It was hard to believe, but I had actually passed through Customs and Irritation, got my passport stamped and was sitting in the departure lounge at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City waiting for the boarding gate to open. Costa Rica was just over an hour away.
Before this I had made a number of attempts to leave Guatemala, only to discover that travelling is not easy during the time of the pandemic.
The initial attempt had involved two journeys to the Honduran border of Corinto, catching boats, buses, colectivos and taking two Covid-19 tests, but both times I was thwarted because of inadequate documentation (to be precise, I didn’t have a prechequeo or a salvoconducto).
I caught more boats and buses and returned to the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua Guatemala, which had been my home for the past eight months.
They laughed at me when I got back.
“I told you, Antigua is a black hole and there is no escape from it,” said my friend Aury, from behind the bar of La Taverna, which she owns.
“You may as well accept that you’ll never leave. Find a wife and buy a house here.”
“I’ll give it another try.”
That week I bought a plane ticket to Nicaragua, took a PCR test for Covid-19, and filled out the form you have to submit to the government.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” I told my fellow barflies. “Flying to Nicaragua.” They laughed.
That night I got a reply from the Nicaraguan government. My request to enter the country had been denied. No reason given.
“You still here?” said Greg the American when I went back to La Taverna the next day. “My god, you’re like a turd that can’t be flushed away.”
“Funny. But I have another plan. My PCR test is still valid, so I’ve bought a bus ticket to El Salvador. I leave at four in the morning.”
He laughed. Derisively.
Later that day I got a call from the travel agency where I had bought the bus ticket.
“Amigo, you don’t have the correct Covid-19 test. You have taken a PCR test, but you need a PCR-RT test. They won’t let you in. You have to go to the capital and take the PCR-RT.”
There was no time to do this, at least not if I wanted to catch the bus to El Salvador.
I went back to the hostel where I was living, and told Cristian, the owner, that I had taken the wrong test and wouldn’t be leaving just yet.
“What exactly is a PCR-RT test?” I asked him.
“RT stands for Rectal Thermometer. They’re going to give you an anal probe, and then they wave it under your nose and if you can smell it you’re good to go.”
“Maybe I’ll just accept my fate and find a wife and buy a house here.” “Sure, I can help you buy a house,’’ said Cristian, who is also an estate agent. “As far as the wife goes, you’re on your own there, but it should be no problem for a man of your charm and style.”
So Cristian took me to see a few houses, but none were quite suitable.
Then a friend from South Africa, currently in the US, Facebooked me to say that she was thinking of going to Costa Rica, why not join her there. She was going to a beautiful Caribbean town called Puerto Viejo.
Costa Rica. La pura vida – the pure life. Costa Rica – land of volcanoes, pristine forests, beautiful beaches, amazing wildlife, laidback people.
It sounded like a good idea, and I bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica. Purchased the obligatory Covid-19 health insurance (which cost more than double the plane ticket), filled in my government health pass… and got the go-ahead from the government!
“I’m going to Costa Rica tonight,” I told my friends in the Snug, a bar owned by a loquacious Irishman named Rory.
They laughed and shook their heads.
I met an Alabaman on the terrace roof of the bar. The sun was setting behind Fuego volcano and the sky was resplendent with fiery colours: crimson morphing into maroon, bleeding into red, segueing into orange, melting into yellow – just another tequila sunset.
“I’m flying to Costa Rica tonight,” I told the Alabaman.
“Costa Rica! I lived there for five years. There’s nothing but thieves there. They’ve got a thousand different ways to steal from you. They’ll pretend to be your friend, and they’ll hug you while their hand is taking your wallet out your back pocket.
“And the gringos are the worst. They run out of money and then they’ll do anything to stay. They’ll invite you to a party and rob you blind. Costa Rica… take my advice and don’t go there. Nothing but thieves and liars and scam artists.”
Obviously his “advice” fell on deaf ears, and so it was that I found myself in the departure lounge at La Aurora airport.
