San Jose, Costa Rica. May 3, 2001.
Clearing customs with Frederico
I've arrived in Costa Rica. The flight was uneventful, as all good flights are, and I’m up early Thursday morning and in touch with American Airlines Air Cargo by 9 am. They assure me the motorcycle is waiting and say they are located just three kilometers west of Santa Maria International Airport. I request an address, but the young lady assures me it is unnecessary – she says it is easy to find. “Famous last words” I note. “We are less than two miles from the hotel,” the young lady informs me, so I breeze through the lobby to flag down a taxi. As required by the airline I had drained the bike of fuel in Seattle prior to shipping it, so I instruct the taxi driver to make a quick stop for gas [at ninety cents a liter - roughly $3.60 a gallon] to fill up my one-liter emergency plastic fuel tank and then, full of anticipation at seeing my motorcycle, we head for the terminal. At least I assume we are headed for the terminal. The driver assures me that it’s just around the corner, but it becomes immediately obvious that he doesn't have a clue about which corner. Or at least he is trying hard to convince me he doesn’t. While he drives hither and yon looking for American Air Cargo, he stops to ask several people about the location. To make a long story short, about an hour later a pedestrian directs us to the office, upstairs in a terminal we have already passed several times. I grunt my satisfaction at having finally arrived, none to happy that we’re an hour late, and decide that’s it’s difficult to tell if this is a Costa Rican parody of the New York City taxi driver ["that's the Empire State Building" says the driver. "I know" says the passenger, "we've passed it three times already"] or an office that is very hard to find. You already know the rest of the story - a $3.50 cab fare has quickly become $10.
American's agent is both bilingual and very friendly. He hands me my shipping documents and warns me "don’t ever send the original of a title again." I agree wholeheartedly, but explain that I had no choice as US Customs would absolutely not let the bike leave the country without the original. After collecting a $35 tax he sends me on my way with instructions on where to pick up my bike. Sensing that I would ride out by noon, I follow his direction to the dispatch office - three times, to be exact. Each time I retrace my steps back along the same hallways to ask for more precise directions. Finally he says “follow me” and I follow closely behind him as we head to the warehouse office. My mistake. I am looking for a bike. He is sending me to an office where the process starts. The fourth time is a charm, though, and I turn in my shipping documents. But instead of a bike, I get further instructions on where to visit the local customs agent. He’s just down the hallway I’m told.
A dour young man in a shabby uniform, behind a Spartan desk, in a room devoid of even a picture, shuffles my papers and barely looks up as he says. "?Habla usted espanol?" “Not much” I reply in my best Spanish. "Hablo muy poco espanol." He shuffles my papers again. "Eemposeeble" he says phonetically. No, I don't speak Spanish, but his tone of voice is unmistakable - roughly "no way, dude - take a hike." My heart sinks, but I know it has been all too easy so far.
Enter Frederico. The words are barely spat from the young man's lips when I feel a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I find a man about six feet and perhaps late-fifties. I first notice that his unkempt hair, badly in need of cutting and combing, is liberally sprinkled with gray. His jacket and slacks, both threadbare, have surely just arrived from a Seattle thrift store. Arms hang limp at his side. His feet, perhaps just a bit too big for his frame, are shod in leather shoes. He carries a briefcase. It’s leather as well, but like the shoes, it’s scruffy and old and in bad need of some polish to bring it back to life. He is angular and loose-jointed – sort of a Latin Walter Matheau. Like his outfit, he looks worn. I am Frederico," he announces in very broken English "and I am a customs broker." Imagine that. “Divine co-incidence, no doubt,” I think scarcastically. For just $40 Frederico will get my bike for me. I had heard $50 - $100 for such services, so I readily agree and off we go. He confers briefly with the dour young man behind the Spartan desk, but except for “eemposeeble” again, their conversation is a mystery to me.
