Queues can take a few hours on certain border crossings, especially on the notorious Honduras to Nicaragua frontier, so you have to get creative. The first time I went through, clearing just the Nicaraguan side took us over two hours. A sloth smoking a joint would have moved quicker than that queue. Therefore I started devising schemes to get the group across more efficiently in future.
Two months later we had to go through the same border, so I pitched my best idea to our driver, and we went for it. We arrived at the migration offices, where a lengthy line had already formed, and we both acted as if we were in a huge hurry. We jumped to the front of the queue, shouting “We’re press!” to anyone who would listen, loudly claiming that we represented a group of important international journalists working on a documentary for the BBC in Nicaragua. It worked beautifully. Plus we didn’t even have to pay a tip!
Next time I fancy being a group of important international film producers. Efficiency rules.
Bus timetables can be challenging to figure out in some countries. The public buses in Nicaragua, for example, don’t have set departure times and therefore the departures are not written down. Generally speaking there’s a chickenbus every hour-ish on most routes (although the ‘ish’ in Latin America can be elongated to a few hours). It’s a case of having to go down to the station in person and asking around. The following is an example of a common conversation down at the station:
Me: “What time does the first bus go tomorrow?”
Local: “When it leaves.”
Me: “…Right. And what time is that?”
Local: “[Waves hand] Oh, after it arrives!”
This example highlights the endearing ‘Mañana’ culture, similar to the Irish philosophy of ‘It’ll be grand’. And it was grand, we got the 8am bus the next morning – proof that Latin American logic works.
To celebrate our Irish holiday on the 17th of March this year I searched around León in Nicaragua looking for decorations. In vain, as it turned out.
The majority of shop owners had not even heard of my country’s patron saint, let alone the country of Ireland itself. I tried to explain the concept of everyone dressing in green for the day (I temporarily left out the drinking aspect) but it was a waste of my efforts. I gave up after the fifth attempt when the man behind the counter replied: “Ireland? I thought that was part of England, no?”. Oh well.
In the end myself and the tour group painted the town green. They’ll know about Patrick’s Day in León next year anyway! We got to Granada the next day on the 18th where ironically there is an Irish bar, O’Shea’s, run by a former farmer from North Dublin. So we could celebrate properly even if it was a day late. Thank Guinness for that.
Immigration officials can accept monetary tips for a more efficient service in certain Central American countries. Tipping creates a bidding war in border queues. Back in April on the Honduras to Nicaragua border my group’s passports were processed first, despite me being third in the queue, because I outbid my competitors ahead of me. It’s part of the dark arts of tour leading.
However other countries forbid this kind of incentive. A few weeks after that issue I had a problem on the Costa Rica to Panama border as a client did not have the necessary entry stamp into Costa Rica. Negotiation on borders, in Spanish, can be challenging, but I knew I couldn’t ‘tip’ Mr Immigration in Costa Rica, or else I’d probably end up in a cell. After much arguing (read pleading) we eventually all got through fine. You never stop learning in this job.
Back in February I was published in the ‘Generation Emigration’ section of ‘The Irish Times’ featuring my work as a tour leader in Central America, a region many people back home wouldn’t know a lot about. I saw the results of an online poll that showed 42% of respondents thought Nicaragua was located in Africa. Mad.
I hoped the article would inspire people to travel to these countries that seem a world away. It seems to have had at least one success anyway. A Roscommon man on tour recently told me he decided to travel to Central America after reading my article back then. Plus he happened to get me as tour leader. Such a small world!