Friday, February 18, 2011

Petén to Villahermosa, MX part 2

We left the border crossing of El Ceibo at 2pm. 5 minutes down the road is a military checkpoint. The military in Mexico is different from the Guatemalan military in that they are very rude. They also ask you the same questions over and over again while at the same time insulting your spanish. They ask to see lots of paperwork that I had but is not really necessary or under their jurisdiction. Luckily I took along every scrap of information including my water bill from my house in Petén... the fat guy in charge asked to see proof of everything. After about 15 minutes of verbal abuse and the military guys going through every bag you have (which the customs guys just did 5 minutes before) they wave you along.

Your first big town that has gas stations is called Tenosique. It is about an hour from the border. The road to here is paved, two lanes and traffic is almost non-existant. Before you enter the town there is a Police checkpoint. They will ask to see all of your documents and may want to search your vehicle. These guys didn't do that but luckily for us there was another checkpoint 5 meters from them that did want us to open the doors at least and write down the same information. As you leave Tenosique this exact same situation happened. The first guys wrote down my name, driver's license number and vehicle plate numbers. 5 meters from them I was waved over again and searched while the same information was written down. By this time I was really annoyed. This was apparently a special day for searches and in Mexico I guess a Gringo driving a Toyota minibus with Guatemalan plates seems suspicious enough to want to check out. At half of all of our checkpoints this day I was asked how much a Toyota like mine is worth in Guatemala.

From Tenosique we just followed the highway. You can tell that Mexico has been much more deforested than Guatemala, but many sights are similar. There are people selling things like strings of fish on the side of the road. Again, very little traffic heading north and very few gas stations. We arrived in Villahermosa around 6pm, because we were stopped by military and searched two more times before arriving in Villahermosa. Just before you get to the city there was a 33 peso toll both (probably less for a car). Unfortunately I found out that the hotel signs and directions are only posted for the people heading from the north into Villahermosa, so we didn't find the hotel until leaving town and turning around. Not much tourism from southern Mexico I guess. We made it all the way to Villahermosa from Libertad, Petén with one 16 gallon tank of diesel.

In Villahermosa we were slightly disappointed by what we found. We ate at some normal US chain restaurants, but they were the same ones you can find in Guatemala City. There was a Walmart, Sam's Club and Home Depot, but all three were Mexican versions with a US name. One big find was a large, tankless LP water heater which was the same price as in the States and larger than what I could find in Guate. Saved me having to find somebody to fly down with it and an oversize baggage fee. Also at Home Depot I found some accessories for my water pump, which saved me having to find them in Guate. We bought some bowls for our bathroom sinks, but this was at the Mexican store Madeco. Our purchases at Walmart were Cheerios and some white t-shirts. We didn't see anything at Sam's that warranted buying a membership.

I bought a TelCel phone chip at a kiosk outside Sam's. In Mexico the laws are harsher than in Guatemala, so it didn't automatically work. It actually never worked at all. I tried all of the registration steps from my hotel room while reading the help files in Spanish and even took the phone with chip to a TelCel office where they offered to register it for me in somebody else's name. A foreigner cannot get a Mexican chip in their name. No phone calls worked, but I did have access to 3G and used up all my prepaid minutes on that. I guess I could have sent an emergency email if I'd needed to. Anyways, bring a chip with international roaming, don't assume you'll be able to use your unlocked cell.
Starbucks, not something we have or need in Guatemala. Same as in the States.
The Home Depot was very small and filled with mostly US reject items.
While the Walmart was much like The Home Depot, the Sam's was probably the closest thing to what you'd expect to see in the States. Unfortunately I didn't need a trampoline or a giant tub of mayonnaise on this trip.

We left Villahermosa Friday morning at 10:30am from our hotel and were at the border around 1:30pm. It was much quicker heading south. We were charged 33 pesos again to leave the toll road and were not stopped until Tenosique. On the way into town the nice police officer took my information and asked if I would like to collaborate with some change to help him buy a chicken. He and the other guys wanted a snack. I told him not today and he waved me on with just a "next time then!" On the way out of town I was stopped again and this time they wanted to look inside the vehicle. The large man in charge took the opportunity to lecture me on Arizona's immigration laws, of which he showed he knew nothing. It wouldn't have helped my case to point that out to him so I nodded my head and drove south. 5 minutes from the border we were stopped again by the same Army checkpoint but this time a young guy asked me where I was going in Guatemala, he yelled my destination to a young woman sitting on a bench a few meters from the road and to her negative head shake he waved me by.

