A Tale of a Pathfinder in Belize
Date: 27 October 2003
When I first attempted to drive from Canada to Belize in our bus (alone), I was towing our Nissan Pathfinder. The bus was packed with stuff, and the family was flying down to meet me at about the time I was supposed to arrive. I spent 4 very long days driving from Ottawa to the Mexican border at Brownsville, TX. To my surprise after several hours at the International Bridge border processing my paperwork for a driving permit, I was told that one person cannot bring in 2 vehicles. I was aghast -- "What do you mean? I see guys towing cars through here all the time?" "No, can't do it." "What about RVers who tow their vehicles through Mexico?" "Well, if you had your wife with you then it would be OK, but not alone." So, I had to turn around back to the US border. I stored the car at an RV campground, and crossed into Mexico via the Free Trade Bridge. (Of course, I learned later that I could have towed the vehicle by myself through the Free Trade Bridge if I had used a customs broker like Lobos.)
Three months later, I flew back to Texas and got the car out of storage. However, the brakes had completely rusted open and I had barely any stopping power at all -- the scraping noise from the discs was piercing. I drove the car down an access road being careful to push the brakes about a 1/4 mile before I actually wanted to stop. I found a Firestone mechanic to work on it while I stayed at a Motel 6 around the corner. The mechanic said that he didn't even want to touch it because the brake lines were almost rusted through and he might break them if he even tried to work on it. I said I was stuck and had no other options, so he went ahead. Well, 5 days and $1200 later, the car was back on the road.
The trip down through Mexico was a breeze compared to the bus -- air conditioning, faster speeds, and smaller footprint made the trip much more enjoyable than with the bus. Upon arrival to Belize, I had to get a temporary importation permit. They made me deposit around $3000 US which was the duty owed if it stayed. I would get that money back once the car left Belize for good.
Whoopee! We have a car! It was great to be able to get around again. However, the engine did start over-heating. So I went to visit 'Toonsy' one of the trusted mechanics around here, and he had his guy 'Victor' work on it. They cleaned out the radiator, replaced the hoses and clamps, and checked the thermostat. Afterwards, it ran well for a while. But it started over-heating again shortly thereafter. I ran into Victor in town working at a different mechanic nearby and he took a look at it. We then adjusted the engine timing which was way off. After that it was like a new engine -- never another problem -- it was running even cooler than when it was in Canada.
We poured a new concrete driveway to accommodate our bus, and noticed a few spots of oil on the nice clean driveway from the Pathfinder. Victor stopped by and asked how it was going. I asked if he could fix the leak. He went under and determined it was a transmission gasket. So I gave him $30 for the gasket and he returned a couple days later with it in hand. He offered to take the car to the shop and put it in. He said it would be done by 9pm. So I said OK, and off he goes to the shop.
That evening nine o'clock passes, ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, midnight. So I took my bike and rode down to the shop. Someone told me they saw my car there earlier but it was not there now. So I started riding around town to see if I could see it anywhere. But I never found it.
The next morning, a policeman came over in plain clothes to tell us that our car was wrecked. It seems that Victor took the car out for a joy ride and flipped it on its side. The details are sketchy, but it seems that he and a buddy nicknamed 'Turkey' were driving down the road quite fast and swerved for some reason, and the car flipped on the driver's side and skidded down the road. Victor's left arm was nearly ripped off as a consequence, and his buddy ran off leaving him to nearly bleed to death. Broken beer bottles were found in the car, and they certainly weren't mine. Eventually an ambulance arrived and took Victor to Belize City hospital which was an indication of the seriousness of his injuries. We learned later that Victor's nickname was 'Speedy' for a number of now apparent reasons. The policeman said he'll probably lose his arm.
Oh good Lord... I have to got to watch over these guys every step of the way -- which means that I have to be there the entire time they work on the car. Victor doesn't have his own shop -- he works for someone who does, but he is not an official 'employee', so I can't hold the shop responsible. This guy has got no money, and I could not get collision insurance on a foreign car in Belize -- just liability insurance. So we're going to pay again...
I hopped on my bike and pedaled the 3 miles to the wreck which had been 'towed' to another mechanic just about 100 feet away. The entire driver's side was completely flattened and scraped. The front windshield, back windshield, and all the windows on the driver's side were smashed. There was blood everywhere, broken glass everywhere, and tiny shards dusting the upholstery. Luckily, the engine, transmission, tires, and undercarriage were not damaged. But the vehicle is in need of an entire left side. It is a sad, sad sight. My anger was tempered by the fact that the driver may lose his arm -- our car is just a material possession, but someone could have easily been killed -- I'm just glad no innocent bystanders were hurt or worse.
