November 16, 2008

How to travel between Central American countries

The efficient way:

  • Embark at Airport A.
  • Take off.
  • Marvel at the earth from above.
  • Land.
  • Disembark at Airport B.

The simple way, as exemplified by my border crossings into Nicaragua and Honduras:

  • Go to busy bus terminal in seething city very early in the morning.
  • Wait. Check in. Wait. Hand over checked luggage. Wait. Produce ticket. Wait. Board.
  • Sit on comfy bus, high above the road, watching the verdant hills that surround the Interamericano highway.
  • Hand your passport and US$8 to the bus conductor.
  • Disembark at MIGRACION post. Run gauntlet of moneychangers. Change money. Stand around for awhile. Get your checked luggage out. Stand around for awhile. Queue. Wave luggage past customs guy. Stand around for awhile. Return luggage to under-bus compartment. Re-board.
  • Listen to your iPod. (Reading is out of the question as the road is unstable and you'll get a headache within minutes.) Watch world go by, or the onboard movie. If you are unlucky, it will be VANTAGE POINT three times in a row.
  • Disembark at busy bus terminal in seething city at dusk.

The fun way, eg my route to Guatemala:

  • Leave San Pedru Sula hotel at 8.30 AM. Find taxi. Haggle with taxi driver about price to bus terminal.
  • Board nice, air-conditioned minibus. Leave with only 6 people aboard. Be relieved that Central America doesn't follow the insane African model of "we will leave only when every seat is full, no matter how long that means we have to wait, even though we all know the roads will be full of paying customers wanting to hop on."
  • Stop in town to pick up dozens of other people. Become conduit for money being passed back and forth to conductor. Attempt to pick up still more people, who recoil at sight of the overcrowded bus.
  • Drive for an hour. Stop in Puerto Cortes.
  • Ask around in Broken Spanish for bus to "el frontera." Get directed to not-quite-broken-down former school bus.
  • Leave with only 10 people aboard. Pick up and deposit more people en route west, until bus is overflowing.
  • Buy snacks and drinks from hawkers who crowd their way onto bus at one stop and get off at the next. (This is typical in Central America - in Colombia you can hardly move for them.) Be surprised by the children hawking in Honduras; not seen elsewhere.
  • Veer off paved highway into dirt-road small towns. Wait while conductor gets out to get a piece of paper stamped, or driver gets out to chat with a buddy, or driver stops to examine grumbling engine. Collect and disperse dozens of schoolkids, blind men led by their grandsons, old women who argue the fare, entire families laden with bags and boxes. No chickens, though.
  • Arrive at sleepy border post. Run gauntlet of moneychangers. Chat to one who speaks good English from having worked in North Carolina for two years. Get slightly ripped off by him. Get waved through by Honduras police.
  • Walk across border unaccompanied but for a man on a bicycle and another on a horse. Reach large, all-but-deserted Guatemalan border complex. Run gauntlet of moneychangers. Get passport cursorily inspected by Guatemalan Migracion officer who does not stop chattering into his cell phone. Get waved on.
  • Hop onto minibus to Puerto Barrios, piloted and conducted by laughing Guatemalan teenagers. Careen out into the road. Fear for life. Observe teenagers pick up some would-be passengers, and disdain others. Their heuristic is incomprehensible but triggers much mirth. The driver is highly incautious but undeniably skilful. Enjoy self despite self.
  • Pass plantations of corn, coconuts, palms, and above all, bananas bananas bananas. (The United Fruit Company, which basically ran Central America in the first half of the 20th century - hence "banana republic" - is still active in Guatemala.)
  • Survive to Puerto Barrios. Disembark. Dine on really good Portuguese food. Hitch ride with guy who speaks fluent American English to the port. Get escorted by a dozen friendly locals to the next lancha to Livingstone. Stand around for awhile. Wedge self into lancha with sixteen others, and as the sunset reddens, set out into the Caribbean.
  • Hug shore for half an hour. Observe massive frigate birds circling above. Observe cotton-candy clouds and crimson sun setting behind massive palms. Resist temptation to throw self into water for a quick refreshing swim.
  • Arrive Livingstone. Disembark. Be surprised to readiness of touts to accept no for an answer. Note that there are few motorcycles and fewer cars, not surprising, as this town of 17,000 is not connected by road to the rest of the world. Note rich mixed smells of ocean, jungle, diesel and wood smoke in the air. Note touristy-in-a-good-way cafes and shops. Note amazing lushness - it looks like the jungle is ready to retake the entire city in approximately 15 minutes once its inhabitants leave.
  • Seek out hotel recommended by guy in Puerto Barrios. Find it full. Seek out backup hotel. Find it full. Stumble across lavish luxury room for $11 per night (with fan, no air-con, but that's fine in these sea breezes.) Congratulate self.
  • Find Internet cafe and inform world of day's accomplishments.

Option 3 is really not that much harder, and oh so much more enjoyable.


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