Running the Border

Why are we in a hurry at the end?   No matter how much we enjoy an experience Tim and I almost always want to be gone before the appointed hour.   This problem requires some cogitating and the explanation probably isn’t pretty.  But of course I’m in too big a hurry right now to worry about it.  So I’ll just forge ahead and tell you the next story.

Fun Dining in Austin

We adored Austin.  Aside from eating delicious meals and sightseeing we took care of business – hair cuts, nails and last-minute purchases. We dropped the red bomb at a Chevy place because an odd noise was making us nervous.  We were told it could be fixed  in a couple of days. Perfect. They also discovered damage underneath the car caused by what we’ve dubbed the Navajo Nation’s Retribution Road.  It’s the only road that takes you close to the monoliths  in Monument Valley, so of course we drove it.  The potholes and sharp stones punished our personal bottoms and wounded the car, too. as well.  How can grown-ups make such dumb decisions?  Shoulda coulda woulda.  The Chevy guys corrected that, too.  We played while they fixed.

The back-beat of all this activity, even when we were having fun, was THE CROSSING.  (Drum roll and dark sounds, please).  Yes, THE CROSSING of the Mexican border and the subsequent DRIVING THROUGH MEXICO (thunder claps now – maybe even a pistol shot).  Tim and I didn’t speak of it much because that’s our style.  We’ve made, both individually and together, many journeys when conditions were less than perfect.

Time before last as we left for Mexico the swine flu was all the rage.  We consulted our Mexican physician, took lots of hand sanitizer and gin and forged ahead.  We were among a very small gringo population in San Miguel that time, but neither of us got so much as a hangnail.

I arrived in Greece once when people with uzis were milling about the airport, I lived for a couple of years in the Irish Republic when the IRA was very busy,  and Tim and I flew separately from New York five or six days after 9/11.  It’s not that we’re daredevils, but we believe that you weigh the odds and then get on with it if it makes sense.  Otherwise no one would do anything!

We did our homework carefully before deciding to drive from Laredo, Texas, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which is about a nine-to-ten hour journey.  We wanted to have our car in Mexico because it’s more convenient.

Tim picked up the car at the dealership, dashed back to fetch me, and packed our 10,000 pounds of gear into it. We were off to Mexico.  Well, off to Laredo, Texas to spend the night preparing ourselves for THE CROSSING.

Within 20 minutes we heard the sound.  It was a little like a sewing machine – ticka ticka ticka.  Not loud, not even audible when the IPOD was playing, but  it was THERE.  It got a little louder.  We decided to take a break and think about what to do, so we stopped for a sandwich at a Subway in a gas station.  Over Tim’s shoulder I could see the scariest guy I have ever been in a room with.  He had tattoos everywhere; he was scowling, threatening and speaking rough to the hard looking woman and cowering little boy who accompanied him.  He had two teardrops tattooed below one eye.  Tim told me later that the tears meant he’d “offed” two guys in prison.  Yikes.

We were, of course, having a lively but hushed discussion about ticka ticka ticka.  What to do?  Assume the best and head across the border in the morning and risk perishing in a fiery crash because of a broken sparkalator gribbnkopf or perhaps  being kidnapped and dismembered by the guys who found us stranded on the road (go with me here – these moments call for drama, okay?).  Or should we do the mature thing and find a dealership in Laredo which could cost us a day or two while the car guys diagnosed  the trouble, ordered the part from far away, and then installed it?  Meanwhile, tattoo was just about to slap the blond, but stormed away in a lathered snit instead.  I was grateful.

We decided to phone the Chevrolet Dealership in Laredo. I expected to make an appointment for the next day at the earliest.  This would have wrecked our plans to arrive on time at our friend Sally’s house where 25 animals really wanted our company – and their dinner the next day.  Driving after dark was not an option.

When I explained our situation, Diana, the Service Administrator, instructed us to drive directly to the dealership.   An hour later we were whisked past the row of repair salesmen. Juan, the service manager,  tested our car personally.  He drove it, “hmmmmed” and slapped it on a lift. We fidgeted in the service department waiting room like anxious old-time movie fathers pacing the hospital halls.  Juan returned with the happy news that ticka ticka ticka was being caused by a small tear in a rubber gasket which could cause no damage but would probably get louder as it tore more.  It seems that the Austin guys didn’t quite finish repairing the injuries the Indians’ road had inflicted.  Juan assured us the car was so safe he’d put his mother in it. That was good enough for me!  What’s a little noise when so many critters are depending on you?

Scary Laredo

Then the fun began.   Laredo, Texas, is a scary town.  Clearly there is not enough money to go around so some people look as if they are seriously considering sharing yours.  Cars are old and beat up and the stores and restaurants do not invite an extended visit.  Diana’s remark about hearing gun fire every night from the border did not help our unease.  We found our name-brand mid-priced abode and dragged every single thing out of the car into our tiny room because we were worried about the aforementioned financially embarrassed people helping themselves to our belongings.   Again Expedia had done us the favor of procuring the smallest room in the place, so it was a tight fit.  Are you paying attention to these lessons about Expedia?

We had three errands:  buy snacks and ready-made sandwiches from the very downscale market nearby, gas up the car, and eat dinner, which was surprisingly good at an Applebees we found nearby. We were locked in tight before dark.

