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Friday, August 2, 2013

It drives me crazy: how many banks does it take to get a vehicle sticker?

Guatemala is notoriously lax when it comes to traffic rules and regulations and most things that have to do with vehicles. You can drive around with smashed tail lights and a missing mirror and no PNT (transit police) or PNC (regular police) will bat an eyelash or give you a citation. Trust me on this one.  Emissions inspections? Excuse me while I fall over from laughter. There are thousands of aged Bluebird school buses, now serving as inter-city transport, clogging up the highways, spewing clouds of black smoke thick enough to cause coughing fits or force asthmatics to suck hard on their inhalers. However, apparently they do want you to pay your annual vehicle tax. Nonetheless, they don't really enforce that. I have been driving around with a vehicle tax sticker from 2011 which is when I bought my car. I have not been deliberately trying to be a scofflaw or not pay my fair share, but since for all of the trips I made to Guatemala in 2012 and the early part of this year, no police officer ever pointed out that my sticker was expired, I never thought much about it. Since I don't live here full time and I never changed the address on the registration document  that came with the car when I bought it, I guess I didn't get the notice that they were supposed to have mailed notifying me that I needed to do something about this, or else face the consequences. 

So, two days ago, July 31 to be precise, at around 5 p.m., I got a text message from a friend who is an attorney asking me if I had taken care of getting the sticker. No, I told him, I hadn't. The deadline was today, he said, and there's a fine if you are late. Since it was already 5, I figured I couldn't take care of it, but to make him happy, said that I would do it the next day, which was yesterday (Thursday). He kept on texting me and reminding me that I needed to do it.  He made it seem like a big deal; I didn't bother to tell him that I had been driving around with a 2011 sticker without any official taking notice.  So, I tried to figure out where I could pay the fee. The agency that collects taxes is called the SAT (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria: the Superintendency of Tributary Administration), but another friend, who used to be a transportista (driver of inter-city transport)  told me I could pay the fee and get the sticker at a bank. He advised me against going to Banrural, the rural development bank, since that is one of the most popular banks -- that is, it is widely used by peasants and everyday people -- and the lines would be longer.  So, after having a frustrating morning (because I had driven to Chichicastenango hoping to spend a few hours at the radio station but had to turn around and head back to Santa Cruz del Quiché since there was an emergency meeting of some sort regarding the radio station and I wasn't invited to be present), I decided to be a good girl and make my friend happy and pay my tax.

I found a parking spot a bit away from the center and walked to the Parque Central and started going to banks. The armed security guards actually know a fair amount about what goes on at the bank so when I need to take care of some business at a bank I usually ask the guard if it is possible to do X or Y before going to wait in a long line.  The guard at the first bank said that they had run out of stickers. When might they have them, I asked? Sometime next week, he answered (this was on a Thursday). I asked where he thought I should try next. He pointed to two banks across the street. I tried the first one. The guard said that the system was down (meaning, I presumed, the computerized record keeping system that would allow a bank to tell me how much I owed and record my payment). I went to the next one (now my third bank). They also said their system was down. I walked up the street to the Banrural, just for fun. They also had no stickers left. I then thought I would try another route, and went to one of a number of agencies that are located near the SAT headquarters that advertise that they take care of transactions involving motor vehicles. In Guatemala, if there is a transaction of some sort that you need to take care of, there will be someone who makes his or her living offering to take care of it for you, or at least to  handle the paperwork. I chose the one right next door to the SAT. The pleasant-faced young man shook his head and said "there was no system" (no había system).  I told him that I really wanted to pay it, that I'd been to the banks and hadn't been able to do it.  He tried to check something on his computer to at least tell me what I would owe but said he couldn't even get that information. I said that I would then go directly to the SAT. He responded, somewhat dismissively, that I could do that if I liked but I would just be wasting my time because it was their system that was down. I thought this was pointless and so texted my attorney friend to tell him I'd made the effort but hadn't been successful. I was halfway back to my car when he responded, telling me with some urgency that I at least had to pay the fine. I told him that none of the banks would take my payment. He replied, "ni modo", which the dictionary defines as "no way", but which I took to mean, "So what, doesn't mean anything, you better do it." He told me to call him and I did, and he said I had to do this and I should go to SAT directly. I think I have mentioned in a post last year or whenever that no one in Guatemala ever has airtime on their pre-pay phones. Text messages are cheaper than calls, and so someone who wants to speak to you (and think that you might have airtime on your phone (which in my case is a pretty good bet) will text "llamame" (call me). So I did, and after listening patiently to his mini-harangue, I turned around and retraced by steps, heading to the SAT office, a large (for Quiché) and ugly bunker-like building with a concrete yard surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire, looking more like a jail than anything else. There were a couple of wooden pew-like benches outside, about half-full with people. The guard queried me with a facial expression, flashing a few gold-rimmed teeth at me, and I asked the guard whether I could pay for the vehicle sticker or at least pay the fine. I tried to look as penitent and responsible as possible. He told me that their system was down but that maybe it would be back up in a couple of hours and I should come back. 

