Day 36 – ? Honduras to Esteli, Nicaragua
After yesterday’s trouble at the El Salvador/Honduras border, neither of us was looking forward to dealing with the Honduras/Nicaragua border. I think we were both kind of dreading it, but we faced the day with as much optimism as we could muster, and grabbed breakfast at the hotel restaurant because we still didn’t have any lempiras and they would take our dollars. Luckily, they gave us change for our dollars in lempiras so we had enough to buy some bottled water at a gas station along the way (we’d left the stuff on the bikes last night which meant we didn’t have the stuff to pump water).
Riding across Honduras took us nearly three hours. We ran into two police checkpoints last night (both of which wanted to look at our paperwork) and 5 or 6 checkpoints in total today. A few waved us through, a few wanted to stop and look at our paperwork… and one, near a cute little town in the mountains, tried extracting a bribe from us.
Yep. Not only did we get taken for far too much money in bribes at the Honduran border last night – one of the checkpoint cops tried to get a bribe from us. He took our paperwork (the guy who took my license asked me if it was a copy, which it was, but I played dumb) and the main cop who was questioning Kay started poking at his panniers.
He started running his hands along the retro-reflective tape on the side of the panniers and was trying to indicate that it was a problem. Kay said he’d take it off if it was a problem (in English) and the guy didn’t seem to get it or care. “No. Sixty dollars.” and eventually “Fourty dollars” Then he came to my panniers, which also had retro-reflective (but in black, to match my panniers) and started pointing to it like it was a problem. We’ve read about the attempt to extract bribes, and did our best “dumb gringo” routine. “No entiendo. No entiendo.”
The big cop apparently decided I was the weaker target and stood next to my bike with his hand on my handlebars jabbering away in Spanish, to which I kept replying “no entiendo” – and then he started spouting numbers in English. “16 dollars. 15 dollars. 20 dollars. 20 dollars. Dollars, dollars, dollars.” To emphasize his point, he made the international symbol for cash practically in my face.
Then he went back to Kay’s bike and started naming numbers at Kay. At one point Kay just started saying “Why?” (in English) every time the cop named a number (and always different numbers) – either the cop didn’t understand the word “why” or had no reason, because he made no attempt to explain, just named numbers. The other guy pulled out a little book of traffic offenses and showed a section of it to Kay, but Kay replied with “No entiendo” and we both stood there staring at each other across the bikes.
We did our best dumb gringo and surprisingly it worked, after only about 10 minutes. The second police guy who’d originally taken my paperwork gave it back to Kay, and gave my license back to me, and they waved us on. We were both upset that he’d tried so blatantly to get a bribe from us, and surprised that they’d let us go so easily. It left a very sour taste in our mouths, after the corruption at the Honduras border. We pulled over a few minutes down the road so Kay could give my paperwork back to me, in case we got stopped again and the corrupt cops tried to find some other reason to complain at us.
The worst thing about this was that for the first time since Copan I’d been enjoying the riding and for the rest of the day whenever either of us remembered the riding earlier, it was followed with the sour taint of attempted bribery. Rendered it somewhat less enjoyable.
Luckily, not long after this, we arrived at the border. Neither of us realized quite how close we were and it sorta snuck up on us. The Honduras border exit place was literally a little shack on the side of the road. Kay went into it, and came back a few minutes later saying that the border official was complaining that his registration wasn’t the original. (Annoyingly, Massachusetts gives you these plain 8.5×11 piece of paper registrations that LOOKS like a copy to begin with, and we made a bunch of copies for borders, so I’m really not sure anymore which one is the original – but border officials don’t seem to like that even the original looks like a copy.)
Kay went off to the shack again, and came back 20-30 minutes later saying that the border official had complained that we didn’t have the correct receipts or something from the paperwork at the other Honduran border, so Kay had to bribe this one, too. He demanded a $40 to cross the border, but Kay managed to convince him he could only afford $20. (At this point we still had virtually no lempiras, but he wanted US dollars, anyway.) Unfortunately, because the other Honduran border was so effed up, and we had to bribe that one to let us across – we weren’t actually confident that we did have all the paperwork that the guy wanted, so Kay gave in and bribed him.
