Crazy Roads, Machistos, and Riding through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras

Honduras

A white pickup passed on the highway, a man hanging out the window talking at me, gesturing wildly, as if it were reasonable to think I could hear him. I sighed. Now I’d have to stop and check the bike to be absolutely certain nothing was wrong. I slowed the bike down and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. 

It was early morning and I was leaving Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. The highway was the nicest I’d seen in weeks, I didn’t have to dodge potholes or packs of dogs, just smooth 70 mph riding across mountain roads. There were even clear lines separating traffic, and though people drove wildly and fast, it felt so organized compared to the last few weeks riding in El Salvador and Guatemala. I walked around my parked bike, and of course, there was nothing the matter. What a waste of time, he just wanted attention, I thought. 

I hopped back on the bike and took off. A little ways ahead, traffic lights lit the road in front, cars and trucks alike spread across the highway. What now, I thought. Then, horror bloomed in my stomach, and coldly spread outward through my arms. A twisted thing lay on the the roadway like a fallen bird, unrecognizable though I knew what it was immediately— a motorcycle. 

A crowd of people swarmed the fallen bike, a bloody man being helped to the side of the road, another human picking up a hemet and gloves that lay in front of the bike. It could have been a dog or person running across the road, or more likely a driver not paying attention, like the truck that had just passed me. It could have been oil, slick on the road surface, or a mechanical issue, or one of the thousands of little dangerous things that cause a motorcycle to go down. There was no reason to think it, but I couldn’t help but feel if I hadn’t stopped to check my bike, that person would have been me. It would have been my bike lying there.

***

El Salvador

I rode across the bridge into El Salvador, and when it ended there was an empty bit of road with buildings to the left down a hill, and a little stand to my right—  men in military uniforms and guns milling around. There were no clear signs I could see, and I sat there for a minute on my motorcycle. No one paid me any attention. I decided to ride down the hill to the left in front of one of the buildings and see if I could find the immigration building.

As soon as I starting riding, the few military men who had taken no interest in me before— the only person at the border crossing— all of a sudden were very interested in where I was going. I got off the bike in front of one of the buildings, and one of the men starting walking down the hill toward me. He started talking in rapid Spanish, so fast I couldn’t understand him, his face twisted into an unpleasant, arrogant leer. He jabbed a finger into my shoulder, pushing me back. I side-stepped his hand, gave him the blankest, deadest stare I could, and looking directly into his eyes asked him “where is the immigration building?” over, and over, and over in Spanish until he stopped talking and grudgingly pointed up to the top of the hill. I turned around and rode back. This is going to be a problem, I thought. I never liked to forcibly assert myself, I generally think people who behave in arrogant ways are better left ignored, but this was a border crossing and for some people, namely aggressive men in uniform, power is all they understand. To be powerful you have to act like it. 

I pulled up to a space behind a truck, with plenty of room for me to turn around on the bike. An unpleasant looking man with a clipboard kept gesturing for me to move forward, needlessly. There was plenty of room, and by moving forward I’d be wedged in between a truck, not able to back up on my bike. Trying to be peaceable, I moved forward anyway, hoping to start the process as amicably as possible so I could quickly get my temporary vehicle import permit and leave. Roughly 5 people sat in the row of chairs outside the small guard shack on the hill. The man with the clipboard came up and asked to see my Guatemalan papers. Weird, I thought, but okay. I handed over the papers.

“This paper is a copy,” he said, holding one of the Guatemalan documents.

“What does it matter? This is El Salvador, those are for Guatemala.” He kept insisting it was a copy. One of the military guys came over and tried to help facilitate.

“He says you need the original copy for this,” he told me in English.

“Yes, I understand, but that’s all I have, and we’re in El Salvador.”

“You need to go back to Guatemala and get an import permit.”

“Why would I go back to Guatemala, we’re in El Salvador.” I said slowly. I didn’t know why I had to keep stressing this point. Minutes before, I had canceled my temporary import permit and left Guatemala, I certainly wasn’t going back. All of a sudden he turns over the paper and says everything is fine, because the paper was the original and wasn’t, in fact, a copy. 

I stopped asking why. It became clear they had no idea what they were doing, and they were using Guatemalan documents for their own purposes. Twenty minutes later, one of the younger military guys came up to the guy I was chatting with (who told me he was a sergeant) and handed him a paper.

“You need to fill this out,” the sergeant told me. It asked for my address, names, and a ridiculously specific amount of information about my motorcycle like the number of cylinders and if it ran on gasoline.