I went to take care of a few other things like packing up my bags since I had decided to leave Quiché, so I went back to Agua Tibia and begged a bit of lunch from my hosts; mashed black beans (frijoles volteados) and a few tortillas with a bit of chile, and then I squeezed everything back into my suitcase, checked around a few times to make sure that there were not any stray essential toiletries or chargers or cables lying around, and then with Sandy's help (the wife in the household) trudged back up the path that was now somewhat drier and less slippery (since the night's rainfall was now more than 12 hours behind us), exchanged hugs and kisses with the kids and took off. Well, carefully backed out of the drive onto the highway,craning my neck to  make sure that there were no vehicles whizzing by, and calculating my backwards movement so as not to end up in either of the two ditches that line the highway. As usual, my maneuvers were observed with interest by whomever happened to be walking by or waiting for a bus -- one is rarely, if ever, alone for more than a few minutes in Guatemala. 

I  then came back to SAT a bit later than the time the guard had told me, to be on the safe side (if someone tells you an office will be open, or a document will be ready at a certain time, it's usually a good idea to give the person or agency at least a half hour leeway). There were a few people milling about outside, and a vendor's cart parked on the street near the entrance.  The guard ushered me inside the room whose entrance he had been partially blocking, and pointed me to a seat over on the side. There were rows of pew-like benches, containing about 8 or 9 people, and I didn't know if I would have to wait for all of them to be processed. Mostly men, but a few women. There were two windows, one dealing with vehicle issues and one for other transactions. A few people were handling transactions that looked like getting their licenses, as after papers were shuffled and examined by the clerk, he told the applicant to sit still and took a picture with a small camera. After a while some other people came in, and the guard then told me to move to the seat closest to the window and soon I was called. The young man serving that window listened to me politely and told me that SAT did not handle any financial transactions of any kind and I would have to take care of it at a bank, those were the places that were authorized to accept the payment. Why the guard hadn't told me this two hours earlier, I don't know. I said, "But I don't want to accumulate an even higher fine, and I don't want to get a fine for driving without the sticker." He said that there was nothing he could do and I would have to find a bank.  I said that I was trying to be responsible and he agreed, but said that there was nothing that they could do and I needed to find a bank. I told him I had been to four or five banks already and none of them could help me. He repeated that I needed to go a bank, in any part of the country, the next day or the day after and pay it. He looked up what I owed (including for 2012, which I had never paid, and for which I never had a sticker) and I took off.

So, I texted my lawyer friend and he urged me to take care of it the next day (which was today, Friday).  I treated myself to a latte from "my" café in Quiché and headed off to the Boca Costa, the area near the coast. I will maybe write about the drive at some other time. Or not, since most of you are probably questioning my sanity in terms of my driving habits in Guatemala. Let's just say that all this banking stuff had taken a lot of time and I left later than I had originally planned and it started to rain very steadily after it got dark and after I had passed the part of the route that I travel often and know well. And because it was dark and raining I missed a (poorly marked) turn off and went about 10 km out of the way, heading into the town of Retalhuleu instead of taking the route that goes around the city, and when I stopped at a gas station to ask directions my car stalled out... I did get it started again -- after the gas station owner and the security guard and I spent about 15 minutes futzing around, and eventually the owner called a mechanic friend who brought his scanner and told me what replacement part I needed -- it turned out to be an inexpensive and easily available one - and did some small adjustment manually that allowed me to start the car again.  But, as I said, that is really another story.

