The Visa Run Diaries
What would Che say?
Perspiring at a rate that suggests total disintegration is imminent, the police officer wiped another sweat globule from his a forehead.
“Where are your papers?” he asks.
With nostrils floating in a sea of rubbery flesh, shirt buttons straining against a bloated paunch, the overall impression is one that makes me think back to Mr Ward and his production of Animal Farm in sixth grade where my drama teacher found it difficult to transform human children into convincing representations of authoritarian Orwellian livestock. This guy would have been an absolute inspiration.
“Your papers!’”, he insists again.
Silence. We look at each other with expressions that we hope suggest “innocent tourists harmless and confused in a foreign land,” but it’s a card we’ve been playing for about six or seven minutes now and pig-boy is getting agitated. Itching for a bribe, he and his less mean colleague — the universally prerequisite good-cop — nabbed us as we were traveling helmet-less on our way to find a watering hole.
We’d just entered Nicaragua from Costa Rica and had, evidently prematurely, been reveling in the freedom that being back in “the real Central America” afforded us. Our state of lawless abandon having betrayed us, we were now trying to avoid paying a penalty to the Tweedle-twins estranged third sibling. Even more frustratingly, as we stood defending our honor and our wallets on the dusty pavement, great swaths of the population were passing by entirely helmet-free, flagrantly enjoying the sensation of the wind through their hair and warranting no attention from our diligent crime-fighting duo. Fundamentally, we looked like we had a lot of cash and little idea.
Presumably then, apart from getting hideously mauled in a traffic accident, it is because of situations like this that moms and dads are never going to be thrilled about you riding across five Central American countries on the back of a motorcycle with a cigarette in your hand and a bad man between your legs. Even if, in actual fact, you successfully negotiate brushes with the law, the man between your legs is actually very nice and the logistics of sucking on a cigarette while riding a bike at dangerously fast speeds defeat the intention. Trips such as this one remain something I endeavor to keep under the parental radar.
The purpose of the expedition was basically a visa run. In Guatemala, once you have been in the country for six months, it is compulsory for you to leave in order to renew your visa. Thanks to a rather annoying loophole where four of the Central American countries got together and decided to make life ”easier,” you cannot cross into one of Guate’s immediate neighbors in order to do so. Therefore, when I found out that my two friends, Matt and Chris, were heading down to Costa Rica for an Ultimate Frisbee competition (which is basically Quidditch for people who aren’t wizards), and would be riding back up through Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras with space for a passenger, I seized the opportunity.
My journey down to meet the boys involved a series of buses, a night in San Salvador with the most depressing human being ever to walk the planet (who hailed, conversationally, from Texas and had a face that denied anatomical convention, in a bad way), two road blocks and a rather embarrassing incident where I was asked to unpack my underwear onto the side of a Honduran highway. By the time I arrived in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, I was glad to see the others. We celebrated with hot springs, rope swings and waterfalls.
The next morning I squeezed my ample backside into the not-so-ample space behind Chris on the Yamaha and off we went. We’d only been riding along for about 15 minutes before the following and somewhat alarming question arose: “Where is Matt?”
I could see Chris anxiously searching in the mirror for our fellow rider. I think we were both more concerned as, shortly before, he had been pulling ridiculous wheelies, one of which narrowly avoided being fairly catastrophic, and had prompted me to remark – ever the maternal Nostradamus – that he was getting cocky and this spelled trouble ahead.
After continuing for another mile or so, we turned back, expecting any minute to see the lost adventurer motoring into view. But of our barelegged friend – he only ever drove in shorts – there was no sign, and my stomach was starting to knot. Even taking into consideration potential aerodynamic complications caused by his insistence on wearing a huge black daftpunk-esque hat, he should have appeared by now.
Around the next bend, we spotted something in the long grass at the edge of the road. It was a wheel or, more precisely, the wheel of Matt’s motorcycle; the wheel of Matt’s motorcycle which was now lying upside-down in the ditch. Bloody typical, I found myself thinking, he’s gone and killed himself before we’ve even started. This thought, however, was rapidly replaced by images of trying to retrieve his body.
As I was starting to role-play what I would say to his mother on the phone, thankfully, a disheveled figure emerged from the undergrowth, sporting scrapes and bruises but a wide grin. After making a few repairs to the bike which, at this point, seemed to have escaped without anything more than superficial damage, and with our morning’s near-death experience ringing in our ears, we set off (carefully) for the coast.
Every so often, especially when you travel, you meet people you feel are probably running away from something but, thanks to a process of dramatic geographical location, they have been able to start a new life for themselves, away from their questionable past. Jimmy, with his deep tan, wrinkled torso and young local wife, living out on Western Peninsular had the distinct air of an individual who had escaped prosecution for some fairly major criminal activity. Nevertheless, he was offering the cheapest rooms in the area, as well as small hot plates on his balcony available to guests for cooking. Ideal, as long as you didn’t mind parrots, dog hair, smoke or old Jimmy thinking you wanted to have sex with him.
To give him his due, Jimbo was responsible for directing us to one of the best sunset spots I have probably ever been to in my life. Following his set of drawled instruction, we set off into the beckoning dusk, winding the bikes up a dirt road onto an abandoned headland. The sky out across the ocean was endless and clear, while behind us, mist from an afternoon storm lingered over a cloud forest. On either side the cliffs fell away down to the coast, the glorious light of the evening reflecting shimmering bays and bathing a range of mountains that stretched off into the silence of distant volcanic ranges in a supernatural luminescence.
With all the gold light and general wonderment knocking around, I would not have been surprised to see Aslan emerging from the trees: this was proper Narnia shit. It also proved to be the perfect opportunity for some arty photography involving silhouettes and motorcycles. We posed around for a bit, before being completely consumed by nature’s display of pure majestic brilliance, the hypnotism of pantheistic reflection broken only by Matt and Chris playing “throw a stone at a cup.”
That night, the room smelled like ass-crack. Sweaty clothes getting wet and not drying meant that from this point onwards, not only would we would reek to high heaven but, thanks to muddy tracks and sooty highways, we looked like we’d just enjoyed a shag with a horny band of rogue chimney sweepers. It was also becoming increasingly apparent, as we continued to clock up the mileage, that Matt’s bike had suffered more critically in the wreck than we had initially expected, i.e., things were rapidly starting to fall off it.
As we rolled into Antigua, the ailing machine — already semi-impossible to start, as well as missing a kickstand, hand guards, etc… — became break-less. It really couldn’t have driven another inch. Yet, as my stricken companion gave some chat about logistics of wheeling the thing to a nearby workshop, I stopped listening. I was having a moment. Overwhelmed by a sense of deep satisfaction. I felt like a homecoming explorer. We had survived 10 border crossings, mountain passes, coastal roads and jungle paths. We’d faced the elements and emerged victorious. And, with skin now as weathered as a farmer’s elbow, we certainly looked the part. Perhaps not quite a journey of Guevara proportions, but a Motorcycle Diaries of our own.
Unfortunately, there was a distinct lack of hero’s welcome, the hoards evidently hadn’t gotten the memo on our triumphant return. So we went to get a sandwich. Which tasted like glory.
By Hannah Bowman
About the Author
A restless Brit with big dreams and limited cash flow, Hannah is an English graduate and former Publicist who has spent the past 18 months living and working in Central America. She is currently back in the U.K. seeking the inspiration (and funding) for her next adventure.
Published on November 21, 2011