We arrived too late to cross over into El Salvador and find a decent place to spend the night. “Don’t drive at night in El Salvador,” we were told. “It’s best to get up early and travel with the caravan.” My husband of two months and I were on our way back to Costa Rica after meeting each other’s relatives in the States during the summer of 1993. He owned a car that he had left at his brother’s house in Tacoma, Washington the summer before, and we planned to drive it down to Costa Rica.
We developed a system between the two of us for handling the border crossings. As soon as we reached a border station, we were immediately surrounded by “agents” who offered to help us with the official transactions required by customs, for a fee, of course. And you had to use an agent because they knew the requirements of their individual country. My husband speaks Spanish fluently and lived in Latin America for years, so he dealt with the agents, handled our passports and car documents and negotiated fees. I stayed with the car to keep our belongings company and practiced Spanish with the children who descended upon us as soon as the “agents” moved out of the way.
Every border crossing, with the exception of Costa Rica, included children asking for candy, money and T-shirts. I didn’t have enough of any of those things to give to all of them so I gave to none of them. At one border I had some cough drops which they happily accepted, then asked again for money and T-shirts. I asked a little boy in Nicaragua why he wasn’t in school, and he told me it was because he had no shoes.
Once we had cleared customs to exit Guatemala, we still needed to go through the whole process again to enter El Salvador. Most border stations closed at five p.m. Although we started the exit process from Guatemala in the middle of the afternoon, by the time we were allowed to enter El Salvador, it was after five and almost dark. We were stuck at the border, along with some twenty other vehicles traveling south through Central America. We all prepared to spend the night in our cars.
There in the confines of the Salvadoran customs area, the group took on a party atmosphere. We were able to walk over to some small shops nearby for food and drink. A small telephone office was crowded with people waiting to notify family and friends of their whereabouts. The only other female traveler kindly informed me that there was a private shower available in the back of the telephone office. “Just take your towel and your shampoo and walk through the office.” I can deal with life’s challenges much better when I feel clean, so off I went. I passed the line of people waiting to make their phone calls and found the small bathroom in the back of the building.
The only problem was – no light switch, at least none I could find in the dim light from the office. But I wanted a shower. I can put up with the discomforts of traveling in the tropics if I can at least rinse the sweat off my body and wash my hair. I decided to forget the light switch and just shower in the dark. This was probably a wise course of action. How often would a bathroom and shower in a telephone office on the border on El Salvador and Guatemala be cleaned? And what else was the room used for? And what creep crawly critters were hanging out in there? I might have skipped the shower altogether if I had seen it in the light.
I don’t remember if the shower had hot water. Probably not, but that is certainly not a necessity in the humid lowlands of Central America. I was clean, or at least reasonably so. Now I was ready to sleep. Our station wagon was full of belongings we were bringing back to our home in Costa Rica. The only place to sleep was in the front seats.
But our little border community wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet. Someone had a guitar, and the singing and partying went on until about eleven p.m. The caravan was set to leave about 5:30 a.m., just at first light. At eleven p.m. sharp, the music stopped and our camp settled down to get what sleep we could.
My husband and I reclined our front seats as far as we were able and resolved to sleep. Neither of us felt as if we slept at all; however, we each woke several times during the night to hear the other one snoring peacefully. Sometime during the night I awoke to hear a dog rooting through the garbage nearby, and shortly before time to get up, I heard one of the men from the guard house relieving himself in the bushes. I kept my eyes shut tight.
At first light, everyone woke, found a bathroom somewhere, and motors started up. After all, we were already dressed and in our cars. Food and coffee would have to wait.
It took us two hours to drive ten miles that morning. The road was not so much a road with pot holes, as a series of craters we were required to navigate, broken here and there by a small intact area of pavement. As the sun came up, I saw the worst poverty I have every witnessed. Children ran around, watching the cars, wearing rags so worn it was impossible to identify the color. We could see through the cracks in the thin boards the made up their dwellings.
This was why it was dangerous to drive at night and alone. If a car broke down, the only help would be other travelers. And since we were forced to drive so slowly, we would be vulnerable to bandits. It looked like a war zone, which was what El Salvador had been during its civil war just a few years before.
It took less than a day to cross El Salvador and enter Honduras. My husband and I took turns driving and sleeping, to make up for the night before.
El Salvador is a beautiful country – emerald green vegetation and volcanoes visible from any location in the country. The road smoothed out after that first rugged ten miles, and the rest of the way was a decent two lane road, at least decent by Central American standards. We knew we were getting closer to home when we entered San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, and saw a Pops ice cream store. Pops is a popular chain in Costa Rica with delicious ice cream. It was a welcome, refreshing sight.