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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

Episode 15 - September 2009

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Mexico on $10 a Day; Help-a-Cop Day, What's-in-a-Word, Breaking News
Dare to Bite

Seen in the Rainforest - I Double Dare You to Bite Me!

Mexico on $10 a Day

The other day our hero was asked by a Tico if I had ever been to Mexico. My response was “Yes, twice.” While this was technically correct, I had to fess up later that the total time of my two visits to carumbaland was one hour and twenty minutes. When I recounted the real story, he began to contort his face and look at me with that OK-here’s-another-crazy-gringo stare. Here’s the way the story goes: 

When GG made the decision last year to move to Costa Rica to retire, my first thought was to drive the 4,500 or so miles from Sarasota to Quepos. This way I could keep my trusty Honda with the stick shift, just perfect for wandering the hills and mountains of the Rich Coast. I knew I would eventually have to pay a stiff import tariff, most likely 50-70% of the book value (and the border dudes here have all the right books) as well as incur significant insurance costs. But GG had not been without a car for fifty, that’s 50(!) years, running. It’s hard to break that kind of habit.

When I bounced the idea of driving to Costa Rica off a number of friends in Sarasota, a few surprised me by saying: “How can you do that, how can you drive to an island?” Check the maps my friends, Costa Rica is not Puerto Rico, it’s in the middle of Central America and about half way up a contiguous set of countries starting at the southern tip of Chile and ending in the north at the Canadian or Alaskan tundra. (Suspiciously, that might be why they call it Central America)

St. Luis Potosi Mexico
St. Luis Potosi – Aranzazū (Mexico)
  I next went to a AAA office and got a Triptick, learning in the process that I would have to negotiate Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua before reaching northern Costa Rica. Unfortunately, Triple A’s Tripticks do not go farther south than Guatemala City; anything south of that would require negotiating it on my own. My most enlightened guesstimate was that it would take a total of 10-12 days, at a hopeful 400 miles per day, to complete the entire trip. I got maps, I surfed the internet. Sir Gringo de Oro would be prepared for an arduous journey filled with knightly adventure.

It occurred to me that it might be wise to take along another knight, one with an enhanced Spanish facility, a Don Quixote if you will. (See, I figured that out all by myself, I’m not always as slow as some people say). I advertised in Craig’s List for a rider and put the word out locally to my network of friends (hold the comments on friends please). Eventually, a gentleman turned up who was born in Colombia but had moved with his family to the U.S. at the age of ten. Fluent in both languages, and apparently a stable soul, he was excited about driving to Costa Rica where he “always wanted to live”.

Don Q. and I fiddle-faddled around with the idea of connecting the Honda to his Toyota Tundra to save gas, even interviewing a Honduran-American fellow who hauls used cars from Florida to Honduras for profitable resale. It turned out that the cost of an appropriate Tundra-Honda hitch would be $1,500, as opposed to an estimated $700 savings in gas. Even I could figure out this was not a good trade-off and we abandoned the hitch idea. We would plan instead, to drive in a small  caravan of Japanese motorized camels.

Baja California Beach
Baja California – Mexico
  Four days before we were to leave, my amigo caballero called to say that, because of a personal problem, he could not go “at this time” and he wasn’t sure when the problem would be solved. Undaunted, and with my trusty steed well prepared, I made a quick (read, rash) decision to go anyway. So on a Thursday morning, I pointed the Honda north on I-75 and bid farewell to my home of 10 years, beautiful Sarasota, Florida. Twelve hours later I pulled into a Marriott in Lafayette, Louisiana. I had been to Lafayette once before as a consultant some six or seven years earlier but I remembered very little about the town. I had a nice meal in a local emporium, watched a little TV, went to bed and repeated the process again the next day, arriving in Brownsville, Texas late Friday afternoon and into the comfortable arms of another Marriott.

Conversation with the locals produced the information that there are three bridges at Brownsville that lead over the Rio Grande into Mexico and one of them was at the end of the expressway that passed by the hotel. After a nice thick steak at a Texas Roadhouse (pardner) I fiddled around the room and internet and finally went to bed but didn’t sleep well, thinking about the trip ahead. I remember saying a couple of prayers to be kept safe and do the next right thing. At 5:30 AM I gave up, got up, and quickly “made my toilet” as the French say, grabbed some munchies from the hotel breakfast room and headed out to do battle with whatever dragons crossed my path. I easily found the bridge, paid the $2.50 toll and arrived in Meheeco in a matter of minutes. It was still dark out. On the other side were a dark office building and a Mexican border guard talking with a few gringos. The road south lay open with no barriers or guard posts to stop a car. I briefly considered making a run for it but decided to roll down the window and talk with the gringos.

