Three countries, three different busses (one missed bus), a high-speed cab ride, and a lot of confusion. One day. In order to complete my route from Bacalar, Mexico to Flores, Guatemala, I had to pass through Belize prior to entering Guatemala. I had considered stopping by one of Belize’s tropical islands to experience its laid-back lifestyle and unique island culture, but was eager to get to Guatemala. I did my due diligence before the trip to ensure that I wouldn’t be fleeced by any border officials with extra, duplicative fees. Specifically, I had heard that Mexico has a tendency to double charge you at the border for the Mexican Tourism Tax, which is included in the price of most, if not all, plane tickets arriving in Mexico. Thus, I arrived at the Mexico-Belize border with my documentation, including the paperwork I received upon entering Mexico and an e-mail with my itemized flight receipt, which clearly notated the prepaid tax. More importantly, I had my game-face on. I felt like I was walking into a used car dealership, desperate to get a fair deal even though the best negotiators are destined for defeat going up against these professionals. But you can walk away at a car dealership, which you can’t quite do at the border if you’re planning on entering another country…
I walked into the border office with my resources, confident that I wouldn’t be charged again for the fee I had already paid. The border official barely lifted his eyes towards me before telling me that my digital e-mail was insufficient, and that he would need a paper copy. I tried, in vain, to show him the convincing evidence that I possessed, and couldn’t fathom how quickly my case was closed. The border official wouldn’t let me out of Mexico without paying this tax again, and as stubborn as I am prone to be when I feel like I’ve been swindled, I quickly realized I had no choice and had to cough up the fee again. Shortly afterwards, another woman on my bus found me and informed me that she had heard about the double tax, and came with a printed copy of her itemized flight receipt. Her evidence had been accepted and she avoided paying the double tax, though she confessed that even she wasn’t confident that she would be pardoned. At the end of the day, the border official has all the leverage and is the one holding the departure stamp. Tough business. Another woman told me, “this is the way it’s been for years.” That argument has always offered little consolation to me. When the system is broken, I think steps should be taken to fix it. Of course, this is a battle that I am ill-prepared to fight, and certainly a minor payment in the grand scheme of things. Nonetheless, the principle of the sequence of events rubbed me the wrong way.
At the time, I had no idea that this would be the least of my worries that day. After a several-hour bus ride from the Mexico-Belize border to Belize City, the bus driver and his unreliable assistant told us we had 30-45 minutes before transferring busses and continuing on our journey to Flores, Guatemala. “Go ahead and grab lunch, pick up Belizean dollars, whatever, just make sure you’re back here and ready to leave at 1:30 pm”. “Excuse me, sir, you said 1:30 pm, right.” He affirmed my confirmation, and that was that. So I thought. After heading to an ATM to pick up Belizean dollars to pay the Belize tourism tax, and grabbing a quick bite to eat, I returned to the designated departure area around 1:25 pm…to find that my bus was gone. I frantically asked around to confirm that my bus had actually left. I was pointed every which direction, trying to find someone that could track down this bus. Finally, a Good Samaritan had the phone number of the transportation company and called to see if they could come back for me. The woman he spoke with said she would contact the bus driver and call this number back in a few minutes. The phone rang and we were informed that the bus wouldn’t return, but we might be able to catch the bus at a bridge 10 minutes away if we hurried. The Good Samaritan ushered me out of his shop and flagged down a cab driver. After passing me off to the cab driver (Good Samaritan #2), I thanked the man, and the cab driver and I jogged to his car. He weaved in and out of traffic, trying to get me to the bridge as soon as possible. Despite the chaos of the moment, we still managed to have a brief conversation about the U.S. presidential election (can’t seem to avoid it, anytime, anywhere). As we approached the rotary that led to the bridge, the driver pessimistically told me that he didn’t see any bus…and then…I spotted it! Previously concealed, the bus had pulled over on the side of the highway, waiting for the lost gringo. The cab driver honked his horn, marking our triumphant, and not-so-fashionably late, arrival, and dropped me off. I expressed my gratitude for his timeliness, and bid him farewell. As I boarded the bus, the driver tapped his watch and shook his head, and I was too tired to defend my case this time. I was just thankful to be back on the bus, where I could sit back, breathe easy, and enjoy the four-hour drive to Flores, Guatemala.
We changed busses one more time at the Belize-Guatemala border, though this transition was much smoother. I knew I was in Guatemala when I saw my fellow passengers tossing their luggage on top of the van that would serve as our transportation on the final leg of the trip.
My big travel day didn’t exactly go as planned, but it’s safe to say that it worked out pretty well, given the circumstances. And I couldn’t have made it to my destination without the help of the Good Samaritans along the way. The kindness of the Good Samaritans served as an important reminder for me to pay it forward and do my part in helping others in need of assistance. If we all join together in adopting this mindset, our world will be better for it.
Miss you all,