Of course in a tiny town like this, word gets around quickly, and within hours, people were coming by to offer their sympathies and advice. We learned that Victor's nickname was 'Speedy' and that this was not the first time he had wrecked someone's car. The police recommend suing him in civil court for damages -- if he doesn't pay, he would go to 'maximum security'. Well, he didn't have the money, and he was in the hospital for a month. I don't want to put him in jail, but since this is not the first time, perhaps getting him off the streets will protect someone else for a while. We'll see...
So now the search for parts began. I managed to find a fender and driver's door, but not the back door or any windshields. We searched in Belize -- forget about the phone books -- you have to go to these places -- a lot of them don't even have phones. I had guys scouring Belize and Mexico for the back door and windshields with no luck. I could order the front windshield from Guatemala though.
A month or two passed and we noticed another wrecked Pathfinder up on 2nd Street North. It had been rolled and had some denting, but the windshields were smashed, wheels were gone, and a few other pieces were missing -- but it was the same color and the back door was fine. And there was other stuff we could use, too. It took us a while to find out who's it was, and he said he was going to fix it. A few weeks pass and we hear he is going to sell the transmission to someone for $750 US. I hoped now he would sell me the door, too. Then he said the buyer was going to buy the whole thing for $1000. Then apparently he didn't sell it to anyone. So I approached him and we came to a deal for $875 for the whole thing. He still owes the duty on it according to our contract, but I don't expect him to honor it. I will just use the vehicle for parts.
Meanwhile the car was still sitting at Enrique Chan's, the mechanic who witnessed the crash, and was one of the first on the scene. He and his boys ended up towing the car to his garage before it really got cleaned out by the locals. He had been trying to get parts but had not succeeded. I arranged to have it towed out of there to our house so that it could be repaired closer to home. I also had an idea for paying for the repairs.
Now technically, if I were to take the car out of the country, I would turn in my temporary importation permit and receive my deposit back. Then I could turn around and come back in and start the process all over again. When you import a vehicle, it is appraised at that time at its present value. You actually cannot pay the duty on a vehicle on a temporary importation permit, you have to take it out, then re-import it from scratch. That being the case, it stands to reason that the new valuation of the vehicle would be significantly less, no? Yes! So, I import it as scrap, pay half the previous duty (or less hopefully), and have enough to pay to have it fixed. Right? I mean that's the rules, right? (I know this isn't going to work...)
So I arranged to have the car towed to the border -- by rope, mind you, pulled from the back of a little pickup held together by rust and more rope. I was of course steering the car and managing what brakes I did not have (again). The engine would not start -- which was fine for now because it would be worth less at the valuation. I was sitting in the driver's seat of a car that was a complete wreck, broken glass everywhere, smashed windshields, you name it. And of course the trip through town -- everyone knew the story of this car, and looked at the gringo riding inside.
Alright, the border, my favorite, I love borders, gimme borders -- not. OK, I know the deal, I've got to pull into the little holding pen for the valuation, so we pull through a spot and register the vehicle. I go inside the Customs office and explain what I am trying to do. "You can't do that," they say. That's OK, I knew they were going to say that, but I counter, "But you told me I couldn't pay the duty on it until I took it out and re-imported it." "Yes..." "And you also said that you would re-evaluate it for wear and tear -- well this is worn and torn!" "OK, but you have to take it over the bridge and into Mexico first, then you can bring it back." "You've got to be kidding -- I'll bring you the paperwork, just stamp this one 'exported' and this one 'imported' what's the problem?" "No, no, we can't do that." "You know, ordinarily I wouldn't mind but the vehicle is completely disabled. The line of cars over the little bridge next to the Free Zone is packed all day long. There is no where to turn around on the Mexican side -- especially with a rope tow." "Well, you can write the Minister and ask for permission. You can leave the car in the compound."
So I did. We left the car in the compound, and I started faxing letters to the Minister of Customs. Weeks go by. I would get some silly non-answer from a secretary, or the answer, 'yes, you may take the vehicle into Mexico and then reimport it at its original import value' or something insane like that. I made at least 3 trips to Belize City after being told all the paperwork was OK'd and I could get my money back and be allowed to import it without having to leave the compound -- but whenever I got there, someone would say, 'no'. I got to know the head Customs guy at the border fairly well as I also had to deal with the bus's paperwork from time to time. I did finally get a check for the deposit, but after months of bureaucracy, I was again told that I would indeed need to take the car over the bridge into Mexico before I could re-import it at its current value. Sheesh, thanks for your timely reply.