I could have totally stood there longer and possibly waited them out like I did the cops wanting the bribe, but the problem was I didn’t know if we were really missing receipts or not because we’d bribed our way back into Honduras because the last border was also fucking corrupt. Upon reflection I have realized that I could have just pointed out that he only really had two options. Stamp me out, or stamp me back in, because we had no more days left on the passport. If i had of had any confidence in the official documents we were carrying I would have, but I didn’t, so a caved kind of quickly. Afterwards the guy who did the running around getting the passports stamped brought them back, showed me the stamps, and returned them to me on the way to the bikes. Then, of course, he requested a tip. I told him “No. You got part of the $20.” “Yeah but… tip.” he says. “No. You got part of the $20” and I proceed to suit up and climb on the bike while Dachary does the same.
Down the road just a bit and we arrive at the Nicaraguan border offices, and are swarmed by 5 or 6 “helpers.” They all start talking at once, some of them have official-looking badges, and they all want our money. Kay and I decide that I should try this border and see if they give a woman trouble, etc. and I decided that my first order of business was to get rid of the helpers. I was sick of people who wanted our money and wanted them all to just eff off. One of them took some extra initiative and brought us a couple of “forms” we had to fill out (which looked exactly like the forms we had to fill out at the Guatemalan border so it seemed plausible) but one of the other guys said we didn’t need to fill them out and that the guy who gave them to us was “false.”
At this point I’d had enough. I said quite forcefully “No, we don’t want your help, go away!” and waved them away. They didn’t seem to believe me, so I got even more annoyed – I channeled a little of the inner bitch that has been simmering away since the Honduran border crossing fiasco – and told them all to get away and leave us alone. I might have yelled a bit. This time they listened.
I walked over and got in the line that said “Nicaragua Entrada” (although one of the guys tried to wave me over to the “Salida” window, again to which I shook my head and stayed in line). There was a couple in front of me with big backpacks, watching this in quasi-amusement/horror. The woman spoke to me – they were French and backpacking around Central America and South America. And she said they never got swarmed by helpers like that.
I had to conclude it was the motos that draw all this attention, and I’m starting to think that BMWs, while great bikes, aren’t the right bikes for a trip through the Americas. The 650s, while wonderful, are big, heavy, unwieldy and clunky when fully loaded. And their power has been mostly wasted since we left the US. Most places we’re going between 30-55MPH and we don’t really get to use the power of these bikes. And they say to everybody who sees us: “Look! Expensive BMW motorcycles! Rich tourists! Scam them for some cash!” So I’m really starting to second-guess bringing these bikes, although I do love my bike and it’s wicked comfortable to ride all day, even after more than a month on the road.
So while I’m waiting in the “entrada” line, the official guy waves me over to the other window – there were fewer people in the “salida” line and I guess they can both serve both functions. I asked Kay to come over and stand with me at this point, as the bikes were in plain view and he’s better with understanding the numbers than I am. So Kay stands with me and we hand the guy our passports and wait for him to process us in. He doesn’t ask for the little paper that one of the helper guys tried to have us fill out – just our passports.
We ask how much, and he tells us $24 per person (in dollars). Luckily we’d taken more money out of our emergency stash, so we had $60, and Kay handed the $60 to the guy for both of us. Paperwork, paperwork – processing, etc. He makes out two individual receipts and one combined receipt for us, and hands us back $6. We can’t figure out any way that makes the math work for $6, so we stand around looking at each other, wondering how to ask for more change back. Apparently the official guy gets the gist and hands us one of our twenties back. Now we’re even more confused because he told us $24 each, which should have been $48, and we got $26 back in change?
(I’ve just now looked at the receipts as I’ve been typing this up because it occurs to me the cost might be on the receipt… and it was supposed to be $24 TOTAL – $10 per person and $4 for the other receipt thing we got. So the bastard scammed us out of an extra $10, and would have kept the other twenty we’d erroneously given him if we hadn’t kept standing around waiting for more change.
Next was the bikes. I asked the official where aduana was for the motos, and he motioned around the building. One of the guys I’d shooed off at the beginning was selling insurance, which he said was obligatory, and Kay and I couldn’t remember if it actually was, so I tried asking the official guy if he knew if insurance was obligatory. He said “yes, yes” and motioned me again to the aduana building. So that didn’t really answer my question – I’m not sure if he actually got what I was trying to ask.
