Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Good, The Bad & The UGLY!

Enough with the cliffhanger we left you with a few days ago. It's time to spill our guys about the UGLY. Hope you've got time - this one's a full on novel.

Introduction: Good guys & bad guys

We were really lucky (and careful) during our drive down to Guatemala through Baja and Mexico and didn’t have any major mishaps. The worst that happened was when the power switch on the camper malfunctioned and our keys got locked inside. But within 20 minutes with the help of a Mexican “locksmith” we were back on the road. And remember back in Oxaca when we got that friendly police escort to help us find our way around a road block? Other than the usual stop & search by the military when crossing borders, we never once found ourselves in a sketchy situation or got pulled over by the police – OJALA! Considering all the stories we had heard from fellow travelers, we felt pretty lucky.

Fast forward to Guatemala. Here, there are 2 types of “police.” There are the guys in the black trucks with yellow writing that carry weapons – they can be the corrupt ones. We’ve been told that they technically aren’t allowed to pull you over for traffic violations – only if they have another real reason. We’ve also heard other various nightmare stories about these guys, and know the proper precautions to take if something were to happen. Then there are the “transit police”. These guys drive silver trucks with green writing. They are unarmed, but can pull you over for traffic violations, although you rarely see it happen.

a common sight in Guatemala

Part 1: A stroke of luck

For a couple of months we were fine – flying below the radar in our very recognizable gringo-mobile with Colorado plates. (Sidenote: We can legally have our car in the country for 90 days before we have to cross a border, re-enter Guatemala and apply for permission for the vehicle again.) Then one evening, driving back from an outing in the city we got pulled over by the police for no reason at all. They’re sneaky. They waited until we were out of a heavily trafficked area where there wasn’t a well lit area to pull over in and proceeded to tailgate us with their flashing lights. Well we knew what was going on and weren’t going to pull over until it was safer, so we turned on our hazards to show them we understood. We drove for quite a while, not finding a good place to stop, but just kept going with the hazards on. They obviously didn’t like that and got on their loudspeaker and were demanding us to pull over. Finally we did (still in an unlit area) for fear of them pulling out the guns. And actually they told us that they had radioed ahead to another cop to set up a road block for us. Yikes! Immediately I got on the phone with a friend (a trick we had been told was helpful) and kept her on the line the whole time. They made us show the proper paperwork – understandable. Then they made us both get out of the car while they searched it – not acceptable. “On what grounds?” I asked. The reply I got was “It’s my job.” Your job my @$$, I thought. Surprising after about 10 minutes they let us go and didn’t even try to take anything from us – OJALA! That was our first incident – nothing major.

Part 2: Luck always ends

A few weeks passed and incident #2 occurred. This is where things started to go downhill. Ben was driving his work car in Guatemala City where he and a co-worker stopped at a gas station to go inside and get a drink. During the 2 minutes that he was inside the store, a thief jimmied the lock on the driver’s side door, put down the front seat, reached in (over all the other things in the car), grabbed his backpack (North Face) and ran away. Yes the alarm did go off, but they didn’t make it outside in time. And the best part is that another guy watched the whole thing go down and didn’t do/say a thing. Unfortunately for us that happened to be a day when he had several big-ticket items in the bag including, the backpack itself, Smith sunglasses, his Swiss Army watch (took it off to repair a system), his iPod (because the car doesn’t have a radio), a leatherman tool (for work), our telephone/internet bill, our passports & complete copies of the passports (was taking them to be renewed at the migration office), & 2 credit cards (needed copies of them for passport renewal).

Our beautiful, hard earned stamps - Gone!

Within minutes we reported the stolen passports & credit cards (which had already been used), but nothing could be done about the personal things that he lost. We’re unable to make an insurance claim, as the rates will inevitably go up (understandable), but losing nearly $1000 worth of our own personal things hurts – a lot – especially when you consider that is the amount that I make for 4 months worth of work. Plus most of the things lost are necessities for Ben, so they will need to be replaced regardless.

The following day we paid a visit to the US Embassy to get emergency passports so that we could continue to be legal, but mostly because we needed to drive to the Guatemala-El Salvador border that weekend to re-apply for permission for Dewey to be legal. However that didn’t leave us time to drop the passports off at the migration office to get our new stamps. We explained the dilemma to the girl working at the Consulate’s office and she assured us that it would be no problem to just get the stamps at the border, so assuming that she actually was educated on how to help us, we believed her.

