Puerto Vallarta

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Sugar skulls in Bucerias. Photo by David Lansing.

As I wrote yesterday, the only way legally to keep an American car in Mexico longer than 6 months is to get an fm3 card which makes you sort of an honorary Mexican. But it’s no easy process. First you have to find the Immigration office, which, in my case, took about 3 hours on Wednesday, which just happened to be Halloween. So I finally find the office, sign in, and take a number. An hour or so later, I reach the front of the line. Numerous forms need to be filled in. They want to know what religion I am, what race, what schools I’ve gone to, what my degree was in, and what I do for a living. They also want to know how tall I am (in centimeters), how I would describe my body type (this is very confusing), and what sort of distinguishing marks I have on my body (no gun wounds but a few surgical scars).

Sign this form…and this one…and this one…and this one. Stamp, stamp, stamp. Now take these forms and go find a bank and pay 1,451 pesos to the bank (about $110), get two copies of a form saying you DID pay the 1,451 pesos, then take that form to a copy shop and get two copies of that form, and then go back to the Immigration office and wait in line again. All of which I did. Mr. Immigration Man goes through all my forms, which at this point are about an inch thick, and says everything seems to be in order. Come back in two weeks to pick up my fm3.

But the problem is, I’m not going to be here in two weeks. When I tell this to Mr. Immigration Man, he sighs, audibly, and says, What day do you leave? I tell him. He looks on a calendar. This is on a Saturday, he says. Yes, I know. Then come back to the office on Friday–very early–with your airline ticket and we will see what we can do. No promises. Then he smiles at me and says, “Happy Halloween. Next!”

And so it goes.

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I didn’t take a camera with me to the Immigration office, so I pulled this photo of the “ugly glass building”–in the middle of the photo–off the Hospital San Javier web site on a page that markets their bariatric surgery for fat people.

If you are American or Canadian, you can’t keep a car down in Mexico for more than a few months. Why not? That is a very good question and one I cannot answer. But I’ve had a car down in Bucerias for five years. In order to do that (legally) you have to get this thing called an fm3 card. If you have an fm3 card it means you are like an honorary Mexican–you can skip the long immigration lines when you come into Mexico and you can keep your American car here. But of course, getting an fm3 card is not a simple process. I don’t mean this in a derogatory fashion, but Mexicans love bureaucracy. And paperwork. The larger the bureaucracy, the more paperwork. And Immigration is a very large bureaucracy.

Here’s the thing: You have to renew your fm3 card annually and you have to do it within 14 days of when you originally got it. My renewal date is November 1. Which is why I have spent Halloween in Mexico every year for the last five years. Filing the proper forms and getting the photos and stamps and bank fees and copies of your passport for an fm3 card is complicated enough that everyone I know down here who has one hires a Mexican paralegal to do it for them. You pay them $150 or so and they bring the forms for you to sign and then when the fm3 is ready, you go in with them, get fingerprinted, and get your card. But I’ve always gotten my fm3 card by myself. I like the idea that I can handle the Mexican bureaucracy. It’s like knowing you could fix a mechanical problem if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere (which obviously I couldn’t do since I needed Bulmaro to come over and fix my flat tire).

As recently as last year, getting an fm3 card, for me, was only a minor inconvenience. There was an Immigration office on a dusty road in Bucerias, not more than 5 minutes from my home, and although I might have to make 3 or 4 trips there to get things properly taken care of, at least it was easy to get to. So Tuesday, I immediately headed to Fotographic Bodas & XV Anos where Jose Garzasaenz takes fm3 photos as an adjunct to his main line of wedding photography. Jose stood me against a white wall outside his office, buttoned my shirt collar, removed my glasses, and then took a few photos, telling me they’d be ready in about half an hour. Meanwhile, I walked down to the Immigration office to grab a number since you usually have to wait 45 minutes to an hour before you see anyone. But the Immigration office was closed and there was no sign saying why they were closed or suggesting they had moved. So I walked back to the photography studio and asked Jose about it. Yes, he said, Immigration is now in Nuevo Vallarta, about half an hour away.

I’ve been to Nuevo Vallarta before. It’s sort of the newish tourist district in Puerto Vallarta (thus the name). It’s also kind of tricky to find things there unless you know your way around. There are a lot of roundabouts leading to the marina, with lanes going off to the left or right that hide countless hotels and condominium projects. Knowing this, I asked Jose if he could draw me a map of where the Immigration office was in Nuevo Vallarta. And he did draw a map–a very elegant, draftsman-like map. And then he told me I needed to drive through Mezcalez, and then just before the bridge over the road at Walmart, take the lateral road and turn right at the Marlin restaurant. That would take me into Nuevo Vallarta.