So, during a lull in today's activities (the radio station I am visiting shuts down for a few hours in the afternoon during the rainy season as the electricity often goes out and they have decided it's better to not risk short circuiting the transmitter), I decided to head to the nearest town that had a bank (the next town down the road towards the highway) and try and make the payment. La Ceiba, where the radio station is located, does not boast many amenities, it is really not a town but a hamlet, technically speaking, and therefore no bank. I drove to San Pablo Jocopilas, just down the road (well, part of the road is a narrow, deeply rutted and rocky dirt road, so it's not exactly the most fun ride) picking up two middle-aged men who were headed down that way, and easily found the Banrural ( had been told that it was likely to be very uncrowded on a Friday afternoon). The guard told me that they had no stickers, and that the bank in the next town didn't either, and that I would have to go the branch in the big shopping mall, Plaza America, in Mazatenango -- a much bigger town about 20 minutes away). So, I set off. One of my passengers was now standing on the side of the road in San Pablo looking for a ride further down the road and I told him I was heading to Mazate and he hopped in back again, getting off a few hundred meters short of where the road I was on hits the highway to the Pacific.  The driver behind me honked with annoyance (I'm not sure there is any other way to honk) but there wasn't much I could do as the man hadn't told me in advance where he wanted to get off, just tapped loudly and rapidly on the back window of the cab of the pickup to let me know he wanted to get off, and I stopped as soon as I could without getting rear-ended. But that driver was also loaded down with passengers, I could see through my rear-view window, so he would have to understand. The man got off, I accepted a quetzal from him (about half what the fare would normally be), and I continued on.

The mall is highly visible with a Taco Bell and Burger King and Crocs store, an upscale stereo equipment store, an upscale chain bakery called Anfora, and a couple of banks. I hesitantly asked the Banrural guard if I could pay for the sticker. He said yes, and showed me which line to stand on. Unbelievable. I felt both virtuous and relieved. I almost pulled out my phone to text my lawyer friend, but remembered that you are not allowed to use cell phones in Guatemalan banks. I noticed a sign saying that the bank would no longer exchange any U.S. bills in denominations smaller than $100 - a note for next time. And a good thing that I have been using ATMs for the most part - -I had had some cash with me to start, but no bills larger than $50 and mostly 20s. There are a lot of issues exchanging U.S. currency here, having to do with fears about money laundering.  Any slight tear in the bill -- and I mean slight, like 1/4" or less, something that we would mostly not even notice -- and most banks won't accept it. Every time I bring cash to Guatemala I end up with at least 2 or 3 twenty-dollar bills that look fine to me but won't pass muster at a Guatemalan bank.

In a few minutes I made my way to the window, stated what I wanted to do, handed over my registration card (the fee is based on the model and year of one's vehicle) and was told the sum I needed to pay: Q371.48 (for 2012 and 2013). So, I paid my due to society (or at least to the tributary administration superintendency), and am now the proud possessor of a sticker stating such, which I have duly affixed to my windshield as indicated on the instructions.  And, for good measure, I stopped at the upscale bakery and bought some cookies for my hosts, and another bag for other friends. I liked the slogans written on the bag. One said, "Te mejoro la disculpa" (I make the apology better) and the other, "vale por ciertos derechos" (good for certain rights -- here the phrase "friends with benefits" is translated as "amigos con derechos" -- friends with rights, so this is a play on that concept).
 And for even better measure, I stopped at an auto-repuesto (replacement parts) place on the way back and got the replacement tube I needed (actually a nearby mechanic supplied it and installed it, for Q20 or less than $3).  So, I am now safeguarded against the highly unlikely scenario that a police officer will stop my car on the highway and actually take a look at the sticker on my windshield (something that has not ever happened in all my driving adventures).  There are many fewer highway stops than before. Since there was a massacre of 8 police officers in the town of Salcajá, on the highway leading to Xela, a few months back, apparently the energies of the police have been redirected, and they no longer station themselves along the roadways as much as previously.

But in case anyone wants proof of my civic virtue, here it is: 

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