The customs agent looked at the import papers for our cars. Then our passports. Then our papers. Then our passports again. He put them all down… blinked… then picked them up and looked again. As if something might change. Apparently it didn’t. He looked up at me with disbelief.
“What in DE HELL are your cars still doing in my country?”
This story really starts a few weeks ago when we extended our visas so that we could enjoy Belize’s Independence Day celebrations. Extending the visas was easy. We went to the immigrations office in Orange Walk. Paid the $50 Bz per person. Got a new passport stamp. And that as they say was that. Or was it… ?
Mexico and the Central American countries do not want you bringing cars into their country and selling them. So each has it’s own process for making sure that the vehicle you enter with leaves with you. Mexico requires a deposit… and a bunch of paper work. Guatemala is simpler. But there’s still a fee… and a bunch of paper work. But Belize simply gives you a 3×5 slip of paper (that you sign), and a stamp in your passport showing that you entered with a vehicle. Oh… and of course a small fee ($15 US). Deceptively simple.
So when the immigrations agents in Orange Walk reviewed our passports and said we were done. Well, we thought they meant we were done. What we were now realizing, with the help of our not so friendly friend in the customs costume, is that we also needed to extend our cars import paperwork. Truthfully it seems pretty fucking obvious in hindsight. Not sure how we missed that one.
Anyway, back at the border… The customs guy tersely explained our transgression. I assured him that it was no big deal. Simply a clerical oversight. I gave Malia and the kids my confident… watch this wink. I’m good at bamboozling these guys with my bullshit.
Only minutes later it was clear that my Jedi skills had failed. The kids shouldn’t see this. I sent them away. It was still a big deal. And the fine for this big deal would be $20,000… Belize, he added as if giving me a discount.
It was my turn to stare in disbelief. I don’t exactly remember what I said next but I do remember that he didn’t like it. Because he caribbean yelled at me some more. Then held up the little piece of paper that was at the root of all of this. It had my signature on it. “Is this your signature?” I hate letter of the law arguments.
Me: “Yes… but what’s the purpose of the paperwork?”
Agent: “To stop people from bringing cars into Belize and selling them without paying import fees and taxes.”
Me: “Mission accomplished. There’s our vehicles. We’re in compliance with the purpose of the system!”
Agent: “You’ll be in compliance when your fine is paid and your paperwork is properly filled out.”
Me: “Not happening. You need to dig deep an find another solution.”
Agent: “Ok fine. My new solution is to impound your vehicles.”
Me: (I saw this one coming) “Then my next call will be to the US Consulate.” (For some reason it felt very cool to say that… )
Then he held up that fucking little piece of paper again and asked if that was my signature. That completed loop #1.
There’s a rule about arguments. Every time a conversation loops the odds of a happy ending drop precipitously.
Those of us who live on the “intent of the law” side of the fence are no stranger to getting our hands slapped every now and again for bending the rules. It comes with the territory. But getting busted really sucks when you didn’t get the fun of purposely breaking the rules.
My customs buddy shook his head, walked away with our papers and handed them to a short woman with enormous hair, and an even unhappier face. Pitching change… I thought. Apparently Malia decided it was time for a change too. She stepped in and sent me to the dugout. Taking her shot at explaining the situation: Our paperwork was in order. We properly extended our visas. There was no extra fee to extend the cars paperwork. So we weren’t delinquent on payments. We didn’t sell our cars in Belize. We did everything required of us but get one signature. It was simply an honest mistake. Big hair was unmoved. She held up that little white piece of paper again and pointed to the signature. Loop #2 complete.
Big Hair: “Don’t you read what you sign?”
I was out of the dugout… running onto the field, Malia trying to hold me back.
Me: “Really? Who reads everything they sign anymore?!”
Big Hair: Silent stare.
Me: “Do you have a bank account? A cell phone?”
Big Hair: “Of course”
Me: “Did you read ALL 3 billion pages of the paperwork before you signed it?”
Big Hair: Silent stare.
Malia: “That was not helpful!”
I know what you’re thinking. It wasn’t a good idea for a guy in my position to be pissing anyone off. Especially the people holding all of the cards. And you’re probably right. But the prospect of having to pay ten grand… that I didn’t have, to keep our home from being impounded simply because we neglected to get someones signature… well, let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly giving me the warm fuzzies.
I was already rehearsing the phone call to my brother.
Me: “You remember that time we were sledding on the ice pond and you fell in the freezing water and I saved your life?”
My Brother: “You’ve gotta stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life. I don’t have any money.” Click.
Clearly it still needed some work.
Then El Jefe made an appearance. He was a BIG dude in a different costume. Shiny squares decorated the left side of his chest above his name badge. Chevrons down his sleeve. Those loopy laniard looking things around his shoulders. His face was grave. He picked up the little piece of paper and studied it thoroughly. Way more thoroughly than it’s brief content warranted.
Malia walked up to him. A long conversation ensued that included lots of gesturing. She kept looking over to me… pleading with her eyes for me to stay out of it. I did.
Eventually I was summoned. The deal had been struck. A fine would indeed have to be paid. I backpedalled… trying to play the broke family card. The big dude held up his hand. “You’re gonna pay a fine… $500… Belize. It’s a good deal. You’re welcome.” Jefe handed the papers to me and walked off… like a performer dropping the mike and leaving the stage.
Ah… but it get’s better. The fine had to be paid at the customs office… a short walk away. We were escorted there by an agent. Inside were all the customs agents that we’d dealt with… including El Jefe, whose name was John. The terseness gone from their faces. They were laughing. Welcoming us. John poured us a drink of bitters. Which is this incredibly dry combination of peppers and barks and roots that’s reputed to cure all ills… and increase a mans virility. At least now I knew what they were all so happy about.
We sat and talked. El Jefe… John, was frickin hilarious. He apologized for the tough guy routine… all part of the job he explained. We said we understood. We discussed our strategies. John let us know that he thought it was a stupid rule too but there was no way he would have let us skate. It was all so Looney Tunes… Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog… surreal.
Three hours, $250, two cups of bitters, and many hugs and pats on the back later… we climbed into our coche’s and drove across the border. Our new friends on the customs crew lined up behind us waving goodbye. In hindsight I should have stopped for the photo. It was a good one. But the truth is we wanted to get the hell outta there before they changed their minds. Diplomacy at it’s finest.