El Amatillo is a border town between El Salvador and Honduras, spanning the Rio Goascoran. When I crossed over the river to the Honduran side of town, it was about an hour before sunset and I was completely exhausted. The day’s journey through El Salvador had been some of the most difficult travels I’d ever endured. It was a day of too much sun and too many sweaty, cramped, local buses. I needed a cold shower and a clean bed. I didn’t particularly want to stay the night in this strange border town, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want to travel through parts unknown after dark.
My first stop in Honduras was the chicken shop just across the bridge. I hadn’t eaten a real meal all day, and I was feeling weak. I ordered two drumsticks, fries, and a coke – a very traditional Honduran meal, to be sure. I devoured the greasy meal, pulling the chicken apart with my dirty fingers, dipping the pieces into the house hot sauce, and shoveling it into my mouth with the skill and hygienic disregard of a local. In between bites and gulps, I chatted up the elderly lady working the fryer, asking about places to stay in town. She said there were two hotels and told me where they were.
The first one was a combination mini-market / restaurant / hotel. I asked to see a room and the rotund woman behind the counter hollered at her young, attractive counterpart and tossed her the keys to a vacant room. As she led me through the market and into the courtyard, I made note of the fridge stocked with cold beer – I’d be needing that later. The room was a prison cell: concrete walls, a small wooden shelf, and a double bed with clean white sheets. The price was $10. I said I wanted to check out the other hotel and I might be back.
The other hotel was a short walk up the road. The first thing I noticed about the place was the unshaven transvestite sitting on the curb outside. I’ve seen plenty of travestidos in Central America – in fact, transvestite prostitutes are not that uncommon, especially in Honduras’ bigger cities where they roam the streets in gangs and are known to rob potential clients. This gal was a mess: 2 days of stubble on her face, and her stringy hair was tied back in an unkempt ponytail. She didn’t look dangerous and I’m comfortable with alternative sexuality, so I nodded hello with a sympathetic smile and walked past her to the entrance of the hotel.
Inside, I was greeted with gruff indifference by the proprietor. It looked like I’d be the only guest in the hotel, and I thought they should really be a little nicer, considering the place looked like it could use my business. She showed me to an empty room. It was an even worse prison cell than the last one: filthy concrete walls and a single mattress on a metal frame, sitting askew in the center of the room. The sheet-less mattress was stained and mangled – it betrayed the countless unspeakable acts that had surely befallen it in this sad and disgusting lifespan. I noticed that the tranny was now standing in the courtyard, and must have come around the back of the hotel. I suddenly got the idea that this might be the kind of hotel you rent by the hour.
I thanked the woman and quickly got out of there. I headed back to the first of the two hotels — the more homey of the two prison cells.
I dropped my bags in my room and grabbed my towel and soap to wash the day’s sweat from my tired body. An angry-looking old dog lay chained to the fence and he watched me cross the courtyard to the bank of showers, growling quietly. The shower was what I would call, simple. A concrete box with a drain in the floor, and a PVC tube protruding from the wall with a cutoff valve. Turn the valve, wait for the requisite grumble of the pipes, and then cold water comes flowing out of the pipe. No heat. Not even a shower head. Just a stream of cold, semi-clean water from the cistern above. It was sufficient, not satisfying.
Back in my room, I checked for a wifi signal. No luck. I tried to read, but quickly drifted off to sleep. I snoozed heavily for about an hour and woke up not knowing where I was. It was dark out by then, and as my eyes adjusted, the events of the day came back to me.
I decided to buy a beer from the market and take a walk around this strange border town. Ice cold Salva Vida Cerveza in hand, I took to the streets and found an inviting concrete slab to sit on and people watch.
The flow of traffic through the border had slowed to a trickle. Semi trucks parked along the side of the Pan American Highway and some of the truckers strung hammocks underneath their trucks and were already snoozing. A trash fire burned on the corner of a gravel parking lot and the toxic smell of burnt plastic was strong in the air. I watched the man tend the fire, tossing pieces of trash into it, one by one, and watching them burn while side-stepping to avoid the smoke. Plastic bags shriveled and shrunk out of existence. Crumbled balls of paper erupted into bright, fleeting flames.
Soon I was joined on my concrete seat by a short, local man. He offered a friendly “hola” and sat next to me. He sat quietly for a while, head hung low, wringing his hands, which were black with engine grease. I could tell he wanted to talk, but I let him start the conversation. He was sad, and very much alone. He said he had no family, and no friends. He had one brother who had emigrated to the United States, but they’d lost touch years ago. He told me that he’d been traveling around looking for work and ended up in this town, doing some mechanical work at a local shop. So he had work, but he said he was basically homeless.
“La vida es dura,” he told to me; life is hard.
