I’ve traveled all over the world, so naturally I’ve run into unsavory characters and found myself in sticky situations. Such was the case when I was playing the gullible tourist as we left Tapachula, Mexico, headed for Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas. Our plan was to cross the border into Guatemala at Ciudad Tecún Umán. I was dressed and acted like the “Ugly American” tourist, although my inability to speak the local language was a true shortcoming that I was not faking. It made for an educational experience.
I allowed the taxi driver who drove us from Tapachula, Mexico, to the border to choose the rickshaw driver who would transport us to the Guatemala side. I then allowed the rickshaw driver to select the curbside money exchange, knowing full well I’d be shortchanged on the currency trade, and probably be dinged for the rickshaw driver’s referral fee as well. I had a total of US$75 in Mexican pesos set aside for the experiment, so losses were limited to that amount… all but 20 pesos was spent before we made it to the Tecún Umán bus station inside Guatemala.
From experience I know border crossings and the towns that spring up beside them are magnets for con artists, pickpockets and other thieves, prostitutes, assorted drug dealers, and every other form of lowlife imaginable. Leaving Mexico to enter Guatemala is no exception, and by no means the worst I’ve experienced.
I agreed to pay the rickshaw driver, who was a large young man, 100 Mexican pesos each for Sue and I. The sum was at least 10 times what the going rate was, but I banked on it being a bargain if it meant actually getting what I was paying for. The deal was, I’d pay him once we crossed the border and were safely in Guatemala with all of our personal property still in our possession. I had, in effect, bought an insurance policy.
I had witnessed an odd transaction between the taxi driver who had introduced us to this young man and the rickshaw driver himself. Rather than the rickshaw driver paying the taxi driver a pittance for the potential business he delivered, as I’d have expected, it was the taxi driver who handed a wad of pesos to the rickshaw driver. I asked myself if it could be a loan or loan repayment, or maybe dues paid to a local heavyweight or his adjutant for permission to work the lucrative border crossing. I also noticed that once under the wing of this particular rickshaw driver, the throng of bodies that close in on every gringo making the border crossing on foot or via rickshaw seemed to have backed off. The phenomenon reminded me of jackals cowering from lions protecting their kill. Remaining just out of reach of the lions’ claws and jaws, the jackals remain vigilant, looking for an opening to rush in, bite, and then bolt away with a morsel of flesh for themselves.
It was at the Mexico passport control that my over-payment first paid off. Everyone was wearing similar light blue shirts, with dark blue pants and black shoes. Very similar attire to the official uniforms of the passport control officers. They also all were waving identity tags as if they were passes to paradise. In an instant Sue and I were surrounded by a sea of blue clad bodies, each offering their services to expedite our getting exit stamps. I got out of the rickshaw at the driver’s coaxing, who also indicated I should follow him. I did, so closely I actually stepped on his sandal and almost caused him to fall forward. He pushed past the crowd at the foot of the stairs leading to the passport control kiosk, and the three blue clad bodies standing on the stairs. I wondered if we were queue jumping, but didn’t actually care if we were. It was obviously a dog eat dog environment.
Once at the tiny white kiosk my escort slapped his hand on the counter in front of one of the two men inside the little box and said to me, “Passports here!”. As I retrieved mine and Sue’s passport from my pocket I felt the crowd behind me press against my back. The rickshaw driver stepped behind me while at the same time pushing me forward. Whoever it was behind me gave ground. My passport was stamped with a Mexico exit stamp. We pushed down the stairs again, which was much easier to do than it was climbing them. The tide of blue surrounding Sue as she sat in the rickshaw parted as we approached. I boarded for another ride of a few metres.
We were now at the Guatemala entry point. There were no men in blue in this tiny no man’s land, but I could see them standing in gantlet formation a ways off. I assumed that was where we’d be setting foot inside Guatemala. I paid for my entry visa, got our passports stamped, and re-boarded the rickshaw for the longest ride thus far… a couple hundred metres.
The moment we crossed into Guatemala a very similar blue clad wave of humanity pressed in on us. Our rickshaw driver could go no further, being Mexican, but as a final gesture selected two rickshaw drivers who would transport Sue and I to the bus station. The price would be 20 Quetzales for each driver. I paid the husky young fellow who had spirited us out of Mexico with our wallets, passports and backpacks still in our possession the agreed upon amount, a transaction noted by one of our two Guatemalan rickshaw drivers.
The bus station was a long way away from the border and it was stifling hot. I personally have a problem paying slave wages, so decided I would tip the now profusely sweating rickshaw drivers to make what they earned a fair amount. Unfortunately for both rickshaw drivers, the one giving me a ride asked for the same amount I paid my Mexican rickshaw driver. He obviously assumed I was gullible enough to pay that amount for a ride, which annoyed me. Angry, I gave them both the agreed upon amount and stormed off into the bus station.
It was at our next stop, Santa Cruz, on Lake Atitlan, that I learned how much hassle, money and stress I’d saved myself. We met an Australian couple who had walked across the same border. Confused by all of the men wearing what appeared to be uniforms, each waving identity badges in their faces, they handed their passports to one of the voracious horde. They watched helplessly as the person with their passports walked to the kiosk, handed the passports to a similarly dressed man inside the little box, and saw him stamp both passports. However, when the person returned, they were informed that his walking over to the kiosk, standing in line for a couple of minutes, paying pennies in visa fees, and walking back with the passport was a US$100 per passport service. They thus owed two hundred US Dollars before they could reclaim their own passports. They paid, of course, referring to the amount as “ransom” as they retold the story.
I turns out the vultures preying on tourists physically trapped inside the border control area of the two countries are legally able to fleece visitors. The ID badges they wave in front of everyone’s face are actually legitimate licenses they’re granted to provide visa expediting services. I found it unbelievable that a backpacker, or any traveler for that matter, would surrender their passport to anyone not wearing a badge and seated inside a passport control kiosk. However, the apparent uniforms worn by the licensed extortionists, the official looking identification, combined with little or no Spanish works to disorientate even the most seasoned of travelers.
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