Border crossings are oppressive places aren’t they? Soulless transport hubs populated by dirty portacabins and joyless officials. Places to get in and out of as quickly as possible before the bastards discover you’re carrying one too many crates of liver compromiser in the boot of the car.
But for me, and as I’ve discovered in the course of researching this piece many others, border crossings hold a perverse appeal. In the course of numerous adventures in far flung lands I’ve grown to love the ambiguous corridors that exist between the exit of one country and the entrance to another. Over the years I’ve been questioned by fake policemen, detained for carrying illegal fruits and ripped off by more feral children that I care to remember. But nothing can compare with the glorious randomness of the journey I made from Costa Rica to Nicaragua last November at the infamous Penas Blancas crossing.
Dealing with Costa Rican immigration was a civilised, straightforward affair and it was with an air of insouciance that I left the customs office via the door marked exit.
What confronted me was a scene of almost comical chaos; a strip of road around 400 metres in length that looked like Delhi high street on the last Saturday before Christmas. Money changers, street vendors and tuc tuc drivers jostled with lame dogs and stray donkeys for road position. Brightly-costumed women aggressively touted carbonated drinks from the kerbside. Within seconds of stepping onto the tarmac I had half a dozen street urchins hanging off my shoulder offering to “fast track” me through immigration for a small fee. Amid the carnage, there were no signs indicating where I needed to go to get processed, just a series of increasingly dirty looking buildings stretching out into the distance.
I was in the process of negotiating a fast track fee in primitive Spanish with a pushy midget child when I heard someone call out from behind me. “Alright there mate. Are you having troubles?” I spun around and strolling towards me was a short, white, ginger haired chap in his fifties wearing a Costa Rican football shirt and blue chinos. He introduced himself as Jeffrey and explained he was a Canadian living in Costa Rica who had to cross the border every three months to renew his visa.
We made our way towards an unmarked shack that looked more like a homeless shelter than an immigration office and as we walked we talked. It turned out Jeffrey was born in Cardiff and lived there until he was 11 when his family emigrated to Canada. He asked me what I did for a living and when I told him I was a journalist he stopped walking and eyed me suspiciously. “What kind of journalism?” he queried. “Business mainly,” I replied, an answer that seemed to temporarily placate him.
His mother, he continued, had once had a run in with the British press. Back in the 70s she was exposed by the Daily Mirror as the long lost sister of Conservative MP Jeffrey Archer, born to the same mother but given up for adoption at birth, making Jeffrey Jeffrey´s nephew. My initial reaction was that Jeffrey had an overactive imagination but a spot of desk research has since proved the veracity of his story.
My initial reaction was that Jeffrey had an overactive imagination but a spot of desk research has since proved the veracity of his story.
Still reeling from the revelation that I was being accompanied across the Nicaraguan border by the closet nephew of a bent politician, I followed Jeffrey towards a sweating mass of humanity that signified the queue for immigration. After 30 minutes waiting in line with increasingly irate locals we finally reached the window. By now, the scrum of people queuing behind us was too dense to consider doubling back to the exit leaving our only option to follow the locals’ example and scramble through a small gap in a nearby hedge back onto the main strip.
Brushing the foliage from our backs, we continued to a second checkpoint where a policeman patted down the outside of my heavily padded backpack, which apparently constituted a search, before ushering us through to a further checkpoint where we paid a dollar to a fat bloke with a clipboard and finally, an hour after leaving Costa Rica, passed into Nicaragua through a hole in a wall.
Since returning from my trip I’ve shared this story with numerous people and found that such bizarre episodes are far from uncommon.
A fellow journalist and keen backpacker recounts his experience of being a plant mule in Central America. “Myself and two friends were given plants as gifts by some young ladies we were travelling with at the time. Mine, a small succulent named ‘Wot’, was the only one to survive past three days. So we kept it, nurtured it, repaired it (two leaves got sliced when stuffing it into a rucksack across the Nicaraguan border so we sealed the wounds with wax; which worked) and managed to smuggle it across the Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Costa Rican and Panamanian borders. It was like being Leon, the hitman, but only I wasn't a hitman, or French and my plant was a bit shitter than his. Tragically, Wot was picked up in Panama airport and incinerated. We'd been together for 3 months. I cried.”
Airports are ripe territory for a spot of border-related mayhem. Gary, an airline steward, tells of a time he landed in Montego Bay, Jamaica and was ushered onto a bus headed for his resort. “After about 20 minutes we turned off the main road and onto what seemed like a dirt track. One of the passengers asked where we were going only to be told by the driver that everything was ok and we just had to drop someone off. We were in the middle of nowhere when suddenly all the lights in the bus went out and four people boarded the bus waving large hand guns. They demanded everyone got their passports out then snatched them from our hands, looked through them and then literally threw them back at us before leaving the bus. After they’d left I asked the driver what that was all about to which he replied, somewhat cryptically, it's just routine.”
Often, it’s best not to question why certain events happen at border crossings just to revel in their absurdity. Jane, a travel consultant from Kent, experienced an authentic Cambodian welcome on her journey across the border from Vietnam.
“We’d been queuing for two hours to get our passports stamped on the Cambodian side. When we finally reached the desk, the two officials got up and disappeared from view. Five minutes later they re-emerged with a pot of tea, some fine china cups and a plate of biscuits and proceeded to take a ten minute tea break while we waited at the window. When they were done, they packed away the tea set and continued to serve us as though nothing had happened.”
The moral of these stories is this. The next time you find yourself at the juncture of two countries, don’t resent the experience, embrace it. It might just prove to be the most memorable part of your trip.
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