Tom and I returned about a week ago from another trip to Guatemala. This one was something of a good deed, although it was also a fact finding trip for us. Our friend Julio’s mother was in the hospital in Flores, Guatemala, a couple of months ago, and she needed to go back to the doctor at the hospital for a follow-up visit. Nobody in Julio’s family has a car that they trust to make it to Flores and back, and Tom and I have been wanting to investigate driving one of our vehicles into Guatemala, so we decided that taking Julio’s mother to the doctor in Flores would give us a chance to see what was involved in getting our car over the border – with the help of people who speak Spanish and have lived in both countries.
After a bumpy start, it turned out to be a good experience for all of us. We left here around 8AM on Tuesday morning and picked up Julio and his son Eric at the farm. We headed into San Ignacio to meet Scott and Elizabeth, who were planning on driving their rental car to Tikal, and who could also benefit from Julio’s help with the process of getting a car out of Belize and into Guatemala. We met them on Burns Ave, and stood chatting in the sunshine while Julio cleared the first obstacle on the journey; he had to get a temporary passport because he just had to turn his in and get a new one because the old one was full and he is going to a conference in Costa Rica next week. He picked up all the necessary paperwork and was told to get the actual temporary passport at the border.
Eric and I jumped in the rental car with Elizabeth and Scott and we followed Tom and Julio to Julio’s sister’s house, where we were meeting Julio’s mother and two of his sisters. That was where we encountered our second obstacle. Julio’s mother lived in 7 Miles prior to her hospital stay in Guatemala, but when she returned to Belize, she decided to stay with her daughter in San Ignacio because she would be closer to the hospitals there if she had any emergencies. However, she had left her passport in 7 Miles and told Julio to bring it with him – and he forgot. After a quick conference, we decided that Julio and I would go to the border with Elizabeth and Scott so that Julio could get his temporary passport and then help Elizabeth and Scott with the border crossing with the car. Tom and Eric would make the run back to 7 Miles, and then pick up Julio’s mother and sisters on the way back to the border.
As it turned out, this timing was just fine. Julio got his temporary passport, and then helped Scott and Elizabeth with the border crossing. While it’s not a super complicated process to get a car into Guatemala from Belize, it can be a little difficult for people who don’t speak Spanish – and Scott and Elizabeth don’t – because on the Guatemala side, that’s all they speak. The Guatemalan officials want copies of some documents, and want all of their instructions followed, and that’s tough if you don’t understand the instructions. Plus, one of the printers was broken, which meant that they had to go out of the Immigration building, across the bridge, and into Melchor to get some of the copies, which isn’t a big deal except Elizabeth said that she wouldn’t have even known what they were asking her to do. I waited outside the Immigration building on the Belize side, and when Tom returned with Eric and Julio’s sisters and mother, Julio hadn’t yet come back to the Belize side. He had Eric’s passport with him on the Guatemala side, so they sent me through to find out what was going on and get Eric’s passport. I crossed to the Guatemala side just as Elizabeth and Scott were getting their money changed and getting on the road, and asked if everything was okay since by this time they’d been working on crossing for about an hour. Elizabeth assured me that it was, but also said that if they hadn’t had Julio’s help, they probably would have just figured out where they could park the car and they would have taken some form of public transportation to Tikal. We exchanged good-bye hugs – again – and Scott and Elizabeth hit the road to continue their adventure in Guatemala. I informed Julio that Eric needed his passport; Julio looked shocked, rifled around in his bag, found Eric’s passport and headed back towards Belize to get Eric, Tom, and the truck across the border.
