Saturday, December 20, 2014

Bordering On Madness

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Imagine this scene with my van somewhere in the middle of it
This will be my summary account of crossing the Mexico/Guatemala border at the El Carmen "Talisman" crossing a week or two ago. In addition to my fictionalization of the drama I will try to include some factual information of what anyone foolish enough to attempt this in the future will need. I accept no responsibility for what happens to you if you attempt this crossing. If you want to read a good concise description of the process without profanity go here.

The fact that I have no personal photos of this event tells you that when the shit really gets bad I do not automatically reach for my camera even though it would benefit humanity and add value to these essays. I'm no war-time photo-journalist, that's for sure. Give me stray dogs and disappointed girlfriends and I do OK. More stressful than that and I concentrate on survival and this crossing event was as stressful as I can imagine without gunfire.

It all began in Huixtla...
God help you if you made it this far

The problem in Huixtla (the man trying to scam me pronounced it "Hui-la") is that although the Aduana (customs) building is brand new and pretty and modern...the Mexican transportation folks decided to abandon a nearby toll booth that was once an official inspection booth. Well, they abandoned it and it was totally occupied by Guatemalan tout scammers with badges that they printed for 20 pesos and have no official meaning at all except to identify them as hopeless impersonators. But the fact these impersonators are occupying a once-official toll booth near an official custom office makes it hard to just blow by them at top speed, which is all they deserve. See? If you choose the wrong person to ignore then you're going to jail, and if you treat these impersonators as legitimate then you'll never see your passport again. Follow me so far?

If you are taking a bus then not much of this applies to you. Eventually you'll get to the border, get an exit stamp for your passport, surrender your paper visa (you kept that thing right?) and then go to Guatemala and get an entry passport stamp. Yes, you'll be swarmed but you don't really have to do anything complicated to find your bus in Guatemala and move on.

Part I: When a Scam is Actually True

Step one in driving from Mexico to Guatemala is cancelling your Mexico import paperwork that you were supposed to get when you drove in from Texas or some other redneck state. If you failed to get that paperwork, as I once did, and you still managed to drive across Mexico by bribing police and playing dumb at all the military checkpoints then congratulations, you've asserted your sovereignty and now Guatemala is about to assert her authority and you'll probably have you vehicle seized because you can't cancel paperwork you never got and Guatemala insists on seeing the cancellation paperwork and there is absolutely no way to bypass the inspection booth in Guatemala. Only hundreds of dollars in bribes will get you through that check point and if you've come this far illegally then you probably have that kind of money to toss around. Go for it. Fuck authority!

For those of us who bowed to the will of Mexico and paid $300 to drive through her blighted deserts and high plains you must stop at the Huixtla Aduana office on MX200 and surrender your vehicle sticker and get a cancellation paper for entry into Guatemala. See? Si?

I was driving MX200, 5 or 10 KM before Huixtla, and it was getting dark and I saw a flash of a sign that said, "Return Foreign Vehicles blah blah blah..." It was a big sign with no light and too many words to read at high speed. I thought, "What the fuck? Is this where I cancel my paperwork? Way out here in the middle of nowhere? No, that can't be right. I'm too far from the border. This must be where you get import paperwork when you arrive from Guatemala...I wonder..."

My mental musing was interrupted as I quickly arrived at the above mentioned toll booth and was stopped by an impersonator with a badge who blocked the toll booth gate and since I was unprepared to ignore him I showed him my Vehicle import paperwork and he told me that he had to accompany me to a copy machine in Huixtla to get copies of my passport, title, visa, registration, license etc. Well, for your information, there is a copy machine at the Huixla Aduana, although I don't know if you are allowed to use it, and this abandoned toll booth has no official meaning anymore so this guy is like one step above the kids who sell chiklets on the street. But he's really convincing and has an official tone and a badge and he seems to know what he's talking I drive with him over the horribly ruined roads to Huixtla and get the copies and then go back to the Aduana.

I knew the guy was not official but I had not done my research on the steps involved in crossing the border and this is Mexico, after all, so it was feasible that this ridiculously complicated process involving a 20 minute ride to get copies and then going 20 minutes back to the custom office was the actual process and furthermore; he actually knew more than I did so he wasn't wasting my time.

