I should start this post my mentioning that I am actually writing it approximately five months after it happened. I am not sure what caused my endless procrastination. I think it is a combination of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that I needed to write to paint a full picture, and my brain’s refusal to remember that day. Teresa has been really passionate about me writing the post so here it is …
We had a challenge: save time and do a 220 mile drive and two border crossings in one day. Cross from El Salvador to Nicaragua transit through Honduras. Other travelers before us had done it so we decided to give it a shot. Simple right?
Preparation is the key to success. We spent time carefully studying other travelers’ (see LifeRemotely’s posts) accounts in the days before. We made thousands photocopies (anything more than 10 photocopies of the same sheet of paper might as well be called thousands) of all possible documents we could think of. We packed all electronics deep in the car. We made our car trunk inspection ready. Personal items like socks, underwear, tooth brushes, soap, condoms and simply anything that might cause a policeman to avoid sticking his hand in there bubbled to the surface of our cloths drawers. We also pulled safety triangles, medic kit and a fire extinguisher out on the back seats ready for any safety concerned police officers. We expected countless checkpoints and the strategy was to spend as little time in each as possible.
The big day eventually came. We got up at 5am, quickly packed away everything, grabbed some quick breakfast and hit the road a little before 6am. Five minutes on the road and we hit the first snag … Horrible metal clunking from the front right tire. After a ten minutes spot inspection and Teresa driving the car back and forth in front of me I decided 220 miles of flat road is not that much of a distance so we would push forward. Besides, we had rehearsed all the things that needed to happen that day so much that ‘three working breaks’ could not stop us … All puns intended ☺.
We made it to the El Salvador border around 7am. On the way there two touts chased us on a motorcycle for more than 5km. Only Teresa’s wrist-in-your-face Jedi trick accompanied with a scolding ‘NO!’ had them backing off. The El Salvador border was relatively speaking a breeze. It took us only about an hour to get stamped out of the country. Most of the time was spent waiting in line to submit our passport for a stamp.
Next was Honduras. We slowly drove over an old two-lane bridge between El Salvador and Honduras. This is how things looked on the other side of the bridge. There were three large groups of people. The first seemed to be about a hundred folks congregating in a circle around two small windows. It later turned out this was ‘a line’ where we had to wait. Teresa’s North American sense of order and the aforementioned swarm of people were, how to say, a bit incompatible. If her eyes were lazers there would have been a hundred motionless burned bodies laying there …The second group of people was money exchange folks. To be part of this group you have to be a shady looking guy in your forties, have a belly, wear jeans and dark sunglasses (t-shirt’s not required) and be able to hold five thousand bills in your hand. The final group of people was there just to sit, usually on top of old gutted vehicles, and people gaze. This last group of folks made us both nervous so after Teresa got her passport stamped she sat in the car with windows up, doors locked and a club on the steering wheel while I was running around to get the car documents in order. The car was parked in front of the customs office and a police station and it still felt we needed one of us to be looking at the car the whole time.
The only puzzling experience at the Honduras border was paying the import tax. I had to go to a local bank to pay a fee for the car, which had to be in local money. You would think that since it is a bank they will accept card payments or at least they will be able to exchange USD to pay the bill. Think again… Why would a bank do that?! The teller politely told me to go out of the bank and find me a chubby shirtless man wearing jeans and dark shades to exchange my Benjamins …
Driving in Honduras can be summarized as ‘14 police checkpoints in one hundred miles’. Miraculously we did not get pulled over anywhere. The LifeRemotely folks compared the Honduras-Nicaragua border to a war zone but I think the actual bombardment had been on the Honduras road leading to the border. At one point we hit a well-paved stretch of road and I let my guard down. Before we knew it the good road ended and we hit at 60mph a GOP (Game Over Pothole). The pothole was so big our entire wheel fell in and after the hit the car skidded a little. I could swear our tire had exploded. I pulled on the side of the road cursing in all languages I know. For my absolute astonishment our tire was still intact. To this day I don’t understand how. In case you wonder this was the same wheel with the broken breaks … (later in Leon we changed breaks and wheel bearings on that same wheel).
