This post is so long and tedious you will want to choke someone by the end of it. Which is exactly how I felt after experiencing it. I did not choke anyone. I ate two bowls of chocolate ice cream instead. I’ll have another after I write this. Onward.

UPDATE: Please also see Shipping A Pet, a one-paragraph update.

Paper brought me to my knees today. Paper pushing actually. I am now deeply in awe of the ticos mastery of paper pushing. If only they could make money at it. Oh wait. They do. Today, they made mine.

Mom sent us Boo, her puppy. Put her on a plane in Atlanta, eta San Jose 1:45pm. All I had to do was pick her up at the cargo office near the airport. There may be a customs’ charge, maybe not. I may need an agent, maybe not. The whole pick-up-your-dog process may be inscribed in stone, but that rock is buried under paper in an office somewhere. Probably right near where I was standing.

Bringing me to my knees only took the pushing of fifteen sheets of paper, more or less. Plus the ten bureaucrats in seven offices in three buildings that pushed that tiny stack. Pushing to include but not limited to reading every word, stamping, stapling, typing, copying, signing, comparing, adding to, taking away, standing around, answering the cel, chatting and yucking it up while I waited. And looking at and copying my passport several times. All in just eight hours. I was in tears after five and a half.

If you pushed those 15 sheets to all the required spots in an efficient manner, the whole process would have taken maybe 30 minutes. Tops. But, Silly Grasshopper, to be a master at paper pushing is to know that you cannot rush a paper. Paper needs time. And consideration. You only push for a few seconds and then you kill time for about an hour while the person whose paper you are pushing runs around in a circle to entertain you.

Unless, of course, the person paid the bribe. If you’ve paid the bribe, the process is considerably shorter and simpler. The very first set of paper pushers told me so. Right out loud. But I refused to pay the bribe because I don’t do bribes. Stupid Dummy Gringo Grasshopper.

On Monday, when I knew Boo was coming, I called the number of the Agente de Animales. In his halting English, he told me I needed an agente aduana (customs’ agent). And that I should look in the yellow pages to find one. That this agent would “go to the three places I needed to go to” for me… This did not make sense to me (there she goes with that “making sense” crap). I needed an agent to pick up a mutt? Even if I did need an agent, I was so confused about how to find one. Maybe I misinterpreted the facts. I decided to go to the airport really early, start at the Delta counter and work my way through the process.

This is a reasonable plan. I know it is. It is such an undeniably reasonable plan, it cannot fail. Right?

Today 10:30am. I arrive at Juan Santamaria International Airport, park, head into the terminal to the Delta counter. Empty. I am told they arrive at 11:30am. I head downstairs and get a cup of coffee. Two Germans share my table, we talk about – what else – U.S. politics.

11:15 Back upstairs to the Delta counter where there are three couples in line in front of the empty counter. There’s a back-to-the-earth lesbian couple from Vermont, an elderly bird-watching couple from Ohio and two sisters from DC, one a lawyer, one a 35-year veteran of the public school system. They all love Costa Rica and want to live here. Not one of them had the day I had. Neither had I. Yet.

12:10 Three cheerful Delta employees show up and start checking us in. I step up and ask how do I go about picking up my dog from cargo? She gives me a number to call for cargo and sends me on my way. God, this is so easy!!!

I call the cargo number and she tells me they are one mile west of the terminal. Well, I know the road dead-ends in a cul-de-sac about 50 meters down the street. Going a mile is not possible. I drive around in a circle for 10 minutes, calling her back. I ask what color is the building, what is the name of the building, everything I can think of in my terrible Spanish. I do see a road that heads north… I finally take it because there’s nothing else to do. Even though the words “turn right at the only road that heads off this street” never left her lips, I take a chance. The road heads north for 2 blocks… then heads west. A mile later, there’s the cargo building big as life.

12:45 The building is huge with people milling about and many offices. I find the Delta Cargo office on the second floor. It’s locked, closed for lunch. Undeterred, I try another door a little further down the hall. A nice man in there speaks English and offers a wealth of information. It sounded EXACTLY like he knew what he was talking about.

He said the plane lands at 1:45, it takes about an hour to offload the plane, so come back at 3pm and pick up your dog. If the dog is valued at over $500, you will need a customs’ agent, but otherwise, you won’t. GREAT. I am set!

Not enough time to go home, I go to Denny’s and have half a burger, saving the rest for Boo. Who I will see shortly. With time to kill, I drive into Alajuela, find an internet cafe, check my mail, surf around.