Part 3: When bad gets worse

Arriving at the border Saturday morning, we explained the situation to the migration officer and received our exit stamp from Guatemala. Technically we shouldn’t have needed to actually leave Guatemala, just file the paperwork and turn around to go home, but the Aduana office needed to see that we had an entrance stamp too (to import the car) . So back we went to Migration to get the stamp. Well as it was explained to us, because we weren’t actually going to be out of the country for 72 hours, we would have to pay Q200/person to get the stamp. Seemed sketchy, but what choice did we have? (We couldn’t leave because I had a team still that day and my parents were arriving the following morning at the airport). So we got the stamp and then the guy took us into a side room where he received our money (only cash – sketchy clue #2) and put it in his pocket. Well obviously this angered me, so I waited a bit, and then requested to speak with the boss, whom we questioned about the process and confirmed that yes indeed we had just been extorted and given illegal stamps in our passports. In the mean time I was getting all worked up while explaining our situation and begin to cry (it had been a super stressful week). Well this makes him highly uncomfortable and he gets our money back for us (OJALA!), but then tries to convince us that he can remedy the situation if we just pay him Q100/person. Ha! – extortion #2. Do we look that stupid?

if only it really were monopoly money!

So back to the Aduana office we went where they again, refused to help us. Why? We could never really get a clear answer. Most likely because of having exit and entry stamps on the same day or because we didn’t have the original title to the car (nevermind that we made it the whole way down to Guatemala without it. We had been advised not to bring it, because if our car ever got stolen with the title, we would have no proof.) After pleading for about 30 minutes they devised a plan that we could enter El Salvador, drive an hour north and cross back into Guatemala at the other border. Not really having another option, we agreed that this is what we would do, but upon our arrival at the entrance to El Salvador, they wouldn’t let us in because we had illegal stamps. Not only that, but the border guard took our passports, made copies of them and alerted all the El Salvadorean borders that we may be trying to make an illegal entrance or exit from El Salvador. Of course I was freaking out at this time, so I called the US Embassy emergency number. They should be able to help us right? Heck no! I got transferred to some on-call US military guy who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish and knew not 1 single thing about the laws dealing with border crossing and importing of cars. Thanks Embassy – glad to know we can count on you in the case of an emergency.

Resolution: This too shall pass

Back at the window for the Aduana Office again (now I am hysterical) we finally get a “boss” to assist us, who also turned out to be a lawyer. Luckily Guatemalan men don’t like to see a lady bawling her eyes out, and they turn soft. While we waited they met and got their stories straight and the explanation that we were given for all of the hassle from their office was because we didn’t have the original title. We offered to show the scanned copy we have stored electronically, but he didn’t really care. Instead he questioned us a bit about our jobs, where we live, etc. Turns out the guy’s ex-wife lives only a few blocks from us in Antigua. After some small talk, he filed our paperwork, gave us the name of one of his lawyer friends in Antigua who could notarize the copy of our title, and sent us on our way. Right before walking out of the office, he mentioned to me that he was happy to help us since I looked like his favorite singer – Tori Amos. And with that, luck was back on our side! OJALA!

can't say that I see the resemblance

Conclusion: Long story short

Rules to follow when in Guatemala:

Buy a discreet looking backpack. Never carry anything of value. Don’t believe the Consulate. Bring the original title. Have someone other than the Embassy you can turn to in case of an emergency. Let them know you won’t be extorted. Cry. Do your best to look like someone famous. Rely on luck!

The end


Melanie Finotti said...

My Lord.... this posting really scares me!!! And you never mentioned a word about these incidents while we were visiting. I'll say it again - be safe & be careful.

Melanie Finotti said...

Anythng else you'd like to reveal? I'll be back to get you.

Sean said...

Wow, what a story! I haven't had any experiences like that so far, but who knows what will happen in the months to come.

I'm living in Xela and stumbled on your blog I don't know how. I like it!

Anne said...

wow, guys. that is beyond words. let us know if we can send you any replacement items! we all know brian has more than enough ipods to go around...
this is angie sending from anne's computer...she says hi, too!

aaron said...

craziness!! thanks for sharing. those are definitely some good lessons learned. cuidense!