Friday, November 27, 2015

Soy Americano, No Soy Cubano!

I dumbly forgot my camera in San Jose so I have no photos of another epic border crossing from Costa Rica into Nicaragua. I almost kept my cool, and the van was running like a vintage Ferrari but it's simply a complicated process with many obstacles and emotional roadblocks. I tried to get to Nicaragua before dark, but it turned into a long day because of the ridiculous traffic in San Jose. I swear that anyone driving into or out of San Jose should simply do it in the night or before 5am. After that you need to park the vehicle and give it up because it was total gridlock for 4 hours and the van overheated and I was swearing and cursing at the traffic, futile, angry, frustrated, anxious, stressed. How the fuck am I stuck in traffic in San Jose, Costa Rica in this ancient van? Packed with a digital piano and mandolin and 4 guitars? Bullshit. I cursed my fate, my decisions, my belly flab, my neck ached. I had moved my many millions of frivolous items from one house back into the van, packing it nearly full of shit and had looked everywhere for anything I might've left behind but cruelly the living room was always badly lit and my camera case was hidden in the shadows and I was distracted and didn't notice it was not attached to my backpack where it belongs and drove some 400 miles to another country and still didn't notice but later got an email telling me it is waiting back at the house. It's possible a sign of decaying mental fatigue, distraction, depression, self-destruction, all of that is possible. Of all the fucking many things I don't need in this van the camera is not on that list. I need that camera to take frivolous self-portraits and music videos of Bing Crosby songs from 1937. Fuck! And since mail is too unreliable to expect it to ever get to this small village on the coast of Nicaragua I must go back and get it if I want it. Who knows what will happen? Maybe the remainder of my life will be spent going back and forth between old residences reclaiming frivolous shit I left behind.

But the trip itself was another test of my resilience and fortitude. The Pan American highway is not safe or easy to navigate in Costa Rica. I swear the worst I've seen is in Costa Rica because there are too many vehicles for that narrow one lane road with cliffs on both sides. At least in Nicaragua and Guatemala there isn't much traffic. The road itself isn't much better but Costa Rica has too much traffic in general. But this is boring talk, my own misery caused by my desperation and self-destructive nature. "Of all the harm that I have done, alas it was to none but me." I accept that. So, I eventually arrive at the border and now I'm in familiar territory since I was here 3 months ago driving south. And the first thing I notice is hundreds of people camping around the customs office. Here's where a camera would come in handy to demonstrate the desperate conditions people were living in, obviously living long term in grievous conditions. But I don't have a camera because I left it in my old house far what you would see in the photo is similar to homeless camps everywhere except at border offices there are hardly any resources so there is no household trash to pick for bedding or shelter. The hundreds of people were laying on paper, the place reeked of human sweat and feet, urine, people bathing openly, drying clothes on International border plaques, fucking behind plastic corridors. I asked what was going on but the Costa Rican officials only smiled at me as they cancelled my vehicle permit. 

Then I merely had to get my passport exit stamp and move along and that's where things began to go wrong because there is a machine that only takes credit cards and the idea is that I would pay my exit tax of something like $7 in colones, or 3500 colones...but I don't trust those machines at all and furthermore the people trying to use it in front of me said it charged their card twice and didn't give them the receipt that they need to get the exit stamp. So I went to the window and asked if there was a place I could pay in cash and yes, there was, around the corner in a green building. The official had my passport and I thought I saw her stamp it but she had stamped some other piece of paper, some exit paperwork that was not my I went to pay the exit tax...and then changed some money at a pretty bad rate of 28 Cordobas to 500 Colones...I know I did not get a good rate of exchange but there was nothing to be done. But I asked the money changer why so many people were living rough and he said these were 300 of the 5000 Cuban Refugees who were trying to go to the United States. Because of some anti-communist agreement called "Wet Foot Dry Foot" any Cuban will be considered a welcome refugee and allowed to stay if they can get to the United States, provided they reach by land*, so they go to Ecuador because they are not required to have a visa, then travel with the good graces of Colombia and Panama and Costa Rica but Nicaragua stopped them. With the thawing of U.S. Cuban relations these people fear that this agreement will evaporate since theoretically they will not be fleeing an oppressive government anymore. This is all tiresome to those still digesting turkey and stuffing, I am sure very distressing to you all as the cranberry sauce still dries on your Brooks Brothers shirt you wore for the family gathering. But humor me for a moment because the story gets worse and these international disputes normally don't involve Oggy but in this one case, I managed to get entangled in a cold war involving 4 countries.

