Growing Accustomed to Customs

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Dashing husband leaning casually against one of the thousands of shipping containers patiently waiting for their turn with Mexican Customs.

August 6, 2014, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX – If I magnanimously overlook the morning we spent at the Mexican Consulate in Denver, and quite frankly I’m not feeling very magnanimous right about now, today marked our sixth interaction with the Mexican government, and neither us nor our car is *yet* truly legally existing in this country.  We started the process of getting legal temporary residence status nearly two months ago, and today the saga continues.

Most of you will never stay for more than six months as a tourist in Mexico, so you don’t need to understand the process for getting a Temporary Residence visa.  But perhaps among you there is someone who knows someone who knows someone who is going to Mexico for a year or more, and needs to know this.  Or perhaps I just need to vent.

When you drive across the border to Tijuana for a day of hassling and watered-down tequila, or land at the Cancun airport and head down its sleek concourses past Bubba Gump’s Shrimp and Margaritaville, you are issued what’s called a FMM, or Forma Migratoria Multiple.  It’s most commonly called a tourist card, and lets you stay in the country for 180 days.  If you’ve traveled much outside the U.S. you know that’s pretty generous, and most other countries want your loud-mouthed, spandex-wearing American ass out of their country in thirty days or less.  You only need a passport and $25 to get an FMM.  Typically you don’t even realize you’re paying the $25, as it’s built into your airfare.  If you’re going to be staying longer than 180 days you can certainly still get the FMM, but you’ll have to leave the country at or before that 180 day deadline, which, if you drove into Mexico as we did, means driving back to the border (ten hours away), crossing back into the U.S., and coming back into Mexico the next day.  At this point you can get ANOTHER FMM, good for ANOTHER 180 days.

There’s another option for tourists, and that’s the Temporary Residence visa, which allows you to stay in Mexico for up to a year before you have to leave.  There’s more work to do to get this visa, other than just showing up at the border.  We did some research and while it’s possible to get the visa once you’re inside Mexico, we figured that if it could be done in the U.S. of A. where we had the best possible chance to speaking English with someone, it should be done there.  Checked the Mexican government’s website, boom, there’s a consulate office in Denver.  Decided to spend the morning of Wiley III’s birthday (June 9th) getting this done.

Mexico’s big concern with issuing you this visa seems to be reassuring them that you don’t mean to come into their country and either live off the government or take a job that a Mexican citizen might want.  You’ve got to prove that you have a source of income from outside Mexico that is sufficient to support your household.  They want things like notarized bank statements showing that you earn an income.  Never mind that there’s no proof that that income will continue once you get into Mexico, but apparently they’re not overly worried about that.  We made lots of copies of stuff, got stuff notarized and official-like, got some of those tiny passport pictures made, and headed to Denver.

The Mexican-American bureaucrat who helped us in Denver was very nice and extremely patient with us as we attempted to download an image of our son’s birth certificate, since we didn’t have a hard copy with us.  She finally took our large sheaf of papers into her office and we were left to slump in hard plastic chairs, staring at the cement block walls with our compadres, all of us leading lives of quiet desolation in the dreary, slightly humid and very decidedly “governmental” environment.  Finally she emerged, and we were instructed to go to the cashier and pay and come back with our receipt.  Now we were getting somewhere.

The cost was minimal; $36 per person, and I was pleasantly surprised at this.  In Blanca’s office (we were on a first-name basis at this point) we were photographed again, fingerprinted, and sent back out to wait SOME MORE.  Finally we got our passports back, each now containing a page with a shiny, official-looking Mexican visa bearing a hologram of authenticity, which we all know renders government-issued documents and NFL merchandise legitimate.  As Blanca handed the passports back to me, she looked deeply into my eyes.  At this point we were both clutching the passports, me tugging just a little bit and her holding on for dear life, as she was not quite done with us.  I suspected she was about to warn me about el chupababra, so serious was her demeanor, but clearly I had just watched too much “X-Files” in the 90’s.  What she did tell me was that once we arrived at our destination we needed to go IMMEDIATELY to the nearest immigration office and get something called a Resident’s Card.  Well THAT sounded easy, something akin to getting a library card or a King Sooper’s card, so I thanked her again and the three of us nearly ran out of the place before we could slip deeper into the group coma.

