Saturday, September 24, 2005

Copantl Hotel, San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Banana trees with plastic bags growing on them!

11:30 p.m.

Landed in a “five star” hotel and club, just ahead of a wild lightning storm. This city is at the foot of a mountain range, against which the tropical afternoon clouds piled up. Just before dark, they let loose their light show.

I took this as a sign that I made the correct choice, laying over here in San Pedro. I checked the “Clarion Hotel” first, but this one was cheaper, at $65 a night (I know, it’s a real splurge.)

Sat down to some dinner in the hotel "cafeteria", ordering the national "Salva Vida" cerveza (at about $1.50 here in the hotel, it's a bargain!) and a "Cubano" sandwich (ham, pork and "Velveeta", among other things on it). (I feel I am representing my friend and former co-worker Tim Shaw, down here, sampling the local brews whenever possible. I know he would do the same for me.)

First order of business again was to do my laundry in the sink and get it hung out to dry throughout the room. Next, check the news to see what I’ve missed. Later, I went outside and stood under the portico, watching lightning strike the ridgetop a few miles away.


I assume the plastic keeps birds away, but it may have another purpose...

(David Kuhn writes: "A small pocket made in the bag is insectisides for birds, bats and insects. At harvest time only perfect flawless bunches get exported. The rest stay is what we get for local consumption." Thanks, David!)

The border crossing from Guatemala was “interesting.” I left the compound at “Bruno’s” after noon and turned toward the Honduran town of Corinto. My map showed the road incomplete, with 5 to 10 miles of track to the border, but depending on which of the sailors you asked, the opinions varied between “it’s a good road", and “it’s a muddy track.”

Crossed the fertile San Francisco River valley, home to vast banana, date and pineapple plantations (there were countless “Dole” trucks on the highway, carrying produce to Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean.) I took a closer look at one banana plantation, noticing channels cut through the groves, I assume to expedite drainage, and trees tied off on the side opposite the bunches of bananas to prevent them from toppling.

Finally worked up the courage to try some pineapple from a roadside stand. From a huge stack, the woman picked one that was ready to eat, asking if I’d like it cut. She then used a long knife to quickly shave off the outer skin, using the stalk to steady it. She then quartered it lengthwise, each quarter had a portion of stalk attached, which you then use as a handle while eating the pineapple. The cost, 5 Quetzales, is less than 75 cents. Ate one slice at the stand, then wrapped up the remainder in a small plastic bag she provided.

The road was fine, all the way to the border. Came to a Guatemalan customs and immigration stop, a few miles before the border. I was told to park the bike on the shoulder and check in. An officer reviewed my permit and passport, then removed the permit decal from my windshield. On to Honduras. A bridge is under construction at the border. A policeman whistled as I started across. He indicated that before crossing, I needed to go to immigration, and pointed down a gravel road to a small town (Corinto.)

A mile on, I came to a manual lift gate. An officer pointed to the side of the shoulder and I parked where he indicated, out in front of a food stand. He then said the immigration office is down the street and around the corner. A man came up and asked if I needed change. I asked his rate. 17 Limpiras per dollar. We agreed on 18, and I changed $100. The less energy spent on the transaction, the better. I would need Limpiras for the entry fees. Gathered up my documents, helmet, gloves and jacket, and put everything else out of my mind. "Not much I can do about guarding everything."

Immigration was straightforward. I think they charged 35 Limpiras, stamped my passport then sent me across the street to the aduana (customs) office. The customs officer pointed me back across the street to an office right behind immigration, with a sign reading “Tigo”. I first had to go there for some reason. In a tiny, cluttered office, I found a gentleman waiting for something to do. It appeared his job was to fill out documents for the officials.

He asked for my passport and title then started to walk outside. I asked “where are you going (with my passport and title)?” He told me to calm down, “it’s okay.” He came back a few minutes later with the form he needed (which he retrieved from the aduana office.)

On a very old “Smith Corona” typewriter, he pecked one letter at a time, as he filled out the temporary vehicle permit. He needed to disappear two or three more times (with my documents.) Each time, I followed him to the door and watched where he went. Finally, he needed to make copies. I quickly said I had copies of my passport and title. He asked for three of each. He handed back my passport and title, then again disappeared. (Were they selling my bike around the corner? I took a little walk just to be sure it was still there.)

