The Longest Day Part I. So, we got to Tapachula near the Guatemalan border early in the morning to find another bus to Guatemala City waiting to take me away, ha ha. So goodbye Mexico, I’ll see you again next week. The journey into Guate City was fairly uneventful, as was the quick change for San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. I got in about 7pm.
After an amazingly scary oh-dear-it’s-dark-I-got-no-map-where-the-hell-is-an-ATM-when-you-need-one walk around the city, I found a bus that was leaving at 3am going all the way through Honduras, Nicaragua and ending up in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. It would get me in at 10pm the same day. All good. I threw my bag in the bus station office and headed out to the pub.
It was in the Irish bar (there’s always an Irish bar) that I met Jorge and Rene, a couple of locals who took me under their wing. Beer was downed, jokes told and stories exchanged and before I knew it, I was being whisked off to a Sushi Restaurant (what’s with all the Sushi on this adventure? It’s becoming a recurring theme). There I met Memo, one of Jorge’s mates…and we decided that since it was getting late (almost midnight), it would be best to head to the beach.
We got there in Memo’s car, screaming and raucous – and it was perfect. Everything the beaches in the Caribbean should be (but aren’t) – free to everyone, wooden huts and hammocks (not concrete and walls) music, people dancing, a bar still serving…
At midnight, I placed my hands in the Pacific Ocean. I’m now thirty. Hear that Pacific? I’M THIRTY!!!! The Pacific was overwhelmingly indifferent. I returned to my beer, whom I know loves me. Memo, Jorge and I drank in the cool night air. We could have been in Thailand. I really couldn’t think of a better way to see in the big three-o.
I had a bus to catch, and – damn! – it was leaving very soon. Memo drove like a maniac. But he drove like a maniac to the wrong bus station. San Salvador has no central bus station, every bus company has it’s own garage. Some, annoyingly, have two.
As the seconds ticked away, we drove around and around the city like Jack Bauer with the squits. Hang on – I recognise that poster! The bus station is over… but then…
The police pulled us over.
Memo was outraged. He had to get this Ginger Gringo to his bus. Why are the police pulling him over? I thought he might have been speeding. Not so. After searching us and the car for drugs or bombs or whatever, they continued talking to Memo, who was getting increasingly infuriated with their intransigence – my bus left in less than five minutes and I was yet to buy a ticket.
If I hadn’t been drunk, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but hell, it’s Central America and I’m thirty. Let’s do something I’ve never done before in my life.
Let’s bribe a policeman.
So I did. Will this make you go away? I ask, hoping he doesn’t speak a word of English as I passed over a 20-dollar bill.
An awkward moment. Was I to spend the rest of my birthday in a prison cell in El Salvador for attempting to bribe a policeman? No. Don’t worry – it’s El Salvador. The policeman stuffed the twenty in his pocket and before he could say adios, Memo was tearing down the highway towards the bus station…
Only to get there five minutes late. The bus had gone. But all was not lost. Memo spoke to the people in the bus station and they said there was another company’s bus that does the same route down to Costa Rica, and it leaves at 4am.
Only – my bag was in the station office, and the only guy with a key had gone to bed in the hotel upstairs. Tonight was turning into a 1980s text adventure. North, north, up. A troll blocks your way. Pay troll $20. Troll shuffles off. Knock on door. Awaken keymaster. Keymaster unhappy. Get key. Down, south, south. You can see the office door. Use key with door. East. Get bag. Drop key. West.
So eventually Memo and I made it to the King Quality bus station at 4am, just in time for the bus. After thanking Memo profusely for such an excellent birthday adventure, I plonked myself down on the back seat of the bus next to a cute Argentinean girl called Sophia. Within 5 seconds, I was fast asleep.
The Longest Day Part II. I only slept for a few hours before we hit the El Salvador border and then it was off the bus, with queuing and formality. Having said that, the bus was great – brand new, tons of leg-room, free food, drinks, flat screen TVs – and a good selection of films. I bought a bottle of whiskey from the Duty Free on the border and began the day as I meant to go on.
I whirled in a drunken haze as the countries passed me by – El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica…Sophia and I wasted the day away playing cards, watching films and yakking away, nineteen to the dozen. Not such a bad way to spend your first day as an old codger.
