Borders, borders everywhere

23 May 2011

Last I wrote, I was in Granada, Nicaragua. The following day, I drove to Las Peñitas to stay for a day with Chris Dray and Yami Torrens. Yukoners will remember Chris as the former Director of the Arts Centre as well as the founder of the Guild way back when. Anyway, Chris wanted to do this real estate development close to the Pacific beach in Nicaragua, but the bottom fell out of the market with the 2009 depression. He is now farming, raising cattle while Yami is going to veterinary school.

View of the Pacific from Chris & Yami's place

Ah Honduras! A place to avoid if at all possible until the country gets its shit together: the highest murder rate in the world, one of the highest crime rates, an illegitimate government elected after a coup, and the most crooked police force I have ever encountered. Actually our first trip was sort of OK, although we did have issues with a tramite (border helper) who wanted us to get involved in all kinds of shady deals and would not leave us alone in Copán, and police who tried unsuccessfully to shake us down. This time, though I was shaken down twice by the police (the cops extorted $75 from me). I bitched about Panamanians being dishonest, but Hondurans will just steal from you. At least Panamanians try to use their wiles and not just intimidation.

Actually, the first tramite who helped across from Nicaragua to Honduras, Gustavo, seemed like a good guy; I even tipped him $10 more than the $10 he originally asked for. At least he got me into an air conditioned office while the Honduran customs officer took her time to take her finger out of her arse to fill out a simple form. She was actually quite pleasant, but spent a lot more time chatting with Gustavo and others and talking on her cell phone than working. Gustavo told me his dream was to go to Canada; he even lived in Minnesota for awhile because it was the closer. He tried getting in, but Canadian immigration wouldn’t, although they did not report him to the US “Migra“. He did eventually get deported from the US.

Before hiring Gustavo, I went through the Nicaraguan exit processes on my own. First wait in line for half an hour until the Nicaraguan customs officer deigned to look at my temporary vehicle importation permit, stamp if a few times and told me to go to immigration. At least I got to chat with a couple of truck drivers. They told me they usually have to wait about 12 hours to get through Costa Rican Customs. But once in Nicaragua, they can easily get into the other Central American countries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) who sort of have a common customs and immigration process. However, as a foreigner, I do have to get a separate importation permit in each country for the pick-up and I also get my passport stamped by immigration. You get a total of 90 days for all four countries, so by the time I got to Guatemala, I only had 84 days left.

Line-up of trucks waiting to get into Nicaragua at Costa Rica border

At immigration, everyone was waiting at one window while the other one was open, until someone asked if we could go to it. I let the guy who had been in front of me go ahead before me at the second window even though he got there after me. I told him that I was from Canada where queues are sacred. He laughed saying that was not exactly the case in Nicaragua and we had a good chat.

The next border was from Honduras to el Salvador. I won’t say anything about my tramite because I would not want him to get in trouble. First the cop–whose name is , according to my tramite — extorted $40.00 from me because I did not have a “title” for the truck, even though I told him how come they let me in the country. He threatened to do a thorough inspection on my vehicle, which would have probably taken hours. My tramite suggested I bribe him $50.00, and then $40.00. So the cop let me go.

At the border, I let the tramite take my passport and go make copies. He told me he needed $15.00 and I gave him a $20 bill. I think it was a mistake not to go with him, but anyway, he gave me back my change. He later asked me for another $15 to pay for something or other. Anyway, go with your tramite when you are crossing the border, you will feel more comfortable that he is not ripping you off.

Then we needed to go to immigration, pay $12.00 for fumigation which did not happen. I don’t mind the fumigation at the borders: it is there to protect their agricultural industries on which these countries depend so much. We do that in Canada when you leave Newfoundland, which has a potato wart disease not present in the potato growing regions of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Anyway, we got to the border where there was a Honduran tourism department survey. They asked me how much I spent. I said: “$100.00. No, make that $175 including $75 in tips to the police.” The policeman next to the survey taker just smiled. Arsehole!!

Off to El Salvador, where the procedure was the usual: immigration to get my tourist stamp and then to Customs to get the vehicle importation permit. So I had to go down the hill, waiting outside in the heat where a customs officer finally deigned to look at my vehicle. He got quite friendly after I started talking to him and showed him the truck. He gave me a 60 days importation permit and we had a good chat. However, there was a mistake in the permit: he forgot to put the expiry date so he had to get his boss to approve him printing out another form. One last check on the border and I am on my way to San Salvador to the hotel I had reserved. I hand the tramite the $20.00 and he tells me he needs another $12.00 for the fumigation, which he says he had told me about earlier. I vaguely remembered him mentioning that and did not want to argue, so I gave it to him. Just inside El Salvador, I stop at a store to buy something to drink. A guy calls out to me and says my tramite had promised that I would give him a tip. I told him he did not. he insisted he did, so I told him that the tramite had lied to him and basically told him to fuck off.

The next day to Guatemala, I didn’t think I really needed a tramite, but I got one anyway. Procedure was quite simple in leaving El Salvador: Immigration for the passport stamp and Customs to hand in my importation permit. I do get a tramite, but this time I stick with him. The procedure is also OK in Guatemala: First immigration where they give me 84 days (of the original 90s I got in Nicaragua). Then to the SAT office—Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria, i.e. Department of Revenue or Finance. First hand in all the vehicle permits, then they give me a bill (160 Quetzales or about $20.00) for the vehicle permit, which is for 90 days. The amount surprises my tramite as it is usually less. On the other hand, according to what I have read on the web, the amount seems to be at the whim of the customs office. Not that htere is any corruption involved as everything is receipted and has to go through three hand. The across to the bank office where I pay it, then take the receipt across to yet another window where they hand me a sticker for my windshield.

I then drive to Antigua where I stay at the hotel Entre Volcanes and also give a call to Philip Wilson who kindly hosted my truck in his organic coffee farm last year. It’s nice to be among friends again. I also buy a piece of cloth to be used for our bedstead in Whitehorse. The next day off to Huehuetenango not far from the Mexican border. I am really dreading the border again, especially since I suspect we did not hand in or vehicle importation permit when we left Mexico for Belize in January 2010. Anyway, I know I don’t need a tramite at this border: the Mexicans frown upon it.

