smarter than a speeding ticket

At the El Salvador/Guatemala border I was quite alarmed to see trucks backed up as far as a kilometer standing in queue waiting to clear the border.  I didn’t want to spend another full day waiting to get a passport stamp like at the Honduran border.  I noticed a red truck ahead of me who continued to drive passing up all of the parked 18 wheel trucks and I followed him right up to the border checkpoint.  He exited and walked in and I followed him inside.  It seems that there were two lines, one for commercial traffic and one for non-commercial traffic.  It looked like I was now #2 in line and I was able to process my application rather quickly.  However, I still had to wait for my paperwork to clear.

I returned to my vehicle and after about an hour I was called back into the building.  I was issued my vehicle permit and allowed to proceed to immigration to get my passport stamped.  As I looked at my passport I noticed that the customs agents of Central America had really butchered it.  I had stamps EVERYWHERE and they took up whole pages; each border crossing wiped out one full page.  I didn’t mind all of the wacky and excessive stamps; I think it adds character to a passport.  But some of my German friends really freaked out as they are used to border agents “coloring between the lines.”  By the time that this trip was over I would have to add new pages to my passport before I could go on my next trip.  A few of the border agents even “personalized” their immigration stamps with their names and signature blocks:

Once clear of the border I ran into a roadblock and then another.  At each roadblock I was asked for bribes and I either had to pay or else argue that it was improper to pay; sometimes this took 15 minutes, sometimes an hour or two.  I was getting a bit anxious to get back as I was behind schedule and I was afraid that I would be late for work.  A few miles down the road I saw two Guatemalan soldiers complete with Israeli Gallil 5.56 assault rifles, fatigues and combat boots.  They appeared to be waiting for a bus and I had a stroke of inspiration.  I pulled over and back up to the bus stop and in my broken Spanish I asked them where they were going.

The soldiers told me that they were travelling to their base that was located about 250 kilometers down the main road.  I asked them if the base was on the main road or on a side road and they said that the base sat right on this main highway.  I asked them if they needed a ride and instantly, both of their faces light up with big smiles.  They eagerly accepted my offer and I wasn’t sure if they were so happy to be saving the bus fare, that they would save time and wouldn’t have to wait for the bus or if they were just happy to have the company of this goofy looking Gringo in a black truck.

Before they boarded, I asked if I could have their photo:

As we came to the next roadblock, the solider in the front seat directed me to bypass it by driving into the lanes on the opposite side.  The policeman looked startled at first but then saw the soldiers in the truck.  Both of my companions waved enthusiastically to the policeman who stared back and watched as a potential bribe drove by unimpeded.  This was great, I could bypass all of the police checkpoints and in no time I was back on schedule.

The two soldiers asked me what I was doing in Guatemala and I told them about my road trip.  We talked about work, how long they had been in the Army and then I told them that I was in the Army and that I drove tanks.  They were most impressed and they invited me to come inside their base to meet their First Sergeant.  I agreed and we chatted for the few hours as we drove further north.

We arrived at their base just before dusk and the gate guard waved us right in.  They brought me inside and I met the First Sergeant and some of the other men.  They were all quite enthusiastic to have a visitor and were very cordial.  I asked if I could take a photo but I was told that photographs were not permitted inside the base.  They gave me a brief tour and invited me to stay for dinner.  I lingered as long as I could but I wanted to make it to a hotel before dark and I reluctantly made my goodbyes and got back on the road.


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Tikal to Copan

Perhaps this will be a “boring” post for my regular readers but it may be educational for some travelers that are trekking from Antigua, Guatemala City or Copan to Tikal.  When we drove from Guatemala City to eastern-central Guatemala I didn’t have a chance to capture a lot of photos.  But, on the drive from Tikal to Copan I did get quite a few photos that show the landscape change from Tikal and Finca Ixobel as we drove south from the jungled region to the semi-arid hills and countryside along the Honduran border.  The photo above was just south of Finca Ixobel and you can see how lush the countryside is where it is not clear-cut for farmland.

Heading south on Hwy 5, within a few hours after passing the Rio Dulce River, the landscape quickly turns more arid and the plant life is more sparse.  At the turnoff heading west towards Guatemala City we stopped to fill the truck up with gas and to buy a soda before heading south into some hill country along the Honduran border.

In south Guatemala we transitioned from Hwy 5 to Hwy 17 heading south towards Salama.  Charlotta de-boarded for a bus heading back to her work in Antigua.  We helped her to buy a bus ticket and made our farewells.  Donja, a German girl who Jeff met at Finca Ixobel came along with us.  She was on her way to the ruins at Copan and we were happy to split the gasoline bill and have a new travel companion.

Hwy 17 turned east towards the Honduran border and then at CA 10 we turned south towards Chiquimula.  As we drove, the land quickly changed to a semi-arid desert landscape with rolling hills.  At Chiquimula I tried to find a post office as I wanted to mail my last Guatemalan post cards – once we entered Honduras my Guatemalan stamps would be worthless.

I pulled up to the first Chiquimulan that I saw and said, in my broken Spanish, “Donde esta el correro?”  (Where is the post office?).  The Chiquimulan looked at me and said, “Correro?  Que es?”  “Post office, what’s that?”  Say what?  You’ve never heard of the post office?  We drove around and around for close to 40 minutes and asked everyone in town where the post office was.  Not only had most people never heard of a post office, when we finally found someone who had, they said that the nearest post office was in Salama.