As I filled out the paper, I noticed a prostitute sitting on a bench outside one of the buildings at the base of the hill— the sergeant waved to her.  A few minutes later, he meandered up to me, “We go to lunch! What do you take?” I told him I was fine, and he wrote his name on a card with his number, and loudly told me to call if I needed help with anything. He walked into the street with a group of the younger military guys, “Call if you need anything— anything!” he stressed, opening his arms wide, making sure everyone in the vicinity heard him. I inwardly rolled my eyes. It was ridiculous, this kind of posturing, to make it seem like we had some sort of understanding in front of a group of men. It happened frequently, especially in places with a strong machisto culture, like the United States or Belize— and now, El Salvador. The border had an unpleasant, arrogant feel to it— a negative, bullying vibe, and I didn’t like it.

An hour later, I was still waiting, as were the same 5 people sitting there. No one moved, everyone was just hanging around the compound. I went up to another guy sitting at the booth, the unpleasant clipboard man was nowhere to be found. I asked him where my papers were, and found out they were with the other clipboard guy. I chatted with the family sitting there, and they told me they had been sitting there for 3 hours and didn’t know what was happening. 

I don’t mind waiting— I understand different countries operate in different ways, and I don’t subscribe to the predominately Western, wealthy behavior of becoming impatient with anything that delays personal plans and causes the slightest inconvenience. However, bullying and arrogance is something different entirely, and I decided to investigate instead of waiting around. 

I grabbed my helmet in one hand, and tank bag in the other, and walked down the hill into the buildings. They were completely empty save two men behind a counter. “Where are my papers. The man at the gate had them, and I don’t see him here. What is the problem and where are they.” One of the men started chatting with me in English, telling me to look for the guy in the other room. I walked next door, no one was there. I walked outside, and asked the guard. “Where are my papers.” He got on his walkie talkie, and then the man from the other room approached.

“They have your papers at the gate,” he said. “They’re waiting.”

“Waiting for what.”

“There’s only one guy here, at the desk, and he’s at lunch.”

“I have been here for hours in the heat, there’s a family that’s been here for 3 hours, and nothing is happening because one man is at lunch? Enserio? I want lunch, everyone waiting wants lunch— but I’m waiting, here, for my papers.”

He looked sheepish. “You can go to lunch,” he offered timidly. I looked around. Guatemala was one one side, El Salvador was on the other, and there was nothing in between at the border crossing. A woman was walking around delivering lunch to the men working at the hut on top of the hill, while everyone else sat. 

My jacket was soaked with sweat in the heat, and I noticed in the buildings there was air conditioning, yet, they were forcing everyone to wait outside on top of the hill while the men working flitted in and out of the buildings. Even in the little hut at the top of the hill had an air conditioning unit. 

I walked back up the hill to my motorcycle. I pulled my plastic food bag from underneath the cargo net and sat it on the seat of the bike. My metal spork was deep within my saddlebag, so I made one peanut butter sandwich after another, scooping the peanut butter out of the jar with my finger, smearing it across the bread like a drifter, licking my fingers shamelessly like the dirty American on a motorcycle I was— gobbling the sandwiches down. If I was going to have to wait, I wasn’t going to do it hungry and I didn’t give a shit at that point if I did it with manners or not.

Everyone sitting in the seats in front of the small guard shack, and the guards themselves, watched me. They watched me walk down the hill and back up, and watched my conversations with the guards and the guy with the clipboard. I was a foreign blonde woman at the border crossing, and I knew how rare it was to see a woman traveling alone on a motorbike. “Quieres uno!? Tengo crema de mani!” (Want one? I have peanut butter?) I waved the bread bag in the air.

A guard walked up to me a few minutes later, trying to pacify the situation after being radioed by one of the guards below, asking where my papers were. “15 minutes, just 15 minutes,” he held his hands up.

And, before I could help it, “My bones will be here before the papers are,” I said slowly, and immediately felt a little ashamed. The family sitting in the chairs looked slightly horrified, but the little girl giggled.

A few minutes later one guy wanted my original passport and title for my bike (I didn’t let him out of my sight until he returned them) and to inspect my motorcycle. I waited for another guy to type up the information. Every few minutes I would walk up to the guard hut to ask— Where are my papers? Where are my papers? until they got sick of me and finally handed them over. 3 hours of waiting at an empty border for an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper with some information about my motorcycle. I hopped on my bike and rode 10 feet away to another checkpoint. 

The man at the gate asked me a bunch of questions about where I had entered Central America and what was I doing there. He asked to see my passport, as if the previous multiple times I had shown my passport, and the multiple copies I had given them, and the permit I had finally gotten wasn’t enough. He didn’t even ask how long I would be in El Salvador, no one did. There wasn’t even a space for that on the form. It was a facsimile of a border crossing, it was all showmanship, and chaos, and posturing, and it may me nervous for what I would find in El Salvador. 

El Salvador Border

***

El Salvador

I spent one night in Juayua, a small town near the border under the shadow of Volcano Santa Ana. I ran into a guy I had met at a hostel in Guatemala City at the market, ate my first vegetarian Pupusas, a thick tortilla filled with cheese and veggies, and explored El Churros or Siete Cascadas, a famous park in the region for waterfalls. 