At the Guatemalan immigration, one of the agents asks me how to say “I am going to Mexico” in French. It turns out he has relatives in Montreal and has visited the city (where I was born & grew up, for those who don’t know). We had a little chat about Montreal. Then to the SAT office where I ask advice about what to do with my permit. I can chose to either hand it in, in which I cannot go back to Guatemala with the vehicle for another 90 days, or I can suspend it and go back anytime before it expires. There is no penalty or anything if I just let it expire without going back. No problem, so I suspend the permit just in case they do not let me into Mexico.

First Mexico immigration, fill out the card and get my 6-month tourist visa. Then to the Banjercito office to get a temporary vehicle importation permit. I tell the agent about having entered Mexico in December 2009 and leaving the following January. He looks at my truck registration which says that the vehicle capacity is 3,900 kilograms. He tells me that his records show I did not hand in my permit. I have a vague memory of talking with to a guy with a white t-shirt at the Belize border about it. Anyway, he tells me the real problem is the weight of the vehicle; the limit is no more than 3.5 tonnes.

He asks me what kind of vehicle; I tell him a normal pick-up with a camper. He looks at the truck and says that it is a small vehicle. He asks me if it could be in pounds rather than kilos, I do answer honestly that we have been using kilos for 30 years in Canada. He tells me he has to call his boss to see if he can give me a permit. I wait for about an hour in the heat; go get the required photocopies made. Finally, I go back in and he is on the phone. He smiles at me, takes my credit card ($30.00 or so) and gives me the permit and the sticker for the windshield. I suspect the wait was actually a slap on the wrist for not turning in my previous importation permit. I then go to the customs officer and ask him if he wants to see my truck. He takes a cursory look in and tells me everything is fine.

I have to say that I did not run into corrupt customs officers nor did I have to pay any bribes or tips to speed things up. The process was slow and bureaucratic and inefficient, but not corrupt, unlike the Panamanian customs in the middle of the country or the Honduran extortionist cops. The only time they checked my luggage was when I was leaving Panama, and they would only take a cursory look inside the camper.

Then into México, Chiapas State to be precise. Although Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, it is obviously so much more prosperous than Guatemala. That night in San Cristobál de las Casa where I finally find the San Nicholas RV Park after asking for directions and driving around the really narrow streets of the historic centre. Mexico has great roads, but you don’t want to be driving an extended-cab-long-box pick-up with a camper in the older parts of most towns, no more than you would want to do it in Vieux Québec, Old Montreal or the older parts of Boston or Philly. Unlike Central America, there are lots of real pick-ups in Mexico and few rice-burners, probably fewer than in Canada. But then gas is still less that $1.00 a litre for super. The next day a long drive to Córdoba in Veracruz state and yesterday yet another longer drive to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. Tomorrow to Melaque, park the truck at Pam and Bernie Phillips lot and fly out to Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon.

Borders, Granada and future plans

14 May 2011

Main square and cathedral in Granada

I am now in Granada, Nicaragua. I remember why Marilyn and I ended up staying here eight days instead of the two I had originally planned. It is a beautiful colonial town, with just the right amount of tourist amenities like good hotels and good restaurants and has not yet been overwhelmed by gringos and assorted lowlifes.

Pool inside the Patio del Malinche Hotel

I am staying at the Patio del Malinche Hotel and practicing my Catalan with the owners. I also had yet another great steak at El Zaguan restaurant. Hey, I am staying in the top-rated hotel and eating at the top-rated restaurant according to TripAdvisor. The only downside to Granada is the young girls working as prostitutes in the main square. I was accosted three times when I crossed the square to go to the bank machine on Friday night. Sad!

I crossed two borders in the last three days and was again harassed by the Panamanian customs in Divisa, where I was deported from last time. OK, let’s start the narrative.

After my mud-splattered jaunt to the end of the road, I went back to Panama City for two nights, staying at Pequeño Paraíso B&B with Richard and Anita (TripAdvisor review, but I believe they should be in Panama City listings). I had to fix my winch, and Richard helped me as he is a bit of an electrical whiz. He does run a company installing electric wire fencing (which is not used for cattle in Panama but to shock and awe potential house thieves.)

I had two superb meals on Monday and Tuesday nights. I went to Marina Marina one night and back to Maito for yet another absolutely incredible meal.

Crossing the Centenario bridge in May 2010.

I left Wednesday morning for David in Northern Panama, thinking of going into Costa Rica on Thursday. I got lost on the way, but finally found the new Centenario bridge over the Canal which is now partially open after getting washed out in the floods last December.

Mostly uneventful drive except for the customs guards in Divisa, a nowhere crossroads dorp in the middle of Panama. Last time we passed through there they put us through the wringer, extracted $416 from us and escorted us out of the country.

This time, I did not see any road block, but as I passed by, I heard a shout which I ignored. A few minutes later, a vehicle with flashing lights pulls me over. A guy comes out of the vehicle and I give him a puzzled look. He comes to the window and says “aduana” and says I did not stop when he signalled me. I told him I did not see him, and asked him where he was. He told me, rather vaguely, that he was on the right but that I obviously was concentrating on driving. This is bullshit; there was no one there, they were on the other side of the road, where I heard the shout from. He told me he had to give me a ticket for not stopping, in an obvious attempt to extract a bribe. I told home: “Fine, I’ll pay the ticket, but I did not see you.”

I handed the truck papers, fearing that he would give me a hard time because it said that I would depart from the port of Colón rather than the land border at Paso Canoas. Then his partner shows up, who just happens to be the agent who escorted us out of the country in January. The first guy tells the other that my truck papers are in order. Handshakes and fake smiles all around. F…ing arseholes. Then the first guy says I seem like a good person, so he will let me go. Then he has the effrontery to ask me fro something for a “cafecito“, a little coffee. I answered with a flat “No!” twice. I felt like telling him: “Go get your cafecito from your boss who ripped me off $400 last time.”

