Peñas Blancas is the formidable border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We once spent over eight hours here trying unsuccessfully to export a pickup truck that turned out to be material evidence in a manslaughter case. Today though it doesn’t live up to its fearsome reputation. ‘It used to be such a zoo!’ I mutter to the kids wistfully. Now it is a graveyard. There is only one-way traffic – you may enter into Nicaragua, but the gates back into Costa Rica are firmly shut. And it seems that not many people want to enter Nicaragua.
The touts and plantain sellers, the guides and fixers are still here, lurking along the chain fence like clouds of mosquitos, but their number is somewhat reduced and they seem more lethargic than normal, despite the fact we offer rare tourist blood for them to feed off. A few half-hearted cat calls, a little beckoning, a tug or two at my sleeve. ‘Is this all you’ve got?’ I want to ask them.
We are worried because we have overstayed our Costa Rican travel visa by two weeks. We had heard on the traveller grapevine that the Dirección General de Migración has issued some blanket extension of visa terms to all tourists, though as we step up to the emigration desk we are painfully aware that we never seen this officially confirmed. Perhaps we will get arrested as illegal immigrants and put in a detention centre! The stern woman at the counter chooses to ignore the exit dates in our passports though, and focuses instead on the fact that we haven’t printed out our covid test certificates.
“Están solamente en tu teléfono?” Incredulous shake of the head, “¡No está bien!”
Once this infraction has been resolved with plenty of sighing, tongue clicking and muttered conferences with her superiors, we get our exit stamps and then we are dismissed. We are free to leave the country, which we must do by walking across the 500 meters of dusty no-mans-land between the border lines.
We have carefully gone over all of our luggage and tried to shed whatever kilos we could for this exact eventuality. Gone are our packs of flour and lentils, my bottles of chilli sauce; the laptops and tablets that we had stolen remain unreplaced; Arthur’s old trainers are now on some Tico street kid’s feet; many of our books sit in a hostel in San José. Even so we are still not exactly travelling light. We have three large backpacks, five bulging day-packs, a camera bag, a handbag, two surfboards, two skateboards, a football, a pillow. It’s quite a load.
As we sweat out that half-kilometre in the noonday heat, I drown out the kids’ moans by thinking about other historical walks to freedom. I can only come up with Nelson Mandela, Mao Tse Tung and the Navajo people – though of course their long walk ended in suffering and imprisonment.
They seem genuinely pleased to see us on the Nicaraguan side. “Your covid test certificate is on your mobile sir? No problem! What a novel idea.” A friendly fixer appears at my elbow offering unsolicited advice. The immigration officer tries to rip us off for a nominal amount over the border taxes (‘4x $12 does NOT equal $58!’ Arthur tells hims sternly), but it is a half-hearted extortion and when he smiles broadly I am tempted to overpay anyway, just for old times sake. “In the old days,” I reminisce with the kids, “You each needed to have a crisp $20 bill tucked away in your passport for the official if you didn’t want hours of delays…”
Then we are through the border. There is a ramp and Arthur explodes into Nicaragua on his skateboard. A group of porters applaud him and one of them sees an opportunity for a dollar and takes our bags.
And just like that we are in a new world, or perhaps rather, an older world, bouncing along a semi-paved road in a worn minibus. We look out through the dust and haze at bareback cowboys trotting along on the verge and oxen carts rumbling along in the middle of the highway. There are ancient military jeeps sitting up on breeze blocks by the roadside: monuments to the Sandinista revolution, or the Contra war, or one of the many recent uprisings. Graffiti, statues, flags and slogans – everything here points back to a revolutionary history that never seems to have quite ended.
Our driver is weary of it all – the current protests and uprisings are yet another escalation in a series of attempts to unseat the government that have been going on since 2013, he says. Presidente Ortega was once a hero and a revolutionary it is true, but he has lost his way, as do all those who cling to power for too long. Too much torture. Too much murder. Pero bueno, it is best for everyone if the protests die down now, Nicaragua needs stability. The country cannot take much more. After all the catastrophes they have had – two bad hurricanes, the uprisings and now the pandemic – the only thing that will help is if everything goes back to normal. That is to say, business returns and tourism resumes. Watch out, he finishes quietly. People are desperate here. Times have been tough. They have nothing.
I see our driver’s glance sliding off the piles of bags and boards that are strewn around us. I look at our kids, all blonde floppy hair, white teeth, shiny eyes, accessorised with sunglasses, necklaces and surf t-shirts. We joke sometimes about how we have gone native after months on the road, but in reality we are very far from native.
How we will stand out in this dark skinny country.
I never really got to where I was going, never reached my destination. Perhaps the code of the road is as simple as that. You never do get there. There is just the road, and what it reveals along the way.Charles Nicholl – Borderlines