A bribe to cross?

After we said out goodbyes to Edwin, Jeff and I boarded back into the trusty black Blazer truck and headed south into Zapata territory.  The Chiapas State has had some insurgent activity of late and the Mexican Army clamped down hard on the area.  Most of the drive was in semi-arid plains ringed with patches of jungle, usually along the rivers.  I was making good time, perhaps about 70mph and Jeff asked me to slow down.  I remarked that there was no one out here (to run into) and it was safer to drive fast.  He agreed that there was in fact no one out here and also no one to help us if we crashed.  I suppose that he had a good point; it had been a 1/2 hour since we had seen another car.  If we had a blow-out and rolled the truck, we might not be discovered for hours.  So, I slowed down.  And with this paragraph, I’ll say to all other travelers, especially those in remote areas; take it safe and slow, better to arrive alive than early.

As we approached the last 100 miles of our drive before we reached the Guatemalan border, I did notice that the countryside turned greener and greener.  We began to see sugar cane fields and broad leafy plants.  The region certainly seemed to be rural and most of the traffic that we encountered was in some way or shape related to agriculture and cattle.

About 5 miles before the frontier (border), we passed through a set of speed bumps and a bunch of kids were frantically waving for us to stop.  They all seemed to have some papers in their hands and were pointing at them as if we should have some idea what they wanted.  We had been stopped by kids before who were looking for handouts, assumed them to be doing the same, and then drove on.  It wasn’t until we reached the border checkpoint that we realized that we had to have our visas stamped – 5 miles back where the kids were trying to get us to stop.  Doh!  Looks like we’ll have to drive back.

We did drive back and one of the kids, named Roberto, seemed to clamp onto us and became our unofficial “guide.”  For a few bucks he walked us through the process.  Our passports and vehicle registration and permit were all checked and then we received the necessary stamps and papers to proceed.  Roberto came along to “introduce” us to a “guide” that could “help” us cross the borer quickly.  No doubt that our little friend was a scout for a border agent but we had no idea how easy, or difficult it would be to cross the border.  We were soon to find out.

As soon as we pulled into the queue to cross the border we were besieged by vendors of peanuts, corn, soft drinks, a man began washing my windows (below) even though I didn’t ask and about 8 or 10 “guides” clamored around the truck offering their services in broken English.  Roberto grabbed me by the hand and pulled me towards the waiting immigration area.  Inside I saw long lines of Mexican and Guatemalan truck drivers, travelers and a rag-tag assortment of people from all around the world.  It seemed like each Anglo person had a “guide” attached to their waist and were all in the front of the line.  Hmmm…  it seems as though the guide may be of some service.

As soon as our guide spotted Roberto, he came right over and introduced himself as Guermo.  Guermo told me that the wait to cross the border was at least 12 hours due to the heavy congestion.  But, he assured me, he could expedite the process because he “knows people” and can get our paperwork to the front of the line.  “How much?”  I asked and he quickly replied that his services were twenty U.S. dollars.  I told him that it was too much and that I would just stand in line.  He quickly lowered his price to $10 and said that my time was worth more than ten bucks and that I should accept his offer.

I reluctantly surrendered our passports, visas, car insurance, registration and Mexican permits and Guermo went to work.  He walked right past the line of tired locals and through the dutch door that separated the counter from the public.  It almost seemed as if he was an immigration employee as he strolled right into the controlled area like he owned the building.  He talked with an overweight man who nodded, took the pile of papers and then sat it on the desk next to three similarly stacked piles.  I figured that those stacks were for the tourists who had paid bribes, ahem, I mean service fees to their agent for expedited service.

Guermo told me that I didn’t have to wait in line, I could go sit at the truck or do some shopping; he would come and find me when the paperwork was ready.  I found Jeff and we looked around the food stalls, Roberto close behind waiting for us to order 3 Cokes instead of two.  We took care of our junior guide and he smiled past dirty cheeks and soiled clothing.

After some time, Guermo came out and said that we had “cleared” Mexican immigration and now it was time to begin the process with the Guatemalan customs departments.  He then informed me that it would be an additional $10 for the Guatemalan customs.  “Ah,” I thought, “Here we go, let the negotiation games begin.”  I explained to Guermo that he told me ten bucks and that’s all he was getting.  He told me that he had to pay a portion of his “fee” to the Mexican officials and a portion to the Guatemalan officials, roughly five bucks each.  “You don’t want me to work for free do you?”  He then suggested that the Guatemalan process was much longer than the Mexican customs process and that I might be here all day.  “Remember Senor, the value of your time.”  He did have a valid point; ten bucks versus losing a whole day of travel didn’t make much sense.  He also suggested that I talk to some of the other expats and see how much they were paying, “All tourists pay U.S. $20,” he said.

I told him to proceed and while he wheeled and dealed, I talked to some Germans, some Dutch and a retired American couple in a large RV.  Aside from the Americans who paid $50, everyone else paid $20.  It seems that the larger the vehicle, the larger the bribes.  Ahem, excuse me, I mean “customs fees.”

After a while, Guermo came to the truck again and said that we must cross to the Guatemalan side to a copy shop and copies made of the passports, visas, car registration and insurance.  I didn’t understand why he just didn’t do this himself until the copy clerk gave me the bill.  Well, it was only a dollar, so I paid and smiled and followed Guermo back to the immigration area.

He ran back inside and I found Jeff chatting with some kids and sharing some sweets with them.  The local kids were all selling something: bracelets, gum, sodas, puppets, hats – pretty much all the junk that you throw away when you get home if you couldn’t eat it while on holiday.