We arrived in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica at 10pm. Sophia’s annoying friends wanted to stay at a pit recommended by our (obviously on commission) taxi driver. No – it’s my birthday…I will pay the extra for us all to stay at the backpackers recommended by the Lonely Planet. See, I’ve done this before and whenever your taxi driver takes you somewhere, it’s always, ALWAYS an overpriced hole.
Note to all backpackers – the thing about places in the Lonely Planet – they WANT TO STAY IN IT!! So, generally speaking, they are a lot nicer places than the ones that aren’t in it and don’t give a monkeys. Oh, and if I offer to pay for your accommodation in a better place, SAY YES!!
I was too drunk to argue. Sod it – I had to be up at 4am for my next bus anyhoo.
So we ended up sharing a room that was about 4 cubic metres big – 4 of us, 3 single beds and my bed consisted of a plank of wood diagonally plonked on an empty frame with a wet sponge as a mattress. Lucky my Heroes-esque super power is the ability to sleep anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
I bet Sylar would love to get his hands on that one.
Back on the groovy bus up through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. No cute girl for me to annoy this time, but I did meet a guy from Texas called John, who was – like myself – backpacking around Central America on his own. The remarkable thing was that he was 86 years old.
I guess you’re never too old to hit the road. Nicaragua was amazing – driving past Lake Nicaragua, which is just HUGE, and seeing the massive, perfectly-formed volcanoes rising out of the middle of it – it looked like the backdrop from The Land Before Time. Honduras was a little less remarkable, but seriously, they don’t generally stick the cool stuff next to the road, do they?
We arrived in San Salvador late that night. The guy on the bus told me there was a bus going north to Guatamala City at 3.00 and I went and did something a little silly – I believed him. So instead of checking into a hostel and getting a few hours shut-eye in a proper bed, I stayed up. I headed to a hostel to try and grab a shower, which cost me $2. I shouldn’t really complain too much that the shower was cold, after all, judging by the warning on the bathroom wall, if it had been hot, the resultant electric shocks would have left me with third-degree burns.
I headed to the Irish Pub, but you can’t catch lightning in a bottle and there was no repeat of Friday night’s high jinks. I left the pub at 2:30am and started looking for a taxi. The streets were dead. Oh dear. I walked and walked. It was now past 3am and I was getting worried. Not just because I was walking about in the dark in a Central American country on my own with no map, carrying all of my bags, credit cards, money, camcorder, laptop etc. but because I thought – more worryingly – I was going to miss my bus.
I went to a 24-hr petrol station. The police were there (same ones I bribed on Friday night perhaps?) and I asked them where I could find some taxis. They shook their heads and asked me where I was going and I told them which bus station it was. Vamos! I think I just hitched a ride with fuzz!
The lovely Salvadorian police chaps dropped me at the bus station just in time for my bus. I thanked them profusely and strode into the bus station. Only – the 3.30am bus didn’t exist! It was more like the 6am bus.
Groan. The bus station was FREEZING. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do but to huddle in the corner, sit there and wait and shiver.
I got into Guatemala City about 10am (not much sleep on the bus then) and hopped straight onto a bus for Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean coast. This was the plan for getting to Belize, but it was a little stuffed up by the fact that I was running four hours late. Now Belize isn’t Belizey-Peasy as it’s name suggests. More affiliated with the Caribbean (down fried chicken!) than Latin America, this once-British enclave of Central America is a little off the beaten path and a little tricky to get to. It involves a five-hour coach journey and a couple of boats.
There’s a boat that leaves Puerto Barrios for Punta Gorda in Belize at 2pm and then comes back at 4pm. I got to Puerto Barrios at 5pm. But luckily, I met Ishmael (as in Call me…). This wonderfully crazy guy from Livingstone in Guatemala was on the bus with me from the capital. Now Livingstone is a little town on the Caribbean coast that is only accessible by boat – it’s halfway to Belize.
Ishmael took me under his wing and we headed over Livingstone. He thought he might be able to help me get a private boat over to Punta Gorda and back before it got dark. But it was not to be, it was just too late in the day. He did however, sort me out with a boat the following morning and offer me somewhere to kip for the night.
Ishmael’s place was pretty basic – no electricity or running water, but it had a hammock and you know I’m a sucker for hammocks. So I dropped off my gear and we headed out to what passes for ‘town’ in Livingston (the main street) and had a few drinks, got something to eat and got to hang out with Ishmael’s mates.
Here’s a video of me freaking out that I’m now thirty years old. IT’S DEAD FUNNY: