One day, two borders, three countries

One day, two borders, three countries

Completely relaxed, we left the wonderful, sandy Salvadorian beach early in the morning and drove southwards along the Carretera Interamericana for the first time. We weren’t attracted to Honduras, but we weren’t able to avoid it on our way further south. The borders have a dubious reputation among travelers for numerous self-proclaimed guides and helpers and also for exceptionally relaxed border officials who leave the travelers all the time in the world to enjoy each and every specialty at each border crossing. Just for good measure, there are also said to be very “hungry and thirsty” policemen lying in wait along the Panamericana in Honduras. Since this indeed was the case for us, you can sit back – with plenty of time – and read and chuckle about our experiences a bit.

Shortly after 8 a.m., we reached the El Salvadorian customs in El Amatillo. I was immediately stormed by four helpful men who all had important-looking identification and all explained that crossing the border crossing was impossible without their help. My answer that this was the second time I was crossing the border knocked them off their stride. At least they had the consolation that it was still early in the morning and that the day had just begun. At the Central American borders, travelers are confronted with a quite a lot of red tape, so resourceful people have discovered their own special branch of business: hastening to help swamped tourists. Usually, they only draw out the whole procedure since, in addition to the long and complicated border formalities, bargaining for hours about payment for their services also has to be taken into consideration.

Deregistration of the vehicle from El Salvador actually turned out to be only a bagatelle, and then we drove on a few miles more until we reached the stop for the immigration authorities, which involved waiting a long time in line, presenting the entire family at the counter, quickly getting the exit stamp, and then we were on our way out. Next, we drove over a bridge past the smoky border (it was breakfast time, and people were grilling all over) and into Honduras. In the middle of utter traffic chaos, a customs official came over and wanted me to give him all the documents for our vehicle, including the copies. We followed instructions and went on to the immigration office. But wait, we couldn’t get off that easily. Meanwhile, the nice man behind the vehicle counter remembered that he had told me to park in the middle of the highway. The traffic jam there had been so practical. Unpractical, however, when the congestion has dissolved and there is still a big vehicle blocking the way. So, first we had to park in a different place, and, a few meters further on, there really was something like a parking spot. When a different official decided a little later that this wasn’t such a good place, I got to look for a new spot again. But we had time, and our children were still in a good mood. I was allowed to go to the Imigracion alone, and, after filling out a form like for the U.S. (do we really not have a bomb on board?) and paying US$ 3 per passport, we had at least entered Honduras as persons. Just the vehicle still had to be dealt with. The customs officer was very nice and greeted me with an exuberant “Good morning, how are you amigo? Un momento, have a seat, hohoho!“. Dumb that there were no chairs anywhere to be seen. Taking all the time in the world, he filled out the necessary papers and sent me to the copy shop to have diverse stamped forms copied – and to the bank because I had to pay 683 lempiras (about US$ 40) as the servicing fee. Since we didn’t have any lempiras yet and the bank didn’t accept dollars, I exchanged US$ 50 with a trustworthy-looking man with a cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a machete – and a bundle of money at least four inches thick in his hand – at a surprisingly good exchange rate. Okay, of course I let him wait beforehand while I asked one of his colleagues nearby about the rate – instead of a machete, this guy had lots of thick gold chains around his neck. After several more long minutes with the nice man back at the counter, it was suddenly all over, and I was even able to use his WC for free. Three hours after start the procedure with the motivated helpers, (I forgot to mention that I was constantly accompanied by more willing helpers the whole time who kept trying to convince me that my venture of trying to do everything by myself was totally crazy) we were finally allowed to enter Honduras.

Hurray, now we were curious about what was awaiting us. Was the rumor about all the police checks true? We started a tally sheet. The first three checks were harmless, and we were waved on through. It was just lunchtime, which was certainly not a disadvantage. But controller number four obviously still needed a little petty cash for his lunch, so we were stopped and greeted warmly. Ah, Alemania, bonita familia, and so on. After a few minutes, the actually really nice policeman suddenly mentioned that it would soon be time for lunch – and scratched his pants pocket quite blatantly. I thought this was pretty ridiculous and offered him a cool beer from El Salvador. But he was hungry and wanted dollars, only I of course had completely forgotten that we still had some, so I offered him some lempiras (about 50 US cents), not knowing what the exchange rate was (acting dumb helps), and asked if that would help him out. We had already turned off the motor quite a while before, and he was suddenly in a hurry – by now, there were others cars waiting behind us. He took the bill and quickly waved us on. The following control posts were all deserted; apparently the police here had already collected enough for their lunch break.

