Destinations Magazine

Pickpocketed from Afar

By Landfall @landfallvoyages

Late Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend and Mexico is melting into summer. The air is heavy with moisture and mountains of puffy white cumulus clouds dot the previously unbroken blue in the sky above. In the afternoons, clouds pile up in huge grey drifts, threatening rain and rumbling to themselves, but so far all they’ve managed to do is squeeze out a few sprinkles here and there. Enough to wet the ground, but not enough to trigger the yearly aerial termite invasion. Right now, they’re growing wings and after the first torrential downpour, they’ll rise up in great clouds from the jungle, looking for new chomping grounds, and descend upon the town and marina like a plague. A few hours of frantic flight and then they’ll have gone to ground again, leaving a million cast off fairy wings in their wake.

In La Cruz, we wait for the rains to begin, as the first big storms start pinwheeling their way up the coast. On the water, gossip has turned away from people and the things they may or may not be doing and instead consists mostly of weather rumors and big storm stories. In the pueblo, the question of rain is on everyone’s lips. “Lluvia?” they ask, pointing skyward not with their hands, but by hitching their eyebrows toward the heavens and giving the tiniest upward nod of the chin. It’s a Mexican thing, chin pointing—best I can figure, it probably has a lot to do with the part where they’re always busy working and when they’re not working, there’s a lot of walking around with your hands full of stuff, so chin pointing kind of makes sense.

Steve has been gone running errands in Bucerias and it’s only after he’s used most of the cash we have on hand that he discovers there’s a problem with our bank. “Went to the ATM and couldn’t get any money out, can you get online and figure out WTF is going on?” he asks. Sure enough, there’s a freeze on our accounts, but no explanation. I check our mail and our email, too…they remain frustratingly mute on the subject of WTF. All the bank can tell me is that CA BOE has placed a levy on all our accounts for an unspecified amount of money and the levy will remain in place until CA BOE determines that the debt has been paid.

Rat bastards. The California State Board of Equalization is who business owners pay quarterly sales tax to and when I call their number, I find out that there is nothing I can find out until Tuesday morning. Holiday weekend and all. We have less than 200 pesos in cash and four endless days and nights to trudge through before we know just how badly we’re screwed. It is not enough. Even eating only beans and rice, mostly. One of our friends finally twists my arm and makes me take a $1,000 peso bill. Just in case. “You have a child,” he says. “A dog. There’s four of you to feed. Take this, please.” Even though he, like us, lives job to job and can ill afford to make a long term loan of so much money. One of the tienda owners lets us charge what we need until we figure this out. He is also a friend.

Tuesday morning brings more sprinkles of rain and a person to talk to at the BOE. They’ve levied our accounts for more than $1,000 in unpaid sales tax for the first two quarters of 2011. They are very sorry that we’ve been inconvenienced but this kind of thing has to be taken care of. “Where did you get that number?” I ask. “Oh, well, they looked at your past sales tax quarters and came up with a number they felt was appropriate. Based on previous quarters.” Which means they pulled it out of thin air. Because we never had any quarters that looked like that. “Why didn’t you guys just contact us?” I ask.”I don’t even think we were in business then. We were wrapping everything up in preparation for leaving California. Leaving the country.” “Well, if you closed your business, you have to notify us in writing,” She says. “And give us your correct mailing address. We did mail you a number of notices, but they went unanswered. You also have a history of not paying your sales tax.”

She is right. Last year, the BOE pulled this very same levy crap on us, for unpaid taxes in 2012 and 2013. They figured we owed them nearly $10,000. Another number from the air. “We did this last year,” I said. “If you look further into our file, you’ll see that we were in Mexico for most of those years. We closed our business in early 2011, sent you guys a letter and you still tried to pop us for a bunch of money. We re-updated our address with you last year. After investigating things, you guys erased the tax bills from 2012 and 2013, since we a) closed the business, b) weren’t in the country, much less the state, and c) weren’t even residents of the state of California at that time. You’ll also see that during the time we actually were in business, we always paid our sales tax.”

