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Posted By Molly Beer On September 10, 2012 @ 11:55 pm In Asia,Borders,El Salvador,Ethics,Latin America | 1 Comment
The “assistants” were disheveled Salvadoran men in dirty t-shirts and Yankees caps who flapped their hands at passing cars, as if hailing a bus. For a fee, we’d read, they would facilitate crossing the border into Honduras, speeding a process that could take as long as four hours. I slowed down when I saw them, and at this hint of interest they rushed at my old Volvo. I like to think that, had our ragged guidebook not presented this option like a choice between this or that hostel, reasonably priced at about $15, we would not have considered it. I like to think that my boyfriend and I, both teachers in El Salvador, would not have shortcut ahead of those who waited honestly, that we would not have played that small part in perpetuating the corruption that drags so heavily on the developing world we liked to fantasize we had come to help.
But if the guidebook excuse doesn’t wash, I have others. For one thing, that morning we’d begun the first leg of our Semana Santa expedition late because I’d burned my arm on the steam from my coffee pot. When we finally did get on the road, with half an aloe plant propped in easy reach in my cup holder, we’d chosen the more direct Panamericana Highway across El Salvador instead of the coastal highway. But we hadn’t known that the Panamericana running east from San Salvador was almost entirely under construction and we would therefore bump our way over vast unpaved stretches. Then we took a wrong turn and ended up in La Union, from where we could faintly see but not reach our destination in the Golfo de Fonseca, Honduras’s only claim to a Pacific coast. Granted, these missteps and miscalculations were our fault, but by the time we reached the border, it was mid afternoon. Barring all contingencies, we were an hour’s drive from the bayside village of Coyolito where a lancha would ferry us to the Isla del Tigre, and if we missed a turn, missed the last boat, if, if, if—we’d be on unfamiliar rural roads in a Volvo with plates from that rival next-door nation when the sun went down, just a few of so many things we’d been vehemently warned against doing in Central America.
Surely we couldn’t risk that, no?
Even with my litany of excuses, I wasn’t fully committed to hiring a “guide” when I pulled over to that roadside. I thought we’d talk, maybe negotiate, and then I’d decide. But while I searched for the Spanish words I’d need, a man slipped into the backseat and shut the door.
“Adelante,” he commanded.
I recognized the ripe apricot smell of alcohol sweat, but I drove forward as he directed, even as it dawned on me that, by accelerating, I was hiring my first coyote.
Just over the rise was El Amatillo, a dusty outpost that looked the epitome of the middle of nowhere but was in fact the middle of everywhere. The Panamericana runs almost continuously from the Tierra del Fuego to Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay and the opposite lane was solid with trucks roaring northward with perishable loads. I slowed down, scanning the scene, the clusters of kids selling packs of chicles or baggies of fried plantains squirted with red chile, the women in checked aprons who carried plastic tubs of soda cans on their heads, the firepower: men stony-faced with boredom, no doubt roasting slowly in their flak jackets in full sun. The man in my backseat pointed to a parking space opposite the immigration offices and I pulled in, already obedient. He asked for our passports and we handed them back to him. As he scooted out of the backseat, he told us to stay there and wait. We opened the windows and prepared to get hot. Neither of us said anything about what we’d do if he or our passports didn’t come back.
To our surprise, before even the chicle kids had sniffed us out, he was back with forms to fill out and a border guard he had roused to search our car for contraband. After the search, we followed our guide and our passports in one dingy backdoor and then another. At every turn, I expected him to vanish. In every dim room, I expected to be robbed. Mostly, I expected to be shamed.
Standing on the cracked linoleum of one empty room where we had been left to wait again, thinking about shame, I couldn’t stop myself from remembering another immigration office—this one two years earlier, when I was a college student in Katmandu. I’d made a promise to myself then, and now, straddling the Salvador-Honduras border, I was breaking it.
That day in Nepal, I had returned to the immigration office to collect passports for some of my classmates and myself. I was alone, which was unusual for me then, and I don’t remember why I volunteered to cross the city by myself. I do remember, however, that I was wearing sneakers for the first time after months in heavy hiking boots. I remember that my feet felt light, buoyant even, and I assume that the rest of me did as well. So maybe I was just trying to show off my self-sufficiency in a city that felt more manageable than New Delhi or even Lhasa, where my classmates and I had spent the previous three months.