I got to David at 4:00PM or so in a diluvial tropical rainstorm and stayed at the Best Western again, not a bad hotel (newly renovated and clean and pretty cheap at $50.00. Supper at the hotel restaurant, a long call to Marilyn to use up the rest of my money on the Panamanian cell phone.

Left David at 8:00AM for the Costa Rica border. The formalities of getting out of Panama were a pain as per usual: get a photocopy, get one stamp here, then get the immigration, the the customs guy wanted to inspect my luggage—this is when I was leaving Panama—and my truck. Like why do they need to check my luggage?? Finally tells me it’s OK, and then tells me to wait again. Then I get the stamp and am finally on my way. Then to the Costa Rican side, where somebody tells me I need to get the truck fumigated. So I get it fumigated, go to the customs window to get my temporary vehicle importation permit reactivated. As I wrote earlier, I have two days left of the original 90 days. They tell me I have to go into the office.

So I hand my papers to the Tica customs agent there who checks things out on her computer. It turns out that the computer in San José says that my permit was surrendered, not suspended. So they need to call San José to get permission to reactivate my permit. I wait, getting more and more impatiently, for some bureaucrat in San José to take his finger out of his arse and deal with my case.

I walk around the customs area, and get a charge card for my cell phone as I have now put the Costa Rican chip back in it. I had to put more money in as they said my balance had expired. I have a hard time putting in additional money in as they changed the number you call. Anyway, I add $10.00 worth of time and I find out I now have a $26 balance on my cell phone. So I now have a couple of hours calling time with Marilyn.

After three hours, the Customs agent tells me my papers are OK. I am all smiles and we go to my vehicle with the agricultural inspection agent who needs to inspect my vehicle and see the proof of fumigation. I had been chatting with the guy for a couple of hours about agriculture and his work and animal diseases.

It is now almost noon as Costa Rica is one hour behind (after?? I can never get this straight) Panama. So I hightail it to Liberia, which is seven hours away. Along the way, I stop for ceviche at Ceviche Remy, owned by a Canadian. The ceviche was OK. The I stop in Uvita at a restaurant to check my email.

I get to Liberia after dark, which is not good. I tried following a big truck for quite a while after sundown, but the interior of my windshield is dirty and I get blinded every time a car crosses me. I stop and try to clean the windshield to no avail. So I slowly make my way to Liberia where I stay once again at El Punto Hotel. I had a magnificent meal at Ozaki Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant.

The next morning I leave rather late after a couple of hours chat with Mariana, the owner of El Punto who is also an architect. We talked mainly about construction in our respective countries. She is familiar with US construction methods as she studied architecture in Texas, I believe. $600.00 square metre to build a simple concrete and block house in Costa Rica compared to $2,000.00 in the Yukon for our standard wood frame construction.

I get to the border just before noon, where this guy tries to help me. He tells me to go to customs. I tell him I don’t need anybody to help me out of Costa Rica, but I will need someone to get me through Nicaraguan customs. He tells me I need a photocopy, I say no. of course he is right. Anyway he introduces me to his buddy Fabel (sp.?) who proves to be a godsend. Anyway , I give him 5,000 Colones and exchange some dollars for Nicaraguan Córdobas.

I agree on $20.00 for Fabel. I hate it when they say give me what you want, or give me a tip. Tell me how much you want from your service up front and I will give you a tip if you give me great service. And they are necessary at some border; actually at most borders in Central America.

So to get into Nicaragua, the steps Fabel guided me through were:

  1. Fumigation
  2. Go to Migración (immigration) and pay $US12.00 for my tourist visa.
  3. Then go to a tourist office for a stamp for $5.00
  4. Then get the insurance for the vehicle $12.00
  5. Then grab a customs agent to check my vehicle
  6. Then Fabel runs to a policeman just before he goes to lunch so he can sign piece of paper (we would had to wait for another hour otherwise)
  7. Then to another Aduana window, free this time, to get my temporary vehicle importation permit. Except we had to wait for half an hour while the officials had lunch and read their paper.
  8. Then another 15 minute wait at the window next door to get the police to check my papers.
  9. Then at the gate pay $1.00 to one guy, get another to check some of paperwork, and hand over s slip of paper saying that I went through the process to a third.
  10. Get out of the gate on the highway and pay Fabel his well earned $20.00 and a $5.00 tip.

But before the gate, I went & got a Nicaraguan cell phone chip. Fabel and this other guy had had a spirited discussion about whether Claro or Movistar provided the best service. I commented it was rather like sports fans: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona (i.e. Leafs vs Habs in a Canadian context). They laughed, but being both Barça fans, they each claimed that their favoured cell phone provider was like Barcelona ad the other was Madrid. Nicaraguans are also baseball fans, but I could not think of an equivalent baseball rivalry.

I also made a decision about what to do. I am going to Mexico and leaving the pickup truck there. It’s no problem getting a six month permit in Mexico and there are no penalties for leaving a Canadian vehicle there longer. I just need to find a place where, preferably in Oaxaca state, but anywhere in Mexico is fine. So, gentle reader, I would appreciate any suggestions or connections you might have in Mexico that could house my truck until this winter.

The end of the road

9 May 2011

I left Panama City around 10AM on Sunday. The initial plan was to make it to Metetí in Panama’s Darién Province by 5PM or so, where the pavement supposedly ends. Then the following day I would make a dash to Yaviza, 50 kilometres further on (theoretically on a barely passable road) and the end of the North American part of the Pan-American Highway. (Is the Darién technically part of North America or am I already in South America? Hmm!?) After that, I would return to Panama City on Monday, if time permitted.

Unloading plantains and yuca at the dock in Yaviza. This dock is literally the end of the road in North America.

The Darien Gap starts on the other side of the river from Yaviza, a couple of hundred kilometres away from the nearest road in Colombia. There is no road, just some trails and potential rivers. The Darien is full of narcotraficantes, the remains of the left-wing FARC Colombian guerrillas, right wing death squads hunting the remaining FARC, and First Nations with poison dart blowguns and firearms pissed off at all these Europeans (they include the mestizos and the blacks in that bunch) fucking up their land. Not exactly a safe place to go unless you go with a guide and stick to the various eco-lodges.

