(Note: not much sightseeing, but lots of border trouble.)
The drive from Oaxaca to Tapachula (the southernmost city in Mexico) was a tedious and uneventful affair. An 8-hour 6,000 feet descent to the coast, with lots of curves and switchbacks; not the Beetle’s favorite environment. Heat and humidity became the norm, with the locals, the housing, and social behaviors changing as well. It all started to feel like Central America, the final destination of my trip.
Tapachula appeared around 6pm, exactly as I remembered it from 15 years prior. A nondescript affair filled with buildings from the 50’s and average shops stuffed with cheap trinkets and fashions. The City Hall and Main Church were the most architecturally interesting affairs, with both structures showing overdone neoclassical detailing.
I found a rather humble hotel after a few spins around the city’s streets. No one was at the front desk. After a few minutes unattended, I went up and down the building in search of someone, anyone. I finally came across a cleaning maid.
- Hi, you need something? – she asked.
- Yes, I’m looking for a room for the night.
Surprised to have a patron, she told me to wait downstairs. Back at the lobby, I waited a bit longer; their business model wasn’t aimed to expediency. I studied the surroundings; the decaying furniture, the dilapidated ceiling, the ancient office articles crumbling apart. The building was in ruinous state, but it was zealously clean. “We can’t keep it up, but can certainly CLEAN!” seemed to be their slogan.
Rooms were in perfect accordance with my wallet ($9). I went for my luggage and realized the Beetle had become the evening’s main event. All the staff -one man, two women and a kid- were hanging around it while I unloaded. The south is the poorest region in Mexico, and the Beetle, with California plates, showed that riches unbound awaited beyond the northern border. As we bantered away, trying to veer off this notion proved impossible. Around these folks, the Beetle was actually an object of desire.
After showering and flooding half the room in the process (there were no curtains), I was ready to explore Tapachula; Mexico’s Central-American-immigrant-traveler-happening-town! As per the norm, the city was busy, with holiday shoppers going about and a Christmas procession advancing slowly around the main plaza. Churchgoers were carrying Christ’s effigy and holding candles while singing.
At the local phone company building I placed a call to my dad in El Salvador. We talked briefly and news was not good. He confirmed the alarming note I had read the night before: illegal fees were being placed on drivers from the north destined to El Salvador, crime rings wanted their dollar share from visiting Salvadorians from the north (With migration, this influx of legal travelers had become steady. Too tempting an opportunity). Dad was sending some family members to wait for me at the Guatemala-El Salvador border, ready to spring to action if trouble arose.
(This situation lasted for a few years, with border towns in Guatemala and Honduras fabricating ‘border crossing taxes’ out of thin air. It’s improved since then, as corrupt officials and crime rings have moved on to bigger game.)
Back in the hotel I counted my riches, all of $25 USD in cash, exactly. If those crime rings were to stop me, they would be mightily disappointed with this non-rich Salvadorian from the north.
I took off early next morning, following the well-posted signs towards the border. After a short drive, the moment of truth arrived. Customs and immigration on the Mexican side, as always, were cordial and easy to go through. I crossed the border bridge, leaving Mexico behind, and at its end, an irregular line of several men blocked my way, leaving the Beetle no room to pass.
As soon as I slowed down, one opened my door, checking quickly what goods I carried. Nothing! Then, the leader spoke firmly. With the subtlety that characterizes the region, the treatment was falsely cordial; underneath his calm voice, the threat was clear that I should not ignore their requests.
- Where are you going? Guatemala, El Salvador? In this car? Look… you must cover some costs if you wish to continue.
A long speech followed on how all foreign vehicles had to pay a special tax. He went on into how they would help me, by getting a me good price with customs. Nice fellas that they were, the cost was a mere two hundred dollars.
Unlike Mexico, Guatemala’s entry lacked clear signage (Central American border crossings are rather primitive). I tried to make heads and tails of the surroundings to no avail. Where was customs? Where was immigration? Closeby, a couple of backpacking Americans entered by foot, with several children in their pursuit hoping for handouts.
- I just don’t have any money!
