One Night in No Man's Land (July 22, 2010)

The below describes Jed's work to try to officially import our car to Guatemala

Some advice to anyone that wants to import a car to Guatemala, when you go to do the paperwork:
1. Bring a good book (that you aren't more than half finished with)
2. Have a good sense of humor
3. Bring a toothbrush

When I went to do the vehicle importation paperwork at the border, I was prepared with the first two items, but not the third (which turned out to be a pain). As background, for some reason, don't ask me why, you can't do the importation paperwork at the local branch of the Guatemalan tax office (which is 3 blocks from our house in Xela) but you have to go back to border. When I originally entered Guatemala from Mexico, I got a tourist permit for the car since I was anxious to get to Xela to see Meg and didn't have enough money on hand to pay the import tax. So this process was simply switching from a tourist car permit to a permanent car permit. Since the Mexican border is only about 2 hours from Xela, I didn't think this was such a big deal since the customs broker I was using told me the process would take 4 hours. So I figured I'd wake up early, get to the border when the broker's office opened, and be back home in time for dinner.

I executed the first part of the plan well, arriving at the custom broker's office at the border before 9am and filling in the necessary paperwork within an hour. Then since, I knew that I'd have 3 or so hours to kill, I decided to cross the border into Mexico to check out the Walmart in Tapachula (to look for an Ipod compatible stereo and to see if prices were much different than in Guatemala). Aside from a minor run-in with the Mexican police at a checkpoint- where they were very curious as to why I had so many stamps in my passport, especially the stamp from Singapore and a supposed stamp for Saudi Araubi (where I've never been)- the trip to Mexico was great (including an especially tasty lunch at a street stand, courtesy of my local guide from the customs broker's office). When I returned to the Guatemalan side of the border is when things went awry...

Apparently, the Guatemalan tax office custom's computer system was down across the entire country. This meant that no customs business could be conducted at the border until the system was back online. Despite lots of inquiries as to when the system would be working again- including one point where they promised there would be information about whether the system might work again that day (not information that the system was working but just information about whether it would work again) in half an hour- there was no progress.

While incovinient, I figured this wasn't a huge deal as I'd just get back in the car, drive home, and come back tomorrow when the system was working. That's when I learned that my car was officially in no man's land. Since the car's tourist permit had been cancelled as the first step in the process, it had been stamped out of Guatemala (even though it wasn't actually leaving the country, it had been stamped out of my passport so that I could import "back" to Guatemala). As the car was officially not in Guatemala, I couldn't drive it back to Xela for the night, which meant I was stuck at the border (unless I wanted to take a 2 part, 5 hour bus ride back to Xela for the night only to repeat the same trip again in the morning).

At was at this point that it struck me why the verb for "waiting" and "hoping" are the same in Spanish (esperar). In fact, it wasn't clear to me whether my expressions were being interpreted as "I hope the system gets fixed" or "I will wait until the system is fixed". While I was trying to convey hope, I suppose there wasn't much difference because I was also going to wait until the system was fixed.

For those of you that have spent much time at international border towns, you know that they aren't always the most pleasant places (to say the least). Given that one of the products of our around-the-world trip was a lot of time at borders, I knew that I was fairly lucky because this wasn't in the category of really terrible border towns but it still wasn't a place that I particularly wanted to spend the night. But I found a decent hotel that had air conditioning (since in contrast to most of the rest of Guatemala this town was very hot- adding to the pleasure of spending lots of time there) and cable TV.

After getting the hotel squared away, like any good American I decided to head back to Mexico to accompany my new best friends from the customs broker's office on a trip to pick up some cargo. After a couple more hours in Tapachula, Mexico, including a stop at Sam's Club to round out the tour of Walmart Corporation's Mexico holdings, I returned to Guatemala to find that just after we'd left the customs system had miracously come back online (yes, I was a little suspicious that it started working right after I left for Mexico). Nonetheless, by that point it was too late to drive back and in any case I'd already paid for my plush hotel room and bought some cold Mexican beer (which is much better than Guatemalan beer). So I bedded down for the night (50 feet from Mexico) in lovely border town of El Carmen, Guatemala- without a toothbrush or any other toiletries (hence item #3 from the list of things to bring when you want to import your car).

But all is well that ends well since when I woke up the morning, after a refreshing cold water show and using my bed sheet to dry myself (no towel which I figured out too late to ask the front desk for one), my paperwork was ready. After another half of hour of irrelevant paperwork and vehicle checks, I was on my way back to Xela after a fun 24 hours at the border.