I have mentioned our minor troubles at the border in another post, so I won’t go into that again, except to say that when we were issued a permit for our car the clerk told me it was good for thirty days.  I kind of started to lose it at that point, as I had been stuck at the border for two hours by then, and I wasn’t walking out of there with permission for anything less than a year’s stay in Mexico.  Unfortunately, the clerk I was talking to had exhausted her English once she had said, “good for thirty days”, so she went and got her supervisor, who explained that once I got the Resident’s Card (Oh yeah!   my feeble middle-aged mind shouted, I remember something about that!) the vehicle permit would be extended.  I climbed down off of the ledge and signed the credit card receipt for the $300 required deposit, which the Mexican government will gladly refund upon either 1.) you and your car leaving Mexico in thirty days or 2.) you getting your vehicle permit extended once you get the aforementioned Resident’s Card.

In retrospect, I realize that AGAIN, the supervisor-English-speaking-woman at the border had made definitive eye-contact (AGAIN! with the eye contact) with me and said in her excellent English, “go to the immigration office as soon as possible” and get your Resident’s Card.  But in reality, it was more like two weeks before I got my bearings and got over to the immigration office, in search of the elusive Resident’s Card.

Once again, a very polite Mexican bureaucrat with very good English looked intently into my eyes, only this time he gave me a list of things to do before the Resident’s Card could be granted.  Go to a website, fill out a form.  Fill out the forms he handed me (one set for each of us).  Get more pictures made, two facing forward and one facing right.  Copies of passports and the previously issued visa page of said passport.  And oh yeah, go to any bank and pay around $250USD each, and bring the receipts back.  Put your left foot in, put your left foot out, put your left foot in, and shake it all about.  Check a certain website and when we get notified there, come back and be fingerprinted.  And then, perhaps, the Resident’s Card might be granted.

So now the clock is ticking.  We are waiting for the Resident’s Cards, because without these we cannot extend the life of the automobile importation sticker (or so we thought).  Every day, likely twice a day, I am checking the website to see if our cards are ready.  Finally, an email came notifying me to come to the immigration office to complete the process.  Once there, we were all fingerprinted (all ten fingers!) again and told to come back on Friday, August 8th, to pick up our cards.

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Waiting. Again. In Querretero at the Customs Office. I was reprimanded shortly after making this photo, for making this photo. Perhaps my lawless attitude is the main reason why I can’t obtain legal status in Mexico yet.

That’s ten days to make a freaking card. If you’re keeping score at home you realize that August 8th is well-past our thirty-day window we were given at the border for our car to be imported.  Now we lose our $300, AND we find out that the car importation permit cannot even be extended in the San Miguel office.  We have to drive 45 minutes to Querretero to get this done.  More copies.  More forms.  Luckily no more money, unless you count the THREE HUNDRED AMERICAN DOLLARS that the Mexican government happily pocketed on August 31st. In hindsight, I think Laredo would have been lovely at Christmastime.

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An Open Letter to Moctezuma, or Montezuma, or Whatever You’re Calling Yourself These Days

Dear Sir:

2014-08-01 13.43.14This letter is to notify you as to our intent to pursue legal action against you relating to three day’s loss of productivity, diminished quality of life, and generalized pain and suffering secondary to the your namesake disease, “Montezuma’s Revenge”.  It is our understanding that this disease, the symptoms of which include hideous abdominal cramps, nausea, loss of appetite, and diarrhea of proportions which can only be described as “biblical” , was to be targeted towards those of Spanish descent as a curse for the pestilence brought on to your people by Cortez and others of his ilk.

We at The Long’s Strange Trip strongly aver that we are NOT of Spanish descent.  Have you seen us dance?  We are, and we can prove this, descended from the Scots and the English, and we are unaware of anything those countries ever did to you, other than occupy your beaches whilst wearing Speedos and too much body hair.  While we appreciate your sparing of both our dogs and our child in the distribution of your scourge upon our household, we take umbrage with the feelings of dismay, the moaning in bed (not the good kind, mind you), and the general wanting of one’s mommy brought on by it.  Our readers have barely heard from us in days, due to the inability to be witty, entertaining, or informative while begging to be shot.

