Bribing at border, trouble in El Salvador and Mexican Wrestling
Well slept in the lap of luxury, a full tank of fuel gifted by Casa Pellas and 4 brand new wheels for our Forrest gave us a high spirited startthe following morning from Nicaragua on way to the Honduras border. One of the staff members was instructed to escort us to the Nicaragua-Honduras border. We reached the Nicaraguan side of the border in a couple of hours and confidently walked up to immigration for our exit stamp. They scanned our passport carefully and then asked,
“Where is the Honduras visa?” the nightmare started.
“We have a US visa, we dont need a Honduras visa” I replied. We had checked online and were sure that if we had a US visa, we could enter Honduras using it.
“Sorry, you cannot cross Nicarauga and enter Honduras without a valid Honduras visa. You have to go back to Manauga (capital of Nicaragua) and get the Honduras visa” the officer replied.
Nonsense. Managua was a 5 hour drive, it was already afternoon and there was no way we could come back with the visa the same day or even the next day. The Casa Pellas employee who had accompanied us at the border asked us to step outside. We went outside and typical of us, we saw a food stall and sat down for lunch.
“Let’s eat lunch” Sanjay replied. He has a knack of difusing any level of stress or worry. Here we were arguing and trying to get out of Nicaragua and enter Honduras, custom officer’s were giving us trouble, and all Sanjay said was, “Let’s each lunch”
“It’s not in our hands. Casa Pellas guy is helping, he is talking to them, let him handle it, what can we do? The food looks delicious, we all are hungry, just chill” he said casually.
“They are asking for 300 USD as bribe” the Casa Pellas guy announced to us after 30 minutes.
“What? 300 USD? For what? We are not paying that, its rubbish!” I said
“Well, they are saying that they will get you special transit visa to go to Honduras but that will cost 300 dollars. This is the only way they will let you go, otherwise, we have to go back to Managua” he replied
There was nothing we could do. The frustrating part was that we would only be trasiting through Honduras. We would be driving for maximum 2 hours in Honduras and then enter El Salvador. So basically, we were being asked for 300 USD for a 2 hour transit through Honduras. What did we do? We paid it. We paid 300 USD and received a receipt for 9 USD!
After wasting 3 hours and 300 dollars, we finally bid goodbye to Nicaragua and entered Honduras. “Be careful in Honduras”,“Dont stop if anyone asks for a lift”, “Dont stop in any remote areas”, “Get out as soon as possible”. These were the usual warnings that we had received when we had told people that we were going to Honduras. The country looked very poor, at the border, everyone was trying to sell us something. Water, food, sim cards, insurance, sunglasses, hats, vegetables, fruit, cold drinks, you name it.
“Where are you guys going?”one man walked out of his van
“El Salvador” I replied
“I am also crossing Honduras and going to El Salvador. I live there” he replied
“Great, can we follow you till the border? You are the only person who speaks in English and everyone has got us worried about crossing Honduras” I said
“Sure, you can follow my van, I will keep a lookout for you”
He seemed someone who could be trusted but we still decided that if he goes off the highway at any point and expects us to follow him, we wont. We would carry on and stick to the highway. We completed the border formalities and hit the Honduran highway which was full of potholes so we carefully dodged our way and continued towards the Honduras-El Salvador border behind our escort van. The country side looked average, people looked like they were struggling to make a living, road signs were non existent and now we were thankful that we had an escort.
“Without the van ahead of us, it would be very difficult to be sure if we are on the right highway” Sanjay commented
In exactly 2 hours time we reached the Honduras-El Salvador border. We exited Honduras without any drama and also entered El Salvador swiftly.
“Wow, entering El Salvador has been the quickest border crossing” I said. A comment that I should have reserved till the vehicle custom process was done. At most borders in South and Central America, we had to go through 2 processes. First, get the immigration done and passport stamped. Second, get the temporary import permit for the vehicle from the Custom office at the border. Our immigration in El Salvador barely took 5 minutes and we were told to drive for a few kms further to get the vehicle permit from the Customs officer. The van guy who escorted us through Honduras somehow felt responsible to take us to the Custom office so we continued following him till we reached the Customs office. I walked to the Custom officer and was given a form to fill. All standard practice. I kept filling every item and noticed one question which seemed a bit strange.
“Where is the steering wheel located in your vehicle? Left side or Right side” Hmm, this question was never asked before. I ticked ‘Right side’ and gave the form back.
After 15 minutes, I was called inside the office and nightmare number 2 started
“Sorry, we cannot let you drive in El Salvador because our rules do not permit vehicles with steering wheel on right side into our country” the El Salvadorian Custom officer delclared firmly.