So, these Cubans are in rough spot, plainly, but I have a tight budget that does not allow for any kind of charity. Sure I can give them some of my clothes I've marked for disposal but is that going to help them? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm cautious before I start thinking my gifts are not Trojan horses of destruction. I'm cautious about everything lately because the intricacies of life demand some caution and reflection but this does not mesh with the fast demands of a eat-on-the-run society. So, I leave with my 1000 Cordobas and drive through a few pre-inspection police barricades that are set up to make sure Cubans do not attempt to run into the jungle and bypass the border. Man, we are talking about thousands of miles to Texas, through some rough land and these families and children and single men are trying to basically walk or hitchhike to the United States. But Nicaragua has refused them entry so they are all stuck at the border of Penas Blancas on the day that I am trying to cross. Sad tale. I have my passport inspected, etc. etc. and drive the no-man's land to Nicaragua....and this is also where a nice camera would demonstrate that I drove into a fully assembled army of hundreds of Nicraguan soldiers and police in full armor ready to repel an assault by the Cuban refugees. "Es una guerra?" I ask the Nicaraguan border man. And he looks at my passport. "No tiene estampa!" I don't have an exit stamp? No, of course I do, I just went through three inspections and they all looked at my passport...I'm not carrying Cubans. "No Tengo Cubanos!" I yell with my hands high as the tensions surrounding me with guns and assault rifles, the whole Nicaraguan army is assembled in front of my van...a sight that would've been great to take a picture of if that fucking camera was not on the couch back in San Jose! They suspect I am trying to blow them up or smuggle Cubans. The army surrounds me...the border guard tells me to turn around. I have so many stamps in the passport that I didn't notice I failed to get the exit stamp from Costa Rica. I say, fine, give me my passport back. And he says he will only give it back once I've turned around. He actually doesn't trust me at all, not even to turn around. But to turn around I have to make this ridiculous turn amid a milling and suspicious and armed Nicaraguan army regiment. Oh, it was a low point for Oggy. Not only had I forgotten my camera but I had this irksome van with manual steering that needs a football field to turn around and I only had this narrow road that was filled with the Nicaraguan army all ready to shoot on command, all gawking at this insane "El Conquistador" van and this sweating crazed hippie driving. It was a rough spot and I had forgotten to check the stupid passport for the exit stamp...the stamp that I now realized I could only get once I showed proof of purchasing that stupid $7 exit tax bullshit that I had paid for in cash because the machine wasn't working right.
Man, nothing could be done...

But then I realized I was going to have to wait for some ridiculous line of trucks to get fumigated to enter Costa Rica. Fuck that. I'll park right here and run back to the Costa Rican office since I could still see it about 100 yards away. But the stress was palpable in the jungle heat. The United States was waiting for these 5000 Cuban Refugees who were stuck in Costa Rica because Nicaragua would not let them in and I was in the exact center of this whole huge mess with no exit stamp and Nicaragua would not let me enter and I could not go back to Costa Rica because the traffic was backed up through the fumigation tent. Am I wearing my suede leather pants through this whole ordeal? Yes, I am, and that would also make for a good photo had I not forgotten that damn camera in San Jose.

But parking in that mess proved to be a challenge and I had to plead with a colonel for 5 minutes to run back and get the stamp. He said, "Rapido, Ellos son loco." And he lets me park in a dirt area near the army barracks. Stress was high and I just happened to unfortunately be trying to cross the border at the exact moment the Nicaraguan army was assembling to defend their country. Horrible timing. I run in sandals and leather pants back through the no-man's land and of course a hundred people are waiting in line now to get their passport stamped so I wait jumping up and down with Cuban refugees sweating and babies crying...sweat running down my ass crack, my leather pants are starting to seem like a bad idea in this jungle heat. But fuck it, all my shit is guarded by the Nicaraguan army so it's probably the safest van in all of Central America at that moment. I finally get the passport stamp because I showed her the receipt for the exit tax...and I run back through the inspections, "No Cubano, Soy Americano" and I run back to my van and proceed through the army, "El Conquistador" surrounded by this army regiment and swat team police.

