Living in paradise can be an unreal experience on many levels – there is simply no way to anticipate some of the things that could/will/do happen to you. The absurd can often occur on the daily, leaving you shaking your head and earnestly wondering, WTH??
Take for instance the fact that the country of Honduras ran out of vehicle license plates not just months, but years ago. Considering that San Pedro Sula is known as the “crime capital of the world”, it leads me to (ass)ume that there are surely no shortage of prisoners in this country: hence, there should be no license plate shortage. You following me so far?
I bought my new, used car in January of this year. I really didn’t question the fact that there were no plates on it; I knew that there likely never were any in the first place. I drove off in my car quite happily, big old smile on my face because I not only had a car that started, but it also had new tires, AND the windows AND the radio AND the AC AND the CD player all worked (an island miracle!), and it was AWD. I planned to go anywhere I pleased in this hardy island car with no license plates.
Before we go on, let me catch you up to speed on the eccentricities of driving on my rock…
They do random road checks here to look for possible escaped prisoners from the mainland (who should be over there making license plates, if you ask me), unlicensed drivers, and unregistered cars. Though beyond that, it doesn’t matter if an 11 year old is behind the wheel, sitting on a bag of beans to see over the dashboard. That’s cool with them, no problems there. There are no official rules of the road in Roatan. You can drive at night sans headlights, you do not need bumpers, your tires can be totally bald, and windows and exhaust pipes are not required.
The driver’s test does not ask any questions about or even admonish tailgating (no, not the party on your tailgate type), parking on the main street in traffic, the disregard of turn signals, passing on corners, stopping just on the downside of a hill – it’s all okie dokie here. If you can answer a few psychological questions, you get your driver’s license and, as an added bonus, they even tell you your IQ. I kid you not. Answer correctly and voilà, you are Albert Einstein’s equal.
I have been stopped many times at “random checks” and it’s no big deal – I am always sweet and polite and talkative. Plus, I have cleavage. I’ve gotten to know many of the cops on a first name basis. Some of them even want to come to my house, like Ronald, who told me as such and I replied, “You are bad!” and smacked his hand playfully. Yes, he had a large gun, but that didn’t deter me at all. Stupid, fearless, naive… use whatever adjective fits.
Then, one day my polite cleavage strategy broke down. I got stopped by the National Police. The first officer spoke no English, so a young, nice-looking, English-speaking cop came to talk with me. His name was Luis (we exchanged names of course since he had my resident card in his hand), and I discovered he was from La Mosquitia aka the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. He told me that it was now illegal to drive without plates on my car unless I had my placa (license plate) permit with me. My placa what?? I told him I had no idea what he was talking about, but was sure it must be in my papers back at home. I asked if he wanted me to go and look for it and bring it back to him. He very sweetly said no, he trusted me, but said that I must carry it with me at all times from here on out. He then told me he was studying French and Italian, and he said a few phrases to me in each language. I knew at that moment the fact that I didn’t have a placa permit was no longer an issue. When I got home, I went through my paperwork and right there before my eyes was my placa permit. I put it in my car immediately. As far as I was concerned, I was now legal.
Then, on June 2nd, the government decided to once again make actual placas and enforce their placement on all cars. It was posted on a Roatan Facebook page that they would be available in the office on the 3rd floor of the Welcome building in Coxen Hole.
Not wanting to continually get stopped by the cops, I was at the placa office on June 3rd. They had taped sheets to the counters with license plate number ranges on them. I found mine listed: PDT 9142. It was made May 19, 2015 in San Pedro Sula, the supposed murder capital of the world. YAY – the prisoners were working again.
I did my best to converse with Guy#1, but he went and got someone who spoke English. Guy #2 looked through 3 manilla folders for over 11 minutes (I time things) labeled San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and La Ceiba. There were 2 sheets in each folder, but he couldn’t find my plate. I filled out a form, and he said they would get the placas and call me in 2 weeks. I thought, Sure you will… I think I’ll hold my breath until you call me…
As expected, in 2.5 weeks, there had been no call, so I went back and was told they hadn’t gotten them yet and assured me they would call. No call came. I went back again in 3.5 weeks and Guy #2 was there. There was also a Guy #3 who sat down to look through all 3 folders once again. Not finding my number, he sighed and dramatically laid his head on the computer desk over his crossed arms. Showing no signs of movement, I thought he had decided to take a nap out of frustration. WTF moment #… I lost count.
Guy#2 was asking him questions, and he was responding through muffled words spoken into his elbow pits. I was tempted to walk over and whack him on the back of his head, just to make sure he was conscious, but I refrained. End result? They had no clue where my placas were – the country had lost my placas.
After verifying through another credible source that they were definitely lost, I gave up. WTH, WTF, who cares? No placas, not my problem, let the country get their shit together.
That is, until I heard through the coconut telegraph that they had begun confiscating cars, as in IMPOUNDING, if you didn’t have plates. Regardless of the placa permit, you needed plates. From a country who can’t find your plates. I was volunteering at an event and the Chief of Police for my district was there. I know him and was talking to him about the event, then decided to present the license plate debacle and ask his “real talk” advice. He assured me, they were serious: no placa, impound car, pay to get placa, pay to get car back.
Island benefit/curse: there is always someone you can pay off. I made a call to the local, “I can get your placas” place and for $90 USD, they said they would get them for me. Sure, I had already paid for them when I bought my car, but I would have to pay again. Welcome to Honduras. I paid him the $$ and they said they would call in 2 weeks. And OMG, they actually did. They had my placas.
I stopped to get them the next day. They were open, but the placas they had were not my number. EVEN THEY COULD NOT FIND MY ORIGINAL PLACAS. Obviously someone was driving with my PDT9142 on their car. They simply f’d up and gave my plates to someone else. As a solution, they had new plates and a paper for me to go to the bank and get a new Matricula (registration showing the new placa #). And yes – that cost me another $51.50 to transfer to a new number because THEY lost my original plates.
I went to the bank with all of my paperwork and resident card and within 35 minutes, I was once again, finally, a legal driver in a mostly illegal country. That significantly made my freaking day.
Ah, paradise. There is nothing quite like it.