Oh, and by the way, I recommend the guys at Gramajo y Aguilar Customs Brokers- they were very nice. Now all I have to do is spend another day at the tax office (fortunately the one down the street from us in Xela) to get the license plates for the car....

Settling down in Guatemala (july 14, 2010)

After Jed's drive and Meg's flight, we were finally both in Guatemala. First a little background on where we're living in Guatemala.

We're living in the western highlands of Guatemala in a city called Quetzaltenango. Quetzaltenango (or Xela as it commonly known based its ancient name in the indigenous language) is the second largest city in Guatemala with a population of about 400,000 people. It is located about 125 miles from Guatemala City though the drive takes about 3 1/2 hours because the road, while a very good 4 lane highway, is mountainous (it passes over the highest point on the Pan-American highway, which is just over 10,000 feet). Xela itself is at just over 7,500 feet.
This altitude makes for spring like weather conditions where it is warm in the sun but cool in the shade with daytime highs in the mid-70s and lows in 50's at night. Of course, there is some seasonal alteration, during the rainy season and other times, so it can be cooler as well. While Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala, it is only 1/10 the size of Guatemala City. This makes Xela is big enough that there are big supermarkets, movie theaters, and every other type of service you can imagine but small enough that it still has a historical core that feels like a small city.
We quickly settled into our apartment in Xela, a furnished place that we've rented for the first few months we're in the country. The apartment is one of 5 apartments surrounding a small garden and fountain and is 2-bedroom duplex with a nice kitchen.

There is also a view of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes from the terrace.
So far we've found Xela to be a great place to live. The colonial center is a very walkable and picturesque area. Just 4 blocks from our house there is a lovely central park, where there are always people doing something. More updates will follow as we continue to get settled into our life here, but so far so good.

The Tail End of Mexico (July 2, 2010)

After our great trip to the tequila region of Mexico, we headed for the pacific coast for the final legs of the drive towards Guatemala. A stop for lunch in Acapulco was enough to convince us that we weren't missing anything in Acapulco (except maybe the cliff divers that we didn't get a chance to see before we hightailed it away from the mess).

Then we spent a great couple of nights along the southern, pacific coast of Mexico in small beach towns. The town of Playa Ventura certainly provided the most adventure; we hadn't been listening to the news so we didn't know about the approaching hurricane. The resulting rains succeeded in flooding our hotel room, causing the power to go out, and creating a leak that landed next to Jed's face for half the night. Oh, that isn't mentioning the earthquake that also happened that night....

However, the oddest aftermath of the hurricane was that while driving the next day we suddenly began to pick up Louisiana radio stations on the car radio. And this isn't just one station being rebroadcast locally, every single frequency had a Louisiana radio station that would fade in and out. The only explanations that we could come up with were that there was some weird electrical pattern in the atmosphere or something related to aliens- probably a 50-50 shot of each.

Aside from Louisiana radio stations, the only other excitement was an anti-government protest and roadblock. Well, that makes it sound a little more exciting than it was, here was the conversation (in Spanish) we had with a random Mexican man when we pulled up and saw the traffic backed-up behind the roadblock:

Jed: What's going on here?
Mexican Man: They are blocking the road
Jed: Why are they blocking the road?
Mexican Man: Who knows? Something about a protest against the government.
Jed: When will it be over?
Mexican Man: I have no idea; where are you trying to go, Puerto Escondido?
Jed: Yes, Puerto Escondido, is this the only road there?
Mexican Man: Yes, this is the only road to Puerto Escondido. At least you're stuck on the side of the blockade nearest town, why don't you go have some lunch?
Jed: Good idea.

So we went and had lunch, returned to the blockade, waited 25 minutes until the protesters went back home, and continued on our way.

Our next night in the town of Augustinillo was less eventful and more beautiful:

Our last hurrah in Mexico was a day spent with the Mexican Army; well not literally all day but most of it. By way of explanation, those of you that have been following Mexican current affairs know that over the past several years there has been a rising tide of narco-trafficking related violence and that one of the federal government's strategies to combat this trafficking has been to dispatch the Army internally.

There has been a considerable amount of controversy, and some backlash, to this move as the Army's mission, and therefore training, is not traditional domestic law enforcement. During our drive through Mexico, we saw many of these Army checkpoints. We were stopped a couple of times, but nothing compared to our last day driving through Mexico when we were stopped and searched 3 times within 3 hours. While, of course, there was nothing to find in our car, it still gave vivid insight into this controversial policy. And gave one particular officer a chance to ask for a bottle of tequila "para la raza" (we turned him down). After that crossing the border into Guatemala was fairly easy and we were through in under an hour.