December 4-7: Central American border crossings, physical and otherwise

Never before on this trip have Harry and I crossed so many borders in such a short amount of time: we went from Guatemala to El Salvador, from El Salvador to Honduras, and from Honduras to Nicaragua in only four days. The map below shows the route traveled.

centroamerica map route 7Dec

Despite my strange experience in Antigua (see previous post), the overall impression I got of Guatemala is decidedly upbeat. The landscape–with its rolling hills and high-altitude roads–is pleasant and full of life, and the people we encountered at gas stations, in shops and along our path were friendly and warm. Of course Guatemala remains a troubled country, but what we got to see was much more positive than grim.

We left Antigua mid-day on Dec. 4 and headed southeast. Road signs are few and far between in this region, and the iOverlander GPS unfortunately lost its signal soon after our departure, but folks on the street were helpful and pointed us in the right direction. At times the descent from Antigua to the Panamericana was so steep that la bestia‘s front brakes were smoking — even though I was using low gears to lighten their load.

 

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The first challenge awaited us at the Valle Nuevo border crossing to El Salvador: the bridge connecting the two countries was closed due to a massive pothole that posed an acute safety risks for trucks. Although we arrived at 3PM, we had to wait until 5:30PM for the border to be reopened.

 

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I seized the opportunity to treat myself to pupusas (fried corn tortillas filled with cheese) in a spicy red sauce. I was pretty soaked of sweat at that point anyway, so why not indulge in some hot food on top of it.

 

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It was already dark when we finally made it across the bridge. Leaving Guatemala took a little longer because of two border officials who did not seem to be particularly motivated and sent me running for additional photocopies of various documents. Thankfully entering El Salvador was much quicker; one of the officers even walked me to the immigration desk and waited behind me until all forms had been completed and stamped. However, I wasn’t happy to continue driving in the dark and decided that we should stop at the nearest hotel for the night.

 

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Thanks to iOverlander we found Hotel El Altillo in Ahuachapan and were greeted by the friendly family who runs it.

 

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The next day (Dec. 5) we continued to the capital San Salvador. The streets in El Salvador are in decent shape overall, with delays usually being due to other factors.

 

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We reached San Salvador’s city center shortly after noon — and after what felt like a blindfolded chase across a dark room: for some reason my GPS was still not working, and local residents had trouble naming streets (which presumably aren’t known by their official numbers), let alone provide accurate directions.

 

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What helped us in the end was the city’s impressive bus rapid transport system: knowing that its main axes run north-south and east-west, and taking into account that the sun was in the south, I was eventually able to locate the small hostel near the university campus for which I had made an online booking the night before. The owner immediately fell in love with Harry, and although she remained categorically opposed to him joining me in my room, she made a point of telling all the other guests–including a Cuban physicist with whom I had a fascinating conversation about Cuba’s impending turn toward capitalist exploitation–about our trip. I then spent the rest of the afternoon getting groceries at Super Selectos and replacing my Mexican cell phone, which for some reason had imploded a few days earlier and–according to a backyard geek in Antigua–was beyond repair.

 

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On Dec. 6 we reached the border between El Salvador and Honduras in the early afternoon. We had left San Salvador at 9AM to get there earlier in the day, but the Panamericana often only has one lane in each direction, so one slow-moving truck holds up dozens of potentially faster vehicles.

It was Sunday, and a long line of trucks began kilometers before the actual border at El Amatillo. As soon as la bestia approached the end of this line, half a dozen scruffy-looking men ran toward us. They knocked at the driver’s window and yelled in both broken English and Spanish: “Border is closed!”, “Today Sunday. Very long wait! Three hours! I can help!”, “Border very difficult! Five dollars, I do for you!” I lowered the window a few inches, waited until the tramitadores–self-appointed fixers with official-looking IDs dangling around their necks–had to catch their breaths and replied–in Spanish–that I did not need their assistance. “You my friend,” several of them exclaimed in response (this appears to be a globally popular proposition), “I make special price…!” Suddenly I realized that several hundred meters ahead of me, one of the truck drivers was waiving. He seemed to signal that I should pass the long line of trucks by driving on the dirt stretch next to the road. As I pulled onto it, the tramitadores panicked. “Police!”, one of them screamed. “Not allowed! You jail!”

I am happy to report that I did not end up in jail, but rather right in front of the immigration building. Leaving El Salvador was, in fact, surprisingly smooth (rendering it the relatively most efficient country in the region as far as my experience with border crossings are concerned), but getting into Honduras was a different matter altogether. Another hoard of tramitadores was already waiting.

“You park here,” one of them shouted. I nodded, then passed him and pulled into a spot farther away that provided a bit of shade. “Okay, you park here,” he ordered. “Now we go to this window.” I looked at him. “My friend,” I replied in Spanish, “I have no idea where you are going, but you are not going with me.” He stared at me. “You no respect me!” “No, I don’t,” I said smilingly, “because you’re swelling my balls (hincha pelotas).” He seemed baffled. “You no respect me, I no respect you!”, he puffed — and took off.

While waiting for my documents to be inspected, I started chatting with a Spanish couple standing a few yards behind me. Suddenly one of the tramitadores cut in line and positioned himself right in front of the officer’s window, someone else’s papers in hand. As I was still contemplating what to do, the Spanish woman jumped at him. “This is bullshit, you asshole,” she said sternly — and, of course, in Spanish. “Fuck off.” It worked, and he vanished as swiftly as he had appeared.