Acapulco Divers
Acapulco Divers
The border guard fella reminded me that I needed a driving permit to traverse Mexico. It was dark (6:05 AM), the office at that bridge was closed and wouldn’t be open until 8 AM. One of the gringos said the other two bridges had offices that are open 24/7. I reversed my steed and headed back to the bridge, my first visit to Mexico had taken twenty minutes. The road back north, unlike in the opposite direction, was definitely not open. I pulled up to a red stop light and was nearly blinded by a flash of light that was designed to illuminate the car, its license plate and its contents. I had been automatically photographed on three sides. I then received a green light and pulled forward to a guard house. When queried by a U.S. Border copper as to my business in Mexico, I said one of the dumbest things ever to issue from these lips: “I just came over from the states 20 minutes ago” (as if that would render me spotless for re-entry). I must have sounded like a drug runner. Twenty minutes in Mexico does not a vacation make. “Please open your trunk sir”. Then the dogs were led out and they began sniffing the car and its owner.  

Next came the dude with the long-handled mirror to inspect the undercarriage of my trusty Honda. Eventually, these very polite gentlemen came to the conclusion that although GG may be a bit of an eccentric, he was probably not a danger to the Republic. I paid another $2.50 and proceeded over the bridge and a few miles south to the next bridge. Arriving at the next bridge, I paid another $2.50 and crossed over the Rio Grande for the third time, straining to get a glimpse of the river but failing because of the poor pre-dawn light. Just like at the first bridge, the road was wide open. Unlike at the first bridge, however, the immigration building was brightly lit up. I was making progress, albeit drudgingly.

Bull Fight Mexico
Jalisco – Ay Dios Mio, hay mucho toro!
I parked the car and quickly entered the building, noticing from the corner of my eye the first crack of dawn. I came into a sizeable hall with a few border-type dudes and dudettes in blue uniforms milling about. Directly in front of me was a gentleman in his late forties or early fifties, dressed in very U.S. clothes yet looking very latino. Mexican, I thought immediately, probably going home to his place of origin for a visit. “Y’all need a permit?” (The gent obviously had been Texafied) Before I could get out the total answer “yes” he started a harangue about how dumb “these people” were and, pointing to one lady border agent, he took her heritage into great question. He also peppered his discourse with a large quantity of “f” words and I began to look around to see if we were going to be rushed by some of the Army guys that were stationed outside the building; you know the ones carrying automatic weapons of the AK-47 type. But no, we were lucky.

In an attempt to get him off the soapbox I told him about my situation with the ten year old Honda and plans for Costa Rica. “You shouldn’t have a problem” says he, so with this affirmation and more than anxious to escape his diatribe, I proceeded to a glass-walled cage where a man was sitting and processing documents for another gringo-looking amigo. When my turn came, I presented my passport and Florida driver’s license. The agent quickly pulled out a long pad with multiple-part forms on it and began to fill out the permit. I couldn’t help but think the process is going to be simple and smooth like salsa sliding across fried eggs. The reality is that GG has discovered in himself in recent years one major character defect (there are more of course): I’m prone to unrealistic expectations. Such would be the case that day.                    

Within a few minutes I had the form in my hands and was directed to the Caja to pay the fee. I was already thinking that I’d get to Vera Cruz early, take in the beach, have a leisurely dinner and sit by the pool smoking a fine cigar like a retired coffee plantation owner enjoying a slothful evening. The movie “Elephant Walk” came to mind (1954; Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews, Peter Finch). I was quickly brought back to reality by the Caja clerk when she said in her best English: “May I see the title to your car please?” I had anticipated the need for this in order to clear Costa Rica customs and, two weeks earlier, gotten a new copy of the document PDQ from the SRQ Florida DMV office. I had secreted the document in a file of important papers in my computer bag deep in the trunk of the Honda. I excused myself to fetch it.

Not there. No matter how much I rifled the bag I couldn’t find it, so then I rifled the entire car.

While searching my vehicle, I found the Amerimexican dude with the big mouth standing nearby watching me panic. At one point he saw me put the computer case, with computer in it, on the trunk of the car. Tex-Mex virtually yelled: “Don’t do that, it’ll be stolen!” I stood up and pointed to the three or four military personnel in fatigues with their AK-47’s standing nearby and suggested to him we should be safe. “They’re the ones who’ll steal it!” says he. Nuff said, I put it back in the trunk and locked it. Then he suggested that if I couldn’t find the title, the authorities would probably accept the registration. Eureka! I knew I had that doc. I reached into the glove compartment, quickly snatched it and went running back to the clerk. She took it and announced “This one’s expired.” Zowee… GG did have a bad habit of laying stuff like that on the kitchen table and procrastinating about transferring it to the document folder in the glove compartment to replace the old one. Had I thrown it out with all the other stuff when I vacated my condo? Moot point, it was not to be found.

