Threatened with jail at Nicaragua border over exit stamp position


I have had to think long (for years) and hard about posting this story. On one hand, I hear the people of Nicaragua are kind and that travelers enjoy their time there and I am sure they have. But on the other hand, I know another side from my own experience. Has anyone else ever gone through what I went through? I was told I’d be going to jail there — and the tourist authority at the border seriously believed I was about to land there. Have travelers, even innocent travelers just traveling through on the international bus been put in jail? If so, could I have prevented that by going public with my story? When I tell people my story, they tell me I must tell it. So, finally, and with guilt at having not done so sooner, I am posting it.

This isn’t a story of theft but I’m putting under the theft menu as well so everyone can learn from it.

These events took place in October 2012. 

I’d loved my visit to El Salvador and made such good friends in San Salvador, that I’d stayed as long as permitted. Actually, I stayed until just two days before my extended visa for the Central America-4 would expire. This allowed my two days for travel out of the CA4 just in case the bus broke down or something. I always prefer being early for appointments rather than waiting until the last minute.

Here’s something to know as my story starts:

  • When my Salvadorian acquaintance who speaks perfect Spanish and English, helped bought my Tica bus ticket at the Tica office, nothing was said about needing to bring money for border crossing fees — and in my past experience with Tica bus, this information was stated.
  • When my good friend Clemente, who speaks perfect Spanish and English called Tica bus by phone to change my ticket so I could visit with his family longer, nothing was said about money being needed to cross borders.
  • When I checked in at the Tica bus office for my trip, there was nothing was said of giving the bus attendant $20. (The official currency of El Salvador is the US Dollar.)

Boy, do I wish just one Tica bus staff member in El Salvador had mentioned that $20. I’d have paid it and the bus staffer would have handled all of my entries and exits for me — and none of this would have happened!

I boarded the bus in San Salvador. Before the border to Honduras, the Tica guy collected our passports, papers and passports and $3 each, but when he took my passport he said I needed to give him $20. All around me, the people on the bus whispered to me that the Tica guy was getting the money and to not give it to him, so I said I need to do my border crossings on my own. My bus friends smiled proudly.

When it was time to enter Honduras, a staffer led the way and stood by, talking to officials and watching me. I wondered if he was my protector or if I was his meal ticket. (This was the first time I ever had such a suspicion but it was because of what the local people on the bus said.) First $3 tax, perhaps to leave Salvador. Another $3 to enter Honduras. It was unclear as the official with me didn’t give me time to question, read, or understand.

We were served breakfast on the bus. Burger King egg on a croissant. Coffee was offered later. Around this time I became friendly with the man next to me, both of us speaking half in Spanish and half in English.

The Tica bus entered Nicaragua. The bus guy walked me to immigration. I was the only one needing it. $12 to enter. I paid it, requesting and receiving a receipt for $10 plus one for $2.

X:00pm: Much has happened since I finished writing that last paragraph. I am recounting it now, while its fresh in my mind.

I went up to the Nicaraguan Immigration window to exit. First to one supposedly wrong window and then to another. Then the next person sent me to another, out and into another door as it’s starting to rain. That man sent me to another. I was circling the building as I was passed from window to window. The final window was on the opposite side of the building. Looking through my current window, through the large building and out the original window on the other side, I could see my Tica bus in the distance. Would it wait for me, I wondered? I was grateful that my seat-mate, a man who regularly went between El Salvador and Costa Rica, had consented to come with me.

Was I being passed from window to window as a punishment for not giving the Tica bus staffer $20? 

Finally, I was not sent to another window. My seat-mate stood off to the side. This time as I smiled at the man behind the protected window and greeted him, he started to place his stamp in the center of an empty page. Noticing this, as I always do, softly and nicely in my best Spanish (which isn’t really good but it’s a good try) I asked that he stamp: “Cerca de los otros por favor.” He looked up at me. “Papel para mi Passport es mui caro,” I elaborated. (Passports are costly, and who wants to have to obtain a new one prematurely?)  It has never been a problem; people are happy to oblige. This guy made it a joke. He moved to where I pointed, right by the other stamps, and started to lower the stamp — but then he moved the stamper back to the middle of the blank page. I asked, “no, por favor…” with a smile. He moved it back. “Si, gracias,” I said, smiling again. He moved it back to the empty page. “Por favor,” I pleaded, “la papel para mi Passport es mui caro.”