Hours went by. The flight was meant to depart at 10.40pm, and it was already past 1am. Then the loudspeaker blared an incomprehensible message in Spanish and we all stood up and formed a line.
This was it. Goodbye Guatemala. Hola la pura vida.
But instead of going through the departure gate we went back the way we had come.
“What’s going on? Isn’t this the way out of the airport?” I asked an English-speaker.
“Yes,” she said. “The flight’s been delayed because of the tropical storm, and they’re putting us up for the night at a hotel in the city.”
So close, I thought. That was so close.
After two hours’ sleep, we were herded onto a bus, driven back to the airport, shepherded to the departure lounge and, not long afterwards, we were airborne.
Flying again. How strange it felt… and looked. A family of five a couple of rows back were all wearing masks, protective goggles, full-face shields and latex gloves. Enough to put the fear of Covid into anyone.
Then I was presenting my passport to an official at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, Costa Rica.
“Where are you going to be staying?” he asked.
“La Pura Vida [the name of my guesthouse] in Puerto Viejo.”
He clicked on his mouse and conjured up some photographs. Turned his computer screen towards me.
“This is it.”
“Que linda [how beautiful],’’ I said.
“Yes it is. Welcome to Costa Rica, amigo,” he said and stamped my passport.
After a long bus ride through forests and jungles I arrived in Puerto Viejo. The heat was mind-blowing. I started walking down a dusty road to the guesthouse when a young woman smiled at me, as if she knew me.
“Hola,” I greeted her.
Her face lit up. “Hola. Where are you going?” “La Pura Vida.”
“I will show you the way,” she said, in a strong German accent.
We walked down the road a while, then she said: “I wonder if you can help me. I have a massage booked for 20 minutes’ time, but I have left my money at home. Could you please give me 4,000 colones [about R100]?”
After I checked into the guesthouse I checked out the town.
It was a Saturday night and the place was crazy, filled with tourists from the capital, driving down the bar-rich main road in enormous 4x4s, music blaring, thumping bass penetrating the very marrow of pedestrians.
A young man approached me.
“What you want man? Weed, blow, candy, MDMA? What you want man?” “What do you want?” I asked him.
“What you got?”
“Hope. I have hope.”
“That’s no good. I want the real s***, homey. Money, drugs, cars, chicas. What I gonna do with hope? You got nothing to offer. You sure you don’t want some blow?”
Later, I was sitting next to a tuk-tuk parked on the beach, having a cigarette, when a woman in a red dress approached me.
“Are you the tuk-tuk driver?”
“Coz you look like you could be a tuk-tuk driver.”
“At least I don’t look like an estate agent.”
“You’re funny. I want to f*** you. Do you want to f*** me?”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m Teresa. From Nicaragua. And this is my friend Sandy.”
A blonde woman, spilling out of her dress, with some mileage on her face, but not unattractive, approached.
“Hi. I’m Sandy. From Arizona. I hope my friend hasn’t scared you. Teresa is a little exuberant, but she gets like that when she likes someone, and I can tell she really likes you.”
“Nah, it’s all good…”
Sandy said she had a little place up the coast that she had bought cheap from some guy who was sitting in jail for 20 years for dealing in drugs “and doing some other really nasty shit”.
She had another house on the Pacific coast, but had to leave it in a hurry “because some guys wanted to kill me. I was growing weed, see, making $8,000 a month, and then things went wrong with these guys. The lockdown saved my life. I left town just before lockdown and they couldn’t follow me.
“Hey, we’re having a little party at my house up the coast. It’s a beautiful place right on the beach. You’re welcome to join us.”
Just then a battered collectivo pulled up next to us. “Well? You want to party?”
“Sure. Why not?” I said, and we piled into the collectivo, the three of us and two Nicaraguan guys who suddenly appeared and another woman.
The driver, a young guy with short dreadlocks, fired up the engine and we sped off into the Caribbean night, warm wind blowing in through the windows and reggaeton music pumping out of the vehicle’s speakers. DM/ML
Wild rats still enjoying running wheels.