We’re getting ready for battle––armed with instructional papers, a book with step-by-step bullet points, important documents organized in an expandable folder with tabs labeled in ink, another folder bursting open with copies of all of our important documents, cash in several currencies, a cheat sheet list of quick phrases in Spanish and even Sprite (our little feisty dog) is in her perch waiting to bark at the first person who comes near the truck. Finally, we look to each other hoping for an inspirational battle cry but it comes out more like a question than a statement, “Are you ready for this?”
We are never truly ready.
We study, we prepare, and we try to get a good night’s sleep. In the morning we brew coffee and fill bowls with cereal while we review our plan. And then we pack up and roll towards the line. The line is invisible to the naked eye. It’s the space between two countries that divides one from the other. It looks colorful and fun on a map, “Look! A new country!” But as we get closer, like hitting a trip wire, the chaos starts. A mob of “helpers” dressed in a uniform of brown shirts with ID tags hung around their necks spot us and start sprinting towards our truck. We don’t know their official title, but their goal is to charge foreigners a fee in return for help – processing paperwork in order to clear customs. Their help will come at a cost and the result is anyone’s guess. The first few to arrive, who out run the rest, hold up their tags and shout all at once and over each other in Spanish that rolls into long words that blend together and seem to never stop. They don’t breath, or pause, or stand back. They tap on the truck and pound on the windows. They whistle, and clap, and shove each other to get closer. The slower runners arrive next and deliver more shouts and whistles and take turns pressing their ID tags against the window. With our windows rolled up and doors locked, we shake our heads in the obvious over exaggerated NO. We quickly add hand signals that cross in an X back and forth along with our head nods to further confirm that we are not even thinking about asking for help. We are trying to show you “NO!…gracias.” But the taps and the shouts don’t stop, so now Colin has his window down and shouts back in Spanish, “We do not need help!” When that doesn’t work he adds in English, “Don’t touch my truck!” They may not understand his words, but they all understand his face. The taps stop. And then the comments in a mumbled voice start. There are several words, that even I understand, and they are not nice words. This is the first step in the border crossing process.
At each border there are two things that must happen; exit one country and enter another. This sounds simple enough. We assume that countries would encourage travelers to visit and start spending money. You would think that entering the country and leaving the other would be a warm and welcoming experience. Like stepping off the plane onto the beautiful islands of Hawaii to receive a smile along with an “Aloha” and a lei draped nicely around your neck. By the time we get through a border crossing we look beat down, we are sweating, we have a pile of crinkled bills mixed with coins, mixed with a disorganized heap of papers. We have spoken to rude immigration agents while trying to ignore unhired helpers who like to follow us around like pesky bugs hoping we get frustrated and crack. The reason we get frustrated is because this is not an easy streamlined process and they know it. Some borders have about 15 steps (we counted) to complete. They include visiting offices that are shuffled as far apart from each other as they can be without crossing the border themselves. Some of the offices are hidden behind other buildings with no signs, with no doors, inside dilapidated shacks with clusters of shady looking people blocking the entrance to further confuse the situation.
During the border crossing into Panama from Costa Rica, Colin had to walk into the country of Panama to get vehicle insurance and then walk back into Costa Rica to finalize our entry into Panama…where he just came from. Just when we thought the border would be easy (since there was no line, no other cars and no hawkers) immigration was off to lunch. Come back in 30 minutes. Once they opened and we checked that step off the list, the fumigation guy was off to lunch. Come back in 30 minutes. The minutes started to add up and time was slipping by. We had completed the exit process from Costa Rica and now that border was closed. The Panama border would be closing in the next 15 minutes and we had one more step to complete. The fumigation guy was surprisingly happy to see us. Over the goods he confiscated from other travellers, he told us the story of how difficult it was going to be to get Sprite into Panama. Colin tried to understand and make sense of the situation but after 40 minutes of the story changing, the border now closed, the reality sank in. He wanted a regalo (a gift). We were stuck and as much as we hated to admit it, we had to pay. As he pressed his stamp down on Sprite’s paperwork and tucked the money neatly into his pocket, he gave Colin a smirk that would later sneak into his dreams at night (he’s still not over it!).
So, with all this hassle why not just hire the helpers? Twice we have – reluctantly. Once it was totally worth it and he was very helpful. The rest are aggressive and nasty and who knows what will happen when they get your precious paperwork. Demand more money? Yes. The best advice we have heard tried to follow when it comes to crossing borders, “Never let your paperwork out of your hand or out of sight.”
The border crossing into Mexico from the US was actually pleasant. Our fear about what could go wrong was the biggest source of stress. The process was in order, all the offices were consolidated into one building and on the same level. We basically walked across the hallway from one office to the next, asked the same questions twice until we understood and went on our way – we didn’t get a free margarita but we did get a friendly smile followed by, “Have a nice visit.” Going into Guatemala from Mexico was a little trickier but still fairly smooth. The only annoyance was one Mexican customs guy who tried to charge us $300 each for an exit tax but we knew better. We had a receipt and our paperwork was in order. No tax. Problem solved. It was the El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica borders I am referring to that have been, shall I say, “Part of the adventure!”
After feeling kicked down and hassled we needed to ask around and find out if others were having the same trouble. There is nothing better than hearing those sweet words, “We know exactly how you feel because it happened to us!” Although everyone has a different experience, some better and some worse, we have to mention that it really depends on several factors. What time of day you reach the border? What kind of mood will you find the guy or gal at customs in? How long is the line? What border? Are you walking through or driving? Do you have a huge vehicle or small one? Dog? And the list goes on. There are only a few factors you can really control and they are: Be as prepared for that border as you can possibly be (knowing exchange rates, have the correct currency on hand, tons of copies of everything, the right documents). Choose who is on your team.
…and I don’t mean Sprite (although she has helped us get through military and police checkpoints). When we prepared for El Salvador it was Colin who mentioned that I should stay with the truck, keep the doors locked and wait with Sprite while he took on the task of everything mentioned above. “Sounds good to me!” How could I argue with that? As the air conditioning whined while cooling the interior of the truck, Colin worked on completing the long list of steps under a beating hot sun. He listened to customs as “helpers” harped in his ear, walked from building to building, made copies, got our vehicle insurance, passports stamped, exchanged money, paid for Sprite’s paperwork, stood sweating in long lines, got us cleared from one country and into the next. This took hours. The record was entering Costa Rica which took just over 3. Picking Colin as a travel partner was a very smart choice on my part. I’m just not sure what he is going to do with all the points he has saved up from doing this dirty work. I’m sure one day it’s going to come back, “Remember when I ran ragged from all those border crossings while you sat behind locked doors and in the cool AC?” And then he is going to hit me with something that I can’t refuse, but I really want to. The image of him with all the paperwork in a stack collected from hours of hassle and his shirt clinging to him from sweat, and the relief that it was him and not me will pop in my mind and these words will follow, “Anything you want, honey!”
The road is long and finds its way through places that remain unnoticed until you make the decision to go. At our 6 month mark we find ourselves on a road in the highlands of Panama. The wind blows in a cloudy mist until the sun disappears, but within minutes it returns shining bright. We never imagined how this would feel. What would we experience? Where would the road take us? You have to cross borders to find out. Not just country borders, but state borders, a city border, the street at the edge of town that you have never thought to cross. As we make plans to turn around and begin the journey back, we smile to the customs folks, pray they are having a good day and hand over our passports once again waiting for the sound of the stamp. The journey is worth it.
You can read more from Carrie and Colin at Wake the Dead Diaries. [Click the image below]