With Guatemala City fading in my rearview mirrors, I meandered slowly and surely through the outskirts. It was then when I swallowed hard. Gulped. Then gasped. And my mind spun wildly. I was screwed. Should I turn back? Battle my way back to the BMW dealer? It was surely closed. And it was Saturday and not opened again until Monday.
They still had my papers — the important papers.
With the border a little over 3 hours away, I pondered my options. I would likely be turned away at the border. Because without the Guatemalan temporary vehicle import document there would be no way for the customs agent to clear my bike. And without my bike cleared through customs, the Honduran customs office would not issue me a like permit for taking my motorcycle into Honduras.
Could I talk my way out of this predicament?
Otherwise, I would turn around and try to make my way through the maze of Guatemala City back to the BMW dealer. Even then, the likelihood of finding someone who had access to the service writers’ office was nada. I’d be stuck in Guatemala City for two nights. My mind was still spinning. These papers have caused me more anxiety and fear than anyone should have to go through. I was more worried about getting out of Guatemala and into Honduras than getting kidnapped in Mexico or robbed in Guatemala. After all, these ARE my important papers.
I decided to go for the border.
I’d been without my bike for a couple days. And with a new chain, rear tire and front and rear sprockets plus new plugs and a few other bonuses thrown in, my bike was running excellent. So as I passed hundreds of cardboard signs stapled to buildings, road signs and trees touting Everyready batteries, I ran through a number of scenarios in my head.
I could tell them I lost the papers. Then again, I could blame it on the dealer. There had been some heavy rains so the papers could have been destroyed and rendered unreadable. Hey, this is Guatemala and I could say they were stolen. Like Kasparov contemplating Big Blue’s next move, I calculated the potential responses. But this was just guessing.
Another idea I conceived was to just appear at the Guatemalan Customs office and act as if I just arrived from Honduras and pay my 41 Quetzales for a new permit. Then just spend the night at the border and go back through in the morning canceling it. Problem was the vehicle is noted in my passport. Then I remembered that the customs office scribbled information into my passport when they stamped me “in”. Though the document in question was completed on a 30 year old typewriter, I did see a computer in the adjacent office where I paid my 41 Quetzales. Maybe my motorcycle documentation was plugged into the computer.
Sure. As if there was a computer network linking this far remote border crossing into Honduras. I imagined that data was stored locally and updated monthly, if that. I crossed into Guatemala just over a week ago and it was doubtful that any record of my coming into this country would be on any computer — and doubtfully on one at perhaps the least crossed border in Guatemala.
The odds were against me. I was screwed. But I pressed on.
Just before the border my gas light popped on. At the gas station the attendants and all the customers surrounded me and my motorcycle. I had to handle the typical barrage of questions. How much did it cost? Where am I from? Where am I going? How big is it? Who makes it? I always have fun in these situations. I take advantage of practicing my Spanish while attempting to learn a few more words. Not a bad thing. But at this gas station I was bummed to find they had no premium gasoline. However, I was running on reserve out and at just before 4pm, I needed to get to the border before closing time at 5. Then I needed to get to Ruinas de Copan, just 10km from the border and secure a room before sundown.
Boy was I playing the odds.
Everything went smooth at Guatemalan immigration. After my passport was stamped and cleared, I asked “Is that all?” “Todo?” The agent said sure.
So, when I approached the customs office I thought I was speaking with Honduran customs officials. The gentlemen with the narrow boyish face, clear eyes and windbreaker looked more like a rejected soccer player than a customs official. He was more interested in my GPS unit than he was in doing his job.
“Where are your papers?” he asked handing my passport, title and registration back to me.
I realized this was the Guatemalan customs office. And I was hardly done with my Guatemalan border business.
“They’re destroyed,” I explained in my best Spanish. “The motorcycle dealer destroyed them,” I explained, reasoning that if I told him they forgot to give them back it was an open door for him to tell me to go back to the city and get the papers.
