Nicaragua frontier

Practice makes perfect & despite what I thought would be the “hardest” border crossing was he easiest.  Was it that my Spanish was getting better or was it that I understood how the immigration & car registration process worked?  I am not sure which reason or if it was a combination of all of these answers but the customs process crossing from Honduras to Nicaragua was a breeze.

One thing that I did notice was that all of the locals paid bribes at this checkpoint just as they had done at the Guat/Honduran border and also at the Mexican/Guatemalan border.  The local hands their passport to the customs agent and a small bill is folded inside.  The customs agent opens his drawer a few inches, opens the passport and allows the $ to fall into the drawer.  When my passport was opened and no $ came out, sometimes I was directly asked for a bribe and I refused to pay.

This is a big problem in Central America.  People have to pay bribes to get regular government services.  This causes bureaucracy that is unnecessary and impedes the flow of goods and services.  In short, it stifles the economy.  That people don’t accept bribery as a regular part of business in America, Canada and Europe means that the gross domestic products of those countries is much higher than in Central America.  Much of the poverty and corruption in Central America (likely in much of the third world) is caused by this “buying” of government services.  Ok, rant over ;-)

Back at the Guatemalan/Honduran border, there was a list of fees on a billboard and it said in English and Spanish that these were the official fees.  The Guatemalan border guard tried to charge me some extraneous fee that was not listed on the billboard.  Some German and Finnish tourists paid the fee but I refused.  He argued with me and then I took out a pen and asked for his name.  He angrily stamped my passport and then returned it to me.  I thought that if the Germans and Finns had done the same, it would have discouraged this kind of behavior.  But, so long as someone will pay, the guard will ask.

I was really quite excited to enter Nicaragua; I have always had a fascination with the former Soviet Bloc Communist governments and I was curious to see how Nicaragua was coping in the new world of democratic reform…


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A bribe to cross?

After we said out goodbyes to Edwin, Jeff and I boarded back into the trusty black Blazer truck and headed south into Zapata territory.  The Chiapas State has had some insurgent activity of late and the Mexican Army clamped down hard on the area.  Most of the drive was in semi-arid plains ringed with patches of jungle, usually along the rivers.  I was making good time, perhaps about 70mph and Jeff asked me to slow down.  I remarked that there was no one out here (to run into) and it was safer to drive fast.  He agreed that there was in fact no one out here and also no one to help us if we crashed.  I suppose that he had a good point; it had been a 1/2 hour since we had seen another car.  If we had a blow-out and rolled the truck, we might not be discovered for hours.  So, I slowed down.  And with this paragraph, I’ll say to all other travelers, especially those in remote areas; take it safe and slow, better to arrive alive than early.

As we approached the last 100 miles of our drive before we reached the Guatemalan border, I did notice that the countryside turned greener and greener.  We began to see sugar cane fields and broad leafy plants.  The region certainly seemed to be rural and most of the traffic that we encountered was in some way or shape related to agriculture and cattle.

About 5 miles before the frontier (border), we passed through a set of speed bumps and a bunch of kids were frantically waving for us to stop.  They all seemed to have some papers in their hands and were pointing at them as if we should have some idea what they wanted.  We had been stopped by kids before who were looking for handouts, assumed them to be doing the same, and then drove on.  It wasn’t until we reached the border checkpoint that we realized that we had to have our visas stamped – 5 miles back where the kids were trying to get us to stop.  Doh!  Looks like we’ll have to drive back.

We did drive back and one of the kids, named Roberto, seemed to clamp onto us and became our unofficial “guide.”  For a few bucks he walked us through the process.  Our passports and vehicle registration and permit were all checked and then we received the necessary stamps and papers to proceed.  Roberto came along to “introduce” us to a “guide” that could “help” us cross the borer quickly.  No doubt that our little friend was a scout for a border agent but we had no idea how easy, or difficult it would be to cross the border.  We were soon to find out.