I noticed this high-speed police interceptor car and had to get a photo of it:

After another 40 minutes or so, Guermo emerged with our paperwork and walked us to the Guatemalan customs window.  Our passports were stamped, Guermo shook our hands and we were off.  I looked back at the line of local people who were waiting to clear customs – the people who didn’t have $20 – the line had barely moved.  I felt bad for them.  Here we are, as guests and allowed to “cut” the line because we have $20.  It made me think about the inequities of this world.  For a minute and then I shrugged my shoulders and continued my journey.  It wouldn’t be until later that it would all set in…


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Puerto Escondido

Edwin agreed to come along with us from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido.  I was looking to split the cost of gas and tolls; I’d budgeted for the gas (twice as expensive as the U.S., but the tolls were quite a bit more than I’d expected).  I don’t think that Jeff and I were even heading to Puerto Escondido but it was on the way to Guatemala and it was by the beach.  We had heard that the beaches there were quite beautiful; what other reason would you need?  We drove due south from Oaxaca about 90 miles (about 140km) crossing over the mountains that separate the southern Mexican coast from the interior high plain.  As we crossed the summit and looked towards the south we could see thick and lush jungle (above).

When we arrived, we checked out two or three of the local hostels and found one to our liking and then headed straight for the beach.  It was a crowded post-Christmas beach week and we enjoyed the ocean, the sun, the view and the company of some of the local people.

I listened and was awed by the fluency of Edwin’s Spanish.  It seemed as though he had been speaking it for years.  Again and again the locals asked how long he had been speaking Spanish and stared in disbelief when he said only 6 weeks.  And then, just like in Oaxaca, the conversation turned to football and his native Holland and he was an instant celebrity.

“Damn,” Jeff said again, “Really, we need to dump this guy or we’ll never meet any chicks.”  We laughed again.  Edwin was staying in Puerto Escondido after we left, but the inside joke was fun to laugh at.

We lingered as long as we could watching the sun set and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of the beach.  Eventually we broke free and walked the block or two back to our hostel and showered to head out for a taste of the local nightlife.  We stopped at a liquor store to buy some drinks and found the clerk asleep at the cash register.  I thought I’d try out a new Spanish word that I had learned and said, “Casado?”  But, I had mixed up the words, casado is ‘married,’ I had meant to say cansado for ‘tired.’

The clerk replied, “No casado, cansado,” to which Edwin quickly replied, “Casado, sansado, es mismo,” meaning, “Married, tired, it’s all the same.”  Edwin, the clerk and I all broke into spontaneous laughter.  It was the first Spanish joke that I ever “got.”

We ended up at a night club with a thatched balcony that overlooked the ocean.  The warm breeze blew right through and with the loud club music it really felt like a tropical getaway.  I met a pair of young women from Mexico City; Marisella and Maria.  They were both recent graduates from college and had taken their first “real” jobs in the city.  They were visiting the beach with family and had taken the night away to enjoy some music and dancing.

The  two were quite interested to know about the United States and we were interested to know their “take” on, well, pretty much everything.  They both seemed quite concerned that America had a “low” opinion of Mexico because of what they saw as an inaccurate portrayal of Mexico in the American media and in Hollywood.  They went into great detail to explain to us how cultured Mexico was, how many of its people go to college, and how cosmopolitan the larger cities were.  If I had to judge Mexico based on these two lovely ladies, I would have to say that I would agree with them.

The next day we made our farewells with Edwin; it was a shame to leave such a “laid back” beach community like this.  I could certainly have stayed for another week and relaxed and enjoyed the ocean.  But, we had a schedule and a few more countries to see.


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Luz de Luna

This post is as much as a plug for the Luz de Luna Hostel as it is a description of our experience there.  After consulting the Lonely Planet Guidebook we checked two or three budget hotels and hostels and found that many were booked out.  We came to the Luz de Luna and found that dormitory style rooms were available that slept 4 or 6 to a room.  The prices were quite reasonable, only about $8 per night per person.  Additionally, the owner was able to arrange secure car parking for the Blazer which made me feel a lot more secure about my truck.

The hotel had a warm and friendly staff of family members who made us feel right at home.  The guests were a nice mix of people from all over the world; a French family (mother, father and two young children), three girls from Germany, some young men from Ecuador and a few other travelers from all over the world.  In the common courtyard everyone chatted and shared Central American travel stories.  We lounged in the hammocks, absorbed some sun and Vitamin D, played chess (below) and enjoyed an occasional cocktail.

… Robi and Jeff enjoying a game of chess…

The hostel had full cooking facilities and was a short walk from the downtown Zocalo.  I watched the French family for a few days.  They were travelling for several months in North, Central and South America in a small Volkswagen Van.  The family made breakfast in the morning, packed a lunch, went sightseeing, then to the market and came back to the hostel to cook a family dinner.  The young children spoke 3 or 4 languages and were seeing and experiencing things that most children will never see.  This was the first time that I realized that it is possible to go backpacking on the road – for months at a time – with your family (small children included).  If families can homeschool their children at home, why not on the road where every day is an adventure, kids learn new languages and experience new cultures, and learn invaluable life lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom.

In the top photo, Jeff relaxes in the hammock, the German girls to the left and the French family is just coming through the front gate of the hostel (background).

The entire guest list and the hostel owners all agreed that we would collectively celebrate Christmas and the German girls all agreed to make the dinner.  The men thought of some creative ways to be of service for the party that was being planned.


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