Alright so now we were going to do it, get this car back on the road. I have a tow bar that plugs into a 2" receiver. A friend of mine offered his help towing the car with his big Chevy Avalanche with a 2'' receiver. I warned him that even though we were just going to tow the car over and back, it was probably going to take a few hours dealing with border officials. He knew all too well from his own experiences.
So we were ready bright and early, 7am we were on our way. We got to the border 10 minutes away -- closed. Too early. "How about breakfast," Ron suggested. "Sure." So we drove back to town and had scrambled eggs and fry jacks. We were back at the border at 8:30. Still closed. We walked around a little -- actually a lot. I neglected to mention, during the last few months, the Belize border checkpoint and offices were moved. They built an entirely new Immigration building and Customs building. Things are greatly simplified for cargo, but the design of the Immigration building is ludicrous. The path you walk is more like a figure-eight looping back on itself instead of a straight line. The building basically needs to be turned clockwise 90 degrees. It's like going to a grocery store, parking your vehicle a block away, entering in the front door, and exiting out the back where you have to walk all the way around, passing the front entrance again and back to your car a block away -- and the incoming people do the same thing through the same building on the other side -- you pass them through a chain-link fence on your way out. This is Belize.
So since the entrance to the cargo area was closed we decided to be Belizean about it. We headed to the border gates, didn't stamp our passports as we would have been required to do, told the guys we were trying to get into the cargo section and they said OK, so we drove around the other entrance from Mexico and the sleepy attendant waved us in. Within an hour my exit papers were being signed (since I was now, indeed, taking the vehicle out of Belize). We were then free to go. Now for convenience I hid the key in the ashtray so that it would stay with the car. We got to the car, no key. You can't turn the steering wheel without the key. Luckily I had planned for this possibility and brought an extra key -- not. Oh, boy, back to Corozal for the spare key.
Alright, we were back with the key now -- all the border guys knew us now, they just waved us through. Put the key in, it's jammed. Someone has obviously been screwing with the ignition because it is all scratched up. The key won't turn. Back to Corozal... We go to the mechanic where the other Pathfinder I bought is sitting. He came with us with a little bag of tools. We were waved through the border again. He banged and banged away at the ignition and eventually managed to get the ignition off. Easily repaired. Now the steering works! Let's get this puppy out of here. Man, the wheels were rusted tight. We tied a rope to the back of the car and Ron tried pulling the car out of its tight and angled slot. Finally it broke free from the rust and the wheels turned. The three of us managed to maneuver the car into a position where we could attach the tow bar. But no, someone has stolen the locking pins from the Pathfinder. Back to Corozal!
We dropped off the mechanic, gave him $15 (we'll see him later, he will be the guy getting the car running again), and head to the hardware store. We bought 4 large bolts, the largest they had, and hack-sawed part of the heads off them so we could use the bolts as substitutes for the missing locking pins. Ron and I took turns with the hacksaw -- we worked up quite a sweat. And then we were off. Our smiles just keep getting bigger every time we saw the border guys -- no reaction from them. OK, the bolts worked, and we hooked the car up to the tow bar! Now we were on our way to the bridge. They took the final paperwork as we drove out of the compound. That was it. We didn't actually have to cross the bridge, we could have just driven down to the free zone and turned around. (The new border crossing is about a half mile away from the border now -- a sort of no man's land parallel with the ever-expanding duty free zone that Belizeans are not allowed to enter.) Well, since we had come this far, and I did not want to jeopardize my chances of bringing the car back into Belize, we decided to keep going.
The bridge into Mexico is a tiny 2 lane bridge over a small river that separates Mexico and Belize. There is a stream of cars in both directions both leading into and out of the Free Zone at all hours of the day. It is primarily Mexicans spending their money on cheap goods. There is also a popular casino in there. It is a long wait over the bridge and once on the other side there is a tiny parking lot for non-Mexicans who have to get out to have their passport stamped. Then one would continue on through the border gates. We had no plans of actually crossing those gates -- I would have to get the proper paperwork for importing a vehicle into Mexico, and I wasn't doing that!
