February 10, 2014

by Stephen Jan in Tapachula, Mexico

The morning of February 9, we woke up at 8AM ready to cross the border at Ciudad Hidalgo. After trying and failing to cross into Guatemala the night before, the team was determined as ever to maximize our chances to enter the country. The team collectively strategized and contemplated why exactly we were turned away.


  1. There exist a rule against ambulances
  2. There exists no rule against ambulance, border official make it all up
  3. Border official manning the desk doesn't call the shots
  4. Border official didn't like Martha
  5. Martha wasn't prepared to negotiate a bribe for two car simultaneously
  6. Team did not get good rest because we stayed at gas station:stay at auto hotel
  7. The Guatemalan helper shifted from hanger-on - to agent actively negotiating a bribe on the official's behalf.

We spent most the night brainstorming scenarios and stratgizing counter measures for each scenario. We picked apart every aspect of the border crossing the day before and debated possible courses of actions.


  1. Make the ambulance look as much a camper van/travel vehicle as possible. Toursts cross the border all the time in all sorts of vehicle.
  2. The border official is looking for an excuse to cause us problems. The less ammunition we give her, the better chance we stand at wiggling our way around her. Secondly, do not use spanish as the primary means of communication. Force the official to communicate whatever complication nonsensical rule the come up with in english.
  3. If the official that we speak to doesn't call the shots, we must do our best to win that person over to our side. If he/she has no vested interest one way or the other, convince her that making that call to the higher ups is unescessey. If that call is unnecessary, ensure that when she describes our vehicle, she talks about it as a living vehicle
  4. Border official didn't like Martha
  5. Martha wasn't prepared to negotiate a bribe for two car simultaneously
  6. Team did not get good rest because we stayed at gas station:stay at auto hotel

Team A and Team B will cross separately We will not rely on Martha’s command of the spanish language to cross the border. If someone gave us a problem, To make the ambulance more like a living space rather than a camper , we strapped swimming noodles around the front light bar and put up dirty laundry all over the rear of the ambulance.

We arrived at border town Ciudad Hidalgo at around 12 pm. Unlike the day before, we were not swarmed by border helpers buzzing around our car, waving their ID badges. Only one helper bothered to chase us down and offer his services. The day before, Mike swatted them all away by shouting and yelling at them. Today, I planned to keep one around in the event negotiations went bad again like the day before. I figured having one on my side with vested interest for us to cross swiftly (10 dollar tip) would be better than spending all day swatting them away.

We stamped out of Mexico with ease. The official didn’t seem to mind that we crossed the border twice the day before. On the guatamalan side, we set our plan into motion. Each car would cross completely separately. Martha would hang back until her we asked for her assistance.

As I walked up to immigration, Romaine approached me again to help guide us through the process. Mike was at the booth and handed in his and my passport. We received a stamp. The sunglasses wearing official turned to us and asked us to pay a 10Q processing fee. Naturally we didn’t understand him, and we were both pretty sure that this fee was complete BS. We asked the man for a receipt, thinking he’d back down with a request to provide written confirmation that we paid him money. The man said okay, and handed us a piece of paper with an account number on it. The helper walked us over to a bank across the street and explained the processes to be one where deposit our money into this bank account on a torn piece of paper.

Mike told the man that we didn’t have to pay at the other border. The guard asserted that this border was different. We asked for a receipt. He said sure, just deposit the money into this bank account that he wrote on a piece of paper. As I walked over to the bank, the helper explained to me that we had to pay this fee and was unsure why the other border at Talisman didn’t require payment from us.

After I borrowed 20 pesos from mike to pay the fee, I pulled Romaine aside as Mike walked off to get our passports.

I asked the romaine, was that a bribe? “what is this shady nonsense? I have to deposit 10Q to this mysterious bank around?” “I don’t know, this is how it’s done here” “Oh Come on. It’s shady as hell. That was a bribe and you know it.” “no no, all visitors to guatamala must pay that fee” “Okay, I know for a FACT that you’re lying. If you’re going to come up to me and call your self a Helper, fine. You get me through this border and I will tip you” At this point, I wanted romaine to explicitly tell me that he was on my side, and not in cahoots w/ this fat border guard who wouldn’t return my passport until we put 2 dollars into his account. I’m not against a helping hand across this border…but I wanted everything to be clear. I wanted to agree on an amount. and set the condition to cross the border clearly.

I walked off to join Stphen at the ambulance. To my suprise, Ivan and Romaine concluded that I was too much to deal with. They drove away. I was amazed that they were not willing to hang around to make a couple dollars.

Cathy and paul seemed to be going through the paperwork in italian. Afetr them, it was our turn. I walked up to the booth and handed over each document as they prompted: title, registration, license, mexican export document. eveerything was smooth. then she said she day to verify the vehicle. we went out to tale a look. she saw the vehicle and we walked over to introduce the car.