In the meantime, Julio’s mother and sisters had crossed, so they and I sat in the shade and waited for Julio, Eric, and Tom. Even though Julio had just gone through the process of getting the vehicle over with Elizabeth and Scott, it still took time just because you have to go from line to line. After exiting Belize, the vehicle has to be sprayed. Then the driver has to get stamped into Guatemala in the people-stamping line. Then he has to go to another line to get a stamp for the vehicle in his passport. Tom realized at this point that he could have saved a little bit of time if he had photocopies of the vehicle’s title and registration, but it didn’t make much of a difference because they also wanted a photocopy of his stamped passport before they would issue the temporary permit. So, Tom and Julio had to take another walk into Melchor to get all the copies, then go back through the line to submit the copies and get the permit. They changed some money, and we were on the road right around noon – which seems like a long time considering we left our house at 8AM and the border is only about 20 miles from our house, but considering all the running around we did, it really wasn’t too bad.
The drive to Flores was fairly pleasant and uneventful, except for one roadblock as we headed out of Melchor. Like many border towns in Mexico and Guatemala, road blocks are sometimes set up at the non-border edge of town to make sure that anybody proceeding further into the country has the correct paperwork. All of our paperwork was in order, except the guard insisted that Tom and I had to pay a tourist fee. Julio and his sisters argued very loudly with her in Spanish that Tom and I obviously weren’t tourists and we were just giving his mother a ride to the doctor in Flores, and that we were permanent residents in Belize, and it was our Belize-registered car we were in, but she wasn’t having any of it. We were white, we owed her 50 quetzales – about $15BZ each – and she wasn’t giving us our little slips of paper and lifting the gate until we paid. The money really wasn’t the big deal, it was the fact that it was obvious racial discrimination – but, we were in Guatemala, so that was that, and racial discrimination isn’t such a big deal there. Tom and I didn’t really understand all of what was happening until it was over, and then Julio and his family were actually more upset about it than we were. But, we didn’t let it ruin our trip and we headed on to Flores.
As we pulled into town and drove towards the hospital, we saw three nicely dressed people, a man, a woman, and their teenaged daughter, walking down the street. Julio’s mother and sisters started yelling at us to stop, and we had no idea why. Tom pulled over and looked at Julio, and Julio just laughed and said, “My brother. On the way to the hospital to see my mother.” So they piled into the truck, Tom and Julio switched places so Julio was driving since he knew where to go, and we cut through a narrow back street in Flores to get to the hospital.
We got to Flores in the mid-afternoon and went right to the doctor’s office. Julio’s mom had some blood tests done, and was told to come back the next morning for the results. While she was in the doctor’s we wandered around Flores, a very picturesque town which is an island in the middle of a large lake. When she was finished, we all piled back in the truck and went into Santa Elena, the town on the shore of the lake, to look for a generator part that Julio was trying to find for his church’s generator. Santa Elena isn’t big, but it’s a very busy town with lots of shops, and we spent until the 5:00 closing time looking for a shop that had the part. As Julio walked out of the last shop he tried, he ran into a friend who was working in a neighboring storefront. When he told him what he was looking for, the friend said he thought he knew a place where they could find it, but we’d have to come back the next morning so he could take us there since it was on a back street that we’d never find on our own.
As Julio was talking to his friend, he looked up and saw Tom talking to a man on the sidewalk. He told us later that he didn’t know if Tom knew the man, or even if Tom was speaking English or Spanish since Tom’s mouth was moving so fast. We laughed when Julio told us this, because the man was just an inebriated Guatemalan who thought he could practice his English on the white people, not knowing that Tom would torture the drunken Guatemalan by practicing Spanish on him! Tom thought, if you are drunk and want to bother me on the sidewalk, you have to suffer through me practicing Spanish!
At this point we were all starving since we’d neglected to eat lunch since we wanted to get to Flores so Julio’s mom could get into the doctor’s that afternoon, so we found a cafeteria style restaurant and had what turned out to be a delicious dinner – chili rellano (stuffed peppers, sort of, although – go figure – they’re deep fried before they’re roasted) and rice and stewed vegetables.
