Saturday, January 26th, Shelina and I had to make our quarterly trip to the Costa Rican border to renew our visas. A lot of need greaters already serving here and in Costa Rica have to do a similar process every three months. So I wanted to describe our experience so you all know what's waiting for you the next time you cross. It was a COMPLETE nightmare!
Just about everything in Nicaragua is a game to see how much extra money they can extort out of you and unfortunately, we gringos are often prime targets for these games. Now, I lived in Memphis eight years so I thought I could spot a player and a game, but all I can say is that Memphians need to come to Nicaragua to get schooled. Let me explain what happened.
Soon as our feet hit ground in Penas Blancas (the border) we had guys following us around. Their official title is "tourist guide" but their actual job has nothing to do with that title. They want to give you immigration forms or carry your bags for you or show you where the offices are. This wasn't my first rodeo so I firmly said no to them and kept steppin'. Why? Because at the beginning of it all, they tell you they're volunteers there to help, but when everything's said and done, they've got their hand out for money. On top of it, everything they try to charge you for is free and easy. For instance, those immigration forms? Free at the immigration window. Not sure where the offices are? There's only one road in and out and it leads straight to the offices. Games!
So I get through the Nicaraguan side and make my way over to Costa Rica feeling confident. Not to last, though. In Costa Rica, they tell us they want proof we won't be going over our 90 day visa time limit there. We explain we want in and out in one day and don't even have bags so obviously, we're leaving. Costa Rica says nope! They want to see either bus ticket or plane ticket out. We say we're going to take the city bus Penas Blancas-Rivas-Granada. Not good enough. So what do we have to do? Shell out $25 apiece for a TicaBus ticket from San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua. Games!
So we enter Costa Rica and turn around to come back into Nicaragua. Enter group of guys again following you around offering to "help" for a charge for stuff that's already free. Here's where the real fun begins. The first official we meet (a police officer by the way which is the really scary part) sees my passport and sees I didn't spend the "required" 72 hours in Costa Rica. Now, this is normal. They always complain about this. They usually make us spend 3 hours there and then let us come back. But oh no! Not this time! I'm explaining that we're JWs and volunteers and eager to get back to our assignments. He says no many times and then says, "Go with this guy (dude charging for free stuff). He's gonna get an official to pass you through, but you'll need to pay a "tip."" This is when I knew I was in trouble and was about to see the Nicaraguan corruption I've always heard about at work firsthand.
So we go with the guy and he's explaining he'll arrange it all for us, we won't have to stand in line again, etc etc. The problem is, after he talks with the immigration official he says we'll have to pay the standard $12 visa fee + a $20 tip apiece. We say no way! We've already had to pay an additional $25 for a bus ticket we don't need, and negotiate this tip down to $6 a person. So he explains we'll get in line, put the money in our passports, official will write a receipt for only $12 a person (duh!), and we'll get our stamp. I, of course, am praying this entire time because I NEED to get back into Nicaragua but feel VERY uncomfortable being in a situation for the first time in my life where I'm told to pay a bribe. Well, Jehovah answered my prayer in a very crazy way. As we get up to the immigration window, guy comes back over and says to take the bribe out because the manager just walked in. We did so and got our stamp to re-enter Nicaragua. As we walk away, guy is asking for his money etc etc and we're explaining that no, what he calls a "tip" we call a bribe and refuse to pay it, we already have our stamp, we're outta here. He's like, "No, you have to pay. The only reason you couldn't in the office is because manager was there." Shelina tells him, "No, the only reason we couldn't is because IT'S ILLEGAL!!!" His response? "Fine! I'll pay the official out of my pocket. God sees everything!" Little does he know....Games!
No, my conscious does NOT bother me that we never paid the guy. I actually feel so good I've yet to have to pay a "tip" or "tax" or "help" to an official yet. I'm positive they're making my portion and more from all the other gringos here. Case in point? The two guys in front of us were pay $45 for their visas when the visas themselves are only $24 together. You see? Games!