South of the Border

“Get your hair cut or you cannot enter our country!”  I stood incredulous at the border trying to enter Guatemala with Carlos when the immigration official with a smirk on his face issued me this ultimatum. It was 1975, my Brazilian friend and I had hitch hiked over 2,000 miles through Mexico. We’d been sleeping pretty rough and skipping showers and haircuts so I may have looked like a ragged hippy. It wasn’t this that made the order so unbelievable it was the fact that the officer himself had a full head of beautiful curly hair spreading all the way to his shoulders. 

After the hair chop

Even though I understood barely any Spanish this was one instruction that Carlos had no need to translate.  I was speechless, mostly because I had no idea how to reply but also because I understood that it doesn’t pay to argue with immigration officials. They have the power and I didn’t have the money for the bribe which he probably expected. I went outside and had Carlos hack a few inches off my hair.  I returned minutes later,  got my passport stamped and hitched on towards Panama looking like a scarecrow.  

I’d met young Carlos on the train crossing the border from Phoenix into Mexico and spontaneously decided to hitch hike with him through Central America. We had some wild adventures travelling down the Pan American – so called- highway which sounds grand but back then it certainly wasn’t. The road was mostly a potholed dust covered windy and precarious passageway that was also badly sign posted. We often found ourselves stuck in some obscure nameless village or town far from our route with no maps and no modern GPS systems.   

We slept on the road side, in sleazy hostels and once in brothel, quite by accident! We also had our share of interesting rides. A honeymoon couple picked us up in their VW bus just after a Federale checkpoint where they’d given bribes to the police after a tiny roach was found and they’d been threatened with a Mexican jail. A few miles down the road an officer riding a small motorbike waved us down angrily shouting – in English. He’d done some anti-corruption training in Atlanta and wanted to know what the couple had given his policemen. They said they’d started with 20 bucks and then after more coercion had thrown in their wedding present blender and when the pressure continued they added a portable tape player. The officer was furious shouting, “that’s way too big a bribe, what are you crazy you’re ruining our county with your excess payments. No wonder we cannot control out own policemen. It seems that some things never change !

Early one night a dust covered white Ford van stopped and the stoned young American driver asked if we could drive. I did, and after two hours of his hair raising speed trails down twisty bumpy lanes he put me behind the wheel and took a long nap. It was conspicuous that the van was totally empty and when asked he explained he was picking up a load of mexico’s finest sinsemelia bound for Arizona. Apparently long before Trump’s wall, routes across the desert enabled daring entrepreneurs to import van loads of smuggled smoking material for appreciative hippy’s and hipsters in the north. 

My favourite ride didn’t involve drama or conversation but lots and lots of beautiful smiles. An elderly couple of farmers in an antiquated old cattle truck pulled over one afternoon and waved us inside the cab. The vehicle took off again in a cloud of dust with some very strange rattles and bangs but was able to chug and churn down the trail slowly as the farmers chuckled with amusement at their passengers. 

I was trying to figure out why the lady was cuddling a hen on her lap while Carlos attempted and failed in efforts to understand the local farming dialect.  What brought us all the biggest laughs were the baby chicks running loose in the cab between our feet. Suddenly it didn’t matter that we shared no common tongue  because we had the universal language of laughter to connect us and that worked just fine.  

Carlos and I slowly and rather miraculously managed to cross Guatemala, El Salvedor, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and reached Panama City about four weeks later. We were well treated everywhere we went and never felt fear. Just ten years later that had all changed with the escalation of the drug industry and the incursions of US military and politics.  The banana republics began to experience changes as the people rose up against the US supported dictatorships and the kick back brought Reagan’s Contra’s, death squads and lots of American made guns to terrorize these once peaceful peasants.

Carlos and I partied ways in Panama after six weeks and over 3,500 road miles together. He flew to Colombia to continue hitchhiking another 5,000 miles or more to his home in Brazil and left me trying to figure out where to go next.  I never heard from him again but always wondered if he made it and imagine the renegade adventures he must have had on the way.  

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