March 15, 2010
Have you ever been to a restaurant where it seemed like the staff went out of their way to make you NOT want to return? Well Honduras is such a country. It’s ugly, it’s hot, and the cops are so crooked, they have to screw their pants on. Let me explain.
Roz and I cleared the El Salvador border with a minimum of hassles, but when we got to the Honduran side, we entered the “mordida zone”. Mordida is a Spanish word meaning “little bite”. To gringos like us, it means bribe. You want to get something done, everyone wants a bite. Being a cheap Norwegian bastard, I’m not keen to throw money around (unless it’s on motorcycles, mountain bikes or beer). So I tightened my belt and prepared for the worst. Although immigration took longer than usual, we got our passports stamped without incident (aside from the ubiquitous border “helpers” pestering us). But when we had to deal with customs to get our vehicle import permit, things slowed down to a crawl.
In the blazing heat of mid-morning, we were directed to a building door that was both unsigned and locked. We wondered if we had the right door when a helper nudged past us and knocked. The door opened and a fat man let the helper pass, but when he spotted us, he stepped outside and shut the door behind him. He asked what we wanted and we told him that we wanted to import our truck. He eyed us up and down and then said it would cost thirty dollars. We said that was fine so he took our paperwork, told us to wait outside, and disappeared into the building. We stood there for about ten minutes, during which time a few more helpers went inside. Suspecting that the fat man might be a helper himself, we slipped into the building as someone was exiting it to find out where our documents had gone. Inside it was wonderfully cool with blasting a/c. We could see the fat man standing at the desk of a uniformed customs officer so we barged past him and asked the officer if we were in the right office. He looked bemused to see us there. The fat man indicated our paperwork to the customs officer, which sat untouched on his desk. The officer told us it would be a while and told us to return in half an hour. Then another helper showed up and the officer grabbed his paperwork.
Back outside in the blistering heat, Roz and I deduced that most people importing their cars used a helper who no doubt gave the customs officer a cut of his fee in exchange for being processed sooner. This theory was confirmed as we watched more helpers file into the office and soon after, exit with completed paperwork. Ticked off, Roz and I finally marched back into the office and stood in plain view of the officer’s doorway pretending we were happy and had all the time in the world. Meanwhile, the officer chatted with a woman customs officer while our paperwork gathered dust. After ten minutes, he finally finished his conversation and invited us in. He asked us a bunch of questions while giving us suspicious looks, but eventually he relented and gave us our permit. His final job was to inspect our truck. Again, he played twenty questions about what we were importing (nothing, we replied, that’s all our stuff for travel) and then I offered him a cold beer from our cooler. He seemed genuinely surprised by the offer and his whole demeanour seemed to change as he opened the beer. We were now free to go. Maybe next time I’ll offer the beer first and then hand him the paperwork!
So we cleared the border in two hours and were driving for half an hour when we saw a police roadblock. After I stopped, the policeman smiled and shook my hand, so of course I was immediately suspicious. And for good reason – it was a classic police shakedown. But I was prepared. I had already been warned by other travellers to carry a fire extinguisher and an emergency triangle, so I proudly (if not a bit smugly) showed them to the cop when he asked if we had them. Except he said that I needed two triangles – one for the front and one for the rear. Groan, I thought, here we go. He pulled out his infraction book and told me that I’d have to pay a $35 fine, only I’d have to go back to the border and pay it at a bank there. This is a classic bribe technique – they assume that most travellers won’t want to make the return drive to the border and will then ask the cop if they can’t just pay the fine to him instead. So I looked the cop in the eye and said in bad Spanish that it’s terrible what I did and that I should have to pay whatever is required. I added that the border wasn’t that far away and that I didn’t mind paying the fine at a bank there. This was not what he wanted to hear so he shifted gears and told me that the border was a long way away and that if I wanted, I could give him the money, which he could give to a friend that worked at the bank. Oh no, I replied, if I have to pay a fine, I should pay it at the bank, I don’t mind going back to the border, it’s not that far a drive.
So this back and forth went on for about ten minutes before I finally offered to pay him $5. He sighed and agreed, but told me that I needed to buy another triangle down the road if I don’t want to break the law again. I rolled my eyes as I drove off, unsure if I had really come out ahead in the encounter. Ten minutes later, I had bought another safety triangle and now that we were “officially” compliant with Honduran road safety laws, we were never asked for them again. But we were stopped again for our documents – four times in fact during the three hours it took us to cross from Honduras into Nicaragua, but at least no one tried to shake us down again.
The Honduras we saw was dry, dusty, treeless, (clearcut for cattle) and bloody hot. Not very pretty. And the officials and police had soured us on the people. To be fair, we were driving through a corridor that is commonly used by drivers to quickly transit the country, so you can’t really blame the cops for trying to get something out of us cheapskate gringos in the short time they can. On the plus side, I’ve heard great things about the Caribbean part of the country – especially the Roatan Islands where scuba diving is cheap and beautiful. Maybe we’ll check that out on our return. But as it stands, Honduras left a yucky taste in our mouths. We won’t be back anytime soon.
END OF PART 17