Pan Am Double Delayed at Border for 8 Hours
Location: Santo Domingo Zapataque, Mexico to El Carmen, Guatemala Border
Distance: 250 miles
A short distance from the Guatemalan border an army vehicle stops me and six soldiers get out, all ordered to search my bike and have me hand over my paperwork. Without saying anything they search the open pannier when the man I presume is in charge asks me if I am carrying drugs or guns. Do I have mariajna in my pocket, did I know that there are men around here with guns and masks and that it is dangerous to be here? They leave me alone and I ride on to the border.
Now I am waiting at the Guatemalan border post at Cuidad Hidalgo having exited Mexico. The guys are round me like flies, wanting money to help. Not that it’s a complicated process, but I know what I am doing and they are impossible to shake off. I have the Mexican stamp in my passport and retain the permission to return any number of times in the next six months. At the Guatemala side the aduana are telling me I cannot continue, that I must return to the border post from where I originally entered the country. This is a shock and I don’t understand but have to comply. So I ride the 30 kilometres back to Talisman on the Mexican side, exit Mexico once again and ride into the frontier area to start the process of entering Guatemala for a second time.
The answer is a straight no, I cannot enter Guatemala. I have to be calm. A junior manager called Pablo is introduced to me, he speaks some English and starts to explain that because my vehicle import document has expired it cannot be renewed until a 90 day moratorium matures, which prohibits the re-entry of the same vehicle in the same country until after this time. When I was last here only 2 weeks ago I did tell the aduana that I would be returning but did not specifically ask if I needed a full or temporary cancellation of my vehicle import document. It is not something I would have thought about as no other country has imposed this law upon me. Also, what is worrying, I have never needed to return so soon to the same country. Will this happen again? Every other country except for Guatemala allows you to return on a temporary basis as long as you agree to eventually export the vehicle with you as a personal possession.
I now wait in the same corridor I sat a few weeks ago having led my riders from Ushuaia to here. I suddenly face the prospect of riding east across the Yucatan Peninsula to Belize to try to get a boat to northern Nicaragua. I’m not sure there is a regular service and it would add two weeks to the record schedule. Or, I ride back to Salt Lake, fly home and start again in August.
I am suddenly exhausted and want to sleep. Central America is a corridor of paperwork and well-meaning people, one a titanic amount of forgettable copy, the other a bewildering struggle to make sense of a system that cannot easily change.
Minutes turn into portions of an hour, a thunderstorm bangs and rattles. I think back to the morning. I rose at 4am and left the hotel at 5am. The sun was up and the wind was cool. I think then about losing the pannier lid, ordinarily minor but it exposes my baggage to the weather and the box cannot be secured. On the top of the pannier lid was strapped my outer waterproof part of my Touratech Campanero suit. Losing the jacket means I am not waterproof.
I have had to become aspergic about the detail of the project. Everything must remain the same. I must touch my documents in order and then look at them again, ride a few hundred metres and do it all again. I stopped early last night, 140 miles short of Tapachula. A ridiculous sense of guilt does not address free-time well but as an emotion it has become essential if you want to move fast.
I didn't want to leave – more guilt - I wanted to talk to the banana man delivering his fruit. Then I wanted a long breakfast in the restaurant across the way. There, a young woman was hosing down the tiled floor as a little girl ran around her legs. I remember how the rumbling noise of occasional trucks was broken by birdsong and the pull of staying there became nearly to hard to break free.
I put 250mls of oil into the bike and set off. This bike is so tight. I never had reservations, just didn't know of what it was capable. It is more than tight; it is taut, like a piano string. It is a thoroughbred of a bike dressed in quiet clothing. It has a sense of understatement, as if to say, 'can I really do this?' but my God it can. My understanding of what this machine can do has been up-ended by the experience it has given me. It is superb. It will be a world beater.
Up the road I stopped to gas up and enjoyed a coffee at the Italian Coffee Company. This is a rare but daily treat. I knew then that today is the day when I have many frontiers to cross and will arrive in Honduras at night. I therefore write for a few minutes before the day consumes me.
In that little hotel, that quiet sweet place with it’s sandy coloured façade edged in green, I was lonely, not for people, just a sense of gentleness that speed castrates. Life on the road has a rawness that traveling quickly magnifies. Perhaps in the way spilt petrol in a hot sun vapourises, moving fast could be considered like such an accelerant. Yesterday has already disappeared.
Creeping up on me is the gradual realisation that today is possibly the halfway mark of the journey south. I am on an 18 day schedule and wonder if this can be maintained?
Through the window the hills are hazy and the tips of nearby trees flutter in a warming breeze. I recognise that it is vital to get to the south with the record in the bag but the real greatness lies in the journey north.
The ‘90 day rule’ is potentially disastrous for me, and has shaken my confidence. Leaving Guatemala will be the test. The officials there will have a clear view on the effectiveness of my applying for transit permits across Central America.
Still I wait and more paperwork shuffles about. I sign typed letters allowing me special permission to overcome the previous block on the system. It is now dark. I ask one of the customs girls which parts of my night route she considers safe. Guatemala has a ruthless reputation for those who dare to travel in the dark. I asked about bandits and she said that there was only a short section near Escuintla where the trees come down to a narrow section of road. Is it here where masked men force people like me off the road with guns?
It was a poorly conceived idea to suggest that I enjoy this. There is some perversity in challenging the elements and deciphering what looks like random traffic patterns, but riding down that corridor of trees would be like a mountaineer on a sheer face grabbing a handhold, knowing it will not hold his weight.
Outside, a curly haired man holds a broken coke bottle and a bag, which I think is full of rubbish. Beside him is a little fawn dog. He talks to me in a growling type if language spotted with barely recognizable English words. I hear him having lived in Manhatton and the Bronx and while he looks like his adventures go no further than the nearest bin, I could be misjudging him.
It is 19.30 and I have been here for six hours. My driving license is returned and all I wait for is the registration document of the bike, my passport and the transit support documents. I think I have lost a day. Perhaps as I ride across El Salvador it will become clear how to claw back this miserable waste of time.
As I sat waiting for the main manager to decide my fate I remembered the start of today. The birdsong made me almost giddy with calm. I couldn't see them warbling because they were small and probably hid on branches atthe top of the tree, but as a sound they competed beautifully with the other raging noises competing for our attention.
Here at the border, I am still waiting.