Virgin Trail: Travels in the Other Central America

Bureaucracy, Rest, and Motion
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 17 2003 2:22 PM

Virgin Trail: Travels in the Other Central America

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Today's slide show: Border Crossings

Justin Mounts gets his paperwork in order for the border crossing
Justin Mounts gets his paperwork in order for the border crossing

THE EL SALVADOR-HONDURAS BORDER AT EL AMATILLO—After the beaches of La Libertad, our expedition team heads east along the Pacific coast, faced with the task of traveling through two borders (El Salvador-Honduras and Honduras-Nicaragua) in 36 hours. As I steer the Land Rover toward the Honduran frontier, I watch the sights of El Salvador race by outside: farmers drying grain on the shoulder of the road; clusters of spandex-clad bicyclists training on the highway; coffee fields curving up volcano slopes and disappearing into the clouds; a lone boy clutching a dead armadillo at a crossroads; morning commuters packed into refurbished American school buses ("Dodge County Schools" reads one; "The Love Machine" another).

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Presidential elections will be held in El Salvador next March, and the conservative ARENA party (once associated with repressive dictators) has been hard at work painting every vertical roadside surface—rocks, tree trunks, power poles—with its distinctive red, white, and blue logo. In some towns, the blue stripe has been painted over with red to resemble the red, white, and red logo of the left-wing FMLN party (once associated with Communist guerrillas), but it's obvious that the conservatives are winning the paint war. We literally have not traveled two miles without seeing an ARENA-striped rock or road sign since we entered El Salvador two days ago.

After lunch in the thriving eastern city of San Miguel, we roll on to the Honduras border check-post at El Amatillo.

For air commuters, customs proceedings are a passing hassle—but on a multinational vehicle expedition, border zones become a major part of the experience. And, while border towns have a reputation for being artificial anti-places, devoid of culture and character, I find them fascinating. A quarter of a century ago, social critic Paul Fussell observed that politically imposed frontiers have little regard for time or tradition and "imply an awareness of reality as disjointed, dissociated, fractured." In the time since he wrote that, however, the same words have been used (in the context of "globalization") to describe the world in general. Indeed, in an amplified and chaotic way, border towns remind us of how we're already living: They reveal the very uncertainties, inequities, and absurdities we've come to ignore in our domestic routines.

A tidy narrative explaining the intricacies of the El Amatillo border crossing simply can't do the experience justice. Granted, there is a very clear beginning to the process (when a crowd of teenage boys mobs our convoy at the edge of town, hoping to earn tips by guiding us through the bureaucratic process)—as well as a definite ending (when a solider on the Honduran side makes a half-hearted pitch for a bribe before waving us on)—but I've found that there's no coherent progression to what happens in between.

On this day, the El Salvador checkpoint is being bombarded by tuneless hymns and rhythmic clapping from a charismatic gospel church housed in a small cinderblock hovel just across from the customs station. When I wander over and peek inside the church, I discover that all the noise is being generated by one man, one woman, two microphones, and a rather sophisticated electronic sound system. The audience consists of an enraptured old woman and two bored-looking little girls. The amplifiers—which sit in the doorway, aimed at the heathen outside—look like they weigh more than the entire congregation combined. Nobody in the street pays much mind.

Adam Burgess and Todd Borgie play Beatles tunes for children
Adam Burgess and Todd Borgie play Beatles tunes for children

Opting out of church, my next order of business involves buying explosives. Actually, I have little personal interest in this activity—but our documentary video crew seems to think my interactions with a Salvadoran fireworks vendor might result in a humorous border moment for their outtakes. Trailed by cameras and microphones, I obligingly walk over to the local fireworks stand, where (apart from a few imported Russian and Chinese bottle rockets) most of the merchandise appears to have been assembled locally from newsprint, gunpowder, and red wax paper. After a bit of discussion, the vendor brings out some dynamite-sized specimens that look like they were designed while watching Wile E. Coyote cartoons. "Demasiado peligroso," I tell her, "—too dangerous." The firecracker vendor shoots me a pitying look, no doubt reserved for retards and sissies. "Por los niños," she snorts. "These are for children." I can't imagine how anyone would let children handle fireworks that look big enough to kill cattle—but, since the video crew has their outtake moment, I drop the issue and wander back to the Land Rovers.

Once our stamped passports come back from the El Salvador customs office, our expedition team drives the Land Rovers to the Honduran side of the Goascoran River. As we cross the bridge, I look down and see a baggage-laden Salvadoran family fording the river on horseback. This goes on in plain sight of the immigration authorities, and I can think of no more vivid reminder of the fact that most international borders are purely political-bureaucratic abstractions.

The first official we meet on the Honduran side is a fat, mustached police officer who collects our drivers licenses, then informs us that we can have them back when we produce our vehicle fire extinguishers. When we show him the red canisters in the back of our Land Rovers, the policeman nods officiously and mentions that what he is really concerned about is whether or not we have our orange safety-hazard triangles. When we produce one, he tells us we need four. When we produce four, he tells us we need eight. When we tell him we don't have eight safety-hazard triangles, the policeman clicks his tongue and discreetly offers to overlook this horrible safety breach for the modest sum of $100 per vehicle.