We were still laughing about the incident as the Honduran officer suddenly pulled the curtain of his booth and switched to the adjacent window where an older couple was already waiting — even though until seconds earlier that window had clearly been closed (I later noticed that this happened every twenty minutes or so, presumably as part of a scheme run by some of the tramitadores and some of the border officials). What immediately drew my attention was the woman’s “Rotary Club”-embroidered polo shirt. “Hello,” I greeted her. “Do you feel privileged?” She gave me a blank stare. “I figure you must feel very important with your Rotary shirt and your money that you use to game the system.” She said nothing. The Spanish guy joined in. “So corruption in Honduras is what the upper class uses to get what its wants?”, he asked rhetorically. Suddenly the heavy-set husband turned around. “Shut up!”, he yelled.

At that very moment and by the grace of all the deities above, I recalled some very special expressions that my late Argentinean host father taught me. I won’t repeat them here; suffice it to say that the couple seemed sufficiently impressed to abandon their attempt and instead let a Salvadoran woman who had patiently waited right behind me take their spot. Hugo, sos un grande.

“It is very simple,” a Honduran guy who had observed the situation commented a few minutes after the Rotary couple had left the scene. “Nine out of ten times, they get what they pay for. Today was the tenth time.” He laughed. We all did.

 

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Although ranking one spot ahead of Nicaragua in terms of GDP per capita, as well as three spots higher in the Human Development Index, to me Honduras felt more destitute. The street scene above doesn’t tell much — I simply couldn’t get myself to take pictures of begging children and road workers folding their hands and signaling that they were hungry. On three occasions villagers tried to stop me with ropes across the street. I smiled and waved — but continued to drive. The ropes were dropped and the smiles were returned.

Honduras also seems to have the worst roads in Central America: I have never come across so many potholes before. Several times when I had accidentally failed to avoid one, I feared that la bestia‘s wheels might get ripped off. She mastered the task without hiccups (oh, my Land Cruiser, how I love thee), until…

 

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… I thought I had already warded off the tramitadores at the border with Nicaragua on Dec. 7. As I was about to park la bestia, she suddenly sank — and took my heart with her. I simply hadn’t noticed a gaping hole resulting from a missing grid supposed to cover a rainwater ditch running alongside the beaten-up road. When I got out, only half of la bestia‘s right front wheel was still visible, and of course she wouldn’t move. The tramitadores immediately realized that this was an opportunity: three of them grabbed the bull bar and pulled upward. Nothing.

But then it struck me: what, after all, was a differential lock for? I engaged it, put in the L gear, and hit the pedal. Two seconds later, la bestia was free. Everyone was thrilled: I, because I narrowly avoided a major delay and potentially expensive roadside assistance, and the tramitadores because a hefty tip was in sight. I smiled and explained: “You’ve really helped me just now, and I am very grateful. I will give all of you a tip, but under one condition: none of you will approach me afterwards — for anything. Deal?” “Deal!”, they bawled. All of them seemed happy with the US$5 I donated, and I saw none of them again. What a blessing in disguise!

 

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Reinforcing my impression of abject poverty, dozens of boys aged 6-12 were working side by side with adult tramitadores. They offered help to truckers, offered water in plastic bags to waiting drivers, or begged for change. It made me sad to witness their destitution and industrious frenzy amid their naive wit and, yes: their bright smiles.

 

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We crossed into Nicaragua just before noon and after spending less than two hours at the border. The road improved slightly, but for about ten minutes we were following a bus that seemed to literally burn while its front and rear axles were driving on separate tracks. When we eventually managed to overtake it, the driver waved at us and honked his horn.

 

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We’ve set up shop in Leon for the next few days. Today (Dec. 7) Nicaraguans celebrate Maria’s (presumably) immaculate conception with fireworks and lots of brass music. I have been enjoying the spectacle with a Trinidad corona on the hostal’s terrace and look forward to dinner at a Spanish tapas bar.

But what about Harry, you may ask? He is once again allowed to stay with me in the room. And to my amazement, to date he has crossed all Central American borders without any issues. The approach that produced this highly desirable outcome could adequately be described as, “what the eye doesn’t see, the heart [here: bureaucratic mind] won’t grieve over.” Whenever I was asked by a border official whether I was traveling alone, I replied, “yes.” None of them asked about a dog, and only in Nicaragua did I have to complete a customs form that had a question about “live animals.” I ticked the correct box (“yes”) and handed the form to the official. He looked at it for half a second and dropped it on top of a large stack of completed forms. Then he demanded to inspect the bicycle that I am carrying with me on la bestia‘s rear rack. We went over to the car, he took a walk around it, even squeezed the bike’s rear tire — but didn’t appear to notice Harry staring at him. “Buen viaje,” he mumbled. “Gracias,” I replied.

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4 thoughts on “December 4-7: Central American border crossings, physical and otherwise

    • Danke Dir, Hannes! Ja, irgendwie habe ich eine Korruptionsallergie. Mir ist natuerlich klar, dass ich allein so gut wie nichts veraendern kann, aber wenigstens tu’ ich meinen Teil, damit klar ist, dass diese Verhaltensformen durchaus wahrgenommen und missbilligt werden. Wer weiss, wofuer es am Ende gut ist.

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    • Thanks a lot, Cassandra and Aaron! I hope you and Piña have crossed without problems by the time you’re reading this. I am also happy to report that my current hosts in Managua have indeed just given me a bottle of Flor de Caña :). All the best! D.

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