“We can lift the levy,” she says, “but you need to file for those two quarters. We need to see your financials, invoices…that kind of thing.” Steve asked for 30 days. She gave us two weeks, which is more than enough time. Everything’s on the backup hard drive anyway. As it turns out, we racked up a whopping $64.42 in sales tax for both those quarters combined. I’m pretty sure we paid it at the time, but I’ll have to go digging through our bank records to prove it.

After two days, the rains still haven’t come and the levy has not been lifted, even though our new friend at the BOE emailed us a copy of the levy lifting paperwork. I called the bank. “Usually it takes 24 to 48 hours to process that, “said the nice bank guy on the phone. “Wait a minute, you said it was the state of California who levied your accounts?” he asked. “That’s right,” I said. “Let me check that we even have it in our system,” he said. “State of California does this all the time. They’re broke and don’t want to admit it. They don’t care how long they hang on to your money—even if it’s just a few days, every little bit helps.”  He paused for a minute, tapping away on his keyboard. “Call them back, “he said, “We don’t have any record of a fax from them. They do that a lot, too. Hey…didn’t they do this to you guys last year?”

Sooo…yeah. We called back, got the BOE to refax the document and call the bank to confirm it was received and an hour and a half later, the levy was automagically lifted. Sucked to be us for a week or so, but the reality is that, in an emergency, we weren’t alone. When we were first scrambling around, trying to figure out how to make things work until we could straighten everything out, Eli said to Steve, “We should talk to that guy with the restaurant, Enrique. The one who saw you give your shoes to that old man. Remember? He said if we ever needed anything to talk to him.” “Well…,” we said. You know, it was late and he was maybe a little drunk…I don’t know. Probably he didn’t mean it…” Eli gave us The Look. The one that says we really should be listening to him.

Last night, walking up to Kiosko, we passed Enrique. “Heyyy, amigo. How you doing? Where you been?” Steve told him the BOE saga and as it turns out, Enrique was a little pissed. “Why you don’t come talk to me? I told you—you have a problem with something, you talk to me.” And that is how it is here. Earlier in the year, one of the marina guards had an emergency. His wife, who was 7 months pregnant, nearly died from pregnancy complications. They lost the baby and his wife was hospitalized for a while. The whole town came together and had a fundraiser to help with medical bills. A month ago, Wayland, who owns the Jardin del Pulpo, was working on his roof, getting it in shape for the rainy season. He fell three stories and couldn’t feel anything from the neck down. Again, the whole community pulled together to help and Wayland’s $300 peso a plate benefit dinner was completely sold out. Amazing food and incredible music, yes…but even if there was no dinner, no entertainment, the town would still have poured out all the pesos they could spare. Even some pesos that couldn’t really be spared. It’s a small town, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and you could make the argument that they pull together in times of need because everyone knows everyone. If you’re not already family, you’re as good as family.

And yet…Steve went back to Bucerias yesterday, to get money from the ATM. Finished his transaction, said hi to the guy next in line and left. He crossed the street and got on the bus to go a little farther up into town. After he got off, this guy screeches up in a truck and starts yelling, “Amigo! Amigo! Su tarjeta! You card!” It was the guy he said hi to. Steve left his ATM card in the machine and this complete stranger jumped in his truck and chased the bus all over town, until he saw Steve get off, so he could give him the ATM card back. Just because.

This is, perhaps, the greatest danger Mexico poses. I know the media would have you believe Mexico is full of drug runners and tourists get shot and kidnapped if they come to visit. That it’s full of opportunistic crooks, just looking for an opportunity to rip you off. This is true of any major city in the US, and it’s true of some places in Mexico, but generally speaking—unless you’re involved somehow with drugs, you’re not likely to run into those kind of problems. Since we’ve been in Mexico, we’ve had our bank accounts emptied three times by people who were not us. Each time, it turned out to be the State of California. Twice for imaginary sales tax and once for back registration on a car we sold in 2011. The new owners never registered it and even though we dropped off a “sold the car” form at the SLO DMV, they somehow neglected to put in into their system. We eventually got that money back, as well. The biggest danger in Mexico isn’t any of the horror stories you see on the news…it is a danger of the heart. Of falling in love. With the food. The culture. And most of all, the people. We can go all the way around the world, I think, and my heart will still be here.


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