Posted from El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Contained within: the worst day of the trip so far
Thursday morning, we left the surreal little Mexican Quebecois island in the middle of Acapulco bright and early, prepared for eight hours of driving. This is a good time to mention how incredibly frustrating and irritating the Mexican topes, or speed bumps, are. Granted, they are extremely effective. But they can also turn a five minute drive into a fifteen minute drive if you are traveling through many adjacent small towns, as we found ourselves that morning. In the smaller towns they are useful in controlling speeding and thereby reduce accidents, especially to pedestrians. But often they are unpainted and frequently unmarked. Not only that, but if the tope happens to be in the shade it can be almost impossible to see. Often we have seen Mexican men working hard to paint the sides and rails of bridges, which look fantastic. Note to Mexico: keep the topes because they work even if they are a pain in the rear, but paint them so that they are not invisible to even the most alert driver.
Moving on… somehow we managed to make it in eight hours to a very rustic campground at Zipolite Beach. There were cold showers and no-flush toilets, but the cost was only just over $10 U.S. The beach was totally our favorite Mexican beach so far; it has a nice vibe and seems to cater to a certain grungy, hippie crowd. It also happens to be a nude beach. We kept our clothes on but nonetheless had a very nice time, enjoyed the happy, free energy. At the campground, Uli was parked in between two trees. It was cozy. Until a rooster nested in one of those trees. We fell asleep at 9:30. The rooster’s first crow, alerting us to his presence, was 10:30. Earplugs were procured. They came in useful during the other four ear-splitting crowing sessions of the night.
On Friday we drove over seven hours to Puerta Arista. There is nothing earth-shattering to report: we walked along the beach, swam in the warm ocean, found a cheap dinner, watched the sunset on the beach, and went to bed very excited in the fact that the next day’s drive would only be about four hours – the shortest of the week – after which we would be relaxing in a hotel room planning our border crossing into Guatemala on Sunday.
Or so we thought.
On Saturday morning, since we were only anticipating four hours on the road, we took our time in packing up camp. We even cooked some oatmeal for breakfast, which we haven’t had the opportunity to do all week long because of our early departures and long drives. We left Puerto Arista at 9:15, headed to Tapachula. Around 1:15 we arrived in Viva Mexico, Chiapas. This is where it all took a crazy turn.
While driving through town we were instructed to pull over by a man with a badge. Not a police badge; the kind of security badge with a neck strap that many people wear while on the job that usually includes an unflattering I.D. photo. The man’s name was Rigoberto and he was accompanied by a sidekick whose purpose we could not figure out other than to convince us that we needed to do whatever Rigoberto said. Joe thought of him as a Guatemalan version of the Artful Dodger; there was something shifty about him that we didn’t like, although Rigoberto himself presented well and spoke professionally, albeit completely in Spanish; his English was minimal, which made the situation even more complicated.
Rigoberto either spotted our U.S. plates or the Mexican sticker permit on our windshield that allowed us to bring Apollo into the country for six months. He explained to us (in Spanish) that we would need to get a new permit for Guatemala and cancel the Mexican permit. He explained that he was a customs broker (tramitador) and that he could help us do that much more quickly than if we were to attempt it on our own. (All the while the Artful Dodger kept popping up into our windows like a Whack-a-Mole saying things like “20 minutes” and “five dollars.”) It’s very true: taking a car across a border is incredibly complicated – much more so than walking across it or taking the bus. We told Rigoberto that we already knew this but had planned to do it the next day (Sunday) and thus did not need his help.
“But the vehicle office is closed on Sundays,” he said (in Spanish). “No cars go through.”
We weren’t aware of that. If it is true and we waited until Sunday and were thus not allowed through the border, then we would have to wait until Monday, which would make us late for Spanish immersion school. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, but we did promise the school that we would be there on Sunday afternoon. If we needed to wait to cross the border until Monday, it would still take us five to seven hours to get to the town where our school was.
Erik had heard of these customs brokers previously. Originally we didn’t think we needed one, but in light of this new information of the vehicle office being closed on Sundays, Erik was reconsidering. When Rigoberto told us that it was not necessary to cancel our Mexican car permit before leaving the country and we did not have to pay a special re-entry fee, Erik was even more intrigued. We all went to the nearby Banjercito office on a fact-finding mission, and while Erik went inside and discovered that in fact Rigoberto was correct, Joe (who spoke minimal Spanish) had the (mis)fortune of standing outside with Apollo, trying to make awkward small talk with these two (who spoke minimal English).
When Erik returned, convinced by an official that we in fact did not have to cancel our Mexican permit, it was proof of Rigoberto’s honesty and he presented his offer: he would take care of ALL permits for Apollo, have our passports stamped, and get us a 90-day Guatemala car permit (which we were told previously was not possible; they only issue 30-day car permits), get it all done within an hour, and charge us $5 U.S. We would leave him in Guatemala and then he would help someone else try to cross the border into Mexico. Too good to be true, right?
After a lot of back-and-forth (in English), the two of us decided to take a chance that Rigoberto was on the up-and-up. After all, nothing was illegal about this; although it just rang a little shady. And the Dodger wore on our nerves. In a couple of minutes, Rigoberto (none too thin) was flat on his stomach riding on the false floor in the back of Uli. Joe had to physically bar the Artful Dodger from getting into the truck as well because we just didn’t see his purpose, and Rigoberto was fine with that. Soon Erik was noticeably driving faster than usual out of nervousness towards the Carmen border – which was NOT the border crossing we had originally intended on using but was the one that Rigoberto insisted on. Why? Because he knows everyone who works at that border.
After a very uncomfortable 20 minutes for all of us, we were at the border at Carmen. Immediately we were stopped in the street by an official-looking man in a brown uniform who collected ten pesos. Rigoberto said it was necessary, but we still don’t know what that was for. As we approached the border, we were completely surrounded by other tramitadors looking to help us, more than a dozen. Some of them even were so bold as to perch themselves on Uli’s running boards as we continued to drive. Rather aggressive little devils.
He told us we needed to park so that he could take care of the paperwork and so directed us to a parking lot. It was a rather ominous sight: the lot had two rows of cars, most of which had license plates from the United States, and all marked with sale prices. Apparently there were for sale because the owners could not or chose not to pay the Mexican import fee. He told us that since it was hot out we should park in the shade. The shade, of course, was in the farthest, loneliest corner of the parking lot. Remember those dozen or so other customs brokers who swamed us on the road? Well, they were still with us; they followed us all the way in. They were still there, peering into our windows, when we stopped in the parking lot. They were still there, hugging Uli, when the three of us sat inside the car for an additional five minutes (with Rigoberto still in the same uncomfortable position on top of our false floor) discussing what would happen next.
Tomorrow: what happened next. Spoiler: those guys who wouldn’t leave… they were all in on it together with Rigoberto.