For a minute, I did not react. Sanjay was not allowed to come inside as the car is my name so I was on my own. My mind was already racing. Cannot drive through El Salvador? What will we do? Go back to Honduras and drive around El Salvador to enter our next country? No, we cannot go back to Honduras! They may again ask us for 300 dollars. But, what do we do now?
“What do we do now?” I asked the officer.
“You have 2 options. Either go back to Honduras and drive around El Salvador and enter Guatemala. Or, put your car on a truck and cross El Salvador on a truck” he replied.
“Officer, we have driven through 4 continents and more than 20 countries and never had a problem, we are only transiting through El Salvador, we will be out of your country in less than 24 hours anyways, please, we are on a world trip, can you not let us drive for just a few hours?” I pleaded, almost begged
“Sorry, it is the law. I am cooperating with you by allowing you to take your car on a truck. For that too, I can only give you a maximum of 24 hours starting now. Within 24 hours of now, you should be out of El Salvador with your car” he replied.
“And ya, your car will remain here in our parking lot now. It will go from here only on a truck. So please arrange a truck and come back to take your car” he concluded
It was already 10 in the night. Where do we get a truck at this hour? In El Salvador? Another country about which everyone had warned us? Be careful, never leave your car abandoned in a public area, dont drive at night, dont stay out at night, there are lots of gangs in El Salvador, you will be easy targets. Phew! All these thoughts were now echoing in my head. I went outside the officer and explained the entire situation to Sanjay.
“Let’s find a hotel and check in for the night. We can call Mr Pellas and I am sure he will have some contact in El Salvador who can help us find a truck” Sanjay replied
Mr Pellas was right on it. He gave us contact details of one of his associates in El Salvador and we called him. He had already received a call from Mr Pellas’ office and his words comforted us
“Dont worry, arranging a truck is easy. I will do it first thing in the morning and call you back. “
“The truck has been arranged and it will reach the Parking lot of the custom office in 2 hours. They will load your car on the truck and take you straight to El Salvador-Guatemala border. The truck will charge 500 USD but dont worry, Mr Pellas will take care of the expense”
Mr Pellas will take care of the truck expense? Why? He didnt have to! It was a massive relief for us, the truck was arranged and the entire cost was paid for by our guardian angel, Mr Pellas! There are such kind, giving, selfless people in this world even today, we didnt know how to react, how to thank him, we were just grateful, very grateful.
We checked out and went back to the custom office. While approaching the custom office, i had my fingers crossed because I was worried sick that the car wouldnt be there. It was the first time since we started the world trip that we had left our car in a public parking that too in El Salvador. The only solace was that it was parked in a goverment compound which had tight security. As we reached the Custom office, I literally ran towards the parking lot and I saw Forrest. Phew! It was parked in exactly the same way as we had left it. No damage done, it was intact, just the way we had left it the night before. We met the same Custom officer and told him about the truck. He didnt waste anytime in issuing the permit and as soon as the truck arrived, we didnt waste anytime in loading it up. The car went on the truck and we went inside the car. After the car trouble in Bolivia, this was the second time that we sat in our car while the car was on a truck. Only this time, the car had no problem. It was hot, so we switched on the ignition of our car to get the air-condition running. It felt weird but funny. 3 guys sitting inside their car on a moving truck with ignition on and cruising on the El Salvadorian highway. These unplanned situations, these unusual experiences, these spur of the moment decisions are what make this journey a journey of a lifetime.
We were on that truck all day long and by evening we reached El Salvador-Guatemala border. The truck was unloaded, paperworkdone and we were free to cross the bridge between the 2 conutries and enter Guatemala. But a word of caution from the El Salvador personnel before we left El Salvador:
“Guatemala is a dangerous country, be very careful, dont give lift to strangers, dont stop if anyone signals, dont park your car in public etc etc etc.”ya, ya, ya we had heard it all before, the next country is always more dangerous than the one we were in currently. I dont mean that we took these warnings or suggestions lightly, but it was strange that nobody claimed their own country to be dangerous but only cautioned us about the neighbouring country!
We entered Guatemala at night time and after a night stop in a small motel, we hit the road the following morning. We were tired of doing so many border crossings in such a short period of time. We decided to skip doing any sightseeing in Guatemala and headed straight for Mexico. The country side in Guatemala didnt look much different from El Salvador. It was green, it was scenic, it seemed raw, untouched but it seemed poor and undeveloped. In contrast to Costa Rica and Panama, which appeared very affulent, the other Central American countries seemed to be struggling. We reached the Mexican border and after a smooth border crossing, we were in Mexico!