Now he looked at the woman to his left and said something to her. He repeated his actions and I repeated my plea. I started to feel worried. Next, he said looked at the man to his right and repeated. They each laughed — but nervous fake obligatory laughs.

THEN he took my passport away from my window, which really worried me(!). It is always nerve-wracking to have your passport taken away from your sight and we are always told not to allow this to happen but I didn’t dare protest. He walked to the center of that large room and it appeared that he told other people what was happening.

He came back, (thankfully he still had my passport) and repeated as they watched. Same movements, same pleading, same game. And he repeated. And repeated. And repeated. Now it was clear that this was a power trip and he was clearly enjoying it.

I fought back tears but it was clear I was starting to cry. I was now worried I was holding up the bus as I am already the only non-CA4 on the bus and they were not happy with that. This man didn’t care.

In frustration and desperation, I put my hand in the cutout of the clear walled window to pull my passport and hand it to the man to his right. But after being on the bus since 3 a.m. and awake through the night, my hand got the stamp instead. I didn’t harm it or try to stamp. I immediately passed it in the window of the man to his right (my left) and said “por favor.” But he only passed it right back to the man who had been toying with me and said something explaining what I wanted. I felt he was not amused by the man and was sympathetic toward me.

The original man walked away with my passport again as I, in slight tears, clearly tired and scared, explained my fears of my bus leaving me behind to the man I have given the stamp to.

My man clearly knew he had gone too far. But instead of apologizing and ending the whole thing, he took things up a level. He brought his boss in. Not to apologize to me, but to bring me to the official Tourism office across the lot, where a woman spoke English. Luckily, my seat-mate came along.

The boss told the tourism woman what he knew — that I took the stamp. I told them that was not true. The tourism women whispered to me that I was in big trouble and to stop talking because I couldn’t fix this and they were talking about putting me in jail. I was relieved when my seat-mate told them the truth. As he did, I thought the ordeal would be over.

But it wasn’t.

The boss and the tourism woman walked me and my seat-mate back to the stamp man’s window. As we walked, she quietly told me I must apologize and not say anything else. (Nothing else, she warned a few times.) I told her how I was sorry to just ride through and not be able to visit Nicaragua. I told her I’d planned to visit Nicaragua but ran out of time and had planned to come back in from Costa Rica in a week or so. But I also told her that he should apologize to me but that I have nothing to apologize for. I never had the opportunity to choose wheter to apologize or not.

The stamp man refused me or something. Other customers were now at his window and I wasn’t permitted to approach. And I didn’t have my exit stamp.

But they were far from done with me.

We were all walked to another office and as I was walked in, the door was closed to the faces of my seat-mate and the woman. They were not permitted in. They were sent away.

I was ORDERED to SIT by a new young man. (Perhaps because I was taller than him.) An older heavier man was at a single desk. Young Man spoke to me in very, very fast Spanish. I said I am sorry but I don’t understand enough words, that I was robbed and hadn’t been able to learn Spanish well since being robbed. He switched to a bit of English but I don’t think he said anything to me at that time.

The two new men talked. My passport was carried away again by Young Man. (Again, nerve-wracking.)

I have no real idea how much time went by. Sitting alone with the other man in a locked room, unable to get help and without an advocate, I was terrified and it seemed an eternity.

When Young Man returned he said the video clearly shows I “took US Government property and can go to jail for that.” (I didn’t voice my thoughts: First, that it was a Nicaraguan stamp, not American and second, that if they had looked at the video as he claimed, they would have seen that the immigration official involved had violated all decency by planing such an involved mind game with me.)

