2004 Journey: Central and South America
As Easter approached, the magnitude of how much impact Semana Santa, the celebration of Easter in local traditions, has in Central America began to sink in. In Honduras, everyone heads for the Caribbean coast, doubling the price of hotels, buses and food: all bad news for someone attempting to live on $15 a day.
Attempting to get away from the madness, we moved quickly to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Here I picked up a local paper written in English to catch up on the pulse of the country for the day. In the paper, there was a story about the return of the "death squads," a ugly piece of the not-so-distant past war had raised its head again. This time, the squads were dealing with undesirables, street gangs, drug dealers and homeless children. Generally, the only evidence of their presence was a dead body. The government blames the problems on violent movies and video games, and says nothing about the level of poverty or the lack of opportunities thereby communicating no sense of concern or responsibility.
We spent one night in Tegucigalpa, and went straight to the bus station early the next morning to catch a bus to the border of Nicaragua. While boarding the bus, a young girl next to us stopped a thief attempting to steal something out of her bag. Yelling at him, he darted away, serving as a reminder to us to be on our toes.
The bus took us to the border of Nicaragua and no further. We were left to cross the border under our own power or accept the offer from one of the "helpers" on three-wheel bicycles. The "helpers" swooped down on us like vultures that just spotted a mountain of hamburgers grilled to perfection. Grabbing and fighting over our bags on the rooftop of the bus as if they were filled with gold, this should have been a warning. Adding to the chaos, moneychangers were yelling in our ears attempting to make some small profit from a poor exchange rate, as we converted from Honduran to Nicaraguan money. When we asked the "helpers" how much they wanted, they responded, " as you wish." This would prove to be a mistake. They peddled us across the bridge and waited as we passed through immigrations for Nicaragua. This took a little extra time, the two-hour lunch break was about to end, but we could get processed if we wanted to pay an extra $2 a head. We waited five minutes, $7 per person was enough for a tourist entry fee. On top of that, they would only accept American dollars, nothing else, not even Nicaraguan money.
As we approached our next bus, our "helpers" suddenly went through a transformation, from nice to angry and began demanding $25 for the short bike ride across the border. So much for, "as you wish." Of course, we refused to pay the ridiculous amount, but it was turning into a big drama. Then one of the "helpers" decided to sit on top of one of our backpacks in a defiant pose, and this was my ending point. Hot and tired with my full pack on my shoulders, I reached over and lifted him off the pack with a determination that even surprised me. At this point, the asking price dropped to $5, the amount I was going to pay to begin with. Another lesson relearned and part of independent travel. If you want to avoid these moments, then you take a package tour, so the headache becomes someone else's problem.
On my bus ride across Honduras, I met a conductor (a money collector) named Johnny, 33. Johnny shared his interesting story: four years ago he sneaked across Mexico and the U.S. to find work in Montreal, Canada at a pizza restaurant. Until one day Canadian immigration caught him and shipped him back to Honduras. Now his workday begins at 4 AM and ends at 9 PM, 17 hours for $5. "I know there is money to be made in the north, and one day I will sneak back to try once again." Now he lives with his brother and his brother’s family. He continued, "Now I am surviving, no money, no life. But I do not let go of the dream of having a better life that only working in the U.S. can provide." Johnny's message: "Thank you for your kindness. When I was in your country people treated me well."
Next, a short stop in Nicaragua.