Recently my husband and I visited Mexico. It was intended to be an inexpensive winter get-a-way visiting a relative who was wintering in Puerto Vallarta. Within 24 hours of setting foot on Mexican soil we were robbed twice. The first theft was at the airport, where my handbag was stolen. And then less than 24 hours later the condo we were staying at was broken into. The overall loss was hard, but the most disconcerting loss was my passport. Being on foreign soil without the necessary documentation to get home was downright frightening.
This is not another woeful tourist tale, nor is it a condemnation of Mexican people. The majority of Mexicans are warm, friendly, decent, hard-working people trying to eke out a living during hard economic times. Their country is tarred by the over-reported actions of a criminal few, coupled with ambivalent police, causing a decline in their main industry, tourism, thus hampering the average Mexican’s ability to earn a living.
Although anxious about my loss, my greater angst came from the government bureaucracy, both Mexican and Canadian.
Immediately after my purse was stolen I was dealing with the policia federales, also known as airport security. They didn’t really seem interested in my plight, and no one in security could speak English. In fact, when leaving the country I checked to see if my purse had been found only to discover they didn’t seem to have a record of the theft.
I spent the evening cancelling all my credit and ATM cards, suspending my SaskTel phone number and notifying our bank to put an alert on our accounts.
Early the next morning we were off to the Canadian Consulate to report my passport as stolen and arrange for new documentation. Call me naïve, but I had always believed that as a travelling Canadian in distress and on foreign soil, Canadian officials would be jumping on the bandwagon to assist me. I did not leave the consulate feeling that way. The consulate official immediately cancelled my passport, but would not assist me in new documentation until I filed a local police report. Apparently the report to the airport policia federales didn’t count. And there was no offer by consulate officials to assist me in dealing with the police.
We eventually found the police station — to hell and gone by the airport — and asked to file a report. After waiting a while we discovered no one spoke English. Eventually they found a young man who said he spoke “a little bit” of English and took the report. It was all in Spanish. I was required to blindly sign a report I couldn’t read; for all I knew I might have been confessing to crimes I didn’t commit. With great trepidation I signed it because I needed it before the consulate would help me.
Now it may seem arrogant to assume bureaucrats in another country should speak English, but for a city that boasts servicing upwards of five million tourists annually, the majority from Canada and the United States, you would think they would staff one bilingual employee or at least a translator at both the airport security and police station. When you consider that every bar, restaurant and store had some English-speaking employees, is it unreasonable to expect that service from public officials? Even the street hawkers can speak enough English to facilitate sales to gringos. Tourist theft is not uncommon in Mexico. Shouldn’t we expect that the consulate knows this and about the language barrier and offer assistance in dealing with the police?
We went back to the consulate with the police report where they translated the document for me, which was a reasonably accurate account of the theft. We were then handed a passport application form and told to get passport photos taken. Seems easy enough except for the fact no one in the photo shop the consulate referred us to spoke English. Trying to impress upon the photographer that the photos had to meet the Canadian requirements was difficult. Even though we live in the era of digital photography, the photos would take 24 hours to process. Twenty-four hours and $20 later I had photos. With all the money the Canadian government frivolously spends, would providing digital cameras to consulates break the bank?
Who would be my passport guarantor? Although guarantors and references are not to be family members, they did allow my husband, who had a valid passport, to be my guarantor in light of the fact that I had no one else. And that will be $75 please. This does not get you a replacement passport but a 48-hour temporary, single-use travel permit to get you home.
About three days into this process my passport was found discarded at a grocery store and returned to the consulate. Since I entered Mexico on this passport and it contained an entry stamp, I expected it would be a no brainer to issue me the permit. No so. The consulate official assisting us competently and politely helped us jump through the bureaucratic hoops, but regrettably had no discretion to make a common-sense decision. Rules are rules.
I understand and appreciate why the consulate has to be careful and ensure that whomever they give documentation to is in fact Canadian and entitled to hold a Canadian passport. But they had in their possession my passport that they recently cancelled, which clearly identified me as being Canadian and that I was entitled to have a Canadian passport. When all was said and done, it took almost two weeks to process the material and get authorization for the permit. And it cost me about $100. You can’t place a value on the angst and stress. And when you enter Mexico you are given a paper tourist card which you need to present when you leave. So to add insult to injury, if your tourist card is stolen the Mexican government can fine you up to $500 Canadian as a result of one of their countrymen stealing this card.
This all begs the question as to what happens to Canadians who are travelling alone and are victims of such theft. You have no identification, no money, no credit cards, no phone, and in this Mexican airport, no one you can communicate with. You can’t get transportation, call for help, or secure food or lodging. Who will be your guarantor? How will you pay the fees and buy the photos? Even if you could call home for help, any money wired through Western Union or to a bank requires identification to collect it. How do you get home?
As I write this Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in Mexico for meetings. Rest assured he will not suffer any problems. But if he did, he would not be sharing my consulate experience in order to get back to Canada. Perhaps that is the problem: the bureaucrats that make the rules never have to abide by them.
Our tax dollars finance the consulates. Canadians in distress and away from home deserve better service from these agencies.