We crossed the border. Not without complications, but we crossed. Tino and I met up Tuesday morning in downtown Laredo. “I’m wearing a super-green shirt,” I texted him. In fact a fluorescent green so bright it almost hurts your eyes to look at it. I figured there was no way he could miss me in that shirt. Besides, green flatters me. I drove to his bank where we agreed to meet, parked the truck, and took a stroll around. Sure enough, he spied me through the window of the bank, and fifteen minutes later we met face-to-face.
Meeting Tino felt like meeting up with an old friend. I’ve been reading his blog for a good half-year now, and he has read mine, and we’ve both left comments on each other’s blog. I’ve also read his comments around the blogosphere. We’ve also exchanged a number of emails and chatted via Skype. Somehow we just clicked, and even before we had met in person, we had shared experiences, told tales of old lovers, and wins and losses in the battle of life. But meeting him in person was just that much better. We hit it off right away.
It was during a Skype chat about three weeks ago that Tino had suggested that we meet in Laredo. He had some business to handle stateside, and didn’t really relish driving the highway alone. Nor was he overly wild about taking the bus both ways. For me, I was beyond thrilled that someone would cross the border with me and traverse what I regarded as the most iffy stretch of highway, that between Laredo and Monterrey. Tino also wanted to run some errands, and take advantage of my truck. So we went shopping, where Tino bought a pair of sunglasses, and I bought a pair of jeans. Then off to Wal*Mart, where Tino bought a bike, and I stocked up on some essentials like sunscreen and toothpaste. Despite the mundane nature of our shopping we had fun, telling stories and jokes the whole way.
Then we had lunch, and decided to make a run for the border. Call me a paranoid gringo, but I was very reluctant to cross the border from downtown Laredo into downtown Nuevo Laredo. “We have to go to the World Trade Bridge,” I insisted to Tino, who was agreeable to my plan. After a couple of wrong turns, missed freeway exits, and backtracking, we arrived at the World Trade Bridge, and soon found ourselves trapped, immobile amongst several dozen 18-wheelers. There was no going forward and there was no turning back. We began to suspect that we were somewhere we shouldn’t be. I started to get very nervous. “What if we somehow got into the wrong lane, go the the wrong place, and then get arrested?” I wondered. I turned off the motor.
“Do you mind if I just step out and look around and see what’s up?” Tino asked.
“No. Please do,” I said. “Just keep in mind that if the traffic starts to move, I’m going to have to move too. I don’t want to lose you.”
Tino disappeared into the thicket of trucks, leaving me to worry alone. Shortly thereafter, the traffic began to move and I started to panic. I rolled down the window and shouted, “Tino!!!!!” Fortunately he was on his way back, and the traffic stopped once more.
“We’re in a commercial-only crossing. We’re going to have to go back,” he reported as he got back into the truck.
Sure enough, we passed a point where the lanes opened up, and an official appeared, beckoned us to a gate that would allow us to make a U-Turn, and then we were free. But still in the USA, too. My initial attempt to cross the border had been quickly foiled.
“I guess we have no choice but to cross in downtown Laredo into Nuevo Laredo,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” he replied.
So we headed back to where we had come from, drove south on highway 35, and soon enough came to the Mexico border crossing. As it turns out, leaving the USA isn’t that easy. You have to pass through US Border Patrol first. We pulled up to the officer, stopped and rolled down the window.
“Could you please move your truck over there?” The officer pointed to the side of the road. I moved the truck, wondering what he wanted. “Please take all your valuables with you, then unload your truck and put everything over there,” he said, beckoning toward a table a good 25 feet away. “What’s going on?” I wondered.
More questions. “What’s the purpose of your trip? How do you two know each other? Are you carrying any arms or ammunition?” We answered with the truth, one crazy gringo doing a road trip in Mexico, accompanied by his blogger friend for the first bit. Unarmed, of course, save for our rapier wits. We hauled everything out of the truck, save for the bicycle, and a couple of foam pads, which the agent agreed could be searched in situ.
Then the agent began what has since become the single most thorough search I have ever undergone at a border crossing. He opened the hood of the truck, and searched the engine compartment diligently. He used a mirror to look under all sides of the truck. He tapped various panels with his fingers. Then he looked through the entire cab, checking the obvious places like the glove box, and the not-so-obvious places like behind the seat and under the floor mats. Then he started to go through our things. I had a telephoto lens wrapped in a thick sock, and he tried to go through the toe part until I suggested he look at the other end. Then he went through my suitcase very carefully. Finally, he wanted to go through my backpack, which I showed him in order of all fifteen pockets. Then he told us to sit down again, and double-checked the back of the truck. Finally about 45 minutes later, he said we were free to go.
Thoroughly unnerved, we re-packed the truck in order to drive the 100 feet into Mexico. As we slowly crossed the bridge, I wondered if this was going to replay once again on the other side of the border. But in Mexico, they employ the same system at land borders as they do at the airport. You pull your vehicle up to a sensor like those used by traffic lights. Then a random number generator decides whether you get a green light (free to pass) or a red light (must be physically inspected). We got a green light. “Whew!” I thought. So we drove forward into what appeared to be our lane. When we got there and told the agent that we had received a green light, he said that we should have driven on through the right-hand lane. Now that we were in his lane, he’d have to inspect us, as everything was being videoed, and he’d get in trouble if he didn’t inspect us. “Oh God!” I thought. But this guy was cool. He took a quick look at my backpack, and did a very cursory inspection of the camper, and then let us go. “Bienvenidos a México!”
After that we had to get the car importation permit, and my personal visa. After a couple of wrong turns, we found the combined customs and Banjercito office where we could take care of everything. There were only about three other people there, and everything went incredibly smoothly. Though I had made triplicate copies of my car registration, title, and insurance papers, I had neglected to make a copy of my passport. But the woman at the window made a copy, charged me 7 pesos, and sent me on to the next window. In total, this whole process of getting my visa and the car importation permit took about a half hour, and all the Mexican officials were incredibly nice. And they didn’t even want to see my insurance papers. Through the whole process, Tino provided plenty of moral support. Though my Spanish is well up to handling all this bureaucracy, it was nice to have him there.
After that, we bought some gas (even though I still had 3/4 of a tank) and then hit the road. The drive was completely uneventful, and Tino and I had a great time chatting during the trip. Once in Monterrey, we met up with Tino’s partner, and went for an authentic Monterrey meal. I had Cabrito al Pastor, (goat) which was incredibly tasty. And then, the big, wonderful surprise.
“Why don’t you stay with us?” Tino asked. I was astonished and taken aback by this generosity.
“Are you sure? It was a major favor for you to cross the border with me. I really don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“No, it’s no inconvenience,” he said. “I’ve taken tomorrow off so I can show you around.”
“You’re sure? I really really don’t want you to be inconvenienced at all.”
“Yes, I’m sure. We’d love to have you,” he replied.
And so I spent the night at Tino’s house, in his guest room, feeling like about the luckiest person in the world. The Mexican portion of my trip was off to a wonderfully good start.
* Lyrics courtesy of Madonna.
Please note that this post is about two days behind actual events.