As you might guess by the title of this blog entry this was one of the most stressful days we have had so far. We left Suchitoto, El Salvador and headed towards the Honduras border. The drive was uneventful and we reached the border. The best way to know you are arriving at a border is the group of 20+ men running towards you, waving their arms as if your car was on fire, flashing badges and whistling at you. This business of being a border helper is cut throat and those closest to our windows have the best chance of making a couple of bucks. They come at you from all sides, too, not just the driver’s side. “It’s going to take you 4 hours if you do it alone. I’ll get you through in 30 minutes max. There are four offices and it is really expensive.” Matthias and I were both thinking that this was the usual ploy to get us to spend a ton of money for their services, but this time it was us who were wrong. Everything they told us was true.
I was hoping to get through this border crossing by doing everything myself. At the last 3 border crossings we were able to get everything accomplished on our own and I was confident I could do it again. The first few steps were pretty straightforward. We left El Salvador without any problems. We drove past the office where we were supposed to get our car permit cancelled, but the twenty men running after our car whistled and yelled at us to come back. We figured that they all couldn’t be wrong so I went in and, sure enough, they were right. That was the office to get our car permit cancelled. I got the permit cancelled without problems, and I still thought I had everything under control. We went to Honduras Immigration and one guy, Rene, just wouldn’t leave me alone. I really didn’t want his help, but he just kept walking with me and pointing me to the window I needed to go to. We got our tourist cards and the final step was to get our car permit.
I started to appreciate Rene when he first pointed me to the office I needed to go to to get all the paperwork started. There was no sign “Get Your Vehicle Permits Here!” or even the slightest clue that this is where I needed to start. When I finished in this office the woman said “Ok, now you can go to the next office.” Luckily Rene knew and I followed him. I still felt I could do this on my own and was reluctant to start any conversation with him, lest he think I actually wanted his help. But my Spanish is so bad, and he was really helpful telling me how much to pay and when and what papers to hand over. Eventually I gave in, and by the end I was thankful he was there. There really were 4 offices we had to visit, and then get copies and then return, and get more stamps and pay more money. I do believe that even with my bad Spanish I could have gotten the permit, but in the end I was happy to pay him ten dollars to speed everything along. I’m sure Matthias, William and Julian were happy too because it was hot and there were a lot of wierdos hanging around this border.
We left the border around 2:30 and were hoping to spend a night in Honduras and then cross over into Nicaragua the next day. We set off and just a couple minutes down the road we were stopped at a road block. A tall, gangly, sinister man came up to our window and asked for Matthias’ driver’s license. We had a really hard time understanding what he was saying, but it sounded like he wasn’t happy with Matthias’ driver’s license. We double checked that it hadn’t expired and tried to understand what he was saying to us. Eventually he mumbled under his breath “viente dollares.” We understood perfectly what he wanted: twenty dollars. But Matthias looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders and said “No entiendo!” (I don’t understand.) He said it again, but we just continued to play dumb. Eventually he gave Matthias his license back and waved us through. We felt so disillusioned at this point. The border crossing was expensive (about $60), by far the most expensive up until now. Right away we were confronted with corruption in Honduras. We just wanted to get out there as fast as possible. The border to Nicaragua was only 120 km away and we decided to go and hope we could get through fast before dark.
We made good time through Honduras and arrived at the border just after 4:00 PM. Our odometer is in miles and our map was in kilometers. Mileposts can be spotty in this part of the world, so we are never exactly sure how far we are from any given destination. We realized we were at the border when the swarms of men descended on our car. There were no signs that we were about to leave Honduras, just the masses of men trying to get us to change money and offer help crossing the border. To start a border crossing this late in the day was a bit risky since we don’t like to drive at night and the next town with hotels was 77 kilometers away. We had resigned ourselves to crossing into Nicaragua that day, so I went up to the border and started things moving. We got our tourist cards for Nicaragua. The man told me it would cost us 7 dollars for myself, William and Julian, but for some reason Matthias’ tourist card would cost 8 dollars. Normally that would come to $29.00. At first I gave him $14.00. But then he said he needed $14.00 more. I was still one dollar short, but he seemed happy and gave me a receipt. But the funny thing was that the total on the receipt was only $8.00. If you ask me, he took me for twenty-bucks. I bet it really only costs $2.00 per person, which is why the receipt was for $8.00. Really all I wanted was to get through as fast as I could, so I didn’t ask any questions and just kept going. Getting the car permit for Honduras cancelled was a piece of cake, and getting the new car permit for Nicaragua was just as easy. I think it only took us 45 minutes to get through the border, which should be record time.
At one point when I was waiting for the border patrolman to finish his game of solitaire and finish stamping our passports I looked out and saw Matthias standing outside our car with a group of men around him. The stories he has to tell of border crossings are totally different than my stories. He’s out there with kids and con-artists and beggars, and most of the time in the heat with two little kids in the car. I thought I had it rough for having to go in and get all the paper work straightened out, but I’m not so sure. He’s got a lot of stories to tell about border crossings, too, and I think he’ll write a blog entry about them soon.
We were through the border crossing before 5:00 PM, but now we had to get to the next major city. We thought 77 km would be a quick drive, but the roads past the border were awful. They were paved with enormous pot holes, and Matthias had to drive like a slalom skier to get through them. At the rate we were going it would take us 3 hours to get to the next town. Then the roads got worse. They went from paved with potholes to dirt roads in even rougher shape. There was also a storm brewing in the horizon and we could tell we were headed straight for it. We came to a police control. They checked our passports, driver’s license, vehicle permit and they even asked us if we had insurance. We showed them our old Allstate card, which probably isn’t even valid anymore, but they had no idea that US insurance isn’t valid outside of the country. It worked for them though. We also asked how long it would take to get to the next town and they said an hour and a half. It was certainly going to be dark by then.
It got dark quite fast, but luckily the road became much better. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch devastated most of this area. Some of the roads have been repaired, but a lot have not. Luckily it was only a small portion that was really bad. 75% of the drive was on good paved roads, but what also made it so difficult was that every now and again you would run into a section that was dirt roads and it was impossible to anticipate when, and it was so dark it was almost impossible to see. If the oncoming cars were approaching slowly you could guess that the road was about to turn bad. Or if there was a car in front of us that suddenly braked, you could guess that the road was about to turn to dirt again. One good thing about the storm was that every time lightning struck the streets were illuminated well and we could see the road. Eventually it started to pour. The pavement was so hot from the sun during the day, and the cool rain caused the streets to steam. For at least half of the drive the roads were swirling with steam like a witch’s cauldron and it was impossible to see if the road was actually good pavement or dirt road. This was a very stressful drive for Matthias.
We eventually made it and even found a decent hotel room. Now we are in Nicaragua and are struggling with more police controls. We were warned by the Peace Corps volunteers we met in El Salvador that Nicaragua is rough on drivers. They’ll pull you over for anything with the hopes of getting a few bucks out of the deal. We were pulled over once so far and we think the police officer was trying to tell us that we passed a bus illegally. We really didn’t fully understand what he was trying to say to us. Eventually he got mad and just waved us on. I think from now out we’re going to continue to play dumb.
Tags: Border Crossings, Corruption, El Salvador, Honduras, Honduras Nicaragua, Nicaragua