Hasta La Vista Baby
Hasta La Vista Baby

I gave up. I headed back to the Marriott after paying my fourth toll of $2.50. I checked back in, fired up the computer and went to the Sarasota DMV website to get another registration. GG, my friend, (occasionally I find it helpful if I talk to GG directly from his alter-ego) they don’t allow this kind of document to be downloaded and guess what, they’re physically not open on Saturday. I called a close friend in Sarasota who had my Power of Attorney and he agreed to go down to the DMV on Monday and get me a new doc of some kind, either the title or registration. I decided to relax and enjoy the unexpected visit to Brownsville, Texas for the weekend.

GG went to a meeting, the kind that the people who go there don’t talk about. I told my story to mild laughter and a few loud guffaws.  Afterwards, I went to a coffee shop with three Texas dudes who had all driven a number of times in Mexico and Central America and had considerable and varied experiences. The one I remember most was named Hank. Hank was about 75 years old with a white beard down to his crotch and, I was told, always dresses in brown. In his youth, Hank had specialized in flying (below radar) large quantities of small appliances into southern Mexico and distributing them (illegally) by small pick up truck to stores in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.

I got the maps and triptik out of the car and spent 15 minutes explaining to my new-found compadres my “strategy and plan” for reaching Costa Rica. At the conclusion of the presentation, I looked at Hank and asked: “What do you think?” Without hesitation, and looking me straight in the eye, Hank said: “Bob, sell the effin car and take a plane.” I noticed the other two gents bobbing their heads affirmatively. A little while later after some discussion, one of them said: “Now let me get this straight amigo, you have a Florida-plated vehicle, you don’t speak Spanish and you’re gonna drive through most of Central America; do you think you might be a target Bob?” Confronted with reality, my resolve began to dissolve. A second meeting the next day did not garner more positive suggestions. The greatest affirmation I got all weekend was; “Well, Bob, you’ll probably make it.” The wall of denial in my head began to crumble.

On Sunday, I went to South Padre Island, a very pretty strip of hurricane-prone Gulf coast about 20 miles outside of Brownsville. I had heard the name somewhere in the past as being a pleasant resort area and it was. The afternoon gave me time for reflection and I came away having decided that I would take Hank’s and his buddies’ advice. I called my friend in Sarasota and told him I would not be needing his services on Monday; I was coming back. The relief from the tension and stress I had developed was incredible.

I took a leisurely three days to return to Sarasota. I sold the car, liquidated some of the stuff in the Honda and flew down (with some friends who were visiting Costa Rica) on October 21, 2008. I haven’t had a car since. Don’t need one. Don’t want one. Life is good here without one.

Oh yeah, Don Quixote called me on my cell when I was half way back to Sarasota and announced he had settled his problem and was going to begin his drive shortly. I declined his invitation to go with him, wished him well and later gave him my Triptik, but I had become convinced the trek was not for GG. Remember also, that at about this time there were daily media reports of dozens of drug related killings in Mexico. South Padre Island, Texas
South Padre Island, Texas
Eventually, Don Q. did go, crossing into Mexico with intentions of reaching Costa Rica in about two weeks. He crossed the Rio Grande the same day I was being Spirited (a rather nice airline, usually) to San José from Ft. Lauderdale. He disappeared for two months, making no contact with anyone back in SRQ or with me. When he resurfaced in the U.S. he apparently told a story that he had never quite made it through Mexico. So much for speaking Spanish.

ooo, yes, GG has been to Mexico, twice, and on $10 a day. More importantly, I found out big time how the Guy upstairs had been doing for me what I could not do for myself.                   

Help-a-Cop Day

Three amigos (sounds like a good film title) recently decided to ride down to Dominical one beautiful Sunday afternoon. Dominical is 44 km south of Quepos, on the coast, much smaller and more remote than the Quepos/Manuel Antonio area. If you had been to the area and driven to Dominical a few years ago, you would know that the 26 miles was as arduous a journey as an automobile could take. The first time I attempted it, about 4 years ago, I got about half way down and turned back thinking the Nissan sedan I was driving would surely come apart. The second time I tried it, about a year later, it took an hour and a half in an SUV and I was convinced most of my internal organs had been irreversibly scrambled.