I rode to Santa Ana and, along the way, started racing behind another motorcyclist who passed me at one point. We screamed along the mountain roads, passing through small towns, around and around mountains, and right outside Santa Ana we stopped to chat on the side of the road. He was a nice older El Salvadorian man, who couldn’t get over the fact that I was traveling alone, but more-so that I was such an aggressive driver. 

“Wow, when I passed you I was like, wow here’s this girl riding a motorcycle, and when I sped up you were right there behind me!” he exclaimed.

We rode together to my hostel, and chatted in the common room for an hour about his family, the United States, and El Salvador, but mostly about motorcycles. His name was Antonio, and he worked for a technology company in the region and rode his motorcycle to see clients.

When Antonio left, Alex, a younger guy working at the hostel showed me around. In the TV room, he paused for a moment. “Your hair, wow, and your eyes, you’re so beautiful,” he gushed. 

It’s both a nice and incredibly stressful thing to be so visible on the road. In many respects, it’s made traveling significantly safer for me— being so visible makes me visible on the road, which is one of the more dangerous aspects about riding a motorcycle (even though I constantly deal with people shouting at me on my bike, which is distracting). At any checkpoint I never have to wait, people are constantly trying to help. Crossing the border into Honduras, one of the border guards walked to the front of the line and took care of all my paperwork, I didn’t even have to wait in the line.

One of my least favorite things is to drive up behind a truck full of people, because it’s so unusual to see a foreign woman riding alone on a bike, everyone watches me. And when I inevitably pass, if it’s a group of men, they’ll shout and cheer and whistle. It’s not possible for me to walk down the street unnoticed— I’m constantly shouted at and heckled, and not in a nice way, by strange men. 

In the US when I first started the trip, I would stop for breaks at gas stations, and one man approached me. “You know how to handle that?” he asked, referring to my motorcycle. Another time, “You’re going to get yourself killed.” I’ve stopped posting stories on my personal Facebook account, because inevitably there’s some guy who wants to give me riding tips (always the assumption they, and not I, are the more experienced rider, as I log thousands of miles through the Americas). Usually, I ignore these types of comments, remembering the good and leaving the bad— but it’s hard. The adventure itself is exhausting, riding for a hours a day through strange countries, border crossings, and terrible roads— but then as a reasonably attractive solo female rider, I also have to navigate the endless onslaught of social issues— relentless catcalling and gender stereotypes.

On the road

At Los Churros

The waterfalls in Juayua, El Salvador

***

El Cuco

The sea stretched for miles into the distance, and I was part of it, my feet in the shallows. Perfect barrel waves crashed in the distance, the water deserted save a few swimmers down the beach. I held my surfboard over my head, staring into the distance. I loved to surf— it was one of the few things that brought me pure, undiluted joy. I loved paddling out, jumping up on the board, the soothing crash of the water around me, the sun on my back.

I had decided to take the weekend off at a place called La Tortuga Verde, a lodge on the coast of El Salvador. I had met so many amazing people during the week— Kevin, a South African who had volunteered at an animal shelter in Antigua, Guatemala, who I met in El Tunco; the staff at Somos Hostel in Antigua who helped me carry my bike inside the hostel for the night and out again in the morning; an Austrian guy who I ran into several times at different hostels and we chatted about agribusiness and poverty in Central America; the receptionist at El Hostel in Antigua who grabbed me a mojito and gave me her lunch of black beans and homemade tortillas. 

In Tortuga Verde I met Agus Tin, a musician staying in the same dorm room who was a feminist, surfer, hippie, and all around awesome guy from Buenos Aires. We hung out and chatted over the weekend about the soybean takeover of Argentina and social norms in different cultures around the world. He played at the hostel Saturday night, and once again I was blown away by how many amazing people I had met.

Some things you conquer alone— you summon inner will to do seemingly crazy things, you spur yourself on. It seemed like the craziest thing, riding my motorcycle hours a day, across borders over unfamiliar roads, dodging potholes and going through military checkpoints, sometimes cars almost clipping me at 50 miles an hour. 

But for some things you need the support of others to conquer. This week, through all the crazy experiences, crossing borders and surfing, grabbing a cocktail and seeing a wreck, almost being hit and driving across insane roads, seeing spectacular beauty and extreme poverty, I felt supported by people I didn’t know at all. People who made me feel less alone through a collective need to keep going, people driven by the need to create and have experiences, people chasing things and finding them. Ultimately, that’s all any of us can do. We ride across unknown roads, we look for things that drive us and people who change us, and only when we get to a checkpoint can we see who we’ve become. 

One of the resident pelicans at Tortuga Verde

El Hostel in Antigua

The waves in El Tunco

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