She kept her distance at first, perched high up on the bank in the shade of the bridge. Occasionally, she would shout down something that sounded like a comment or a question, but it was hard to make out the words between my erratic Spanish and the murmur of the nearby river. Besides, my focus was intent on unwinding the broken belt from around the engine fan. Lisa was the diligent assistant, handing out tools and pointed advice throughout the operation.
Under the bridge was a great spot to work, shaded by the tall span with a flat gravel spot to spread out on. We had noticed the day before, in El Salvador, that the air conditioning, which, despite its emergency-only status, has been getting more use lately, wasn’t blowing correctly. Slow to catch on, today, in Honduras we realized the batteries weren’t charging correctly and finally caught on that we had broken a fan belt passing a slow truck on a hill somewhere.
The belt change went well, with only a minimum of banged knuckles and cursing. Throughout the process the little girl, our audience of one, became increasingly bolder, creeping down the embankment with a wary eye on Allie, who was too distracted waiting for me to throw a ball. The girl looked about seven or eight, slender as a wand with enormous almond eyes. Her mother must have been one of the women, not far away, on the banks of the river, washing their clothes.
With the procedure finished our little friend was now down to the van, asking Lisa questions, as always, about whether the dogs bite and where we were from. We noticed the kids here were a bit more shy than we’d seen elsewhere, obviously not used to the sight of gringos puttering around beside their river. Like children everywhere though, once she warmed to us she was a bundle of life and curiosity.
Allie and I took the opportunity to take a swim in the river…me to clean up, Allie just because she can’t stay out of the water. She always amazes kids and adults alike with her stick fetching, rock-chewing antics. She’s crazy about the water and even at the surf spots the surfers drop their cool enough to laugh at her diving headlong into the crashing waves and riding them out. She and Taku are our little ambassadors and a great way to meet people.
Tod and Allie head out for some fun near La Libertad, El Salvador
The crowd at the bank was growing and Lisa was busy taking pictures and handing out our Idaho postcards and school supplies as little gifts. We realized though that we needed to move on quickly before the whole neighborhood showed up. Besides it was 10AM and we still had another border to cross.
Tod and Betty pose in front of the first hotel stop of the trip. In Guatemala the $12 for a room with air conditioning was well worth it.
Five borders in seven days. We are steadily making our way along the PanAmerican highway through the frustrating bureaucracies towards our destination., Panama City. Right now we are just outside San Jose, Costa Rica with just one more border to cross into Panama. It may sound fast but we’re not setting any speed records. A fellow we met at the Costa Rican border yesterday had left Canada only nine days earlier. For us though, this is certainly a breakneck pace. We often feel exhausted, even though we take a break every few days, unwinding on beaches in El Salvador and Nicaragua, even a few days of hiking here in Costa Rica.
Betty picks up a friend
I try to keep the theory in mind when I’m sent for the third time to get copies of my stamped passport, with a this receipt, with my drivers license all in a certain sequence, on one side of one page of paper. Lisa, with all of her organizational skills and natural charm, has proved more effective at getting us through quickly. I will occasionally just start snapping at people so I’m usually assigned to guarding the van with the dogs. When I negotiated the process into Costa Rica it took almost four hours but I was proud that we managed to avoid a couple of major scams. We found trying to do it together led to too much confusion as in El Amatillo, one of the most notorious border crossings in Central America. We breezed through in an hour but at a steep price. Our guides (known as tramitadores) had given us the usual run around and in the confusion we managed to pay the same fees twice
Allie likes to help Lisa keep a look out for potholes
Yes, guides. The level of challenge is such that the governments have created a nice little cottage industry for their constituents, many of whom make a good living leading baffled folks like Lisa and I through the borders. The problem is that the guides have more scams and ploys than the officials do. In fact we’ve had only one border official approach us for a bribe and only halfheartedly. He ask for us to pay him and we just nodded our heads yes and kept driving. Unfortunately though, all of our tramitadors but one have tried to scam us in one way or another.
Usually the scam revolves around there being a hitch in the process that they can smooth over for us. “The computers are down but if you give me thirty bucks, I’ll pay the right guys and you won’t have to wait two hours.” We’ve found that if, despite our guides protests, we go talk to the officials themselves they usually have no knowledge of any computers going down. A French fellow behind us on the Mexico/Guatemalan border got taken for $100 dollars because he got a “special” stamp to get his car through all the Central American countries. When we compared notes later his stamp was the same as ours that we had payed $12 for.
The kids down here are occasionally feral
So why use them? Well theoretically you don’t have to, and at the quieter borders we won’t. Most times though, they are worth the five dollars we pay them just to keep all of the other tramatidors from hassling us every step of the way. And, even with speaking some Spanish, there have been a few borders that I don’t know how we would have done it without their help. The dogs add another layer of complexity and often the agriculture department, where they get registered, is hidden in some far office in the border compound. On whole we’ve figured out a system for working with them that seems to get us through efficiently without us losing our shirts.
So, in all it’s been an exciting and exhausting week. We’re looking forward to our arrival in Panama City where we get to slow down again and start being a bit more touristy. Lisa will be working again for a week while there and then we’ll start making our way more slowly back through the countries we’ve just passed. This time taking the back roads, seeing the sights and crossing borders at the quieter posts.
Despite the challenges I still find it hard to resent the people too much. We’ve seen so much poverty here that I’m not sure what I would do myself if I were in their shoes. Scamming tourists for a few bucks may not be ethical but it puts food on the table. I also wouldn’t let the hassles deter someone from coming down. The wonderful and generous people we have met have far outweighed the shady characters. Besides with the right attitude the crossings can actually be amusing! Pretty rarely though. Until next time!