So I finished volunteering in Honduras. The next stop beckoned, and besides, this country I’d spent the past two months in was becoming increasingly dangerous. Peace Corps volunteers had been beaten and robbed over the last couple of years, two of them killed. Then, one more was shot in the arm during a routine bus robbery, and the director of the Peace Corps, completely fed up, ordered the extraction of all of their volunteers from Honduras.
I took a ferry to Útila, one of the Bay Islands snuggled in the Caribbean, and after four days, earned my scuba certification. I started introducing myself in social settings as “Adam Shepard, certified scuba diver.”
Then I caught the bus for Nicaragua. An oversold bus schedule left me stranded in Tegucigalpa for a three-day layover. Tegucigalpa: the Honduran capital, the pit of the earth and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you ever find yourself mad at your life, fly down to Tegus, that bustling, decrepit place, and you’ll come to appreciate everything you have back home. The people are nice enough, but you’ll have a hard time noticing them over the odious city landscape—the dilapidated buildings almost leaning against one another as they decay, the grimy sidewalks, the pungent market stalls.
Then, to escalate my troubles, as I finally crossed the border from Honduras to Nicaragua, the immigration official at the window frowned and signaled me to a back room. Confused, I followed him back to a cramped office. He preferred to remain standing as he informed me that I’d overstayed my visa by five days. Despite his otherwise aggravated tone, I caught a flicker of sympathy on his face as I stared down the barrel of a very fat fine.
“You understand,” he said with a sigh, a placid demeanor now, frowning down at my passport as if it was just as much at fault as I was, “that this is a very big problem.”
There were no shady side rooms with men wearing latex gloves; he wasn’t going to lock me up in a dank prison cell for the weekend or call in his superiors to give me a shakedown. His tired eyes said he knew I wasn’t deliberately doing anything illegal; he knew my pack wasn’t stuffed with sacks of marijuana. But matter-of-factly, I’d overstayed my welcome. I’d misunderstood the CA-4 alliance among Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and I’d been in the region five days past the allotted ninety.
“Hm. I don’t understand,” I said sincerely, leaning forward and pointing to my passport. I was prepared to pay a fine and any other punishment as long as I could understand what I’d done wrong. “I was in Guatemala for thirty days, and then I came into Honduras. I thought my ninety days started over when I entered Honduras.”
Fidgeting with the shiny badge attached to his breast pocket, he explained the precise legalities of the CA-4 alliance, and I pondered about how the precise legalities of the CA-4 alliance were a bunch of bullshit. But so are all short-term tourist visas. “Get serious!” I wanted to scream. “I’m spending my money here, fine sir! So you want to limit my time and how much money I can spend here? I’m having fun! You want me to take my money elsewhere? Get serious.” I was baffled. I stared out the window at a flat, dry land giving way to rolling hills demanding yet more exploration. I blew a frustrated sigh through my lips. Why do they want me to leave? Do they think I’m going to hang out too long in Central America because I’m illicitly stealing someone’s job?
“I’m an American citizen,” I said, searching for some tactic that would get me out of this dingy back room. “Does that count for something?”
He said, “Buddy, your mom smells like the poo of an African gray parrot, and your dad herds Peruvian goats for a living. I don’t give a turd if you are the most valuable batsman on Sri Lanka’s national cricket team. You have violated the CA-4.” At least that’s what he might have said. I couldn’t be sure. Dozens of Spanish syllables rolled off his tongue at a blistering pace, and I’m best with the slow-motion variety of Spanish.
I told him he had to ease up if we had any chance of sorting this out. Or, at the very least, provide subtitles.
“Well,” I offered. “I’m not sure exactly what to do. I obviously didn’t understand the rule here, and for that I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry. That’s what I said. I’m sorry. As if I’d dribbled mustard from my hot dog over the bleachers’ edge and onto his crisp, clean replica jersey at a soccer game. I’ll pay for the dry cleaning, sir. I’m sorry. This hombre, as affably as possible, was explaining to me that I’d broken international law, and I shot him a little “whoopsy daisy.”
“Yes, I understand that you’re sorry,” he pronounced with authority, “but you have to understand that this is a very big problem.” These security people live to give others a hard time. This is how it is all over the world, of course, but Latinos love being hard on Americans especially, because our visa policies for them are much, much stricter than the CA-4 is for us.
But I’d broken the rules, and this was a problem. “A very big problem,” he kept telling me. I limped along in conversation, steadily: “Well, I do understand that, but I’m not sure exactly what to do here. It appears that my options are limited.” I wasn’t mad or hostile. My tone, though laced with suppressed frustration, came out as calm as I could make it. I knew this wasn’t going to end well for me, but I also knew it wasn’t going to end with me sitting in a cell with a hole as a toilet, fighting for elbow room amid a gang of smutty outlaws. I’d resigned myself to the hefty penalty that loomed ahead, money shaved from my funds, which would likely land in the border official’s motor scooter fund, and then I’d be on my way. A day ruined, a lesson learned. “I thought I understood the law here,” I continued, “but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I feel bad. All I wanted to do was come to Honduras and visit and be a volunteer, and—”
“Volunteer? You’ve been volunteering?”
“Yes, sir. Two months in El Porvenir, and now I’m going down to volunteer in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.”
“Well, son,” he said, nodding. “All I can say is thank you for the service you have done for my country.” He reached his calloused hand out to shake mine. He scribbled something in my passport—which I couldn’t read then, nor can I now—signed it, and ambled off to help the next person in line.
I couldn’t believe it. The nominal per capita GDP in Honduras is just over 4 percent of what it is in the United States. Four percent! Put another way, it takes a Honduran citizen twenty-five years to earn an average U.S. citizen’s annual salary. That guy, that pudgy junior-grade border patrol agent, with his glossy badge and his fancy pleated pants and his lazy Friday nights at home with TV dinners, could have eaten heartily for three weeks on the money he knows I was getting ready to pull out of my pocket. And nobody would have known.
But he didn’t care about that. He smiled, shook my hand, and he let me go.