Ping Pong at the Border. Vans, Stamps, and Guns. Editorial: Colin Sim
I asked a very good friend of mine if he would write a story bout his travels that he would share on this blog. And he did. Its worth the read, if not for the adventure, for the sincerity. Thanks Colin.
Central America – 1 June 12 – Colin Sim
Growing up in the Niagara area, just 20 minutes from the US border, I was fairly used to the relative ease in which a Canadian could cross into the US. It was generally just a quick chat with the border guard and you were into the states, or the same going back into Canada with my bucket of buffalo wings, case of cheap beer, and a tank full of gas. I´d say I´d crossed back & forth well over a 100 times without incident, ever. But it´s slightly different here in Central America when it comes to crossing borders. For example, you have to have your passport visa stamped OUT of the country you are currently in, before you can get a visa stamp going INTO the country you are on your way to. Sometimes this process can be extremely simple, Like going north into Guatemala from Honduras. You stop at a little outpost in the middle of nowhere , get a quick stamp from Hondo, walk across the dirt road to the Guat(emala) Immigration office, which looks identical to a toll booth on a US Expressway. Ironically, you do pay an entrance fee going into Guat & you just know that a portion of that fee is going to pay for the border guards´ dinner that evening. But all in all, quick, easy and painless. Sometimes, however, border crossings can be an exercise in patience, humility, absolute corruption and hopefully, redemption. This is one of those stories.
My good friend Chris and I had been traveling for awhile and ended up in a small surfing town in El Salvador for the better part of October in 2011. Two other friends, Melanie & Ty, had been on a rubbertramp (driving a van) tour from BC and had met up with us. The plan was to drive from El Salv into Nicaragua. To get there, you have to cross out of El Salv, into a very small portion of Honduras, and then into Nica. We had 4 border crossings ahead to get into Nica & to get there with plenty of daylight to spare was the goal. We were leaving early enough, the drive only 6 hours, it should be attainable, we were sure.
The rules for vehicles are exactly as they are for people. If you´re driving in Central America, your car needs a visa/permit too and also has to follow the stamp IN/OUT procedure. So, as we were leaving El Salv, the van´s permit was stamped OUT first at a small checkpoint prior to the main office, we then drove the 300 meters to where we needed to have our passports checked. I went to the window first, and was promptly told that my visa had expired and there was a hefty fine of $104US! That´s a lot of money down here.
And on with the story….
Now, I had been in Central America for 7 months by now, and El Salv, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua share what is called a CA-4 visa, giving 90 days maximum within those 4 countries. I had received a 90 day extension in Guat about 45 days earlier, so I should be fine, I tried to explain to the border official in my broken Spanish. In turn, in his broken English, he said he knows, he sees the stamp, they just weren´t going to honour it AND he reminded me that the fine was $104US.
The other option he said, was to drive to the capitol city of San Salvador, go to the main immigration office there, and get an El Salv extension and the fine would not apply. After a quick discussion, the 4 of us jump back into Ducey (of course the van had a nickname) and proceeded to turn around and drive towards San Salv. Just a quick stop at the checkpoint for vehicles and we´d be on our way. The next guard looks at the van´s permit and quickly retorts that our permit has ended and no longer valid. It was only 20 minutes earlier that it was stamped out but the guard didn´t care and told us to turn around, go back to the office we were just at, and get a new permit to drive into El Salv. Back down the 300m, of course we get the same officer as before, and he tells us that this office does not provide vehicle permits and we´d have to drive to another border crossing, about 200kms away. But, he giggled, because we did not have a current permit, we could not do that either. Yep, we couldn´t get out of El Salv or back into it. We were stuck in border crossing limbo. A 3rd option came about….if we stayed at the hotel conveniently located beside the immigration office for 3 nights, they would stamp us OUT and we could be on our way. Something was telling me that he had a stake in that hotel, or that his brother or uncle owned it. I tried to explain the situation again, that the visa from Guat should be valid & I should be allowed out of the country. Again, he explained to me that the fine was $104US.
