Border bandits

A road trip to attend a priestly ordination is not an occasion traditionally associated with sniffer-dogs pouncing on your luggage looking for drugs. Such was the case when I travelled with three other Jesuit scholastics, studying at El Salvador’s University of Central America, on a recent journey to Honduras and Panama.

While several nations in the north of Central America are joining forces to create a free travel zone, the anomalies, red tape and corruption associated with border crossings in this region still exist. Borders bring out the good, the bad and the ugly in each of these countries where poverty confronts poverty and US dollars confront local currencies and red tape.

The border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica presents the most glaring contrasts. After paying to have our minibus fumigated for bugs, we joined a queue in the tropical heat and waited more than 90 minutes to have our documents processed. Relatively well off Costa Rica seems to be trying hard to temper the flow of poorer Nicaraguans looking for economic respite and jobs.

While waiting we were approached by ‘guides’ offering us the chance to skip the queue and be delivered directly to a border official. My legally-minded Guatemalan brother questioned the man about the legality of his offer. He replied by asking us whether we had families to feed and informed us that he earned roughly US$2 for the odd weary traveller he helps.

In the grey zones between countries some border officials seem to be a law unto themselves. Between Honduras and Nicaragua the immigration office closes for an hour over lunch. We arrived seven minutes before the hour, but the official held our passports behind the counter for a good while before asking whether we wanted to wait until after lunch or pay an inconvenience fee.

We arrived in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua on the day of the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution and the fall of the Somoza dictatorship. Although in the middle of the wet season, residents ignored the humid and thunderous weather to dance and listen to music folklore and speeches harking back to the resistance movement heydays.

Between Costa Rica and Panama we got lost as we searched for the fumigation bay. We finally found an official and he seemed bemused by what looked to him like two gringos with a Guatemalan tour guide and a Panamanian driver.

‘Anyone here speak Spanish?’ he asked, peering curiously through the windows.

‘Yes, we all do’, we replied.

‘And what’s your mission?’ he asked.

‘We’re missionaries’, my Guatemalan brother replied.

In case you’re wondering, we finally made it to the ordination in Panama and, on the way back, to the ordination in Honduras which required us to ditch the bus and board canoes to reach a Garifuna village on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. The ordination was a spirited example of enculturation involving many customs of the Garifunas—descendants of deportees from the West Indies two centuries ago.
After all the festivities we sadly left behind the Caribbean shores of Honduras and headed back to El Salvador to start second semester and to reflect on the realities of doing theology and finding God in the third world. 

 Kent Rosenthal sj is an Australian Jesuit studying in San Salvador.



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