- Well, we can’t let you in, that’s just how it is! Also, how can you NOT bring any money? You come from the North!
Annoyed, I pulled my wallet and showed it to him. Disappointment didn’t appear on his face, instead, he quickly grabbed the remaining $25 inside.
- Well, I just don’t have the cash… How do you expect me to pay?
- You can ask your friends in California to send you the money!
Conveniently, they pointed to a shabby little store a few meters away. It was plastered with a large Western Union logo and money remittances were received there daily. Cynically, he gave me back my own five dollars to cover the call’s cost, and escorted me to the nearest phone booth. As I talked to the operator, the group of men stayed nearby, eavesdropping, as I explained my situation to a Salvadorian friend in California. Once they heard money was coming, the perpetrators lowered their guard and left in search of more victims. One was instructed to remain by my side.
Feeling beaten and helpless, I parked my car next to customs. Time passed and eventually, had a dull and inconsequential conversation with my unwanted escort. The guy, despite committing a misdeed, was humble and demure; crime in Central America can be surprisingly polite. Not far from me, another Salvadorian couple was stranded in their SUV. They had been waiting for a couple of days already. Not good.
Around eleven, the day’s heat got me to doze off. After a short nod on the Beetle’s rudder, I opened my eyes only to find my escort gone. Not knowing what to think, or do, I walked around customs on my own. Eventually I reached the immigration office. There, they stamped my US passport. Regarding myself, no car attached, I was legally in Guatemala.
Returning to my car, the perpetrators were still absent. Suddenly, a huge temptation to LEAVE overwhelmed me. Probably a bad idea. What if I didn’t make it? Would they beat me to death? Also, was I missing any car related documents?
I decided to find answers to all these questions in the most direct way possible. Jumping quickly into the Beetle, I started up and accelerated like I had never done before. I hit the highway, putting as much distance as possible between the border and myself. I won’t deny it; my heart skipped a few beats during those miles.
I advanced, the minutes passed and there was apparently no major consequence for having fled. With the border receding, I had to evaluate my situation: the car was low on fuel, gas stations didn’t take credit cards, and I only had a few coins with me. It was clear; I would not reach the Salvadorian border. I would instead go as far as the Beetle’s fuel allowed.
That point came mid afternoon, in the small town of Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa (I dare you to pronounce that!). I circled the town’s streets until I reached the main plaza, parking my car next to a bar with the unsettling name: El Ultimo Adiós (“The Last Goodbye”, a song by ranchero band Los Tigres del Norte).
In a small shop I spent my last coins to buy a prepaid phone card. After locating a booth, I placed a call to my father:
- Hello dad… I can’t reach El Salvador anymore. I am in Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, without gas. I’m at the main plaza…
- I’ll tell Reina to get you. She’ll find you.
The call done, it was now a matter of waiting 4 to 5 hours at least. Reina, my father’s new wife, was leading the rescue party. What to do in those waiting hours? (Besides trying to soothe my nerves?)
I walked through the square, populated by short well-kept trees and, in general, with a calm and pleasant atmosphere. From the plaza’s benches, I could see that despite the early hour, the atmosphere at El Ultimo Adios was already joyful, with several drinkers loudly partaking.
The afternoon progressed slowly, as I sat on the park’s benches those many idle hours. The town’s Church opened around 4pm, and immediately, a large unusual crowd arrived. Youngsters and children in uniform came, along their parents, carrying musical instruments; violins, guitars, flutes, etc. A Christmas concert was about to take place, with some European Union workers attending as well (The activity was one of several efforts by the EU to support the then-recent Guatemala’s Civil War Peace Agreements).
Not having much to do, I attended the event. Beethoven and Vivaldi suffered some under the novice hands of the players, but regardless, it was inspiring. By concert’s end, night had already fallen. Members of the orchestra took their time with photos amongst themselves and the event’s organizers. All being locals, they walked back to their homes as the event finished. Alone again, and with night falling, my so-called rescue team was nowhere in sight.