The next Honduras border looked equally rundown as the first except there were all-in-all 5 people including the border officials. Apparently nobody wanted to go to Nicaragua … We quickly started our mandatory Central American running in circles dance even with step-by-step instructions. One hour later we were back in the car and driving over another bridge to enter Nicaragua.
Nicaragua felt like a step change relative to El Salvador and two steps to Honduras. Border officials had white uniforms and there were luxury items like signs, doors, ACs and proper lines. Thank God so Teresa could relax a little. The only other interesting thing worth mentioning here was that the immigration office was plastered with Hugo Chavez pictures. It had been one week since Hugo Chavez had passed away. I snapped a quick photo and I almost got thrown out of the immigration building.
Ok, it was 3pm and we were feeling good. We had just finished all paperwork at the Nicaragua border without any problems and we were slowly driving towards the border exit to get on the highway. We got literally to the last barrier on the border when three different border officials got to the car at the same time, almost like an ambush, and request three different documents. The first two folks just skimmed at the car import document and our passports and returned them. The third asshole, I’ll just call him what he was, took our original title (did not accept a copy) and all hell broke loose. As Mr. AssHole explained titles in ‘all Central American countries have two dates – registration and expiration’. Since our title had only registration date it was illegal. In broken Spanish I tried to use US laws as an excuse, I tried with reason (you buy a vehicle and it is yours for ever, hence no expiration date), I tried with more reason that we got approved by the immigration office 5 minutes ago. No avail! The more I argued the more the guy would dig his heels in the sand and the more trouble he would cause. He made us park on the side of the road and kill the engine. Twenty minutes arguing he made us open the trunk and show him everything in the drawers. Twenty minutes later he called a buddy who made us pop the tent for an inspection. For perspective this is the only time in one year of traveling and hundreds of checkpoints and nobody asked us to look inside the tent. After the inspections did not find anything out of order with the car, Mr. AssHole moved behind the car and just stood there with our title in hand trying to call somebody on the phone. At this point of time he had refused to talk to us anymore and was just sitting there. After another fifteen minutes of no communication between us I’ve had it. I got out of the car and went straight to him demanding to get our title back. I won’t get into too many details here but lets just say that he let me put my hand on the title and mumbled something. I used the moment took the document and walked back to the car without saying a word. Ten seconds later we were driving quickly down the road.
About an hour and a half later we entered Leon. It was now around 6pm and it had started to get dark. We stopped at an out of order traffic light. We had to go straight another block so a quick look left and right and I crossed the intersection. Ten meters in the next street and an oncoming taxi made it clear that we were in a one-way street and pulled over to make us room for a U-turn. We turned around and there he was, Mr. Asshole #2. This time an old traffic police officer sitting in the middle of the street with a small book in hand and a smirk on his face, waving us to the side… The cop walked to our window, pulled a small ruler out of his shirt pocket, opened on some unknown page in his stupid little book and put the ruler under a line, which read ‘entering a one-way street fine $300’. Next he said that since it was Semana Santa weekend we had to pay cache in the building next door. At this point I was so tired I simply started laughing. I told him flat out “Yo pago nada” – I pay nothing. I explained there were no one-way street signs anywhere. He insisted that I was at fault since the traffic light made it abundantly clear… Mind you, that we were sitting right under the non-functioning light … At this point I had already decided that I am not paying and I am not coming out of the car no matter what. He could make us sleep there on the side of the street if he wanted but I was not paying him a penny. After another five minutes of him trying to talk us into paying he eventually gave up and told us something on the order to drive more carefully next time to which I …mmm … I closed my window and like with the other Nicaragua police charlatan I sped away …
We eventually made it to our hostel. It was the party hostel in town … We had just had a 13 hour Central America extravaganza and we were looking to rest. Little did we know it I had picked up a good case of traveler’s diarrhea from a street food vendor in Honduras and we were going to spend the night taking shifts killing bed bugs …