Young Man continued: I “cannot tell immigration officials what to do. “ I told him I have always enjoyed a hello with immigration and asked for the stamp placement and people are always happy to help. He said, “ this is Nicaragua.” Then he said I “took Nicaraguan property,” a switch from US. He went out again.

Sitting Man was scanning my passport; it was taking him a very long time to do and he seemed to be doing a lot on the computer screen. I leaned toward the window to try to see whether the Tica bus was still there.

After what seemed another eternity, Young Man returned and told me he will give me my exit stamp but — he said emphatically as he wagged his finger briskly so close to my face that I feared losing an eye — I can NEVER enter Nicaragua again. “You can NEVER enter Nicaragua again — not by land or air,” he said. He repeated this a few times with detail to be clear, adding that I can not even take a bus through Nicaragua again. If I “ever enter Nicaragua,” he said, I “will go to jail.” I said ok. He took my passport left again.

After another long time, he returned — and this time handed me my passport. I didn’t dare open it. I said thank you and apologized to these two men yet again, left the office and walked politely but swiftly to the bus.

I had my exit! But I wanted to get out of that country before someone put me in jail for whatever reason. Nicaragua, I learned, WAS a country to be afraid of.

I couldn’t wait to be on that bus and out of that country.

Back at the bus I was shocked to learn that I still could not get on the bus. It turned out that the entire load of passengers was also being super-processed. An official woman soon came to the bus door with all the other passports in hand. I showed her mine to enter and was told no. I didn’t understand but went to hide out of sight behind the other passengers who were outside. Another eternity. I so badly wanted to be on that bus and over the border, away from the threat of jail. One by one, she called each person and impatiently waited as each boarded.

When all the others were on the bus, I started to board again. She demanded my passport. Rudely, as if I’d never extended it to her. Then she had to find the stamp. That wasn’t an easy task as the men had ultimately put two in my passport costing me two pages after all this. But she let me on and I was finally clear.

When the bus crossed into Costa Rica and I had my entry stamp, I was finally able to let go of the fear that Nicaragua had put in me.

Only after the bus trip ended in San Jose, Costa Rica, did I learn there had been another gringo couple on the bus. They were in the very back sleeping and never got off the during the entire trip. They’d been told about the fees by Tica bus  when they bought their tickets and boarded in Guatemala where the bus originated, and never had to deal with immigration.

I started the day very sorry that I would not be seeing Nicaragua up close. I spent the ride through it looking out the window at everything my seat-mate showed me.

I ended the day never wanting set foot there again, fearing its rude officials, and being banned from even having the opportunity to transit through.

Now the only story I can tell about Nicaragua is to know that when an official wrongs you, it is you who faces jail, even when you are only on a respected international bus transiting through.

Very sad.

You may wonder how I remember it so well all these years later, or whether I am embellishing it. I started to write up the exit events as soon as I was back on the bus. I wrote it on my iPhone 3gs. After writing it, I showed it to my seat-mate and asked him if it was accurate. He confirmed that it was. As far as remembering it though, I most certainly do. Every heart-stopping moment.

  • Am I really banned? What would happen if I entered the country?
  • Would this have happened if I’d paid the Tica bus attendant the $20 that fellow passengers were so sure was payola?
  • Would any of  this have happened if I hadn’t asked him to conserve space in my passport?
  • Would it have happened if I’d never said a word to this cruel man?
  • Shouldn’t the man’s boss regret the man’s behavior and that he was costing his country tourists?

In 3 years of pre-9-11 travel and 6 years post 9-11, nothing else like this has ever happened to me. Most immigration officials seem to have liked being greeted kindly and appreciated as people. Often it’s been an enjoyable exchange!

Nicaragua has apparently gone through quite a bit of political upheaval. Things may be different now. I hope everyone who visits Nicaragua has a terrific experience. But I hope you’ll consider this experience and bear it in mind as you choose where to go in the world and especially if decide to pass through this country.

I feel for the people there. I’d love to go, see the beauty there. But no travel experience is worth one’s life and freedom.

Please share a thought or two with everyone

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