Getting Passports in Guatemala

It was a day of miracles, to be sure.

Carmen, growing more beautiful every year.

In November of 2017 the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco in Peru will be hosting their third Tinkuy – A Gathering of the Textile Arts. Especially geared toward indigenous fiber artists, we non-indigenous folks are welcome also. This year I will be traveling with three weavers from Guatemala, Amalia and her sister Carmen from Samac, Cobán, Alta Verapaz, and Gilberta, from San Rafael, Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. You can see a story about Amalia and pictures of all three in Traditional Weavers of Guatemala – Their Stories, Their Lives, and you can buy their work from Cloth Roads (Amalia and Carmen) and Mayan Hands (Gilberta). You can also see stories about Amalia and Carmen in previous blogs right here.

The reason I get to go is that I will be playing the “experienced traveler” role, helping the other three to both get ready and then go to Peru. Because Amalia has traveled to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several years, she has a passport. This will be Carmen and Gilberta’s first time outside of Guatemala, so getting them passports was the first big step. (Peruvian visas for all three come later.) This is the story of passport day, which meant coming to the city.

Both Carmen and Gilberta arrived at the city bus station on time, no small thing considering they had to get up around midnight, leave home by 2am in pre-arranged private transport to get to Cobán and Rabinal, board public buses by 3am, to arrive here in the city by 8am. With all that, they got here within 20 minutes of each other.

Carmen’s bus





Rabinal from on high. A long way from Guatemala City by road. For birds, not so far.

When Gilberta was in Rabinal getting copies of all the necessary papers, the power went off mid-task, so she had copies of all but one document. No problem, we had to make a copy of Carmen’s payment receipt anyway.

Carmen arrived with originals and copies of both her document showing her dpi (personal identification document) in process (her card was stolen last December, but in spite of multiple visits to the RENAP office they still have not gotten her a new one), and her boleto de ornato. (That is a small tax everyone pays to help the beautification projects in their towns, for flowers and such. Variable amount, and they hold things like drivers’ license, car plate renewal, and passport applications hostage until you can show you paid it.) So first we paid her passport fee, where they accepted the copy of her dpi tramite (paperwork) without a hitch. Huge relief, and we figured we were in. We figured wrong, but it was a nice moment.

the passport office

When she got to the entry point (long line, but it moved quickly), she was told she also had to have a copy of the police report filed when her dpi was stolen. Of course she did not have that with her. We called Amalia, but no one was in the house to take a picture and send it. The idea of going to a police station to see if they could print one came out, which at first seemed absurd, but then looked better and better. Worth a try, anyway. Unfortunately Gilberta was already inside and we could not get a message to her telling her we were leaving and would come back, so we waited outside until she came out.

As her oldest sister, Amalia is Carmen’s unofficial legal guardian since their mother died.

(Part of the conversation we had while we waited was about school. At 20, Carmen is the oldest in the class. She has two years left of high school, finally went in for a career of business administration. (All high school is vocational, with a career chosen upon entry.) I asked her how it was going and she said well, that they have finished the term but she has not seen her grades because they will only give them to her parents. Since her mother is dead, Amalia is her official stand-in, and Amalia did not have time this week to go have a parent-teacher conference and get the grades. Even though Carmen is an adult, rules are rules and they will not give her grades directly to her.)

Gilberta emerged after about an hour and half, passport in hand!! Astonishing, since as recently as three days ago they were saying you had to come back in a week to pick it up, and it had to be the person, no one else could pick it up for them. Hallelujah!!

A smiling Gilberta. Look in her hand!

So we decided to go find the nearest police station. Gilberta decided to stay with us rather than go home then, which would have gotten her home at least four hours earlier*. I think she was enjoying the day out. And surely it would be nice to be NOT sitting on a bus at least as many hours as she was sitting on a bus. Anyway, we stuck together. (*That turned out to be a lot more than four, as you will see at the end.)

Finding the police station was its own adventure, as the closest one is in the middle of “la terminal”, the major wholesale market area that is an absolute maze and mess. Every person we asked, and there were many, gave us different instructions. So here is where the police station is NOT: straight ahead six blocks, straight ahead five blocks, inside the terminal, near Pollo Campero, near the big parking lot, near the taxi stand, right around that corner, and that corner, and that corner.

You can see how one might get lost in there. What does not show here are angled streets and dead ends, of which there are MANY!






Amazingly, we finally got there, after at least half an hour walking and sweating. The police on duty, all young, could not have been nicer or more helpful, and in fact did print out the report she needed. (The theft was in Cobán, where Carmen lives, but all of the police in the country are national, so there is just one system. This is one of those moments to be grateful that a lot of the Guatemalan government now uses computers. That is relatively new.) Then was the matter of trying to find our way OUT of the maze. The best was when one of them looked at Gilberta, said, “You are from Rabinal, right?” (her huipil/clothing told that), and proceeded to explain the route to her in Achi. Spanish being a second language for all of us, that was good. You would have to know Gilberta to get this, but the too-funny irony is speaking in the best language to someone whose brain does not process information like that. But they repeated the information back and forth at least four times, and in fact she got us about half way out, after which we recognized where we were.

Amazingly, it was still only noon. But given that they had left home at 2am, and probably had no real breakfast, food seemed like a good idea. But so did getting this completed as early as possible. So we went to see if Carmen could now get in, with a plan of my giving her my apple, and while she was inside Gilberta and I would go find lunch. She did get in, but only in stages. The next thing they said was that she did not have the right rubber stamp on one of the copies to show it was real. She had the original there also, but nothing in Guatemala is valid without a rubber stamp on it. Fortunately they also have an office of RENAP inside the passport office, so she was able to get the stamp and a new copy. Then they asked for an original birth certificate, which also had not come up before. Amazingly, she had brought a copy of her latest, just in case, and they accepted it! (Birth certificates here are good for only six months, and the reason she has one is that you have to have a new one every year to start school, no matter how old you are or if you have been in that same school every year.) So finally she was all the way in, and Gilberta and I went looking for lunch.

