July marks my 6th full month here in Nicaragua. It feels significant somehow, as though I have made it to a special milestone. I cannot believe how fast the time has gone and can still remember landing in Managua and going through customs, not knowing what to expect with only shaky Spanish to help me. Six months also means that it is once again time for me to renew the visa I need to stay in the country, which this time meant I had to leave the country. I have spoken to many expatriates who assured me renewal would be simple and even if I had to go to the Costa Rican border it would be relatively quick and painless. After experiencing this with Tony, I think that they either had some really good friends in some very strategic places or we had ‘sucker’ written on our foreheads.
As I renewed last time in Managua I was turned away from the migration office in Rivas (never hurts to try) and so off to the border we went. We arrived and made our way to the exit Nicaragua window with several people offering to help us to expedite the process, especially if we wanted to do it in a day. Thinking that was only cause for trouble we decided to work it out ourselves. At the window it was brought to my attention that I was actually late in renewing by one day, so we were sent off to the “boss” to get my papers sorted out. I got to deal with the second in charge, as the “boss” was busy with other important work, or at least giving that impression. Once the immigration officer got my papers he wrote “ILLEGALIDAD” in big red letters on my passport photocopy, which was a little shocking to see, but not nearly as bothersome as when he over-calculated my over-stay. Tony talked me down from fighting with him on it, as he reminded me I was much better off than another person who had to pay 10,100 Cordobas in fines. Once I was paid up, back to the exit window we went to pay to leave, get more stamps and papers and then finally on to Costa Rica. Half-way across border land we stop to show our papers to another immigration officer who then pulls us aside to tell us what sort of trouble we might be in if we do indeed come back in one day. After we wait while he checks the papers of others, he returns to tells us the steps we need to take in case we MIGHT return that same day: go across, get our stamp, go into to the dining area for an hour, maybe two, then come back and perhaps, just maybe there might be a little gift for him when we return. It was oh, so subtle, and yet just enough to rattle us in thinking we might get stuck.
We got through the Costa Rican side quite smoothly considering our entry stamp stated that we would be staying for 5 days and we weren’t even charged for the required customs forms. On our way back over we tried to draft in behind some other tourists but our officer was waiting for us. We couldn’t avoid him as he was blocking the exit, so after some small talk with him and another officer trying to get in on his gift we made our way through. A very long wait ensued to get our entry stamp during which time Tony decided that he would leave and pretend that he didn’t know me, as if that would ensure things went smoothly! Then all that we had to do was go through the door… blocked by yet another immigration officer who was the first to notice that both our stamps were from the same day. After some conversation, a phone call and more local currency conveniently placed inside our passports we were finally done with the border. It was quite the experience and one that has made me decide that for my next renewal that I will take an actual vacation in Costa Rica!
The border is not the only place I have had the chance to experience the shadier side of living here. The postal system also seems to be rather suspect. My first set of out-going mail has yet to reach its destination, likely I am told due to the fact that the money for stamps was pocketed and the mail filed under G for garbage. In-coming mail has been very slow but did not seem to pose any other problems, which is surprising, as I have heard many stories of sticky fingers. That was my experience until I received the last couple of parcels my Mom sent me.
I received 4 very official letters, plus re-taped boxes warning against tampering and both parcels had been opened and gone through. Two of the four letters were to inform me of the destruction of some of the contents of my parcels as they were allowed to pass through customs – apparently the Nicaraguan customs officials had concerns regarding the safety of packaged beef jerky from Canada. The other two letters took over a week to decipher as they were in very poorly written English seemingly referring to postcards and birdcalls greet. It wasn’t until Tony put it into Google Translate and hit translate to Spanish that we figured out what it meant. I was hoping that the letters would explain why they had taken my letters and cards while leaving the plastic envelopes they came in. The best I was able to come up with was that they felt that my mother’s letters were a matter of national security, or they wanted to learn English through birthday cards. However the most logical explanation was given to me by Laura, and was that perhaps they thought the letters listed what was in the parcels and as there were some items that were not listed as having been destroyed but missing they figured if the letters were gone who would know. I still need to make my way over to the very conveniently located second hand store by the post office to see if there is anything familiar there, but at least the mystery of the birdcalls has been resolved.
Clinic has remained quite busy and the week before the brigade got even busier. It was the first time I experienced the chaos that I have become accustomed to in Los Angeles happen at the hospital. I had patients sneaking in with other patients to beg for a consult. Some would bring in their sick children and then decide it was the parent that should be seen not the child. After lunch it got so bad that the Director of the hospital, four nurses and the two women at the admissions desk had to help me sort through the patients to see who would actually be seen that day. Even my new system in Los Angeles is apparently not foolproof as when I returned the day after my border excursion I had a full day of patients waiting for me at 8 am, not one of whom was on my list for that day. And yes, the ones that were on the list showed too! I feel that actual appointments with set times would be much better than having people waiting all day to find out if they will be seen or not, but there is no way to do so and so we work on a first come first serve basis. Any suggestions?