Friday, November 20, 2009

Matt Werner: Guatemalan Adventure #2

Former Edgewood College baseball student-athlete Matt Werner is spending six months in Guatemala soaking up the culture and giving back to the citizens who live there. This is the second blog entry. You can read the first one here.

From there we headed south for the border town of Pharr, Texas. WHAT A CHANGE OF LIFESTYLE AND WE WERE STILL IN THE UNITED STATES!!! If anyone ever has the chance to visit a southern border town...let me tell you how different the lifestyle is there. Everyone seemed to be bilingual if not solely a spanish speaker and the design of the town is so "transient" based. Everyone seemed to be moving one direction or the other yet at the same time there were so many business employees, which meant that there were also a lot of residents in the town. I really have no idea how someone could live or raise a family in a town as fast paced as that but families did exist there. So with the help of a border crossing company who handled our paperwork, we were ready to make the crossing the next day and reach Tampico, Mexico. Of course we had to make a few adjustments to the trucks before we could cross such as re-wiring the brake lights on one of the trucks in order to load the other truck on it's dolly so we would have an easier time crossing the border with the pickups stacked together. Then of course Monday was Columbus day which apparently the Mexican government observes as well, so that put us back another day. However, the following morning we woke at 7am and left by 8am in order to make it into the long line of vehicles looking to make the crossing. Unfortunately we encountered a rude American border guard who would not let us stay in line while we waited for our car titles to be handed to us from the border crossing company. So we were booted out of line and had to wait at the gas station all morning before we could get back in line. Luckily, Leslie was able to use her Fire Marshall badge in order to gain a little sympathy from the guard who would help us out later.

Leaving the United States was easy and passing through into Mexico wasn't much harder however Kico later informed us that, it was by far the easiest crossing he had ever faced. Perhaps it was the fact we were coming in a school bus and a pickup or maybe the fact that Leslie had shown her fire inspector badge to the guard and told him that she needed to get back on duty as quickly as possible and it would be a big help if he helped us pass...I'll never know. So as we entered Mexico it was a long, long, long, way to Tampico and the Mexican highway system only slowed us down. For a country that is treated as a highway to the rest of the Central America, you would think they would designate a special highway system for those migrating through to use, however I quickly learned that Mexico is full of potholes, dirty roads, and two way highways. The first checkpoint system we reached, I was instructed, and later learned how beneficial it is to play the dumb gringo role, while dealing with the authorities. As they separated me and the other truck from Kico, Leslie and the school bus, I encountered the first guard who looked at me and asks "American?" I answered yes and he waved me through without even asking for papers. The next guy sees I am American and just does a quick look through the cars and passes me to the last guy who looks like the stereotypical, very smug, very full knowing of how the bribe system works, kind of guard. So he asks me in Spanish where I'm going and I say in English I am a missionary. So he starts smiling cause he knows he has me. So he asks again where I'm going and points down the road, so I tell him Tampico. So then he asks in Spanish (this whole time I know what he is saying and where he is going with it, but I still pretend like I don't understand) if I know how much the toll is. I wasn't aware that there was a toll however he told me the toll was 100 pesos. I would later learn that there was no toll. So I keep playing the dumb gringo and say I only have 20 pesos. So he then says, ok 20 is enough. So then he says to me "vas a aprender" (you're going to learn) meaning I'm going to learn how to give a bribe to this schmuck guard. So he tells and motions for me to lower my hand with the money in it and to give him, my papers. So as I do, he barely glances at them and then gives them back to me with his other hand hidden underneath, motioning for the money. So then he hides the money in his hand and stuffs it in his shirt and tells me to move on. So I leave fully knowing I just avoided giving him 80 pesos that he had tried to cheat me out of. It must be a tough life for those who don't know the bribe culture in Mexico.

After we left, Leslie and I drove the red pickup with the other pickup attached to the car carrier. At one point we were driving down a typical two lane highway with what appeared to be newly laid asphalt. In fact the asphalt was so new that on the shoulder of our lane there appeared to be the work of new poorly smoothed blacktop. So as we are going on a slight downhill the small red pickup we are in slowly gains speed, from 45 to 50 to 55 almost 60 mph in a Nissan Frontier that didn't have the cargo capacity to pull the other pickup we had attached more than 30mph on an incline. So the speed picks up, the pickup in the back starts to swerve and fishtail and the red truck starts to fishtail with it going about 55 mph on a deserted Mexican highway. I have been in one car in my life that has left the ground and done a full rotation in the air and thankfully landed on its wheels, free from oncoming traffic. And I swear that if we would have let the car swerve anymore I would be in Mexican ditch right now somewhere between the United States and Tampico, Mexico off of highway 101. That was the closest I have come to flipping a pickup with another pickup attached to the back. Luckily, thanks to the careful watch of Kico and the advice of Leslie the red pickup slowed with gravity as I eased off the gas and I put the brake on hard in order to align the pickup again with the back of mine. That was the first extremely close call. The second came on the same night while we were driving through a town with the pickup trucks illegally unattached (the papers stipulated that we had to cross the border with the pickups attached, I don't know why, but it was a rule based on our migration status) and Leslie without tail lights. Just the opportunity a policia federal (federal mexican police) or the local mexican police look for in order to induce the driver to give them a healthy bribe or "mordida". So as we are driving through the town we pull over on the side of the road to decide if we want to try to make it to Tampico the first night or stay where we were (it was dark at this point and one of the worst things to do unless you are in a semi-trailer is to drive at night through Mexico).

