Moving (on) Mountains

Trip Start Oct 10, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Costa Rica  ,
Monday, March 5, 2007

Before undertaking this trip I knew that patience would be a virtue I could not do without. Knowing that the trait is not exactly one of my most refined I spent weeks in deep medition wrestling with my impatient mind until I reached a state of zen-like inner peace. I was ready to take on Latin America. Since those days many months ago I have been tested time and time again, as if an almighty force doubted my spiritual achievements. 

It was day one of my trip when I had my first encounter with the ultimate unbalancing force: the bitter U.S. customs agent. I left Toronto on the first of many bus trips to come headed for my domestic U.S. flight from Buffalo to Phoenix, the cheapest way to begin my adventure. My excitement was bubbling over as months of anticipation were finally coming to fruition. With all my papers stacked neatly in order and three men of Middle Eastern decent ahead of me in line, I strolled up to my judge with the confidence of a rich American in a Costa Rican hooker bar.

I anticipated the standard questions and answered with absolute fluidity. I'm going to Buffalo. Flying to Phoenix. Starting a big trip through Latin America. But then things started to go slightly awry. I don't have a ticket, I booked it on the internet. I didn't print out the confirmation, I never need it. His next statement was like a knife in the back: "Well, I can't let you into the United States then." My confidence had been so high that I could only smile and giggle at the off-colour joke. But as I stared into his Medusa-like eyes I suddenly remembered that customs officers are completely void of humour. It is in fact the entire basis of the job interview. The candidate walks in, the interviewer tells him jokes, and if any white enamel of tooth should appear the candidate is immediately dismissed. This realization was like the pin to my confidence balloon and the smile on my face turned to a look of panic. 

There was no way that I was going home, of that much I was sure. I frantically tried to reason with him, but I was running on a treadmill and I knew it. Finally I pulled out the big gun: "You know, I am actually a U.S. citizen." Completely the truth and I expected his reply: "Can you prove it to me?".  Never thinking that I would actually use the photocopies of every evidence of my existence that my mother makes me bring, I rooted to the bottom of my bag and came up with my ticket to freedom, my U.S. citizenship card. Handing it to him with a lightened sense of being, I was absolutely shocked by his reaction. I could only watch as he crumpled up my last resort and threw at me, almost yelling: "Do you realize that it is against the law to show an officer a photocopy of a legal document?!" Of course, not realizing this, I was speechless. That was okay, because this 'officer' had lots to say. He spent the next ten minutes lecturing me on the need for the original, how he can't let me in with the photocopy, and believe it or not, that he should fine me for even showing it to him. After he felt like he had sufficiently belittled me, he paused long enough for me to begin a rebuttal, and then said: "But you're lucky I believe you. Go ahead." 

I wanted to scream and kick, I wanted realize every ounce of rage in my system but I knew I couldn't. I was in, and that's all that mattered. I conceded to the agent his power, his alpha male status; I maintained my composure as relief settled in, and like Sisyphus and his boulder, my mind began to push serenity back up to its precarious resting place.

But predictably it fell again. I lasted almost five months, but sometimes inner peace is no match for a big old pile of white hot rage. The omen was there first thing in the morning and perhaps Adam and I should have acknowledged it. We woke up with the sun just after 6am, an ambitious starting time but still well late for the one bus of the day leaving for the base of the highest peak in Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripo. We had decided that after a good week of beach time we were ready for something challenging, and the 3800m mountain seemed like just the thing. It is a two day affair, with a night spent in the mountain top hostel before decending the following day.

Energetic and not to be dissuaded by the missed alarm, we managed to half hike, half hitch and half bus our way the two hours to the closest town, San Gerardo. From there it was an (unexpected) two kilometer uphill battle on the road to the trail head. Although the heat at this relatively low elevation was already taking it's toll on us, our collective stubborness kept us from admitting our early fatigue. We hit the trail with a trained determination in our step, but after a 600 metre climb in the first two kilometres we were at the mercy of the mountain, praying that the next 14 kilometres would be less gruelling. The moutain lured us further with patches of flat ground, only to cruelly discipline us again and again. But the heat began to subside, and the legs, although burning, maintained enough strengh to give us hope of a successful climb. There were no gifts, and the final kilometre, dubbed 'The Repentants' by previous climbers punished us for our impending triumph.

But the pain only sweetened the victory as I made the final step on legs as stable as rope. I pulled up to the hostel reception and asked for two beds, already  feeling the relief of raising my legs. The 'agent' at the desk promptly asked me for my ticket, which of course I did not have. He explained to me that we were required to buy a park permit at the office in town before ascending Chirripo. Being completely oblivious to this requirement I immediately apologized and asked him how much we were required to pay him for the permits.

His stone cold eyes transported me back to my border encounter and immediately I knew that his power bags were packed and ready to go. Still his reply was staggering and unbelievable. He told me that since we did not have permits we could not stay at the hostel and were required to hike back to town the same day. Furthermore, he ensured me that this was the more desirable option as it was in his rights to have us deported from Costa Rica for illegal entry to a National Park. I could feel my boulder of serenity begin to sway, but not even considering a same-day return as an option I felt that diplomatically convincing him of it's utter impossiblity was the only solution. I had just finished hiking 18 kilometres in 6.5 hours with a 2300m elevation change. It was now 3pm and to do what he suggested, Adam and I would certainly be hiking a good distance in the eerie darkness of a foreign cloud forest, on legs weaker than a flamingo's.  I pleaded with the agent that sending two tourists down such a mountain in the dark, permit or not, was not a wise decision for the reputation of the park. He would not budge, not an inch, and even tried to convince me that the same action would be taken in my own country. I assured him it would not.

Seeing that diplomacy was futile, my boulder finally toppled, raising down my mind's Chirripo, crushing everything in its path. In the recesses of my mind where once I held serenity, flowed every dispicable Spanish word from every country I have visited. Before I knew it they were out my mouth and headed his way. As he slammed the door of the hostel in my face Adam appeared over the final ridge. Before I could begin to explain he knew that there was trouble and that the period had been typed.

We started to head back down, burning white rage fuelling my every step so that I was able to cover the first 6 km's in under an hour. Then exhaustion hit. The rest of the decent was like walking in cement, the mind wandered into sleep with just enough blood flow to keep the limbs operational. I barely noticed as night clouded us in dark with 7 kilometres to go.  But as the intriguing sounds of the darkened forest blared and we spotted interesting wildlife from owls to bats to bugs we both started to realize that the adventure the agent had inadvertantly provided us was better than we could have hoped. We started to quietly enjoy the challenge and when we finally stumbled into town in a zombie state we felt incredibly accomplished by the 38 km we had covered in a single day, more than either of us will ever attempt again. We are out here on the road in a constant hunt for adventure. But adventure cannot be found, it finds us.
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