On what would have been the day spent preparing to return to San Jose, Costa Rica, and saying goodbye to the lush tropical paradise that is the Monte Verde canopy of Central America….
On what would have been the day spent mourning the valiant – but losing – effort of Costa Rica’s soccer squad in their World Cup performance against the Netherlands washing down the heuvos with horchata (cinnamon flavored cornmeal alcohol) or guaro (a potent rum drink used to numb certain parts of the body deemed no longer operationally necessary) or cuba libre (rum and coke)…
On what would have been the day spent culling together photos of monkeys, tucans or larger than normal insect bites from my collage of rain forest experiences….
I was, instead, viewing the backside of Aunt Sam
Presumably, Uncle Sam’s slightly less dour and more personable half; known for parading down Main Streets across the country on the occasion of provincial 4th of the July celebrations. And, although I was looking forward to escaping the perfunctory nod to nationalism and patriotic pyrotechnics, I find more than a little appreciation for the freedoms, rights and expectations that come with owning a US passport.
To understand, I have only to think back eight days ago as I prepared to leave the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans of the Cuzco region’s Sacred Valley where I was studying Inka culture and customs.
The day of the 27th started out as expected… the taxi arrived at the hostel where our group stayed. Ella Fales and I were both on the early flight from Cuzco to Lima where she was to catch her connection to DC and I headed on to San Jose, Costa Rica. I had printed my boarding passes from the hotel the night before and wasn’t checking any bags so I wasn’t planning to check in. But I stood in line with Ella since we were going to be on the same flight. When the young lady from Avianca airlines looked up at me and asked if I was checking bags, I said, ‘no.’ I handed her my boarding pass just to confirm everything was ‘good to go.’ She glanced at it quickly and, without blinking or looking up at me asked, “Do you have your immunization forms?”
There is a physiological phenomenon that occurs when your body undergoes panic protocol where your eyes dilate, skin pores open up into spontaneous impulse to sweat; throat constricts, a small bucket of blood suddenly drops into you heart and your brain immediately sift through a collage of associations with the word ‘immunization’ going back to second grade making the experience feel like a pre-adolescent pop quiz on 6-dimensional differential equations.
“This is the first I’m hearing about any kind of immunization,” I say trying hard to disguise my panic.
“If you are entering Costa Rica from another South American Country, you need to supply a Yellow Fever Immunization Certificate.”
“Nothing on any of my travel sites mentioned the need for a Yellow Fever Immunization Card…”
“It’s your responsibility to make sure you have all the required paperwork for immigration.”
“I checked the requirements when I booked the flight and Avianca never mentioned the need for anything other than my passport.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s not Avianca’s responsibility to make sure you have all the required paperwork for immigration.”
“So, what do I have to do?”
“You will have to get an immunization shot and wait 10 days to enter Costa Rica.”
“In Peru?” I realize, somewhat too late, that when this question came out, it contained the unmuted disbelief of a patient first hearing the diagnosis of a terminal disease. It did not engratiate me to the prideful, romantic mystique of the Latin American people in general, and certainly not to this particular Avianca agent.
“That’s not going to happen.” (Note: this camouflaged reenactment of dialogue is for the sake of my sensitive blogging community… My actual response was somewhat more colorful)
“So, you don’t have the Yellow Fever Immunization Certificate?”
She doesn’t look at me as she hands me back one of the two boarding passes I’d presented to her a moment earlier.
“You won’t be able to enter Costa Rica.”
Noticing what was happening, “So, you’re just going to TAKE my boarding pass?”
“If you don’t have an immunization certificate you will not be able to enter the country and I can’t let you board the plane.
“So, what do I do?”
Her blank stare suddenly became the primary indicator that we barely shared a common language and certainly didn’t share a common intent. It would be misleading to suggest that her tone or manner indicated any malevolence. More accurately, her response could be charaterized as surging disinterest.
“Can I at least reroute my flight?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, since you won’t let me go to Costa Rica, can I rebook my trip to go back to the US?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t do that.” (It was fairly notable how her response contained narry a scent of sorrow). ”You will have to go through our call center.”
“Yes, sir.” She handed me a generic Avianca card and pointed to the local and toll free number at the bottom of the card. I quickly got the impression this exchange was part of a well rehearsed protocol.
“But, I don’t have a phone!” I pleaded as I began to realize I had already been measured and fitted for the ‘victim’s’ wardrobe.
“When you land in Lima, you can use the public phone.”
I don’t mean to shortchange the compelling nature of our dialogue by eliminating the majority of my contribution – which really amounted to long, whiny soliloquies of someone accustomed to far more influence, power and privilege – but it’s worth emphasizing the teflon nature of people operating a system when they recognize the tractor beam of power and influence built into the unilateral and comprehensive inefficiency that deflects and dissuades resistance. Especially when that inefficiency is accompanied by the artful blank stare and a half dozen heavily armed federales.
This painfully long, overly dramatized story would be pointless if it didn’t somehow connect to the cultural arch narrative of assumed power and role reversal. The disheartening disbelief of one person is not enough to turn the tides of injustice, indifference and contempt – especially when enacted with impudent and snarky overtones. Indeed, immigration and slavery have operated in much more obvious fashion for millennia on scales of magnitude dwarfing my personal travel woes. And at the time, it was not possible for me to rise up out my indignity and spot this small spark of irony against a dark sea of misfortune. So, I fumed and fretted as I stood in line to board the flight to Lima.
Shirley – a native Peruvian who was on the Inca tour with me – passed through security just before I boarded. While in line, she explained that she had a friend who worked for Avianca in Lima and promised to try and reach her. THAT – a very faint glimmer of hope – was the only indication that anything like a soft landing awaited me in Lima as my plane took off and carried me over the white-capped Andes.