Monday, November 15, 2010

A series of very unfortunate events

This past weekend I left Costa Rica and I almost didn't get back. I am so fortunate to be home, in Costa Rica, after a terrible weekend of very unfortunate events.

As I mentioned in my last blog, Abby and I decided that we wanted to go to Bocas del Toro, Panama for our last weekend trip. We had heard only wonderful things about the island from our friends, so our expectations were pretty high. They told us that everyone is really friendly and helpful, everything is cheaper, and it was really easy to see a lot of amazing sites in one trip. Sounds awesome, right?

Since it takes a little while to reach the islands, I decided to skip my Thursday night literature class after talking with my professor so that we would be able to leave on Thursday afternoon. Well, Abby found out on Thursday morning, only hours before we were supposed to leave, that the border closes at 6:00 p.m. which is way earlier than either of us had imagined, so we had to stay the night on Thursday in Puerto Viejo, a small beach town on the Caribbean side. In hindsight, we should have never left. The town was really cute, everyone was really friendly, we listened to live music, and even made a few new friends from New Zealand and Sweden. Nonetheless, we left Puerto Viejo early Friday morning for Sixaola. We crossed the border there without any problems and a nice Panamanian man helped us with everything we needed to do before getting a taxi to Almirante. The taxi driver was also nice and once we arrived in Almirante, we took a boat taxi over to Bocas.

There were more people there to help us find a hostel and begin booking tours. After we found a cool (and cheap) hostel, it was only 11:00 – plenty of time to get lunch and “aprovechar” (take advantage of) the rest of the day and the beautiful sunny weather. After we ate lunch, we went to the tour office to tell them which beaches we wanted to see on Friday so that we could see another group of beaches the next day. They told us no problem and then said that it would cost $35 each. We already knew that tours only cost $20 per person, so we were not about to pay almost twice the cost. When we told them this, the rest of the conversation went something like this:

“Well, there are only two of you and there aren’t any more tour groups today, so it’s going to be more money.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. If there aren’t any more groups, then you guys are making money off of us that you wouldn’t have made otherwise.”

“I’ll stay with you all day and we can see these beaches and this island…”

“We don’t really care if you stay with us. We’re not paying twice the cost for less time.”

“I can offer you $30 for 2 beaches instead of 3.”

“That’s only $5 less. It’s still too much money.”

“Ask anyone else and they’ll offer you the same price.”

“We’re sure, but we’re not paying that.”

After a bit more back and forth, we settled on going to one beach for $10 that was literally only 2 minutes away. They knew that they had us because we had to do something for the rest of the day, so they could charge us whatever they wanted. Despite my frustration, I was quite proud of myself. I wouldn’t have been able to argue with someone like that a year and a half ago in English, let alone in Spanish.

Despite the hassle, the beach was beautiful and we had it almost all to ourselves. At this point, Abby and I told ourselves that we had to remain positive since we were on the beach, the weather was beautiful, we would be able to go out at night to all of the cool places our friends told us about, and tomorrow we would have an all-day tour for $20.

After spending the day at the beach, we went to dinner where our waitress was rude and the service was horrible. They “ran out” of the main ingredient in the dish that I ordered and our drinks didn’t come out until after we finished our meals. Nonetheless, we still had the rest of the night to look forward to. We went to the opening of a bar owned the same people as our hostel. There was live reggae music, lots of people, and dancing. Abby and I found a place to sit down and we were able to talk and people watch until two Panamanian men came over and started talking to us. Everything was okay at first until they had nothing else to talk about. They just stood at our sides as if they were establishing their territory. Abby and I tried to make it obvious that we were not interested but they apparently didn’t get the message. The guy at my side started whispering to me that my eyes were beautiful and that he loved them and blah blah blah. I told him that “we were going to the bathroom” and when I got up, he grabbed my hand and told me that he would wait for me. We were definitely not going back.

So we left that bar and decided to go to another that our friends had told us about. We had to take a water taxi over to it, and when we arrived there was not a soul in sight. I’m sure that the boat driver knew this, but we still had to pay him to go and come back.

Since it had been awhile, we decided it might be safe to go back to the first bar as long as we stayed on the opposite side. Indeed, everything was fine until the Panamanian spotted us and then came up right behind me and said in a threatening way, “you were coming back, huh?” Then he started touching me and calling me “baby.” I had had it. Abby and I, incredibly frustrated, left right away. I felt so disrespected and angry that some random man completely ruined our night. I miss being able to have a conversation with a man as another human being rather than an object. So far, the people were not nice and everything was not cheaper. However, we still had the next day to make everything better.

We woke up on Saturday to overcast, windy, and cold weather. Trying our hardest to be positive, we went to the tour office to make sure that there was a group for today. They told us:

“Yes, there is a group to go to these beaches.”

“But we told you yesterday that we wanted to see these beaches today.”

“Well there isn’t a group for that tour today.”

At this point, my level of optimism was really being challenged, but we were still going to see beaches so whichever ones would be fine. There was indeed a group and once our guide arrived in the boat, with a beer in his hand at 9:00 in the morning, we left the dock. About 5 minutes into the trip, it became very obvious that the waves were dangerously large due to the weather. They should have turned the boat around and given us our money back, but of course we kept going and of course they told us that the weather would clear up.

