Two days in Purgatory

long drive home
Salvadoran roadside motel

I got an early start on the day and made it across the small bit of Honduras that separated El Salvador from Nicaragua.  When I arrived at the Salvadoran border I crossed a bridge that spanned  a dry river and then pulled the Blazer up into the queue of cars and trucks waiting to cross.  Like all of the other border crossings I had passed, several “agents” ran up to compete for my “business.”  But, as my Spanish had progressed in the last months I thought that I’d have a “go” at it myself.

I walked up to the window (where the process begins) and saw a line of people waiting (above).  I asked someone in line how long they had been waiting and they said that they had been waiting since the window opened at 8am that morning.  Just then, one of the “agents” on my arm commented that, “for a fee,” he could expedite my paperwork.  I told him I would think about it.

Nearby, I saw some truck drivers sitting at a picnic table and I went over and introduced myself and asked a few questions about the process.  They told me that they arrived yesterday morning and didn’t expect to depart until tomorrow afternoon.  I couldn’t believe it, two days to cross the border?  They told me that it is always like this unless you paid a bribe, you would be here for 2 or 3 days.  They acted as if it was the most normal thing in the world, to wait at a border crossing for 2 or 3 days.

It made me wonder about this area, how it is economically stifled and I thought that the corruption must play a role.  Goods are backed up, bribes are paid, the costs go up and a minority make a profit while the majority are impoverished.  I wondered how much of this “delay” was caused by the border officials themselves; the longer they make the wait, the more people are inclined to pay a bribe.

I re-approached the border agent and he told me that because the border is “so busy” today, my fee would be $40.  I reluctantly paid and then went back to join the truck drivers.  As bad as my Spanish was, they were patient and tried to use simple words so that I could understand them.  After a while we bought some carne (meat) and tortillas and I bought a round of Cokes for the table.  They asked me about my travels and then told me about where they live, their work and families.

By midday my paperwork had not progressed and I grew bored.  You can only talk so much in a foreign language that you are not fluent in before your brain starts to hurt.  I took out my camera and shot a few photos.  In the photo below, you can see the bridge that crosses over the border to Honduras.

I hadn’t thought much of that photo, until dinner time when, out of boredom, I began looking at my photos.  I saw that the view had not changed at all, only it was darker as the sun was setting.  I had wasted a whole day here.  And for what?  So some border guard can have my forty bucks?  Argh!  What a waste.

I looked down the road, for a few hundred meters 18 wheel trucks were lined up and their drivers patiently waited – drivers who could not pay a “fee” for expedited service.  The companies that hired these trucks must pay their salaries and then raise the prices of the goods to offset the cost.

I looked again at the view and decided to take the same shot to show what had changed in 10 1/2 hours….

When the sun set I asked my “agent” how much longer until I could pass.  He told me that he did not think that it would be possible; I would have to wait until tomorrow.  “Unless…”  I answered quickly, “Yes, unless what?”  I already knew what he would say, “Unless you are willing to pay more.”  “How much more?”  I learned that for $20 more, I would be allowed to pass tonight rather than having to wait until morning.  I reluctantly paid and was soon on my way.

I made my farewells with the truck drivers.  They seemed content in waiting, for them it was just part of life.  While I had bought my freedom, my new friends were stuck in two days of purgatory.  I made a mental note of the situation, it is certainly something we can learn from: corruption = inefficiency.  Inefficiency = poverty.

Before I drove off, some children came by to see if I had any sweets.  I gave them some gum and candy and they were very curious to talk to the Gringo in the black truck.  I decided to shoot their photo and as you can tell in the background, it was quite late before I finally cleared this border.  I was now behind, a full day’s travel wasted at the Honduran/Salvadoran border.


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long drive home
Salvadoran roadside motel

2 thoughts on “Two days in Purgatory

  1. Ah, the joys of visas in third world countries. Yes, an “agent” is a man who does the bribing for you… And it does give one pause to wonder quite how that many people can be sitting, doing nothing, for so long.

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