The car was in ruinous state, long way from what it had been just 5 years before. How long had it sat on the front lawn without use? No way to tell. Still, I needed a car for the next few weeks, which I knew were going to be demanding.
- Are you using the Toyota? Can I borrow it?
“Sure” said my Don Quixote-loving-friend, casually shrugging his shoulders while keeping his eye on the computer monitor. Good! Now with wheels at my disposal, it would be easier to rescue my Beetle and my belongings from Salvadorian customs!
I had been in El Salvador about a month after relocating from the US, living at my father’s residence at the sugar mill he labored. Getting all my belongings through local customs was turning into the ‘theater of the absurd’ I had more or less expected. Still, much as a soldier trains the mind to expect bombs landing nearby, the mind can never fully prepare for shockwaves hitting the body for real. And Salvadorian bureaucracy was doing all it could to fatally wound me with red-tape shrapnel.
The Corolla belonged to my best friend, who I had known since 7th grade (back in those junior high days he had an unusual obsession with Don Quixote). And while close and dear to me, the truth is Mr. Quixote always treated his belongings much the way a 6 year old does: when new and shiny, endless devotion and worry over his new toy; after a couple of scratches, he would toss it away, giving his undivided love to whatever new glossy object he had acquired.
The Corolla had followed that same path. Originally his mother’s car, the white Corolla had been an object of envy in Salvadorian traffic even by the late 90’s. These models were loved by Salvadorians, and the lines looked nice against local traffic. With its 5 speed stick shift, slightly wider tires, and darkened windows, the car looked sprightly and under his driving, speeded away briskly. This is the car that had received me on a 3 week visit back in 1997, and took us all over the nation in touristic outings.
Of course, those good looks couldn’t last. Not on his hands. When I saw the car on the driveway five years later, my only thought: “What happened???” It was to see Whitney after Bobby Brown. Now, keys at hand, I was to come to terms with the damage done. How bad could it be? The car was obviously a wreck now. After my previous experiences with beaters, the possibility of the Corolla leaving me stranded seemed very likely. Was this a wise move? If the car broke down it would be one more worry on top of the many I already had. Those worries? Salvadorian Customs!
After arriving by land to El Salvador driving my VW Beetle in late 2002, I took to the Kafkaesque (overused but perfectly fitting) process of getting the car through Salvadorian customs. At the same time, my SF belongings had arrived by ship and had to clear import duties. How does one go about such things in El Salvador?
Since the 90’s, a thriving market of grey car imports from USA to El Salvador flourished. Many locals had made a business out of it, so I knew legalizing the Beetle COULD be done. The question was: how? Dad, always interested in testing Salvadorian institutions, directed me to check the requirements at the Salvadorian Ministry of Transport’s webpage. Checking the site, the requirements seemed reasonable enough. A 5 day process in all, the website promised.
I drove the Beetle to the Ministry of Transport customs facilities and approached as a mouse does to rotten cheese, feeling I was being lured into a stinky trap. As the Beetle was taken into a large outdoor warehouse, I took my judiciously gathered documents to the offices. In traditional Latin-American style, I presented the paperwork the website required only for the customs officers to dismiss me:
- Oh, you’re MISSING a LOT of paperwork! Your car will have to remain in the warehouse until you sort this out!
- But these are the documents your OWN website requires! – I said bluntly, still in American Citizen Mode.
- Well, never mind THAT! You’re missing a lot of paperwork!
He provided me –verbally- with a daunting list of paperwork to gather. Flabbergasted and defeated, with my car trapped in customs, I left in frustration. Carless and with much distance to cover, the Corolla appeared as my samurai-warrior-in-not-shining-armor. We had much to do together now. Would the Corolla be a faithful partner? Would I regret the decision?
I walked around the vehicle as a rider does around an untamed horse: “We’re gonna get along… ain’t we?” The car was in an utter sorry state, I opened the hood and the view was of seriously abandoned mechanics. It would take a LOT of cash to bring this Corolla even to average condition. Whatever luster it once had, disappeared completely in a scant 5 years. Regardless, on visual inspection nothing looked like IMMEDIATE failure. Thus, I took to the driver’s seat.
Turned the key and the engine started, sounding rough, as if the pipes were choked with phlegm. Put the foot on the accelerator and… NOTHING WORKED! I mean, it RAN. But every single mechanical was seriously out of whack! The direction was a mess, the VERY loose steering giving the wheels some idea of trajectory. Meanwhile, the wheels didn’t seem to know what to do with said input, instead being in perpetual haunting mode. Bushings, arms, bearings, etc. were loose and worn out. To steer was an act of faith. Meanwhile the brakes were a nerve-wracking mess; as the pedal needed quick short pumps implemented with decision, but not force, in order for the car to stop. Last, the stick shift was seriously loose and wobbly. A séance would be needed to find all the shifts I missed. Everything about the car required special instructions; it was a litany of defective minutiae.