There was not a lot of room here. But luckily, my friend Quentin was in his Pathfinder behind us. Quentin is another gringo trying to make a go at it here in Belize, and he started a wireless ISP business in Chetumal and commutes nearly everyday. So when we turned into the little parking lot on the other side of the bridge, I jumped out of the car and waved to Quentin to stop. He held back the traffic while I guided Ron in turning around. Ron was experienced with towing his boat and moved the towed car around beautifully. I hopped in, waved to Quentin and now we were going back over the bridge to Belize -- the Mexican officials looked at us perplexingly. Can you believe I spent 4 months trying to avoid this? The car would have been fixed by now. But Belize has a way of sucking you in, of giving you hope when there is in fact none. ;-)
So we did it by God, we took that thing over the bridge and back. We drove back into Belize Customs again, and said, "I'd like to import a vehicle, please." I got a new number and parked the car not too far from where it had been sitting a few moments earlier. I went into the office and explained that I am now importing a vehicle and would like to have it evaluated. "You can't do that," were the first words out of the Customs guy's mouth. "Oh, yes, I can," I replied forcefully and with a smile. "You'll have to talk with the boss." "Yes, I know, I wouldn't have it any other way, thank you."
So we walk over to the head guy's office which as I mentioned is in another building, and we have to do all this walking around through fenced in pathways until we get to the Immigration building. I talked to Mr. Leslie who by now knows me very well. "Well, the vehicle went over the bridge and came back." "OK, " he said, "I'll call down and tell them it's OK." So we walked back through the maze of fences back to the main Customs compound.
We waited for an evaluation guy who came out with his clipboard. He was the same guy who evaluated it in the first place, and was well familiar with its history. It was evaluated for body damage only. A certified mechanic would be necessary for evaluating the engine, we learned. The valuation was still too high. So we were told that we could get a certified mechanic from the Department of Works back in Corozal (this is like the motor vehicles office). So back to Corozal...(I've lost count on how many times we have made this trip today.)
We went to the Department of Works, and miraculously, they knew exactly what we were talking about and the chief mechanic was there. He said he would be along shortly. So we went back to the border and waited for him. Sure enough he was there in a little while. Armed with nothing more than a loose-leaf sheet of paper and a pen, he looked under the hood, and tried to get me to shift the transmission gears -- they were stuck. "I'm sure the transmission is broken from improper towing," I mentioned. He said, "You know you have to pay me, right?" "Sure, I just assumed -- how much?" "Fifty dollars." "OK." With that he wrote that the engine and transmission were completely destroyed, signed his name, and he was on his way.
I took all the paperwork now up to Mr. Leslie, and he tapped away at his calculator to figure out what I was going to have to pay. According to both evaluations, the car was worth nothing. Bottom line, I had to pay $1200 US duty -- about half what it originally had been. OK, done. I go to the cashier and pay it cash. We take the car and bring it to the mechanic's right behind the other one.
Within a few short days, both cars were moved into the body shop compound. As we speak, it is being fixed. Still the windshields were needed. I brought a rear windshield down from Canada, and the front windshield was supposed to have been ordered and delivered from Guatemala by now, but the price keeps going up. Looks like I'll have to go down to Belize City myself and pick it up. The body work is almost all finished -- we just need the front windshield to finish it up -- it should be here this week... Right... ;-)
Wish us luck,
Eric, Lyne, Cheyenne, and Lakota Schaub
Well, the car is finally fixed and on the road after over a year and a half of being wrecked. The windshield finally came through Belize City's Auto Zone. They delivered it late one night and it was installed a couple days later. After sizing the window and reshaping the frame accordingly, we were ready for the final painting. After waiting a couple days for a clear day, the car was painted.
After the interior was completely re-installed, we started on the engine. The last thing we needed was a gas tank since our old one was very rusty and the new car had no tank. After 2 more weeks of not finding a tank, we insisted the mechanic fix the old one. Eventually he did. The final car was a mix of the old car and the new one.
Lila was at the shop the day the mechanic turned the key and the car started on the first crank. After a few minutes of smoke, the engine smoothed out. It took a good two weeks more to get all the little bugs worked out since this car was basically rebuilt from the ground up. We took the best parts of each car and put them together to make what we have now.
We insured it, and took it down to the Public Works Office and got the car registered and got a new title. Lakota helped put on the new license plates. We are finally on the road again! Of course, gas is $3.50USD per gallon... ;-)