An hour and a half later, Carmen emerged, passport in hand! And we handed her the lunch we had brought her.

I took them back to the bus station to return home. Tickets purchased, we had ice cream to celebrate. (Sorry I did not have the foresight to take celebratory pictures. I only took pictures of the data pages of their passports, which I am not posting here.)

So that was that story when I got home late afternoon. But for them there turned out to be more. I had left them to board buses around 2:30pm. At 6:20pm Carmen sent me a whatsapp message saying that for traffic they had not yet arrived at El Rancho, where they should have been a whole lot earlier.

Opening new lanes in the mountains takes a big effort.

Turns out that in addition to the construction project that rules that section of the highway now (and will for another year or two), there had been a four-ambulance accident. Carmen got to Cobán at 10pm, home at 11:15pm. Gilberta, whose route was the same for most of the trip, got to Rabinal at 9pm, home by 9:40pm. I’m sore from all the time walking and sitting on concrete yesterday, but I’m in a whole lot better shape than they are, pobrecitas.

All of this sounds crazy to an outsider. Here, it is a fairly usual day. (And I did not even include the part about having to wait until now because for many weeks the government did not have any of the little booklets that become passports. Even now, only first-timers are getting them. Renewals are getting a sticker good for one year, with the hopes that they will be caught up by then.) So you can see why we are really happy that they got their passports on the spot and do not have to come back to pick them up. As I said, a day of miracles for us.

We’re going to Peru!

14 thoughts on “Getting Passports in Guatemala

      1. Who knows about spelling of ancient tribes!!
        The diversity of spelling in Kaqchikel used to drive me crazy, until I realized I ‘ll just always sound like someone from another community so I’m covered.


  1. Good for you & Them! I could never accomplish that! !

    Thanks & take care!

    Rufus. 🙂

    On Fri, May 5, 2017 at 7:31 PM Weaving Futures with Deborah Chandler wrote:

    > Deborah Chandler posted: “It was a day of miracles, to be sure. In > November of 2017 the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco in Peru will > be hosting their third Tinkuy – A Gathering of the Textile Arts. Especially > geared toward indigenous fiber artists, we non-indigenou” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story! Having dealt with the bureaucracy in Guatemala, albeit on a much less complicated scale, I really enjoyed hearing of the victory of getting the passports. I”m sending this on to a friend who is a textile artist and who has been in Guatemala with me a couple of times and is headed to Peru this fall….she will love this story too.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a story. Thank for sharing.

    On Fri, May 5, 2017 at 6:30 PM, Weaving Futures with Deborah Chandler wrote:

    > Deborah Chandler posted: “It was a day of miracles, to be sure. In > November of 2017 the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco in Peru will > be hosting their third Tinkuy – A Gathering of the Textile Arts. Especially > geared toward indigenous fiber artists, we non-indigenou” >

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I just read your passport adventure…very interesting to live another life vicariously, via your writing.
    Attending the fiber event in November sounds very exciting. ‘Wish that I could attend, if only to reconnect with an Allegheny roommate (and friend) and for the beauty of the traditional Peruvian textiles.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. ‘Can’t believe that so much time has passed, since I wrote and you replied. I just looked up “Tinkuy 2017 Peru”…lots of information! What an artistic and cultural event is upcoming!

        Over the years that I taught in New Haven, I had one student (Magaly) enter class as a freshman, who knew only Spanish and Quechua. Near the end of the four high school years, Magaly wrote her college essay. By that time she was proficient in English, as well. Magaly wrote that she was bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish. When I read that in her essay, I corrected Magaly and said that she should list all three languages, including Quechua. To which she answered, but does that one count? That moment left me one of memories that I recall as a reverse teaching moment, a lesson from a student to me. How had she somehow learned to de-value her mother’s native tongue?

        I read your recent article about honoring and valuing the traditional artistry of weaving, while acknowledging that technology has enabled people to afford textiles formerly beyond reach. I try to pay fair prices for goods and opt for quality over quantity, but realize that the modest economic well-being I enjoy allows me options.
        I looked to your writing for additional perspective to help me assess my own choices and appreciated that your advice…try to be informed, ask questions about the textile (or any work), take the time to listen, and don’t try for the cheapest price. Thank you for your thoughts.

        A couple of years ago, Tom had the opportunity to go to Peru; I remained in Connecticut, because it was during the school year and I was still teaching. Tom went with other family members and returned with enthusiasm and a beautiful piece of woven cloth. I will look at it with fresh eyes.


  5. Hi! I am just in the door from the three week textile tour to Italy and was rewarding myself with a break from unpacking and read your passport journey. I am in awe of the complexities of what we so take for granted but even more that you all accomplished this miracle in one day…it is difficult to even comprehend the problems encountered and how people have to be so totally determined to meet each challenge in order to even take a next step. Wonderfully written, Deb and your description made me feel a part of the story. Thanks for sharing and what a life changing event for all of you, come November. Cheers, a hug and a gold start! Anita


  6. You just have to laugh, take a deep breath and think, “What’s next?” I’ve been laughing at the preposterous challenge of getting Medicare here. Cannot access your My SS out of the country, must use your Guatemalan address though we have no mail service, have to contact your embassy about any SS problem, but Guatemala sends all SS concerns to Costa Rica, Costa Rica will answer requests in 15 days…. omg
    Oh how I would love to this event. I’ll have to research it! Thank you for your dedication to our weavers!


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