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....