Border crossing days can be stressful ones. It’s a day full of unknown variables that no amount of research can entirely prepare you for. Procedures seem to change regularly, new taxes or fees can be attempted to be extracted, lunch breaks can be taken at all hours of the day leaving you stranded until the officer returns, and around every corner are unofficial porters pouncing on even a momentary lapse in confidence offering their services in the hopes of scoring a few bucks. Although porters can make the process easier, and surely cost less than a cheap lunch, have no doubt, it is a form of cheating. Up to this point we have had a few notches on our border crossing bed post but it was Guatemala that taught us some important lessons, lessons that we had to learn the hard way.
Some of the biggest mistakes were made before our arrival at the border. I realized my first mistake when I awoke between Jill and a bottle of rum which had been significantly heavier the night before. Lesson one, be clear headed. With all of these hurdles at the border you need to have your wits about you. The second lesson learned was due to a mistake of inaction. We had the chance to stop by an ATM prior to crossing the border but decided against it. By our calculations we had just enough to cover all our fees. But as we would later learn something as simple as a difference in a mere $2 for a van versus an automobile was enough to send us wandering around on foot looking for an ATM. The last mistake we made that morning was to simply allow our convoy to go on ahead without us. Crossing with friends doesn’t only cover you for any shortage of funds or lack of research, but it can make a long day that much more tolerable.
We’ve ironed out a bunch of the wrinkles and now have formed a routine for border crossing days. Plenty of research is done ahead of time, and although different individuals can have different experiences crossing the same border, we try to aggregate as much data as possible. We always try to cross in the morning. Not because it’s guaranteed to be slower, as we’ve found borders can either be slow or busy at any time of day, but because angst is low. If we hit an unexpected speed bump, it’s less stressful when we’ve got a jump on the day and are playing with house money to begin with. Our mantra is ‘relax, it’s early’. We carry extra US dollars on us to cover any currency shortage. The goal is to end up at the border with as little currency left over as possible since you get killed by the exchange rates when you leave, this way we’re still covered. Last but not least, we wear synthetics. It may sound stupid, but it’s always hot, and lack of comfort can without a doubt add to the stress level. Now if we had only mastered these things prior to Guatemala we wouldn’t have gotten off on the wrong foot. But by the end of the day we reconvened with our convoy on the doorsteps of Tikal with memories of the border quickly fading and the prospects of a new country and culture before us.