The Full Central America-4 Experience: On Being Turned Away at the Border –By Jennifer Shipp
Central America Central America El Salvador Guatemala Honduras Nicaragua

The Full Central America-4 Experience: On Being Turned Away at the Border –By Jennifer Shipp

Lydian and Naing Naing waiting patiently with all our bags in El Salvador for the bus back to Honduras at the immigration office.

My brother sent me an email that the border crossings in Central America could be difficult for us with the changing Trump dynamics with Mexico otherwise I wouldn’t have known about the “problems” there. Our lives are intimately following the so-called “immigration issues” in the U.S.

We aren’t crusading for change. We aren’t trying to change the world. We just want to cross the border with Naing Naing, a Burmese citizen who happens to be our daughter’s husband now. I hear the rhetoric about immigration and immigrants and now that I’ve read a few books about immigration, and experienced the realities of just wanting to cross from here to there and I now know from my own experience that there is no real problem.

These “problems” are a smoke screen; an entertainment for people who have never crossed a land border for any reason other than to go sit on a beach.

I’m at the border. And I’m American, but I’m traveling with a Burmese citizen. And why should I have a right to cross while he doesn’t. What about me, as a human being, makes me special?

It’s not me, I assure you. It’s my passport.

After boarding a shitty Platinum bus at 3:00 AM for six hours on mostly mountain passes that took us through a seedy border crossing in Nicaragua and one relatively friendly border-crossing in Honduras, it was disappointing (crushing, in fact) to be stopped at the El Salvador border. I’ve never traveled a long and difficult distance to a border and been turned away.

At every immigration counter at each border crossing, Naing Naing stood quietly and patiently at as Lydian and I leaned into the holes in the windows to try to hear what the border crossing agents were saying to us. Mostly, Lydian listened and then translated for me and then I responded. She could’ve responded herself, but Lydi and Naing Naing look young (because they are young). So people at immigration don’t take them seriously.

Not being taken seriously inflames Lydian. She gets protective of Naing Naing and abrasive with the border agents and immigration workers almost immediately when they hesitate over the red passport with funny-looking letters on it. Naing Naing has a much more stable diplomatic manner, but he doesn’t speak enough Spanish yet to be of help to Lydian in Latin America. The whole situation is confounding and because of what happened to them in Thailand (where on two occasions, airport attendants did everything in their power to try to prevent them from boarding a plane), they’re both skiddish and uncertain.

Inevitably, as we reached the front of the immigration cue in every country, border agents would call Naing Naing forward to speak to him solo and they’d wave at the rest of us to stand back. So Lydian would step up to the counter very humbly with him and say, “I’m his wife. He doesn’t speak any Spanish.” Of course, the fact that Lydi and Naing Naing are married was always the first surprise but perhaps most shocking here in Central America is the fact that Naing Naing isn’t Mexican since to the people here, he looks Mexican.

After Lydian would unofficially get permission to stand with Naing Naing, I’d quietly step up with her and she and I would start answering questions with modesty and much restraint. John would then step up behind our group and stand slightly to the side. My job was to look super-calm. Like I wasn’t worried at all. As the border guard was turning Naing Naing’s red passport over and over in their hands with a furrowed brow, I’d take several ho-hum stances and even make it a point to yawn. Naing Naing would stand expressionless and very still. John stood over to the side where he could freak out quietly always with a poker face. Lydian stood at attention, eyes wide and fearful, listening carefully for bits of information or commands.

In Nicaragua, they made us pay the exit fee twice (as part of a fun scam). Initially, we left our passports behind at the immigration station with a shady-looking dude behind the glass window with an untucked, unbuttoned but very official-looking shirt. We spent only one and a half nights in Nicaragua and I can say that the climate there was better than in Costa Rica, but there were soldiers everywhere and a big colorful tribute to Hugo Chavez occupied a central location in the city. It seems they’ve taken militancy to a new plateau in terms of art and culture.

Originally, we’d planned to pass through Honduras without stopping, but this wasn’t our destiny.

We had no reason to believe that we’d be turned away in El Salvador. Lydian and I had thoroughly researched El Salvador online and we knew it belonged to the Central America-4 (CA-4) countries. This is a regional agreement between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that was completely irrelevant to me as an American passport holder (because, currently, I can just show up at any of the borders of these countries and get a visa on arrival). According to this agreement, if a person (who is not entitled to a visa-on-arrival should they show up at an airport) gets a visa in one of the above four countries, they can travel to all of the others without having to go through the visa application process. Lydi and I studied these rules and checked in on them again several times to make sure they were still in force. According to a Wikipedia article about the CA-4 countries, this agreement is similar to the Schengen territories and so we expected to move with ease from Nicaragua to Honduras and onward to El Salvador and finally Guatemala.

We’ve been to the Schengen states before and moving between them was so easy that it confused us. But this CA-4 experience was completely different.