I agreed with him and took a long swig on my beer. The longer I let his words ring in my head, the more I couldn’t help feeling like a privileged American. My life felt hard at that moment, because I’d been on too many sweaty local buses all day. But that was a self-inflicted challenge. In reality, I was a lucky, educated, white, male, American who was slumming his way through Central America. Compared to this man, I was rich. Compared to this man, life was anything but hard.
“Puedo hacerte una pregunta?” he asked, Can I ask you a question?
I’d seen this coming. I knew he wanted to ask me for money. I call it the “longhandling” — as in “long-term panhandling”. Most homeless panhandlers will come right out and ask you for money. But some of the smarter, more ambitious one will strike up a conversation, make friends with you, drop their sob story on you, and then ask for money. They usually get more out of their marks, but they have to work for it. I respect the good ones. But when they get me, I feel betrayed. In this case, our friendly commiseration had come to an end, and now he just wanted to see how much money he could get out of the gringo.
“Sure,” I said, “what’s your question?“
“What happened to your neck?” He asked. “It looks infected.”
The question caught me off guard. I was expecting him to ask for money, but instead, he’d inquired about my health. I did, indeed, have an infected scab on my neck. Rewind to a week ago at a bar in Guatemala: I somehow got into a strange and awesome game of “lion-tamer” with a pretty girl from Wales. We were drunk, I was wielding a bar stool like a weapon to keep her at bay and she was smoking a cigarette and growling at me. No one is exactly sure how it all went down, but I ended up with a nasty cigarette burn on the side of my neck. Over the last couple days of travel, it had become infected and quite painful. I didn’t have a mirror in my room, so I hadn’t noticed how bad it had gotten.
The man leaned in to have a closer look at my neck and suggested I clean it with alcohol to stop the infection. He then said it was nice talking to me, but he had to go. He held out his greasy mechanic’s hand, and I shook it.
“Cuidarte,” he said. Take care of yourself. And then he was gone.
I went back to the market or another beer, and asked about band aids and alcohol swabs. They had both, so I bought a couple of each and went back to my room to clean the burn and cover it with a pink band aid.
It was still only about 10PM, I wasn’t ready to sleep yet. I took what was left of my beer for a walk down the road. I walked past a bar with a few locals and a jukebox blasting ranchero music. It was my kind of scene, but it didn’t look very inviting. Instead of going inside, I walked across the highway to the median and hoisted myself up so I was sitting on a concrete perch, directly in the middle of the Pan American Highway. I’d seen a few other people sitting on the median, so I knew it was an acceptable place to sit and drink a beer. Semi trucks crawled by on either side, behind me they slowed as they approached the border; in front of me, they accelerated in low gears up the hill and onward into Honduras.
After a short while, a young local came up to me and asked if he could sit. He was a friendly and outgoing kid, about 16 years old. He grew up in that town, and told me about how boring it is there. He was just going to high school and didn’t know what he would do after that. He’d never even been out of that town. It was sad to think that this shitty little border town was all he’d ever known.
“What about El Salvador?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, just across the river though – we can go now, if you want – but there’s not much there.”
I was intrigued. He said you could just walk right past the immigration building and across the bridge into El Salvador without having anyone stamp your passport or anything. No one cared. No one was watching.
“Yeah,” I said, “let’s go.”
Together, we walked back towards the border. There was a small stand set up selling chicken cooked on a small grill made out of the rim of a car and three rebar stakes. A few people were hanging around the fire, waiting for their meal. A prostitute approached us and asked if we wanted sex. She blew a kiss at me and smiled, showing her missing teeth. We said no and continued on. He said if I wanted a girl he new a nice Nicaraguan with big tits who was new in town.
We walked past the immigration building, past the man with the big gun cradled in his arms, and over the bridge. We stopped half way and stood quietly in the no-man’s-land between El Salvador and Honduras. The river was barley a trickle that time of year, but the frogs were out in full force. We were surrounded by a symphony of croaks and ribbits. It felt good to just stand there and take it all in. And it was a strange, but familiar feeling to be standing between two countries. There was a certain amount of freedom in that sensation.
We continued over the bridge, to where the road was lined with ramshackle market stalls. Small squarish shacks, cobbled together with bits of wood and corrugated steel and ropes and nails. They were all boarded up at this hour, and the place had the eerie feel of a ghost town. When we grew tired of wandering, my new friend and I walked back over the bridge, back into Honduras.
He walked me back to my hotel and we said goodbye to each other. I thanked him for taking me across the bridge, and I gave him my business card and told him that if he ever gets internet (he’d told me earlier he didn’t have it) to send me an email.
Back in my prison cell of a hotel room, I lay in bed, remembering that I only had 2 days left to cross into Costa Rica. I planned to be up early in the morning and make it to Managua, Nicaragua by nightfall.