By Nina Djukic | UC Berkeley
It’s mid-September and I am running on a road in rural Costa Rica, the humidity so heavy in the air that I am barely moving. The road is unpaved and stuffed with stones from volcano flows that left this here years and years ago. Behind me rides a troop of little boys on bicycles and scruffy brown puppies chase each other chasing motorcycles, five of them in a row. One boy calls in accented English, “I love you!! Nice to meet you!!”.
It has been raining all afternoon and I have a plastic bag in my pocket to save my phone from when it starts again. The hillsides are littered with black-and-white cows and skinny, potbellied horses. One night at dusk walking home from swimming the road was filled with a running bull, escaping from its master who yelled insults from the back of his motorcycle. There are caimanes in the lake at night but I swim anyway, out into the center of that blue bowl ringed with hills, past the pilings in the black mud that are actually trees that drowned here when they dammed the river. Most afternoons there are thunderstorms and sometimes the lightning starts before I can get out. I risk it anyway.
It is early October and I am traveling in Nicaragua, walking on a footpath through the jungle because roads are impractical so we take boats. The lanchas are packed with children, burlap sacks, and palettes of food. The air is filled with the smell of gasoline and the rush of fish-smelling water. When someone wants to get off we just stop the boat on the bank, and the trails they take look like they go nowhere, winding right into the bright green jungle. There’s a girl my age kissing her boyfriend over her baggage on the riverbank, and a grandmother comes on board to take a baby from the boat. The parents clasp each other’s arms and smile. I watch one man get off on a dock where nine men are sitting, and he stands in the middle of the circle and shakes each one’s hand, one by one.
In this little town along the river I walk the concrete trails paved over and over by the same feet, past the ramshackle houses on stilts with huge pigs sleeping under them and the chickens running underfoot the donkeys. A flock of lively acid green parakeets swoops joyfully overhead in a flurry of feathers and noise.
In Costa Rica, they say that every town has three things: a church, a pulperia, and a soccer field. Here, an old Spanish fortress hangs broken over the brightly colored roofs of the living, tin patched with plastic. There are kids playing in the muddy river and peach hibiscus flowers blooming over the old stones.
When I crossed the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua I crossed on foot, hopping off the chicken bus to walk with all the others. There’s a customs building for each nation. You have to get stamped in one to move on to the other, but most who cross here go illegally. At the stamping booth, a woman asked me to help her fill her form out while another looked over my shoulder to see which boxes I checked. For some of these people, who live on the rural outsides of these country’s arbitrary borders, the messy scrawl of their name in the signature section of their passport is the only time they have written their own name in years. On the other side of the border, no different but in name, we sit on the hot asphalt and wait for the van that will take us to San Carlos, a small town 30 minutes away. Nine out of ten of us waiting crossed illegally, and I watched them climb into the van in a mass of dark hair and suitcases, trudging between shrubs into the endless dusty sun.
When I come back again to cross this border, just after sunrise on another morning, twenty are already walking to where there’s a border – in places barbed wire fence, in places the Rio San Juan, in places imaginary. They are walking to a place called Costa Rica, where 6km from the border the coffee is three times as expensive, and the pay is better, and the government saved 25% of the land for national parks. On the way back to San Jose I’m crammed against the window with another woman, headed south. We sit here on this bus together, this woman and I, but I crossed the line with a blue foldered document and she slipped beneath the fence like a shadow. Underneath all those concepts and economies and laws, she hoisted her bag onto her back and walked.
I am thinking: how much of traveling is just being good at waiting?
Nina Djukic is a third year Conservation & Resource studies major at UC Berkeley. She spends most of her time reading, eating chocolate, volunteering at clinics, and making tremendously bad puns. She hopes to be a doctor and worthwhile citizen of the world.