Posted from El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Imagine being at the border of not one but two foreign countries, not being fluent in their national languages, having a middle-aged man in the back of your vehicle not in a seat (because one doesn’t exist), having twelve enterprising men with dollar signs in their eyes waiting for you to exit you vehicle (because they know you have to), and being in a parking lot with dozens of cars with U.S. license plates that just happen to be inexplicably for sale.
If you didn’t read Part One of this adventure, you can find it here.
Let us continue with our saga…
Because Rigoberto was going to pull some strings for us, he needed to do it alone. We could not accompany him. There were two reasons for this. 1) Because there were going to be some under-the-table helpfulness going on in the administration offices, and 2) Because he didn’t want us to know the real costs of the services we needed.
His first order of business was to get our passports stamped for exit of Mexico and entry into Guatemala, which meant he needed to take our passports from us and the money for the fee, which he knew to the peso. In a gesture of goodwill, as he took our passports and our money he gave us his ID badge and his card of Guatemalan citizenship to hold until the transactions of the day were completed. It was of little reassurance to two guys who just let a perfect stranger walk away with their passports and some of their cash. But we let him out and he said he would be back in ten minutes.
However, upon opening the doors for him and ourselves, we were now forced to contend with his amigos. There was another customs broker who did the same job as Rigoberto. There was a guy there (Charlie, or “El Gordo”) who just happened to speak good enough English that he could translate everything for us. There was a guy with a HUGE wad of Quetzales (Guatemalan currency) who was more than happy to exchange our pesos for us. There were others who kept reaffirming to us what was going on and that everything was okay. And then there were others (like the Artful Dodger back in Viva Mexico) who really did nothing useful that we could discern. One of them was even drunk and so annoying that even the others kindly kept escorting him away from us.
Believe it or not, after ten minutes Rigoberto arrived with our passports, stamped appropriately. A good start. Then the tasks became a tad more anxiety-inducing because they dealt with Uli. We had to give him Uli’s original title, Erik’s U.S. driver’s license, and the Mexican certificate we possessed that allowed Uli into the country. This was going to take 40 minutes, he explained, during which time he was to find out the cost of a 90-day permit and all the other necessary fees. After a little while, he returned without our title and papers and gave us the price, which was more cash than we had on hand. Don’t forget, we had not originally planned to cross the border on Saturday and thus did not have sufficient funds in our pockets for the legitimate fees nor for Rigoberto & Company’s enhancements. But there was no way to walk away from the situation; they had our papers and we needed to pay for them. Their ingenious solution: they would generously front us the money and afterwards we would all go to the nearest ATM, another 10 minute drive away, and reimburse Rigoberto. We had no choice but to agree.
Rigoberto left us again to check on the progress. During that time Erik was called over to the front of the parking lot – used car lot – whatever – to pay for a parking space. Nice. At one point, Rigoberto was calling over the wall of the parking lot for his friends to tell him the make and model of Uli. Then they asked how much he was worth and if we wanted to sell him. For two guys under a lot of stress at the time, this was not a conversation we wanted to participate in. Somehow fortune smiled and the topic changed.
When Rigoberto finally returned and Erik signed all the appropriate papers (Joe carefully double-checked the headings looking for any indication of “sale” or “transfer” but the papers were legitimate), we finally headed to the actual border crossing, complete with orange pylons. There, Uli was “searched” for about 20 seconds, his tires were sprayed for biological/insecticide reasons (standard procedure), and the new sticker was in place (crookedly, we might add). After a surreal “thumbs up” sign and smile from the border guard, we were on a Guatemalan road to the ATM. Rigoberto was once again squeezed into the back of Uli, but he was holding on to our title and other documentation until he received his money. We had to follow El Gordo, who was riding on the back of someone else’s motorscooter, to the ATM.
At the ATM, Erik withdrew the amount that he was instructed to while Joe hung out with Apollo. It was so telling, however, that although Rigoberto did most of the leg work and El Gordo brought us to the ATM, that all the other cronies somehow miraculously also showed up at the ATM all those miles away. It should be noted that while Erik was actually withdrawing the money, all the men stayed very far away from the ATM. What class! We paid Rigoberto, who seemed slightly displeased at the amount he was receiving. This was because he was expecting one number, while El Gordo (behind his back) instructed us to pay him a different number and give the difference to himself. Oh, yes: this happened.
But we convinced Rigoberto that we were in the right, he returned to us our papers, and we gave him back his ID card and badge. Adios. But since we had no idea where we were, El Gordo offered to escort us to the main highway, were he said we would be sure to easily find a hotel. We were nervous because driving at night is not considered safe and this whole ordeal lasted about 3 hours, taking us to about 4:30. El Gordo (which, by the way, means “the fat one,” and although appropriate was most likely a moniker he had no idea was bestowed upon him by the others) hopped onto his friend’s motorbike to drive us to the highway but lost any coolness factor he may have had when he realized he had no idea how to get it started. After another five minute delay while he asked for help, we were following him to the highway.
When we got to the highway, it was his turn to collect HIS cut of our money. Hilariously, though, he had to hire a small child to hold up the motorbike because he couldn’t figure out how to make the kickstand work (another three minute delay). We paid the agreed-upon fee even though he remarked that we really should give him more (we refused) and finally headed out on the road, both of our nervous systems completely dissolved due to the events of the past three hours and all those border-crossing-helper-men in our rearview mirror.
It took us about half an hour, with the sun setting minute-by-minute, for us to find a hotel room. Very luckily, it was just minutes before we reached a larger city that the Lonely Planet Guide to Guatemala calls, “a brash, fairly ugly and chaotic center” and “a major stopover on the Columbia-Mexico drugs ‘n’ guns route…[with] more gang-related activity than any other town outside of Guatemala City.” But, thankfully, the hotel we just happened to see on the side of the road was wonderful, clean, had hot water and a decent little restaurant, friendly staff, wi-fi, and even had a carport for you-know-who. We settled in, did some laundry in the sink, and couldn’t stop discussing what the hell just happened to us.
Here’s the good news: we got exactly what we needed and we got it pushed through at a greater speed than we would have if we had tried to do it all on our own. They were good to their word about that. The bad news, of course, is that we were taken clear advantage of financially. We don’t even know why Rigoberto opened with the $5 fee figure, because it was just such a sick joke by the end of the day. Everyone was paid handsomely for the day, from the posse outside who were working us to the administrators on the inside who were trying to make a few more bucks. We completely understood that we would be paying for the service, but we were bilked, from the import fees to the currency exchange rate, and there was nothing that we could do about it. In the end, we are the ones who chose to use Rigoberto’s service but we should have had the foresight to get all the fees/charges in writing before agreeing to utilize him. Would that have even been possible? Probably not. But it would have indicated to them that we were more aware of the situation than they gave us credit for.
But, like we said, the good news is that it is done and it’s all air-tight. We are good in Guatemala for 90 days instead of 30, which was a major concern. We were not bullied or harmed in any way, just intimidated by the complexity of the situation which they took advantage of.
Sunday morning we woke up in Guatemala, no longer needing to concern ourselves with a border crossing, and began the five-hour journey to the city of our Spanish school. But that’s the next post. And it will be a very happy one, completely El Gordo-free.