One of the (few) drawbacks to living abroad is having to deal with immigration issues.
Ever since high school when I relished in skipping classes and not getting caught, it has been in my nature to rebel against authority. In line with this rebellious mentality, I believe that borders between states and countries are fictitious lines decided upon by historical conquests.
But they are a fiction that we all subscribe to. If we want to travel, we have to have a passport. To have a passport, we must be a citizen of a country. To work in a foreign country, we must have a work visa.
One of the many perks of my teaching job in Guatemala City was that the school provided us with a work visa and handled all the necessary paperwork involved. Not so at my school here in Panajachel. Although Life School has been around for 25 years, we teachers are officially “volunteers” who receive a stipend. Without a work visa, we are given mere tourist visas which must be renewed every 90 days.
This can be done at the Migracion office in Guatemala City twice a year. The other two times per year, one must leave the country of Guatemala—officially for 72 hours, though luckily this detail usually isn’t enforced—and then return with a fresh 90-days. Overstaying a visa incurs a Q10 ($1.50) fine per day.
All this is to say, my husband and I had to make a run for the border by February 17, the day our visas would expire. We, along with our one-year-old daughter, headed to Mexico on February 15, last Saturday. Our destination was Tapachula, Chiapas, followed by two nights at Playa Linda on the Pacific Coast.
After about eight hours of travel via various transports (a van we luckily happened to hitch a ride from, two chicken buses, another small van, and finally a bicycle taxi), we arrived at the border.
A word on chicken buses (las camionetas in Spanish)—they are repurposed U.S. school buses, repainted and usually donned with plenty of decals promising passengers that Dios and Jesus and Santa Maria are guiding the bus. They are called chicken buses because apparently people used to bring their chickens along for the ride… though I’ve never witnessed a chicken on the bus. They are a sight to behold, full of mostly indigenous Mayans in their colorful traje and other rural Guatemalans, plus the occasional backpackers.
Camionetas are the cheapest, most readily available form of transit throughout the country. And they inevitably seem to get packed to the gills with people. There is evidently no limit to the number of people allowed onto the bus. And no matter how full it gets, the ayudante (helper) always manages to squirm through the aisle and collect the correct fare from everyone.
On chicken bus #1 last Saturday, I was standing near the front of the bus with Jade strapped to my front in a baby carrier. Somehow, at one of the stops, my glasses flew off my head. I watched them fall down the bus steps and onto the street. We yelled for the driver to wait, and luckily no one unwittingly stepped on and smashed my glasses before I was able to pick them up and return them to their proper place. I was extra grateful for the rest of the day and weekend for intact glasses and the clear vision they enable.
We were on chicken bus #2 for what felt like an eternity as it took us along winding, narrow highways from Xela to a town called Coatepeque. We took a brief bathroom break and diaper change, then were on our way to Tecun Uman, the border town on the Guatemalan side.
Once inside the tiny immigration office at the border, we stepped right up to the window (no line) and handed over our three passports. My husband is Colombian, I am from the U.S.A. and I had brought the brand new Guatemalan passport of our daughter. She does have a U.S. passport as well, but I hadn’t brought it along, as it’s been accruing a daily fine since November and I wasn’t about to pay that fee.
Little did we know: Guatemalans require a visa to enter Mexico. My husband was livid that I hadn’t brought Jade’s U.S. passport. I was irked about this stupid visa rule, even for a one year old child, and then I got stressed and upset, at which point my normally fluent Spanish abilities plummeted.
The agent suggested that each parent go separately to Mexico to get stamped while the other stayed with the baby on the Guatemalan side. I rejected this idea and wanted to believe the taxistas outside who were telling me a whole different story. No, you don’t need a visa! Oh, you can just go to Mexico and pay them 300 pesos and they’ll stamp her in.
Turns out, what they meant was that we could bribe the officer on the Guatemalan side and then bribe the Mexican immigration officer. Well, the Guatemalan guy wouldn’t even take the bribe on our behalf from our new best friend the taxista, so we were left with no choice but to each go to Mexico separately.
We found a restaurant nearby and I sat with Jade and wrote furiously in my journal and ate fish and tortillas with beans and salad. The phrase “Guatemalan cuisine” is an oxymoron. Every single restaurant near the coast offers the same choices of fried pollo or mojarra (fish) with refried beans and questionable salads, plus the ubiquitous tortillas which are, sadly, not nearly as delectable as Mexican tortillas. There might be shrimp and ceviche on the menu if you’re lucky. La comida mexicana, of course, is delicious and diverse.
After my husband left in a huff, I saw that he’d left his wallet behind accidentally. But it was too late to catch him.
He came back about an hour later. Turns out he’d gone to lunch on the Mexico side, not realizing he had no money. When he’d eaten and went to look for his wallet to pay, and realized he didn’t have it, he waited for the waitress to leave the room and made a run for it. Fortunately, he didn’t get caught, though he was paranoid all the way to the border.
I then walked to Mexico and strolled around for 15 minutes. As frustrating as it was not to be allowed in with our whole family at once, the walk helped improve my mindset, as walking and breathing always does. I got stamped back into Guatemala by the same officer who’d initially ruined our weekend vacation plans by enforcing the silly law that even cute little Guatemalan babies need a visa to enter Mexico.
With the coveted stamps in our passports, we then moved to plan B: procured a few provisions and hopped into yet another van to a nearby port town called Ocos.
We arrived at the Pacific Ocean just as the sun was setting. Checked in to the Bella Vista Hotel, where we seemed to be the only guests. Our room had two giant king beds. The hotel featured two giant swimming pools side by side and was situated about 100 meters from the beach.
After getting settled in, we donned our swimsuits and headed to the sea for a quick dip. Funny thing is, Jade had been a perfectly angelic and amazing traveler the entire day, in all the myriad automobiles we’d boarded. The drama at the border naturally hadn’t phased her in the least. But the moment we arrived at the seaside, she started bawling.
The ocean can be intimidating, especially at night. She wasn’t too keen on it in the daytime either. She liked it the first time we took her to the beach, back in August in Ecuador when she was just seven months old. We’re hoping she’ll have a change of heart the next time we go to the beach.
En fin, it was a crazy borderline day that tested my marriage and my typically mindful, compassionate mentality, followed by a lovely, relaxing beach weekend—only on the Guatemalan side of the border instead of the Mexican side.