I took a big bus from David, Panama, to San Jose, Costa Rica. The trip was 12 hours, including 3 hours to cross the border. During the hour standing in line (see photo) to get the exit stamp at the rickety Panamanian immigration office (I told the kid who finally stamped my passport, “I love what you’ve done to the place”), a hefty bag of a guy in a government uniform walked down the line and sold us stick-on stamps for $1 each. One Panamanian lady freaked out when she almost reached the well-worn counter and realized that she didn´t have a stamp. Oh my god. She dashed off to find the burly officer, but he had disappeared. She almost lost her place in line. Turns out, he was a local bureaucrat doing fund-raising for the border `town´ between the two countries — I hope to put in some bathrooms and pavement.
Everyone’s bags were checked upon leaving Panama. Then everyone’s bags were checked upon entering Costa Rica. Three lines formed inside a fenced-off compound, and people slowly inched forward to expose their luggage contents. At noon, the three Costa Rican inspectors walked off. I think they went on a break. At 12:15 pm, one inspector returned to finish the job. I was towards the end of the line. By the time he got to me, his wrist was limply waving people along. He didn’t even look inside my bags. I think he was depressed.
A few more examples, and then I´ll have made my point. Bear with me.
There is a charge to use public bathrooms.
The Pan-American Highway in Costa Rica, the only highway across the country, is usually one lane in each direction. Potholes abound.
Infrastructure in Central America sucks.
Instructions, especially in English, can be funny and confusing. Spelling does NOT count. (See photo from an ATM of the national bank of Costa Rica. This information — and incorrect spelling — is on every ATM screen in the country.)
I’ve encountered ATMs that don´t work for withdrawals over $40. I’ve encountered ATMs that are not connected.
Americans are so proud of so many things, it can verge on arrogance. We´re proud of our democracy, our ability to innovate, our global superiority, our fighting forces, our purple mountains´ majesty. Like the Scandanavians, Swiss and Germans, we are proud of our efficiency, our savvyness, our know-how. But my amigo Stephen, who has lived here for several years, sees little pride among the Panamanians, certainly not in their quest to do things effectively.
Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) are proud of at least two things — of their attempt to preserve their land´s natural beauty and resources, and of their ¨coolness¨ (they think they´re so cool because they are relaxed and ready to laugh, they tease and make jokes, they wear Nikes and let us peek at their bra straps and boxer shorts. But sorry, Ticos, your fashion sense is three to four years behind Europe.).
I find their pride pock-marked and double-edged. They can be loose about their promises and cool about their commitments. Hotel reservations are ignored; the car rental company (ironically named Solid Car Rental) suddenly changed its posted prices on me and ignored its emailed guarantees. And, while it´s not as pervasive as in Panama, trash and pollution do scuff up some towns and villages. But, hell, let the Ticos have their pride where they want it. The landscape can be awesome.
A young angel named Leta, who guided me through that potentially horrendous bus trip across the border, believes that things don´t work right due to the culture´s skewed sense of Time. She´s only 21, but she´s been from Colombia to Nicaragua. Leta thinks that the lack of time management is both a symptom and a cause of the general fookeduppedness in Central America.
Probably the most inefficient and frustrating bureaucracy in the States is the DMV. But my amigo Stephen spent 20 hours in line to get his Panamanian driver’s license. Makes the DMV look pretty good, don´t it?
Buses leave 15 minutes early. Buses leave an hour late. Buses and boats never even show up. Movie times at the multiplex are random. Even network TV shows don´t always start on time.
Leta metaphorically slapped her forehead, ¨I don´t understand it. They just don´t care.¨
¨Why don´t they care?¨ I asked.
¨I don´t know.¨
It is difficult to be careful and carefree at the same time. Right now, because I don´t know better, I´m blaming the weather. It´s quite hot down here.