I had a dream. It was a grandiose dream featuring a pristine line of little tollbooths spanning a highway 25 lanes wide. Hundreds of cars were waiting patiently, equally distributed among the 25 lanes. There was traffic, but it moved steadily. As each car approached the little tollbooth, it pushed a button and the stop light flashed red or green. The cars lucky enough to hit the green light passed right on through, and those not so fortunate passed through and were taken to a special building. These cars were searched briefly and efficiently, and in most cases, allowed to continue into Mexico with no hassle. This was the Mexican/U.S. border I imagined.
It came as a huge surprise to me, then, when I actually reached the Mexican/U.S. border in my own car. Perhaps the border in Arizona or California has a 25 lane border checkpoint, but I had forgotten about one very important factor in crossing into Mexico from Texas: the Rio Grande. It is not so grand or so big as one might expect, but it sure presents a hell of a problem, because to cross the border there means crossing a bridge. To this day I have yet to see a 25 lane bridge anywhere, let alone in Mexico. Alas, my dream of grandeur and efficiency shattered into pieces of dread and disappointment. Of course, this is no dig against Mexico. Crossing the other way into the United States presents the even more horrific problems of pure desperation, mind-numbing boredom, and suffocating claustrophobia.
I was lucky enough to have the emotional support and experience of Carlos’s family to help me during my first border experience. They met me in McAllen, Texas, to accompany me on my first border crossing adventure. Thank God they were with me every step of the way!
Actually, crossing into Mexico was surprisingly easy. The traffic was minimal. We paid our $1.50 to the American tollbooth and crossed the bridge. We got a green light on the Mexican side and were waved through. I was bringing my Massachusetts car into Mexico and past the border zone, so our first stop after the bridge was to get the vehicle permit, or ” importación temporal del vehículo.” (If you plan on leaving this border zone at any moment, you must get this permit.) Of course, we didn’t know where we could get the permit, so we had to ask at the border. It became clear where the office was just seconds later when we saw the 5×5 inch, black and white, hand-painted sign ” Importación Temporal del Vehículo .” How could we have missed it?
I had been organizing my papers and documents for at least two months before I reached the border, but I was still nervous about the whole process of bringing my car into Mexico. I had done my research, so I rounded up my driver’s license, passport, major credit card, and vehicle registration. I had a slight snaffoo because the car is still not technically mine. I needed to have the car title with me, but since I am still paying the loan, I had to get a signed letter from the bank stating I had their permission to take the car out of the country. I made photocopies of all the originals, and I was ready to go! (See Driving across the border for more information on the process of obtaining the vehicle permit.)
As we were waiting in line, I saw the Mexican officials battling it out with a poor gringo from San Antonio who had forgotten one of his original documents. They were not about to let him in with his car without that original document. They did not want a copy. I should note here that many border officials on the Mexican side do not speak any English, or at least they pretend they don’t. This poor American had only minimal Spanish skills. After two futile hours of trying to reason with the official, he got in his car and turned back to San Antonio. Who knows if he ever made it through with his car…
I had no problem getting my car into Mexico, but we sure waited a long time. From start to finish the entire process took about 2.5 hours, mainly due to long lines. It’s a relatively painless process if you have done your homework and stay calm throughout, but the whole experience is enough to make anyone cranky. Still, one of the most important pieces of advice that I can offer regarding border crossings is to always maintain your cool. Be polite, patient and compliant, as the more you argue, the less you will succeed. I think the Mexican ego plays a role here. These officials like to feel like they are in control and that they have power. Insolent gringos who challenge their authority are also a threat to their ego. So you may not like what they are telling you, but be polite and patient. Do not challenge them directly. In the worst-case scenario, try entering at another point. You may be luckier in another town.
After the sticker was on my car and all the paperwork done, we were ready to head into the jungle…Suddenly there were screeches and rumbles and roars everywhere! Driving in Mexico was an immediate change from driving just one mile away on the American side of the border. There were cars everywhere–coming from everywhere, heading everywhere. I couldn’t keep track of them all! I didn’t know where I was going, and as I struggled to keep behind my boyfriend’s family’s car, I noticed there were no lines painted on the road. It was survival of the biggest, most daring, most masculine vehicle, and in my Pontiac Grand Prix I wasn’t so sure I would survive. I literally feared for my life (and my poor car). I had driven alone from Massachusetts, down the eastern seaboard past five major cities, clear across Virginia, and through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, but nothing had prepared me for driving in Mexico.
My next major border experience was excruciatingly frustrating. I wanted to bring Carlos home to Boston with me for Christmas. I found a super cheap flight leaving from San Antonio. The flight left at 7 AM on a Sunday. We decided to leave Monterrey at 8 AM on Saturday. I had crossed the border with Carlos and his family before to go shopping, but we had never left the border zone. These trips were usually uneventful except for heavy traffic while trying to get into the US. This time was an entirely different story….
