layovers, layovers

If ever you find that you have 1/2 a day in an airport, don’t just sit there in the terminal, get out and see some sights!  I’ve mentioned this as a travel hint on another page and I had about 6 or 7 hours between flights in London en route to Dubai from the US.  I checked my carry on bag with the checked luggage counter and made my way to the tube and caught a train into town.  Along the way I was able to see the beautiful English countryside (above) and listen to the Londoners chat as they rode to work.  It was a nice to get out of the airport after a 12 hour flight from America.

I didn’t go all the way into downtown London, my goal was only to find a decent breakfast outside of the airport.  I asked some of the locals if they knew of a nice restaurant where I could find some brekkie and was told to get off at this stop, walk about 100 meters in that direction and I’d see a white Tudor building.  I followed the instructions and saw the little inn (below) and made my way inside.

It was a classic little English inn and breakfast and the middle-aged “Mom” looking lady offered me a seat and a menu.  I ordered some eggs over easy, a muffin and some bacon (not really bacon, I don’t think that the English know how to make bacon, instead you get some thick strips of pork that are a bit rubbery but still with a nice flavor) and a cup of strong black coffee.  I did have to adjust to the smoke as a few patrons were having their breakfast cigarettes.  There were some complimentary local newspapers and I read about the latest local and international events and affairs.

And so, if you ever have some spare time at an airport and your passport affords you the opportunity to travel – get out there!  A half day in another country can be quite an experience.  You never know what adventure you may find.


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Mexican drug trade

And so I drove on; in a few days I had crossed Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and was not in Guatemala.  The landscape turned from a semi-savanah looking marshland into the thick tropical jungle on the Guatemalan/Mexican border.  I must have taken a hundred photos as I drove along.  It was a shame to have to keep driving but one thing that you do capture (driving versus flying) is that you get to see the landscape.  And the landscape is very diverse in Central America ranging from desert to prairie, savanah, thick jungle and tall mountain peaks.

When I finally made it to the Mexican border I cleared the Guatemalan customs quite easily but the Mexican customs officials were quite skeptical.  “A single male in a sports utility vehicle travelling Central America alone?” they asked.  I explained that I was on holiday with a friend.  “Where is your friend?”  I explained that he continued traveling south and that I had to go back to work.  I showed them all of my photos and even my military ID and told them I was rushing to get back for Army service.

I don’t think they believed me.

They took apart every piece of luggage I had and brought in a drug dog to search it and the truck.  I was frisked twice by seperate agents and the dog gave me a smell also.  A few technicians came in with long metal probes, about the thickness of a wire clothes hanger,  and pierced the plastic interior of the truck looking for drugs packed in the interior of the car body.  They opened the glove box and poked holes through the back of it, poked holes in the door panels, in the ceiling liner, in the wheel well covers, through the seats, anywhere that drugs could be hidden.  And when they were done “probing,” the dog came through again and gave a thorough sniffing.

And when they found nothing, they finally let me pass.  A word of warning to any tourist who might want to take some drug souveniers home:  DON’T!

After they let me pass I was sent to the agricultural check point.  Here they asked the standard “are you carying any produce” questions.  And then they asked if I had visited any farms (I had).  They didn’t seem to be interested in my luggage but asked that I put my shoes on the sidewalk.  A man went around the truck and sprayed it with a chlorine solution and my shoes got the same treatment (photo below).  It seems that they were concerned about the spread of Hoof and Mouth cattle disease.  After everything had a nice “clean bathroom” smell they too let me pass and in no time I was back on the road.

I spent the next two days driving the length of Mexico.  I’ve been asked many times about the cost of the tolls and driving expenses in Mexico.  Vehicle maintenance and oil changes are about on par with the United States.  Gasoline costs about twice as much as in the US and the tolls (2002 prices), it cost me about $275 to pay the tolls from Guatemala to Texas.

Along the drive I ran into numerous Army and Police checkpoints that were (no doubt) looking for drug smuggling.  There were quite a few portable X-ray trucks that were likely paid for with American Federal drug funds.  These X-ray devices are used to look inside the cargo containers on the big 18 wheel trucks to determine if they are carrying drugs.  It seemed that they were stopping trucks at random to get screened.  It looks like a good show, but as I’ve seen on television, the big drug cartels have the police paid off and know when to avoid these roadblocks.

Near the Tropic of Cancer I came to another roadblock.  A soldier was questioning the man driving the truck ahead of me and I snuck a shot.  I have been quite leary of shooting photos of the Police and Army at these (numerous) checkpoints as I don’t want to be thought of as a “lookout” for drug smuggling – the last thing I needed was to be detained and miss training with my Army unit.