What the Pan-American looks like in a large part of th Darién

Anyway, I got to Metetí at 3PM after a serious border police road block where I had to explain why I wanted to go into the Darién. I convinced them I was just a crazy Canadian on his male menopause trip from the other end of the Pan-American Highway who just wanted to get to the end of the road and would turn immediately back and drive 15,000 kilometres back home. I did tell them I just needed to go in the other direction, stay on the same road and that I live about a kilometre away from the Pan-American Highway in the North. (It’s true; I live about a klick away from the Alaska Highway which is part of the Pan-American system.)

Pick-up truck at the end of the road in Yaviza, Darién, Panamá

The guide books lie; the border cops told me the highway was in good shape and paved all the way to Yaviza. And so it was except for a couple of mud-gravel stretches, a couple of hundred meters each, and a few relatively short rough spots mainly before bridges. I had no problem keeping an average speed greater than 60 klicks, doing 80 most of the time except in the villages and at the few rough spots.

So the Pan-American Highway is now paved all the way from Delta Junction, Alaska to Yaviza, Darién. (The Dempster bit from Inuvik to Dawson City isn’t paved, but it is off the main road, although our new jack-booted religious fanatic PM has promised to finish it, whatever that means.)

Bug that liked my mud-spattered pants in the hotel room.

In Meteti, I got a room at the local high end hotel: $17.00 a night for an air-conditioned room with a single bed. No hot water of course, and the bed is a little hard. But the toilet is pretty newly tiled and the room smelt heavily of chlorine when I first walked in, generally a good sign in the tropics: it means most of the nasty bugs got killed. I ask how long it takes to get to Yaviza and everybody I ask says 45 minutes to an hour. “So,” I thinks to myself, “it’s now 3:45. I could pop there and come back before dark & get an early start to Panama City tomorrow”, and maybe stop in Itique where there are three interesting communities: Embera-Woonan, Kuna, as well as a “Colones” latino/mestizo/white community.

So I head out to Yaviza. The area and the town feels a lot more Caribbean than Central American: wooden houses on stilts and a mainly black population. I get to the river, the end of the road, where people are unloading produce (plantains mainly, but also yuca/cassava/manioc roots). I buy a slice of watermelon and a couple of oranges for 50 cents. I’m sure the shop owner thought: “Hey I did a good job ripping off this dumb gringo.” But I don’t really care, good for him. WTF, a couple of quarters.

Street paralleling the river in Yaviza.

House along the river near the pedestrian bridge, Yaviza.

Pirogas or canoes near the dock in Yaviza.

On the way back, I move to the right on a muddy/gravel stretch to let another vehicle move by. I was sort of wondering why there were no car tracks there. Well, whaddayaknow, I sink in the mud. It’s already in 4 wheel drive, but I put it in 4-low and try the old back and forth which usually works on snow and ice. Well, guess what? It only sinks deeper into the barro down to the axles.

I curse and hope I can get the winch going, which did not work last time I tried. It worked perfectly when I left Canada in November 2009 but the tropics did their number on the wiring and connections. I give it a couple of whacks and the motor starts clicking when I hit the in and out toggle switch. A few more judicious whacks and the winch is working. Yeah! So I pull out the chain from under the back seat and tie it around a tree about 75 feet away on the other side of the road. A guy stops and offers to help me: Juan Corrado(??), a really good guy, bless him.

Stretch of muddy road where I got stuck. I took this picture on the way there to illustrate the two bad spots. Little did I know that I would end up stuck there, on the lft side of this picture.

Anyway, I ask Juan to get into the truck while I operate the winch. Stupid idiot that I am, I pull hard on the winch cord and pull off the cord from the connector. Fuck! Shit! Hostie de Chrisse de Câlice de Tabarnak! I now have to go inside the camper, find a small screwdriver and try to fix the connector. Sweating like a pig, I have to guess which wire goes in which hole. I do my best, but the motor just clicks as the winch cable is taut. I get pissed off, get in the truck to try some more back and forth, which loosens the cable. Juan offers to attach the cable to his truck and pull me out. We should have done that the first place, but the winch cable and chain were already positioned around the tree when he got there. Anyway, he pulled me out quite easily (with me assisting by steering and putting some power to the wheels).

I start off and then realize I forgot the chain around the tree. So I turn back, stop before the mud starts, go to the tree and drag the chain back. Of course, the chain, the driver’s side of the cab, the winch cable, the tailgate and the camper floor are all muddy, as are my shoes and clothes not to speak of the truck. I have a pretty big clean-up job to do.

Back at the hotel, there is no water in the shower. I tell the woman who runs the place who tells me she forgot to turn it on. I go for supper across the road, comida corriente with chicken guisado (in tomato sauce?), beans, rice and two slices of tomatoes. I have a beer and some bottled water. Nothing to write home about, but decent enough. I come back to the hole-in-the-wall room take a quick cold shower in the coldest cold water I have yet experienced in Panama, and start writing

Home in Panama City: my room in Pequeño Paraíso B&B.

Monday morning, it is raining and I head back to Panama city, to the Pequeño Paraíso B&B in Los Cumbres in Panama City’s northern suburbs. A wonderful place run by two Canadians: Richard from Montreal and Anita from Kingston. I think it has the best value for the money I have seen so far in Central America: $69 for what I consider pretty high-end accommodation, and friendly owners. I have to write a trip advisor review, but I can’t post it from here as they might think it’s fake.

Taking the truck back

8 May 2011

The decision is to turn back. I looked into Jim’s suggestion about buying a truck in South America. I had assumed it was not possible. I had looked into buying one in Ecuador or Peru, but it is not possible for a non-resident to buy and register a vehicle in those countries. Well, it turns out that’s it’s a fairly straightforward thing in Chile.

A number of things have led to this decision. First, I hardly ever use the camper. I actually have not used it at all this year except for once when Marilyn made some salsa for lunch. It is difficult to sleep in as it has no toilet and is very hot at night. There are also no campgrounds or RV parks in this part of the world, unlike North America or Europe. A camper, which works fine in Canada, the US and Europe, is just dead weight over here. And it’s a real pain to get around in, uses up a lot of gas, and is very difficult to park. I have now hit roofs three times.