“Without the papers I can’t check you out of the country and the Honduras what let you in with your bike.” As he spit out the words in broken English I pulled on my ears hoping what went in was different than what I thought I heard.
“But the papers are gone,” I explained with a slight whimper in my voice.
“I know you told me this, but I can’t do anything.”
Time for fast thinking. I remembered the scribbling in my passport. “At the border of Mexico customs told me they wrote the number in my passport.” I was reaching.
“What number?” he asked as I was waving my passport in front of him. “There are no numbers for the document, I need the original paperwork.”
Shoving my passport in his face, I pointed to the Guatemalan stamp. His eyes squinted and he finally took the passport back, glanced at it and placed it back on the counter. “That’s your VIN number,” he sadly rejected my pleas.
“No. No,” I pleaded again. “This other number.. The border official told me this number is important” I was lying now. He grabbed the passport and stared blankly at the numbers.
“They don’t make sense to me,” he explained. I encouraged him to try and frustrated with my tenacity pulled a computer keyboard closer to him.
“I don’t think these numbers have anything to do with your motorcycle,” he tried to manage my expectations as he punched numbers into the computer. “You would have to be very lucky if there’s a record of your motorcycle here”
Playing the odds.
He asked me for my registration and license plate number. He kept pounding at the keys. I tried to decipher what he was punching in making sure that nothing was spelled wrong. He then started hitting the enter key. With eyes glazed over, he was intensely concentrating. More key punching. More enter key hitting.
Then he looked up at me. “I don’t know how,'” he said in Spanish.
“Do I have good luck,” I asked back.
“You are very, very lucky,” he said as he proceeded to go through the motions and clear me out of Guatemala and the sweat dried from my brow. It was 10 minutes before the border closed and i still needed to get import documentation from Honduras.
With a Gaugin book sitting on the top of his computer monitor, the Honduran customs agent had 10 or more years on his Guatemalan counterpart. He also had about 50 more pounds, too. Peering through thick glasses as he shuffled papers from the center drawer of his wooden desk. He then got up and left the office. Great, I figured that was it he closed. But 10 minutes later he came back with a notebook and scribbling. Seems he couldn’t find the VIN number on my motorcycle. He had left the office to examine my back, jot down any information he could find, then returned to the office and started threading papers in triplicate through a 30 year old manual Underwood typewriter.
A fan of Gaugin, he was studying his work in both the book and on the internet. He was more interested in me, my trip and my background than he was at answering my questions about his life. But soon he asked me for $35 and handed me my paperwork, passport and other documents, pounded a few rubber stamps on a slew of documents, handed me my passport and finally released me from the office.
My bike was parked within 10 feet of the border gate, a iron tube painted in yellow and black stripes. An elderly man with a Yankee baseball cap and only a few teeth was responsible for hoisting it up and pulling it down. He flashed his wrinkled hand in front of my face and showed me a few words scribbled in ink on his palm. “Tip”. Was the word he kept pointing at and trying to pronounce. I knew he was looking for a handout. “Oh. You mean trip?” I pretended not to understand and explained that I was in Guatemala and going to Honduras on a big “Trip”. He pointed to another word, this one in Spanish: “propina”, clearly the word for tip. But unfortunately I handed my last money to Honduran Customs. Not that there was a reason to offer him a tip. After all this was his job. But I reached into my Camelback pack and pulled out a tiny ceramic cup with a neck ribbon attached. The tourist office in Zacatecas, Mexico had given it to me as a gift. I’d been carrying it for a few weeks and finally found the perfect place to lose it. I put the cup and ribbon over his head and said “para mi amigo.” For my friend. He held it up, mocked drinking from it and laughed. Just as he was about to pull the gate up and let me through, my Honduran fan of Gaugin came running out of his office. Seems he forgot to stamp my vehicle information in my passport. Good thing I was detained by the man looking for a tip.
With a passport stamped with new info and the sun slowly setting, I rode through the border and into Ruinas de Copan.
Honduras at last.