Friday, November 7, 2008

Border Crossing Bobblehead

I’m not sure how many times we’ve made the trek to the Nicaraguan border to do the whole ‘passport stamp’ thing, but what is certain, we’ve been there enough to know better. I’ll get to what we know better in a minute.

Currently we are not Costa Rican residents, but hope to be soon. We’re what they refer to as ‘Perpetual Tourists-’ gringos, living in Costa Rica that have to leave the country every 3 months in order to keep their visa current and legal. Just for the record- I do not recommend this. If you’re thinking about staying in Costa Rica for the long term, then I’d say start the residency process NOW. However, I do know a lot of gringos and ex pats that do this trek to Nicaragua, and most hate it. Can you imagine, taking time from your busy Costa Rican schedule to travel through a beautiful country to another beautiful country- the horror! I actually enjoy it, a mini vacation, and actually, I’m rather fond of Nicaragua.

So, on this particular trip our best friend Mendee came along, because she’s a perpetual tourist also (we like to stick together). We’ve decided to do some filming for our website, the Costa Rica Travel Channel, so we have our cameras and video equipment in tow. We want to film the actual ‘steps’ of crossing the border at Penas Blancas in order to show others the process while hopefully alleviating some of the anxiety. Crossing the border can be somewhat daunting if you’ve never done it before.

Reaching the border is like a homecoming party. As soon as the bus pulls up, it gets swarmed by well-wishers, greeters if you will- just happy to see a new group of gringos they can hopefully rip-off. These guys are the money changers. They wave wads of money in your face asking if you’d like to exchange your colones or dollars for córdobas, or vice versa. I don’t mind these guys, hell, I actually do exchange with them. I find this convenient. There’s still another bus to catch to Rivas or Granada and once I get where I’m going I don’t want to worry about exchanging money.

We have the cameras out and we’re filming. These guys don’t care; they enjoy mugging for the camera (pun intended). Mendee wants to exchange money, and so do I. But I give her my money since I’m trying to film, as is D’Angelo. Mendee’s great. We love her, but she’s more of a follower in these types of situations and would rather have someone else deal with this sort of thing- ‘thing’ being math. But we’re busy. In all actuality, exchanging for cordobas is quite easy. It’s about 20 cordobas to the dollar- 100 cordobas, five bucks- pretty simple math. These guys thrive on chaos and confusion, remember, we’re crossing the border, we have lines to get in. People are gathering up backpacks and luggage from the bus, scurrying off to get in line, chatting, asking questions, making new traveling friends etc. some would call this a ‘madhouse’. In the middle of the fray are the money changers with their calculators that don’t work, still waving the wads of money in peoples’ faces. By the way, these guys love to work in groups of 2-3, which can be somewhat intimidating to the novice border crosser.

We have our guy- thin, young, bad case of acne, long hair, but an inviting smile. He seems SO nice. We’re filming, Mendee’s exchanging, but talking to me all the while, “Is this right mike, I gave him $200.00 and he’s giving me 600 cordobas?” I’m half listening. These guys pull out their calculators and begin to punch numbers- if a calculator was a typewriter, these guys could do like 1500 words a minute. The number they’re looking for magically appears on the calculator- 600. ‘Acne boy’ and his 2 friends quickly nod in ‘bobblehead’ agreement. (check above pic for one of the original bobbleheads) Mendee checks the calculator, and she too suddenly transforms into a ‘bobblehead.’ Later, she admitted to having no clue, but thought being a ‘bobblehead’ would cause the least embarrassment. I’m still filming when ‘acne boy’ flashes the money in front of the camera, Vegas style, as if showing off a royal flush that WE had just won- and here I am laughing and filming as if we had. He seems so nice.

Exactly 45 seconds later I knew we had been ripped off. Seriously, 45 seconds. A quick look around- these guys were GONE. We spent 30 minutes looking for them; they were gone, probably working on their second Imperial as we were crossing over into Nicaragua. Fuck!

Total border-crossing buzz kill. Mendee’s beating herself up for getting scammed and I’m thinking, we film ‘travel tips,’ we’re the experts, we’ve done this a thousand times, we inform others the best way to safely travel around Costa Rica- this is NOT going to look good on a resume. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty dumb, but in my view, we got cheated fair and square. I let my guard down, and they took advantage. Just another lesson learned. It could have been worse. What a stupid phrase, of course it could always be worse.

We had a hard time letting this go, well Mendee did. I was sort of laughing about it, you know, the irony and all. It came up more than a few times in our three days in Granada, with always the same conclusion- we thought we had a good chance of running into ‘acne boy’ and the ‘bobbleheads’ on our way back.

We had 3 hours to wait at the border before our bus would take us back to La Fortuna. We didn’t see ‘acne boy,’ well not at first anyway. As luck would have it, he miraculously appeared not 15 ft. from where we were eating in the snack bar. He didn’t see us and I was on him pretty quick, BUT he did remember us.

We got our money back….with interest if you know what I mean. In the end, ‘acne boy’ WAS nice and we learned a valuable lesson- being a ‘bobblehead’ is contagious.

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