We go back to the motos and the helper guys try to swarm us again, and again I wave them off. I forget what I said, but apparently my look this time was enough to keep them at a distance. Kay and I debated about whether to leave the bikes where they were or move them around the building nearer to the aduana office, and while we were discussing it, the helper guys got one of the security guards involved to tell us that now we needed to take the bikes to aduana on the other side of the building (the building is round) and that one of the helper guys could help us. We thanked the security guy and said help wasn’t necessary, and wheeled the bikes around to the other side of the building – half to just get away from the stupid helpers who were still loitering around.
I went in the other side of the building armed with our originals and copies and my very poor Spanish, and left Kay watching over the bikes. Helper guys tried one more time and again I waved them off, and found the correct line to stand in for vehicle importation. One of the helper guys stood nearby, and another insurance guy approached me (and I told him, no, it wasn’t necessary, I’ll do what the official tells me) and the first insurance guy who had approached us came in and told the guy that he’d already talked to me – I gather they were fighting over the commission.
I waited while the customs guy dealt with the guy in front of me, and then I knelt down at his window because it was glass from about waist high to the ceiling, with only a few inches to slide things through and no talking-hole-thing. So I had a hard time hearing anything he said, and my Spanish is bad to begin with, so I was kneeling in front of the window with my head at roughly desk level just so I could hear the guy.
I’m answering his questions fairly well, I think, when the insurance-salesman guy pipes in on one side, and the other helper guy who is hanging around on my right pipes in on the other, and I stand up and start to tell off the insurance guy and realize he’s selling insurance – he isn’t even a helper. But the look on my face backed him off, and other helper got a sort of smile on his face and said “Ahh, no molesto.” And started spouting some stuff in Spanish. I spoke with him a little, but couldn’t understand a lot of what he was saying, but it was clear that he understood that I wasn’t going to accept a helper and he was somewhat amused/respectful of my fierceness. So I had no more trouble with him, although he stood nearby a bit longer and did offer me some helpful info later.
So I go back to waiting for the customs guy, who eventually hands me some paperwork and manages to convey that he needs a copy of the permit he’s handing me, a copy of the registration and a copy of the passport/license. That’s pretty standard and normally we’ve been carrying extra copies of the registration and the passport and license, but we used ALL of those copies crossing into Honduras twice so I had to go pay the lady nearby to make copies.
While I’m standing in line for copies, the helper guy is in front of me and he indicates that I need to sign the permit I’m about to copy before I copy it. I thank him, and when I hand the copy to the lady, I tell her I need one copy and the helper guy interrupts and says “no, you need two copies”. I ignore him and repeat one copy, because the official guy told me one copy, and I figure I can always come back and make more. (It’s just a few feet away from the customs window.)
Copy, copy. Back to the customs guy. “No, you need an inspection.” At this point, the first insurance guy is standing nearby again, and he manages to convey to me that the bikes need an inspection. So he leads me off (and says he’s not going to charge me anything to help me find an inspector) and we go looking for an inspector. The two guys we find say that the inspector guy is back at the customs building, so the insurance guy leads me back across to the customs building and we find the inspector.
He comes to look at the bikes and checks the license plate but not the VIN number, and then indicates to me that he needs a second copy of the other vehicle import permit (which the aduana guy hadn’t stamped, so I hadn’t made a copy of it.) So the insurance guy hands it back to the customs guy to sign and stamp, and I go make a second copy of that permit (which turns out to be Kay’s permit) and bring it back to the inspector guy, and he signs off on both inspections. Which I then take back to the aduana guy, who tells me he needs another copy of the paperwork I’ve just copied. So I go make more copies, and make a few extra copies of our passport and license just because I’m there (the girl at the copy place must have been getting sick of me by then) and take all of the copies back to the inspector. And apparently that’s it – I’m all done.
What did it cost for the bikes to get into Nicaragua? Nothing. And what did the people on the Honduras side of the border tell us it would cost to get the bikes into Nicaragua? $60 per moto, at least. And some of the helpy guys said similarly. I’m now convinced that everybody at a border is a liar, except the officials – and they lie sometimes, too.
So we buy insurance from the insurance guy who helped me with the inspection bit, since he wasn’t as pushy and was actually helpful, and we’ve confirmed with a couple of other people at the border that you do, indeed, need the insurance. So he takes our permits and makes us out some nice insurance papers, and staples them to the permits, and hands them to us – just another $24 ($12 per moto). But I didn’t feel as bad about that money, as he seemed pretty above-board and didn’t ask for money for helping me with the inspection, etc.