I was unhappy with the camper for a while and have looked into replacing it with a canopy. However, despite an extensive search, I have been unable to find a canopy that would fit my full size pick-up anywhere in Central America. Mexico seems to be as far south as one can go for anything related to a full-size pickup. So I’ll probably ditch the camper and get a canopy in Mexico.

Another reason is the difficulty of leaving the vehicle anywhere for any length of time. Not that it’s hard to find places to leave it, it’s just the temporary importation permits are usually no longer than three months and generally not renewable. We’re talking major fines or paying the taxes and duties on the vehicle, or face its confiscation. It cost me $450.00 last time I did that in Panama. In Costa Rica, it would mean a $500 fine plus paying the import duties which I estimate at $3,000. So I had to come back to Costa Rica in late April just to deal with my vehicle although I would rather have stayed home at this time of the year.

So my scheme of doing a couple of months in Latin America, going back to earn some money, and then returning to continue the adventure is not working; I would much rather spend the summer months and moose hunting season in the Yukon. If I shipped my truck to South America now, it would mean ending up in Chile and Argentina during the winter.

Finally is the disposal of the truck. I would practically have to give it away as the only place it could be sold is in the Magellanes region (capital Punta Arenas) in Chile, which is a duty-free zone. From what I read, it would cost about $2,000 to “import” the vehicle in Chile so it could be sold. That’s about what a 1990 Chevy pick-up is worth.

So, it makes a lot more sense to buy a truck in Chile and tour South America from there. No problem leaving a Chilean-registered truck in Chile, so I can easily go back and forth between Canada and Chile and leave the new truck there. It’s still Patagonia or bust, but in a more comfortable way.

So I will head out to the end of the road in Yaviza, Panama, and then head back. We’ll see where I get to before the end of the month when I have to be in Montreal.

Time to s… or get off the pot

5 May 2011

I just got a quote to ship the truck & camper to South America (Ecuador): $2,000 plus whatever customs fees. I need to decide by tomorrow morning so the truck can leave May 16th.

What should I do: go on or turn back & drive back to Canada and visit the parts of Central America I missed (Like most of Nicaragua, El Salvador, northern Guatemala, Chiapas & Oaxaca in Mexico)? I am genuinely undecided.

What do you all think?

The perfect hotel room

3 May 2011

Marilyn and I have been discussing what makes for a perfect hotel room. We are staying in a lot of places on this trip and all fall short in some small way or other, although most are actually quite good. What is it we want? Well, here is our list:

  1. Clean and cleaned daily (not necessary to replace towels or sheets)
  2. Good reading lights – these are absolutely essential to us who like to read.
  3. Comfortable bed (this goes without saying)
  4. Nice sheets
  5. A minimum of four pillows, preferable six (three per person).
  6. A place to hang one’s clothes and a place to set suitcases down.
  7. A desk with a comfortable chair
  8. High strength WIFI or cable internet
  9. Ice bucket and accessible ice
  10. A coffee maker with the filters and good local coffee replenished daily, along with both real milk and cream
  11. A small fridge. If you want to provide a mini-bar, do so, but not in the fridge that guests need to use.
  12. TV and DVD player for some people, although we wouldn’t miss it.
  13. Air conditioning (and fan)
  14. Instructions on how to flush toilet – sometimes can be confusing.
  15. Accessible soft toilet paper, and in Latin America, the right to flush toilet paper down the bowl
  16. Shelf for toiletries & toiletry bags over or next to the sink in the bathroom.
  17. Place to hang towels

This is not necessarily luxury, and it should apply to all classes of hotel (except possible the lowest).

From Costa Rica back to Panama

2 May 2011

I am writing this on Sunday May 1st from the Cerro la Vieja Eco-hotel and Spa outside of Penonomé in central Panama. I arrived in San José on Wednesday April 27. Roberto Hernandez brought the truck to the airport from San Isidro de el General and had to immediately take a bus to La Fortuna where he had to escort some clients. I was feeling pretty tired, as I had woken up at 4:00AM instead of the 5:30 I had planned to catch the 8:30 flight to San José from Toronto. Had I bothered to check my itinerary, I would have realized that the flight was actually at 9:30, so I could have theoretically slept for another hour. But then would I have fallen asleep again?

Balconies at Cuna del Angel

Roberto suggested I might make it to Dominical before dark if I took the new toll highway, which is longer but would take less time than the Pan-American Highway. The road was pretty good, although it did go down from four lanes divided expressway to a regular good-quality two-lane road. I did make it to Dominical on the Pacific coast and started looked for a hotel. I finally stumbled upon the Cuna del Angeljust as it was getting dark.

Dining room at the Cuna del Angel

The Cuna del Angel was a wonderful resort, with excellent food. I wish I could have stayed longer. I had an excellent ceviche followed by a roast pork with pineapple. The morning breakfast buffet was excellent: the usual Costa Rican fruits (mango, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe), scrambled eggs and the ever present gallo pinto(rice & beans).

I left around 9:00AM for a relatively uneventful trip to the border. The coastal highway started out as excellent, but when I reached the Interamericana, it turned into the usual bombed-out state of Costa Rican highways. Imagine! A country that would rather spend money on social programs and medical care instead of highways! What is this world coming to?

Anyway, I got to the border and dealt with the inflexibility of the Costa Rican bureaucracy. I first went to the customs office, the “Aduana”, to see if I could get an extension for my vehicle temporary importation permit. No way! The cute Tica customs officer told me I had two days left, and if I left the country, I could come back and stay in Costa Rica for two days, no more. Otherwise, I would have to wait 90 days before my truck would be allowed into the country again. Broad hints about other possible arrangements met with a flat refusal; there was no way to do it. Don’t you just hate honest civil servants?

I also asked what would happen if I came back and stayed for more than two days, not that I would ever do that, I told the customs officer. This did make her smile rather broadly, not that she had been unpleasant before. It turns out that for the first eight days I might get away with a fine of $150, depending on my reasons for overstaying the permit, which I would have to document. More than eight days, I would have to pay the taxes, which I had previously estimated at about $3,000, as well as a $500 fine.

