Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Paso Canoas

This piece will form the second in a short collection of essays on the ways we interact with other people.

We are at the back of a long line of people waiting to punch out of Costa Rica, and punch into Panama. It is an ostensibly pleasant 85 degrees, but humidity is touching 95%, and in these conditions, everyone’s patience is evaporating far quicker than their sweat is able to. The time is a little after half past 7, and the border closes at 8. Paso Canoas is nothing like the famous border posts of Tijuana or El Paso some 3000 miles to the north. There are no bars, strip clubs and by-the-hour motels. When the border closes, everybody goes home, and comes back in the morning.
The line is moving almost imperceptibly, as we edge round the corner of a low concrete wall on which a number of sleepy Ticos are perched, half-heartedly trying to make their final sales of the night. We turn down the offer of a bottle of Coca-Cola bobbing up and down in a cooler of tepid water that may or may not have been ice at some point during the day, and instead cast our eyes towards the front of the line to see what the delay is.
I have made this border crossing three times during my time working in the rural south of Costa Rica; the visa run is a tri-monthly ritual for many foreigners who visit this country for work, rest or play. Every 90 days hundreds, probably thousands of gringos head to Panama in the south, or Nicaragua in the north. My visa is 87 days old, and in the event that we don’t get across the border tonight, I will check into one of Paso Canoas’s safer hostels, and try again in the morning. Another person must have been successful in making it across, for at this second a ripple of movement briefly courses through the line of people as we all shuffle forward a pace or two. Now we can see, and even hear, the reason for the slow progress tonight.

“You ain’t fuckin’ listening to me, I been down here twenty goddamn years, you hear me? 20 goddamn years! And now you’re telling me I need my fuckin’ passport to leave this shitty country?”

The border post at Paso Canoas is fairly efficient one, as these things go. Three of the four service windows are occupied by stern faced but respectful officials in impeccably pressed uniforms that appear to be impervious to the sweat covering the waiting tourists and travellers. Sweat is visibly dripping from the monstrous, bloated man who is physically and verbally taking up two of the three windows. His legs are planted wide apart in a stance of aggression possibly learned many years ago on a wrestling mat somewhere in middle America, but more likely to support his significant bulk. His t-shirt is stretched taut across his misshapen torso, extolling the virtues of Rhino Charger Sport Fishing, Tamarindo Costa Rica, and a faded and battered baseball cap adorns his bald pate, despite the sun dipping down below the horizon over an hour ago, as it does every day of the year here in the Tropics.
“-Apologise, sir, but without a passport you cannot go beyond this point, perhaps-”
The heavily accented but grammatically flawless words of a female border official float along the line. Those of us not already clutching our passports absentmindedly pat our pockets and open our bags to ensure they are in reach, and of course they are, for who would attempt to cross an international border without a passport?
“-You have your tarjeta de residencia costarricense with you?”
This border official is being remarkably courteous and polite in the circumstances, but standing her ground. Her opponent however, perhaps in the way he took on rival wrestlers in his younger days, for better or worse, remains on the attack.
“Do I look like a fuckin’ tee-coh to you? I’m an American!”

The nationality of this gladiator man comes as no surprise to anyone in the audience, but the way in which the words are brandished like a weapon, aimed at this border official like a battering ram, draw sighs and looks of contempt from some. Much to the surprise of nobody except he who uttered them, these words hold no magic power here in Paso Canoas. The drawbridge does not open, and the border official calmly asks the man to stand aside so that she may assist someone who has the required documents. There is general murmur of agreement at this and the line shudders forward another two feet or so. The American is almost apoplectic with rage at this point, and with a final throw of the dice, produces a battered mobile phone, and makes some threat about “taking this shit as high as it needs to go” as he waddles toward a bench along the back wall of the customs and immigration area. Satisfied that this particularly piece of street theatre has run its course, business as usual resumes at three of the four service windows, and we cross into Panama around 9 minutes before 8pm.