Finally, everything was in order and he handed the documents to me. My last stop was back at the aduana office. “But you have to pay,” he said in Spanish.


“950 Limpiras.” (Over $50)

“Excuse me?”

He repeated.

Para que?”

He very quickly listed the fees.

Mas despacio, por favor,” (slower, please.)

Then I said I would need a receipt for everything. Each time he itemized the prices, the cost went down.

In the end, there were three elements to the cost: the permit, which had a 120 Limpiras “value” listed, then a receipt for the form at $20, or 377.43 Limpiras, and then there were the copies and his service. I had to remind him I had provided most of the copies.

He was becoming very frustrated with me and said “go pay at the aduana!” He was going to get nothing for all his service! I went across the street and asked the customs official, but he clearly wanted to avoid any involvement. I asked what was a reasonable fee for services. He threw out the number 100 (about $5.50).

So, I returned to my preparation “specialist” and gave him 100 Limpiras. I think he still fleeced me. I suspect the permit should only have been $20 in total. I probably paid $10 or $15 too much. It was pretty harmless, and more just an educational experience. Still, the petty crooks are annoying.

Despite all the very poor people wandering around this border town, I was surprised I wasn’t more concerned about the motorcycle. But there was an officer minding the gate, and diners sitting right by the bike. Too many eyes. When I returned to it, I offered the remaining pineapple to the officer and an elderly gentleman seated nearby. They both gladly accepted.

The highway and bridges are still under construction in numerous areas, I had to detour through the muddy streets of small hamlets. (Apparently many were destroyed by Hurricane Mitch seven years ago, and they are still in the process of rebuilding.)

In Puerto Cortes, I refueled in a gas station overrun by police riding in several vehicles. They were strutting around in their blue gray camouflage and military-style sunglasses, some in full "S.W.A.T." team gear. Several were riding in a new Explorer (I think), its window darkly-tinted. An officer moved back and forth giving orders, supervising the critical refueling process.

Beyond Puerto Cortes, a toll road begins. I was instructed to by-pass the toll gates, riding along a gravel path to the left. No charge for motorcycles. Conditions looked even more dire in Honduras than in Guatemala (I had been warned that this was the case.) This East Coast area is industrialized, with many factories, but clearly not enough jobs for the population.

Nearly struck a man staggering across the highway. He stepped out into the right lane, in front of a truck. The driver broke hard, hitting his horn. The fellow, eyes closed, wobbling back and forth, then crossed into my lane. I came to a stop a couple feet from him. He then stumbled backward nearly stepping into me.

Less than a half mile beyond, a large bloated horse lay on its back alongside the right lane, legs in the air, a patch of dried blood running toward the median. It had clearly been dead for some time.

As in Mexico and Guatemala, you rarely see a man in the countryside who is not carrying a machete. It's the most basic requirement here. Being an outsider, to me they are quite intimidating. But I don't think they even give them a second thought. Of course, I continue to imagine one of these guys "flipping out" by the roadside and swinging the thing as I pass by.

There are signs of change however, as young people walking the shoulders, even in the most rural communities, are seen looking down at their flip-phones. No machetes in their hands.

Entering San Pedro Sula, I was struck by the prominence of American businesses: “Pizza Hut”, “McDonald’s”, “Burger King”, “Applebee’s”, “Texaco”, (of course, "Pepsi” and "Coca-Cola”) and many more. At a gas station, I bought some "cacahuates con chile y limoncito", peanuts with chili and lime, and yucca chips – much like potato chips. Both are tasty snacks!

Picked up some Limpiras from an ATM. An old gentleman stopped to admire the bike, then said “cuidado” (watch out), drawing a quick line across his neck with his finger, then making a clutching motion, obviously warning me that there are those who would kill for this machine.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the older gentleman's warning...I think this is the precise reason why some of your friends and family are worried about you on your trip! In a country full of commandos, you will now have to be one yourself.
Foilheads Unite! (Can you guess who this is, Tim?)

timtraveler said...

I need another hint!

Do you ride a Ural?