Saturday, November 11, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line - Phase One

JglphaseonePhase One of “The John Galt Line” through Central America began at 5am on Thursday in Tapachula when I got up, got packed and checked out of the Loma Real that had been my home for a nice few days. Arriving at the local bus station at the appointed time of 6am -- for my 7am bus -- I was not terribly surprised to find the station empty except for an armed security guard. I have gotten accustomed to “things coming together in due course” so I just had a seat and waited. Sure enough, a few other people began to arrive and, promptly at ten minutes to seven, the TICA Bus pulled in and a company-uniformed young man waved us over and began to check our tickets and load us up. I was having some of the usual difficulty discussing the details of my itinerary with him when a white woman walked up and began complaining loudly at him in Spanish about having gotten the same lack of useful information and poor service that Paulina and I had gotten from the “bitch” ticket agent. After a few minutes of back and forth -- with her mostly yelling and him mostly nodding -- he asked her if she spoke English. With a stunned and combative look on her face, she replied in English, “My Spanish is perfectly good! Why do you want me to speak English?” I suppressed my laugh and said to her, “It’s not for him, Ma’am. It’s for me. I need help with Spanish.” It took a moment for her to switch gears, the she said to me, “Oh, what’s the problem?” Thus went my introduction to Claire, a Belgian woman who has been traveling in Central and South America for most of a year. After a few minutes of her helpful translation, all was in order and we began our bus ride.

After not quite an hour, the driver made an announcement that we were at the border with Guatemala and that we would have to get off the bus for immigration. I have read numerous blog accounts of the experience of border crossing in this region -- and I had readied myself to document it for you by holding my passport in one hand and my camera in the other before stepping off the bus -- but nothing could have prepared me for the chaotic melee into which I descended. Dozens -- perhaps a hundred -- locals were pressed up to the bus, yelling, waiving and pointing. Within seconds, several had grabbed for my passport, others had grabbed for my camera and one tried to pick my pocket. Those of you who know me know that I am generally pretty easy-going about things, but you also know I don’t take kindly to being hassled. I shoved my hands in my pockets, gave them all that “look” I have -- the one that seems to be pretty universally understood as “Back off or die!” -- and barged my way through. Sometimes, having grown up in New York, been in my share of hot-spots and being substantially larger in bulk that those around me has its advantages!

A few yards away I saw that Claire -- despite her own strong attitude and abilities -- was under fire and “stuck” in the mob. I pushed my way over to her, put my arm around her and moved us through to the immigration building. With just a look, she let me know that we were “even” in the “help your fellow traveler” category. Inside the immigration building, the situation was somewhat more orderly as we got our passports stamped out of Mexico. From there, it was a hundred yard walk across the actual border to the immigration building in Guatemala where we were stamped in and loaded back onto the awaiting TICA Bus. My immediate regret was that I had not taken any photos of the ordeal, but I gave myself a break due to conditions and settled in my seat.

After an uneventful three hour ride to Guatemala City, we arrived at the TICA Bus office and had about an hour before departure. I saw an ATM machine right outside of a Subway restaurant, so I did a one-stop-shop for a few Quetzales and a sandwich. The ride to the next border between Guatemala and El Salvador was another uneventful three hours and -- by comparison to the first one -- the crossing was mild bordering on pleasant. Our papers were checked by “The Man” who came on the bus, then we all got off to supervise the inspection of our luggage. Money changers were on hand and -- because El Salvador uses actual US dollars -- it was a good place to get rid of my few Quetzales and the Pesos I had left over from Mexico. So, using the ever-present calculator, I negotiated a pretty good rate and pocketed bucks. With the remaining time before our departure, I bought a bottle of water and some kind of cookies from a pleasant older woman then just enjoyed the scene: Officials doing their routine, people changing money, boys shining shoes, girls selling food, little children asking for coins and dogs begging for food. Perfect.

In due course, we loaded up and drove the remaining three hours to San Salvador, arriving at about 7pm. I reserved my seat for the next leg and got a cab to the Holiday Inn where I was greeted -- in English! -- and checked in. I had some dinner and felt pretty exhausted from the long and amazing day, so I crashed for solid eight hour sleep. Yesterday, I had a lengthy “other work” Skype call, did some website updates, treated myself to a massage and generally took it easy. Today I have been on-line talking with friends and family, sorting out my gear and preparing to move on in the morning. I realize that I haven’t done any “exploration” here, but I’m not bothered about it. My hotel is located pretty far from “downtown” and I’m not really motivated to make a “fly by.” I’m happy to have the chance to recharge my batteries -- figuratively and literally -- and get myself ready for Phase Two! Stay tuned!

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