The day before we left St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the CA-4 was intact, but I got that ominous email from my brother, Ryan saying that the border crossings might not go as planned.

I chose to stay positive though.

It took a little more than an hour to get through immigration in Nicaragua, but we did it. I knew we were home-free when the immigration agent started telling me how “rich” Nicaraguan food is. He listed off a few items that we all needed to try while we were there and I leaned in and listened with rapt attention, like someone who gives a shit. I gave the man my eyes and my ears. Meanwhile, I knew that we were being watched through mirrored windows and Naing Naing’s passport was still somewhere behind the glass. As the immigration agent detailed the wonders of Nicaraguan food, I laughed heartily and behaved like someone without a care in the world except the hungry wondering of what I might eat later that night.

And then, we were in.

Crickets chirped as we walked to baggage claim where ours a few other bags had been stacked quietly. Ours was probably the last flight for the night. We closed down the place with Naing Naing’s passport.

According to everything we’d read about the CA-4 agreement, we’d be able to go to not only Nicaragua, but also Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala without having to go to a consulate to get a visa for any of these countries. The only stipulation was that we’d have to travel by land to these countries. We couldn’t arrive by air.

So we boarded bus #1 in Managua at 3:00 AM the next day for a 15 hour ride that was supposed to take us all the way to Guatemala City. On that first bus, the attendant stole my favorite red pen and some change (I fought him for these things and finally won because he’d underestimated my Spanish and how loud I can be when I’m wronged in the wee hours of the early morning). Also, my air conditioning vent leaked cold splashes of water into my lap for the first 30 minutes of the trip every time the bus turned a corner until I finally found another seat and moved. Also, it was dirty and the bus looked like it had probably rolled down a mountain at some time in its history.

Six hours into the journey, at the El Salvador border, the whole thing came to a halt. The border agents said that Naing Naing needed to go to the El Salvador consulate in Honduras to get a visa there before they’d let him through the border. As we unloaded our dozen or so bags into the street with rickshaws made out of bicycles upgraded with weathered wood, black plastic, and tape, John looked at Jose, the border guard who’d been sent to give us the bad news, and said, “Is there any other way?” (He was asking about bribes.)

But Jose said with sincerity and regret that no, there was no other way.

So we unloaded our gigantic bags (which contain six months of our lives that span our needs from the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia to the high altitude living in South America, the beaches of the Caribbean and now Central America + wedding gear) and stacked them in the immigration office where we then waited for 4 hours for a bus to arrive that could take us on a  three hour detour to purgatory: Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

The guards were incredibly friendly though in El Salvador and they looked for ways around the problem, but there just weren’t any. So we sat next to the oscillating floor fans on hard plastic chairs and tried to make the most of this Existential Time Out. In between the long lines of tourists and migrants passing through immigration there, we swapped wedding photos with “Jose”, a border agent seated near us and our big pile of bags, as we waited for the bus to Tegucigalpa. He was one of two border agents who really tried to help us solve our problem. (The next day, he sent us a text asking us if we were okay.)

John and I brainstormed on ways around this new road block. A little more research by the El Salvador agents revealed that we needed a visa to get into Guatemala too. By this time we were tired and our creativity was waning.

There was a Guatemalan embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, but we’d never gone through an official process to get a visa for Naing Naing. Up until this point, we’d only passed through visa-free, visa-on-arrival, or transit without visa (TWOV) countries with Naing Naing’s Burmese passport. Frankly, getting an actual visa for Naing Naing scared me. I expected a lot of red tape and resistance. I didn’t want Lydi and Naing Naing to be disappointed by the outcome and have to deal with another load of emotional baggage. So we had some decisions to make.

Around 6:00 PM, the bus to Tegucigalpa arrived and we passed across the Honduran border and got our passports re-stamped. The border agent looked at Naing Naing’s passport with the usual suspicion even though he’d passed through Honduras already just hours before. The agent thumbed through his passport (it has quite a lot of stamps in it at this point, which helps a lot, actually), and then he asked the usual questions:

Where is Burma?

Near China and Thailand.

What is Naing Naing’s last name?

He only has 2 names and then either Lydi or I would point to the last one and say, this is his “apellido” or last name.

Then Naing Naing pushed his fingers onto the little fingerprint reader and stood there quietly. The border agent then looked around and found some other worker who seemed to know something about Myanmar and asked that person what to do with the weird passport. No one wanted to take full responsibility for the mighty responsibility of stamping a passport from an almost unknown country.

Eventually, the passport was stamped and we were on our way. It was not a victorious ending though. Indeed, Lydian and Naing Naing’s appointment at the Mexican consulate was scheduled in Tecun Uman, Guatemala for 9 days later. But we boarded a bus to go backward and off-path to Tegucigalpa.

