saturday, april 8, 2006
in the past some people have accused me of being a drama queen. they say i dramatize things and aim straight for the emotions with my stories.
i, on the other hand, claim that i simply have a dramatic life. i never embellish my stories - i just tell them like they happen (maybe throwing in an ocassional fictitious eskimo), and, often times they are quite damn dramatic.
like all this insanity that happened today as i crossed into costa rica from panama. it's just my life man...i ain't no drama queen. well, you decide.
i sucked down a few farewell colombian rums with ben at zuly's backpackers in panama city, panama and then headed to the bus terminal at 11:15pm for the 11:30pm overnight bus to san jose, costa rica. i got to the terminal, bought a ticket and climbed aboard the 5 estrella bus.
and it was colder than a morgue in finland. they like to crank the air conditioning on these buses to block out the tropical humidity but sometimes you have to believe that the system has two settings: off and deep freeze. they hire lost emperor penguins to drive these buses since the climate is exactly like antarctica.
so about two hours into the ride i put on jeans over my shorts, chucked on an extra button down short-sleeve shirt (i only have short-sleeve shirts), my winter hat, and my fleece....but i was still nearly freezing to death. i tried to get some sleep but the driver kept turning on the lights for unknown reasons. i can't sleep well in the light and i can't really sleep on overnight buses anyway, so i just shut my eyes and tried to bear the arctic air. i was reaching in my bag for my passport that some official demanded at an unscheduled stop when the eskimo sitting across from me said through chattering teeth "i can't handle this mike."
during one fitful doze the bus stopped and emptied out. it was only 5am, we couldn't be all the way to the border yet, i thought.
we weren't. we were only in david (dah-VEE-d), panama, about 43 kilometers east of the border but the bus driver decided we had gone far enough.
"no vamos a la frontera?" i asked. we aren't going to the border?
"a donde va?" asked the female attendant. where are you going?
"a la frontera. yo tengo un boleto a la frontera," i said. to the border. i have a ticket to the border.
the driver rolled his eyes at me as if i had just personally re-drawn the border 43 kilometers west of where he had quit driving. i threw him a fish and he disappeared.
the female attendant pointed to a taxi. yeah right, i thought, that will cost a fortune. but apparently the drivers stop short all the time because the chick talked with the cabbie for a few minutes, filled out a form, and then indicated for me to get it. i chucked my bag in the back and we sped off towards costa rica, para gratis (for free.)
about three kilometers from the border the cab pulled over at a cement hut on the roadside. an official asked for my passport. he looked it over and then asked for my tourist card. i handed him three pieces of paper that the migration office in panama city had given me. but the four stamps in my passport and the three pieces of paper covered in panamanian govermental ink wasn't good enough...he wanted more, specifically the tourist card. i tried to explain it, but he just shoved my papers in my face and said that i would have to pay a fine when leaving.
no fucking way, i mumbled to myself. it took me two days, TWO DAYS, three cab rides, and visits to two different offices to get all the bullshit stamps and cards to enter panama. oh, and $10. sometimes these countries like to make it hard on a visiting american, as if my passport says "george bush" instead of "michael kivisto" in it.
anyway, after 10 more minutes of driving, the cab driver stopped and wordlessly got out, popped the trunk, and handed me my bag. ah. must be the border, i supposed. i took a look around. i was definitely in the no-man's land of a typical land-border, so i shouldered my small backpack (that in about five hours was going to scare the shit out of me) and headed toward panamanian migration.
"where is your tourist card?" the guy behind the glass asked me in spanish. i showed him all my cards, all my stamps, but he, like his stamp-collecting pal, wanted more.
"no tengo mas," i said. i don't have more.
"you cannot leave panama then," he said.
lovely. i did have an urge to live there, so why not?
i am not a panicker, so instead of yelling, i imagined (for a nanosecond) my potential life in panama...but it bored the hell out of me so i pleaded with the guy, showing him all the stamps, all the signatures, the letter from the president, the golden key to panama - everything - but he kept shaking his head.
right then a question about policy flashed across my mind: the guy is mad at me for apparently entering his country illegally, so why is the designated punishment to keep me there? that's like finding a mouse in your cupboard eating your cheese and then shouting at him: "aha! i caught you! now i am going to sit here and watch you finish all the cheese in the house! that'll teach you!"
i pointed a few more things out to the guy but he was defiant. evenutally he consulted his buddy and they discussed the perplexing situation for a few minutes as i wondered why panamanian migration is so much more difficult than apparently-scary colombia.
after the chat, the guy looked up at me and demanded a $1 fine for a sticker and another stamp. i handed over a george washingston, anxious to put the bullshit bureaucracy of panama behind me. i walked off towards costa rica laughing at all the panamanian artwork in my passport.
i walked down a dirt road to a shack that was selling bus tickets. it wasn't open yet so i sat on a wooden bench and read my book, one of those throw-away john grisham stories. shortly, a guy rode up on his old bicycle and opened the booth.