So, heading north will cost you about an hour in checkpoints if you are unlucky enough to travel the day that they care.

At the border the Mexicans were really straightforward. I took the sticker off of my windshield and went inside to get my money back. It was very straightforward and took about 10 minutes. The immigration guys stamped our passports and we crossed to Guatemala.

New 90 day visas for Guatemala cost us Q10/person. At the Belize border crossing they never charge us that fee however. Also, at Belize they rarely mention the 72 hour rule* whereas here it was their first question and they checked the dates in our passports. While the information I had before was that there was no Guatemalan Customs official at the border, this is no longer true. There is a trailer there and an official who is never inside. The same guys who will charge you Q39 to fumigate your vehicle will look at your stuff. If you tell them it is all for personal use there is no charge and you can be on your way.
The Guatemalan Customs office. The immigration office is up the hill behind this. The bank trailer (Banrural) does not exchange money and is only there for paying taxes if assessed.

The same money changers were there as before. Their exchange rate is Q7/$1 or .63 pesos/1 quetzal, so if you can wait until you get to a bank it is worth it for dollars. No Guatemalan bank here takes pesos, so spend them before you get to the border or just take a hit at the border. There is no gas station in Guatemala until you get to Libertad, except that there is a house about an hour into your trip back that has a wooden sign in front saying COMBUSTIBLE. They have some gas cans and I'm sure can help you out in a pinch.

For those of you making this trip, on the Mexican side there are at least 4 signs for different ruins and eco parks before you get to Tenosique.

*Official Guatemalan immigration law states that when your tourist visa expires you must leave the country for 72 hours before returning. While we did this by choice on this trip, most border officials do not care and we have always been able to leave in the morning and come back that same afternoon. This does not give us any confidence however and we always pack an overnight bag in case somebody does decide to enforce the law.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Driving from Petén to Villahermosa, MX part 1

On Thanksgiving one of our missionary friends mentioned that the road was now paved between Naranjo, Petén and the border of Mexico. When we moved to Petén, there was no border crossing with Mexico that you could drive through. Because of this we travelled to Belize to get our paperwork.

This new information set me to researching and I found very little information about the border crossing at El Ceibo. I did find that in the city of Villahermosa there are not only Walmarts and a Sam's Club, there is also a Home Depot. Looking at the Home Depot website, prices advertised were less than half of those we can obtain in Guatemala for fixtures of lesser quality. Because we are at the point that we need to buy things like toilets, sinks and doors, we thought it would be a good idea to check it out in person. It appeared that the time driving to Villahermosa would be close to the time it takes to go to Guatemala City, so if we could also complete a Visa renewal and get cheaper stuff for our house, it seemed like it was worth the risk. Here is how our trip went:

We left La Libertad at 10:30am (after dropping off 8 boxes of school supplies at an elementary school close to there) in the direction of Naranjo. There are over 80 speed bumps on this road with almost 2 of them painted and marked. A good rule of thumb is that if there are houses next to the road, there is a speed bump in front of them even if you can't see it. There was a clear sign showing the road to Mexico about 8 km before you get to Naranjo.

At 12:30pm we arrived at the border. You first have to park on the road and take your passports to immigration. I was able to take all four passports to the immigration trailer without having to take the boys out of their car seats. We were several weeks expired on our visas which usually entails a Q10 fine per day per passport. There was nothing I could do about this as my lawyer had my passport for 2 months in Guatemala city while changing the title and plates on our micro. I mentioned this to the officer so that I didn't get a lecture or a disapproving glance like I was trying to hide something as has happened at the Belize border. He acted like he didn't hear me, stamped the passports without asking me for any money and told me that I was done. I guess it wasn't worth his trouble.

I then went to the Sat trailer to show my vehicle information so they would let me leave. This was my longest wait in Guatemala as the money changers had to get the Sat agent from the Banrural trailer where he was flirting with the teller. He looked at my stuff and said I could go.

I exchanged all of my quetzales into pesos at 100 quetzales for 150 pesos and drove to the Mexican side.
It was immediately different from the Guatemalan side. There I was greeted by a Mexican official who told the me entire process before fumigating my vehicle and then pointing me towards a parking spot. There I was greeted by a customs official who asked to see inside my bags, confiscated my beef jerky (it is prohibited to import beef products from the States even though I came from Guatemala), and told me everything was great. While this process was going on two immigration officers were working on my paperwork for our visas. There was no charge and I was able to sign for all four visas including my wife's. I was told to pay 60 pesos for the fumigation and directed to the far area to get my vehicle permit.

