The itinerary for the return to Mexico turned out to be like this: Day 1: drive across Panama to David. 2: on to San Jose (Costa Rica). Day 3: Granada (Nicaragua). 4: Comayagua (Honduras). 5: Rio Hondo (Guatemala). 6: Quetzaltenango (Guatemala). 6: Tetanatepec (Mexico). The rest of the trip through Mexico we undertook at a more leisurely pace, even pausing to admire one or two tourist attractions.
That's about 250 miles per day. Doesn't sound too gruelling, does it? In fact, some of you U.S. readers (hi Charles K) are probably wondering why it wasn't done in two days. However, there are a number of complications, including five border crossings (say ten (stressful) hours), about ten police stops (more stress), and a few "road quality issues". This last group included not only such foreseeable excitement as pot holes, dirt roads, slow lorries, breakdowns, but also a few novelties such as missing bridges, overloaded runaway vehicles, and corrupt policemen. What follows are a few incidents of such...
Bribing policemen. The theory about traffic offences is pretty clear. If you get caught, you and the cop go to a police station, where you pay the fine appropriate to your sin. The reality is also pretty clear: you negotiate a smaller, receipt-free fine to be paid on the spot. The size of this fine is dependent upon three factors: how big the real fine was, how good you are at negotiating, and whether or not you did actually commit the offense in question. Three examples follow.
First, David in Panama City. Drives the wrong way up a one way street (no signs, but nevertheless a pretty clear offense). The real fine is $30: eventually paid $10, after bargaining him down from $20. One amusing highlight of this episode was that he wanted me to put the money in my passport, then hand it to him, so he could walk to a shady spot to remove the money, in case he was being observed. His high-speed Spanish explanation of this was too much for my command of the language, so he eventually resorted to telling me very slowly and loudly to put the money inside the passport!
Second, Jan on the open road in Honduras. Carrying a travel permit to go from frontier A to frontier B in four days, and driving (on day 2) along a road a long way from the most direct route. There is no real fine: we're not actually breaking a law, just being in a surprising place. Jan goes into major stroppy mode, demands receipts, complains about her (imaginary) hotel reservation just up the road, and eventually the guy throws in the towel and lets us leave.
Third, a guy we met got stopped once for having headlights on during the day (not allowed in Honduras). Policeman asked for $10, he offered $2, and eventually they settled on $10, but the policeman had to give him his hat!!! Anything is possible.
Disappearing bridges. All her life, Jan has been a careful driver. She doesn't like going fast around bends or over humps or in the dark, largely "in case the road suddenly ends". It now turns out that this isn't just paranoia, but rather some deep-seated racial memory of Honduran road conditions.
Three examples. First, we're driving along, we see a signpost to the left saying "diversion". We ignore this, as the road ahead looks good, and there are an awful lot of signposts in Central America that refer to long changed states of affairs (computer programmers will recognise the parallels with most comments in code). A bit later we round a corner in the next village, and there's a snackstand in the middle of the road! This is not as unreasonable as it first appears, because behind the snack bar is where the bridge used to be! Now there's just a thirty foot drop. We go back to the diversion, which eventually leads to where a new bridge is being built over the same river. We join the back of a queue of half a dozen vehicles. After a while we approach one of the other drivers,who explains that they aren't queueing to get across, they've just come to watch! So we drive back to the village, where we are pointed at a dirt track that leads about fifteen miles and most of an hour along the river to an all steel and very rickety one car at a time suspension bridge. And on we go.
Second, following the main highway to the capital city in Honduras, we follow diversion signs and suddenly find ourselves at the edge of a large river, probably fifty metres across. Standing in the river is a six-lane road bridge, which is notable for a couple of features. First, there are no roads leading up to it: It stands fifty sheer feet above the lake with no entrances. Second, it does have huge signs legible from a great distance explaining its name and where it would lead were it actually connected to any roads. Eventually we follow the example of passing juggernauts and drive across the surprisingly shallow river, the exhaust gurling happily the whole way but fortunately nothing actually stopping.
Third, driving along, round a corner, and once again no road. No sign, no warning, just a big heap of gravel and a plunge and around thirty metres to take it all in, stop, and swerve violently onto a dirt track that fords the river. Fortunately Jan was roughly on the case, though it has to be said that David's scream might have alerted her in any case. Exciting stuff.
Overloaded runaway vehicles. Actually, we met hundreds of overloaded vehicles, and just one runaway. The overloading is pretty straightforward: take a standard pickup, maybe add walls around the edge to keep stuff in, or maybe not, and then just fill until the suspension breaks. Then add a few of your friends to sit on top, and set off. Smoke, wobbling, watermelons smashed on the road, but also oddities like a truck full of chairs. Chairs aren't as heavy as watermelons, so to make sure that things are still properly overloaded, you need a lot of string to create a giant ball of chairs much larger than your truck. An alternative is the taxi. In these countries, taxis carry multiple groups of paying passengers at once. An ordinary small saloon with nine adults, eight of whom are wearing large white stetsons, is quite a sight to behold. And in accordance with the international code of taxi driver practice, the car is still driving too fast whenever it can (roughly, whenever it is heading downhill) and threatening loss of life and limb to all other road users.
The overloaded vehicle? A truck full of oranges in front, we're heading past some road works. In true local fashion, the "diversion" is just a dirt track through the road works. Man in front is getting slower and slower at the top of the hill, when it all goes horribly wrong and he's suddenly freewheeling toward us. Into neutral, and backing off, but there's a line of traffic behind, and eventually we manage to hit the guy behind gently and get hit less gently by the car in front. Fortunately this removes a lot of his speed. I say 'fortunately' because the next thing that happens is that his car slips away from ours and moves towards the edge (this, like so many roads in the hills of Central America, features a lot of very definite edge). Eventually it stops halfway over, the body grounded and the two near wheels in mid-air. The driver is curiously reluctant to get out (very curiously, for someone who's about six inches from a several hundred foot fall), but a couple of screaming road workers eventually talk him out. As we left the scene the rescue tow was being organised, but it looked like being a lost cause, as the victim had wheels an usually long way from the middle of the car.
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