Border Crossing

I am in a taxi which is taking me to the border crossing between El Salvador and Guatemala. I am excited about entering a brand new country but at the same time feel a little sad about leaving El Salvador – a country that has given me so much. Specifically, Pupusas and an encounter with a prospective mugger.

Now though, it is time to move on. Because that’s what backpackers do. We love ’em and leave ’em.

I get out of the taxi, pay the driver and bid my Salvadoran, taxi driving counterpart farewell. I smile at him with a lump in my throat. Expressionless, he looks back at me and I get the feeling this moment means more to me than it does him.

As I prepare to pass through a small, white building, I detect all the hallmarks of a Central American border checkpoint. There’s a man asleep on a plastic chair and there’s three chaps who want to buy and sell currency at, what I’m afraid to say, are very uncompetitive rates of exchange.

But there’s something missing. This familiar scene is bereft of one particular element. Ah, there they are. I look over to my right because over to my right are half a dozen mean, bulky looking men carrying over the top weaponry.

I was keen to avoid a situation similar to the one depicted here

Now, I’m no armoury expert. In fact, I have very little military training indeed, particularly in the art of appropriate gun selection for Central American border crossings. But these guns seem like they’d be better suited to a scene from Saving Private Ryan.

I chuckle as I pass the mean, bulky looking men carrying over the top weaponry because I’ve seen this before at neighbouring border crossings and I don’t want them to think their big guns intimidate me. I think this would give them satisfaction and, believe me, the last thing I want to do is satisfy a large man with a big gun.

I walk past them and get to the office where I will be stamped out of one country and into another. I wonder if I’ll be thanked for coming, I hope they ask if I enjoyed my time in their lovely country.

“Tres dólares” says the woman behind the desk. Oh, three dollars. Why is she saying the words “three dollars”. I know there is no fee to leave El Salvador and I think the woman knows this too. She does know this, of course she knows this. If she knows this, then why is she asking for three dollars.

I don’t want to pay it and I shouldn’t be forced to pay it. This is a free country and I know my rights and I know the law of the land. It’s about time somebody made a stand against such illegal practises. I decide that time has come and that person is me.

I will be remembered alongside Rosa Parks for my heroism, Winston Churchill for my courage and for standing up for what I believe is right. Just imagine the greeting I’ll get when I walk through the arrivals of Heathrow‘s Terminal 4. The rapturous applause from the adoring crowds, the press, the paparazzi! I’ll probably have to get an agent!

I begin the speech that will put me in the martyrdom hall of fame.

“Yes, but…”

I stop a mere two words in as I notice one of the ridiculously armed men making his way over.

I quickly take my wallet out of my pocket and, trying to minimise the shaking that has curiously taken hold of my right hand, I slide five dollars across the desk to the lady.

She says she has no change. I don’t complain.

I bet it’s rubbish having an agent anyway.

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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Solo backpacking and Valentine’s Day: A tale of woe.

 

Oh God. Is it the 14th? Today? Is it? I know it’s February. It’s definitely February. I know this. But is it really the 14th?

I continue into the restaurant trying my best to convey an air of nonchalance. I put on a face that says, “Yes, I am by myself in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. Yes, I am here. Yes, I do intend to eat. That I am alone perturbs me not one iota.”

Then I realise that’s quite a lot of information to put one one face but, I’m sure much like yourself, I don’t like to bail once I’ve committed to facial expression.

The truth is, it does perturb me and if I’m honest it perturbs me probably several iotas. More iotas than I care to count in fact. But I’m here now so I go in, take a seat at an empty table in the corner – a corner decimated with big red heart-shaped balloons, clinging as they are to the wall above my head. It was these decorations that tipped me off about this romance-saturated day.

There are couples scattered around at other tables, cooing into each other’s eyes in rapturous soul-matery. It’s at this moment, I consider leaving. I feel like I’m gate-crashing a party to which I’m not only not invited, but that I am expressly not wanted at.

Jesus also cuts an isolated figure in San Juan del Sur. Just saying.

But I have no other means of feeding myself. I am solo backpacking in Nicaragua, it’s late and food outlets are scarce so even if I leave now, I may struggle to find another source of sustenance. But really, it’s more than that.

I don’t want to admit that I care. I feel like possibly the loneliest human being our fair planet has ever had the misfortune of hosting at this moment but it’s of paramount importance to me that NOBODY know this.

Come on. Pull yourself together. Just because it feels like every couple in the room is simultaneously watching you, staring, judging and pitying you, it does not mean they are.

Look, over there. There’s another man by himself. Perhaps he’s made the same mistake as me. Perhaps I will go over and we will knowingly give each other a nod that acknowledges our shared predicament. I’ll pull out a chair, we’ll order some food, have a beer and laugh about all the… I end my thought there as his girlfriend/wife/life partner comes back from the bathroom and rejoins him at the table.

Never mind. I am able to shake this off as the middle-aged lady working there finally comes over and shows me a list of what they have on the menu tonight. I order quickly and ensure I ask for a beer as well – a tactical master stroke.

A generic heart.

My beer is brought to me almost immediately and now I have something to focus on. The beer bottle is the most fascinating item I’ve ever encountered. I read the label, sip it slowly and make sure at no point I raise my eyes to meet the gaze of the rest of the room.

I begin to wonder why this situation makes me feel so uncomfortable. I am a solo backpacker, it’s how I travel, that’s the type of traveller I’ve opted to be. I’ve eaten alone dozens and dozens of times without feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable. Bloody Valentine’s Day. Perhaps I’m not as suited to this style of travelling as I like to think.

Sure, I meet people all time at hostels and bars and we laugh and have fun and go out dining together. Maybe I’m bothered because it’s never in a romantic sense? After all, that’s the only thing that makes tonight different.

Maybe I should cut my trip short, pack my bag, go home, phone the Samaritans, undergo intense psychological therapy in order to bring myself out the deepest of depressions that will surely follow this gargantuan episode of isolation.

I force myself to look up. What are they doing? Are they mocking me? They’re waving at me. Aren’t they? They’re beckoning me over! They want me to join them! Oh, the relief! The elation! I am wanted! I won’t have to leave early, listen to Morrissey songs and spend the next few years contemplating my very existence after all.

I stand up and walk over to their table where the two girls and the guy remain seated and present me nothing but welcoming smiles.

“We were waving at you for ages to come over. Are you alone?”

“Yes”, I say. “And thank you.”

 

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net