March 14: Crossing Honduras: Borders, Bandidos, Banks, and Bad Roads

After one last swim, battling the wild waves in shallow water, and having a nice breakfast overlooking El Cuco beach in El Salvador, we headed off for what proved to be our most adventurous day yet. We knew that crossing two borders would present some difficulties, but little did we know what awaited us. When stopping at a gas station a few kilometres from the Salvadorean/Honduras border, we were approached by two half brothers – Orlando who spoke with a perfect Texas drawl, and José who flashed his official Honduras transit guide card, offering their bilingual services to help us negotiate what they said would be a very difficult crossing. We initially refused their help but later decided to hire them to leave a little money in local hands. They explained their strategy and warned us to not speak Spanish on the Honduran side, so as not to extract additional fees from Honduran authorities. “Follow us,” they said, as they jumped into a tuktuk (3-wheeled motorcycle taxi). At the border, they abandoned the tuktuk and went off in a fast trot, leading us around a long line of big trucks waiting to cross.

Guides running (1 of 1)  tuktuk (1 of 1)

We entrusted all of our documents to José who insisted that only he could get to the head of the line and move us through the procedures more quickly. Orlando kept us company, finding us some seats in the shade, ensuring us that José had all the connections needed to get us across border efficiently (he had been in the army and his uncle was the police chief in the capital!). As time dragged on, he regaled us with stories of the infamous gangs, and how young men, when invited to join a gang, couldn’t refuse (explaining why so many unaccompanied teenagers are showing up at the U.S. border to flee the gang threats and unavoidable violence).

As lunchtime approached (everything shuts down for this important mid-day meal), José appeared to announce that we could bypass three procedures (fumigation, inspection, and visas) for an additional $5 to the $15 required for each – for $60 total. It turns out we didn’t have enough cash. “No problem,” they said, “we’ll borrow the money and pay for you, and accompany you to the next ATM, 30 minutes down the road.” We threw our large bags on top of the bikes in the back and continued our adventure with our “guides” (bandidos?) in the back seat. Once at the ATM, they let us know that our proposed tip of $35 was not enough. On top of this, we either had to drive them back to the El Salvador border or pay for a taxi to take them back. So, three hours and $155 later, we were freed to begin the 2-3 hour crossing of Honduras.

We stopped in the largest town, Choluteca, where John waited patiently in line at several ATMs before finding one that would give us the needed cash for the next border. And then the roads – what amazing roads! The trucks ahead of us dodged and weaved into the oncoming lane to avoid the most impressive pot holes that we had ever seen…! Soon John (mistakenly) acquired the confidence of the local drivers, working his way through the obstacle course of potholes, passing large trucks and slower-moving cars. As it turns out, he seriously misjudged our Dodge Caravan’s ability to take on these treacherous roads. Our bags and bikes (and Deborah) bounced up and down as we hit some unavoidable and incredibly deep holes. Suddenly, an ominous loud flapping sound warned us that our rear right tire wasn’t up to the challenge; an enormous and sharp pothole had sliced the side of the tire.

Here we were in rural Honduras, in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, a passing cyclist named Nelson, stopped and offered to help, ensuring us we could trust him. It took John and Nelson many attempts (jumping up and down, and banging with rocks) to loosen the overtight nuts holding our ruined tire. Deborah was sent off with a local campesina woman, Janice, to buy a coke as a potential lubricant to loosen the nuts. By this time, we had an audience of the family living by the roadside, cheering us on, and agreeing that Nelson was a Good Samaratin. We headed off for a nearby motorcycle repair shop to get more air in the new tire.

Nelson and John loosening tire (1 of 1)  Nelson and the coke solution (1 of 1)

Tire changing audience (1 of 1)  Nelson and John (1 of 1)

Overconfident still, and eager to get to the Nicaraguan border, John managed to find yet another dangerous pothole. The tire that was to save us was suddenly flat, with the rim dented in several places. This happened beside a roadside food vendor run by a lovely large family. They noticed the local mechanic zipping by on his bike, going home from work, and stopped him to come to our rescue. He picked up the flat spare tire, jumped on his bike, and pedaled off back to his shop. In the meantime, our new hosts, sat us down in the shade and offered us a cool drink made from the fruit whose seed is the cashew nut. We shared photos and family stories, learning about the 9 kids and grandkids, many of whom joined us as we waited. About 20 minutes later, our second Good Samaratin returned with a repaired rim and inflated tire. There were warm goodbyes from our new roadside friends, who wished safe journey to their entertaining gringo visitors.

cycling mechanic (1 of 1)   mechanic at work (1 of 1)

Hondina and family (1 of 1)

We headed off at a somewhat more conservative pace to what had been promised to be an easier and faster border crossing at the Nicaraguan border. Again we were greeted by less official looking guys offering to guide us through the process. Somewhat suspicious, John decided to walk along the line of 20 trucks waiting. Meanwhile, Deborah in the driver’s seat, was directed to pass those trucks to get to the front of the line. A young Nicaraguan of about 12 years old kept ushering us along, even though we hadn’t officially hired him, indicating what offices and windows to go to, and what documents were needed. Though slow, things seemed to be proceeding, until one official pointed out that our vehicle registration didn’t have an official police stamp on it, such as those in the U.S. We vigorously pointed out that Canada is a separate country, with its own rules and regulations, and that our registration was legitimate. He asked us to wait while he investigated. At that point, we found allies in a young couple from BC who were experiencing the same obstruction. While waiting, those functionaries processing other parts of our entry, took their hour-long dinner break. Dark descended upon us, and yet again John’s assurance that we wouldn’t be travelling at night proved not to be true.

With great relief, we finally entered Nicaragua around 8 PM, happy to be driving on a smooth highway. However, a few kilometres in, we were back to pot hole misery, even more tense on dark roads. By this point, Deborah was trying to helpfully point out upcoming dangers, but John suggested that she repress all audible sounds of reactions and assistance. Needless to say, it was not easy to be either a driver or a passenger under these conditions. And when arriving in Chinendega, 2 hours short of our destination of Managua, we decided to call it a day (after 12 hours!) and retreat to a local 4-star hotel (with a beautiful courtyard and large pool), to recover forces for the last lap in the morning. John had a partial meltdown when he managed to lose the hotel room key in the car, before we even got in the door. While he negotiated with reception for a second key, Deborah found the first key on the floor of the car. It was definitely time for a break…!

We were grateful at least that we had survived our worst day yet,  and that after driving for 12,000 km from Canada, we had our first car problems; and, in both cases, we were blessed with generous campesino families eager to help.

 

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