"one for 7.30am," i said.
"no bus at 7.30am...9.00am," he responded.
fine. i bought a ticket and wondered what to do in that wretched place for another hour and a half. i ate a beefsteak with rice and beans at a hot, crowded restaurant with plastic tables and chairs. it was 7:15am.
at around 9am, i entered a, well, a cage, with all the other passengers while our big yellow bus idled in the road. some guy from the bus company (i hoped) took my passport and vanished with it to costa rican immigration for a stamp, something i already had. oh well. might as well have multiple costa rican stamps also, i thought. 15 minutes later an official procured the stack of passports and pulled one off the top, calling out the name of the owner. when the owner stepped forward his bag was thoroughly searched. aha, i thought. hope i remembered to remove the bombs and body parts from my bottom pocket.
fortunately i did and i got through without incident. we were just about to pull away and i was thrilled that the seat next to me was still vacant (simple pleasures) - i would have plenty of leg room. but then, of course, the fattest man i have seen in two continents climbed heavily aboard. as the bus swayed with his weight, i did a quick survey of the bus. my heart sank as i noticed that every other seat was occupied.
the whale was going to beach himself right next to me.
he dropped his enormous self into the seat and about a quarter of his fat pushed itself onto my side. it was hot outside and he was sweating like the devil's armpit, so i got to feel his wet fat against my right side...and i would get the priviledge for the entire eight hour ride.
at least i learned a lesson. always pay attention to the people around you while in the queue to buy a bus ticket; most likely those people will be sitting next to you. i had a flashback of this man standing behind me in line and i cursed myself for learning this lesson one incredibly fat moment too late.
we inexplicably stopped on the road an hour later for a passport check. mine was jammed inside my bag which was in the overhead compartment. fat albert was going to have to shoehorn his doughy body from his seat. when he realized this he got really pissed at me. i didn't care: i was thankful for the momentary absence of his fat roll dripping sweat on me.
a few hours later we stopped for lunch. they told us to bring our bags into the restaurant and as we climbed back aboard after eating they inspected our bags...for the second time that day.
what in hell? this was a very odd occurence. i had not been searched this many times since i was found wandering the halls of an elementary school wearing a ski mask and carrying a bag of lollipops. i shrugged it off and took a large swallow of the diet coke that was going to raise havoc with my bladder too soon.
about an hour later my bladder was threatening to burst. diet coke always goes right through me...i was stupid to quaff another one. how much farther to san jose? i saw a sign that said 79 kilometers more. oh shit! and since we were winding through mountain roads it would take forever but we were also too close to pull over again. i was screwed.
but then suddenly we pulled over! yeah yeah! i was saved. they told us to bring our bags outside again and i wondered what for. i looked through the window as we shuffled down the narrow aisle to the front door and i saw an army of police officers lined up waiting for us. they had dogs too, yellow, intelligent-looking, drug-sniffing dogs. what in hell is going on, i wondered?
i didn't really care though because my bladder was straining and i had to go. i jumped out, bag on my shoulder, and made for the bathrooms...but a cop hollered at me. i told him that i needed the bathroom. he said that he needed to search me first, but then he noticed the pathetic schoolboy grimace that my bladder was sending to my face and he let me leave my bag with him as i drained myself.
i felt odd for a second though. i left my bag on the dirt shoulder out where anyone could snatch it and run off - a dumb move for a guy who has been robbed five times in two years. but the cop promised he would watch it for me so i dismissed it and concentrated on my urination.
i returned a few moments later and saw the yellow labrador working hard. he was crawling and sniffing inside the baggage compartment below the bus as all the passengers stood in a line with their hand luggage on the ground in front of them. i walked up to my bag and wondered again what in hell they were so concerned about. the dog finished inside and then came down the line of hand luggage. the cops ordered everyone to take five steps back from their bags and i did the same. the dog made his way toward the end of the line where i stood. he passed by each bag with a happy, dismissive smile....until he got to mine.
he climbed on top of my bag and snarled...then he began chewing it. the entire line of passengers and every officer snapped their heads up in unison and laid accusatory glares on the blond headed gringo in a rolling stones t-shirt and skateboarding shoes...the same gringo who had tried to run off before the search began with his bag on his shoulder. me.