So we decided to try for Tampico which was not a good idea but paid off for us in the end. So within about 3 mins of us decided to head to Tampico and back on the road, a local mexican cop from the town spots Leslie without running night lights and pulls her over. So Leslie and I immediately get on our walkie-talkies in order to tell Kico, who is in the lead, to stop and "talk" it over with the Mexican cop. Later we would learn that Kico's walkie-talkie battery had died. So Kico unknowingly drives on while Leslie is being pulled over by a Mexican city cop. I immediately pull over in front of her and go to confront the cop who is already interrogating Leslie who cannot speak a sentence of Spanish. So in the late dusk of the evening with barely any street lights around us, I go to try and plead ourselves to this cop. I do my best friendly American impression and start asking him what the problem is, fully knowing what was wrong. So he asks me why the lights don't work. Luckily, the brake, reverse, and turn signal lights worked on Leslie's truck, only not the running lights. So I tell him the lights that we need to navigate the traffic, do work. Then I start playing the dumb gringo role and saying I don't understand whats wrong and that we just need to get to Tampico tonight to be safe. So this cop mulls it over in his brain..option 1: try to get a bribe out of these dumb gringos or option 2: send them on their way and get them out of my jurisdiction or option 3: give them a ticket. Luckily he was more nervous about us interrupting his slow night rather than doing his job, so he told us that normally he would give a ticket for this type of infraction but rather tonight we should just be careful and arrive in Tampico soon. So we started on our way again not knowing where we would find Kico, luckily we found him five minutes further down the highway on the side of the road trying to figure out what to do. So after explaining to him what happened we started driving again as a whole group.

Next (about 10 minutes later) we encountered three very agile, low to the ground cars that appeared to be attempting to split us up. This turned out to be one of the scariest moments of the whole trip. As we were driving down a dark highway in the middle of the Mexican desert these three cars split up and each one gets in front of one of us. So we went from the line of cars going Kico, Leslie, Me, to Kico, Unknown Car A, Leslie, Unknown Car B, Me, Unknown Car C. This was not a good sign. Kico would later tell us that is one of the most common scheme attempts of car theft/highway robbery in Mexico. The cars are all working together, they single out a car and force it off the road, robbing the driver of his money, possessions, and possibly car and/or life. So as this is all happening and I realize that Kico still doesn't have a working walkie talkie. So the moment of truth comes. I am the last car and I see a corona bottle come flying back behind the car in front of me and hit the road directly in front of my passenger side front wheel. So I swerve out of the way of it and try to pass the car. They notice me trying to pass and realize my wheels are still intact and I would not slow down for them. So they all merge into the other lane for oncoming traffic and leave us. Later, Kico would confirm my suspicion, that one method of thieves is to fill a glass corona bottle with nails and throw it out of their window to the car behind them attempting to give the car a flat tire and forcing it off the road in order to make for vulnerable prey. After that we quickly found a hotel and relaxed for the night. The next day we made it just short of Veracruz on the Mexican gulf coast without any major delays or problems other than the scorching heat, humidity, and dehydration one feels while driving through Mexico.

The last day we make it to the border and make it through to the Guatemalan side by 12 pm noon which according to Kico was a good sign. So we are in the Guatemalan border hoping to get through quickly in order to make it to the farm and avoid another hotel fee but we were blocked by the good will and nature we had. A situation had arisen in which two young Guatemalan girls were attempting to bring a car across the border and were being treated very poorly by the Guatemalan authorities. So Kico intervened and helped them get through the border unfortunately at the cost of our paperwork not being cleared and forcing us to stay the night in the border town. So the next day we got up and were sure to start out early and arrive at Kico's Guatemala ranch by early afternoon...however we didn't anticipate the gridlock traffic we found on the highway that limited us from moving more than half a mile in a total of 6 hours. Apparently, just before we had reached a certain point in the road, two police officers were killed no less than a mile ahead of where we were and thanks to all the traffic on our side that all tried to push ahead to the front of the line using both lanes of the highway only causing more of a traffic jam we were forced to sit in one position for 5-6 hours. So after that later in the day around evening time we were able to make it through the "accident" site and get to the farm just before 10pm that night. So after 6,000 miles, 12 days, and more than a few close calls of car accidents, mexican jails, and highway robberies we arrived safely at the farm of Enrique Gandara in Oliveros, Guatemala. My plan is to stay here for 9 months teaching English and Computers to young students at the elementary school and any other person in the rural town who would like to learn. So that concludes this update of my adventure and I hope you found it well worth the time to read it.

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