The Shady Arm of the Law:
Today marks the start of my descent south towards San Jose, Costa Rica. I’ve made it through six countries following nothing but the flows of people moving from one place to another. I try to add up the number of chicken buses that I’ve ridden along the way, but it’s impossible to remember them all; all that I know is that my ass and knees are bruised from the onerous trips along the dilapidated highway systems. Holding my phone in my dirt crusted left hand I look at Google Maps with a calculating stare. My flight back to the States leaves from Alajuela on 3 June. I’m sitting in Guatemala City. My schedule is growing short and there is a sense of urgency quickly building. It’s been chaotic three weeks and my body- and mind- really need a few days in a chill beach town so that I can unwind and organize my field notes. To make this happen my best option is to purchase an express ticket with King Quality from Guatemala City to Managua. 15 hours in total and the bus line offers some great accommodations. Fully reclining seats, meals, movies, and assistance with border paperwork. In many ways, the luxury bus lines in Central America offer far more comfort than their more expensive airborn counterparts. As of now, this option sounds refreshing. I don’t think that my body can handle another long ride in the mayhem of the chicken buses.
Day 22 (Jun. 25):
Guatemala City, Guatemala
The ride with King Quality is fantastic. The border crossings pass by quickly as I lay sprawled out in the lavish recliners with blurry eyes watching a surprisingly quality batch of feature films. Eventually, the bus rumbles into the quiet El Salvador/Honduras border crossing; the second of three crossings on the schedule for the day. Our small group waits on the bus for the assistant to relay our documents to the customs agent. During the wait a member of the local police steps aboard to check our passports and ensure that no one is carrying illegal firearms or drugs; a routine procedure on international buses. However, there is something different about this officer. I can see it in his movements; the way he slinks about from traveler to traveler. There is an obvious shadiness about this short, stout officer of the law. One by one he checks the documents of each of the travelers on the bus. I take the time to make the adjustments that I've learned are necessary when dealing with authority figures in Central America. Slowly, I slip my laptop, phone, Ipod, and tablet under the seat behind me. I move my cash out of my wallet and place the bulk of it in my laptop case that is hidden behind me; leaving just a few local dollars clumsily- but purposefully- in my pocket. In due time, the officer is talking to the young Dutchman sitting two seats in front of me, and I am next. Keeping a close eye on the situation, the officer reveals ticks that indicate the presence of shady behavior. A quick, shifty glance over his back shoulder, unnecessary questions, and an aggressive look. Ok, here we go.
The officer approaches my seat he makes sure to step close to me while keeping his back cautiously facing the main entrance of the bus. I hand him my passport and he starts asking questions that are obviously a ploy to buy him time as he figures out how much he can take me for. “Where are you from? Where are you going? How long were you in El Salvador?” Eventually he asks me to open my backpack and he starts groping around in search of items of value, but my early preparations leaves him unsatisfied. “Empty your pockets”, he asks me as he takes a sly glance over his shoulder to ensure that he is the only authority figure on the bus. I fumble around in my pockets ready to pull out the small wad of cash that I planted in my pocket, but as I make my way into the last pocket an urgent call comes in over the officer’s radio. “Galves, we need you on the incoming bus.” The officer jumps to attention, “Ok. Everything is good”, he mumbles to me as he hands me my passport and jolts down the aisle out of the bus. What luck! Like a scene out of a movie, the officer was opportunely stopped short in mid-shakedown by more pressing matters.
I scoot a few rows up to talk to the young Dutchman about his experience with the officer and he explains, “That dodgy officer just pickpocketed me! He only took seven dollars from me. What kind of shit is that?” You have to enjoy the irony here. For roughly a month I’ve been traveling on the shadiest of shady buses- which are notorious for robberies and pickpockets- and not one bad incident has reared its ugly head. But, the one time that I decide to spend the money on the “safe, luxury bus” I encounter the coveted thievery in the form of a police officer. While the situation is slightly maddening, there is a piece of me that is excited to see corruption in action. I need this. It’s all part of my work.
Oliver- the Dutchman- and I continue to talk as the bus gracefully makes its way through El Salvador and into the Managua terminal. I groggily stumble off of the bus and glance down at my watch. Midnight. No accommodations and I need to hit the road early the next morning. I can see the same look of disorder in Oliver’s eyes. We both try to devise an efficient way to spend the night in Managua. The bus terminal is a good option, but unfortunately, this one’s closing. Looking at each other, we come to the conclusion that we can cut our costs by splitting a cheap hotel room. So, here I sit, sharing a hotel room in Managua, Nicaragua with a newly befriended Dutchman- in a completely straight, in need of a place to sleep kind of way. The presence of a near stranger is in no way uncomfortable for me. I am simply looking forward to falling into bed and sleeping until I cannot sleep any longer.