2:40 I head back to cargo and Boo. The fun is about to begin. The cargo office is open, they know who I am, they have my paperwork in front of them (proof of vaccination, etc, that mom sent). And for only $26 they will hand it to me over the counter. OK. Fine.

Then they – 2 young people and an older guy – tell me they have an agente aduana to walk me through the process. He is not very expensive and there are many bad people downstairs that will offer to help me but who will not be as good or as cheap as their guy. I ask if I’m required to have A Guy.

Interestingly, they never say “No.” Instead, they turn into used car salespeople, offering benefits without ever answering my question. “He will save you time, he will save you money, he’s a good guy, we know him. If you do it yourself, it will take at least 3-4 hours. He is experienced, knows how to do this. He can get it done in an hour.”

This all smells bribe-ish to me. (Duh, you think?) I balk. I ask how much. They call the friend and he says $70. I say no thank you. “Tengo tiempo, no tengo dinero.” [I have time, I don’t have money.] Hey, I can save 70 bucks here. And this dog has cost plenty: $275 for the freight, $75 for the vet to give an all-clear on the dog’s health, and $25 to hand the paperwork to Delta on Mom’s end. This puppy better have a nose for gold.

3pm I ask what is the next step. They say customer service downstairs. I’m there, I take a number. It is not crowded and by 3:16, I’m in front of a service person. My girl shuffles through my paperwork, looks at my passport, shows it all to a sitting down person in the back, returns. Whoops. It turns out I’m in front of her prematurely.

She makes two copies of my passport and tells me to go to the building next door and have el hombre enter me in the system. Now, she has a computer right there hooked into the system. I know this because she looked on it and discovered I wasn’t on there yet. Why couldn’t SHE enter me in the system? Because its el hombre’s job in the other building, Silly Impatient Grasshopper!

“Then,” she says confidently – and in Spanish. EVERYONE but me is speaking really good Spanish – sounding EXACTLY like she knows what she’s talking about, “you come back to this building and go to the aduana office right down the hall. Then you pick up your dog.” OK. I can do this.

I head to the other building, passing nervously in front of some 18-wheelers being parked by 18-year-olds, into one of those perfect examples of a third-world institutional building: low ceilings with the dingy squares all askew, equipped with centuries-old dingy scraped partitions covered in stamps and markers and stickers (like graffiti, not like informational stuff), metal desks, crappy chairs, fluorescent lights, dusty stacks and stacks and stacks of folders rubber-banded together and stuffed under desks. And new Dell computers. There is a wasteland of stations, but only two occupied. I sit down in front of one. El hombre asks for a copy of my passport. I hand him my passport. He says no, he needs una copia. OK. Gosh, I happen to have one. He takes quite a long time typing in my name and number (that’s all the pertinent info unless he’s adding Cute Gringo to my page), answers his cell, chats and yucks it up with another hombre who walked up. Fifteen minutes later, he says finito. Great. I’m in the system.

I’m back in the first building at the aduana office. The agente looks at my paperwork and tells me dos cositas [two small things]. I have to go to the MAC office. Which is back in the other building. Then back to customer service, the first place I took a number. OK.

Go to MAC. Have no idea what that means. The agente there looks at the paperwork, types into a computer, stamps some stuff. When he’s done, he looks around nervously, the place is mysteriously empty… he requests 1,450 colones. This is like $3. I ask if he has change for my 2,000 colones bill. He does not. I root around in my bag. Someone walks in and he says “never mind.” I look at him with my “you’re kidding” look. This was a quick bribe and he’s asking for COIN? Anyway.

4:05 Back at customer service. Take a number, wait a minute, sit in front of my girl. She takes my paperwork into the back again and is there for 15 minutes talking to the sitting down person. The sitting down person, who saw my documents earlier, is now reading every word. My girl is looking at me, then looking at Miss Sitting Down, looking at me, looking at her. Back and forth.

Finally, my girl returns. A crowd gathers around my paperwork. Something is terribly wrong but I’ll be damned if I or anyone else knows what it is. Miss Sitting Down has come out to talk to me. After another few minutes of confusion during which, unbeLIEVEably, no one really seems to know exactly what I need to do next, she says maybe I’ll need to come back in the morning…

Boo has to sleep here because this outfit is so wildly inefficient…? I burst into tears. This has an effect. Miss Sitting Down walks me back to the aduana guy. They chat for a few minutes in rapid-fire Spanish. He says I need to see el jefe [the boss] in the other building. Whatever. They close at 6pm, an hour and a half. Suddenly, this does not seem like very much time. I’m on my way.