I finally gave up and decided to mail my post cards from Honduras.  The Guatemalan stamps were added to my travel journal next to so many other travel souvenirs (the kind that can fit in a small leather-bound journal).

Only a few miles from the Honduran border, I noticed some local people as they carried water and food on their heads.  I shot the photo (below) of a woman carrying some maize or flour on her head heading from town to her home.  The border crossing was not so bad, I paid my fee and my passport was stamped promptly without too much fanfare.  I was surprised at how easy it was to process the paperwork for my truck.  The paperwork was easy but the road permit was quite steep, perhaps 8x what I paid in Mexico and Guatemala.  Surprisingly I would find that the Honduran roads were in the worst condition than any other country in Central America.  Interesting how hat works, the country that has the highest road fees has the worst roads.  I wonder who’s pocketing my road fees?  Hmm…


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danger in the cane field

We finally cleared Mexico and were on our way inside of Guatemala.  Almost immediately after crossing the border the landscape changed drastically.  Suddenly we were inside thick jungle with broad leafy plants, sugar cane fields and the flatter Mexican terrain turned into rolling hills.  It seemed that we were either climbing a jungle hill or driving down the back side of one.  I have noticed that often the international and state borders are along the line of a natural border: rivers are obvious but I have noticed that borders run along mountain and hill ranges and also at the edges of forested, jungle or desert areas.  The next time you cross a border, look around and notice of there is a change in the landscape.

After a while, we seemed to clear the hills near the border and continued driving southeast.  There were areas of thick jungle and then areas where it had been clear-cut for farming (below).  When we hit open areas we were able to see the far off volcanos and get photos of them.  This volcano in the picture below looked like an interesting photo subject and Jeff and I agreed that we would pull over and see if we could find a clearing to take some shots.  I saw a road that led off to the north just across a small stream.  We turned off the road and after one more turn to the left we were in a sugar cane field.

The small dirt road continued for about 75 more meters before making a hard right turn.  We estimated that after the next turn we should have a clear shot of the volcano.  As we came around the bend in the road we noticed a police truck was parked and 3 uniformed policemen had a man in handcuffs and were leading him away from the truck into the sugar cane field.  The man looked very scared and looked to us with pleading eyes almost as if crying out for help.  The policemen looked quite surprised to see us and had a look on their faces as if they had just been caught in the middle of a crime.  They all stood there with looking like kids who had just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

For a second or two Jeff and I stared at the men and they stared at us.  I had a bad feeling; the entire situation looked bad.  It looked very dangerous.

Before traveling to Central America I had read all of the State Department warnings, all of the tourist book warnings and also some posts from fellow travelers on the Lonely Planet Travel Boards.  All warned to stay in “touristed” areas, to stay on main roads and not to travel at night.  There was certainly a criminal element, but in some of the countries, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Civil War and guerilla activity was still active in some areas.  One study that I had read estimates that the number of people killed in Guatemala during the Civil War that raged for the last four decades has claimed 250,000 lives.  In many places, the government and police are as dangerous as criminals; some westerners have been killed for being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

When you travel to other countries, you have to put aside a certain amount of your natural expectations.  Other countries have different cultures, customs, different practices of law, of eating food and of religion.  When you go to another country, you must learn to bend your will to that of the local land.  Perhaps I don’t approve of eating dog, but I’m not going to go and try to save dogs in China.  I might not be for capital punishment, but I’m not going to intervene during a public execution in Saudi Arabia.

And in this case, what can I do?  If they were doing something bad, something dreadful, two American Gringo visitors are more likely to end up with a bullet in the head than not.  Every cell in my body screamed panic and shouted, “get out of here.”  Before I could even react, Jeff shouted, “Get out of here!  Back up!  Go, go!”

I threw the truck into reverse and punched the gas.  I looked through my mirrors and turned back through the curve we had just passed and when we were out of sight of the policemen I made a quick 3 point turn crashing the back of the truck into the crops that bordered the narrow dirt road.  I drove out of there as quickly as I could without wrecking the truck.  I still had my camera out and in my lap and just before we turned back onto the main road, I shot a photo out my driver’s window (below).

We pulled onto the main road and quickly began driving south.  Jeff and I discussed going to the nearest police station to report what we had seen.  But what if the cops there were crooked?  We might again end up with a bullet in our heads.  We discussed what we might have just seen.  Perhaps the man was leading the police to a crime scene?  Perhaps they had just captured him.  That didn’t seem likely as they were leading him into the cane field.

We weren’t sure what to do.  Really, what could we do?  This is not our country; intervening had limited upside potential and on the downside, possibly fatal results.  We assured ourselves that the police would take good care of the man, that he was only being transported.  It made us feel good to tell ourselves this.  We didn’t know if it was true, I don’t think that we wanted to know.

I”ve always been haunted by the look on that man’s face.  I never knew what happened to him.  I felt bad that there was little we could do to assist.  I certainly appreciated that I had protections from police abuse in my own country.

The experience gave me a lot to think about, a lot to contemplate and much to deliberate.  Almost 10 years later and I still think about it…


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