I try not to be the stereotypical ugly gringo when I’m in Latin America. I tolerate leisurely or downright rude service, I use my poor but functional Spanish, and I try to go with the flow, bearing in mind that things are just different south of the border. But no matter how hard I try, there are occasions when I can’t help but act like a gringo.
My first, and hopefully last, real gringo moment on a recent trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua came at a ticket office in the Costa Rican port of Puntarenas. I arrived with my wife and two little boys about 15 minutes before our 11 a.m. ferry was due to depart for the Nicoya Peninsula and found a long, slow moving line with just one clerk selling tickets in a little booth behind a window.
I am not the kind of worrywart who shows up three hours early for a domestic flight, but as the line barely moved in the next few minutes, I started to get nervous. It was already well over 90 degrees and if we missed the 11 a.m. ferry, we’d have to wait three hours for the next boat in a dull, sweltering limbo, essentially killing a whole day of our trip.
Even worse, a cab driver was supposed to meet us on the other side to make the 90-minute ride from the ferry port in Paquera to our hotel in Santa Teresa. We had no functioning cellphone and no clue if the driver or anyone else would be there to meet us if we turned up three hours late.
As the clock ticked towards 11 and the ferry blew its horn, apparently warning us that it was getting ready to depart, I had so little personal space in the line that I was pretty sure I knew what the guy behind me had for lunch (I think it was rotten eggs). As we inched forward, ever so slowly, I analyzed each transaction that took place at the window and silently stewed.
Why is this woman just now digging through her purse for money? Did she think the tickets were going to be free? And what about this guy? Why is he asking so many questions? Buy your damn ticket and get out. What’s she doing now? Is she talking on the phone? No! Sell tickets!
At 10:54, there was a woman buying her ticket who seemed to be making small talk with the clerk. It was a good thing her back was turned to me because I think the intensity of my glare in her general direction could have singed her eyebrows. The ticket office was right across the street from the boat, but we had baggage, a stroller and small kids to shepherd on board, and I had no reason to believe the ship wouldn’t depart on time.
I continued to check my watch in 30-second intervals, since there was nothing better to do but worry, as beads of sweat pored down my back. At 10:56, there was only one person in front of me in the line.
But just as the man in front of me was about to proceed to the window, a woman in a uniform came by, stopped him, and made an announcement in Spanish and English. She wanted all the passengers bringing vehicles on the ferry to step forward and form a new line. About half of the thirty or so people behind me stepped forward and the woman announced that all of the passengers with vehicles would get to buy their tickets first.
Instead of being second in line, I was now about 17th and with just four minutes to spare. The woman in uniform offered us no consolation like, “Don’t worry, everyone in line will get tickets.”
I called after her to ask if the ship was going to leave without us, but she ignored me and walked away. A middle-aged American guy, a surfer type, who just vaulted ahead of me in line so he’d be next, said, “Dude, relax, you’ll get your ticket.”
Relax? In what alternate reality could one find waiting in a long line in the sweltering heat under these circumstances relaxing? In an abstract sense, I could understand why they needed people with cars to go first – it takes longer to board with a car than it does on foot. But the vehicle passenger tickets cost almost 20 times as much as foot passenger tickets. Were they using the few remaining minutes to sell the most expensive tickets to maximize profit? The old man in front of me in the passenger line look nonplussed. Perhaps he assumed the boat would depart late? Or did he have nothing better to do than wait for the 2 o’clock ferry?
I said nothing to the American who told me to relax, and waited as a few of the sanctioned line jumpers were serviced. At 10:59, the ship’s horn blasted again and, in a moment of panic and chutzpah, I barged right ahead of a meek looking man in the newly formed line and pleaded for the clerk to sell me a ticket, which she did, despite some grumbling from the people I’d cut in front of (I wanted to say, “You cut me, now I’m cutting you, deal with it,” but I had no time to spare).
We dashed across the street, baggage, children and stroller in tow and by the time I hauled all of our gear up two steep flights of steps onto the first passenger deck, I was drenched in sweat but relieved to be on the damn boat.
We pulled out of the harbor about five minutes late and I looked around to see if the man who was in front of me in the screwed over passenger line had made it, but I found no sign of him. Perhaps everyone in line had somehow secured tickets and made it on board but I doubt it.
As Americans, we carry a lot of baggage when we travel outside the country. I try to be cognizant of the fact that some of the people I encounter will formulate an opinion about my country based on how I act. There are times when you have to swallow your anger and just deal with situations as they unfold, even if it’s to your detriment.
And then there are times when you have to be assertive and follow the rules of the jungle. Perhaps I should have waited stoically and hoped for the best, but if I’d followed that course and had missed the boat, my inner-gringo would have released even more negative vibes on everyone in my vicinity.
What would you have done?
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]