I took a taxi instead of rickshaw, which my friends would have thought decadent, and that was only the beginning. The taxi-walla who picked me up in the traveler-filled Tamel district was friendly, spoke some English, and, like nearly everyone who served Westerners in Katmandu, had some hashish on hand. I looked him over when he offered to light it up. He was middle-aged, balding and round in the middle, and had that look of taxi drivers who are one with the seat. By my measure, he didn’t look dangerous, and if he was, he certainly wasn’t fast enough to catch me if I ran. I accepted his offer and we passed the laced cigarette between us while he drove around aimlessly, pointing out sights and chatting at me, in that way of lonely people everywhere, about other Americans he had known because he lived in the backroom of a guesthouse. I was feeling pretty great—not so much because of the drugs as the happy coincidence of it all: there I was, out on my own, going with the flow, trusting fate to do with me what it would. I wasn’t saving the world yet, sure, but I reasoned that I was learning things that would help with that later.
When we did finally arrive at immigration, I paid my driver and climbed, fuzzy-headed, out of his beat-up taxi. He asked if he should wait for me, but his eagerness to please made me brush his offer aside. That and I knew a visit to Nepali immigration was not likely to go quickly. I told him thanks, but no; waved goodbye; and—because at just that moment there was a clear break in the traffic—dashed across the street.
It was while I was running across Kalika Marg that the bubble I’d been floating in burst. I don’t know if it was a pothole or just my recently freed feet that tripped me, but suddenly I wasn’t running, but falling sideways.
As I fell, I had time to think about it, to look around. And when I did my eyes caught the gaze of a young man standing on the front steps of immigration and held. He was smoking a cigarette. His black hair fell over one brow. We were still making eye contact when my body hit the pavement with a sound like a sack of rice being dropped from the back of a truck. Without flinching or laughing or looking moved in any way, he took another drag of his cigarette. Before I felt anything else, I felt red fury at this man and broke eye contact.
At first flame, the pain was intense. I didn’t know it then, nor would I until several weeks later when I returned to my college in the U.S. and went to the clinic for fresh Ace bandages, but my ankle was fractured, pieces of bone pulled away as ligaments tore loose, shredding like cloth. And then the cold clarity hit: my plans, my precious, magnificent plans, were slipping away from me, floating upward like colored balloons into Katmandu’s smog-yellow sky.
Then time resumed its usual pace. I heard rickshaws, unmufflered cars, and running feet. I had fallen beyond the traffic, but I was still lying in the street. Then the running stopped and my taxi-walla was there, stooping to scoop me off the trash-strewn pavement by my armpits. With his help, I hobbled up the steps to immigration. My chin quivered as I waded through the pain, but I didn’t let myself cry until I was past the man who still stood there smoking on the front steps.
In the empty waiting room there were no chairs, so I sat down on the concrete floor. My taxi-walla, who apparently was more than an extension of his driver’s seat, squatted in front of me and examined my ankle, which was already bulging above my sneaker. He then pulled up my pant leg and without warning began to rub my ankle vigorously. To my amazement, his hard rubbing didn’t hurt. It was as if he pushed the pain away, upward, out of the damaged area, where it couldn’t clamp onto anything and so it dissipated.
“There,” he said after a few minutes of his wonder touch.
Wholly without pain, I started to stand up, but he waved me back down.
“Give me your ticket.”
I hesitated. My ticket was a receipt for a half-dozen American passports. I wasn’t supposed to let it out of my hand, let alone give it to my drug-carrying, ankle-rubbing taxi-walla. Then I remembered I was supposed to be trusting fate to do with me what it would, or rather I remembered the pain, which now rushed back with my blood into my ankle. Now that pain had teeth. Metal teeth, like the teeth on those traps cartoon characters step into.
I handed over my ticket and sat back down on the concrete.
My driver carried it up to the counter, raised the attention of an official, and discussed the matter, then returned to me. The passports were not ready yet. We’d have to wait.
