With our bellies full of pupusas and orange Fanta, we continued from San Ignacio to the border crossing into Northern Guatemala to climb some Mayan ruins at sunset and sunrise.
Having grown up in San Diego, I’ve had my fare share of border crossing experiences. On foot or by car—compared to Tijuana—I’d describe the Belize to Guatemala border as humdrum at best. For those of you travelers who are, how should I say “less adventurous,” it’s not at all intimidating. But for me, and other neurotic Jews like me, it can be comically dramatic.
It’s a single structure with a fence shooting off into the jungle on either side. There were parked cars and a few people walking to and fro, but there was no frantic congestion like you’d expect. Nobody was crying or pimping out their malnourished children’s puppy dog mug just to sell some awful chewing gum, that ironically, you’d buy if you didn’t think you’d crack a tooth trying. Cars weren’t honking incessantly, and I couldn’t find a drug sniffing German Shepherd for the life of me. Everything seemed relatively calm and to top it all off, I couldn’t see a line for the bathrooms. Easy breezy, right?
Jonathan stopped the car near the building where the road looped back from whence we came. A portly apple-shaped man with a leathery sun-drenched face in shorts and a stained polyester uniform shirt approached. From the food crumbs and smear of ketchup on his cheek (though when I tell this story next, it will probably be blood) I could tell we’d interrupted his lunch and I feared the wrath us ’stupid American’ tourists sometimes—though we’re usually at least partially deserving of—get. Just five feet from the car he started waving his hands as if swatting away flies, and we figured he was directing us to the line where another car was queued to cross, though it looked more like a tall drive-through carwash for RVs and buses more than anything else.
“We’re not driving across!” Jonathan’s mother Bobbi shouted toward the officer from the backseat. She looked up from her iPad just enough to see over the rim of her sunglasses and scan the area.
“Mother!” Jonathan yelled as both his hands shot up in irritation as if the steering wheel was suddenly on fire. “He can’t hear you until I roll the window down.” Bobbi brushed her son’s sass off and went back to her email. Jonathan rolled down his window to ask in a clear and slightly-higher-register-voice, “Where-can-we-park-if-we’re-just-walking-across?”
“We’re meeting a guide on the other side,” I said, wanting to ensure he knew what our plans were, “she’s going to take us to Tikal and her name is Roxy, and…”
“I don’t think he needs our entire story.” Jonathan said, shushing me with the back of his hand, which caused his mom and sister to snicker in back. For the past few hours, Jonathan and I had been bickering about everything and anything, which for others is usually hilarious unless we take it too far.
“You guys argue like an old married couple,” Bobbi said.
“I know, so we might as well get married!” I replied, knowing it would bring him one step closer to his boiling point. The decision to get married is one Jonathan and I have been debating for a while now. And as much as it’s mostly for fun, there’s always a little truth to our respective arguments, making it volatile to put it lightly.
Jonathan rolled his eyes and sighed before focusing on the border patrol agent.
“Why is he walking away?” he asked.
I noticed a younger man off in the distance, whistling to get our attention. “I guess ‘walkers’ are handled by this guy?” I said. Using hand gestures similar to those of a ground service crewmember at JFK, he waved us towards the shoulder of the lot—a patch of dirt, twigs and dry leaves at the edge of a mini ravine. While Jonathan evened us out in that tight space, I noticed a sign posted directly in front of us.
“NO PARKING,” I said, pointing ahead. “And it’s in English too.”
“Well he told us to park here.” Jonathan said, and he turned the car off. “So deal with it.”
We grabbed our Longchamps, backpacks, and overhead rollers, and I thought about how long it had been since Jonathan last ate something—because he was definitely irritable. It had literally been 20 mins since we ate in San Ignacio so this was definitely NOT the hangries. I figured his short temper was the result of us being 20 minutes late according to our plans; he’s an on-time kind of guy—a planner. That coupled with the fact that he’d been in that car with three backseat drivers (one of which was in the front seat) for a few hours. And he probably had to pee too. I know I did.
