Sunday, December 14, 2008
Semi trucks parked halfway on the roadway as we neared the Guatemala-Honduras border forced us to crawl along the pothole-choked road. We soon found ourselves in the middle of a dirty place of mayhem, with men sprinting after our car and crowding around us yelling to get our attention. The men in this welcome party want to “assist” you across the border. For a fee you get to hand over your passport, car title, registration and a wad of cash, then hope they return after an hour or so with your paperwork completed. Men banged on our windows while others stood in the parking lot trying to wave us in. To add to the confusion, very few of the government officials working at this border wear uniforms, making it hard to weed out the hustlers from the officials.
Getting our Honduran vehicle import permit turned out to be even more fun that we expected. We entered a dark, dingy room filled with cardboard boxes overflowing with old documents. There we spent an over an hour waiting for a T-shirt clad official to work on our paperwork, as he was interrupted every few minutes by a sweaty man handing him wads of cash. After finishing, he asked us for $100 US dollars for a processing fee, which caused Kristin to start yelling “that is not correct” in Spanish. One of the few uniformed officials overheard her complaints and told us that price was indeed incorrect, and we only needed to pay $40. I naively expected that the person attempting to extort us to be led out of the building in handcuffs. Instead, the crooked official walked us over to border guards, handed them our completed paperwork, and shook my hand. Just like the police who tried to squeeze money out of us in Mexico, once the gig is up, you are given a firm handshake and called their amigo. The grin he had on his face seemed to say “I almost got sixty bucks off you, but you caught me! You have to give me credit for trying through, eh?”
Our opinion of Honduras worsened when the police at a roadblock several miles from the border motioned us to pull over. After taking Kristin's driver's license, the policeman asked us if we had a fire extinguisher and orange safety triangle, which we did not. He then claimed that Honduran law requires all drivers to have these items in their car, and he would need to confiscate Kristin's license until we paid a fine. I did not catch the exact amount of the fine since the number was much larger than we were used to dealing with. I did hear the word miles, which means thousands, so the price was equivalent to at least one hundred US dollars. He quickly pointed out that all of this could be taken care right here by giving him $30 directly. At this point I got so mad I could no longer pronounce any words in Spanish, but through Kristin I insisted that we would be happy to pay any fine the next day at a police station, but would give nothing to the policeman himself. He dropped his “fee” from $20 down to $5, but we held our ground. I finally used the last ditch effort I picked up from Tom and Kelsey. I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen, then asked him his name and number as if I was going to report this issue. It worked, and he grudgingly handed Kristin's license back, and we continued on our way. Luckily we are from the United States, a country with some clout. I did hear an unfortunate story from an El Salvadoran where he said that the police in Mexico handcuffed him, drove him and his vehicle to a side road, then searched his car until they found $500 USD he had hidden. The police in Mexico knew that the government of El Salvador would never have the resources to investigate into a missing five hundred dollars.
Crossing the El Salvador-Honduras border on our way to Nicaragua, we had to go through a different but just as painful process again. This border was located on a river, where women sat on rocks washing clothes while a pig rooted his way through garbage along the riverbank. On the Honduras side of the bridge we were stopped by a guard sporting a wooden stock automatic weapon that would look more at home in a museum. We parked our car in the middle of the bridge blocking one of the two lanes as we were told, and entered a small single room cement building that smelled like urine. The only furnishings in the building were 3 yellowed official looking documents taped to the wall and a rickety wooden desk. The official inside sat at the desk working on our paperwork in between what seemed to be personal phone calls on his mobile phone. I looked out the small window on the back of the building to gaze upon a tree covered slope filled with more piles of trash. Welcome to Honduras!