Central America: Active volcanoes, hurricanes, zika, border crossings …and kindness

There are 7 countries in Central America – Belize, Guatamala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. As with so many aspects about this journey, we had pre-conceived ideas about this part of the world and boy, were we taken by surprise!

It is the poorest region in the Latin Americas and with so much negative news about gang activity, crime and corruption, we were being more alert. Central America is geologically an incredibly active region with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. We were warned to take precautions against contracting Zika virus …and oh, did I mention that it also happened to be “hurricane season” when we crossed? Would you believe me if I told you that despite all this we had the most incredible time and simply the most fun, since our journey began 7 months ago in Canada?!

The active volcanoes were incredibly beautiful and we saw the first one ‘puffing a greeting’ in Guatamala, the day we left Antigua. In Nicaragua we hiked up Cerro Negro volcano and volcano boarded down its 728m black ash slope. We hiked up Telica volcano and spent the night camping there, hearing the volcano roaring and steam all night. A young boy from one of the local villages arrived on horseback in the evening with a warm meal of rice, beans and scrambled egg. He broke out in a huge smile when I called him by his name. I had been told about him and about his dream of learning to speak English, so that one day he could also be a guide. He was incredibly shy that evening, but when I saw Jefferson in his village the next morning, I was able to coax a few English phrases from him, with obvious pride. It was such an insanely awesome experience on so many levels – experiencing the incredible beauty and might of nature and being granted a glimpse into the lives of local people.

Crossing this stretch of land during “hurricane season” was a challenge – Irma, Harvey, Nate and Jose were just some of the ‘names’ we tracked daily, often having to adapt our travel plans, due to the destruction they left in their paths. We were awed at damage to the roads but equally astounded by how quickly the roads were repaired.  The Pan American Highway is basically the only road, so repairs were an obvious priority. In Nicaragua we saw the sheer power and devastation caused by hurricane Nate. Walking along the beach at San Juan del Sur we saw buildings shattered and so many large fishing trawlers and yachts lying tossed ashore like discarded toys…

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and it was the biggest, most pleasant surprise! As we drove across the border from Honduras we immediately saw and felt “wow!”  Seeing the absolutely pristine roads and countryside and receiving the most incredibly warm welcome from its people. Speaking with locals about their economy and politics we soon learned of their scorn for their president, Daniel Ortega and their adoration for his wife, Rosario Murillo who they believed has long been the country’s unofficial co-president. Rosario was recently elected as vice president and essentially runs the government. It is her work and vision which has ensured the improvements within Nicaragua. Once again I was mindful of the lesson that as individuals we can have such an impact on the world.

We have Senna wireless headsets in our helmets so that we can speak to each other as we ride. As we crossed the border into El Salvador Paul said: “El Salvador is the world’s most violent country”… the long silence that followed soon had him apologising: “Why did I just say that?!” he asked. We laughed and acknowledged that Paul was simply voicing what we were both thinking and he simply had a moment of “thinking out aloud”. We had read and heard about the notorious gangs known as ‘maras’ such as M13 and rivals, Barrio 18. It is horrific reading about the extent of their crimes, particularly the ‘machismo’ and ‘misogyny’ which they perpetuate. We had already become familiar with these two terms since Mexico and it appears to be a major problem across Latin America, due to patriarchal attitudes perpetuating violence against women. We avoided major cities and our time in El Salvador was incredibly beautiful. I found myself wishing we could stay longer.

Border crossings! That is what I will remember as most challenging about Central America! A fellow traveler posted on his blog that “Border crossings in Central America are like hangovers: Full of headaches and a bit disorienting.” It is a good description and every overland traveler has also had to negotiate the minefield of “fixers” you encounter at each border. “Fixers” are men offering to ‘help’ you with the confusing bureaucratic process for a fee. Border crossings essentially entail a few basic steps: Entering a country 1. Get stamped into the country. 2. Get a temporary import permit for your motorcycle at customs. 3. Get your bike fumigated. Leaving a country 1. Get stamped out. 2. Cancel your temporary import permit. How hard can it be? As we have a basic command of Spanish and have researched border crossings thoroughly, we decided never to use “fixers”, however we had not considered the devastating impact of ‘human error’ and all too soon the “fixers” also proved themselves capable of scuppering even the best laid plans…

Our first encounter with a “fixer” was at the Guatemalan border with El Salvador. I was waiting for Paul as he exchanged currency when a motorcyclist stopped for a ‘chat.’ I innocently exchanged pleasantries but it soon transpired that he was a “fixer” and by chatting with him he had assumed he’d ‘been contracted to help’! Despite our protests, he would not leave our sides. It’s a bit like trying to ignore a migraine, having a “fixer” stick to your side like glue, whilst you negotiate the border crossing process. He’s waiting for the moment you hesitate or need any help…and it’s bound to happen, as we soon learned.