Lydian and I had tentatively sniffed out a Plan B. The Mexican embassy in Honduras seemed friendly enough about doing the family unity visa when Lydian had called them weeks ago from Ecuador. So it wasn’t impossible for Lydi and Naing Naing to go through the family-unity visa process there. But we’d booked a property in Guatemala City and Lydi and Naing Naing had an appointment for June 19th while the earliest date available to process the visa in Honduras was July 3rd. So Plan B was acceptable, but if we could get to Guatemala, it still seemed like this was our first choice.

We disembarked from the bus all bleary-eyed in Tegucigalpa and found Lydi and Naing Naing a taxi to the hotel. John and I stood on the sidewalk with a bad mood and all our friggin’ bags and waited on a sidewalk for another taxi and complained about having to make another difficult decision. What should we do now?

The heavy decision-making gets old; where everyday there’s another Big Life-Changing Decision to make about something. We’ve all gotten a lot more laid back about things like physical discomfort and time delays, but the constant decision-making and the need to be creative about things related to laws and government is utterly exhausting.

After a little bit of sleep, it occurred to both John and me that we could (maybe) go through Honduras to Guatemala without having to pass through El Salvador. We could (maybe) go to the Guatemalan consulate to try to get a visa for Naing Naing and pop into the Mexican embassy to ask about the family unity visa just to keep our options open. Embassies tend to be located in the same general area of any given city and, as luck would have it, the Mexican embassy and the Guatemalan embassy were within walking distance of each other.

In fact, they were technically within walking distance of our hotel, but everyone warned us not to walk alone in Honduras. We got a lot of mixed messages on that front. It seems that taxi drivers bear the brunt of the criminal activity in Honduras. Gangs will extort the taxi drivers and kill them if they don’t pay up (there are lots of gruesome photos out there to back up those claims). The drivers all told us it was too dangerous to walk anywhere, but by the end of the day, we walked anyway. And the streets were mostly quiet. Like most cities, almost everyone was in a car, so there weren’t any other pedestrians at all in the places we were walking. But the warnings were ubiquitous. Honduras is probably not as safe as it looks, but we played the odds and we were okay.

At the Guatemalan embassy, two quiet, soft-spoken women told us what they needed from us (Naing Naing’s passport, their marriage certificate, and bank statements which could luckily be in Lydian’s name since Naing Naing’s bank statements aren’t currently accessible thanks to the lethargic and unenthusiastic work of Anastasiou, a legal firm in the country of Georgia that has charged us a lot and delivered very little) and what we needed to do to get Naing Naing a visa. They gave us a list and we set to work putting it all together which meant walking back and forth to the bank and then the embassy and then the Office Depot and then back to the embassy again. And then, in an unexpected moment of pure awe, they stamped Naing Naing’s passport even before we’d shown them our round-trip tickets and lodging information.

We all decided that we liked Guatemala already.

So John and I found a bus route that could take us from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and then back down again to Guatemala City across the Honduran border. It was, of course, a 15 hour ride. And we had to board at 5:30 AM. But now it seemed likely that we’d make it to Guatemala and Naing Naing and Lydi’s appointment on the 19th. So no one uttered a word of complaint.

At the Honduran/Guatemalan border, there was an immigration station that had both the Honduran government officials and the Guatemalan government officials working side by side. We had to go to one counter to get “stamped out” of Honduras and then we just took three steps to the right to speak with the Guatemalan immigration worker and get “stamped in” to Guatemala. This was wonderful because the Honduran woman who worked on stamping us out talked directly to the Guatemalan who would stamp us in. She and the Guatemalan immigration official scowled at Naing Naing’s passport together (so we only had to endure that part once). Still, we were the last ones to get through the process.

Again, the bus waited for us.

Crossing the border into Guatemala was a major event for a lot of reasons. It’s the first place we were able to get a 3 month visa for Naing Naing since Ecuador. And it’s close to Mexico both in terms of geography as well as in terms of culture. It’s a place where we can hit the pause button if we have to and stop to think about our next move should Lydi and Naing Naing be denied the family unity visa to go to Mexico.

Six hours later, exhausted from riding through the mountains for most of the day, we arrived in Guatemala City. Our vacation rental owner, Javier picked us up at the bus station.

And now here we are in Guatemala waiting for the big Visa Day (V-Day, I hope). On Tuesday, we’ll take a 5 hour bus or a shuttle from here to Tecun Uman. And then we’ll see what happens…

Related Links: 

Lydian and Naing Naing: In Myanmar

Trying to Enter El Salvador as a Myanmar Citizen

Transit Without Visa in Barbados as a Myanmar Citizen

Transit Without Visa in Spain as a Myanmar Citizen

How to Get a Guatemala Visa as a Myanmar Citizen

Working Toward Yes: Crossing the Most Important Borders

Hoping for Honduras: Planning a Wedding from Outer Space

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