We love being on the road. Driving through North and Central America has been a wonderful experience and most definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, but there is one thing we always dread… Borders. No, not the bookstore chain, actual imaginary lines delimiting where one country ends and another one starts. There is a particular brand of bureaucracy that takes place when you are leaving/entering a country. A certain je ne sais quoi that takes over border and customs officials.
To be perfectly honest until NOW (NOW meaning the border between El Salvador with Honduras) our border crossings have been slow, but harmless. Until NOW we have not met corruption at its finest, bordering on sadism. Yes, that bad. I guess it was time for us to get our dose of the BB’s. What are BB’s? Border bastards. We follow the adventures of Rick and Kathy Howe of the Travelin’ Tortuga. A couple of years ago Kathy started referring to border officials as Border Bastards. First time we read this term we thought it was rather harsh, but here we are wholeheartedly adopting the term.
Let’s start from the beginning of our BB experience. As we planned for this particular adventure we decided not to visit Honduras, not because we do not like the country (we had a wonderful time in Honduras a few years ago), but because Honduras has a bad reputation for being a corrupt gauntlet for international drivers. Avoiding corrupt cops seems reasonable to us. The issue at hand is that Honduras spans from the Caribbean to the Pacific; therefore, there is no way to drive through Central America without “visiting” Honduras. Keeping this un-avoidability in mind we decided to cross Honduras on the west coast where there is only a small sliver of Honduras.
After spending a few lovely days at the Azul Surf Club, in El Cuco, El Salvador, we decided it was time to head south to Nicaragua. We got up early-ish and headed for the border. Leaving El Salvador was relatively painless, less than a half hour and we were out of the country. Then we made our first mistake of the day. We hired a “helper” or “Tramitante.” A tramitante is a person that runs around and supposedly helps you run the gauntlet of paperwork at borders for a small fee or a tip. We have never done this before and we had at some point tacitly decided not to ever do it. However, having heard Honduras was particularly rough on vehicle crossings, and hearing the tramitantes tell us they could get us through in less than an hour, we went against our better judgement and hired one. Strike One. With our helper in tow we crossed the bridge into Honduras where a young police officer pulled us over and demanded our paperwork (before arriving at customs). This is where the S#%T hit the fan. The smart young officer found a “discrepancy” on the title of our vehicle. For some reason California DMV has an expiration date on the title (the pink slip, not the registration, the title. The title is good for the life of the vehicle (or until it is sold). This detail was all this young entrepreneur needed to detain us and impound the Landcruiser unless we paid him $50, of course! Strike Two.
Within minutes the entire police force and the customs officials knew that there was a nice juicy loophole in the paperwork of a certain Gringo registered Landcruiser. The fine young cop must have spread the word via Text and perhaps our “friendly” helper spread the word as well. Needless to say, the rest of the day went down hill from that point on. It is really hard and irritating to remember and describe what happened this scorchingly hot and humid day at the border. 9 hours! That’s right 9 hours of frustration. At first we were trying to adhere to our “smile, be friendly and take it like a champ” attitude, but after 5 hours, 2 cab rides back to an ATM in El Salvador and by the end of a 2 hour lunch break of the customs officials I was loudly cursing at everybody and the thought crossed our minds that I might be lynched right here in Honduras. Lacey was trying to figure out how on earth she would tell my family 🙂
Our “helper” had suddenly turned into 2 helpers without us realizing what was going on. While one ran around pretending to help me, the other stayed with Lacey and the Landcruiser. Unbeknownst to me Lacey’s companion was a true creep. Lacey later informed me that he hit on her and harrased her for a while and after pretending not to understand him for the greater part of the afternoon, she finally cracked and loudly and profanely told him what she thought of him. He finally slithered away and left her in relative peace. Lacey decided that telling me at that point would not be wise in my current and seemingly permanent state of irascibility. After she told me the following day I agreed with her decision. I can just read the headlines: “U.S. citizen lynched at a small border town of Honduras after he shouted profanities at the entire police department and the customs officials in town… Oh, and he murdered a “tramitante” for hitting on his traveling companion.”
The reason our day stretched for so long boils down to the fact that we refused to dish out an inordinately high payola the customs official in charge wanted. We could have just paid and probably been through in a short amount of time, but they wanted too much. Greedy cheeky monkeys. We met a European couple driving a nice car that paid (in excess of $200) and were through in a matter of 45 minutes, but we could not bring ourselves to do that… well in the end we caved. I even called the U.S. Embassy, they kindly informed me there was nothing they could do. After more than hours of indignation I went, with my metaphoric tail between my legs, to our helper and told him I would pay. As if to keep some sense of honor I lowered the bribe about 10% whooopee-de-doo.
That was not the end of it. Oh no, how could it be. Our permit was not to enter Honduras, but to drive through the country. In order to make sure we complied we were mandated to take an escort with us. WITH us! Unless everything in the Landcruiser is carefully re-organized we have no backseat, just tons of stuff. How where we going to fit a passenger at this point I had no idea. To make things worse, we met our escort all 5’5″ and 325lbs of him! We incredulously looked at the customs official showed him the inside of the Landcruiser and asked him: “Where, pray tell, are we going to stuff this portly gentleman?” He replied without skipping a heartbeat by telling us “skinny” Lacey could fit somewhere in there if the escort sat in the front passenger seat. Lacey nearly had a conniption, it was awesome because that had been my state most of the afternoon. Needless to say, there is nothing better than a pissed off woman to grease some wheels. Within a few minutes a skinny young man was assigned as our escort. Lacey should have done all the paperwork!
Wait, you did not think that was the end of it, did you? We still had to drive the gauntlet through corruption highway. Let’s make this short and sweet. 7 times! We were pulled over 7 times in a 100 mile drive. Remember the young cop at the border, well he was kind enough to spread the word of our presence to the entire police force. Luckily, the escort vouched for us and we got away with minimal hassle at 6 of the 7 stops. What happened at the 7th stop? Well, the cherry on top of our banana split of a day. After 9 hours at the border and a couple of hours driving through the country night had arrived. Yes, night falls pretty early the closer you get to the Equator and yes we broke our “No Driving at Night” rule. What happened next was a result of my neglect of common maintenance and nearly 10 months of no night driving. The drivers side headlight of the Landcruiser was out, and a very happy Hondurean cop noticed it. After he pulled us over (for the 7th time that day and within sight of the Nicaraguan border) I wanted out of this god forsaken country. He wanted 50 bucks! I just could not handle it anymore. If a cop pulls me over with no reason other than I am a tourist I can be as righteous as I want, because in the end I know I am right. When I am actually breaking a law, things are different. So for the 3rd Strike of the day I buckled nearly immediately. I said 20 bucks and a flashlight. He said: “Gracias.”
At this point in the day we would have been happy to have any kind of encounter with border officials that cost us less than Honduras. We very happy to leave Honduras and pleasantly surprised after a very free, very cordial 10 minute border crossing into Nicaragua.
- Agree with Travelin’ Tortuga and their BB term
- Never, ever, hire a tramitante
- Lacey needs to do paperwork and BB dealings from now on, she is a lot more intimidating than Luis (no matter how tattoed, military veteran or bearded he is)
- Have every single bit of paperwork in immaculate order, T’s crossed and I’s dotted.
- Check all required safety equipment and vehicle systems regularly, but especially before border crossings (headlights, turn signals, fire-extinguisher, safety triangles, etc.)
- Luis needs to attend anger control classes at some point 🙂