Sunday, 30 October 2011

La Frontera

A RIVULET OF sweat trickles down my back. I tilt my cap forward, hiding from the glare of the noonday sun. A dry, hot breeze blows dust across the unpaved road, litter dancing to the parched scrub beside it. The bus engine idles, its driver sheltering in the shade in front. The passengers are amongst the trees, the tarpaulin shelters above makeshift taco stalls casting welcome shade for the fat women stirring pots of stewed meat. Beggars move among them; the ubiquitous one-legged man hops from the treeline, hat in hand; stray dogs slink between the stalls searching for discarded bones; children run wild, casting doleful faces at the tourists, hands held out.

A wizened old man shuffles by, immaculate in white. I walk between the border outpost buildings, reading the Wanted posters on heat-blistered walls...their subjects regarding me balefully from black-and-white photographs. Narco-traffickers. People-smugglers. Murderers. A woman among them, her brutal, pock-marked face a pitiless mask. The incessant chimes of an ice-cream vendor's bell is interrupted by the rapid approach of a horse: the Nicaraguan caballero gallops through the junction and pulls up in front of the food stalls, dropping off supplies of tortillas and rice. Within a minute he is astride his charge again, and heads back in the opposite direction, only a cloud of drifting dust to show he was ever here.

Borders are uncomfortable places, and no-one keeps eye-contact for long. An ugly centipede navigates the scorched track to the shade, and a passing man notices me observing it. "Feo" he tells me. I nod "Si"...very ugly indeed. He walks on as I cross the road towards the bus. A shifty man with a scar tracks my progress with his eyes as he squats in the dirt. I nod, but he turns away without acknowledging me. I reach the cool shadows below the trees, running the gauntlet of money-changers: slick characters in cheap jeans, spotless white fake sneakers and mirrored shades, wedges of currency being flicked through their fingers like a pack of cards. Not to be trusted. Two Scandinavian girls are warily exchanging money, and I tell them the rate and conversion...translating for them when the moneychanger plays dumb: trying it on.

A trio of streetkids crowd around a couple of bowls of rice and meat, their scavenging and hustling having been enough to fill their bellies for now. They laugh and joke as they eat; the moneychangers of tomorrow. I cut between the trees to the hard-packed dirt area where the trucks are lined up, waiting for clearance to cross the frontera. Drivers and their mates are slung below the trailers in hammocks, sleeping in the shadows...the best place to be in this heat. A policeman paces with slow purpose behind the trailers, watching keenly for smugglers, Armalite rifle unslung and pointed at the ground; I don't envy him the webbing, pack and body armour in this climate.

Heading back to the bus, the moneychangers are still clamouring for custom. I change some US Dollars into Honduran Lempiras with the same man who had dealt with the girls. On walking away, I recall the rate I'd checked before getting on the bus in Managua. He's given me a poor return. I feel foolish for walking away, and check the going rate with a couple of the dealers, including a fat woman struggling to squeeze into the confines of a plastic garden chair. Hers is far better. I approach the man, and he looks resigned...maybe he'd hoped I'd just let it go? But I know I'll be kicking myself for not being sharp enough as we leave. I ask him why the fat lady is giving a far better rate. He looks away, preparing the brush-off excuse. At that moment the rumbling of another bus approaches: my Ace of Spades. As it slows to park next to ours, the man glances back at me. I look at the arriving bus as his colleagues make a dash for it, return to look at him, shrug and smile. He knows exactly how his immediate business is going to be affected if he doesn't give me what he owes me. Handing me the cash, he heads off to compete.

A man from our bus company exits the Nicaraguan building, a transparent bag full of passports clutched in his hand. The sweating driver revs the engine and pumps the horn three times, jabs his thumb over his shoulder "¡Vamanos!". We clamber aboard, the perspiration freezing on us in the icy air-conditioned atmosphere, grabbing headrests for support as we pick our way to our seats, the driver unconcerned. Bumping along the potholed road and belching smoke, we exit Nicaragua and enter Honduras.

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