Then I had to go to immigration office to get my passport stamped. Unfortunately, the immigration officers were all in a meeting, so we all had to wait for over an hour before they came back and took the 30 seconds to examine & stamp the passports. Can’t say they were inefficient or slow once they showed up. Back to the customs office and got the paperwork on the truck, which was already prepared.

Then to the Panama border for another rigmarole. The immigration stamp went fast, but the importation permit took a while. I already had insurance for the truck & though I had photocopies of everything (passport, registration, driver’s license), but after waiting 15 minutes, a customs officer told me I also needed a photocopy of the insurance policy and then get it stamped by the transit police upstairs. I went upstairs, but there was a sign saying they were out to lunch. Oops, I meant out for lunch. I went to the other side, decided that I would go for lunch too as it now was past 1:00PM.

Then this guy said he would help me. I was somewhat wary, but he took me upstairs, took the police stamp and stamped my insurance document. This is one of the “helpers”, not a government official, who has access to a traffic police stamp and can use it with impunity. Welcome to Panama! I then had to get another stamp, I forget for what for, and I stopped the helper and asked him how much he wanted. He said: “Anything I wanted to give him (“lo que quiere”).” I said bullshit, just tell me how much you expect. I felt like saying: “How about 10 cents?” He insisted “Anything you would like to give me.” Then the woman official at the desk piped up and said “ten dollars”. I asked him if that was satisfactory. So then I went to pay for the fumigation spray, closed the windows in the camper. A customs officer then came and checked out the camper and the inside of the truck. He also asked me if I had any firearms. I said: “No tengo armas. Soy canadiense, no soy americano.” He laughed but I still had to show him practically everything. He missed the compartment behind the back seat of the truck & I opened it to show him my spare parts.

Old wooden building in David

Then to David, the first major town along the way and the capital of Chiriquí province. Stopped for lunch at the grossly overpriced TGIF ($3.00 for the lousy American-style Panamanian beer rather than the more usual $1.00) restaurant at a mall on the highway, where Marilyn and I had stopped before. I tried getting my bearings. (Panamanian beer is pretty lousy, tastes just like American beer, i.e. it is just like making love in a canoe. At least Costa Rica has Bavaria Negra which is more than drinkable. No local dark beer or ale in panama, just the pissy dishwatery American-style so-called “lager”.) I was parked in a mall parking lot next to a taxi stand. When I went back, one of the taxi drivers jokingly asked me if I wanted a taxi. I said, “Actually I do. I’m looking for a hotel, can you show me some and I will follow you.” He suggested the Best Western and Hotel Ciudad de David. I said: “OK, I’ll follow you into town.”

Cathedral and Parque Cervantes in David

I stayed at the Best Western there, pretty cheap at $55.00 for a relatively small but clean room with air conditioning and internet. I needed a new mouse (forgot the old one on the Vancouver-Toronto flight, I think) and a Panamanian chip for my cell phone. The Costa Rican chip doesn’t work in Panama and neither does my Blackberry, which is a piss-off. I am paying $25.00 per month for “Latin American coverage”, but Bell does not seem to have an agreement with Panamanian cell phone providers. No problem with the state-owned ICEin Costa Rica. Is this one more example where state-owned companies are more efficient than the private sector?

I misunderstood the directions given by the hotel clerk and ended up walking all over town instead of getting to the “Hong Kong” electronics store two blocks away. It seems that all the electronics stores—as well as many of the small groceries, not to speak of the classic laundries—are owned by Chinese immigrants.

I went for supper at what was supposedly the best pizza place in town at the Gran Hotel Nacional and casino. Not very good, although it was nowhere near the abysmal depths reached by a pizza joint in Holguín Cuba. I also checked out the casinos. Rather sad seeing all these people playing the slot machines. I was tempted to join one of the cheap blackjack tables, but avoided the temptation rather easily. There was also a karaoke contest, with some pretty good singers. After a G&T and listening to a few songs, I went back to the hotel to bed.

Truck next to cabin at XS Memories RV Park, Santa Clara, Panamá

Next day off to XS Memories in Santa Clara, the only RV Park in all of Central America. I went there to find out about shipping the truck to South America. The owner gave me a lead to a new to me agency, Norton-Lilly, which apparently could ship it to Ecuador. A number of Germans RVers had just used it. The alternative is to use Barwil Agencies and go through Colombia, which I am not anxious to do. However, it was then late afternoon on a Friday before a long weekend (May 1, Labour Day in most of the world except the US and Canada. This is because May 1 commemorates the massacre of workers by police at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886, an event the North Americans authorities would rather that people forget.) I stayed there that night in one of the air-conditioned cabins they have; it is just too hot to stay in the camper. Supper was pargo (red snapper?) with salad. Quite good!

The room in the cabin at XS Memories

I didn’t know what to do after that. I couldn’t do much research as the internet was down at XS Memories—along with the phone system so they could not do credit card transactions or answer enquiries. I thought of staying in central Panama and going either to the Azuero peninsula with its traditional colonial towns or to the Penonomé area in Coclé province, with cooler mountains and rainforest in the Omar Torrijos National Park. I decided on the Penonomé area and I ended up staying at the Hotel Dos Continentes in Penonomé as they were the only one with internet in the room.

I went for a little drive into the countryside up to La Pintada looking for an artisanal market. Then back to the hotel and got my cell phone which had stopped working. The Chinese girl at the cell phone shop told me it needed a new “flex”, whatever that was and it could only be got in Panama City. So I bought a new phone as a temporary measure.

Prancing Andalusian? horse

I got lucky as they were celebrating the 430th anniversary of the foundation of Penonomé in 1581. There was a major parade with children and dancers in traditional costumes as well as prancing horses, Lipizzaner or Spanish School style dressage. The traditional dress women wear is known as a pollera while the men wear a traditional Panamanian peasant hat (sombrero pintao), which is quite different from what we know as Panama hat, actually made in Ecuador. The procession/parade was kind of neat and should was followed by a traditional dance show. I ate street food, including some great barbecued chicken (pollo asado). The woman selling it convinced me to also have some rice with it. $2.00 for an excellent ¼ chicken with rice and potato salad.

