TBT - (1969) "Trouble With Borders - Guatemala & Honduras"

That first overland trip to the Mexican-Guatemala border in '65 was a great learning experience about the relationship between the USA and Latin America. On the Mexican side in Tapachula that trip we met some Americans that had been living in Guatemala for a year - and the news about the country was not good. We found out that after the American CIA overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala 10 years earlier that it was getting very dangerous to drive into this country. (The civil war lasted from 1960 to 1996!).

The second attempt to drive into Guatemala was in December 1969 - on a trip to Honduras. My wife and I had been living in Baja California for most of the year looking into the possibility of doing something in tourism, and now we were on our way to check out the Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras for the same purpose.

In those days I carried a gun in the truck - hidden under the driver's seat. The pistol was wrapped in a rag with a bag of candy and a large brick of cheese in front of it. I figured if any border customs inspector got too nosy under the truck seat I could divert their attention with the goodies. Sure enough - on the Guatemala side of the border crossing I am nervously watching the truck inspection and see a guard looking under the driver's seat. I stepped forward when he pulled out the brick of cheese and told him to keep it as a present. With a big smile he walked away and that ended the inspection of the truck cab. Whew!

But the real border crisis on this trip was caused by the 'Soccer War' six months earlier between Honduras and El Salvador. The war was over, but the paved Pan American Highway through El Salvador to Honduras was still closed to all traffic - diverting vehicular movement up and down Central America around the country of El Salvador and into Honduras through a dirt road in a small Guatemala town called Esquipulas.

Esquipulas is world famous for their cathedral containing the 'Black Christ' - a Christ carved out of black wood in 1594. What it is not so famous for is the very small border crossing station to get into Honduras. When we arrived at the crossing it had been raining hard - with hundreds of cars and trucks waiting in the deep mud to get through the Honduran check point. It was a miserable wet night and total chaos. I got out of our four wheel drive pickup and slogged by foot towards the tiny building that served as both the immigration and customs offices. I had walked about 100 feet up the line when I ran into other American travelers huddling together under a canvas shelter. I asked them how long does it take to get through this bottleneck of a border crossing. They said they had already been there 2 days and hoped the line will move enough to get them through tomorrow!

Oh-oh. We were on a tight schedule - wanting to get back to our families in time for Christmas. Everyday of travel will be one less day to check out the Bay Islands before our return. Fortunately, I recalled some conversations with fellow students at the college I attended in Mexico City in '65 on how to handle difficult situations with Latin officials in creative ways. So I went back to my truck and grabbed my briefcase with the truck paperwork and passports and hung my 35 MM Pentax camera around my neck .

Marching up past the line of waiting vehicles and people, I pushed my way into the small customs/immigration shed. Standing in front of the office secretary I put my briefcase down on her desk and opened it up to take out a note tablet to put in front of her. Then, with one hand resting on my professional looking camera, I proceeded to tell her I was entering Honduras at the request of the Honduran Ministry of Tourism to do a photo shoot to help her country promote tourism again now that the war had ended. BUT - if I suffer anymore delay at this crossing, I need her to write down the names of the officials here in charge.

She immediately entered the immigration office and I could hear some rapid Spanish - then she quickly returned for our passports. In less then 10 minutes she was back with the passports and visas - then she went into the customs office with the truck papers - taking another 5 minutes. In less then 20 minutes I was walking back to the truck with everything in order for the crossing.

As we drove past the line of waiting vehicles and the huddle of Americans under the canvas shelter, one of them came running over through the mud to ask where we were going. With a smile I said: "Across the river and into Honduras". He just stared at us with his mouth open - he did not know what to say.

When crossing borders it is sometimes necessary to be audacious - but never arrogant - and certainly lucky!

And maybe that donation I made at the alter of the Black Christ helped?