I came with all of my information: registration card, passport, Driver's license, Mexican insurance purchased through Sanborn the day before and printed up at home (which the guy didn't care about) and vehicle title. I was then informed that I would need to pay $436 in American cash. They do not have credit card capability and there is no ATM anywhere around. $36 is the price of the permit and $400 is a deposit that will be returned to me when I leave Mexico with my Microbus. (The deposit is tiered: 2004 and newer is $400, 2001-2004 is $300 and anything older than 2001 is $200.)

When I asked how I was supposed to get American dollars I was told to go talk to the money changers back in Guatemala. He did advise me that they would charge 14 or 15 pesos/dollar (the exchange they offered me before was 1 dollar for 11 pesos) but he knew a guy in the office that would do it for 13. I didn't have enough pesos anyway, so I would still have to go to Guatemala, exchange for pesos from quetzales and then come back and exchange for dollars to pay my deposit.

Well I haven't lived in Guatemala for over 4 years to get ripped off by a Mexican, so I went directly and found out the Guatemalans would give me dollars for only 12.5 pesos. The only problem was that they don't have dollars with them and I would have to wait for them to go to their house and come back. They came back with $300 instead of $400 so I had to wait for them to go back home again and come back. After 30 minutes I came back to the vehicle guy who had thankfully already processed all of my stuff. Here we found that the only $50 bill the guys gave me was ripped and he wouldn't accept it, even though he's supposedly going to give it back to me on Friday. He told me I would have to go back and exchange the $50 for another $50 bill. Not wanting to go through that again I gave him 650 pesos (50 x 13) so that he could exchange with the guy later (probably himself), and I was given my permit and all of my paperwork.

I should also say that in this office are two very well maintained public bathrooms. You will not find the same thing on the Guatemalan side or anywhere near here going either direction.

So I took an hour longer than I needed to at the border. The total time should have taken less than a half hour with both sides of the border. We left the border at 2pm in the direction of Tenosique (the only direction the highway will take you.)

My next post will detail our drive through Mexico and arriving in Villahermosa. I will say that whether in Guatemala or in Mexico, my new Garmin Nuvi would have been worthless if I had not previously studied several different road maps and had that information in my head. None of the necessary roads even exist on the GPS, let alone have them in the right spot. It is necessary to know ahead of time exactly where you are going and what towns you will be passing on the way in case you need to ask for directions. Please do not trust a GPS.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Increased Violence

I only know what people have been saying...

Things have gotten worse here in Petén. It used to be that everything was run by a few benevolent Guatemalan drug cartels. Sure, they killed people, but most of the time it was people who deserved to be killed. They would even get permission from the governor and chief of police ahead of time. Everybody knew who they were and everybody knew how to stay out of trouble. They were the authority figures here, and once you know who the boss is, you know how to get things done. In the States, the law is the boss in most cases, so if you know the law you can live and work effectively. Here there is no set law that everybody has to follow, so you learn who the real authority is and once you know their guidelines you can live and work effectively.

Before there wasn't very much crime, especially in certain cities controlled by the bosses. In those cities the bosses didn't want their family or friends ending up hurt by some random criminal act, so nobody did anything wrong without being severely punished for it. It was a safe time where you could actually leave your car on the street and know that nobody would mess with it. That's not true in other places in Guatemala such as the City or in Xela or even in Panajachel. A while ago there was a gang problem in one of the large cities here until those people paid the bosses and literally overnight the gangs disappeared...

Now there are a group of Mexicans moving in to take over Petén from the bosses. It's been pretty easy because the Guatemalan bosses are more bribers than fighters. Because they can't handle this threat of Mexicans who are trained fighters, they have to get their buddies in the government to fight for them with the army.

We've been lucky to have martial law declared in Cobán before it happens here. The President chose there because it's the smallest of the departments to soon be declared "under siege." Word is that Petén is next, but they are trying to hire another 4,000 soldiers. There's a new "Help Wanted" sign outside the big base here. I was worried about one thing and then the Mexicans in Cobán did that: threatened to start killing civilians until the army goes away. Thankfully, 10 days after that threat nobody outside of the drug war has been killed. With martial law there are more checkpoints, the military is in control, and you lose all personal rights. They don't have to have a reason to search your vehicle or your home or even arrest you. I need to clarify and say that I am not worried about this at all. Actually the military has been, in recent years, much more trustworthy than the police. In fact, once martial law is implemented they remove every police officer from the department and replace them with people from non-affected areas of Guatemala.

