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Anatomy of a Border Crossing

There are these lines drawn on maps, by humans, that tell us where one country ends and another begins. Often, the lines are drawn along natural barriers, like rivers or mountain ridges. Sometimes, they seem totally arbitrary, and can even be unnaturally straight. They can mark a real difference between people with different languages and cultures, or they can split those communities up. Many wars have been fought, many lives lost, deciding exactly where to draw borders. Countries build walls and fences and station their armies along borders to defend them from other people and countries.

When traveling like we are, you have to cross a lot of borders. It's exciting to enter into new countries I've never been to before, but it can be a very strange and intimidating experience, really. The military of each country sits on either side, prepared to defend their territory. All the roads, rivers and ports where you can enter a country have checkpoints you must go through, called Immigration and Customs, often with long lines. Borders almost always have people wanting to change your money for you (from whatever kind they use in the last country to the kind they use in the new country). They give you a little less than your money is worth, and that is how they make their money while helping you. I think it's technically illegal in most places, but it seems to be open and accepted.

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Have bike, have umbrella, ready to roll!
I crossed from Honduras into Nicaragua alone, for example. The Honduran bus took me as far as the border town Guasaule where there was a huge, colorful market of fruits and vegetables. Dozens of bike carts with colorful umbrellas swarmed the bus, and a young boy for 11 lempiras offered me a ride across the border (less than one dollar in Honduran currency). Can you imagine my huge pack, my heavy computer bag, and me, all on the front of a one-speed bike pedaled by twelve-year old Alfredo?!?

Bikes appear from everywhere when a bus arrives!
First stop was on the Honduran side. Before I even got out of the cart, young men waving huge stacks of cash surrounded me-Honduran Lempiras, Nicaraguan Cordobas, and US dollars. In the other hand, they waved calculators. "Ahora no. Mas tarde." I said, pushing past them. I left my pack on the cart, under the careful watch of Alfredo, and went up to the line for the "Migracion" window. It was early in the morning still, and the border wasn't busy, so a few of the moneychangers showed me where to go and waited with me in line. (Sometimes it helps to be a woman travelling alone, people are curious about me and want to help me out and make sure I'm ok.)

What would they do if I didn't pay before leaving?
Like many of the countries in Central America, Honduras charges both an entrance and exit tax. It seems a bit strange to have to pay to enter a country, and even weirder to have to pay to leave. I wonder what they would do if I couldn't or wouldn't pay. Would I have to stay? I decided that wasn't the time to figure it out, and I had a bunch of Honduran currency left, anyway, so I paid 20 lempira and got my exit stamp in my passport, right next to the entrance stamp which I'd paid two dollars for when I crossed in from El Salvador.

Alfredo, the man of the iron legs!
Back on the bike, Alfredo took off, heading towards the bridge over the dried up riverbed-one of the few bridges that survived Hurricane Mitch. That's when I started to feel bad-he had to pedal a few hundred pounds of added Odyssey weight uphill. He puffed and panted, passed by other bike carts with less stuff, and finally made it to the top. Then I felt a little scared. Going up was difficult, but going down the Nicaraguan side was exhilarating. What if he has to stop? There is no way his brakes would work with all this weight!

We coasted to a stop in front of the Nicaraguan customs office, again greeted by moneychangers. Alfredo waited while I filled out my immigration paperwork, paid my $5 US for a "tourist visa" and paid another $2 for something else-it never really made a lot of sense to me, but what could I do? My passport was stamped with an entrance to Nicaragua, and we were on the way again. We passed the customs office, where all the trucks were being inspected, but no one looked in my bags this time. Another 3 kilometers or so down the road we crossed out of the military zone, and I was left in a huge, dusty parking lot where busses stop, lined by thatched palm-roofed huts where all sorts of greasy food was sold. From there, busses would take me to Chinandega, a big commercial center where I could catch a bus to anywhere in Nicaragua.

We'll get there someday... maybe?
That was a pretty easy border crossing, at a secondary road less used. Sometimes we wait in line for hours (see the pictures of Kavitha and me waiting in line to cross into Costa Rica). At times they check all through my bags, or make me leave behind whatever fruit I might be carrying, in order to control the spread of insects or fungi that harm plants. Sometimes I have to pay even more! But my passport is getting colorful, my map tattered, and I still get excited every time I cross one of these lines. Wouldn't you?

Want to know just how much your money is worth in these different countries! Check out this website!


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