It was getting late, and the streets were getting desolate. Until what time was I willing to wait in the plaza? Around 10pm, drunkards from El Ultimo Adios began throwing bottles onto the street, sending glass flying everywhere. Immediately after, insults hurled at full voice. I took to my car and left in a hurry.
Exhausted and starving, I made it to a hotel at the edge of town. Time to find out how much credit I still had on my ATM card (not much!). I entered, hoping plastic would be my salvation, something not always guaranteed back then in Guatemala.
- Do you accept debit cards?
- Yes, sir.
Before booking a room, I asked if the hotel’s restaurant was still open. No more. Seeing a vending machine on the hallway, I made an unusual request:
- Can you add some potato chips and Cokes on the bill? Also a couple of calls… all on the card?
4 potato chips bags and 2 sodas later, I made it to the room. I gobbled up the knick-knacks with animal haste and then made my calls. The first one, to California, to put a halt to the Western Union remittance. Then to my father, who did not answer. I fell asleep exhausted soon after.
The hotel staff woke me up at 8 the next morning.
- A lady is asking for you sir…
Sleepy, but full of hope, I clumsily reached the hotel entrance and finally met Reina. Hugs and sighs of relief followed.
After a hearty breakfast at a street stall, we set off for the border. The rest of the rescue team would meet us there: JC, Reina’s brother in law; and Oscar, her sibling.
We arrived at the Guatemala-El Salvador border by noon. As promised, JC was waiting for us by the roadside. He was thin, fair-skinned, had a scant mustache, wore a baseball cap, and was in his mid 20’s. He had been sent expressly to guide us through border customs, as he worked as errand boy for said offices, both in Guatemala and El Salvador.
As we approached, JC stood up and started walking towards the border crossing. He placed himself in front of the Beetle, indicating with his hand to follow him. A gang of men appeared just then, as it had in the Mexico border. JC kept walking in front of my car, moving forward, indicating for them to stay away. Sensing their loot fleeing away, the men started to hurl insults at Reina and me, as coarse as they could, as we drove slowly forward. It was loud, regretful and nerve-wracking.
After this unpleasant ritual, JC took us to a secure parking spot next to immigration. He asked for my documents and then, indeed, alarm! A transit paper was missing! I explained to JC my irregular entry and with a worried but determined face, he entered the building to see if he could “somehow fix it.”
Reina and I sat by the sidewalk, tired and anxious. From there, we could see JC going up and down the building’s offices. I had plunged the poor man into a labyrinthine and unpleasant process. Also from where we sat, it was obvious the customs and immigration officers had to be aware of the vultures who blocked entry to every US vehicle. Eventually, a supervisor came out of the building, along JC. After a couple of cold and rigorous questions, and somehow showing he was dissatisfied with the whole affair, he told us to go on our way.
Arriving on the Salvadoran side, Oscar -Reina’s brother- appeared. The missing transit paper became an issue as well on the Salvadoran offices. A redundant discussion ensued about the impossibility of the Beetle being there without it, despite material evidence –the car itself- contradicting said impossibility.
JC went on for a while invoking favors, to no avail. By 4pm, he gave us the news we didn’t want to hear: the car would not be allowed to enter El Salvador. Instead, they would let us return to Guatemala to retrieve the missing document.
- Back??? – I said, probably with some panic in my voice.
Yes, back! With JC and Oscar escorting me, to guarantee my safety in case of trouble. We would stay at JC’s house for the night and leave in the morning. After a short twenty minutes, the Beetle arrived at a small poor house in the middle of nowhere. Several children ran out to meet us, while JC parted weeds so the car could enter and park.
Reina’s sister hugged me, while her children fluttered around the Beetle, curious as could be. The house was extremely humble, obviously assembled – the term ‘built’ did not apply – over the years: crooked walls of rotting wood planks and zinc sheets, a few electric light bulbs, dirt floor, and a myriad of belongings scattered throughout. Modernity was far away, as we were surrounded by nature and agricultural landscapes. Human’s footprint consisted of a few inhabited shacks nearby, nothing more. Lacking major distractions, the neighbors followed the rhythm of nature, and by 8pm silence took over.