In the past 3 months there have been 7 shootings here in places we regularly visit, two involving people we knew. In a recent one, the bank next to the post office was robbed (with two people shot-a security guard and a robber) in the afternoon after I had been to the post office that morning. That's the trend that I'm worried about. As far as the drug wars go, the only threat right now would be if we were unfortunate enough to drive into a gun battle or something as unlikely as that. The more present threat is that now there is no clear boss and no clear law. That gives the people who did not used to break the law because of the high consequences new courage. Bad habits I formed because of the relative safety now have to be broken. No more running errands after going to the bank or ATM. No more parking in places I can't pull straight out of. More looking over my shoulder and less walking down side streets just because it's faster.

Having said all of that, it is just as safe as ever for tourists. Increased military presence actually makes things better and all the bosses would like to stay out of the spotlight that killing a tourist would certainly bring. The tourist areas have always been very well protected with shops and restaurants on Flores staying open until at least 10pm if not later. There hasn't even been a robbery in Tikal in ages, and that's something you used to always hear about. Maybe the knew guards with their shotguns have helped. No tourist buses have been stopped with groups targeting instead the normal local buses. It's as good a time as any to visit Petén, just don't decide to live here...

It will be nice to get out of our town known for it's "involvement" and into our new house in a town without all of the...issues.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How Not To Grow Pumpkins

So I had a great idea to build my house a little faster. A couple years ago we saw pumpkins for sale at our grocery store. They were imported from the States and were only $3. Until we got to the register. There we found out that they were $3/pound. No matter how nice it would have been to have had a pumpkin pie for that Christmas, it wasn't worth $30.

I then began noticing how much empty space there is here in Petén. There are many spaces here that people buy instead of putting money in the bank, but since they don't have time to work the land it just grows up with weeds. There are also lots of people who have a very good knowledge of the land and of farming here.

So I decided to import my own Pumpkin seeds, have somebody else plant them on their land, truck them to the mountains, sell them to gringos for $10 instead of $30 and split the profits with my Petenero farmer. I bought 2500 seeds for around $60 (I wanted high quality, heirloom seeds), half Jack-O-Lantern and half Sugar Pie Sweet, and turned them over to an Agronomist here who has a big piece of property. I also gave him a lot of information (that I got online) about what pumpkins need to grow well. He told me not to worry and he was very excited about it. We also planned out what day to plant so that everything would be ready by the end of October. So far so good.

Everything was going great. We had 1400 mounds that had been planted and fertilized. Almost all of the plants had sprouted and we were looking good. Mynor was already spending his money...

Then in October we had several disasters. Mynor hadn't sprayed for bugs, instead talking about some new way where the poison is in the fertilizer so the bugs die when they eat the plant. All that gave us was a bunch of half-eaten plants with dead bugs everywhere that the ants came in to clean up for us. But that's ok because I'm pretty sure most of those drowned when we had two straight weeks of rain that turned most pastures here into temporary lakes, including my pumpkin patch. After that we were down to maybe 200 pumpkins still alive and well. Until somebody started stealing them. It was only 3-4 that were stolen and it could have been an animal, but it got Mynor scared of thieves. So instead of leaving the pumpkins to ripen on the vine and grow to the size of a basketball or better, he started cutting them as soon as he thought they were changing colors. The result was 150 tiny little pumpkins that after a week turned orange but didn't have any flavor. In his mind it is better to have 100% of your worthless pumpkins than have just 97% of quality pumpkins that you can do something with.

By the time I could convince him to just leave everything alone I was left with around 60 pumpkins to my name. It's a good deal, I think, to get 60 pumpkins for $60, but who would buy 60 pumpkins in the first place? We were able to give away a lot to friends, had fresh pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, a lot of frozen pumpkin waiting for Christmas and too many roasted seeds to eat. Oh and Mynor and I are still friends.

I still think this is a good idea and will try again next year. I think my biggest mistake this year was a lack of diversification. Next year I'm going to split my seeds up between 3 different people in 3 different parts of Petén.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Car Insurance in Guatemala

Because of the situation with José, I began again to look for car insurance here. I looked around when we first arrived, but the payments were more than a car payment on a new vehicle. I found that a reputable agency here (G&T) has recently lowered their rates to match their unreliable competition. For full coverage they still want $4,000/year to cover both vehicles (2004 Tacoma and 2007 Toyota Hiace Microbus), but their liability coverage seemed more than fair to me. They cover all expenses to others' property and persons, as well as any medical expenses of my passengers. They also pay families in instances of accidental death such as José's problem. Oh, and any and all lawyer fees.

