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Dateline: Where the lubber meets the road

How cursed can any single trip be? I don’t know for sure, but I think I’ve tested my limits. As you know, I recently went to Nuevo Laredo (across the river from Laredo) to renew my car’s temporary import permit. (¡Viva la burocracia!) And what happened along the way? Oh, just every possible thing went wrong.

First step: get pulled over by a cop and get taken for a mordida. As I detailed in my last post, it could have been worse, and I escaped lightly. Of course that was only due to the fact that I was already running low on cash.

Next up? Since I had left around 1:00 PM on Sunday, there was no way I was going to make it to the border without killing myself. And if I killed myself, well, who would be writing these blog posts? Certainly not my next-of-kin. They can’t even be bothered to read these posts. Nope. They’d not keep you updated.

So I made it as far as Matehuala, whose main claim to fame is as a gateway to Real de Catorce. It’s hard to say which is worse, because they’re both horrible in their own ways. Matehuala is just dusty, ugly, and full of kids on motorcycles terrorizing motorists. Real de Catorce? It’s a ghost town where the ghosts are wildly outnumbered by tourists, probably a good thousand-to-one. I’d not recommend either. But at least you don’t have to drive 25 KM over empedrado and then traverse a multi-mile tunnel to get to Matehuala. But I managed to spend a peaceful night in a comfortable, if overpriced hotel. So we won’t file this in the disaster column.

The next day, I set out for Nuevo Laredo to renew my car’s import permit. This is a process so arcane, so special, so unique that it cannot be done in the nation’s capital, the place where such requirements are actually imposed. Nope. It must be done in a dusty border town far from the centers of power. This strikes me as VERY weird. Especially considering the following. Mexico City restricts driving to cut down on smog. My own car is very clean (smog-wise), but because it’s so old (1999 and in perfect condition) and foreign-plated, I’m not allowed to drive it either on Saturdays (foreign plates), nor on Mondays (my day to “no circula”). So how do I renew my import permit in an environmentally friendly way?

By burning four friggin’ tankfulls of gasoline driving to the border, of course!

Anyway, aside from encountering the stupidest Pemex attendant extant while filling my tank in Matehuala the next morning, things went sort of OK in the early going. At least I wasn’t held up by any more cops from Matehuala to Nuevo Laredo. But I was still nervous. And sure enough, while completely stopped, waiting at a particularly busy tollbooth near Monterrey, more bad luck struck. I heard a snap, and suddenly a 16 inch crack appeared in my windshield. No rock had hit my windshield, and I wasn’t even moving!!! Now this would be bad enough under any circumstances. But I had replaced that very same windshield almost exactly a year ago, when I was setting out on the trip which ended up moving me to Mexico City.  

I don’t know about you, but I normally expect to get more than a year’s life out of a windshield. Especially when (aside from driving to Mexico City from Boston and back a couple of times) I BARELY drive. Clearly the Gods were against me, and I was becoming spooked. Not only had I been held up by a cop, and had my windshield spontaneously develop a large crack, but my friend, Tino, who lives in Monterrey sent me an ominous message shortly after I departed. “I insist you go across the border at Reynosa. It’s up to you what you do, but that’s what I think. I’m sorry, but I’m busy this weekend and can’t answer any more messages.” Now Tino is not the type of guy to be unnecessarily dramatic, so this kind of spooked me. Especially since I had zero desire to go anywhere near Reynosa, which has its own set of horror stories.

So when I finally arrived in Nuevo Laredo, I have to admit, I was a bit rattled.

The process of renewing the car’s temporary import permit was, perhaps, the easiest part of the entire, ill-fated journey. I had to cancel the old permit, which meant lining up in my car to have it photographed, and various forms signed and stamped. Then I went back inside and in about 20 minutes got the new import permit. And fortunately, they didn’t seem to notice or care about the crack in the windshield. We’ll count this part of the trip as a small win. (Though I’ll have to rerun this rigmarole once again in 11 months, when my visa expires.)

Then the fun really started.

Google Maps is my new, worst enemy. On my way into Mexico City, in early May, Google Maps kept trying to send me onto toll roads that required a transponder. Since I don’t have one, I spent quite a bit of time, lost, in Tlalnepantla. Let’s just say that Tlalnepantla is not a place you really want to be lost. It doesn’t look overly safe, and the traffic is atrocious. This time, in Nuevo Laredo, Google Maps thought it’d be funny to send me over the bridge to the USA that requires a “Sentri” pass. Of course I didn’t know this until the last minute when I had to make an awkward U-Turn in the middle of Downtown Nuevo Laredo. So I headed east to the next bridge. Then the fun started. Or perhaps “stopped” would be a more apt way to put it.

The last mile or so of my trip from Nuevo Laredo, across a nearly-dead river, about a mile, took over two hours and a quarter-tank of gasoline. Thank God I wasn’t running close to empty. I spent so much time idling in traffic, foot on the brake pedal, that the left brake light bulb exploded. But not before it melted the housing it sits in. When I finally got across the bridge to the US side, I somehow managed to pick the slowest lane to go through customs. When I reached the agent, I found out why. This man seemed to be working on a personal challenge to send the most people possible to secondary inspection. Alas, I was not exempted, and ended up in secondary inspection myself. As to why, who knows? I was in a car that was nearly empty. My four days’ worth of clothing and personal care items occupied my backpack, and a tasteful Trader Joe’s bag. The trunk was nearly empty. Since I had spent so much time in Mexico, I frankly didn’t have a clear recollection of whether I had any Mexican medicine with me or not. Was there a tube of psoriasis medicine in my bag? I was unsure, and answered as such.

Well, that’s the wrong answer. So off to secondary inspection with you! The U.S. government will tolerate many things, but vagueness at the border about ointments is not one of them. Next to me at secondary inspection was a 70-something American woman with her daughter. Now I’m no expert on international terrorism, drug-running, or anything else interesting (to be honest), but these folks seemed unlikely to be any more trouble than I would be. Apparently the mother had brought a supply of American-purchased medicine with her into Mexico, and then brought the remainder back to the USA. When asked if she had any Mexican medicine, she said no. But since they found the medicine, they didn’t like her answer. So there we were, sitting idly while customs agents pawed through our possessions.

After about a half-hour of bureaucratic bullshit, I was finally allowed to return to my home country. Laredo was a breath of fresh, if very hot, air. I had a sirloin steak with mashed potatoes and sautéed squash for dinner. I got my windshield fixed for only $175, at a shop favored by the U.S. Border Patrol. (Yes, there were three of their cars there when I arrived.) I didn’t ask if their windshields had been shot out by multinational criminal gangs. I managed to buy most of my electrical goods. (Four circuit breaker panels, over a hundred power outlets, dozens of switches, dimmers, switch plates, etc. And a microwave and shop vac.)

And the return trip wasn’t bad either. I managed to make it from Laredo to Roma Sur in about 13 hours on Thursday. And I’m still alive to tell the tale. But the first half of this trip was truly arduous, and now you know how disastrous a simple trip to the border can become. If you ever have to do this yourself, just don’t say I sent you.