Before sleep I took a bath in the laundry area by the yard. Corroded zinc sheets provided some modest privacy in the made up shower, while water was drawn from buckets and barrels. I poured cold buckets of water over myself as everyone in the house slumbered into sleep. Above, I could see the bright disk of the moon behind the leaves of a mango tree. A dreamy blue-white light covered the entire landscape; giving it a somewhat spooky and splendid quality. It was absolutely beautiful. Clean and refreshed, I curled up in the outdoor hammock and slept the next few hours like I have rarely done in my life.
Oscar, JC and myself, took off early next morning towards Mexico. During the journey, talking about my entry into Guatemala, JC confirmed all my suspicions: the illegal activities were done with full knowledge of border officials, who were part of the scheme. Several of them now owned luxurious properties near the border as they received hefty commissions in exchange. This became obvious, as huge multi-story mansions with brazen questionable taste appeared interspersed in the otherwise humble countryside.
Around noon we arrived at the site of the crime, the Guatemala-Mexico border. JC limited himself to giving me general directions, as it would be up to me to carry out the process at the offices. Inside customs, after a brief wait, I explained the official on duty my missing transit paper situation. He seemed unable to follow my request, looking rather confused; instead he kept looking at the Beetle from his desk. Eventually, not knowing what to do, he asked for my documents and glanced at my US passport, giving it a careful look. He then left in search of his supervisor.
We waited by the entrance a good 45 minutes or so. A somewhat obese man with a thick mustache, glasses, and nice attitude, came out of the building; he was the customs supervisor. He handed me my passport and the missing transit paper.
- For a US citizen there is no problem! You can go ahead!
Liar! Hadn’t I been so exhausted, I would have seethed in inner fury. Instead, success at hand, my body just gave out. I handed the Beetle’s keys to Oscar, who took over driving on the way back. As we left the cursed border behind, I found it hard to believe luck was finally turning on my side. As we drove on, Oscar commented on how well the Beetle drove, amazed at the car’s age. Shortly after, I dozed off.
After picking up Reina we left for the Guatemala-El Salvador border and it was déja-vu time. Again, Reina and I were showered with insults as JC walked ahead of the Beetle, then we were reluctantly allowed to pass through by Guatemala’s custom officers. Then on the Salvadorian side, to meet once more the same officials, now pleased to see the missing paper:
- You see! You were indeed capable of bringing the document! Now everything is in order!
The sun’s rays were fading by the time we finally finished the paperwork. Night soon arriving, my father’s house would wait until the next day. We were exhausted, and spent the night at Reina’s house, a mere 20 minutes away from the border.
We took off after lunch the next day. A two-hour drive separated us from our final destination, El Ingenio El Angel, the sugar mill plant where dad worked as research engineer. During the drive, Reina put me up to date on my father’s daily affairs. Meanwhile, I was busy getting used to the unpredictable Salvadoran traffic; public transport buses drove quickly and spewed smoke, while reckless pedestrians crossed the roads. Any distraction could end in tragedy. Unlike the solitary roads of Mexico, overpopulated El Salvador never gave rest.
We eventually reached sights I had seen in my youth, letting me know we were getting closer. The Izalco volcano appeared to my leftt, with its perfect postcard silhouette against the sky. Further ahead, the Agriculture Research Lab where dad worked in the 80’s, during the Civil War days.
Close to the sugar mill, trucks loaded with sugar cane started to appear; a long line of these idling on a dirt road indicated we had reached the sugar mill. Loaded trucks were proceeding forward at the mill’s entrance while laborers moved about the site, busy with their work. I had arrived at the height of sugar cane harvest season.
The sugar mill was at work, with the main chimney spewing thick columns of water vapor and a deafening noise coming from its bowels. I drove the Beetle towards the housing area, where my dad’s home resided, and parked near a warehouse surrounded by tall mango trees.
My father arrived late in the afternoon, professing the modesty and courtesy that had always defined him. We dined and had a long talk afterwards as we walked around the sugar mill’s gardens. After 15 years apart, we were to spend the next few months together. I had reached home.