What the Cubans could not do, I was able to do with some work. There are other explanations of why this is happening and my suspicion is that 5000 Cubans intending to go on land through Central America to find refugee status in Texas was seen by Nicaragua as an invasion of their sovereignty. Maybe the Cubans had passports, but that was too many at once and the Nicaraguans were afraid of something. As I've said Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, these countries are stressed to breaking. I promised and will promise again a sea of millions of Central American refugees breaking every border fence down to access the United States. That will definitely happen in the next decade if major steps are not taken to strengthen the economic opportunities in the CA-4 countries. Only an idiot would fear Mexican refugees when it is definitely the Guatemalans and Hondurans and Nicaraguans who will come knocking. It's very grim situation there. So grim that Cubans who do not even want to stay in Nicaragua are not being allowed to enter because their presence will stress the already stressed infrastructure and resources. Arguably, there are no resources for the current residents of there are definitely no resources for 5000 more poor Cuban refugees, even if it is only for the period of time it takes them to hitchhike to Honduras. That's my assessment of this situation and I could be wrong (although this BBC piece supports my conclusion). Maybe Nicaragua just doesn't like Cubans who are not loyal to the socialist cause that Che Guevara envisioned for all of Central America until Ike and Nixon and Kennedy decided to launch a holocaust on coffee farmers to ensure they did not organize for better terms. Well, that decision will definitely come back to haunt America as these 5000 Cubans is nothing compared to the army of refugees who will swarm north to collect an overdue debt.

So, I got to Nicaragua, a place I remembered fondly as the parking lot where I had multiple gas line ruptures when I was driving south. It took forever to get anyone to cooperate...and I was insulted and irked that I had to buy U.S. Dollars to pay a $12 entry tax...any foreigner must pay in U.S. Dollars that one buys from people outside with the cordobas that I had exchanged from Colones only minutes earlier. Bullshit. Raining on my head...inspection from aduana dude...fill out customs declaration form...the aduana official signs that...then a policeman must sort my dirty laundry looking for Cubans....and he signs the form...and then back into the aduana area in the building after getting a entry stamp on the passport. wait around for truckers to get their paperwork. Then plead futilely for more than 30 days, but get only an icy stare from the woman. Please please give me 60 days...50 days...44 days....35 days...please give me at least after New Years day, after Christmas. No? I must leave on Christmas Day? Por favor! Nothing, no accommodations, no diplomacy.

It gets dark and a waxing blood moon climbs through the spooky jungle and finally I have all the paperwork...and weave through the I even want to leave in the dark, or do I want to risk being near the border when war between Cuba and Nicaragua breaks out? These are the hard choices of travel, the fine details the travel books don't tell you about. Night driving in Nicaragua is the worst, but I had seen the anger and fear in the Nicaraguan soldier's eyes who all live 100 yards away. Violence was imminent and this was the first area that would be overrun by the refugees, by chaos and anarchy and my 1969 van would be the first vehicle they would choose to plunder, casting aside my lifeless body, taking my guitars on a ride north to freedom. They all would fit right in to the American ethic that has repelled and repulsed me: consumption, oil profits, dirty energy, land development. These Cuban refugees are more American than I am. Still, I plunged on north since I could not sleep soundly knowing the potential for invasion and war. I had to reach the beach, about 1 hour away, not far, but the roads are dark as a dictator's soul. My head lights flickered and the final border inspection guards looked suspiciously at my paperwork and checked again for Cuban stowaways. None were found but for all I know one had hidden on top of the van and has since escaped. Considering that I crossed on a day when the refugees were not blockading the road, as they did one week earlier, I actually lucked out.

If I had a camera I would upload a picture of the beach I'm near and my breezy room overlooking the town, the clear skies of the high season in the tropics. No better time of year to be here. The clock is ticking already as my passport is good for 90 days but my vehicle only has 30 day permit. fuck. And I have to hitchhike back through the swarm of Cuban refugees back to San Jose, Costa Rica to get that stupid camera. And this is life.

* Talk about insanity: a Cuban who is only 90 miles from Florida must go south to Ecuador and through the whole of Central America and Mexico to arrive in Texas with dry feet...rather than just sail a boat to Florida. What the hell is the difference? And I would strongly argue their feet are not dry simply because they tramped through Central America and didn't sail a boat. That's just idiotic reasoning. For the love of God, America needs to think about these crazy loopholes that cause people to travel thousands of miles out of their way to satisfy some insane diplomatic clause. It's not only causing an international scandal in Central America but it's seriously depleting non-renewable resources used to sustain these travelers. Ponderous situation.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.