I follow Frederico as he shuffles back down the hall to American's warehouse, and back in line to have my shipping documents stamped for a small fee, [of course] and on to the warehouse. I show my passport, give up my drivers license for a security badge and am escorted one hundred feet to my red Moto Guzzi Quota, still in its crate, and seemingly intact. Although when I left Seattle yesterday I fully expected to actually get the bike, I'm still somewhat amazed. "Where's the title?" Frederico asks, translating between the warehouseman and me. I quickly produce it. "It is new, no?" "No neuvo," I reply. It has 10,000 kilometers on it. There is an audible sigh of relief from Frederico, as importing anything new into Costa Rica is very difficult I am told. The serial numbers on the Quota match up with the title and registration, and I'm reaching to pull the crowbar from my tank bag [a makeshift backpack that when underway is strapped across the gas tank of the bike] to break down the packing crate when Frederico says "follow me" and we are off to the main customs house, perhaps a quarter of a mile away.
It's after 10:30 am by now, and the pleasant Costa Rican morning is starting to heat up, although there is a nice breeze. With me in tow, Frederico leads us down the street, across a secured parking lot, over a car security chain, up a three foot curb, across a small ditch on a narrow concrete wall, across another parking lot and finally to the main airport customs house, where half the male population of San Jose appears to be in line. I quickly guess that Frederico has numerous cousins, as like Frederico, a few of these young men have gringos in tow, and others appear to be looking for gringos.
But Frederico quickly moves to the head of the line and at his request I produce a copy of the shipping documents, my Washington State registration, the original title, and my passport. The fee is 12,000 colones [about $35] and three lines later - this line, the line for the bank to accept my paperwork, and the third line where I pay - we are off.
"To where I ask?" To Securidad de International" I'm told. "Why?" I ask. "You need a temporary drivers license and insurance to ride the bike in Costa Rica" he replies. "How far?" I ask. "No problem," Frederico replies. "How far?" I ask again. "Only about ten kilometers [six miles]" he replies. We catch a taxi that's surely smaller than the bed of my Ford F150 pcikup and 700 colones [$2] - a real deal - and twenty minutes later, through the narrow, dirty, traffic-jammed streets of the City of Alajuela, we arrive at Securidad de International.
From my very limited Spanish I deduce that this is the license bureau, unemployment compensation place and social services office all in one. A hundred Ticos [as the people of Costa Rica are known] sit in plastic chairs, in a relatively modern office furnished in "early-Salvation Army." A computer sits on each desk, and I quickly guess they are 286s and 386s – at least four generations ago in the States. We take a number. As I contemplate the hundred assembled Ticos and then hazard a guess at the hours this will take I feel my frustration rising, but our number is quickly called. I'm surprised and starting to believe that Frederico might be worth his $40. In a now all-too-familiar routine, I quickly produce my passport, driver's license, shipping documents, title and registration. I understand $35 for ninety days, but I need only ten days. Frederico says "no problem, it's all the same price. Ten days, ninety days, all the same.” “Whatever,” I think. “It’s $35 and I’m not going riding without paying.”
I note that the office looks much like my own motor vehicle department in Washington State. The lines are long. Everyone is waiting. The clerks pretend to work, [and I assume that the government pretends to pay them] but the Ticos are friendlier than their American counterparts and I'm on my way to the bank line in no time. My transaction completed, Frederico hails a taxi and we're back to the customs house by 11:45 am.
Perhaps I should briefly explain the multiple lines, a concept quite foreign to those of us from the United States or Canada. By way of example, let’s say that you need to buy a license for your dog, or a “dog tag” as it’s called in many parts of the country. We go to the dog tag office, and in one-stop shopping request the tag, pay for the tag and receive the dog tag. In Latin America it is common to first enter a line where you request the tag. There you would complete a form and have it stamped. You are then sent, with your stamped form in hand, to a second line where you pay for the dog tag. Finally, you are sent to a third line where the clerk checks to see that your form has been completed and stamped, reviews your receipt to ensure that you have paid, and only then issues your dog tag. In a Latin American governmental office, the second line is very likely an in-house branch of the local bank. For the average Norteamericano, you can surely appreciate the frustration of doing business in this manner.
It's getting hot now. The breeze is still pleasant, but the temperature has moved into the mid-80s. My light, cotton shirt is getting wet while perspiration rolls off my face. We're back in line, and - you guessed it - just in time for lunch. "One o'clock," Frederico announces. "Meet me back here at one o'clock." I'm quickly becoming resigned to a long day. My goal of "out by noon" and on the beach in Manuel Antonio (a lovely Pacific Coast beach town I have heard - some four hours from San Jose) is quickly fading. It will be a long day.