Queen of the fiesta in her pollera

Penonomé, the start of the parade

This is what it's about.

Costa rican style road in Panama on the way to Cerro la Vieja

That night, I also decided to go to Posada Cerro la Vieja eco-lodge (TripAdvisor reviews)north of Penonomé instead of the National Park where I would have had to camp, and called to make reservations. Saturday morning I was off to the supermarket to get some drinks (water, Belgian beer—as the Panamanian stuff is like making love in a canoe—and Gatorade) and snacks. Then up to the Cerro la Vieja for lunch on a Costa Rican style road and a couple of days of total relaxing dolce far niente.

View from my room, Posada Cerro la Vieja

Nice room with nice view, good food and I am staying here until Tuesday morning when I will call the agency in Panama City and figure out what next. I think I’ll go for a massage now. I just hope no right-wing cop anonymously accuses me of doing something illicit.

The last word to Omar Torrijos: "the more one consults, the fewer mistakes one makes". This is for Jack who will hopefully be Prime Minister soon.

Do you know the way to San José?

28 April 2011

This is not about Dionne Warwick’s original San José in California, but the Tico version, which I think is older. I must really know the way to San José, as this is the third time I go there: the first with the pick-up, the second in a rental car and now by plane from TO.

Anyway, there must be a bazillion San Jose/Joseph/Giuseppe/Josep throughout the Western world. I have a special affinity for Saint Joseph (as did my cabinetmaker/carpenter father), as he was a carpenter and the patron saint of woodworkers. When my mother broke her arm falling down on a step in Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, my father cautioned her that she should to obey him more as next time Saint Joseph, listening to the prayers of his fellow woodworker in solidarity, might do worse. I think my mother’s response to that, in Italian of course, had something to do with doing something in the nether end of my father’s intestinal tract. Those who know at all anything about the Italian language will understand exactly what I mean.

Enough digression about Saint Joseph, whose feast day (March 19, a holiday in Italy, as it should be in the rest of the world to celebrate all the wonderful things wooddorkers have done for humanity. (Christians should remember that God was a carpenter and should abstain from buying termite puke furniture made by Chaiwanese—not that there is anything wrong with traditional Chinese cabinetry and joinery, it’s pretty amazing craftsmanship, just the modern export “quality” crap—and Southern US slave labour factories and order it from their local cabinetmaker/carpenter.) We “celebrated” Saint Joseph’s feast day by eating spaghetti with breadcrumbs and walnuts, salt fish, and oranges slices with garlic and salt.

The first time on the way to San José was driving from Panama. Marilyn keeps a diary and here is faithful reproduction of my reading the diary using the Nuance Dragon Naturallyspeaking speech recognition software:

On the way to San Jose. On February 2 we were kicked out of and in and of funding the hotel just outside of Sudan anda, in Costa Ricana0. A rooster woke us when we were sure ready for breakfast in town after no dinner. The February. If you go down A to send Ysidro and hang out. After a good faith we hit the highway with Marilyn and I stating the driving countryside was glorious. Lots of comfort we felt comfortable driving the River Valley we’ve seen before in rainy conditions. He turned left towards sudden seasonal and son José instead of right for somebody and Wilson conical. Is the ongoing physical central period of Sunday’s seasonal and opinion. We caught this on a seasonal and part next to the Cathedral and walk in the park. There was a funeral going on in the Cathedral and we found a funding are. We had lunch salad for Marilyn and are there and Luigi have taken special needs loan so the the main salsa. Copies special coffees are good as was the son. A we were looking for tell, the something or other. We ran into a guy, so you and your e-mail was running towards him, Costa Rica and was involved in coffee growing and in C- to a different hotel than the one we were going to which was Schieffer and equally as. The vessel also successfully parking lot which was next to a really interesting farmers market … Again I might suffer from chronic queen-size futon, she’s.

I can’t figure out that gibberish either, as I don’t have the diary in front of me. The software either needs a lot more training or it is garbage. I did spend many hours reading into the software and training it last November/December when I was laid up in the hospital with a serious leg infection, but it still doesn’t understand me. Might be the remains of my French-Canadian/Italian accent, but I though I had lost most of it. It does seems to work well for my good friend and former gentle-innocent-forest-creature-murdering and still current wine-making partner Rick Buchan, but he’s a lawyer and probably the software was afraid of a lawsuit if it didn’t work. Rick is a really good lawyer and actually won a case before the Supreme Court of Canada—we’re not talking about your average ambulance chaser here.

Maybe I can summarize it. After getting kicked out of Panama, we stayed in Ciudad Neily and then San Isidro where we met Roberto Hernandez of MTTCR. Then we headed to San Jose on February 5th to meet Lars for the weekend. We stayed with Lars until Monday. I did manage to damage Lars’ roof with the camper as I got way too close to it. Lars was not happy and I spent a sleepless night worrying about it. Anyway, Lars found a good carpenter/cabinet maker who had no problem repairing it. I also got the carpenter to make me new steps for the camper, as the old ones were getting rather wobbly and were showing sings of rot. We had a couple of good meals, with Lars and Keny, his Mayan colaboradora (Tico word au-pair girl) for first at an Argentinean restaurant (excellent pickled beef tongue and steak) and then at an Italian one the next day. We tried going to the Museums on the Monday after the carpenter and his finisher buddy finished, but we got there too late. We had to content ourselves with wonderful churros in the main square in San Jose. We then headed out to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.

The second time in San Jose was when we were leaving on March 15. We rented a car in San Isidro which Roberto was to bring back. We headed out to San José on March 14 and visited the Jade and the Gold museums. Both with a lot of pre-Columbian First Nation art, quite interesting ad well worth the visit. We also visited the currency museum: reiterating the origins of all our American currencies, dollars, pesos and all their local variations an permutations, including the Costa Rican Colon—renamed from Peso in the late 19th Century— and the Spanish Peseta and now the Euro, all come from the original Spanish Peso, mined and minted in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru from the 16th to the early 19th centuries.

