At Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica’s northern frontier, we got off the bus into a melee of coyotes or money-changers with eager eyes and pleading voices,waving wads of currency in our faces. They jostled with yellow t-shirted women, selling emigration forms and demanding exit fees, and with young children who wanted to be our guides and lead us across the border.
We ignored them all. Competing cumbian beats from car radios was our soundtrack, as we made our way through the discord to Costa Rican emigration. Like pied pipers, children followed, pleading to guide us.
At the counter, a bored border guard directed us to an automated machine to pay the exit tax. We queued while a young girl outside rapped at the window, miming actions to use the machine. We didn’t need advice, we had our own digital native Darragh who stepped up, navigated all the screen options, scanned our passports and paid the fees.
In baking heat, bags on back, we strolled across no-man’s land to Nicaguara. For years, the country and its people have had a special place in our hearts. So much so, that Nicaragua was my computer password for many years.( I’ll have to change now that I’ve told you all)
Memory and imagination can build us up, only to tear us down. Perhaps our memories had romanticised and idealised the country. Would it disappoint?
The change was immediate, it looked much poorer and dirtier than Cosa Rica as we squeezed past squads of soldiers in lines. The soldiers directed us to the right along a broken path to a lone lady in a timber shelter who asked our nationality, scribbled ‘three persons’ on a scrap of paper and send us off.
We wondered whether that was it, but there more formalities and dollars to be handed over. A city hall fee of one dollar plus entrance fees of ten dollars each. All smoothly conducted in a modern building before we emerged,blinking into glaring sunlight, coyotes, child guides , taxis and touts.
The taxi drivers were especially persistent, listing out Nicaraguan destinations and fares. We told them nothing but our eyes must have flickered when they mentioned Granada. They knew where we wanted to go.
“There are no buses to Granada. I’ll bring you by taxi. Much safer than the collectivos” gushed one wanna-be driver in a New York baseball cap. A gold chain round his neck sparkled in the sun, catching my attention.
He thought he had me so continued in a concerned, caring tone.
“Friend! Think of your child, the collectivos are dangerous.”
The prospect of travelling for two hours alone with one of these sharks struck me as much more dangerous than collectivos or chicken buses,so I told him we would catch a bus.
But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and stayed with us as we moved down the street, searching for the terminal.
I was struck by the smell of diesel fumes and the waft of open sewers, by the disorder and the poverty.
We soon spotted crowds heaving onto a wretched old bus. The bus was already thronged,a mountain of bags, baskets and plastic chairs tied to the roof.
“Oh God! Do we have to go on that!” Darragh gasped.
Our Nicaraguan adventure was about to begin!