Kapil, the owner Naans and Curries in Costa Rica had told one of his friends Rajeev, in Mexico about us and Rajeev had made arrangement for our stay. We reached the apartment where he lived with his Mexican girlfriend called ‘Duniya’, I know we also made the typical jokes about her name but she had heard it all before! Rajeev works at TCS and with a limping foot due to a football injury, he walked out to greet us.
“Welcome to Mexico. First things first, let’s go eat some local street food” he said. It was almost like he read our minds. If you go to Mexico and don’t eat the street food, seriously, dont bother going at all. The smell of the sauces, the spicy rice, the burrotis, the tacos, the meat, the smoke from the grill, the music blaring out from the street vendors shops, you will need to time check how long you ate because there is no way you can keep a check on your stomach in Mexico!
At the end of the match, we requested Rajeev’s girlfriend ‘Duniya’ to speak to the orgnaisers and try to make us meet one ofthe wrestlers. She didnt think twice before walking to the organisers and telling them about our round the world journey.
“Which wrestler would you like to meet?” she asked.
“What, we have a choice? Umm, ok Marco or Shocker” I replied.
Ök, they will check if anyone of them is available”she said and we were taken to a waiting room. We were all very excited and I was a bit nervous too. I was gong to meet one of the biggest wrestling stars of Mexico. What will I ask him? What will be talk to him about? I hope he doesnt lift me up and throw me out of Mexico! That would be very easy for any of these huge wrestlers. After 10 minutes, Shocker entered the room. A huge guys, white hair, a chest 3 times my size, biceps, 10 times my size and greeted us with a very warm smile. It was a bonus that he could speak english.
“Welcome to Mexico guys, did you enjoy the show?”he asked
Ümm, yes can we call you Shocker?” I asked feeling awkward
“Call me anything you want”he replied smiling
We kept chatting with him for a few minutes and I asked him to show me a wrestling move. He suddenly came close to me, went behind, grabbed by hand and twisted it in such a way, that my entire body locked and I could move at all!
“Cmon, Tushar, get out of the freeze”he said and started laughing loudly
What an idiot I am, but I asked for it!
“You really think I am going to even try to force myself out of your grip and break my body into pieces” I replied smiling. He was a great guy who was obsessed with his biceps and his face.
He would kiss his left bicep, then his right bicep, then lift up his chin and touch it with the back of his hand and say, “Look at this face, look at me, I am the most handsome wrestler ever born. I don’t wear a mask, you know why, cause how can I deprive the ladies from seeing this handsome face?”. I think I will stop at that.
Mexico was highly entertaining. The food, the wrestling, the city tour with Rajeev and Duniya’, we were in the city for onlyone day but during that one day, we got a great idea about this high spirited, food and fun loving country. Central America was done. Now, we had to start driving towards the United States of America. We started our engine in Mexico City right at 3 AM and headed straight for the Mexican-US border which was around 1000 km away. We drove all night (which we were later told was a stupid thing to do), and reeached the border in the afternoon the following day. We were cleared the Mexican side of the border easily and drove towards US border. We were getting a bit nervous. Everyone knows that US airports, immigration and customs can be very difficult. They ask a lot of questions, they check everything, they take there own sweet time to make sure you are not a trouble maker, so the checking at a land border, that too a Mexican-US border crossing, and on top of that when you are driving an India registered vehicle into USA, has to be impossibly difficuly. Right? Wrong!
We were asked park our car in a bay and come out with our passports.
“Are you carrying anything in your car that needs to be declared” one custom officer asked.
“No sir” we replied.
“Ok, go to the immigration office and get your passports stamped please” he replied casually. We walked into the immigration office, got finger prints done and within 15 minutes our passports were stamped.
“Welcome to United States of America” the immigration officer said.
“That’s it? Umm, officer, we are driving. We are driving a car from India. Dont we need a special permits, like a temporary permit to bring a foreign vehicle into USA?”
“Umm, not that I am aware of. Maybe you can ask the custom officers outside” he replied.
We walked outside to the same custom officer who we had met before.
“You got your passport stamped?” he asked
“Yes, sir, we did” I replied
“OK then, you’re good” he replied
We are good? What does that mean? We are free to go? That’s it? Atleast check our car, check our bags, ask us something, anything!
“Umm, sir, you mean we are free to go now?” i asked again
“Yes, you’re good” he replied again
“Don’t we need to get any documentation, permits, permissions, anything for the vehicle? I mean it is a foreign vehicle that we are driving all the way from India, don;t you need to make a record or an entry somewhere?” Could I be clearer than this?
“You’re good. Drive safe and enjoy the United States of America”