I reached into my pocket & had $27. He told me to go and beg my friends for the rest, but I convinced him we were all broke. He finally relented a little, pulled out an official Customs & Immigration binder, opened it up to a specific page about fines, pointed out how many days my original visa was over the 90, leading to a line with the fine of $57. Bastardo!
I think I might be screwed.
I knew he was just gouging me before, but at least this was somewhat acceptable. I paid the fine, he gave me a 5 day extension out of the CA-4 countries and we were on our way. Well, at least the 150m to the next border station for Honduras. A traffic warden waved us over to the side of the road and came to chat. He had noticed the problems we had at the El Salv office and was curious as to what happened. He seemed a friendly guy and as we talked, I gave him a quick rundown. He asked to see my passport, and to quell the urge to prove my story to a total stranger, I gave it to him. He checked it out, then without saying a word, put it in his back pocket and walked away.
Yup, its Central America…..it actually does get worse, way worse.
I was dumbfounded. Did that just happen? We sat there for a few minutes, shocked, and discussed our current options and I decided to go and talk to him. He was clearly after a bribe, it was just a matter of how much it was going to take to get it back. When I approached him, he immediately raised his hand to have my stop in my tracks, and with his other hand, reached for his gun. Holy shit! He was yelling at me in Spanish far beyond my understanding, but the body language was telling me enough. I backed up, slowly, him keeping his hand on his gun, me keeping my eyes on him just in case he went cowboy on me, and I sat down on the curb. I sat there for the better part of an hour, my friends unsure what to do, and me just stewing about it. I mean, this guy wasn´t police, or customs but some lowly traffic warden (insert sarcastic tone here ) helping to maintain the immense amount of traffic at this crossing. Who was he to steal my passport? So I started to walk up to him again, and the same response came back at me, but this time, I understood – ¨sit down & shut up¨. That line, accompanied by the gun grab is an effective way of getting what you want. Back on the curb, 3 hrs have passed and now my favorite traffic warden is on the move. Not towards me for the bribe, but towards a small building with a dozen or so other traffic wardens. Break time. Obviously I´m not going to confront this guy in front of his colleagues, so I needed to form a new plan. What to do?
I recognize that his office, is only 15ft from the Honduras Immigration building. So I walk over there, tell the officer at the border that a traffic warden has my passport and will not return it. his eyes widen, leaps out of his chair, runs out the back door, around the corner and is beside me within seconds. He asks me to follow him and we are now at the warden´s building and wants to know which of these guys here has my passport. I can feel all eyes on me now, staring through me with teeth clenched and furrowed brows. I´m petrified. I reluctantly point out which warden has it, and the officer starts charging towards him like a bull. Yelling at him, arms flailing, the conversation between the two of them does not look like its going well for me. This goes on for a minute or two, and eventually, the warden lowers his head, reaches into his back pocket and hands over my passport to the officer who quickly snatches it out of his hands, berates him a little more and hurriedly walks to me and returns it. He begins to walk away, and me feeling the eyes of the wardens still staring through my soul, I follow him like a lost puppy. We head back to the Honduras office now, rejoined by my friends who saw this go on, and the officer sits back into his chair, and asks us for all 4 of our passports and he quickly stamps our visas in succession and without any questions. Ty had gotten the permit for Ducey while I was dealing with el douchebag, so we jumped into the van as quickly as possible. We were all pretty nervous as we pulled away, thinking the traffic warden would simply call one of his friends a little farther down the highway to make retribution, but we seemed to have luck on our side and didn´t see another official until we got to the Nicaragua border. What should have been 6 hours, turned into 12, but we made it out of Hondo and into NIca fairly quickly, and after a few days, I journeyed into Costa Rica, then back into Nica with a fresh 90 day CA-4 stamp.
I´ve been in & out of 19 countries, and crossed international borders so many times its hard to remember, but that´s a day of traveling I´ll never forget.