SMr Road Trip Mississippi to Nicaragua
Day 15 - October 17th - Pijijiapan, Mexico to Malacatan, Guatemala
We left Pijijiapan and were merrily rolling along when we ran into another teacher protest, and the traffic was backed up! Apparently these start at 8am sharp and end right at 4pm. We had planned to get to the border as early as possible but our hopes had been dashed, and this time we were close enough to the town of Tapachula, Mexico that we decided to go back to find an internet café to wait out the protest instead of waiting on the highway again. Tapachula was right smack on the border with Guatemala. And with all the teachers in protest, there were school children running all around the city. The sidewalks were old, and thick, oftentimes the step down to the road was as large as three feet.
We parked Shakira in the lot in front of a grocery store where we had a very humble man with worn and wrinkled hands, place a flattened piece of cardboard on our windshield to keep the sun out. I gave him 10 pesos, which by his reaction was generous and he generously thanked me in return with a smile and several bows of his head.
At 4pm we got back in the car and headed south to the border. As is usual with border crossings, first you have to deal with the country you are departing from, which in this case was Mexico. Since we had paid a registration fee to get the car into Mexico, upon departure we had to find the bank to refund our registration deposit. This actually took place before we had gotten into Tapachula. So now, all we had to do was get our exit stamps. Soon we had everything we needed from the Mexico side, paid the $3 to get across the bridge, and headed into Guatemala.
We had been told the Mexico-Guatemala border was one of the roughest border crossings and for once what we had heard was true...
As we entered Guatemala, the yellow lines that typically divide traffic quickly changed into cracked, horribly maintained roads with no order whatsoever. The cars, with no direction, were chaotically honking and merging. All the way to the right was a long line of semi-trucks backed up. All the smaller vehicles had taken to the left of the road, attempting to squeeze back into the right line of trucks whenever there was no oncoming traffic. We joined the smaller cars and were driving straight towards the border in the wrong lane. Soon the men standing around noticed that we were obviously foreigners and began to swarm our car trying to offer help in exchange for money. We in no way affirmed that we wanted help, yet they were overbearingly persistent and undeterred, banging on our windows and yelling. They were all running in front of our car and attempting to guide us with sharp whistles and hand gestures. The border looked more like a town center than an official government area, there were vendors, children, and people everywhere. Our new ‘helpers’ herded Shakira off the main drag convincing us we had to park to get our papers filled out. Without signs or any lanes for us to go through, we could see no other way and followed them into a lot around the back of the buildings. As we entered, a few very casually dressed men raised a metal bar attached to a scrawny looking toll booth. And as we entered they shut the bar behind us, trapping Shakira in the lot...“What the hell?” Eli questioned. We were both concerned. "We're about to lose the car, I know it," said Eli, certain he had made a huge mistake by following the men into the lot we were now locked in. The lot was a huge, extremely sketchy, dirt space with rocks and giant puddles everywhere. We noticed about 10 men begin to approach our car, adding to the entourage we already had.
At this point we had all the doors locked, the drivers side window was down about 6 inches and the men were clamoring to convince us that we needed their help. We were totally surrounded and could not go anywhere. The men began to shove each other to better position themselves at our window, all of them trying to convince us that they were the ones who could best help us. Before we knew what was going on, the men began to pick up fist sized rocks and pelt each other with them. Soon it was an all out brawl. All around us were people getting body slammed, rocks being hurled, blood, and complete chaos. The fight broke out literally ON TOP of Shakira and we just sat in complete dismay watching bloody bodies slam against the car. Eli and I just stared, mouths open and wide-eyed. We were in shock and couldn't even begin to think of a plan of escape. So we just waited. Doors locked, windows rolled up. Eventually the brawl moved a little ways away from the car. Just as we had devised a plan to catapult Shakira into race car mode and ram through the gate, a serious man in his late 40s, came to us, tapped gently on our window, and said in clear English “Come with me, I can help you.” He was dressed in a clean black polo and pleated slacks, and something about his calm demeanor among the chaos inspired us to trust him. We quietly slipped out of the car, locking it as tight as we could. The fighting men did not notice us.
There were signs that were difficult to see and even more difficult to understand. There were small, unofficial looking border offices that were no more than random small windows without proper signage. There is no way we would have known that these were the official border offices, or that the parking lot we had been directed into was, in fact, the official border crossing parking lot. We still had about three extra people shadowing us trying to get us to change our money into the local currency, none of them offering a fair rate. (I had downloaded a great app called “XE Currency” that gives up-to-date exchange rates.) Our guide, whose name I lost in the chaos, was able to help us navigate the tricky paperwork hoops and locate the right places to fulfill everything we needed to do to cross the border. He stuck with us until the end, even after he had received his payment, he made sure everything was covered and that we knew how to navigate our way to a safe hotel south of the Mexican border. We were very grateful for his guidance. It cost us about $25 bucks, but saved us from the confusion and fear for our lives.
Right when we left the border the sun went down and the hard tropical rain started pouring down. The road to our hotel was winding and rough. Shakira’s driver side windshield wiper had given out on us the night before, her defrost did not work, and her headlights were very dim... Sum it up to say that we had practically no visibility. Eli was behind the wheel, as usual, and I grabbed a t-shirt from the back seat to continuously wipe the fog away to give him a clear a view of the path forward as possible. Shakira was still suffering from some issues with her timing belt and we started having problems keeping the engine idling without Eli pushing down the gas pedal. Our border crossing guide had filled us in on the fact that there were "auto hotels" and "non-auto hotels." The auto hotels had armed guards who would also protect your car during your stay, the non-auto hotels would not. The hotel was right where our border crossing guide had told us, about 15 km south of the border, we limped into the lot that was guarded by a man with a gun and checked in, both of us needing to decompress after a long day. We asked if it was safe for us to walk to the store across the street, the guard said absolutely not, but offered to go for us to buy a few things if we needed. All in all, it was the toughest border yet and we did not have a pleasant welcoming into the country of Guatemala.