Unfortunately, he was a little less clear on where, exactly, the Immigration office was in Nuevo Vallarta. “En un edificio de cristal grande y feo,” he said. In a big ugly glass building. I figured that was good enough. How many big ugly glass buildings could there be in Nuevo Vallarta? Quite a few, as it turns out.

So after driving around for 15 or 20 minutes, I stopped in front of a gated condominium complex and asked the security officer where the Immigration office was. He said it was in Plaza Paradise. That helped. I found Plaza Paradise. But there were no indications of a Immigration office. So then I went inside a mall and asked a guy at a timeshare kiosk where the Immigration office was. He said it was in the building between the casino and Hospital San Javier. I asked him if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t. He said it was about a five minute walk back towards the roundabout. So off I went. I found the casino and I found the hospital but there was still no sign of the Immigration Man. So I asked the receptionist at Hospital San Javier (which, apropos of nothing, specializes in plastic surgery and bariatric treatments–removing part of the stomachs of fat people–to a mainly North American clientel) where the Immigration office was. She sent me up an escalator to the second floor and down a long hallway past a number of deserted offices to where a sign finally announced that here, at last, was the Immigration office. A policeman checked my I.D., made me sign a clipboard, and then I was given a number–105–to wait my turn. Fortunately, there were only 20 or so people ahead of me. Surely I’d be done in an hour or two. Right?

To be continued…

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Mushrooms and flat tires

It’s a little after 7am. I’ve been awake since 4:30. This always happens in Mexico. Not because I have jet lag but just because everything–the light, the heat, the humidity, the smells–are so different that, rather than relaxing, I tend to get wired. And anxious. So when the sun finally came up this morning, I went out on my deck and took the picture above. What you are looking at is the wooden railing on my balcony with the pool down below. Those white blemishes on the railing are actually mushrooms. Growing in the fine cracks of my railing. That’s how humid it gets here.

I spent most of yesterday driving around Puerto Nuevo looking for the Immigration office (more on that later), which I eventually found in a building near Paradise Plaza that is also home to a casino and a hospital. To sandwich the Immigration office between a casino and a hospital makes perfect sense in Mexico.

Anyway, after about 5 hours at the Immigration office, I hurried back to Bucerias because I had arranged for Juan to meet me at 4. He was going to wash my car, the Blue Whale, which was growing almost as many mushrooms on the steering wheel and leather seats as my balcony railing since it hasn’t been driven since I was last here in May. I waited and waited for Juan to knock on my door but when he wasn’t here by 5:30, I went looking for him. I didn’t find Juan but I did find that while driving back from Puerto Nuevo, I must have picked up a nail or something because I now had a flat tire.


So I sent a message to my property manager, Ramon, who assured me that Bulmaro, who has fixed everything in my condo from a broken water heater to a leaky kitchen sink, would be here first thing this morning to have a look at my tire. That is what Ramon says–that Bulmaro will “have a look at the tire.” I hope he can do more than just have a look at it. What I would like is for him to jack up the Blue Whale, remove the tire, take it to whoever fixes tires in Bucerias, return with it, and put it back on the Blue Whale. All before one this afternoon, which is when I need to head for the Puerto Vallarta airport where I’ve assured my friend Jeff that I’ll be standing in the arrival hall to meet him and bring him back to Bucerias.

But how likely do you think it is that I’m going to have the tire fixed by one?  Perhaps I should just go back to bed.

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I was supposed to be on the east coast yesterday but instead, I diverted to Puerto Vallarta. Where it is sunny and warm and beautiful and I feel more than a little bit guilty because of Sandy. You know how some momentous figure comes along once in a lifetime and everyone names their newborn after that person? Will anyone, for years hence, dare to name their child Sandy? I can’t imagine.

So I arrived in Puerto Vallarta about 5pm yesterday and Juan picked me up and drove me to Bucerias, about 30 minutes north, and after I opened all the doors and windows and turned on the air-conditioning, I was sitting in the pool, not an hour later, with a margarita. Watching the sunset. And, yes, I feel guilty about it. But what would you do? Fly to Jersey?

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