The trash-bordered highway studded with potholes led us through a poorly structured region, and the local drivers always seemed to be in a great hurry or to have all the time in the world, so they didn’t drive any faster than walking pace. Passing, tailgating, and slamming on the brakes seem to be standard procedure, with the brakes only used if the potholes are the size of a car and look like bomb craters. The drive through Honduras was strenuous and hot, not only due to the tropical sun, which beat down on us unrelentlessly. After only two hours, we had finished the stretch in Honduras und reached the border to Nicaragua in Guasaule. Eager helpers were quickly deterred; the helpers here knew how the Germans handle the border procedures. Whenever they realized that we come from Germany, they disappointment distorted their features, and their resigned “ah, alemanes“ expressed clearly that our compatriots manage it across the border very well by themselves. In addition to their important looking identification cards, the “helpers“ here also wore light-blue polo shirts with self-self-sewn emblems and looked pretty much like players on a soccer team in a back-yard tournament. Deregistration of our vehicle and of ourselves from Honduras was very simple and quick and was followed by the highlight of our encounters with the police so far.

Between Honduras and Nicaragua, there is a bridge spanning a little river, and, right before it, the last bastion of the Honduran police force lies in ambush – one lonely policeman, driven to his deed by the heat and seeking evidence of one last infringement on his sovereign territory. What could have been better than a nice family with a driver whose seatbelt wasn’t buckled and a child climbing around on his mother in the front seat (only because we know it would not be more than a few meters before we had to get out of the vehicle again)? First, we opened the window all the way and then turned off the motor; this would take quite a while. Calmly and without any excitement, the policeman climbed up the ladder on the driver’s side and put his elbow through the open window to hang comfortably on the door. He called attention to my offence and whispered something about a fine before he took several deep breaths to recover from the strenuous climb up to the window. It was clear that we would now be called to account for our misdeeds. With a copy of my driver’s license in his hand and my declaration that I would not hand over the original to him, the fine for both offences together US$ 86. Yikes, first I had to take a deep breath. At the same time, I tried the cool beer trick again. He replied that he didn’t like beer, but that we could settle things in a different way. Suddenly I had US$ 30 in my hand and thought I could recognize a gleam in his eyes through the dark-black lenses of his Ray Ban sunglasses. The money changed ownership at first, but none of us were completely satisfied with the situation. Meanwhile, Robert was complaining loudly about having been put back into his car seat while I told the policeman something about the heat, our travel budget, and his colleagues in other countries. We needed a little time for things to settle down, so, first of all, a honeydew melon was passed over to him; a truck driver passing by seemed to recognize the “hard currency“. Frowning thoughtfully, with the melon secured between his belly and the driver’s door and his cap pulled down deeply over his forehead, the conscientious guardian of the law decided to take the offensive and designate a use for the money. He suggested driving to a gas station together and filling the police car with $ 30 worth of gas. Aha, at least it was clear now that is wasn’t going to be spent towards financing another pair of Ray Ban sunglasses. But didn’t he need a second one with lighter lenses for less sunny days? Just what was the reason for us being here and discussing all this? Whatever. So I picked up the ball and said that it took pretty much time and effort to drive to the gas station together, and so on. How would it be with $ 15 cash, so that he could take his family out to eat somewhere? Oops, then he even lost hold of the melon, and it fell and disappeared under our Bremach. After pondering the idea for a while, he gave me back the $ 30, and I could give him $ 15 in return for it. Now all of us were satisfied again – except for Robert, who wasn’t the least bit happy. The policeman though that wasn’t at all fair and absolutely insisted on Tanja taking him back onto her lap, after all, that would be much better for the child. But we remained firm because, who knows what else he would have thought of. We hadn’t forgotten the reason for our 15-minute break. After a very friendly farewell, he disappeared to look for the melon under the Bremach and then to bike away happily towards a hopefully good dinner. And we were able to drive across the bridge to Nicaragua.

Everything in Nicaragua was quite unspectacular, except for the sudden shutting of a counter at the border and a greeting fee US$ 12 per passport (the request for a receipt led to embarrassed red faces on the part of the official). There was one very pleasant surprise for us: there was no fee for vehicle importation, no need for any copies, and the vehicle was only surveyed from a distance. That was really quick and easy. After only (!) two hours, we had crossed this border, too, and, somewhat tired, headed for Somatillo, where we spent our first night in Nicaragua. Now we are curious about the police here and whether they live up to their sleazy reputation.

Except for knowing about the many copies, we were not really well prepared for the border crossings. In the internet, there are lots of reports by other travelers, and each person has had different experiences. You could read and prepare for days on end. We jumped into the border adventure wholeheartedly and took whatever came in good humor. That made it all a lot of fun, the small talk with the helpers and wisecracks with the officials. In the end, everyone laughs, and you travel on with a good feeling. It all just takes its time, and the wind blows differently than Middle Europeans are accustomed to. Whatever happens at the borders – “strength lies in serenity”!

One Thought on “One day, two borders, three countries

  1. Hallo ihr vier, habe gerade viel und herzlich lachen können! Unglaubliche Geschichten! Respekt, dass ihr das alles so gelassen nehmt:)
    Wünsche euch weiterhin soviel Geduld und Humor!
    Viele Grüße kerstin

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