I'm not one to perform steps out of sequence. It's not simply a matter of preference, but rather a necessity bordering on compulsion. If I tie my shoes before I buckle my belt, I am bound to leave the house wearing no pants, wondering whether I left the stove on and why everyone is staring. Writing about my experiences in Costa Rica now is out sequence, since I haven't said anything about Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, a fact that's causing me actual physical pain, but something that I must do because of the stark contrast between what I heard about this country and what I've seen.
It was generally agreed by all adventure travelers we consulted that most Central American countries are, at best, second rate institutions.
"Once you reach Costa Rica," they said, "it's smooth sailing."
Sure, my expectations were high, but even if Costa Rica's qualifications hadn't been grossly exaggerated, I doubt it would have failed to disappoint me. And it all began before I even set foot in the country, while doing a CouchSurfing host search.
For those of you not familiar with it, CouchSurfing is a global community of 10 million people in more than 200,000 cities that connects travelers with locals willing to share their homes. As you might have read in Russ' posts, we've met many wonderful people through CouchSurfing during our adventure, and have had an even richer experience because of it. So before leaving Honduras I began my search for a CouchSurfing host in Costa Rica and found several candidates. I carefully reviewed each profile for compatibility and that's when I found Manuel.
His profile photo shows him with his arms crossed and tightly flexed, superhero-like. Put a cape on him, I thought, and you have yourself Mighty Mouse. According to his profile, Manuel, like the rest of the world, enjoys spending time with family and friends, good food, good music, and travel. I got to the Favorite Book section and noticed that Manuel listed several dozen titles, apparently failing to realize that the question asks for a Favorite Book, not Every Book You've Ever Thought About Reading. I scanned the list but stopped after the first title — Fifty Shades of Gray. Hey, I thought, we don't have to like the same books. So I skipped to the next section — Countries Visited — and noticed that aside from Nicaragua, his entire list was comprised of cities in Costa Rica. Again, missing the point of the question entirely.
On the Additional Info section he said that it's important to him that you read his entire profile, so I went back to the list of books, but couldn't make it past the second book, The Art of The Deal.
At this point his profile went into the I Don't Think So pile, but something made me hit that browser Back button and click on Send Request. When sending host requests I like to write a personalized message that highlights our compatibility — our love for books, or nature, or vegan meatballs. With Manuel, though, I could think of nothing, a clear sign that I should not contact him, but a little voice inside my head said, do it. I recognized that voice. It's the same one that told me it'd be a good idea to poke the hornets nest with a stick (you can always run), to give myself a haircut (how hard can it be?), and to shave my eyebrows (no one will notice!). Why I continue to listen to it remains a mystery to me.
Within moments I received his reply. Here's a copy/paste of it:
Hola Omar. I strongly recommend to read my profile Nice ride
Hmmm. What did I miss? I went back to the profile page and scanned it again. I had read every section in its entirety, except for the Favorite Book list. So I replied:
Hi Manuel, Thanks for the prompt reply!I read your profile and found it fascinating.I understand this is very short notice, so it's totally OK if you can't accommodate us.Thanks anyway for getting back to us.
I was stretching the truth here. Sure, I wondered about the kind of person who would not only admit to love Fifty Shades of Gray, but also would actually put it at the top of his favorite books list. I won't even touch The Art of The Deal. At this point I figured I'd cut my losses and exit gracefully.
Less than a minute later I get his response. Again, here's the copy/paste:
Omar. Why you no read my profile I know you no read Nice ride
*Sigh* He dropped the Hola, so I knew I was in trouble. Clearly it's important to Manuel that we read his profile. He even mentions it in his profile. I decided that it was better to move on and was about to click the Block button, but then that little voice came back. Manuel hasn't done anything wrong, it said, leave it be. I never, ever use the phrase leave it be, so while I questioned the voice's wisdom, I figured there was nothing to lose by not blocking Manuel and simply cutting communication. But then I received another message:
I know you no read my profile Nice ride
He didn't even mention my name this time. I wanted to move on and to concentrate on contacting other potential hosts, but instead I kept thinking about Manuel. More than anything, I wanted him to know that I'm a nice person. I wanted him to like me, even if he didn't host us. After all, it's clear that he read my request. He keeps saying Nice ride, so he knows we're on motorcycles. And here I am, unable to tell what it is that I missed from his profile. So I replied to his third message:
Hi Manuel! Of course I read your profile!That's the main reason I sent the request to you and not the other 197,392 other hosts in Costa Rica.But it's clear that I must have missed something, so why don't you tell me.Who knows?!?We might laugh about this over a beer next week. Omar
Why did I say that? And it's not like I just said it and couldn't take it back. I saw the words on the screen and could have easily deleted them before he saw them, but I didn't. I had to convince Manuel that I'm a good person.