An hour passed. Other foreigners trickled in and stood around in the waiting area until it sank into each that the wait was not of standing length, then sat on the floor. None of them spoke to one anyone outside of their own group. A second hour unwound even more slowly than the first. The pain in my ankle throbbed iridescent now. I felt compelled to hum. My taxi driver was still with me. We had run out of language in common, but I felt a powerful gratitude for his presence. Every now and then, he rubbed the pain away, and that gratitude felt more like love for this man who had scraped me off the pavement.
“Where did you learn how to do that,” I asked him.
“I was in the hospital for a long time,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, nodding as if I understood.
I didn’t want to talk about hospitals.
Instead of talking more, I looked around the room. The sunlight was fading and a few fluorescent lights illuminated the waiting room, turning all the white people there a sickly greenish color.
One couple in particular caught my attention; they had been, like me, one of the first to arrive, and they waited only a few yards away for all those hours. He looked Nepali, she was speaking a European language I remember as French, although I knew no French then. Somehow I gathered that he was a doctor. This news felt a bit like the impervious gaze from the smoking man on the steps or the inexplicable slowness of the immigration officials. He had been in that waiting room a long time; why couldn’t he see I was injured?
Finally, after many trips to the counter to harass the officials on my behalf, my driver returned to where I sat and gestured to me to get up.
“Are the passports ready?” I chirped.
He wobbled his head from side to side, a South Asian gesture I found unintelligible and which drove me crazy.
“We will try another way,” he said.
Steered by my taxi-walla, I hobbled down a hallway. I didn’t resist or ask questions, even when the door we passed through opened not in some more comfortable waiting room or an office where I might speak with someone of more authority than the men at the front desk, but a pitch black storage room.
In the dark, two men were waiting.
It occurred to me that I should be frightened then, to be alone in a close, dark space with three men, but it also occurred to me that I had somehow known this was happening all along, that I had come here by my own choice.
“You must give them some money,” my driver said when I looked at him for help.
“How much?” I asked, thinking of the $100 or so in Nepali rupees that I had tucked down the front of my pants.
“500 rupees is okay,” he said.
That was about $7, but it was still more than I had in my pockets. I dug my fingers into my moneybelt, struggling to see and trying not to expose its contents or my underwear to the other men, but when I finally found and attempted to extract a sweat-damp 500 Rs bill, a clump of larger bills came loose too and fluttered to the floor. My driver promptly stepped on them, and I handed over my bribe.
Once they had their money, the two men, looking more nervous than even I felt, left ahead of us. My driver picked up the bill I’d lost and handed it back to me.
My driver and I hobbled back to the waiting room, where I was promptly called to the counter and given my stack of duly stamped passports. There was nothing more to do but turn and go, but as we were leaving, the doctor’s European wife hissed at me in thick English words that would echo in my mind across a dozen bureaucratic interludes in developing countries over the years that unfolded, that I would hear again, a few years later, so clear in my memory, at the El Amatillo border crossing between El Salvador and Honduras.
“That is the bad way,” she said.
Even over the hum-whine I hoped was only in my head, even awash in self-pity over my little personal tragedy, I knew she was right.
What was my pain? I do not remember a leper squatting on those steps of immigration, but there must have been one, there always was, like a billboard reminder, rattling a tin cup of one rupee coins as light as wadded up foil off a chocolate kiss. What pain. What exception. So what. Life is suffering—ask anyone in Nepal—and those who bear theirs bravely shall be rewarded in the next.
The man who hadn’t flinched when I fell was also right, and this is why his reaction had stung.
The backroom of the El Amatillo immigration complex was a long way from that storage room in Katmandu immigration, but the two were linked in more ways than I liked to think. Both are small countries overwhelmed by meddlesome large ones. Both grapple with extreme poverty and recent civil wars (in which those large countries feel compelled to take sides). Both struggle with the Sisyphusian task of weeding out corruption.
Each person who cheats, it goes without saying, makes it take that much longer for those who take proper channels, making cheating all the more expedient. In countries with histories of caste systems and colonization—both El Salvador and Nepal, there is an entrenched sense that some people get to go first by nature of who they are. Which is to say that, on a global scale, I belong to the society of line cutters, the ones who come first, who get all they need, before others get a turn. I knew this; I just wanted it to be different. I thought I could be different. But there I was waiting for my special treatment, so that I could be safer than the people who waited in the line out front. So that I wouldn’t miss my vacation, wouldn’t be inconvenienced or made uncomfortable. And I didn’t like having to think about it.