The drive from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was easy. In two hours we were at the border trying to decide whether to cross International Bridge I, II, or III. By accident, I found myself in the lane for Bridge I, and I decided one bridge was as good as any other. I could not have been any more wrong! Traffic was backed up for MILES. At first I was optimistic because I had never crossed the border without waiting in at least some traffic. But after the first hour, we had moved a grand total of about a half a mile, and my spirits began to fall. Carlos and I tried to entertain ourselves, first by talking, then by listening to the radio, putting in a tape, buying potato chips and Coke…but it became exasperating very quickly. We literally moved three car lengths and then stopped and turned the car off for a half an hour before we moved three car lengths again. We could not have left the traffic or turned back even if we had wanted to, as we were tightly trapped in a virtual ocean of cars. The original four lanes of traffic had to merge into one single lane. There was a police officer there “helping” so that each of the four lines would take turns merging. That officer was nice enough to tell us that the Bridge III had no traffic whatsoever. The news made us feel much better…Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I desperately had to go to the bathroom. I wandered along the road until I saw what I was hoping for: a ramshackle “house” with a sign out front, “Clean bathrooms, $5 pesos.” If that bathroom was clean, I’d rather pee my pants than see what a dirty bathroom looks and smells like. Five hours later, we got a glimpse of Bridge I. There IS a God.
As we inched across the bridge, I noticed something very curious. The very pavement changed at the halfway mark. It was no longer a slippery, low-grade asphalt that caused the tires to squeal with any turn of the wheel. It was quality, quiet pavement! Off in the distance we could see the American customs office, INS, etc. The building seemed so clean and well kept!
As we got closer, we noticed the American police officers with their dogs. They were walking up and down the rows of cars, letting those dogs sniff everything in sight. They stopped at nearly ever other car and made the driver get out, open the trunk, open a suitcase or two, and then get back in the car having found nothing. Carlos and I chuckled. How embarrassing, I thought, to have them make you get out and search your car in front of everyone there on the bridge! Finally, the dogs approached our car. Nothing. The officers examined the car behind us for five minutes. Nothing. Then they came back in our direction.
Nothing. Then they went back behind us. Nothing. Then they came back towards us. This time the dog decided he liked my car. How embarrassing. Carlos and I got out and answered questions about ourselves and our business in the United States. Then we opened the trunk and the car doors. Of course there was nothing illegal in the car, and they eventually left us alone. Those spoiled American dogs were pesky and extremely capricious. Suddenly the mangy stray dogs aimlessly roaming the Mexican side seemed much more appealing.
When we got to the little tollbooth, the cameras took a picture of my license plate, and the official asked us more of the same questions.
“Where are you going?”
“Ok, you’re boyfriend here will have to get special permission to enter the country.”
“WHAT? What KIND of permission?” Could I offer this man a bribe, I thought? No…he’s American.
It never occurred to me Carlos might have a problem entering. He is Mexican, but he has an American visa. Well, it simply hadn’t dawned on me that this time was different – this time we were leaving the border zone and continuing to San Antonio. His visa was good for the border zone, but to venture beyond, he had to go grovel for an I-94 card.
We parked our car in front of the INS building and went inside. Luckily there was not a long line. At first we were calm despite the unexpected inconvenience, but then the official told Carlos that without proof of sufficient income to maintain himself for the duration of his stay, he could not enter. If he did not have a bank statement or a letter from his employer stating his salary, he would be sleeping with the mangy stray dogs. By now it was about 6PM. We would have to call his parents. But how were they going to get a bank statement on a Saturday at that hour? And how and where would they fax it to us? It was as good as impossible. Finally, in a desperate last attempt at saving my first Christmas at home in 3 years, I asked why people flying into the US do not need a bank statement or proof of income. He explained that when you fly in, they know you have your return ticket already purchased. In other words, they have “proof” that you are leaving on a certain date. I nearly screamed with excitement…I had our plane tickets. Would that be enough to get Carlos in? All I heard was “Yes, that will do…” and I thought I would faint with relief.
The only problem then was finding $6 exactly to pay the fee for the I-94. We had to run across the street, change money, and run back to pay. Finally we had the I-94! We went back outside, found an official, and handed him the proof he needed to let us out. He followed us back to the car, and once again we had to open the trunk, all the doors, and both suitcases. The dogs came back over…and then we were shooed on out to make room for the next poor, unsuspecting, ignorant traveller hoping to enter the United States. I had never felt so unwanted in my own country. Poor Carlos had never wanted to go back to his own country so much. But, it was just plain silly of us to feel that way because that very sincere sign at the border boasts, “Welcome to the United States of America.”