February 19, 2014

by Paul Rosenthal in

Nobody loves arriving at a busy airport after a long international flight and enduing the tiresome process of immigration stamps and pointless customs forms asking after fresh fruit in your baggage. But if you want that process to seem downright merry the next time you fly internationally, get acquainted with the byzantine and sweaty ritual of crossing Latin American land borders by car.

The frontier fiesta begins a few miles before you actually reach the border, when legions of men – often on motor scooters, sometimes on foot – leap into the street as you drive by and either ride or run alongside your car, poking their heads and arms inside and offering to help negotiate the crossing for a modest “tip.” Some are just selling their services as a guide and facilitator, which has a certain utility if you don’t speak Spanish and have never gone through the process before. Others, at the more “creative” crossings, are the intermediaries for bribing customs officials.

No matter how many times you smile and say “No gracias,” these eager helpers will persist all the way through the process, even when you’re standing in line at an immigration window watching the clerk give your documents the once-over. Adding to the overall sense of mayhem and claustrophobia are the tables and huts crammed alongside the narrow lane where women and children (mostly) sell snacks and coconuts and cold drinks to help keep you fed and alive during the process, and men in hats inexplicably hawk colorful plastic hammocks.

On a good day, a border crossing that includes a vehicle will take at least 2 hours. First you find a place to leave the car, usually blocking the narrow lane and causing havoc. Then you dodge the bicycle rickshaws darting back and forth as you search for the right window to get your passport stamped. This operation may or may not involve a small fee. At the Guatemalan border, the clerk scribbled a bank account number on a bit of napkin and told us that he wouldn’t return our passports until each of us had deposited the equivalent of about 30¢ in a bank account and returned with a receipt. When we demanded a receipt for this fee – and said that the guard the previous day hadn’t charged a fee – the requirement mysteriously vanished.

Once the passport dance is done, you have to go through the paperwork of getting your car out of the country. This always entails extra copies of various docents, and happily there is always a shack with a copy machine right next door. You can go in and get the lady to copy things for 10¢ a page. Or one of the many “helpers” will do it, usually for $1 a page. Once that is done, you get back in your car, drive 50 feet, then are stopped by a guard who checks your passport and your car approval papers.

All that is just to get out of the first country. Now you’re in a no-man’s-land between nations, and it’s time to begin the more difficult and lengthy process of entering the next country. Before you begin that adventure, however, the second country sends out a couple of men with hoses full of poison and they disinfect the wheels of your car…then charge you $5 or so for the service. This is entirely logical, since of course any parasites or unwanted stowaways would only cling to the wheels of your car and not consider just walking or blowing across the border.

After that you once again find a spot to abandon your vehicle and choke the peddler-congested street while you go have your passport stamped for entry.

Once that’s done comes the final step, the very involved process of getting a “temporary import” permit for your vehicle. This involves much trotting back and forth to make copies of registration, passports, licenses, titles, insurance documents, and, as far as I can tell, your mother’s birth certificate and your 2nd grade report card. It’s a given that the clerk never asks for all these copies at once, so you get to visit the copy shack multiple times. You fill out forms that ask imponderable questions about your car (engine number, carrying capacity, and weight, for instance). Then, of course, someone has to come out and actually look at your vehicle. These inspections can be perfunctory, or in depth. (One inspector wondered why the three of us riding in the Jeep at that crossing had just 2 suitcases, but 6 sleeping bags.) Sometimes there are awkward questions about the ambulance, which we generally try to redecorate for crossings to make it look more like a camper than a service vehicle.

And of course, all the documents you need to fill out are in Spanish. My particular tactic is to first tell the clerk that I don’t speak Spanish. And then once they’re sufficiently hardened by that fact I tell them that I do speak Italian, which by comparison to my Spanish ignorance comes as a bit of a relief.

If you’re lucky and the vehicle is eventually approved for entry and the documents are complete, there’s a merry flurry of stamping and stapling, and then you’re sent to a handy bank branch a few yards away to pay entry fees, which might be in the local currency, or dollars, or perhaps Polish złotys. After that you get in your car and drive 50 feet down the road, where armed guards appear mildly surprised at your arrival and start quizzing you about all the documents you just obtained a few minutes earlier.

Every step of this process, from arrival to the final interrogation by guards, is enlivened by men clutching thick wads of bills who cluster around offering to change your currency. (Happily, I discovered that you get a better exchange rate if you produce your own calculator, do the math yourself, and then walk away from their offer with a “no thanks.”)

All of this takes place in intense heat, outdoors, under a relentless sun. There is the comfort of seeing a “baños” sign near the passport offices, but those bathrooms are always locked. Apparently the bathroom signs are just a bit of local humor.

And then, before you know it, three hours have passed and you’ve crossed the border. Easy-peasy.