Hang on to your wallet and passport when traveling

A mom and her kids perform at a busy Guatemala City street corner hoping for tips.

A mom and her kids perform at a busy Guatemala City street corner hoping for tips.

Like I said yesterday, the people of Guatemala are very friendly, except for that one guy whole stole my passport wallet, which, yes, had my passport, a couple of credit cards and some cash.

It happened Sunday morning while on the streets during the procession. I had a large passport wallet in my front pocket but it must have been sticking out some. We were wading through people elbow to elbow, so it got pulled while I was in the crowd. I noticed it was missing when I got back to the hotel but I thought I must have left it at Edgar’s condo. I contacted him and since we were going to be back near his condo yesterday, I didn’t worry about it until last night when we couldn’t find it there.


So I spent some time online to find out what I needed to do. I’d never lost my passport before and had no idea what to do. Fortunately there are benefits to being American and the State Department is one of them. I needed to fill out a couple of forms online, print them and go to the U.S. embassy back in Guatemala City, 90 minutes away. I planned on taking a taxi but Edgar wouldn’t let me. His daughter drove down this morning and took me to the embassy while Edgar guided the rest of the workshop in Antigua.

Edgar’s daughter had spent time in the U.S. as an exchange student and speaks fluent English and is a sweet young lady. I enjoyed my time with her and she where to take me to get passport photos and then took me to the embassy. As I walked up there were three lines, one for immigration, one for visas and one for U.S. citizens. Since there wasn’t anyone in line, I thought this would be a breeze. I got up to the security guy and said I lost my passport. “No English” he said. “Passport, por favor.” I tried telling him I didn’t have a passport, that is why I’m here, but he didn’t speak English. I looked around to make sure I was at the right embassy, and I was but the security guy didn’t speak any English. Fortunately my new friend was nearby and I waved her over to translate.

He eventually told me to go through security and then to window #3. I brought my computer with the forms but signs were everywhere that no electronics or cell phones were allowed inside, so I gave everything to AnnaLee who waited outside for me. When I go to the metal detector I realized I left a USB in my pocket that also contained the needed documents I had printed. I handed it to the person and she gave me a scary look and said something in Spanish. I told her I didn’t speak Spanish and she could keep the drive, I didn’t need it. Another guy motioned for me to take my belt off. It is one of those sewn into my pants so I told him it didn’t come off. He spewed some Spanish at me and then I realized nobody in security at the U.S. embassy speaks any English.

Now I have no expectations for anyone in Guatemala to speak English except inside the U.S. embassy. Here I am without a passport, my belt won’t come out of my pants, I have a USB drive that they seem to think could implode the entire building and I’m the only one speaking English.

Ten minutes later a woman who knows six English words tells me to put the USB drive in a basket, gives a numbered tag and says to pick it up when I leave. I finally head into a large room to find Window #3. I look around at all the people sitting there and see the windows start at number four and go up to 15. Not good. I know better than trying to ask directions, so I walk around and see a small hallway. At the end of it is a smaller room filled with people and windows one through three. But there are no people at the windows and I’m not sure what to do. Most of the people sitting in the chairs are Guatemalan, so I look around and I see a “Take a Number” dispenser like they have at the supermarket deli counter. So I take #64 and go to sit down but all the chairs are taken. A kind Guatemala man offers me his chair, but I decline and stand at the back of the room.

A few minutes later a person comes to the counter at window #3 and says three short things in Spanish and three people get up and go to the window. It hits me that she is calling off numbers in Spanish. I took two years of Spanish in high school but I stopped paying attention long before I got to #64. A while later I hear her say something that sounds like “seis” and “dos” and I’m guessing that is 62 so I need to pay attention. I hear something with “cuatro” and I show my ticket to a guy standing beside me and he nods that it is my number. On the way to the window I’m thinking that I should have paid lots more attention in high school because I could be stuck in Guatemala for a long time if I can’t figure out how to get a passport. The woman on the other side of the window looks American and sure enough, she is and speaks English. Finally. She looks at my paperwork, tells me I’ll have to pay at another window and I’ll be called back to the window for an interview. I was thinking enough to ask if they’ll call my name or do I have to figure out another number in Spanish. They’ll call my name, she assures me.

I go down the hall to the payment window, which is plainly marking in English and Spanish. No problem having someone speaking English when they are taking my money. After I paid for the new passport, I wait for nearly and hour and they call my name for the interview, which consisted of knowing me knowing my name, where I live and where I was born. The nice guy tells me passports are frequently stolen and sold on the black market, although with computers they are basically worthless, and that he will be able to have a new passport within 45 minutes. IF the computers are working. He must have noticed my raised eyebrow and said they are working pretty good today. If not, I’d have to come back tomorrow to get it.

It is now 3:30 p.m. and there are plenty of seats. I sat there thinking that is going to take 45 minutes and the office closes at 4 p.m. and these are government workers. Do they get up and leave at quitting time even though an exhausted American is sitting there waiting for his passport? Coming back tomorrow is a big problem because our group is scheduled to head two hours in the opposite direction from where I can today, meaning it would be a nearly four hour trip just to pick it up.

4 p.m. comes and they don’t pull down the shades on the windows. There is only one other person sitting in the room with me and all I can do is hope the computers and the people are still working. Ten minutes later they call my name and give me my new passport.

This was a little more adventure than I thought but it all worked out.

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