Frederico and I meet back at the main customs house at one o'clock sharp. "Two thousand colones will cut the time" he says and I see my $6 silently pass to the customs agent. Within a minute or two, bypassing perhaps a dozen people who seem to be ahead of us, my stamped documents are returned. I sign as directed, am handed my papers and we're back down the stairs, across the lot, over the ditch, down the curb, across the security chain and lot and back to the dour young man in the shabby uniform behind the Spartan desk who apparently is the final authority on cargo leaving the terminal. He scowls but signs. By magic my crated Moto Guzzi appears on the loading dock.
My problems almost over, the Quota is sitting just in front of me. I can smell victory.
Frederico has a friend who will take the plywood crate, and helping me tear it down is part of the bargain. We have at it with crowbars as twenty or thirty Tico warehousemen watch us. In my three taxi rides I had seen many motorcycles, but none over 250cc - a size in the States usually reserved for scooters and dirt bikes. I’m starting to understand that my red, 1100cc Moto Guzzi must be quite a sight.
Add the physical labor of breaking down the crate and removing the bike to the hot afternoon sun and the pressing crowd, and I'm starting to overheat - both physically and mentally. The cargo terminal appears safe, but I'm feeling very vulnerable and nervous, just out of my element. Several items, including two spare tires, the plastic side panels and fairing which were all removed for shipping, and a hard bag full of tools and spare parts lie strewn around me. Nearby is my tank bag containing two cameras and over a thousand dollars, perhaps three months wages in this relatively poor country. Once I open the hard bag my tools and spare parts seem to be moving around and I'm having a difficult time keeping them corralled, although much of the sensation is surely in my mind. I just want to get on my bike and leave. It has been a very long day.
Before I could air-freight the bike from Seattle I was required by Federal Hazardous Materials regulations to drain the gas tank and disconnect the battery. The rules required that both the leads and the battery posts be taped off to avoid any incidental contact. I had wrapped the battery in duct tape and the leads in black electrical tape and while the duct tape pulls right off, the electrical tape has melted together in the heat. Even with a utility knife, with my pulse quickening and a river of perspiration rolling down my glasses, the tape will not come off. By the way, this job takes about two minutes in your garage. It is taking me twenty, and it seems like two hours.
I finally clear enough tape to expose the ends of the battery leads - just the o-rings through which the bolts pass as they affix to the battery terminal. Now if all the tape has been removed, one lead is colored red, and it matches with the red terminal on the battery to ensure that the leads are never crossed. I never get that far with the tape.
There is no response when I push the button. The starter doesn’t engage. I push it again, just for a second, but it is too late. In just seconds smoke belches from under the fairing, and although I quickly unhook one terminal, the damage is done. I have ruined my voltage regulator, a stupid mistake that will cost me dearly, both in time and money.
The crowd slowly disperses, my mistake all too obvious to the watching Ticos who are gracious enough to not snicker at my stupidity. I slump on the loading dock in utter astonishment, contemplating my position. My hard bags contain hundreds of dollars in spare parts, but a voltage regulator is not on the list.
There is an old adage that says “God looks out for fools and children.” At age 52 I certainly don't qualify as one of the latter.
I won't bore you with the remaining details, but I do owe a debt of gratitude to Carlos Richter, the airline warehouse terminal manager. Fluently bilingual, Mr. Richter finds a dealer that services European motorcycles and arranges for transportation of both the bike and me to downtown San Jose. My Quota, now in the able hands of Senior Barqueros, awaits a voltage regulator to be flow in from the States since such a part is not available in all of Central America.
Initially resigned to three days in a San Jose hotel, I make peace with my misfortune and catch a bus for Arenal Volcano National Park where I will spend the weekend.
Perhaps the worst is over. Richard and I freed ourselves of the bad karma in just two days at the beginning of our Alaska sailing trip. I hope that the bumping and grinding is over and that the rest of this adventure will indeed be smooth sailing.
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