We arrived at the first beach, soaked and freezing, to discover that it was raining. We also discovered quite quickly that snorkeling would not be an option due to the waves. So, we sat inside a restaurant freezing cold until “the weather cleared up.” During this time, we met a really nice couple, a Costa Rican man and an American woman, and made the best of the situation talking with them. Hours later, our drunk “guide” told us that the weather was only going to get worse and that we would only be able to stop at the other beach for 10 minutes before going back. All of us in the group, Abby and I, our new friends, and a tican couple, basically said “screw you, we’re going back in the bus.” The guide then asked us for a tip! Furious, all of us bonded in our misery and were able to share a taxi back to the main part of the island.

After talking a cold shower, since our hostel didn’t have hot water, Abby and I spent the rest of our day in a coffee shop playing bananagrams with Scrabble pieces. This was not how I had planned to spend my weekend on the beach. Still trying to be positive, Abby and I weren’t mad at each other and we could at least eat something yummy for dinner. Typical of the Caribbean, we decided that we wanted patacones (fried plantains) for dinner. We found a restaurant that served them, and when we went to order, our waitress told us that they were out of plantains. Out of plantains! Go pick some off of a tree, they are everywhere! We at least still had dessert to look forward to. We found a restaurant with a huge list of reasonably-priced desserts – brownie with ice cream, chocolate mousse, crepes. We told the waitress that we only wanted dessert and she said:

“Well, we don’t have everything.”

Holding our breaths, “Well, what do you have?”

“We have brownie. Oh, and pineapple cake.”

“You don’t have any ice cream?!”


First of all, they had two pages of desserts and almost all of them contained ice cream! Second of all, pineapple cake wasn’t even on the menu. At this point, it was obvious that nothing was going to go right, but at least we would be able to get back to Costa Rica the next day.

We woke up on Sunday morning, checked out of the hostel, met our new friends to take the boat taxi, take a land taxi to Changinola where we would take a direct bus across the border to San José. As we’re eating breakfast there, I realize that my passport was not where I last put it. In fact, it was not anywhere. This could not be happening, but it was.

I start freaking out, crying, pacing, having no idea what to do. I call my parents (as if they would be able to do anything) and finally start to calm down enough to be able to think where I last used my passport. It didn’t make sense that someone would have stolen it because they didn’t take anything else and I was sure that I put it away when we crossed the border. Thank God that Abby remembered that we had to show our passports when we checked into the hostel. This was where it was! The gorgeous and exotic “Venus” (she would have a name like that) “forgot” to give back my passport. When I called the hostel, she said, “Oh, thank goodness you called me, I’ve been looking for you all weekend!” Now, I am not trying to take any blame away from myself for not realizing that she didn’t give me my passport back, but she saw me a million times that weekend! Plus, she is the businesswomen and has the responsibility to take care of customers, especially when it comes to giving back their passports.

In my distress, the Panamanian bus driver ensured me that I would be able to cross the border with the official copies of my passport and my paper that proves that I have a visa. This way, Venus could send me my passport and I could still take the bus. Obviously, I was desperate to get out of Panama and back home to Costa Rica.

Feeling better, we get on the bus and eventually made it to the border. I start to get nervous, but ensure myself that everything is going to be okay. Even as there are American hippie girls walking around barefoot, a German girl passing out and then vomiting all over the street because of alcohol poisoning, a Spanish woman arguing with the officials, and everyone not knowing where we were supposed to be waiting in line, I still tried to tell myself that everything was going to be okay. When it is my turn, the Panamanian official tells me that she can’t do anything for me, so I have to see what the Costa Rican side says. Already across the border, I wanted to leave Panama so badly that I seriously thought about not going up to the counter and just slipping through because it would not have been very hard. But I couldn’t do it. The tican man with the American woman helped me talk to the Costa Rican official about my dilemma. We told him that someone stole my passport, and my money, because we thought that it would have a better chance of getting me through. We talked and talked and talked, but there was no way he was going to let me pass. He told me that I had to go to Panama City (which is REALLY far away from where I was) to make a report at their Embassy. When my tican friend asked how I was supposed to do this without any money, he basically just shrugged his shoulders and said something like “it’s not my problem.” Sobbing all over again, Abby and I cross back over to the Panama side and while we’re walking in our misery, the tican’s girlfriend runs after us because she realizes we left our bags on the bus. She tells us not to worry: she and her boyfriend will take care of them and then they will come pick us up in San José whatever time we get back to Costa Rica. We thank her profusely and keep trudging along.

When I tell the Panamanian official what happened, she said “Qué injusto!” At least someone had sympathy for me. Next we toke a taxi all the way back to Almirante where I picked up my passport at the water taxi boat dock (I had to pay them of course for delivering it) and then we took a taxi all the way back to Sixaola where we finally crossed the border. We ate lunch there and waited to take the 3:00 bus to San José. Fortunately, we didn’t have any more surprises on the bus ride, our friends came and picked us up with our suitcases, and I finally got back to Heredia. When we arrived at my house, I really did feel like I was coming home and could not wait to be greeted by my mom. Sure enough, Claudia was standing at the door ready to give me a big hug. I was so incredibly thankful to be in my house with my family. If nothing else, this entire experience made me love Costa Rica even more and truly realize how much I have become a part of my tican family. I’m on the verge of tears just writing this, thinking about the fact that I will leave them in just one week…

To say the least, I had an adventurous weekend and have added to my list another life experience. Always trying to find the positives:

1) 1) Abby and I strengthened our friendship

2) 2) We made new friends

3) 3) I got my passport stamped

4) 4) I got to go the beach at least one day

5) 5) My passport wasn’t stolen and I got back to Costa Rica on Sunday

6) 6) I had a family and a home waiting to greet me

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