Monday, February 14, 2011

Guatemala-El Salvador Border

Somehow, our planned early morning departure slipped to 11:00 am. We figured we had about an hour to get from just south of Guatemala City to the El Salvador border at La Hachadura. In addition to not wanting to get there at noon when everyone was at lunch, for some reason, my mind was actually entertaining the idea that February 14th, Valentine’s Day, might be a federal holiday. Neither turned out to be an issue as dirt road detours slowed us down just enough to put us at the open border at 1:15.


At the Guatemalan side, we were immediately swarmed by helpers. No amount of refusal could get them to leave us alone, and the official who wrote down our license plate as we pulled up even pitched their services. With Ann in the truck, windows up and doors locked, I walked with a helper attached to my hip to the immigration window. As I’ve done at other borders, I told him very clearly in Spanish that I did not need or want help and would not pay him; Then if he happened to point me in the right direction before I figured the next step out, it’s not like I could forget that info…

A check out at the immigration window, and I went across the street to get some copies: first page and visa stamp of my passport, license, title, and the vehicle permit. I had heard something about needing these on the El Salvador side too, so I got two of each and brought them back to the window. Cost was a couple quetzales or like 20 cents for the copies. At a bridge just past immigration, a guard scrawled something on our vehicle permit and waved us through. On the other side, a Salvadoran official took a look at our passports and waved us towards a set of buildings.

At the El Salvador immigration window, the officer at first seemed amused by all the stamps in our passports and then mentioned that it was annoying that they were all out of order. I used a response that’s always effective: agreeing that the border agents in the other countries were backwards and didn’t know what they were doing. A well-dressed guy driving a Porsche Cayenne with El Salvador plates pulled up, and we made small talk about San Francisco while the officer mumbled to himself about Guatemalans.

Seeing the Aduana (“Customs”) sign farther down the building, I walked into an office and presented my Guatemalan Vehicle Import Permit and the extra copies I’d made on the other side. I’ll say right now, I think we’re pretty good at going through borders for the same reason I’m really bad at writing about them; We just go from person to person and calmly do whatever they tell us to do. In the end, it all gets done but I can’t say I’m always exactly sure what is happening at each step. And no, we’re not paying out money to each person and are never asked to. I’ve just read a lot of accounts of border crossings and no two reports of the same border seem to match up. Speaking Spanish, having all your names and numbers on documents match up with each other, keeping everything in a neat folder and just pretending like you’re having the time of your life seems to keep everything moving.

In this case, my casual approach bit us in the ass a little when the agent said that they hadn’t cancelled our Guatemalan Vehicle Permit on the other side, and sent me across the street to another office. When I found the unmarked office with five or six windows, a group of five officers sat behind Window #4 chatting. I walked right up as if I was in on the joke they were laughing about and hovered patiently. Almost immediately, one guy looked up – What the eff is this gringo doing? – and I asked my question. They said I needed Window #1, and the guy was at lunch. I made conversation in Spanish with a young truck driver waiting for the same guy, commenting that at least when the agent came back from eating, he’d be “contento.” When he showed up 10 minutes later, he said I needed to go all the way back to the Guatemalan side to have the permit cancelled.

I think you’ll drive yourself crazy if you don’t take these things in stride. So with a smile, we turned around, drove back across the bridge, explaining at both checkpoints what had happened and parked back at the Guatemala side. We were again attached by a helper to whom I explained I was quite capable of doing this myself. Still, he led me around to the opposite side of the building and told me to stick my papers through a barely cracked window crowded with truckers. With a “like totally, I knew that” shrug, I did it and a mysterious hand restacked them and moved them to another pile.

This latest helper was a guy in his late 20’s, stocky build, wearing jeans, a baseball cap and a black shirt with the word “Groomsman” written on the front. I asked him in Spanish if he knew what that meant. He said he didn’t but wanted to know. Now, I should explain that the verb “casarse,” to marry, is what they call “reflexive,” meaning that the “se” at the end refers to who is doing the marrying. In other cases in Spanish, “se” can be used as a pronoun to refer, for example, to who is being married. Suffice to say, I believe what I told him was that the shirt was what he’d wear if he was marrying his friend rather than what I meant, if his friend was getting married. The truck drivers had a ball with this, insisting that “Groomsman” should be changed to “GAYman.” We all had a good inappropriate laugh, and after I managed to clarify what I meant, the helper turned around and asked what the writing on the back of the shirt meant. I explained that it meant that his name was “Toby.”

A phantom hand grabbed my paperwork and returned it a couple minutes later with a stamp that said “cerrado.” My permit was now officially cancelled. Realizing that there was no way I would have figured out how to do that without “GAYman Toby,” I handed him $5 and said thanks, again vowing to be less suspicious of the sometimes very helpful helpers.

After explaining everything a second time at both sides of the bridge, I showed my new papers to the customs agent on the El Salvador side. He presented me with a form requesting about 25 pieces of information about our truck and ran through each at lightening speed. This blank had to say “camionetta” to indicate a light truck and this other one “asiento” meaning we had seats. Another one was a random number from our Guatemalan permit above one for the weight of the truck and size in CC’s of the engine. Basically, everything short of listing turn-ons and turn-offs. Outside, he pulled out a clipboard and asked me to list the contents of the truck. Uh, yeah… where do you want me to start. Eventually, we agreed on a shorthand: “One set of camping gear,” “two personal bags with items for traveling,” “2 laptop computers plus cameras and electronic equipment for personal use.” He came up with a dollar amount and asked me to sign it which I did. Let’s hope we don’t get to the next border and have the guy say, “Hey, this paperclip isn’t on the list!”

Back inside, the paper work went to the big boss man. He’d brushed me off a few times before, pointing me to a subordinate. Now I chatted with a truck driver while this imposing guy reviewed the online dating profile I’d filled out for the truck, I can only assume checking for 25 points of compatibility with El Salvador. Just as I was hearing about the 5 tunnels we’d go through along the coast before reaching El Tunco, boss man waved me over and with a big smile, handed me my completed documents making sure to point out the map of El Salvador he’d stapled to them and on which he’d highlighted the Pan Am and El Tunco. Big softy.