As for electronics, forget it. Nothing worked. The speedo was gone, having me driving by ‘ear.’ Not hard to do as the exhaust was shot too, with those phlegmy revs resounding loudly. The radio and AC? Oh, never mind, those didn’t work back in 1997, much less now. And the lights? Night was coming in, better turn them on. Wait, are they on? Good grief, they’re! A dim reddish glow was all that could be seen ahead of the car. That said, the car’s interior was for the most part complete, although in worn out and filthy condition. Door panels, dashboard and headliner were still in one piece. It was remarkable that under the car’s rough ownership the interior materials had endured the pain. It attested something for Toyota’s attention to quality materials, even if by now most switches were as useful as dead knobs on a Sci-fi TV show prop panel.
On that first drive, arriving to my father’s residence at the sugar mill was a test of nerves. A 6 mile drive from San Salvador on the infamous Passage of the North (Troncal del Norte), colloquially referred to as Passage of the Dead: a 4 lane road of varying grades filled with moderate curves that crossed heavily populated areas. Its traffic flow was generally moderate, thus inviting spirited and reckless driving from public transport bus drivers. Spectacular accidents with large casualties were rather common and made the news more often than not. A fine place to get acquainted with the unruly manners of the Corolla.
I kept moving forward hoping to reach home before the untamed Corolla sent this rider to a hospital. Not a novice to broken down mechanics, I had ‘nursed’ cars before: a slipping clutch, a failing brake master cylinder, etc. Regardless, it was still an unpleasant novelty to ‘nurse’ everything at once: “Gosh, what’s the steering doing? Better slow down… pump the brakes! Let’s go to 3rd gear, where is it? Is that 4th? Is it overheating? Oh, the gauge doesn’t work… Pffft! Wait, watch out for that DOG!!!”
Somehow I reached home, in one piece. That night I updated dad on my paperwork woes. We had a pleasant talk after dinner as it had become custom, and later on I wandered the sugar mill’s gardens. The stroll brought a sense of relief against the uncertainty of those days.
Next day, after another ‘taming session’ with the horse, err, Corolla, I reached the customs office handling my SF shipped belongings. Unlike what I expected, the office was a private enterprise consisting of middlemen that handled imports. I got a quick low down on Salvadorian import procedures: Foreign companies knowing how convoluted Salvadorian Customs could be, hired private actors to manage the release of goods. Inside knowledge was essential to speed up the process. With that in mind, I told my middleman about my Beetle woes. Sorry, make that a middlewoman, as a motherly lady was in charge of my case. She offered help on the Beetle for a reasonable fee. Would I take her offer? Sure, why not? Everything was so no-not-working, that how could it no-not-not-work even more?
I left with the impression that middlewoman in charge, I could now take the back seat, spend some mellow time with my dad, and handle most of the remaining process by phone. Wrong again. Every other day or so middlewoman would call with some new requirement or other: “We need you to sign another special release form, can you come by the office?” The requests were endless as locals, recently coming out of a military dictatorship, had quite a knack to concoct inane procedures.
For each of these errands I would take the fading samurai, broken bones and all, to do one more charge up the Passage of Death. Having no will of its own, the car obviously couldn’t improve on each taming session. Instead, it was up to this rider to get used to its quirks. I had to admit that regardless of its sorry condition, deep down the car was a fighter; the engine still pulled the vehicle with delayed muted force. The old shine lurked somewhere deep inside. Also, throughout that whole month of foolish errands, the car didn’t fail me once. Not even close. Despite all, Toyota’s fame for basic reliable mechanics were in full display.
Ok, not so basic mechanics, as Toyota was leaving those days behind by the early 80’s. For the E70, Toyota’s team made strides in bringing more sophisticated engineering to the Corolla. Chassis dynamics were considerably improved, while attention to passenger comfort took priority as well. On its release, in the 3rd world, the car felt like money; meaning a lot of car for little money. The best kind of deal. It was regrettable that my first experience with the E70 was a sample in such deteriorated condition, as it was the direct precursor to the now famous AE86. Some of that had to be already on the E70.
By week 3, word came from middlewoman regarding the Beetle. She had sorted out most procedural hoops, but additional paperwork was necessary for the car to be released. Basically, I had to pick my poison. Option 1: I could legalize the car by going through the normal process, and in that case the Beetle would need to pass a smog test in accordance to recently passed laws. This would mean adding mechanicals from Mexican Beetles: catalytic converter, some fuel accessories, etc. Option 2: to take advantage of another recently approved law; the classic car import law. The Catch-22 of the situation? Being a new law, the Ministry of Transport had no idea as to how to implement the classic car law, lacking expertise in the matter.
