Friday, 21 March 2014

When Travel Goes Bad

I've been known to use the line; “a bad day travelling is still better than a good day working”.

In fact I've been known to use it a great deal, and for the most part it is certainly true. Compared to fighting peak hour traffic, trudging through a job you probably hate only to spend all of the money on bills and your mortgage, most travel problems are pretty minor. I missed my bus, I lost my debit card, this bus taking me to my next awesome location is kind of uncomfortable or I couldn't remember the name of the bar I was supposed to meet that girl I just met.

Sometimes though, travel throws some bigger problems at you. This week it happened to me.

I spent a couple of weeks in the lakeside town of San Pedro La Laguna on Guatemala's Lake Atitlan. It was a fun little town with lots of like minded people and usually the biggest problem being that you're too hungover for your Spanish class.

Street dogs are very common in this part of the world

One night though, after making the silly decision to walk home from a late bar alone, I encountered a pack of dogs. They were not happy to see me. The next few minutes (it could easily have been just 15 seconds) were the scariest of my life. Most of the dogs seemed content to just bark at me, but at least a couple of them were actively trying to take a bit of my leg with them. Luckily I was wearing jeans, so most of the times they connected I was reasonably protected. They did manage to get through a couple of times though and break my skin with a couple of gashes.

After making it back to my hostel and encountering some locals on the street who seemed less concerned with my ordeal and more with whether I had a light, I spoke to the night guard and sought his opinion on what, if anything, I should do. I was in a bit of shock, so all I could do was laugh when he told me I'd be ok, and there was nothing to worry about – and then asked if I had a light for his friends on the street.

Fortunately I was one of those people who got every jab possible before hitting the road, so I'd had the rabies pre exposure vaccinations back in Australia and therefore needed only the booster shots to ensure my antibodies were strong. I first attempted to get these in the local clinic in the tiny town I was in. The language barrier made this virtually impossible. Sure, I'd been taking some Spanish classes, but you sit down with your teacher to learn; “Hi, my name is Steve, I may have rabies” in your class. So I quickly moved to the nearby and much bigger town of Antigua and was able to get the shots sorted and a local private clinic.

Check your stamps people!

Thinking that my bad luck was behind me, I decided that four weeks in Guatemala had been great (you know, aside from the obvious....and by that I mean the food) and it was time to move on to El Salvador.

Arriving at the border I was in for a rude shock. The immigration official at the border had not stamped my passport when I entered the country and therefore I wasn't allowed to leave. I questioned the officer at the border (in perfect Spanish obviously) as to whether they could just get them to stamp me from the other side of the counter. No, it made much more sense for me to have to go back to the immigration office in Guatemala City.

With no luck coming discussing it any further with the official, I was forced to take my stuff off the shuttle bus that was taking me to El Salvador and wait for a chicken bus to take me back to the city. Chicken buses are something I knew I would have to use at some point in Central America, but I wasn't prepared for this to be that day. They're generally old American school buses that have been decorated – sometimes very elaborately – and can cover big distances throughout the region. While they're very cheap, they regularly stop every few minutes picking up and dropping off passengers (and sometimes chickens). The one that I'd gotten on had a person sized hole where the seat behind me should have been. What was a two and a half hour journey to the border ended up being almost 5 hours returning – all the time wondering what I would need to do get a stamp so I could leave the country.

Typical chicken bus

As it turned out despite locals and resident foreigners alike telling me the process could take up to two weeks, my luck started to change at the immigration office. While I had to pay two fines – one for entering the country illegally and one for being the in country illegally – due to an error another person made, the whole matter was sorted in just over an hour and I was free to leave Guatemala. In other circumstances being in a country with no proof you are there legally could get you in far more trouble than just a fine.

While it has been by far the worst week of my trip, I've now had my jabs, got my stamp and tomorrow I leave for El Salvador, again. Compared to the many backpackers that get themselves into trouble (sometimes through their own actions, but often just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) I'm coming away in good shape.

I will say, however, that I will be glad to be crossing that border tomorrow morning. 

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