I received his reply almost instantly. It was a Decline to my request, the equivalent of a slap in the face. Perfect time to walk away and approach other Costa Ricans. Instead I went back to his profile and forced myself to read it from top to bottom. And that's when I found it. Nestled in the Favorite Book section, somewhere between Twilight and Justin Bieber: First Stop 2 Forever, Manuel had written, When sending request tell me you favorite animal and why. I love ALL ANIMALS, Manuel! All of them! But it was too late, more than closed, that door had been slammed in my face.
The Border Crossing
As we approached the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Russ and I gave each other a congratulatory thumbs up that said, "Well done, old chap!" because that's how Russ and I talk to one another. What we didn't realize is that while giving each other the thumbs up, we had not only inadvertently almost crossed the border, but we were also crossing it while driving the wrong way on a one-way street. In our defense, as we drove toward Costa Rica, there were no signs, labels, or any indication that we were approaching a border crossing. We saw a two-lane road and assumed that, not unlike everywhere else in America, we should continue driving down the lane on the right. A guard ran toward the middle of the road, waving his arms wildly, as if we were approaching on aircrafts rather than motorcycles. He told us to turn around, and drive down the lane on the left side. There's no turning around these two BMWs on a three foot wide lumpy road, so we slowly and awkwardly backed our bikes while balancing on our tippy toes. We had to do this with an audience of over a hundred people who stopped what they were doing to watch the two stupid Americans. "Some adventure riders…" I overheard someone say as I lost my balance and nearly dropped my bike.
As we finally entered the left lane, a guide named Omar offered his services. We bonded over our name, even going as far as doing a little high five, then I told him that we had no need for a guide. Our magical bond gone. Puff.
We continued down the left lane until we reached a series of nondescript buildings and found a spot to park our motorcycles. It was hot and humid and we were sporting full riding gear, inside of which our bodies were drenched with sweat. Before we had our kickstands down a girl approached us with a bag of ice-cold Coca Colas priced at $4 each. I would have haggled over the price, but before I could say anything Russ was downing the first Coke. I gave him a look and he responded by raising his pinky while tilting back the bottle for a last gulp. I took that to mean, "Save it…"
Each window in the process was the same. An official sat in an air conditioned office, separated from his/her customers by a double pane window with a half-inch wide vertical slit down the center and a two-inch wide drawer at the bottom. I stood in front of the first window, sweating profusely, helmet in one hand, binder with documents in the other, passport and title at the ready. The customs official sat back on his chair tapping a text on his phone, pausing every now and then to chuckle at his own craftiness. Not sure whether he had noticed my presence, I attempted to get his attention by balancing my helmet on the four-inch wide piece of counter that just isn't wide enough for anything. His fingers paused and without moving his head he locked his beady little eyes on me, then, after a few seconds, he resumed texting. I wanted to find out where he lived and burn his house down. I could feel the sweat dripping down my legs and pooling in my boots from standing there for the past ten minutes, so I slowly began to slide my passport down the two-inch drawer at the bottom of the window. As I slid my passport his eyes narrowed and his texting slowed down to match my own speed until we both stopped. He sighed heavily, reached into a drawer, and handed me a form while mumbling what Russ and I assumed to be instructions. As we walked away to fill out the forms, a tour bus arrived and suddenly the line at the one open window was at least 60 people deep. On and on it went for nearly three hours.
While the border crossing wasn't significantly worse than that of the other countries, it was neither better nor more enjoyable. Sure, a power outage, a computer glitch, and an inefficient process made for a slow crossing in Honduras, but at least it had all been done with a smile.
Conversely, in Costa Rica, we were lucky if the customs or immigration officials made eye contact when mumbling at us unintelligibly. Half the time I thought they were talking to someone else, which was confusing to me and utterly frustrating to them.
Once we entered Costa Rica (legally), the roads were no better nor worse than the average we had encountered in the rest of Central America, and were definitely no match to the highway we rode to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
The facilities were, at most, spartan. I'm convinced, though Russ disagrees, that the owner of the place must have confused the words "hostel" and "hostile," as it seems the service is intended to be as hostile as possible. From the check-in process to the messages posted throughout the place. For example, I don't agree with, but can understand the placement of a sign in the bathroom asking patrons not to urinate in the sink, but I see no reason for an equivalent sign to be posted above the kitchen sink.
The Final Straw
Less than 15 minutes from the border between Costa Rica and Panama we were stopped by a Costa Rica police officer. He threatened to give us a $100 ticket each for not wearing the official Costa Rican reflective vest, unless we gave him some cash. There were no innuendos or insinuations — he asked for cash nonchalantly, like a smoker asking for a light or commuter asking for the time. We could have argued and demanded the ticket, but we're on a deadline and our time is worth more than $34, so we handed him the money.
The next day we went to the police department and filed a complaint, which they seemed to take very seriously. They were nothing but professional, a stark contrast to what we had witnessed the previous evening.