I took option 2, while the middlewoman warned me: “Well, that’s for rich people… those are the ones that can make use of that law!” I persisted. The idea was for the Ministry of Transport to provide a letter recognizing the Beetle’s ‘classic’ status. With letter in hand, it could all proceed in ‘order’ afterwards.
One more ride on the wounded samurai to the Ministry of Transport. In perfectly dystopian spirit, the Ministry was located in a crime ridden downtown barrio not far from Police’s headquarters (How could it be otherwise?). As I parked the Corolla in a sketchy street filled with hard liquor bars and whorehouses, the beater’s greatest quality shone; no other car would feel safe in such an area.
Inside I asked for audience with one of the Ministry’s chiefs. After a short while I was allowed into his office. There, he approached my plea with the usual demeanor of local authorities, power gone to his head. Treating me with disdainful respect, he rejected the whole ‘classic car’ letter notion: “You have to understand… the Ministry has yet to decide how we’re going to certify what is a classic and what isn’t!” (The Ministry sure is taking its time: to this day, 20 years later, said procedures remain nonexistent). Not feeling quite defeated yet, I bit my tongue, while thinking of my next move.
Meanwhile, I would deal with my freight belongings. One more taming ride on the Corolla, to the customs warehouse at the opposite end of town were the shipment was at. Middlewoman was waiting at the entrance, paperwork at hand ‘ready’ for final revision by customs officials. She handed me the paperwork, as this final step could only be done by the interested party –me. As I walked into the warehouse, I met the customs official reviewing my belongings. In keeping with the comedy of errors spirit of those days, a pointless talk ensued as the officer tried to comprehend the tech belongings that made up the bulk of the shipment.
- So, what’s this… an Opal computer? A G… G… And… 3 ZIT disks… what are those? And a Mini D camera?
- It’s a G4 Apple computer, 3 ZIP discs and a Mini DV camera – the annoyed IT man in me said.
After ascertaining my possessions, customs struggled on how to proceed with import duties, as taxes differed on personal belongings versus commercial items. It all hinged on how one DEFINED personal belongings, as customs finally declared: “Yes, reduced taxes apply to personal belongings, but what you’re bringing are BOOKS and COMPUTERS!”
Oh yes, the business entrepreneur that brings ONE item at a time for retail! Watch out for those! Used to this kind of dumbness by then, I just rolled my eyes, much to their annoyance. Middlewoman intervened, calming everyone’s nerves. Negotiating some more, she managed to split the difference (don’t ask me how), and settled for $160 dollars in taxes, in total. Sounding painless enough, I paid up and all my belongings were brought safely to my dad’s place. One less worry at hand.
Back at the sugar mill, later that night I talked to Mr. Quixote about my Beetle woes.
- So you need a letter from the Ministry saying the car is a classic, is that all? – he asked, insistently.
- Well, yes. Either that or…
With that bit of info, he hung up. Next morning, he unexpectedly called me around 10am.
- It’s done! The Minister of Transport’s son works in my office. He already talked to his dad! The letter you need should be ready at the Ministry!
Mr. Quixote had pulled through this time, unlike the book, claiming victory over Salvadorian customs windmills. One last stand by the Corolla as we reached the Ministry of Transport, chugging loudly along, parking on now-known whorehouse territory. There, once again at the chief’s offices, his air of superiority had been replaced by one of disguised anxiety. He handed me the ‘classic car’ letter no questions asked. Paper in hand, customs could not keep the Beetle captive anymore. As if prey had escaped their jaws, some remaining inane red-tape moments occurred while filling some final forms.
- So, your car is cerulean or light blue? –asked the customs officer.
I looked at him with flesh-piercing laser eyes.
- Fine, fine… let’s say light blue…
Nothing to do, buddy, the charade was up! Minutes later the Beetle was released, Salvadorian license plates included.
Few days later I returned the Corolla keys to Mr. Quixote. It was sold not long after at ‘get rid of it’ prices, a sad undeserving end. The Corolla had been an extraordinary companion to me, without which I can’t imagine achieving my mission. The car had embodied perfectly the ‘fight until the last breath’ Japanese warrior spirit. I should have held a ceremony to its parting. Let these words serve that role.
More on the E70 Corolla:
1980-1983 Toyota Corolla – The Datsun 510 Doppelganger – by David Saunders
I have sometimes wondered if the greatest misfortune to befall central and south America was that it was colonized by the Spanish and not by the English. The English have done certain things quite well through the centuries, and running a legal system has been one of them. Spanish systems can be run well and English systems can be run poorly, but each (when left alone) seems to tend otherwise.