I got a little worried when we entered the real custom area and were stopped by the officials. My passenger, Freddie, was Guatemalan and I suddenly realized that everything East of the customs area was kind of a lawless zone where Guatemalans and Hondurans and Nicaraguans could hang out indefinitely with no official paperwork or maybe a day pass. It wasn't really Mexico and it wasn't really Guatemala...But from Aduana to the West they would be undocumented immigrants and I was basically smuggling an illegal immigrant into Mexico, even though he was openly visible in the passenger seat, and that could cause real problems. Somehow, Freddie talked his way through the initial inspection and we drove up to the Aduana and the bank and both were closed because it was a Saturday after 6pm. I wrote down the hours of the Banjercito office but have since lost the piece of paper. From memory I believe the hours were Mon-Friday 8am to Midnight. Saturday 8-6. Sunday 9-5. Something like that. Maybe they open at 6 am M-F. If you aim for noon then you will probably have some luck doing your business. 
Anyway, the place was closed when I went there first with Freddie. Fuck. So, we had to leave though I probably could've slept there if I'd just pretended the van was broken. We had to drive through the inspection area for Mexico and were flagged over to the side where me and the undocumented Guatemalan riding in my 45 year old van made up the strangest couple these customs police had ever seen.
Again, we buckled down and told the police what they wanted to hear and we drove west, turned around immediately and got back on MX200 eastbound and drove through that abandoned toll plaza for the third of what would be 5 times. I remember the number because the drainage grates basically destroyed the suspension of my van because they were so fucking decrepit - like falling off a cliff. I let Freddie out at a gas station (He said he would pick me up at 8 so we could be early in line at customs and from there we would go to Guatemala together. I nodded and smiled.) and then tried to relocate the van. That's always a nightmare driving at night in a strange city looking for a "safe" place to camp. Jesus, I drove in circles for an hour before parking next to the super market right in the middle of town. I went to an internet cafe to read some stories like this one and became educated. At that point I realized that when I first went into town with Freddie to get my passport copied there was a moment when Freddie actually was holding my passport as he passed it back and forth to the copy lady, and he'd picked out that copy store, and it was very likely that Freddie and the woman had worked in concert to get my passport and then to hand me back some fake piece of shit and that I had not carefully inspected my own passport once I had it back, and that this would be a huge headache. FUCK. I ran out to the van and tracked down my paperwork and of course my passport was my original. Since Freddie had ridden back to the customs with me originally that would not have been too smart for him to steal my passport minutes earlier since I needed that passport to complete the process. 

I believe that passport extortion exists but Freddie specifically only wanted to guide me through the process for a payment of $20 or $30, which would be fine if I could trust him and since I could not trust him, I could not pay him. This would later give me an idea for a guide collective with some official recognition that would help everyone involved. 

I had my real passport, my copies, my money, my van. I ate a horrible street hamburger, almost got into a fight with a super drunk Mexican who had "been deported from U.S" (he was offended I didn't want a drink with him) and finally fell into a restless sleep in the awful humidity with a drenched towel draped on my flabby stomach and tormented genitals to cool me down.

Step II: Actually Cancelling the Import Paperwork

I woke up around 8am drenched in sweat and drove back west on MX200 to Aduana...there were no other cars parked on Sunday Morning. The office was open and it was like they were expecting me. The Aduana man needed all the copies I had made, he took pictures of the van and exclaimed "Que Sabor!" when he saw El Conquistador. It could not have been smoother. He confirmed the VIN number was the one on the paperwork and took the sticker off the windshield then we went back to the office and he stamped some things, typed some things and printed me out a cancelled paperwork document that I would need for Guatemala and informed me that the $186 bond I had placed back in August in Ojinaga would be credited back to the credit card I had used. I felt that was very unlikely but could only hope it was true. Originally, I had felt that I would never see that bond money again because I would either not want to leave Atlixco or they wouldn't give it back for some reason. I had also flown to St. Louis in September so my personal visa no longer corresponded to my van import permit. But none of that mattered.

Well, that closed the book on cancelling my paperwork and I went through the customs inspection again and this time they showed me no mercy. Even though I had just come from Mexico and was leaving to go to Guatemala, they acted like I was smuggling drugs to Mexico and tore the van apart, dogs ran wild on my bed, I was searched. The woman was impervious to my flirting and I felt that my grey beard now disqualified me from any charm factor. God Just Kill Me Now!

The woman finally smiled as I was getting ready to leave and asked, "Tiene fuma?"
"No, I don't smoke."
She said it like, 'come on, a little. Let's get high and relax.' and I laughed. 
"Marijuana? What? No absolutely not."
I pointed to the bible on my dashboard, "Soy Missionero. If I wanted drugs I'd go to Colorado. Only an Idiot would come to Guatemala to smoke crappy ditch week when medical grade kind bud is easily purchased in Denver and Seattle and Los Angeles."