Yay! At this point it’s 3:30 and we’re officially signed into Nicaragua. We have no Nicaraguan money (the money-changers at the border weren’t giving me what I felt was a good enough rate, based on the “official” current exchange rate) and we haven’t had lunch. We’ve pulled out the Nicaragua map but we haven’t really driven on it yet so we don’t know the scale (but I’ve become the official map-carrier, because apparently I’m better at reading them while riding and retaining the information) and we decide to ride to the first town, which is 20km from the border, and look for an ATM.
The ATM turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find. We stop and ask for directions 4 times but it’s a maze of one-way streets. Eventually we find it, though, and Kay gets out some cash. I look at the map in the meantime, and decide we can probably get to Esteli if we skip lunch altogether (at this point it’s around 4:15) so we decide to go for it.
I have to pee soon thereafter as I haven’t had a bathroom since we stopped to buy water at around 11:00AM, and have to do the side of a road drop-trow – and alas, a pick-up truck full of guys (like probably 10-15 guys, because a bunch of them were standing in the bed) drove by just as I was pulling up my underwear. They all turned their heads to stare because it was obvious what I was doing. It’s so awesome sometimes to be a woman on a road trip like this.
We get into Esteli just as the sun is setting, and we stop at another gas station so I can use a real bathroom this time while Kay consults the Rough Guide to try to find us a hotel in Esteli. We find a place that sounds like it might have net (which I still need, since last night’s swanky hotel didn’t have a functional net connection and I have work to do for a client) and look at the Rough Guide map to get into town.
And start driving… only to discover that the roads coming off the Pan Americana aren’t labeled at all. Eventually we pass one with a number, but we don’t know if it’s north or south of the hotel, so we have to stop to pull over again to consult the Rough Guide in the rapidly growing dusk. It’s too far south, so we turn around and start heading north, and eventually thread our way into the city. Only about 1 in 3 or 4 roads is visibly labeled, but I manage to catch enough cross-street signs to figure out where we are in relation to the hotel, and we get there fairly easily once we get into town.
Kay runs in to ask about the cost, the ‘net and where we can park our bikes. He comes back with favorable answers, and goes back to look at the room. Room looks nice enough so we decide to take it. There’s a catch – we need to unload our stuff and then drive our bikes to the parking lot that is four blocks away. At least this time we have warning, so we haul our stuff into the room and drive the bikes to the parking lot.
Return to Casa Hotel Nicarao, drop off our helmets, and immediately go looking for food, as stuff is starting to shut down as usual. Kay suggests changing into street clothes, but I stink too much to want to put on clean street clothes, so we head out in our motorcycle pants and boots. We find a Hamburguesa place that also has pollo hamburgers, and looks kind interesting, but turns out to be rather crap pre-frozen patties. Lame. But it was food – and as the first food since breakfast (it’s now 7PM) we clean our plates.
Back the hotel where we try to get the password for the internet and hot water for the shower. I work on the shower while Kay tracks down the password. Neither of us is successful. The shower has a hot water heater attachment thing on the end, which we’ve found to be fairly common south of Mexico, but it doesn’t seem to actually produce hot water. Cold showers for us. (Quite cold, in fact… now that we’re up around 900 meters above sea level the temperatures aren’t quite as hot, and cold water is COLD.)
Kay gets the internet password, but discovers that there’s no actual network. Apparently someone down the street did something to a cable or something, and the net is down. It should be up again tomorrow. Which is, of course, too late for me, with work that is now two days overdue for a client.
On the bright side, the hotel sold us a bottle of Coca Cola (I was dying for some Coke, as Pepsi seems to be the bigger drink down here) and there’s a nice little courtyard where you can sit and chill, and hang out with a duck that squeaks cute little birdie squeaks from time to time. No ‘net, which I needed, and no hot water, which we both wanted… but otherwise this place seems to be a step up from where we’ve been staying, and it’s a decent stopover on our run to Grenada, where we intend to spend a few days and unwind a bit.
I’m going to have to agree with Dachary about helpers at the Nicaraguan border crossing. This particular one was really easy, just watch the numbers on the receipts so that they don’t take more money than they need. Also, fuck honduras’s corrupt officials. The real people of the country have been quite nice, but the people at two out of three border crossings have screwed us in one way or another. The first time we exited we were told we’d have no problem coming back as long as it was in three days…. liars. Then again, maybe it should have been fine, and everyone afterwards was just corrupt and looking for a bribe.