible kind of contamination as it disintegrates, clogs the fuel passages and ruins the valve seats. thank you, Nicaragua.
My first full day in Costa Rica finds me taking the gas tank out of the van for the first time. This has to be done now or later as I know something is in the gas dispensing little pieces of metal and plastic and rust and I have to get it out.

This is a half day job and that’s how long it takes but they gave me a spot in the shade so I get busy, taking breaks to demonstrate how the moped runs and explain that it is not suitable for Central America to those who want to buy it. The gas tank is only held in place by two straps and the filler hose. I wrestle it out and we dump the red gas into some gallon jugs. I then use the spray hose to flush out the rest and find huge chunks of hose liner from some pump in Nicaragua. These chunks are steadily deteriorating and sending junk to the carb. Awful. But the inside of the tank is pristine…no rust…no holes…the fuel level sender is in good condition and the rubber gasket is also in good condition. No worries. Clean and dry the tank and put it back in with a miraculous gift from the ghost of Cordoba in a perfect 2’’ replacement rubber fuller hose from the local truck mechanic.

Because I felt the gasoline was not the problem as much as the nylon flakes from the hose lining I decided to use 2 of the 4 gallons of red Fanta gas. There was no nearby garage so I had to use something to get it to the station up and over a hill but I think this was a mistake because although the real problem was indeed the nylon hose lining, the gasoline is still suspect as low low quality so I should not have used any of it. I used a filter when I poured it back in but I still regret using any of it because there are still issues with the van performance and I wonder if it’s the residual Nicaraguan gas. But I also changed the spark plugs and can not find an air filter so maybe I will change the points and condenser but that will not affect the bit of black smoke that I see now. I also need to do a cylinder compression check to determine if the rings are allowing oil to enter the combustion chamber. The oil levels are not dropping so my theory is the poor gas quality is causing black exhaust.

I drove off from the mechanic’s shop and got gas and drove onward to Liberia, where I hunted for parts and found most of what I need but could not find an air filter…so I may have to hose off the filter I have now. I spent one night in Liberia so I could do some more hunting in the morning and all I bought was some white Manta Yoga pants. Onward to the coast…aiming for the Nicoya Peninsula but I discover the distances are not so great and it’s a short trip to Playa Coco in Guanacaste…and I get to Playa Coco and go for a swim and set up shop with a local horse rental dude who is playing guitar and seems like he needs a mandolin back up, and I notice a guy taking pictures of the van, not uncommon, but he comes over and I tell him that I’m looking for an apartment. And he says he lives 100 meters away and there are rooms available at his house for $150. And he’s telling the truth, with an additional $1 a day for parking next to my room, which is ideal. Most places are around $350 so this is more affordable and after a walk around the town to determine it’s as good a place as any, and the house is literally beach front property with a walk across the beach to the ocean…I move into the tight little room. Share a bathroom and kitchen…you don’t get much for $150. It has electricity and room for the piano and room to write and practice. I might move to another town in Nicoya after a little exploration, but this place is ideal and it is affordable so I will see what happens here.
Piano 8 feet from the beach

The epic expedition will pause while Oggy wears his white pants and goes swimming in the ocean.
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.