As soon as we pulled into the queue to cross the border we were besieged by vendors of peanuts, corn, soft drinks, a man began washing my windows (below) even though I didn’t ask and about 8 or 10 “guides” clamored around the truck offering their services in broken English.  Roberto grabbed me by the hand and pulled me towards the waiting immigration area.  Inside I saw long lines of Mexican and Guatemalan truck drivers, travelers and a rag-tag assortment of people from all around the world.  It seemed like each Anglo person had a “guide” attached to their waist and were all in the front of the line.  Hmmm…  it seems as though the guide may be of some service.

As soon as our guide spotted Roberto, he came right over and introduced himself as Guermo.  Guermo told me that the wait to cross the border was at least 12 hours due to the heavy congestion.  But, he assured me, he could expedite the process because he “knows people” and can get our paperwork to the front of the line.  “How much?”  I asked and he quickly replied that his services were twenty U.S. dollars.  I told him that it was too much and that I would just stand in line.  He quickly lowered his price to $10 and said that my time was worth more than ten bucks and that I should accept his offer.

I reluctantly surrendered our passports, visas, car insurance, registration and Mexican permits and Guermo went to work.  He walked right past the line of tired locals and through the dutch door that separated the counter from the public.  It almost seemed as if he was an immigration employee as he strolled right into the controlled area like he owned the building.  He talked with an overweight man who nodded, took the pile of papers and then sat it on the desk next to three similarly stacked piles.  I figured that those stacks were for the tourists who had paid bribes, ahem, I mean service fees to their agent for expedited service.

Guermo told me that I didn’t have to wait in line, I could go sit at the truck or do some shopping; he would come and find me when the paperwork was ready.  I found Jeff and we looked around the food stalls, Roberto close behind waiting for us to order 3 Cokes instead of two.  We took care of our junior guide and he smiled past dirty cheeks and soiled clothing.

After some time, Guermo came out and said that we had “cleared” Mexican immigration and now it was time to begin the process with the Guatemalan customs departments.  He then informed me that it would be an additional $10 for the Guatemalan customs.  “Ah,” I thought, “Here we go, let the negotiation games begin.”  I explained to Guermo that he told me ten bucks and that’s all he was getting.  He told me that he had to pay a portion of his “fee” to the Mexican officials and a portion to the Guatemalan officials, roughly five bucks each.  “You don’t want me to work for free do you?”  He then suggested that the Guatemalan process was much longer than the Mexican customs process and that I might be here all day.  “Remember Senor, the value of your time.”  He did have a valid point; ten bucks versus losing a whole day of travel didn’t make much sense.  He also suggested that I talk to some of the other expats and see how much they were paying, “All tourists pay U.S. $20,” he said.

I told him to proceed and while he wheeled and dealed, I talked to some Germans, some Dutch and a retired American couple in a large RV.  Aside from the Americans who paid $50, everyone else paid $20.  It seems that the larger the vehicle, the larger the bribes.  Ahem, excuse me, I mean “customs fees.”

After a while, Guermo came to the truck again and said that we must cross to the Guatemalan side to a copy shop and copies made of the passports, visas, car registration and insurance.  I didn’t understand why he just didn’t do this himself until the copy clerk gave me the bill.  Well, it was only a dollar, so I paid and smiled and followed Guermo back to the immigration area.

He ran back inside and I found Jeff chatting with some kids and sharing some sweets with them.  The local kids were all selling something: bracelets, gum, sodas, puppets, hats – pretty much all the junk that you throw away when you get home if you couldn’t eat it while on holiday.

I noticed this high-speed police interceptor car and had to get a photo of it:

After another 40 minutes or so, Guermo emerged with our paperwork and walked us to the Guatemalan customs window.  Our passports were stamped, Guermo shook our hands and we were off.  I looked back at the line of local people who were waiting to clear customs – the people who didn’t have $20 – the line had barely moved.  I felt bad for them.  Here we are, as guests and allowed to “cut” the line because we have $20.  It made me think about the inequities of this world.  For a minute and then I shrugged my shoulders and continued my journey.  It wouldn’t be until later that it would all set in…


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