We left the restaurant and headed for Julio’s aunt and uncle’s house, where we were all staying. They live in a small town off the main road about 45 minutes outside of Santa Elena/Flores, and the road leading to the town isn’t marked. Although Julio’s mom and sisters knew how to get there in the daylight, it was dark by this time so we had a little trouble finding the road, compounded by the fact that Tom was driving and the three women in the back seat were arguing with each other about where we were going and giving Tom conflicting directions – in Spanish. At one point Tom said to me that he didn’t understand what they were saying and what should he do, and I replied “Stop!” So he slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side of the road, only to be told that he just needed to proceed straight ahead for another mile or so. Shortly after that Julio got out to ask directions from some people on the side of the road, and then instead of Tom trying to figure out the translation of the directions, Tom just jumped into the pan of the truck with Eric and let Julio drive. That worked much better!
The aunt and uncle live in a house fairly typical of this area in Central America. The “house” is actually a series of small separate buildings connected by cement walkways and some overhangs. The kitchen is one building (very practical in the heat, and Tom and I are planning to do this here), there are a couple of sleeping buildings, and a building set up as a living area, all surrounded by beautiful gardens. The family caught up on all the family gossip, and while Tom and I caught some of it (Tom more, me less) we realized that we still need to speak baby-Spanish. However, somebody made sure to translate for us so we could understand what we needed, and we were fine with just letting the family catch up and letting the talk wash over us. Actually, we probably caught about as much from them in Spanish as we would have if we were with English-speaking friends visiting family we didn’t really know, and we sort of appreciated the break in not even having to try to understand. Before too long, they told us that our room was ready, and we found that they’d given us a whole building with a bed and a bathroom. We hope that somebody didn’t end up sleeping on a concrete sidewalk somewhere so that we could have the bed, but we couldn’t really say this in Spanish, so we had to settle for just be super-appreciative and thanking everybody over and over.
We had a great night’s sleep, and woke up to the sounds of roosters and turkeys – just like home, with the addition of the turkeys! We got up and dressed and found everybody gathering in the kitchen building, where we had a breakfast of rolls and fresh made corn tortillas and cookies and fruit and coffee and tea and juice, and pretty much whatever we wanted. There was more talk and a tour of the garden, and then we got ready to head back to Flores to pick up the blood tests.
The ride back into Flores seemed a whole lot quicker in the daylight than it had on the way out the night before, and we got to the doctor’s office shortly before the blood tests were returned. We left Julio’s mother and sisters there, and Eric, Julio, Tom and I went back into Santa Elena to pick up Julio’s friend to find the generator part. He was right – we never would have found the parts shop without his guidance. But, we found it, and although they didn’t have the part there, they could get it and ship it to Melchor so somebody from the church could pick it up in the next few days.
We went back into Flores and found Julio’s family waiting for us on the waterfront. We took the time to get a couple of pictures – one of them, one of us – and then we headed back towards Belize. We made one stop at the Maxi Bodega – a big grocery store, sort of like a Sam’s Club – to look for cream of tartar, since I had no idea what it was called in Spanish and it was needed for the Snickerdoodle (cookie) recipe I’d given to Julio’s sisters, cousin, and aunt. We found it – it’s “Cremo Tartar” – and after buying it, we walked through the big mall they’re building just outside of Santa Elena (the Maxi Bodega is one of the anchor stores), and then got back on the road. We stopped for lunch in El Remate, which was delicious but took a long time. We took a quick side trip to the shopping area in Melchor on the way back since Tom and I had never been there, and then headed for the border.
Getting back into Belize was much simpler than getting into Guatemala. Tom just turned in the permit, we all got stamped out of Guatemala, got stamped into Belize, Tom drove the truck through, and we were ready to go. Julio’s mother didn’t even have to get out of the truck this time – everybody was okay with one of her daughters taking her passport to be stamped, and she was able to just remain in the back seat. We dropped Julio’s mother and the sister she lives with off at their house, and then took Julio’s other sister to her home in a different section of San Ignacio. Then we dropped Julio and Eric in 7 Miles, and Tom and I made it home – tired, but glad we were able to help Julio’s mother and figure out what’s needed to get a Belize vehicle into Guatemala, and glad we could have such a good time doing it.