Driftwood on Playa Dominical
 Driftwood on Playa Dominical

The road now is unrecognizable, part of the Arias government’s program to modernize Costa Rica’s infrastructure (see Issue 9). It would be called a super highway or expressway if it were not for the fact it is still two-lane. The road is as smooth a baby’s derriere and broken up only by bridges whose expansion has not yet made them into two lanes. Also, for the nostalgia freaks (me) there are still 10 km of unfinished road on the south end of the trek to keep us rumbling and pining for the old ways. We had a great time in Domical that included a surprisingly good Thai lunch at a restaurant on the river that dumps into the Pacific on the north side of Dominical beach.   

On the way back we were approaching Matapalo, a sleepy little town about half way between Dominical and metropolitan Quepos, acting like a bunch of silly teenagers (I’m generous here) quipping good old jokes and paying little attention to anything except the incredibly beautiful lush green mountains flanking our right. All of a sudden we happened upon a policeman who had parked his motorcycle almost poking into the road and who stood in the middle of it with his hand up indicating we needed to stop. It was unusual; they don’t usually stop handsome, clean-cut gringos like ourselves – was there a major drug search going on?

The policeman came to the driver’s window, spoke with our Tico driver so rapidly I couldn’t keep up with the conversation. Within a minute, the copper returned to his bike and started it up. Our driver explained the cop was looking for a ride to Quepos! His tour of duty was up and he needed to get home. The department did not provide transportation to and from remote locations and he didn’t own a car (police here are reported to be paid poorly). The cop had made a deal with our driver to have him follow his motorcycle to the “barracks” in downtown Matapalo (Unlike metropolitan Quepos whose center is at least four by five blocks, Matapalo is only one by two) where we watched him close the barracks and where we picked up another policeman. Along with them came mucho plastic bags and assorted containers – the dirty laundry had to be brought back to the esposa.                                                           

So there we went, two gringos and three Ticos, two of them police in uniform, speeding down the highway. Correction, I noticed the driver for the first time that day rigidly observed the speed limit. I glanced into the back seat and had mixed emotions when I saw both cops were sporting 45’s. The border permit incident in Matamoros, Mexico flashed into my mind and what the Tex-Mex loudmouth had said about the police there. But these dudes were amiable, laughed a lot and smiled most of the distance knowing they had found a way home for the weekend.

We locals will go to any lengths to aid those who protect and serve. 

La Policia
La Policia de Costa Rica


What-s-in-a-Word Department

Like in English, Spanish can have different meanings for the same word. However Spanish can trick you even further. The use of a “tilde”, those cute little accent marks loved by both the Spanish and the French, over a syllable that point out where in the word the pronunciation emphasis should be placed, can change the meaning entirely. For example, if you say dolores (pronunciation on second syllable like the lady’s name) you’re talking about “pains” but if you say dólores (pronunciation on the tilde) you’re talking about U.S. currency (of course, if you’re talking rather than writing you have to remember where the tilde is).

Another one that came up recently was the word esposa. Most often this refers to the person one is married to, either woman or man and has the same connotation as spouse. But an alternate meaning is (just reporting again, not making it up) “handcuffs”. See the rewards of help-a-cop day? I think the Latinos have it right, wife = handcuffs. Subtle, ain’t it?

A few days ago, a Tico friend of mine sent me an email in Spanish with a list of one-liners of the “You know you’re a Tico if…” variety. Here are a few examples.

You know you’re a Tico if:

(1) “En su casa sirven espagueti con arroz” (at home you serve spaghetti with rice);

(2) “Le han asegurado que la sopa de pescado lo hace más inteligente” (you have been assured that fish soup makes you smarter);

(3) “Recarga las pilas en la nevera” (you recharge your batteries in the freezer);

(4) “Le lleva pollito a su esposa cuando se monta en la carreta” (you bring chicken to your wife alter a drinking spree).

In Costa Rica, good Chicken solves everything!


Breaking News Department

 Sargento Reopens! Rumors abounded and then became fact. Sargento’s (see closure article last issue) has reopened with the same name but under new management. The Ice Lady, a future Chronicles topic, now operates the emporium. The edifice has been thoroughly renovated into pleasant shades of blue. Seating has been changed to a series of high tables, each with four proverbial hard wooden chairs. Two new wide screens have been installed implying they’ll be games again to watch. The current status is bar-only but a brief interview with the manager revealed food is planned for the December swing into high season. Stay tuned – more will be revealed and your Chronicles reporter will be Gringo on the spot. Our ROMEO department (Retired Old Men Eating Out) will also visit the unit after the food is offered and give it our critical rating (1-5 sloths).


Don Roberto de Quepos,
El Gringo Dorado

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