“Any second now I bet someone is going to run over and ask us for some money,” I said, “to protect the car or something, and if we don’t pay them they’ll scratch it.” I know that doesn’t sound like I have a lot of faith in the population of border loiterers, but you can take the boy out of San Diego, but you can’t take the Tijuana out of the boy.
Sure enough, another guy dressed in plane clothes approached and said it was $5 USD, which seemed cheap enough for overnight parking so we paid him. But none of us knew if he worked for the government, or if he was just a local taking advantage of the tourists who don’t know better?
So I asked the woman with the braided ponytail slumped into a swivel chair near the entrance, if we’re supposed to pay for parking or if it’s okay to leave our car where it is.
“How long you leave it?” she asked, using her tiptoes to spin the chair towards me, because she could barely touch the floor.
“Just overnight,” I said.
“Which is it?” she asked.
“The gold Jeep,” I said, pointing towards the car. “Oro Jeep next to azul coche.”
The moment the words came out of my mouth I wished I could take them back. My high school Spanish needed some brushing up—clearly—and I feared sounding condescending. Too late!
“You no have to pay.” She said, and went back to taking her nap.
“I guess we made a small contribution to the local economy,” I said, joining the others in line. “Oh and it’s my fault if the car isn’t there when we get back tomorrow.”
I should have pointed at either of the cars next to ours; and how annoying it is that everything seems so obvious in hindsight? Figuring I couldn’t make things worse, I decided to use the restroom while we waited for our turn to pay the $40 fee to cross the border.
I stepped into the bathroom and immediately started to undo my belt, when the woman sitting inside the entrance of the bathroom grabbed my arm and stopped me before I could reach the urinals or stall.
“Two dollars,” she said softly holding up two fingers like a peace sign before she went back to flipping through her giant wad of small bills.
“There’s a fee to use the bathroom?” I asked, and she nodded before handing a single paper towel to a man washing his hands at the sink. “Shouldn’t you be paying me if you’re going to watch?” I said, trying to make a joke, but either my English or sarcasm didn’t translate, and she just stared me down.
I didn’t want to piss her off. And with my luck, and the fact that everything had been billed to a credit card for the first part of our trip, I had no cash. I was about to make a strong argument that would appeal to this woman’s humanity, but I could only think of three words in Spanish, and the sweaty wad of cash in her hand looked even smaller than the bump on the right side of her fupa, which I’m almost certain was more cash. What if she’s the head of some contingency of the Belizean mafia whose been tasked with siphoning cash from tourists with small bladders, I wondered to myself?
So instead of making a fool of myself I held it all in and shuffled my feet back to the line to ask for $2 from the group; which they didn’t have. Amongst the four of us there was just enough cash to pay the border crossing fees. So I held it.
There were about 12 people in line in front of us, which didn’t seem long cause they were all together. A group of European teenage backpackers, the kind who wear worn down Havaiana flip flops with paper thin heels, wooden aboriginal symbols threaded through their ear lobes, and either have smelly looking dreadlocks, or tattoos behind their ears that look more like a birth mark or giant amorphous freckle than anything else.
Twenty minutes later and we weren’t any closer to the counter. The handful of armed guards didn’t seem to bat an eye when groups of local women carrying bags of jippi jappa (hand-woven Belizean baskets) walked right through the crossing in what amounted to an HOV lane for locals who go back and forth for work.
“Do you think they’re using an abacus to calculate conversion rates?” I asked, crossing my legs to aid in the containment, but Jonathan wasn’t paying attention, because he found two dollars randomly in his backpack and went to pay the bathroom lady for a spin at the toilets.
A few more minutes passed and I really thought I was going to shit myself. And just when the seal was about to break, someone (not me) realized we’d counted our cash incorrectly, and that we did have enough cash to pay to cross the border with two dollars leftover for me to use the bathroom. Thank god!
And I’ll just say this, for two bucks a pop, that bathroom could have been a lot nicer!