Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Crossing Borders

When travelling in the third world it is hard not be be struck by how mindboggling inefficient some things are. Take for example the border crossing from Belize into Guatemala.

All Latin American countries have large import duties on vehicles. For this reason they require that tourists get a temporary vehicle importation permit before they can enter the country. The purpose of this permit is to prevent us from leaving the country without our vehicle. Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize all require this.

Entering Belize with a vehicle is simple. The first desk is immigration. They give us permission to enter the country. The second desk is customs. They record our information in a ledger and fill out a form showing that the vehicle has been legally imported into Belize. They then make a note in the driver's passport showing that they came in with a vehicle. About 100m past the border is an insurance office where we can buy insurance by the day, week, or month. It is all very straightforward and efficient (though it is amazing that in 2007 this process is still done on paper).

Guatemala is an other story altogether. "I need a photocopy of your license, registration, passport entry stamp, and front page of the passport," explains the border guard.

The problem is that the border post doesn't have a photocopier. As a matter of fact, the only working photocopier is about 3km down the road in town. Oh, and the main road into town is closed because there is a fair today so we will have to drive the long way around. Except we can't drive because our vehicle isn't legally in the country yet.

So before we can get the vehicle into the country we have to take a 10 minute taxi ride into town to get a photocopy of our paperwork. And there is no way we could have gotten this photocopy ahead of time because it has to include the entry stamp. Luckily taxi rides are cheap, but the whole process sucks up a lot of time and would be pretty hard for a non-spanish speaker to follow.

Once we provide all the photocopies the guard fills out a form for us and we have to pay a small fee for the paperwork. Since there have been so many problems with corruption at the border we have to go to a bank to pay this fee. This is actually a great idea because it makes it hard for guards to accidentally inflate the prices. (It used to be standard practice to tell tourists that there had been a price increase but they only had outdated forms that showed the old price). Luckily the bank office is in the same building and the line is short.

Fortunately we already had car insurance from our last trip to Guatemala. If we didn't we would have had to find an office that sells car insurance to foreigners. These are few and far between. When we went into Guatemala last month we had to drive almost 3 hours to Huehuetenango to find an insurance office.

When a simple act like crossing the border takes several hours nobody benefits. This is one of the reasons why poor countries are poor. They lack the basic capital to do things efficiently. How many thousands of hours are wasted every year because border posts can't afford photocopiers? The lack of capital creates a drain on the whole economy. We have been to oil change places that didn't stock oil or filters (we have to go to a parts store and buy those seperately). We've seen lawns mowed by Machette because nobody can afford a lawnmower. Everything takes longer, and is more difficult then it needs to be because people can't afford the tools to do the job right. And that drains the whole economy and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

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