‘Human error’ can have a disastrous impact, when negotiating borders. We knew to check and double check everything, but when everything’s in Spanish and you’re also not quite 100% sure what you’re checking for, it’s not that simple. Entering Guatemala I asked why we did not have an entry stamp in our passports and was told it’s ‘not necessary.’ This proved incorrect and not having this essential stamp meant that we could not leave the country without returning to Immigration at Guatemala City, paying a fine and sorting it out. Before we left the Immigration offices Paul happened to compare our passports and noticed our stamps were not the same. When he enquired about it the embarrassed immigration employee apologised and corrected her mistake. Without Paul’s acuity we would have found ourselves traveling back to Guatemala City to repeat the process for a third time! This type of ‘human error’ occurred on so many subsequent occasions, it’s a wonder we got as far as we did. Incorrect VIN numbers, passport numbers or the colour of the bike. Small mistakes with dramatic ramifications that also saw fellow bikers having to return many miles to borders to sort mistakes out.

Each border has slight (and often very confusing!) variations with respect to what paperwork is required. Most countries need copies of your original documents, so in preparation we carried plenty of those. Some countries required you to make copies of the new stamp in your passport or required copies of the cancelled import permit from the country you had just left. We were astounded at the bureaucratic maze at each border and came to appreciate how helpful “fixers” could be… but at a price.

At the El Salvador/Honduras border the “fixers” literally swarmed around us as we arrived. Tempers flared and soon they were sent packing. One “fixer” hung around discreetly and once we were through Immigration and Customs he mentioned that we would need 3 copies of our cancelled import permits at the Honduras side. In appreciation, I thanked him with some coin and we headed off but we were sure surprised to see him waiting for us on the Honduras side! True to form he shadowed us and it was quickly evident that there was going to be a major delay as the computers were down and queues grew quickly as bus loads of travellers started arriving. The “fixer” spoke English and his friendly banter was fun. I remember sitting on the concrete floor just watching him ‘work his magic’ with our group of bikers and this what I observed…He pro-actively spoke to officials to ask about the delay. When he knew the computers were down, he suggested a few solutions like standing in the queue for customs on our behalf and getting our vehicle paperwork stamped. Our group agreed to this time saver and handed the necessary $ amount for the permits to be stamped. Our “fixer” walked straight to a money changer, negotiated a better exchange rate and pocketed the difference. He was running backwards and forwards, bringing completed documents as we waited in the queue which had the computer delay. Soon we were thirsty and when one of us went to buy cool drinks our “fixer” was also treated to a beverage, as he was ‘one of us’ by this stage. Someone in our group noticed that the “fixer’s” ID badge had a photograph of someone else. Despite the photograph clearly being of a black man with an afro (which he was not!) he insisted it was an old photo himself and just laughed at us. The next thing I noticed was that our “fixer’s” English started ‘to fail’ … suddenly he could not speak English and ‘summoned a friend to translate’ what he was trying to say. It was all so obvious, that it was quite comical and I could see where this would soon head. A third ‘friend’ was soon recruited to ‘speed up the fumigation process’ which also had a long queue…  long story short, yes you guessed it, at the end of this 4-hour border crossing all these ‘friends’ needed to be paid for their help too! Simply masterful and cunning, it was actually quite entertaining and impressive to watch it all unfold. Through the Central American Integration System, there’s talk of pursuing a common currency and passport, which would make painful border crossings a thing of the past in Central America. As confronting and irritating as the “fixers” could be, my overriding thought was of them as people…desperate people simply trying to eke out a living by any means possible.

Throughout Central America people were wonderfully warm and incredibly generous of spirit. We experienced so many random acts of kindness that it made an incredible impact on us. Throughout the region there were so many examples of how individuals made a difference to our world – a lady offered us her umbrella when it started to rain, a pizza delivery man stopped to ask if we needed help with directions, a lady saw that I had fallen and she brought a first aid kit and bandaged my bleeding knee, a fellow biker stopped in traffic and offered to guide us to our destination, he also advised us of safer routes to travel…there were just so many examples of kindness that this has been our greatest impression of the beautiful Central American people. We have spoken a lot about what this has taught us…about ourselves …about our communities back home in Australia and how we could perpetuate this philosophy of kindness as a living legacy in our lives.

3 thoughts on “Central America: Active volcanoes, hurricanes, zika, border crossings …and kindness

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