I’ve been very fortunate to see a little bit of our world. A unique life of my own design allows me to fairly regularly enjoy what for many people would be “the trip of a lifetime.” Invariably, I return from these trips with a greater respect and appreciation for the countries I had visited. This is not the case for Central America. For me, the time, expense, headaches, hassle, hassle, and headaches of visiting most of Latin America far outstrip what little these countries have to offer.
To be fair, Mexico merits more than a few eagerly-anticipated return visits and much of Costa Rica is fully deserving of its reputation as some sort of modern-day Eden. Beyond this the garbage, filth, poverty, and incredible governmental inefficiencies are staggering.
I’ve never seen such widespread use of open-air garbage dumps as are found in both Mexico and Guatemala. Acres of garbage lay rotting in shallow pits next to the roadway. Vultures circle overhead like flies above a corpse. Garbage set afire smolders for days sending putrid clouds of smoke drifting across the road and into the open windows of passing vehicles. My helmet offered no resistance at all. In El Salvador, trash was not deposited into a proper receptacle but simply thrown on the street to wash into the rain gutters and later into creeks and streams already choked with raw sewage. The sinks in most restrooms, including those in restaurants, were without soap.
The border crossings were an especially absurd circus of chaos and inefficiency. When arriving at a border crossing, you are first greeted by “helpers” – young men familiar with the bureaucratic mess that awaits you and who are eager to guide you through it. They flock to me like seagulls fighting for a french-fry tossed on the beach. Before I even come to a stop they crowd alongside and in front of the moving bike – flapping their arms, squawking in English and Spanish, and jockeying for the US or Canadian money they’re sure I’m carrying. They force the bike to a stop, and their combined clamoring creates a cacophony that I can barely understand. “NO,” I yell. “Back off!” “Did you hear me?! Back off!” One guy never gets the message. One guy always hangs on. He’s the one I hire to shepherd me along; without him I’d never make it through.
Before I enter the next country, I am required to exit the one I’d just ridden through. Immigration wants to stamp my passport. Customs wants to confirm that I did not leave my motorcycle in their country, in effect having imported it illegally. This out-processing is comparatively straightforward and only requires a visit to two or three separate agencies in two separate buildings and can be completed in 30 to 45 minutes.
Entering the next country is where to hassles escalate. After 30 minutes in line, assuming that everyone else has even organized themselves into a line rather than a simple mob, I learn that immigration requires three copies of my passport but is not able to make those copies themselves. They direct me to a separate building where someone photocopies my passport for a nickel a pop. Back in line now, I present my passport and copies when I learn that I am required to pay a small entrance fee or tax in the local currency of the country I’ve yet to enter. This is when the money changers get involved.
Since every country in Latin America uses a different currency, you change money at every border. Banks are typically absent from most border crossings, and this gap is filled by money changers. These are men with fists and fanny-packs full of multi-colored bouquets of currency. You tell them how much you have and in what currency and into what currency you would like it to be changed. Knowing your Spanish numbers is very helpful here, but most of these men carry calculators on which they’ll show you what they’re willing to buy and for how much. They usually low-ball you so it helps to know before you talk to them how much your Pesos are worth in Quetzels. I found my iPhone invaluable in this regard. “Travelling through some dusty little stink-hole and need to change Honduran Lempiras into Nicaraguan Oros? There’s an app for that.” U.S. dollars remain the preferred currency for bribes.
I get back in line, pay my fee, get my pasport stamped and move on to customs or aduana. Here the same process of forms, copies, stamps, and signatures repeats all over again but now with my motorcycle, rather than me, the object of attention. They want to see the bike, inspect it, record the VIN, compare it to the VIN on the custom’s form from the country I just left, sell me insurance, and spray the tires with some sort of pesticide/fungicide/cleanser. Men and women in three-dollar jobs stand as gatekeepers to filthy garbage-strewn chaotic countries determining whether or not you and your bike are suitable for entry. All the while little boys with battered wooden boxes ask to shine your boots, or elderly beggars approach you with their wrinkled and shaking out-stretched hands.
This insanity doesn’t stop at the border. I was issued a ticket in Panama for making an illegal U-turn where I saw no sign indicating that I couldn’t. The cop told me that I had to pay the ticket or I would be stopped at the airport and not be permitted to leave the country. Given that the ticket was issued to my passport rather than my driver’s license, I thought this might be a real possibility. I’ll spare you the tedious story, but it took me four hours and visits to five different locations before I was able to pay the $75 ticket and get a stamped receipt.
So many of the people I met throughout Central America were wonderfully kind, helpful, and friendly. I am very fortunate to have met them. However, I can’t shake the feeling that they fully deserve the prevailing living conditions to the extent that they’re able to do something about them yet still willing to put up with the status quo.
Admittedly, these opinions are based on what was essentially little more than an extended road trip through foreign lands. Others may come away from time spent in Central America with alternate views and opinions based on experiences unique to them. The route I followed, and the manner in which I did it, gave me a far greater exposure to Central America than if I’d simply arrived for vacation in some resort via the comparative magic of air travel. Equally, anyone who has lived, worked, or study in these countries for an extended period of time will have considerably more informed opinions than the ones I’ve shared here.
I also greatly underestimated the isolation and loneliness brought about by being unable to communicate with almost everyone I met. Four weeks and five-thousand miles spent only on the periphery of the world around me was a rough experience that I’d rather not repeat.
In the end, I rode across a beautiful suspension bridge and looked down into a thick green valley to see a muddy brown river filled with – ‘Are those…? Those are…? They’re fuckin’ cargo ships! Those are ocean-going cargo ships? This is the Canal. I made it! I fucking made it!’ I’m screaming inside my helmet, pumping my left fist in the air, and raising both hands as my Triumph and I rolled across the Centennial Bridge to complete a solo month-long, 4,824 mile journey through seven countries. I’m done. I’m going home.