Er was called George or Matt or John, I forgot; it’s just been too long and we haven’t spent much time together either. Although that day in the summer of 1992 on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica seemed like the longest day of my life. How much I wished at the time that I had never met him. But if you believe in something like fate, then I probably had no other chance.
Editor in the “Life” section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
I had spent a year abroad in Costa Rica, then traveled another month by bus through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and, most recently, Nicaragua. I had a pretty bad week in Managua. Shortly after arriving, I was stupid enough to have my passport stolen on a city bus. Instead of visiting the country, I had marched from my shabby hotel room to the German embassy every day, only to find out that the long-awaited fax from the authorities in Germany – it was the time of faxes and landline connections – had still not arrived. Every additional day that I was stuck in Managua cut the time I had left in Costa Rica, where I wanted to see my friends again.
The gringo cliché
When I was finally given the new, provisional passport, I quickly made my way to the southern border, where I found accommodation in the only hotel in a sleepy little town that evening. In order to get to Costa Rica as early as possible, I set my alarm clock for a little after five. At about half past six in the morning I was at the border: a simple crossing on a dusty street, flanked by a few desolate low-rise buildings, a shop for the bare minimums, a simple restaurant. A handful of money changers had turned up, a few cars were waiting to be processed, and the border guards were already there. But not yet on duty: the border should only open at nine o’clock. That didn’t surprise me, but it was annoying.
My attention soon fell on a gaunt, frantically gesticulating man who was arguing with the border guards. It was John – or was it George or Matt? – and from afar it corresponded to the cliché of the gringo, as the typical tourists from the United States were called here: Traveler hat, ranger vest, sun-burned fair skin. In a torrent of English, he spoke to the uncomprehending Nicaraguans. With my decision to tune in, my ruin began.
In the same peaceful-looking small town where I had spent the night, an estimated thirteen-year-old stole all of his cash with a gun the previous evening, John said. Now he was at the border with his car, only had a few poor Nicaraguan Cordobas and Costa Rican Colones and begged the border guards to let him over to the other side, from where he wanted to call a friend in Costa Rica’s capital, San José. He did not trust the telephones on the Nicaraguan side. After I had translated John’s request for the border officer, they nodded: no problem. But not until nine. The rope finally wrapped around my neck as I happily accepted John’s offer to take me to San José by car – damned convenience. Now John’s companion, I ordered rice with beans for him and me in the small pulpería.
John was probably twice my age, in his forties, maybe older, and very talkative. From the United States, he drove through Central America within a few days, only to end up selling his car in Costa Rica. He had heard next to nothing of the countries he had traveled through. The only goal of his trip was the apparently not inconsiderable profit from reselling the vehicle.