Then we had a short debate about how drugs are evil and oddly I was the one trying to convince the border official that drugs are bad, but should be legal because it's not a realm of existence the government has any viable control over. More specifically, drugs should not be illegal, which doesn't mean the government approves of drug use, it just means they hold no official opinion of them, which should be the position about any personal health decisions, rather than fucking shit-head Big Brother holding my cock while I piss so I don't get my pants wet. The day it's illegal to piss on yourself will be a dark day indeed.

Anyway, I drove off, turned around again and went East on 200MX thinking maybe this time I'll get to Guatemala, every adventure has gates one must open and gatekeepers one must charm or kill. For 20 years I had failed to open this gate and now it was open...then I saw Freddie. I'm not making this up, Freddie was back in his post at the abandoned toll booth...and he saw and recognized my van and came running, I tried to avoid him, this final gatekeeper, and he managed to stop my progress with another person who insisted they needed to escort me to Guatemala, but when they came to my window I handed Freddie 10 pesos ($1) and thanked him and drove off...leaving the gatekeeper to kick my dust as he waited for another gringo.

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese 

 Step III: Exiting Mexico

Technically, once I had cancelled my vehicle permit and had not left Mexico I was in a kind of strange lawless suspension. I was not in Mexico but could legally drive my van in this 30 KM border zone with no permit as long as I never entered Guatemala. In another life maybe I will hang out near Tapachula for a while but in this life I felt the heat and humidity was too much to deal with so I pressed on toward the El Carmen border north and east of Tapachula. Good luck navigating the bypass roads, but know that Tapachula is that last place to make copies in peace. You can make a bunch of copies of your vehicle information, license, visa, cancelled import paperwork, but You can't yet make a copy of your exit stamp so you have to make copies at the border no matter what.

I wish I had made a video of the entrance to the river valley that marks the official frontier between Guatemala and Mexico. God, I was swarmed by 50 Freddies all shouting for me to stop, to change pesos, to save them. It was very unpleasant and that's why I didn't make a video. I had to concentrate completely on navigating between the bodies. When I broke free I had a literal parade of people running after me and before me were bikes and scooters all waving me on...pleading...

I feel bad for these guys because if I had half of their aggressive salesmanship, their disregard for honesty, their hunger, their lack of conscience, and "never take no for an answer" attitude then I'd be making a million dollars in Hollywood. These guys could sell ashes to the devil. They could make Aaron Spelling think softcore teen porn was a brand new idea. Listen: there is absolutely no market for a service guiding gringos across this particular border...maybe 5 gringos cross a day...but there are dozens of people waiting for that gringo to come. It makes no sense except when you consider that there are absolutely no other options for these frontier Guatemalans. This is the best chance at making money, waiting for a gringo to appear magically who needs a guide and will actually pay someone to point to a copy machine or watch their vehicle while they take a piss. Crazy! So that gives you a sense of their entrepreneurship; they are creating a market from a tangentially related requirement of paperwork from Guatemala. They have no official capacity but will pretend to be authorized to guide you, indeed, they actually pretend that you are required to hire them. God it was horrible because I ordinarily like talking to people, learning about life, but there were dozens of men all jumping and lying and scamming and touching. I finally said something I used to say to a kindergarten class: "Tengo dos orejas y tienen 20 bocas." I have two ears and you have 20 mouths, at a time. It sort of helped as did my patience and calm and singing. I hate ignoring desperate people, if I wanted predictable safe monotony I'd've stayed in Fort Stockton, but this border required a cold heart with a singular focus.

The only thing that has to be accomplished on the Mexican side of the border is to get an exit stamp on my passport. But that seemed to take forever because of all the people clawing for my attention. Two guides finally remained making me think there is an understood pecking order where guides take turns trying to get paid...and these two guys tried to explain things I had already read about but they constantly contradicted the process I thought I had understood and were pointing in three directions at once, parking, copies, stamps, money. It was rough and I pushed on to get the exit stamp. You'll need a copy of this passport picture with exit stamp (easily forged) but you can get that in Guatemala...All I can recommend is that you only talk to people with guns. Accept that everyone else is trying to lie to you. You only need to take your passport to the Mexican immigration booth and get it stamped. There are police in the area but they will not intervene. You really are on your own to get that passport stamped.