This time, the plan is to retrieve the truck & camper, head immediately to Panama to Santa Clara RV park. My temporary importation permit expires on April 30th and I need to get the truck out of the country. In Panama, I hope to figure out ways of shipping the truck to South America. If that does not work, then back to Nicaragua and visiting Chris again.

¡Pura Vida!

6 March 2011

I love the Ticos as much as I love the Mexicans. (Tico is the Central American name for Costa Ricans and Tica is the word for the cuter ones.) We have been welcomed a few times by different individuals on the street, a thing that only also happened to us in Belize.

Pura Vida Choloepus hoffmanni

¡Pura Vida! is the national slogan, which in theory means “Pure life” but is in effect completely untranslatable. Yukoners will recognize part of as what we call “on Yukon time” a relaxed attitude to life where being a little late is nothing to get excited about. They are also into what we call “Lifestyle” in the Yukon, which is our excuse for going hunting or fishing or berry picking instead of working and finishing something on time. Costa Ricans can entirely relate to that. Are Ticos lazy? Well, not really, no more than Yukoners anyway. But I do have to admit they are not quite as hard-working as Mexicans or Torontonians.

When a taxi driver saw an older couple necking in another car (we’re talking not that old, like in their late 50s early 60s), he said ¡Pura Vida! When someone asks how you are, the response is not “Bien, gracias.” but “¡Pura Vida!” Pura Vida is when anything typically Costa Rican happens.

Ticos can afford to indulge in Pura Vida. We did not see the grinding poverty evident in their northern neighbours. Costa Rica is actually a country where other Central Americans emigrate to have a better life. While there is some rural poverty, it is nowhere as extensive or obvious as what we saw in Nicaragua, Honduras, or Guatemala. Costa Ricans seem to live in trim nice little houses with TV dishes and electricity: hardly any wood and tin shacks are to be seen. The buses are newer and in better shape, very few old US school buses, and those tend to be used for student rather than public transportation.

They also got rid of their army in 1947, so did not have to suffer through the coups d’état and the human rights abuses that their neighbours had (or continue to have in the case of Honduras).

And Costa Rica has a decent social security system, including free medical care for everyone (although private care is available). Costa Rica, along with the other two countries with a socialized health care system – Canada and Cuba – is one of the three American countries with higher life expectancies and generally healthier populations than the much richer United States.

But Costa Rica is not a paradise. First, the roads are one place where Pura Vida does not apply; behind the wheel, Ticos are small-dicked arseholes no different than their other Central American neighbours. I am convinced that their life expectancy would rise above Canada’s if they started driving in a civilized fashion. And don’t tell me it’s a Latin thing: Mexican and Spaniards are decent drivers, and even the anarchic Italians have changed their habits when they were seriously faced with a fate worse than castration – the loss of their driver’s license.

The government is corrupt in Costs Rica in the same way the Canadian Government is corrupt. It is not the low level civil servants who take bribes (although the cops are not averse to a receiving gifts), but the higher level mainly (but not always) right-wing politicians.

We heard a great story about an American entrepreneur who bribed local politicians in Dominical so he could build new condos on the beach. He got the permits in violation of all the environmental laws and regulations and then spent a few millions. He did not count on the local administration changing – Costa Rica is after all democratic and has the longest tradition of democratic governments in Latin America (Chile had it until the 1970 murderous coup by Nixon, Kissinger & Pinochet). The next election, a new, more environmentally conscious municipal administration was elected and revoked the illegally-obtained permits. Yeah for the Ticos!

Nevertheless, despite its wealth relative to its neighbours, Costa Rica is still a poor country, certainly poorer than Mexico although much more egalitarian. What particularly bugs me however, is the high prices for many things, same as in Canada. I would not mind if Ticos earned the same as Canadians, but there is something wrong there. In particular, land and real estate prices are very close to Canadian prices (OK, maybe you can’t get tropical beachfront property in Canada, but still $250,000 for a 1,500 square foot house in the mountains is well within Canadian range.). This is because so many foreigners have bought properties. This is very good for those who sold the properties, but not so good for young Ticos who need housing or might want to buy a house. But now the government can’t do anything to prevent foreigners from buying land because of the CAFTA free trade agreement.

Ticos are also polite, and supposedly not inclined to stealing, cheating or lying. Crime in Costa Rica is obviously almost entirely the work of outsiders: Nicaraguans and Colombians for the regular street crime or Panamanians for the more sophisticated financial scams. We saw a wonderful satire published in Guanacaste where a restaurant was not making any money. First they blamed it on then Nicaraguan staff, then after they fired the Nicas and hired more Ticos, it was the monkeys who took the money before the waiters got a chance to get to it. But it could not have been the Ticos stealing.

If I would have to live anywhere other than Canada of all the countries I visited so far, it would be Costa Rica. You can drink the water and it has good pressure. The cops don’t always carry guns and, unlike the rest of Cental America, no sawed-off shotguns to be seen. As a matter of fact, the only armed security guards we noticed so far were in a gated community in Manuel Antonio, no doubt catering to the USian belief that, to paraphrase Mao Tse-tung, security grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Blessed are they who go round in circles for they shall be known as big wheels

6 March 2011

After getting kicked out of Panama, we drove in a big circle around Costa Rica.

The first night, we stayed in the first decent hotel we found just before Ciudad Neily. The next day, we drove to San Isidro del General (there seems to be a zillion San Isidros in Costa Rica) where we met Roberto Hernandez (more on him and Mary later), where we stayed for a few days; then to San José, the capital, to visit my friend Lars who is now living here; then to the lowland rain forest Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí where we stayed at the Selva Verde Lodge with flocks of birders; then to the mountains in La Fortuna near Arenal Volcano, where I did a bunch of work and we met some neat people at the neat little hotel we stayed in (Lavas del Arenal); then to Liberia in hot and dry Guanacaste province for a few days while I finished yet another project; and then back to San Isidro to meet up with Roberto and recuperate while enjoying the mountains and agricultural sights and beaches of central Costa Rica. Next is either going to Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula or to Providencia where Ying and Eric Allen of Wild Things in the Yukon have a place and help run a school.

Here are a few pics to whet your appetite for forthcoming postings.