Our guide had disappeared again, with our passports and the paperwork for our car: the documents that said we were who we were and what we owned. A few minutes later, he stuck his head in the room and told us to go back out to wait by the car. My boyfriend and I obeyed, trying to pretend we weren’t worried we might be robbed, that we might lose our identification, our car, our money—or worse—in that dusty terminus.
Outside, nasty dogs—called chuchos in El Salvador—rummaged the roadside garbage drifts. There were motor rickshaws like those in Nepal, called toritos in El Salvador, shuttling foot travelers across the bridge to where they could catch a bus on the other side of the border. There were no lepers, though. And even the backpackers waiting in lines seemed too inured to waiting to express any judgment of whatever we were up to.
Driving through rural Honduras after dark had to be avoided, I reminded myself. It was unreasonable to endanger myself for the sake of some high road.
Besides, it wasn’t entirely clear that I wasn’t the one being had.
Then our assistant came back, a victorious grin on his face. We were cleared to cross.
My boyfriend paid him his fee and the man thanked him heartily and vanished to distribute mordidas, little bites, to whichever of his friends had rushed us through. I climbed back into the car and drove over the bridge into Honduras.
“That was easy,” Steve said dryly as we picked up speed.
“Too easy,” I replied.
No more bribes, we promised each other.
But the promise was a lie. As we drove across Honduras to spend Easter on the Caribbean we would be pulled over no fewer than a dozen times (because of our Salvadoran license plates, we’d learn). It turned out that there is a law in Honduras that requires all vehicles to carry a triangle to set in the road in case of a breakdown. We didn’t have one, and there was not a triangle to be had between the border and Tegucigalpa. Each time we were stopped, until we finally came into possession of a triangle, we’d do what it took to come out the other side in possession of our documents and our car. Sometimes we argued, other times we cajoled, begged, flirted. Each time was an impasse and involved a complex diplomatic dance that veered from anger to flirtation and back again. And when nothing seemed to be working, one of us would inquire lowly—so the other wouldn’t hear, “isn’t there some other way we can work this out?”
Of course, in Nepal and El Salvador and many developing countries, legal justice is the sort of thing one wobbles her head at, side to side. It is what it is. But there is the higher law of karma. Perhaps in Katmandu I’d prepaid for my behavior with my splintered bones, but my comeuppance came in the proper order with El Amatillo.
That night, in my dream, my boyfriend was first tattooing, then etching a picture on my arm with a knife. I woke to my voice telling him to quit it.
With my eyes open in the dark, I realized my error.
“Wake up,” I hissed, the burning pain on my arm now burrowing under the skin.
He rolled away and burritoed the sheets.
“Something bit me,” I hissed again, too terrified of what that something was to move.
But I’d woken him up too many nights in the tropics because a mosquito was after me.
“Go back to sleep,” he mumbled.
I took a deep breath. I was trying to keep myself calm, my heart rate low, while my mind churned through information stores on neurotoxins, anti-venoms, tourniquets.
“It’s still in the bed,” I said out loud, as coolly and reasonably as I could.
Cool and reasonable did the trick. My boyfriend shot out of bed and whipped off the top sheet.
How many hours was it to Tegucigalpa? Two? Four? I wondered, gazing up at the ceiling, focusing my breathing without letting my mind form the complete thought “dead man’s pose.” We would need a lancha, and someone to unlock the fenced lot where my Volvo was parked.
How would we call a med-evac on an island with no phone?
My boyfriend was running around in his boxers, blindly swatting at the bed and then the floor with a flip-flop.
The Embassy, I thought, breathing deeply. The Embassy would know what to do (I had yet to be disabused of this traveler fantasy). They—we would just have to rouse the whole island if it took that—would have to radio out.
The culprit behind the swelling white knot on my otherwise pinking upper arm, now a pulp on the hotel room floor, was not a scorpion as I had assumed, but a centipede the size of a man’s finger.
I didn’t know anything about centipede stings, but not-knowing made it feel too silly to rouse even our hotel, let alone half of Honduras as I had planned, to rescue me.
Besides, who was I to complain? The score was even now, little bite for little bite. Wasn’t it?
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