Who can hate on a Toyota that has been treated so poorly but continued to show up and do its best. It is not hard to see how such a car can earn love and respect.
Absolutely, JP. Many people say they wish we had been colonized by the English, not realizing that if that had been the case, our ancestors probably woudn’t have been allowed entry at those times when the US, Canada or the Commonwealth didn’t accept immigration. That said, and even though I live in what is the best Spanish-speaking democracy in Latin America, well ranked also in the world at large, we have lots of red tape. Buying a car involves almost as much paperwork as buying a house.
Then again, Uruguay was “invented” by Lord Ponsomby, the same way and at about the same time as Belgium , and for the same reasons. So, it’s not a good example.
Funny, I have often had that exact same thought. Yet my only experience is with the only Spanish ruled Asian country. the Philippines. Having made 51 trips there it always amazes me how that country manages itself. I will say for my 52nd trip this year it will be over Christmas and New Year’s for my wife to celebrate the happy holidays.
One thing they learned well from the Spanish, and improved upon, was how to celebrate holidays in a very big way. I get to spend those two weekends out in the province (boonies to us) to see how it is done. What will happen is that the whole neighborhood will try to get a look at the foreigner married to a Filipina. Lucky me and then I’ll high tail it out of there during the week to visit friends.
For perspective on the province it is abut 80 miles east of Manila. I asked my wife how long to get there? The answer was 6 hours! Better be by car because my ass isn’t sitting in a jeepney the entire way hunched over in the back.
Yes, as the Spanish empire coalesced in the 16th century, their emphasis on centralized government eventually worked even against their own prosperity. In South America, it just fommented contraband and illegal activities during the Colonial times, as very little could be done following proper channels. It made for very inefficient government.
During my stay here, as locals tell me about their ‘cursed’ fates, I tend to remind them that their own relatives seem to do pretty well in the US. So it’s a “management” problem (easier to say than to fix).
Still, a saying in my own house: “I like it here… as long as I don’t need to accomplish anything.” For hanging around, chatting, and hospitality, it works pretty good.
Yes it does, which is precisely the appeal for some of us uptight northerners.
It could also be said that the English Sovereign whose reign I am still ultimately subject to, and her antecedents and all the aristocracy who travelled with them, sufficiently extracted such wealth from the lands they took that they could afford the vast armies of bureaucracy they left behind, the better their continued control to exert, and further, that they did such administering with a great and cold brutalism made respectable by the appearance of orderly “process.” Perhaps the more relaxed model left by the Spanish simply exposes the corruption involved more directly, and is more honest.
As for their legal system, it has its virtues (and I live under a very apolitical and uncorrupt version of it), but it too hides many vices that those who blandish its superiority to all other systems do not, or cannot, see.
Anyway, the Spaniards left a culinary legacy far, far superior to boiled mutton and Spotted Dick. The Spaniards, put simply, included food in their recipes.
As to the nag named Corolla, I am amused by the age-induced terrors described, but unsurprised by the reliability. I would be likewise unsurprised to hear that it is still running as I write. They’re made thus.
Your story is terrific, and I’m enjoying following along. Just thought I’d chime in and say so!
The pictured four door Corolla reminds me so much of my 1978 Fiat 131 “Mirafiore”. That was a great car! Comfortable for a small family, efficient to operate (30mpg at a time when that was darn good), and long lasting- we put 100,000 miles on before selling it. It still had the original Michelin tires mounted and there was still a bit of tread left! I still love those crisp lines.
I love your writing style and have enjoyed all of your stories.
One question. Do you have to endure the same process when you bring personal belongings into the US? I know you have to clear cars through emissions and safety requirement.
The VW is smiling..
This is your best piece yet! I love the way you describe your impressions of the Corolla when you get to drive it. What other car could be in such wretched condition yet still run?
So nice to see that VW cresting over that hill at last! Your patience surely exceeded that which I would have demonstrated, by several factors, even if it cost you several extra dollars.
I was about 90 per cent sure that word “couldn’t” there was carrying much more than its rated weight. Glad I was wrong and you got your car out of jail!
What is that white 4-door wagon-thing in the left lane in your pic captioned Riding La Troncal del Norte (Passage of the North, a.k.a., Passage of the Dead)?
I’m glad it got released from jail as well!
The vehicle in question is a Suzuki APV, one of those Japanese designed models apparently destined for 3rd world use. Built in Indonesia according to Wikipedia.
MORE great storytelling =8-) .
I drove my 1966 VW Typ III ‘Squareback’ to Guatemala in 1976 and sold it when it was time to come home .
The crooked customs guy were the same ~ once in their impound lot (“predio”) they didn’t want to let it loose until everyone’s palms were greased .
The guy I sold it to got stuck with all that misery and graft .
I love the pictures, make me wistful for Guatemala….