The agent road a bus 45 minutes to my house so that he could take pictures of my vehicles and have me sign the paperwork. He also took this time to explain the policies to me. (Note: his name has been changed.)

Official policy:
In the event of an accident, I must immediately call the number for the main office in Guatemala City. They will verify my coverage and then send a report to the Petén office who will then send an agent to the scene of the accident.
I can call Carlos' personal cell phone anytime day or night and he will come since he already knows that I have coverage. This will save me at least an hour he says.

Official policy:
You must remain at the scene of the accident until the agent arrives.
There are some parts of Petén where it is too dangerous to stay and you must run for your life (such as the areas we are ALWAYS traveling to- Libertad/Sayaxché area). Carlos said to call him after I get away. He understands and can fill out the paperwork later.

Official policy:
Nobody under 21 is allowed to drive the vehicles to be covered and all drivers must have valid driver's licenses.
Don't say anything to the home office and Carlos can change who the driver was once he arrives.

Official policy:
G&T only pays if it is your fault. If you are not at fault, it is the other party's responsibility.
Don't say anything to the home office and Carlos will make sure everybody gets paid when he arrives.

Now obviously I'm not going to engage in insurance fraud of any kind, but I want to show you what life is like here in the "Wild West" of Central America. I am glad to know that I don't have to stay in a dangerous situation and that there is some common sense in that area.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Gone Native?

Some experiences we've had lately that make me think maybe we've crossed a line...

My wife told me today, "I cleaned the bathroom so you'll have to pee outside until after our guests get here."

We had left the house and were already on the road. Shelley said to me, "Oh no. I forgot my jewelry, now they're going to think I'm poor." We were heading someplace fancy and they treat you differently depending on your appearance.

Text message to my wife, "Just had six tortillas and a chicken wing. It was yummy."

Our one year old boys cried for days when my parents, their white, english speaking grandparents came to visit. They did not want to be held by them. After they left we visited our land to check on construction where they happily went to the new mason we have working there and smiled the whole time. They think they're two chapines.

We visited a new friends' house that they are fixing up before moving in. My wife's first thoughts before thinking about things like a kitchen or an air conditioner or even bars on the windows was, "How are they going to keep out the rats?"

It got down in the 70's the other night so while I was out and about I stopped into a Paca store and bought a $3 Goodwill reject Nautica jacket which barely beat out a jacket with an eagle on it and embroidered with the name, "Gene."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

An innocent conversation that made a nice lady very sad

So my wife is a very resourceful person which causes me to be always on the lookout for the weird, cheap items that she can repurpose. Now with the boys that has gone into overdrive as she creates a home with warm memories and US traditions mixed with Guatemalan spice. Usually she tells me what she wants to do and as I am out paying bills and doing paperwork I keep my eyes out looking for the things she needs for that.

So for the boys' birthday she made a balloon wreath to hang on the door to announce to the neighbors that there was a birthday at our house. She has plans to make one for thanksgiving and Christmas and all seasons apparently, but the styrofoam circles we found in Guate are too small for our doors apparently. So Tuesday I was riding around in a tuk tuk while getting new tires put on my micro when I saw a lady hanging up decorated styrofoam wreaths in circle and heart shapes. I called my wife who told me to go by and buy some if they were bigger than what she had.

I stopped by later and asked about them.

Jimmy: How much are the wreaths?

Nice lady: These here are Q50.

J: Ok do you sell just the forms without any ribbon on them?

NL: No, everything I have is decorated already.

J: Ok, I think I want one heart and one circle.

NL: Ok, who are they for?

J: I'm buying them for my wife who will use them on special occasions for my twin boys like birthdays and Christmas.

NL: Twins? That's really difficult.

J: Yes, I think it is harder than one. Is there a discount for buying two?

NL: Yes, of course. It will only be Q90 for buying two.
Once I got into the micro it finally dawned on me what our conversation had really been about. Wreaths like these are used to adorn places where people have died or the graves of loved ones. We are getting close to Day of the Dead here and it is a month of funeral festivities right now if there is such a thing. After more than 4 years I have tuned out the crosses and wreaths and signs on the side of the road. I'm usually too concerned with the live things that may jump out in front of me at any time.

Because I wasn't thinking I missed a very culture specific part of the conversation and because of this I communicated that my twins were dead. Now go back and read our conversation from her perspective and you'll understand why I feel really bad about this. Now every wreath on the side of road waves at me as I drive by reminding me of my stupidity. Oh, and my wife won't use the wreaths now because they have been "tainted."