But I am no longer alone. There is a neatly dressed but slightly drunk guy who has been hanging around. Turns out he’s one of those disreputable people who will offer to help you navigate the waters here. He attaches himself to me and walks me to the other building. I try to ignore him but he will not be ignored. And he’s so goddamn cheerful.

This is my third stroll in not very comfortable shoes. I’m blistering and it is painful. I also have on a sweater because, while it’s freezing on my mountain, it ain’t the least bit chilly in San Jose. I’m now a sweating sobbing gringo. So not pretty.

We wait for el jefe at one of the dingy cubicles. He takes his own sweet time. Finally, he descends the stairs. He is unpleasant, the only unpleasant person I’ve encountered. My drunk guy chats him up, clearly intimidated. El jefe glances at my paperwork. He tells my drunk guy I need Juan’s signature and waves us off toward another part of the building.

It’s getting late, we are moving quickly. We head out the front door, around the building to a side glass door that had been shattered and now has the remnants of old shredded black plastic taped over the entire door flapping in the breeze. The inside of the door has cardboard taped to it. Security. I don’t care. But this door is closed. My drunk guy mutters “Oh no,” and smacks his head. He thinks quickly – he’s not that drunk – and we head back in the front door, through a doorway that says “Solo Empleados Autorizado” [authorized employees only] to an office where sits Juan.

I can see the back of el jefe‘s head from Juan’s doorway. Why the trip around the building….? Anyway. Juan is the most efficient guy we’ve encountered by a long shot. He glances at the paperwork, initials it and hands it back. We return to el jefe.

Who slowly and carefully looks over my paperwork and now sees there is a number missing. My drunk guy grabs my paperwork, runs to the main building, gets the missing number and runs back. I decide I will give him $2,000,000 for this.

I’m now sharing my cubicle with a nattily dressed tico couple importing a red sportscar. Everyone admires the car, including my drunk guy and el jefe. They all chat and laugh while el jefe does their paperwork. I know they paid the bribe because they have their agente aduana. Even ticos hire an agente! They look content. I’m sure they have not burst into tears. Finally el jefe is done with them and gets back to my paperwork.

Then el jefe and I share A Moment. He asks if I am going to pay my drunk guy. I say yes. I learned my lesson. You guys are good teachers. I didn’t tell him about the $2M. He looked at me for a little too long. Then went back to my paperwork. THEN he hands me a bill for import duty for the dog: $80. I resist for only a minute. I’ve become submissive. Xavier is going to love this.

Guess where the 80 bucks gets paid? Uh huh. The other building. My drunk and I trudge back, I pay the bill, trudge BACK to el jefe‘s throne. Where he finally gives me the one precious piece of paper that will get me the dog I no longer want. Back to the main building where I have to pay another $14, for what I don’t remember… I’m delirious, blistered, smelly, hot, thirsty and so frickin’ stunned by this circus.

It’s not the 3-4 hours that gets to you. It’s the circus.

5:50 My drunk and I get in my car and drive around to the back of the building where they bring Boo right out. She is a little in shock, but pretty good. Happy to see grass! Because I now love him, I offer to drive my drunk guy back to San Jose. I gratefully offer him 10,000 colones [$20]. He takes it and says his fee is 5,000 [$10] more. I don’t have it. I do have 4,000 [$8] and give that to him. I’m still grateful.

Boo and I come home. I eat ice cream, Winston is ecstatic, Boo warms up to Winston immediately. I clean the poop and pee out of Boo’s cage and eat more ice cream. Nothing, unfortunately, interferes with my appetite.

The Moral of The Story

Pay the bribe. I realized in my surreal el jefe Moment this is not a bribe. This is How It Works. It seems dishonest to us gringos when we first encounter it. But no one is fooling anyone, you get the picture right up front. You are paying someone to help you do what you should be able to do without them, true. And if you don’t pay the bribe, it will be more complicated and you will be sorry. Unfair, definitely. But what are we ALWAYS telling our children?

It’s like a tax only more honest than a tax: it goes right to the people who are greasing the wheels without the middle man. My $70 wasn’t going to one person. I’m sure my $30 isn’t either. It’s going to be spread around amongst the various players. I can appreciate that. There’s hope for this Grasshopper.

P.S. Angela from Relocation Costa Rica wrote to me in the comments below. I thought I’d put it up here so you all don’t have to learn my lesson the hard way:

“I have done this both ways, with and without help and the with help moves so much more smoothly. This is all the customs agents do all day and they know the process. When you look at all that they have to do $70.00 doesn’t seem like so much to pay to ease the pain. By the way, should you decide to do this again, I have a good and reliable customs agent that I have been working with for a couple of years that is good at what he does and he is right there at the terminal.”

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