Friday, 28 August 2015

This piece was written for a creative non-fiction class. It is an example of flash non-fiction.

I was across the street, and as a result, I didn’t hear the words. The main street in the town of Luray, Virginia is in the midst of a process of gentrification. Where once stood most likely general stores, hardware stores, and other stores selling local things for local people, there are boutiques, bookshops and cafes that cater for out-of-towners. It is such a café that I am exiting at the time the words were spoken. My fiancée and I are making last minute wedding plans, wishing we could find local stores with local prices, but finding only smiles hastily assembled below calculating eyes. Eyes that have narrowed more than once as my friends and I carelessly and happily walk along Main Street reunited on foreign soil. Narrowing eyes don’t do anything to dampen our spirits, but words? Words are powerful.

I haven’t seen my friends more than two or three times in the last 2 years. I moved to Costa Rica, and they did not. Maybe they didn’t need to find themselves; maybe they didn’t need to leave. I needed to leave, and so I boarded an aeroplane alone. Now we walk down Main Street in Luray, Virginia together, and everything that has happened has happened so that we may be together again. It may well be true that you can’t put a price on friendship, but my friends have estimated it at around two thousand pounds. Luckily, the pound is stronger than the dollar, and we feel it as we drink five-dollar lattes; we feel good. The caffeine, the camaraderie and the occasion have infected all of us with an incorrigible joy. Our jokes are funnier; our laughs louder, and nothing can spoil this moment.

My friend Rebekah is a truly incredible person. Warm, kind, dependable. She is just the kind of friend that everyone should have. She has flown from Barcelona, Spain to be one of my groomsmen, possibly the first groomsmaid in the history of Luray, Virginia. She has skin the colour of dark honey, and hair that cascades from her scalp in all directions, tight curls that bounce as she bounces, full of energy and life. She has finished her fruit tea, paid and tipped, and has taken a stroll with another of my friends, Jon or Kieran, maybe both. We are not all specific people when we are together; it doesn’t matter who said or did what, only that it was done. We are simply a group, a family.

As we finish our lattes and politely decline a look at the dessert menu, life could not feel any sweeter. As we emerge from the café and pour onto Main Street, we see Rebekah and her attendants standing, still. They look, different somehow. Bek has the look of someone pretending they are ok, and Jon and Kieran look utterly helpless, so we move, as one unit, across the street to find out what is wrong.

“A girl on that school bus called me a nigger.” Says Bek. She is almost apologetic, as if she wants it to be a misunderstanding. And ironically, at that moment, all the colour drains from the world. I feel sick. It is not nausea; I do not want to vomit. It is the deep, aching feeling that something has happened that is wrong. The feeling one gets when they witness domestic violence, or watch a bully hit someone who has done nothing, those viral videos that make us feel disassociated with the society we inhabit. It is an empty feeling that grips your internal organs and squeezes. We close ranks around Rebekah, and we mourn as if we truly are a family. None of my friends has ever been called a nigger before, and we don’t know how to deal with it. I want to chase after the school bus, find the child who said these words, make them apologise, tell their parents, complain to the police, anyone who can make amend this situation. But there is nobody. The bus has driven away, and we are not local people.

Maybe half of my friends from the UK who have paid two thousand pounds to be at my wedding are not white. Sunny has a master’s degree and is a chartered surveyor. James is an economist. Emma is an events manager. Rebekah is a kindergarten teacher. Her mother is white. To a child in the town of Luray, Virginia, she is a lesser being.  Somebody perhaps seven years old has the power to rob my friend of her humanity. The shock and disgust that we feel collectively soon turns to something else, pity perhaps; pity for a child who has already been taught to hate in the second most popular wedding destination in the United States, a town that sells love to lovers and their loved ones. My fiancée and I will be married in 2 days, and Rebekah will by my groomsmaid. The town of Luray is in the midst of a process of gentrification, but the people of Luray are in need of much more than boutiques and five-dollar lattes.