This soldier is carrying a Heckler and Koch 7.62 mm G3 rifle, but what is interesting about this rifle is that it is sporting a 40mm grenade launcher on the bottom.  The M203 grenade launcher is quite common under the M4/M-16 rifles but I’d never seen one on an H&K before.

As I neared the US border the number of road blocks became more frequent.  I saw this large checkpoint about 100 miles south of the Texas border.  There were dozens of trucks stopped and many had their cargo pulled and it was laid out all over the highway.  Considering how many tons of drugs enter the US each year I wondered if all of these checkpoints were just for show or if they had any impact on drug smuggling operations?

I tried my best to take a stealth shot but one cop spotted my camera and glared at me as I drove by.  Surprisingly, when I got to the US border, my vehicle was not searched at all.  There were only two memorable events when I crossed the Mexican-American border:

The Mexican customs officer asked me where I had been, what I was doing and where I was going.  I remember being asked these same questions weeks earlier when I entered Mexico except that I could not answer previously – my Spanish was sub-par.  But this time, I rattled off (in Spanish) where I’d been, what I’d seen, that I was a tourist and that I was going home for military service.  I had impressed myself and vowed that if I had time I would come back and study Spanish for some time.

The American customs officer asked what I was doing and when I started telling him my story he cut me off and said, “Did you meet any girls?”  I answered that I’d met a Swedish girl, a German, some Canadians and he cut me off again, this time with a smile as he handed my passport back and said, “Sounds good, travel safely.”  I guess I didn’t sound nervous and he didn’t take me as a drug smuggler.


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Mexico in two days

I know of a lot of people who have driven across the Continental United States in a few days before; I’ve done it myself.  But I had not yet met anyone who had done it in Central America.  While I didn’t drive the entire length of the region, I did get from Nicaragua to Texas in a little under 4 days.  It was a lot of driving and I saw a lot of scenery.

I was most amazed at the diversity of the natural scenery ranging from marsh and swamplands (above) to savanah-like plains (below).  As I drove in some parts of the country I almost expected to see Zebras and Lions at any moment.  Many parts of south-central Mexico looked much like Africa to me (plants, not the people LOL).  Previously in my trip I had seen beautiful pine trees and blue lakes in the mountains that looked to me like you might find in California or Idaho.

Just north of Mexico City I passed a hotel that was on the other side of the highway and I decided to make a U-turn to go back.  In the center median was a 3′ deep (1 meter) cement drainage basin and I put the front of the Blazer right into it.  There was no way I was getting out without help.  I saw a passing Highway Patrol car and flagged down the officer.  He came over and asked what happened and I told him.  He reminded me that it was illegal to make a U-turn over the median but only gave me a warning.

He called for a tow truck to come and pull me out and when it was finished I asked what the (tow-truck) cost would be and I was told that there was no charge as these tow-trucks were contracted to help out motorists on the highway and were paid for by the state.  When I insisted on paying “something,” the Officer said that it was forbidden to even accept tips.  He said that he and the tow-truck operator were “only doing their duty.”  I was most impressed; after being hustled for bribe after bribe in the border frontier, it was nice to see an honest and ethical cop in Central Mexico.

Once I passed the Tropic of Cancer the scenery quickly changed to a dry hot desert where I saw miles and miles of Joshua Trees (2nd photo below), miles of open desert and rocky mountains.  Much of northern Mexico looks like what I “thought” Mexico would look like – probably based on my previous experience in the border regions.  Aside from the Yucatan Peninsula, I hadn’t ventured further south than Ensenada.

I was quite impressed with the roads in Mexico – the toll roads at least.  The highways were wide and smooth and cut through the mountains rather than going around them.  On the way down we spent much of the time driving the “old” highways and they were murder on the truck’s transmission.  Driving the more “level” toll roads is the way to go if you need to get from point A to point  B in Mexico.

After passing through my last set of mountains I came to the American border and found a hotel to crash at for the night.  The following day I would get up, cross the border and then drive non-stop from Mexico to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  I found a decently priced hotel that looked clean enough, checked in and went for a shower and found this little fella in my bathroom.  Yuck!  I was beginning to miss the United States…


Stories, posts, reports, photos, videos and all other content on this site is copyright protected © and is the property of Scott Traveler unless otherwise indicated, all rights reserved. Content on this site may not be reproduced without permission from Scott Traveler. My contact information can be found on the home page.

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