There will be people trying to get you to change pesos to Queztales and they will tell you there is no ATM machine in Guatemala but that's a lie. The ATM machine might, in fact, be broken, but it's right next door to the customs office and you can get the going rate of exchange there. Now, I did not see an official money changer office anywhere so you do have to change pesos to Quetzales with a person on the street. Try to get 7Q for every 15P or 1:2 ratio and you'll be in the ballpark of what the actual rate is. Obviously they can't give you the best rate since they'll lose money in the long run, but they can give you a ballpark exchange. I exchanged 200P for 105Q from a guy who spoke English and was more afraid that I was going to scam him for his 105Q by giving him fake 200P. Trust is totally absent at El Carmen....totally absent. Trust no one. I needed to go to the bathroom and almost shit my pants because I didn't know who I could give money to. Any asshole could point to a bathroom and say, "10 pesos" with his hand out and it turns out he had no business getting paid for entrance to the bathroom. I mean, no one can be trusted here. No one.

Then you can get back in the vehicle and cross the bridge into Guatemala...

Part IV: Welcome To the Country that Makes Mexico Look Modern

After the state sponsored slaughter of 43 students in Iguala, MX, not too far from Atlixco, toll booths were being occupied by protestors and by occupied I mean you paid your (increased) toll to the protestors while the police watched with bored expressions.  This is the Mexican bake sale except you don't get a cupcake. You pay your toll and move on. Well, in Guatemala, they don't need a toll booth or a mass murder to decide to set up a toll and the entrance to Guatemala was no exception...I paid a toll of 10Q to a big guy who provided no explanation except his gun. The whole time I managed to make friends by singing Jose Alfredo Jimenez songs but this toll taker was only charmed with money. 

The next objective is to park and I was directed to a parking lot near the customs office. I was very hesitant because I had come to abandon any trust and expect every decision to be followed by extortion...and parking my van in this big parking lot smelled like pure extortion. Customs has no exclusive parking and there was no place to stop on the road. A motorcycle might be easier because it will fit on the side, but El Conquistador would block all entry to Guatemala so I had to park it. But I suspected that should I park it in that lot I would either never see the van again, be extorted for thousands of dollars to get it again, or I had a feeling that the whole place was a used car lot and that my language limits made me sound like I was agreeing to sell my van to the next person who wanted to buy it.

It was fucked up and I was trying to concentrate and focus but these touts were all clawing at me still and telling me to change money and give them my passport and at that very moment when I was trying to decide what to do, where to park, a police car appears and guy who was not dressed as a policeman approached me. He was older and had much better command of his acting powers and he introduced himself as a customs official who needed all my paperwork immediately so I could clear customs. A drunk with horrible advanced conjunctivitis was clawing at me and singing some awful song, another guy was trying to pick my pockets, another guy was trying to sell me Quetzales and another was telling me that I had to listen to this new guy because he was the boss of the customs...and I thought the police car was related but of course that was only a coincidence and this new guy had no official power at all. I gave up and parked the van, expecting to never see it again. The drunk guy said he would watch the van and I went off to get my passport stamped for entry to Guatemala.

The immigration office is a block down from where the customs parking lot is. I waited, got a free Guatemala map, got my passport stamped, paid 35Q, and sort of frowned because I felt something was missing. Is that all? The immigration guy waved me away and the guide who was hovering around me said we needed to get copies of the passport now. So I got passport copies, making extra care that the passport never left my eyesight. I had copies of my vehicle paperwork from Huixtla so I took all of that and everything I had to the customs office.

The other guy I thought was a police officer followed me and asked to review all my paperwork again and his attitude was even more official than the actual custom officials, which was a giveaway that he was a hustler. It was horrible because it was so hot and so many people were climbing on El Conquistador, they all wanted to look inside and buy the moped with their non-existent money. This new guy was the worst of them all because he acted like I absolutely needed to give him all my paperwork and I finally said, "Let's go to your office, out of this heat, and conduct our business there like gentlemen." and he agreed, and when we got to the customs office he was immediately kicked out by a female customs official who was about 4 ft 5'' tall. "I Will call the police," she said sternly, and the guides all vanished immediately like cockroaches in the light. I breathed with relief as this was my archetype ally.

