When we last talked we were two-thirds of the way through an epic three-day, sixteen-hundred mile journey by car from Colorado to San Miguel de Allende, our new home in Mexico. We had arrived at the border town of Laredo, Texas, and checked into a La Quinta for the night. We had tentatively picked out a few restaurants on TripAdvisor on the way into town that sounded good, and serendipitously two of them were located across the parking lot from our hotel.
Over an excellent dinner we discussed our plans for the next day. We knew it would take ten hours, approximately, to get from the border crossing to San Miguel. We felt pretty certain that for the most part, the roads were good quality. There are toll roads and there are regular roads, and the advice we got suggested we stick to the toll roads, because they tend to be four lanes and well-maintained. We planned as little stopping as possible, but knew we’d have to walk the dogs and get food and gas. The big unknown was what the border crossing itself would be like, and how long it would take.
You’d have to be living in a closet under the stairs a-la Harry Potter with no access to news to not have heard about what a mess the American-Mexican border is. An off-duty American Marine apparently recently accidentally crossed into Mexico with guns in his car, and is being detained by the Mexican authorities for this, since there is no second amendment in Mexico. American border police shot several Mexicans who were throwing rocks at them near the border. You hear routinely of drug cartel violence as well. The cop in the lobby of the hotel who engaged me in conversation acted like we were attempting to cross the Gaza Strip when I told him our plans, and wanted to show me some videos he had on his phone of what the border was like.
We set out for the border, which is pretty hard to miss, as the interstate basically only goes there, and once you get in the border zone, it’s all concrete barricades like the world’s biggest bank drive-thru, and you are forced to stay in your lane as you go over the bridge into Mexico. I’m still not sure how that Marine “accidentally” ended up in Mexico, since there are VERY LARGE SIGNS everywhere that you are LEAVING AMERICA and GOING INTO MEXICO.
Before we crossed over the Rio Grande we saw a couple of large flashes go off, I’m assuming taking pictures of us as well as the license plates on the car. Then we were traveling over the bridge and into Mexico. No one stopped us, although one man in street clothes shouted something to us in Spanish and motioned to us how to get out to the highway (or so we thought at the time). We saw a couple of very old women begging for money, but no drug lords, no Palestinians, and no undead, hungering for our brains. We were on the highway out of Nuevo Laredo and headed south into Mexico, and no one had even looked at our passports.
In hindsight, where everything is crystal clear, it was a rookie mistake. I’ve crossed many, many borders during my travels, and somebody usually at least wants you to fill out a form and stamp your passport. We rolled on down the highway, talking about how easy that was, as no one even looked twice at us, much less inspected our beautifully –completed canine health certificates, or admired our dogs’ sparkling teeth and recent professional grooming. But we drove for twenty miles or so, thinking that this Mexican border-crossing thing was way easier than we had been led to believe.
Then, the highway ended, along with our illusions. We came upon a large building that spanned all lanes of the highway, and were motioned over to the side by a man who asked for our passports. OK, we thought, here we go, this is where we get checked out. Where were our tourist cards? Our vehicle certificate?, he asked in English. Flustered, Wiley turned to me and said, “He wants our tourist cards!”, to which I crossly replied that I had heard him, and that we had no tourist cards. The man stepped aside and motioned for us to turn around, and said we would have to go back to Nuevo Laredo and get those as well as a vehicle certificate if we wanted to continue on into Mexico.So around we turned, and started back north, bewildered as to how we had made it that far and had somehow missed what surely must have been a pretty obvious step in the process.
Do you remember the recent story that was all over the internet about the actor Bill Murray crashing some guy’s bachelor party and dispensing advice on marriage? The basic gist of it was this: if you meet a girl you like, and you think you might want to spend the rest of your life with her, get on a plane and take her on a trip around the world. If, after traveling together to that extent, you still think you are in love with her, marry her when you land at JFK Airport.
I don’t know Bill Murray’s personal marital history, but he’s spot on with this guidance. If you can make it on the road together, you can make it. There are things we are still figuring out about marriage, even after twenty-five years, but this we know. We could have started arguing, and blamed each other for the mistake. And while I’m not going to lie and tell you that things weren’t a little intense, we re-grouped and made our way back into Nuevo Laredo in search of tourist cards and vehicle certificates. As we were sitting at a traffic light in the middle of town I looked at Wiley and said, “You know, this is EXACTLY what we wanted to avoid. We are in what has been purported to be one of the most dangerous places in Mexico, with not a clue as to where we are, or where we are supposed to be,”. We laughed uneasily at the irony, and pulled into a hotel to see if someone spoke English and could tell us where to go.
Folks, if Kevlar®, armored vehicles, and Federales with automatic weapons increase your comfort level, Nuevo Laredo is your town. The place is crawling with Mexican border patrol cops, each of them armed to the teeth and doing his best to look vigilant. Exactly how effective they are at what they do is up for debate, but they look the part. The hotel staff was able to draw us a map to the customs office, and although it wasn’t the right place, a very nice gentleman there who did not speak English actually got in his car and led us to the right place. The kindness of strangers.
Two hours of wading through the bureaucratic quagmire of immigration and customs, and we were back on the road, fully certificated. The trip south to San Miguel was by comparison uneventful. Once we stopped to fill up with gas (in Mexico all stations are full service, meaning an attendant fills up your car for you) and realized that the more rural stations were not equipped to take credit cards, but miraculously Wiley produced a 500 peso note (about $40 currently) from the recesses of his wallet, and later we were able to stop in a town and get money from an ATM. We rolled into San Miguel just before dark.