Years ago, before Costa Rica’s advertising and publicity machine kicked into high gear, I was staying in a hostel that happened to be a few doors down from the Nicaraguan embassy, which was a good distance from embassy row. Members of the Nicaraguan opposition took over the building. The Nicaraguan government said it wasn’t their problem, since the building was in Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans said that the embassy was Nicaraguan property, so it wasn’t their problem, either. The only problem the rest of us had was navigating our way through the cable-strewn camp of bored, card-playing news crews. So what’s a revolutionary to do when nobody cares about your demands and the pizza place on the corner stops delivering because you’ve run out of money? Settle for a coach-class seat to Havana.

Whether you’re on your own or with a group, it’s usually a good idea to have a backup plan and budget.

You may have stood in line going through US customs and immigration. It’s slow, but not as bad as Heathrow. Or you can have yourself and your bags taken apart piece-by-piece in Miami because your pack is old and ratty, your clothes need laundering and your hair needs cutting. As Arlo Guthrie told us, “they was leavin’ no part untouched.” At least they didn’t charge me for a prostate exam.

Or you can simply be waived thru the line in several Latin American countries exactly because your pack is old and ratty, your clothes need laundering and your hair needs cutting. If I’d been bringing anything illegal into the US, I would have dressed like an old IBM’r [I’ve seen ICE/DEA arrest people who look like this at ABQ. Many more stories from that trip, at another time.]

Maybe you’ve had to stand around making small talk for a while when your tour guide takes all of your group’s passports through a border crossing. It’s boring, but reasonably efficient because your guide knows the drill and local language. Are you talking about anything new with your fellow travelers? Learning anything interesting? Gaining any new experiences that you won’t have back home? I once tried to enter an African country at a rural outpost and was told that the visa I’d prepaid for at their Cape Town consulate didn’t exist in their data base. I noticed a window reflection showing their computer’s solitaire screen was still up. I reached for the receipt in my wallet, confusing it with a few pieces of more colorful paper. The woman apologized for the computer delay, stamped my passport and wished me a pleasant stay in her country. It still cost me less than a tour bus.

Sometimes, incentives are the only way to leave a country. Standing in line at a major South American airport an official told me that he couldn’t put his exit stamp in my passport, because I didn’t have an entry stamp. After all, how could he authorize me leaving a place I’d never entered? I’d come in overland a few weeks earlier and the guard in charge of making sure that no one stole their border just waved us through before going back to sleep. The airport official sent me to the end of the line and told me to wait there. After telling his supervisor he was taking a bathroom break, we resolved the issue and I was able to leave the country. I probably could have talked my way through things without my minor investment in the local economy, but considering the quality of my Spanish, I would have missed my flight by the time I succeeded. There’s lots more to the story than this, but it’s for telling over a beer or three someday. Oh yes, I should probably mention that this is the same flight that brought me to Miami, where US authorities asked me to turn the other cheek.

There’s no such thing as a bad experience. Only the beginning of a beautiful story.

Jim Flynn, Raleigh, NC [1981]