Part V: Oggy Becomes Evil

This official asked for my paperwork and could not find a Guatemalan Customs form because the Guatemalan official who stamped my passport never gave it to me. Jesus Fuck! I have fifty fucking touts all telling me what to do, I had two fucking countries trying to guide me into Guatemala and THEY FORGOT TO GIVE ME THE ONE SINGLE FORM THAT I NEEDED. And the touts overlooked the fact I didn't have that form. This was the absolute kicker to the whole event, the fact this simple form had evaded all of these people and I would have to go back to the Guatemalan immigration office and get it. No big deal, EXCEPT A HUGE BUS FULL OF IMMIGRANTS FROM GUATEMALA WERE NOW GETTING THEIR EXIT STAMP RIGHT BEFORE ME. I actually got mad at the one tout who reappeared when I walked to get the custom form.
"I need that form. You said you were helping me."
He shrugged.
"How could I not get the one form that I needed? It's not like there are dozens. It's ONE FORM. ONE! The only form this guy can give me and he never gave it to me. Everyone else gets it, but not me. I can't go anywhere in his country without this form and he forgot to give it to me. I said I was driving in. He only had to stamp my passport and have me fill that one fucking form out. And he forgot the second part. And you didn't notice even though your whole day is spent waiting for the opportunity to help me get through this. I don't ask for your help, but you insist on following me around and then you fucking fail to point out that he neglected to give me the single form I need in all of Guatemala?? So you are not only annoying but you can't even do the job right! Worthless. Fucking worthless and all these people are now waiting to get into Mexico so I get to stare at their fucking asses while sweat drips down my ball sack because ten minutes ago you forgot to point out that this asshole immigrant official had failed to do half of his fucking job! Motherfucker puta chingadera de la madre de Jesus en las montanas de la luna en mi culo pene chingafucking piece of shit!"

I swore and ranted and he nodded humbly. If only I had video of this event.

After all of Guatemala got their passports stamped I got the custom form and went back to the custom office. The tout insisted I needed to get a copy of this form but now I flatly ignored him and it turned out the customs people only wanted the original, and again the tout was immediately evicted, never to be seen again. Now I had all the paperwork, title, license, passport, canceled Mexican paperwork, registration. I had to pay 160 Q next door at the bank, and they only accept Quetzales so I had to make a withdrawl at an adjacent ATM machine that looked like it was built in someone's backyard. Then I paid the 160Q and had to get that receipt copied and again I could not decide who actually had authority to accept money for the copy and it turned out they were all employees of the tienda and I had offended all of them by refusing to trust them with my paperwork. It was exhausting and brought to light how trust in business is essential. Remove trust and business becomes utterly impossible. It was anarchy.

Finally, I went back to the customs office with the copy of the receipt and we both walked out to the van. The drunk was still there and pointed to his diseased eyes, "I watch you van. Ees good."

"Great, man. Thanks a million. It's in a gated fucking parking lot. You want money to sit on your ass drinking beer in the shade near my van in a guarded parking lot?"
"Si, caballero"
"Well, it's not going to happen."

Leave it to Guatemala to make me an arrogant American.

Part VI: Welcome to Guatemala, Your Van is About to Be Destroyed

The woman official was very affable and helpful and she determined that I was not bringing all my guitars to Guatemala to sell nor would I sell my moped (which I called a bicycle). She confirmed all the vin numbers and stuff, returned to the office, stamped some things, and told me to go through fumigation and someone would put the sticker on my van.

I paid 20Q to get my van out of the parking lot and then paid 38Q to have some kind of poisonous fungicide to be sprayed on the van...then a customs man put the import sticker basically in the middle on my line of sight in the windshield...and that was the end. I was free and legal to move ahead into Guatemala, which immediately became a steep incline that tested the limits of my van's transmission. I never saw the touts again and managed to avoid to be pickpocketed or pay for anyone to watch my van.

The worst part is that I can not reliably say any of my experience will remotely help you as it could all be different when you arrive. You could park your van in the same parking lot and it could be stolen immediately. You could be extorted by the customs official. You could be killed or kidnapped.

So my humanity project is now to write up a single page step by step process describing what must take place at the border for migrants in vehicles and pass them out for free to these touts. And then to attempt to convince them to organize a collective that works out of a tent near the road and if someone wants to buy the paper I typed out then they can sell that paper for 20Pesos...and for an additional 30 pesos they will happily walk the migrant through the process, watch their car, etc. There will be only one guide and they should only give their paperwork to the immigrant official and the custom official. That's it. If someone does not want to pay for a guide then THEY ARE NOT WORTH ANNOYING so don't try. It's a futile and humiliating enterprise that must stop and this is Oggy's plan to stop it. When I improve my Spanish a little better and am forced to renew my visa in 3 months I'll revisit this project. Until then, trust no one and remember the words of Mark Twain:

  “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

PS- Yesterday I checked my credit card balance and was baffled that it was +200. Had I overpaid by accident? I checked the transactions and was amazed that Mexico had promptly credited my account the correct amount.
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.