As we have learned over past few weeks, $100 is the opening bid on all vehicle infractions south of the U.S.-Mexico border. In Mexico City, for example, a trio of police officers tried to fine us $100 when we failed to signal a lane-change; two days later, another team of Mexico's finest demanded $100 from us for having the wrong numbers on our license plates. As happened in those cases, Neil Dana (our best Spanish speaker) launches into negotiation mode—telling the Honduran officer how we are all volunteers, how the Land Rovers are actually on loan to the project, and how we are raising money for Parkinson's disease research. Since both Muhammad Ali and the pope suffer from movement disorders, the Parkinson's angle usually wins us a lot of leverage among the macho-devout law enforcers of Latin America. Before long, the going rate for our missing safety triangles is down to $5 per vehicle, and our licenses are returned to us intact. Neil takes a huge stack of paperwork from his vehicle and, joined by expedition leader Nick Baggarly, heads over to the Honduran customs office.

Since the paperwork indicates that Justin Mounts (my driving partner) is the primary operator of my Land Rover, I am usually spared the tedium of border formalities. In the interest of reportage, however, I jog off to join Neil and Nick in the customs office. Inside, I see them sitting in front of a wooden desk, clutching their paperwork in bewilderment as an Alvin and the Chipmunks version of "Silent Night" shrieks out from a vacant desktop computer.

Figuring this is as entertaining as the paperwork process is going to get, I wheel around and walk back outside. It is four hours before I see Neil or Nick again.

While the bureaucracy plods on, I hang out near the Land Rovers with the rest of the expedition team and a rowdy knot of Honduran snack vendors, moneychangers, drunks, rubber-neckers, and schoolchildren. As happens everywhere we go in our expensively kitted vehicles, the financial gulf between host and traveler creates an instant cultural-economic free trade zone. At times, the barrage of yes/no inquiries from curious onlookers and potential middlemen makes me feel like a harried celebrity.

Salvadoran children sell cold drinks to the Drive Around the World team
Salvadoran children sell cold drinks to the Drive Around the World team

"Yes, señora," I say, "I do have Honduran money. No, I don't want another Coke. Yes, señor, I am from the United States. No, I don't live in Beverly Hills. Yes, amigo, you can watch movies on this laptop. No, I don't think I will give it to you. Yes, sister, I've heard that Jesus died on a cross for my sins. No, I would not like to buy a Virgin Mary air freshener. Merry Christmas to you too, ma'am. Yes, sir, you do indeed have a lovely looking family. No, I will not lend you the money to buy a chain lamp for your living room. Yes, muchacho, I am the driver of this car. No, I don't need you to guard it for me. Sure, I'll say hello to your cousin in Bakersfield. No, I don't need cashews. Sure, if you find a soccer ball, I'd be happy to play a game. The cars? I'm not sure how much they're worth. The computer? I'm not sure how much it's worth, either. No, that's a satellite phone. I don't know how much it's worth. I don't know how much the mountain bikes are worth. I don't know how much my shoes are worth. Yes, probably more than your shoes. No, I don't have a wife. No, I don't need to find a wife just this moment. Yes, we have Santa Claus in America too. No, I've never met Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, I know he's the governor of California. Thank you for the offer, but we're not going to Tegucigalpa. No, I can't give you a ride to the hardware store. No, I still don't want a Coke. Yes, you too, and a happy New Year to you as well."

At sunset, a small parade of vehicles rolls up to the border from the Honduran side. A brass band in the front truck belts out a spirited Latino oom-pah tune, and a pretty teenage girl in a prom dress stands in the back of a second truck, looking happy and nervous under a makeshift wooden canopy. Balloons flutter from the windows of the other cars, and an old man begins to throw candy from the window of a Ford Escort. As the schoolchildren near me bolt off for the sweets, I inquire with the adults about the meaning of the parade.

I don't, unfortunately, get a clear answer. A few folks inform me that the girl in the truck is a virgin. Others tell me there will be a party tonight in El Amatillo. Nobody can tell me exactly what's going on, except to vaguely suggest that it has something to do with Christmas. As with the church fireworks in Antigua, I feel as if I've stumbled across an odd little party that everyone knows about but nobody can tell me about. I have a suspicion, however, that it's all the same party, even as we change countries.

Neil and Nick come out of the customs office after nightfall, paperwork in hand, and we head off in darkness for the small Honduran commercial center of Choluteca. When we arrive, the only restaurant still open is a place run by Chinese immigrants. Exhausted, we watch Mandarin-dubbed karaoke videos as we gobble down our spicy chicken curry.

The following day we arise at 6 in the morning, drive to the Nicaraguan border at Guasaule, and (with a few slight variations) repeat this entire routine again.

Several companies sponsored the Drive Around the World expedition; click here for a partial list.

Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. His travel essays have also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, and on National Public Radio. He keeps no permanent address, but his virtual home can be found at rolfpotts.com

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