We had been chatty and a little too gay that evening.  Our conversation was mindless and fragmented and both of us were cross and jumpy.  The elephant in the room was trumpeting the fact that we had never been able to get anyone to describe in detail how to cross the border, get ourselves onto the toll road, and then beat it for San Miguel de Allende. They’d given us a general idea but no clear directions.  You know the kind:  “When you pass the big blue water tower you know the turn onto the toll road is coming up.” That sort of thing.  The fact that no one in the hotel was even able  to tell us precisely how to get to the Columbia Bridge or  what time it opened in the morning made us crazy.

The bridge wasn’t far, but the roads to it were new, so the maps did not agree.  The pricey dame on the Navigon app we bought for the IPhones didn’t want to talk to us unless we were in the car, moving.  Even then she had failed on a couple of occasions to get us to the right destination.

This anxious duo was hunched over three maps, two computers and two IPhones at 10PM the night before we were ready to make a move we had known about for months.  This is not our typical M O.  We are usually over-prepared for every undertaking, but I  believe that we had both been so nervous about the whole thing that we just didn’t want to face it.  There was quite a bit of snarling going on in that crowded little motel room.

Oh yes, in the meantime – back to Expedia – we discovered that the shower did not work properly.  No water emitted from the spigot and it was much too late to request repair or changing rooms.  Great.  Just great.  Splash baths were not what we had in mind.  It made us even more pleasant.

We finally chose a route and swore to stick with it no matter what. We bounded  out of bed at 5:30, dressed, and dashed down stairs so we wouldn’t miss a morsel of the delicious cold cereal/hot waffle/spotty banana bounty offered in the lobby.  The free-for-all that goes on in the freebie breakfast areas of cheap hotels would make you think they were ladling out beluga caviar, not overcooked eggs and day-old bagels.  Tim had to ask a woman to step back a bit while he poured his coffee.  She had invaded his space in the extreme.

Columbia Bridge Border Crossing – 7:30 AM

Once we were in the car, things looked up.  The route we had chosen almost by default proved to be correct and we arrived at the border handily at 7:30 AM.  The border opens at 8:00 AM and we were the first car.  A  small line slowly formed  behind us.  The place was completely non-threatening.  The paperwork was a breeze and it took   40 minutes to process our personal papers and complete the necessary documentation allowing us to take the car into Mexico.  We had already bought insurance, so we were ahead of the game before we started, which is what we recommend if you are going to stay in Mexico for an extended time.  The short term insurance for sale at the border is too expensive for a longer stay.

Of course we were chosen for a customs check, but after the woman ran her hand over the top of one bag and eyed a few bottles of wine she waved us ahead.  I would be lying if I told you that we were not nervous.  We certainly were.  The first few miles of highway with nothing but cactus and barbed wire around us added to our tension.  We were happy that there was traffic.  It didn’t seem likely that bad guys would  choose to molest us with so many other people around.

In about 30 miles we rejoiced to see the toll booth structure and were happy to pay them and be on a more secure road.  That, my dears, is the sum of our angst.  I think the non-working shower turns out to be the worst of it.  It seems anticlimactic, doesn’t it?  I really wish I had something dramatic to share, but the only comment I can honestly dredge up is about the total disregard for traffic laws the Mexicans exhibit.  Speed limits are meaningless and I believe that they all must go to mass daily because none of them is afraid of dying from passing huge trucks around blind curves.  Mexicans are in a really big hurry – especially the vans that have no license plates.  They looked a little ominous to me!

Our Friendly Neighborhood Pemex Station

Our drive to San Miguel was very long, but the road was good for the most part, and the Pemex stations were located at regular intervals, offering decent bathroom facilities and snacks and drinks of all kinds.  CROSSING THE BORDER and DRIVING THROUGH MEXICO are not nearly as terrifying as driving the 405 in Los Angles at certain times and certainly not as harrowing as zooming along the backroads of Ireland where one can come across a herd of sheep standing squarely in the middle of a road that’s closely bordered by a tall rock fence just beyond half the hills in the country.

The road cuts straight through a long valley framed by mountains on each side.  It skirts Nuevo Laredo, Saltillo, and San Luis Potosi, so we never encountered a city.  We did see two police/military barricades on the other side of the road where all vehicles were being checked.  That made us feel safer.   There were vast Joshua tree forests and stands of cactus erupting everywhere; there were farms, ranchos, small towns and lots of half-started concrete projects that were someone’s heartbreak.  The skies were luminous, limitless.  It was Mexico, our Mexico that we know and love and we weren’t afraid.

We listened to music, laughed, chatted, snacked, told stories and got lost at the turn to Saltillo.  We were set straight by a charming young woman who climbed down from her toll booth perch and explained with gestures and Spanish basic enough for me to understand how to traverse an almost invisible gravel road. It looked to us as if it harbored gun-toting kidnappers,  but it got us back on the road in the right direction in moments.   (She charged us for taking the wrong exit and waved adios.)

The terrain began to look familiar as we approached San Miguel – the green fields that summer brings, the little villages with the BIG topes (speed bumps) and little stores that sell everything, the makeshift kitchens dishing out tamales and tacos and corn on the cob, and at last one of San Miguel’s roundabouts – the one featuring a heartfelt but badly wrought heroic caballero.  We knew we were home.

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