i shit myself.
what in fuck was going on? two facts kept me calm:
1. i am not a drug user
2. i have never had drugs in my bag
and a third thing:
3. even if 1 and 2 were true there is no way i would carry drugs across an international border.
i knew these three things but no one else did. they had me handcuffed, jailed, tried, convicted, and incarcerated in a dog sniff.
but something disturbing occured to me then: i had left my fucking bag alone with a police officer, the most corrupt people in latin america.
did that motherfucker just ruin my life by planting something in my bag?!?!?
i was about to find out. the gang of officers pointed at my bag, and then to a cement shack at the side of the road. 10 heavily armed officers followed me to the "police station." i had not put anything illegal in my bag but holy fuck was i nervous.
inside the office, they went through everything. they demanded my passport. they looked in my fucking contacts case for christ's sake. they turned my dirty socks inside and out. i saw a foil of motion sickness pills and my stomach dropped. shit! one by one i pulled each item from my small bag and handed it to an officer who flipped it, sniffed it, turned it over in his hands, examined it, and then tossed it aside. he thoroughly searched each pocket as i emptied it. the other nine officers stood in a tight circle around me, arms folded, trying to bore holes through my head with their stares. i was worried but not worried at the same time; i knew that there was nothing in that bag. but those dogs are very well-trained, so perhaps he discovered something that i was unaware of in my bag...a small trace of something that had fallen onto my clothes or something.
i looked over at the dog and wondered what he had against me. dogs had chased me all over europe while i was riding my bike, and now for the second time a drug-sniffing dog tried to bust me. i looked down at the lab and hurtfully asked: why me, pooch? why? but eventually a smile crept across my face as i recalled having eaten one of his cousins in china. ha ha HA!
no, i had never put something illegal in my bag but there remained the possibility that the cop had planted something on me, maybe to spice up a boring day.
after everything was removed from my bag the investigation centered on a cuban cigar i had bought in colombia. an officer held the clear plastic bag with the cigar in it between his two fingers like it was a gun at a murder scene.
jesus, are cigars illegal in this country? i wondered. each officer took turns sniffing the suspected item and then one asked me if i speak spanish.
"si," i said.
"consumir drogas?" he asked. do you take drugs?
my god, i thought, it's a fucking cigar! it's not some giant brown bob marley joint!
"no," i said. "es un puvo. yo lo compri en colombia," i said incredulously. it's a cigar. i bought it in colombia.
for five minutes the cigar was passed around as i asked random officers if cigars were illegal in costa rica. it's an uncomfortable situation to be defending yourself using your second language without anyone to help...and without anyone on your side. i could feel my heart slamming against my sweaty chest. they put the cigar against the dog's nose (so much for smoking it now) but he had no interest in it. they laid my bag down in front of him again but i couldn't see what happened because some officers blocked my view.
later as the cigar made it's way into everyone with a badges' hands i began re-packing my bag. the only remaining officer in the shed with me was a sympathetic female. she shrugged her shoulders when i asked her if cigars were illegal. she said "i have no problem" which i took as exonerating news, although she seemed to have no authority over the proceedings.
i finished re-packing and held up my bag. "esta bien?" it's ok? the officers nodded and i walked nervously back to the bus, half-expecting to be summoned back to the hot concrete shack. i was not.
the bus engine rumbled to life impatiently as i walked back on. everyone on the bus stared at me and i said to no one in particular "mi puvo...estaba mi puvo." my cigar, it was my cigar.
a few minutes later an older american guy who lives in costa rica came over to sit with me. he told me that there was some giant drug bust on the same bus the day before and so the officers were thoroughly searching everyone.
"especially young kids like you," he said. "they let the billionaires ride by in cars loaded with drugs but they hassle you."
let the billionaires go by, i thought; i was happy to be 34 years old and still referred to as a "young kid."
so that was about it. i arrived in san jose, spent the night, and then took another bus to the coast the next morning. i am currently in costa rica on the beautiful caribbean, enjoying myself.
as long as i'm alive and not paralyzed afterwards, i welcome all these situations...they give me something to talk about with hot chicks at parties.
so, i ask you now, is my life interesting or am i just a drama queen?
if you say the latter then fit me with a crown, i don't mind. but you must get down on your knees, my subject, you low-life peasant, and kiss the BIG, INTERESTING, ADVENTUROUS ASS of your majesty! do it, it feels good, and don't stop, just...
keep on keepin' on,