Border crossings make me nervous. Although I’m not doing anything wrong or carrying anything illegal, I feel trepidation as I approach every single one of them. Even when I traveled to Europe, I felt the same things as I got off the plane, got my luggage and went to the customs area to cross into whatever country where I was arriving.
The Mexican/Guatemalan was an entirely different experience from any of my previous border crossings. As our van approached the border and you began to see Mexican soldiers carrying assault rifles, they looked like M16s. They were stopping northbound cars and trucks entering Mexico to inspect their passengers and cargos.
The sight of law enforcement folks carrying shotguns and automatic weapons is supposed to be a reassuring one – and you see them all over Central America, at banks, hotels, stores and so on – but it doesn’t really inspire me with much of a sense of confidence for my safety. Then again, I haven’t been robbed yet, so perhaps I should be a bit more open minded about the whole thing.
One of the reasons I always have a bit of angst as I approach border crossings is that I despise looking like an idiot. I have a fear that I’ve done something that is going to screw the crossing up – I don’t have the visa money in the right type of currency, or I’m supposed to be in another line than the one I’m in, or I need some sort of document that I haven’t gotten beforehand, or I didn’t get some stamp that I needed at the last border, or whatever.
For this particular crossing I had a specific worry – the Lonely Planet guide that I was using for Central America said that I needed to pay some transit tax to leave Mexico. It was supposed to be about $20 U.S. dollars or so. The book said that you had to purchase it at bank and if you didn’t have it at the crossing, you’d have to find a bank to pay it and get the appropriate document or receipt. When I entered Mexico from the U.S., I asked the border agents there if I needed to pay a “transit tax” because I was leaving Mexico and eventually going to Guatemala. The border agents said I didn’t need one. I asked a few fellow travelers about the issue and they all told me that I didn’t need it also.
The main reason I was slightly worried about it was that I was on a van with about a dozen others traveling from Antigua to Copan and I didn’t know what the van driver would do if I needed to go back somewhere and pay this damn tax. Or whether it would also foul up the crossing for the rest of the van. I asked one of the passengers whether she knew anything about it – she was an American studying Spanish in Guatemala and had come to Antigua for the weekend. She said she had crossed the border a couple of times and didn’t know anything about it.
The van pulled up to the Mexican immigration building. All of us piled out and got in line to get our passports stamped. The girl from Guatemala was a few people ahead of me in line. When she got up to the border agent, they had some sort conversation in Spanish – she was obviously asking him questions back about what he was telling her. He pointed to the left and she walked off that direction. The next few people got their passports stamped without a problem. I got up to the counter, handed over my passport, he asked me something in Spanish, I told him that “me no habla Spanish,” he pointed to the document that I got when I entered the country (they filled out some one page form and stamped it, instead of stamping my passport with the visa stamp) and said something that I translated as “you need to pay the transit tax” and pointed off to the left.
Luckily, the girl from Guatemala was over there when I got there and she was paying this mysterious transit tax. She was trying to get an explanation from the official in this building, but she never really got any solid reason for why just the two of us had to pay the tax. No one else on the van had to pay it. She at least explained to me how much it was and made sure I did the transaction properly. It was about $12 and I just handed over the cash, got my new stamp on my document, and went back in line.
After we left the Mexican immigration office we continued driving down the road towards the Guatemalan side of the border. Although it had a definite Latin American flavor to it, it started to feel like some modern version of an Indiana Jones movie – the scenes where Indiana Jones has arrived in some Middle Eastern city, with monkeys running around, people everywhere, organized chaos.
This had a feel like that for me – organized chaos. Although it looked completely chaotic, there was some sort of organization there. Its just that I had absolutely no idea what sort of organization it was.
There was trash everywhere. As we got closer to the border, and I imagined as we got further and further away from any remnants of governmental oversight, there were two huge piles of trash that were being burned, right by the side of the road. Piles of burning plastic bottles and other garbage spewing God-only-knows-what type of pollution and dioxins into the atmosphere is one of the signs I expected in a true 3rd world country, not Mexico.
It felt like we were in a no-mans zone between the borders. To be more specific, it appeared to be a no-law zone. Sort of a modern Wild West.
Well, frankly. Not THAT modern.
A rather large shantytown had taken root on both sides of the border. There was an open market than ran on for a half mile or so, selling everything you can imagine. Clothes, DVDs, bicycles, fruit, fireworks, and on and on. All of the buildings and market stalls looked like they had been put together in the most haphazard manner possible, and with the cheapest possible materials, many of which appeared to be ingeniously recycled from their original uses.
The van parked on the Mexican side. We all piled out, got out backpacks on, and started hiking up some street towards the border. When we got there, there was a big sign saying, “WECOME TO GUATEMALA.” It was the only English I heard from any official at the border.
We got in line to go through Guatemalan customs. Were surrounded by various moneychangers wanting to swap our dollars or pesos for the local currency. The Mexican van driver swapped out with our new driver on the other side. The Guatemalan guy made sure we were all in the correct line and told me that I didn’t need to change my money here (I didn’t remember from my guidebook whether this was one of the borders that it was good to use the border moneychangers or not). After we stood in the non-moving line for about five minutes, the new van driver grabbed up all our passports and went into the building to try to sort out the crossing.
Apparently he got something going properly. The line slowly moved forward. The guy behind the counter started calling out names of our group and as your name was called you went forward and got your stamped passport. You also had to pay him a couple bucks – although the guidebook said there was no visa fee at this crossing. As in one of my (many, many) favorite lines of Casablanca from Captain Renault, “well, I am only a poor corrupt official.”
Has a better movie ever been made? Every single line in that movie works. Go watch it again – it is one of the funniest movies of all time. “I am shocked. . . shocked that there is gambling going on in this establishment!”
In any case, our new driver/fixer shuffled us through the border crossing and then checked each of our passports to make sure that we were properly stamped. We got in our new van and then drove through the shanty town on the Guatemalan side.
My favorite image on that side: laundry out to dry. . . on top of a barbed wire fence.