Being American, our first inclination is to sue you, and now that we are feeling better, sue you we shall.  Please be advised that our lawyers have been contacted, and you shall hear from them promptly.

Sincerely,

The Long’s Strange Trip

Pancho and Lefty Cross the Border

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.

Fear and Loathing in Central Texas

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX – Nah, no ether in the air-conditioning vents or LSD trips in Vegas casinos. I was just looking for a cool road-trip movie to title this post after.

We’ve been here almost 48 hours, and I’m finally starting to come down from the adrenaline-loaded high that has been the last month of my life. There is undeniably something about this place that forces you to go slower. Perhaps it’s only that you’re so frequently scaling a thirty degree incline at 6000 feet of elevation, but whatever.
We left Fort Collins on Saturday, driving hell-for-leather for eight to ten hour days through Colorado, the corner of New Mexico, and all the way across Texas to end up at the border in Laredo on Sunday evening. Our car, a 2003 Audi A4, was loaded to the gills. We worked hard to keep the inside of the car fairly clutter-free, but basically living inside your vehicle for that amount of time will cause some accumulation of detritus. Both rear floorboard spaces were occupied, which resulted in my son sleeping or reclining on the dogs’ bed for a good portion of the trip (they are small and more than willing to share space). He was also nursing an ear infection that he acquired on our trip to our family beach house in Orange Beach, Alabama the previous week. Wiley (my husband) had found a particularly ingenious spot for my brief case in a crevice between the passenger front seat and the side of the car. We sported a large rooftop box on top, the trunk was loaded to capacity, and three bicycles adorned the rear. We must have been a sight, hauling ass across the heat-scorched plains of central Texas.
We never really considered flying to Mexico, since we’d have all of our stuff with us plus the dogs. One day I’ll write a blog post about what we brought with us, once I’m sure Wiley won’t stop speaking to me when I publicize his vitamin addiction. We thought about buying a bigger car, but talking to a few folks we discovered that recent Audi and Volkswagen engines are virtually identical, and since there are a lot of Volkswagens on the roads in Mexico we figured that most mechanics would know what to do should be have trouble, so we decided to drive the Audi. We bought a Thule rooftop carrier, and I’m sure we went WAY over its recommended 160 pound load limit. Not going to pretend the car didn’t drive a little “heavy”, and yes, if you put it on a lift you’d be likely to see some battle scars on the power train (thank you, aggressively large Mexican speed bumps), but we made it in one piece. More about the car’s near-death experience while trying to maneuver it into its 150 year-old garage at a later time.
Our progress was fairly rapid, but you’re not going to cover sixteen-hundred miles and change in a short period of time. The worst slowdown occurred just north of Colorado Springs, where we encountered traffic that could only be attributed to the annual Renaissance Festival taking place. Our goal for the first day was Amarillo, Texas. When we were about two hours out of Amarillo, Wiley started calling hotels. Sold out. No rooms. Again and again. And again. Turns out there was a big rodeo in town, and there were no hotel rooms in a city of 200,000 people. Luckily the Comfort Inn in the town of Dumas, Texas, about 45 minutes east of Amarillo welcomed us with open arms (although they sold out sometime later that evening; must have been quite a rodeo). We celebrated by drinking a bottle of excellent French wine that Wiley had expertly wedged somewhere in the car when packing out of plastic hotel glasses.
We were on the road just after sunrise the next morning, after a particularly forgettable free breakfast. It’s funny: looking at Google Maps the route from Fort Collins to Laredo looks very direct. But in reality, we spent the day wandering Blair Witch Project-style through south central Texas, turning off of one nowhere four-lane onto another. After ten hours of mind-numbing windmills, oil fields, and dead armadillos, we could have kissed the ground when we arrived in Laredo, were it not a lip-blistering 105 degrees at 8 PM.
More to come later in the week. Lots to tell, still, of the border crossing and the trip through Mexico to San Miguel and moving into our house. And I promise I am reading a book on WordPress and will soon have this place looking a lot more interesting.