There was a time when I may have wanted to give the impression that my trips were spent being shot at by guerrillas or wrestling with jaguars, but the truth of the matter is of course that most of the travail of travel consists in dealing with petty bothers, and the true test of the traveler is the pluck and good spirit he can maintain in the face of these less heroic trials. As, for example, in applying for a visa.
Having seen my fill of the Marxist experiment in Nicaragua, I decided to leave by way of Costa Rica, but before I could get to that point I would need a Costa Rican visa, so I phoned their consulate in Managua. It would be no problem, the lady assured me. They were free to US citizens. Just come by the Consulate. For some reason, whenever someone in the Third World tells me that something is “no problem” I still believe it, and immediately left for the Consulate.
The Consulate was located in a far southern suburb of the city. Because the lady had said that there were no appointments I was concerned that I might have to deal with a crowd, but I found this concern baseless. I would, in fact, have preferred there to be a crowd, as there was no one there.
“Applications are taken only in the morning. You must come back tomorrow.”
Since I had just spoken with the lady on the phone I would have thought she might have mentioned that. But she probably assumed that everyone knew that applications were taken only in the morning. After all, I was the only person standing there.
So I went back out into the street to look for a cab. The Consulate was in a quiet residential neighborhood and there were no more cruising taxis than there would be in any quiet residential neighborhood. So I walked down to the nearest major street. Where there were also no cabs. So I headed downtown, intending to hail the first cab I saw.
Someone said of Oakland, California, that there is no “there” there. This was even more true of Managua, Nicaragua. There was no center. There once was, but it was destroyed by an earthquake and the funds to rebuild were stolen by the rascal Samoza. So it was possible for me that afternoon to walk for miles and never seem to get closer to anything.
The experience was not without amusements. I was chased by a hostile turkey. I met a radical priest who told me that Christians must learn to engage in loving violence. I discovered that in Sandinista Nicaragua even the graffiti on the walls of public restrooms carried a political message. I was very glad to get back to my boarding house.
The next morning there was a reassuring crowd. There being no line, I wedged myself into the mass and allowed it to carry me, in about a half-hour’s time, to the window where a lady took my passport and gave me a two-inch square piece of plain paper with the number “18” written with a ballpoint pen. When I protested she explained that visas were issued only in the afternoon, whereupon the crowd carried me back outside.
So I found myself standing on the sidewalk without a passport, holding a two-inch square piece of plain paper with the number “18” written on it with a ballpoint pen.
I had visions of being accosted by unsmiling Sandinistas, their Kalishnikhovs at the ready. “Your papers, Señor.” I hand them a two-inch square piece of plain paper with the number “18” written on it with a ballpoint pen. The officer examines it gravely. He holds it up to the light. He runs his fingertips lightly over the writing. Then he smiles and hands it back to me. “Your papers are in order, Señor. Have a nice day.”
I try not to do anything suspicious-looking for the rest of the day.
That afternoon I returned and wedged myself back into the crowd and eventually worked my way to the window where I surrendered my two-inch square of paper and was given back my passport, though without a visa. “You must pay at the next window.” It was not clear to me that anything had actually been done.
The crowd moved me to the next window where my passport was again taken, though this time I was not given even a reassuring piece of paper, and then I found myself once more on the sidewalk.
I found a patch of shade by a wall. Through the iron grillwork I could see my passport sitting undisturbed on a desk, ignored by the clerks who were ignoring everyone else’s passport. A clerk entered the room, examined the pile, replaced them and left.
The afternoon dragged on. Across the street I could see my driver slumped in his seat reading yesterday’s La Prensa. I was paying him by the hour, so as not to be caught again without a cab.
Time passed. My little island of shade expanded. Across the street, I could see that my driver was now asleep. The pile of passports lay undisturbed on the desk.
Suddenly, a clerk appeared. took the passports into another office and a few minutes later reappeared and began calling names. The visas had been issued.
No identification was asked. Names were called and the passports handed out into the crowd where they were passed around until someone claimed them. In a few minutes everyone had their passport and were wandering away.
A perfectly ordinary experience in a traveler’s day. I am sure that if I had later met the lady I had spoken to on the phone she would say, “See, I told you it would be no problem.” And none of the people in the crowd seemed to think it was anything out of the ordinary and knew that for all the apparent disorder that everyone would get their passport back; everyone would be taken care of and no one taken advantage of, and the Sandinista police would not be at all suspicious of a confused gringo whose only identification was a two-inch square piece of paper with the number “18” written on it with a ballpoint pen.
My later trouble in getting out of the country is described in an earlier post, Hotel Gran Imperial.