Friday, August 18, 2006

Managua Shakedown Party

Hello all from Playa de Coco, Costa Rica!
Today is the first period of relaxation since we departed Antigua several days ago. I am happily sitting in a small room with a cheesy tapestry/bedsheet hanging on the wall. An archaic Lotus fan (with a stars and stripes emblem) is keeping the breeze going. I think for the first time in three days I am not sweating profusely. The last few days have been a virtual sprint on the bikes, and the cold weather that followed us through the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala is long gone. Every hour on the bike seems to be a battle against dehydration, a war that oftentimes I feel like I am losing. And with the sweat comes the stench. And in stench we are flush.
After leaving Antigua, Guatemala, we crossed into El Salvador and sped eastward along the coastal highway. The sunset caught us in mid stride just shy of Honduras, so we were forced to take refuge in the smog-clogged city of San Miguel. The next morning we crossed into Honduras, sprinted two hours to the next border, entered Nicaragua, and holed up with a bunch of backpackers and a seemingly bottomless supply of beer in Leon. After breakfast we bolted out of Leon, had a tasty lunch with chocolate milk in Granada, and crossed into Costa Rica an hour before sunset. The last leg to Coco Beach here was made slowly in darkness, praying that the lightening threatening us on the horizon would not overtake us before we hit the beach. We lucked out.
Back in the day, Central America used to be one big county. However, sometime along the way some people made the decison that this was impractical and split things up, resulting in the geographic borders we know today. I think there were two primary reasons for this. First, it made fighting a lot more efficient. Now every country could have its own civil war and everyone could feel like they were taking part. If your country was one of those that didn't feel like fighting itself, then you could all just sit back, enjoy the sun, and just kick it for awhile.
Now, with the civil wars fading into history, the border's primary function apparantly is to be a pain in the ass for international travellers. The countries in this region have a mindblowing obsession with documents, stamps, and official certifications. Each border crossing requires navigating a maze of offices, windows and lines. The process is so complicated that we have begun hiring local youths (including one sprightly young chap who only had one leg) to usher us through each step. The borders are such a pain because, not only are bringing a person into the county, but we are importing a vehicle as well. Therefore at each border you have to export yourself and your bike, and import the same into the next country. This exercise in tedium goes something like this: fill out some papers, copy them along with your documents, stand in a line in the 106 degree heat, start sweating uncontrollably, get a stamp, wonder why that guy is still staring at you after 20 minutes, wait in another line, watch the official in that line stroll away for a break, make some more copies, check out the guard's combatshotgun, keep sweating, tell the guy that is selling watches that you don't want one for the twentieth time, stand in line, watch the disembodied head working in the window punch a key on the keyboard as the computers all go down, get another stamp, move the bikes 20 meters, get another stamp in another line, make sure you are still sweating.... Then if you are lucky a guy will come out and check the VIN and ask very imporant questions that are crucial to being able to have the bike in that country:
"What size is the bike?" 650.
"What is in these metal boxes?" Gravy. Giblet gravy.
"How heavy is it?" Like a nine year old Spanish stallion, give or take.
"You know you can't sell it here, right?" Damn, I was hoping to use the proceeds to finance a small pig farm here in Honduras.
"Are you guys brothers?" Can we go now?
Then they want your money. They take it in the form of migration taxes, exit taxes, import taxes, permit fees, insurance, copying charges, and probably a scam or two here or there. Honduras cost us $40 a man to get in, $40 to get out. Costa Rica was $50 to get in, and I hear it is $30 to get out. As Tom and I rationalize, this is all payback for the coups, death squads, and other dirty deeds the United States has financed in these parts since WWII. But I digress...
With your patience tested and your wallet thinner, you finally get to hop on your bike and drive it into their country. Our route through El Salvador was a sweet road along the Pacific coast. It had a number of awesome tunnels (the longest was 600 meters). This wouldn't be anything special, except that we had disconnected our headlamps to avoid tipping off the banditos that we were approaching. Therefore as we plunged into these tunnels we were surrounded by complete darkness. Tom was in the lead, and nearly swerved into the tunnel walls several times. Luckily the road was nearly vacant and we could crawl through the tunnel without worrying about any old American school buses with a murals of crucified Jesus flying in at 70 mph and taking both of us out in one fell swoop.
After the nightmarish border crossing into Honduras, and a frigid reception at lunch, we both wrote Honduras off and sped through the country. Nicaragua was a different story. It was a beautiful country with volcanoes dotting the horizon. However, the county also sported the worst roads we had enountered. With all the guns and missles the U.S. gave the Contra rebels here in the 80s, you'd think they could have thrown in a steamroller and a couple bags of asphalt. For the first 17 kilometers, the main road looked like it had been shelled with artillery. As you would dodge one giant pothole, another would present itself to swallow you whole. We attempted to take a more rural route to bypass the sprawling mass of Managua. However, here the road was even worse. There would be good pavement for 100 meters, and then a completely washed out section for an equal length. This went on for miles. It was a good reminder as to why we were driving these KLRs and not some 700 pound chrome monster.
Despite our efforts at bypassing Managua, somehow we took a wrong turn and suddenly found ourselves cruising through the capital city's streets. Traffic was backed up at all the intersections, but occassionally we could gain some time by sneaking around the side and to the front of the line. As we neared the outskirts on the east edge of town, we were stopped at a light, and Tom and I both swerved into the right line to bypass the traffic stacked up in the left. A cabbie pulled up next to us and warned us that this lane was for right turns only. Since when are there traffic laws down here? At green, we bolted straight through the light, and got our answer. A hundred meters down two cops stared wide eyed at us. We were two big juicy turkeys coming straight at them and they had their knife and fork out and ready. "My driver's license? Here you go. That's an infraction? Oh, you can't turn right? Silly me, I must have missed the sign. Oh, there is no sign. So if you give me a ticket you will have to take my license and it will take a month to resolve it. No, surprisingly enough we're not from Managua. Yes, we're going to Costa Rica. Yes, I suppose we will need our license there. Want to ride my motorcycle? Oh come on, give it a try. No? Okay. How about a photo? No I guess that probably isn't a good idea." [All four of us stand there for five minutes scratching our chins and searching for a solution. What could be done?] "I know! How about if we give you some money and you give us our licenses back? Excellent! 200 cordobas a man [$11]? How about $300 total and a ride on my bike? So, 400 it is..."
All in all they were nice guys. We all knew what was going on and we played our roles. We all had a good laugh. One cop even led us for 15 minutes to the proper highway to get out of the city. Its all part of the game down here...

No comments: