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Mexican Letter #1

6 August 2003

            For anyone harboring some romantic notions about driving to Mexico to visit me, THINK AGAIN.  If part of your drive would be through Kansas, that’s reason enough to check on flights to Monterrey.  And Texans drive very aggressively by their own rules, which would ALMOST prepare you for the way Mexicans drive, yet it’s still not worth it unless you’re going to seriously drive around Mexico without me.

            For the first leg of my solo trip, I drove from Denver to the outskirts of Ft. Worth, TX in 13 hours.  For the second leg of my trip, I drove about 5 hours to San Antonio, where I’d booked a hotel for myself and another new hire, R—–.  I was amazed that we’d both found the place.  R—– seemed just as rattled driving solo from Minneapolis and dealing with the Texan drivers as I was.  We swam in the hotel pool to chill out in the 100+ weather, then ate and drank at a wonderful nearby Thai restaurant. 

            The third day was the one we were both dreading:  crossing the border at Laredo, TX.  I’d bought a Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico, where I’d read about all of the documentation needed in order to obtain a temporary vehicle permit.  According to the guide, we needed both the title and registration of the car, a major credit card, and our passport and immigration papers that showed we were tourists since we didn’t have our work visa yet.  The book even suggested that we make copies of our papers.  Well, since I’d just registered my car in CO, I didn’t have the title since it takes 6—8 weeks to process.  Yet the guide suggested that for those of us who had pending titles, we get an official letter from the DMV, stating that we were the owner of the car and were waiting for the new title.  I was skeptical that that would be accepted, but I still got it.  R—– was a bit nervous since she had her title, but had lost her current registration.

            R—– had insisted that I lead our caravan, which she didn’t seem to regret even though I’d led us around in a few circles before hitting the right route to Laredo.  As soon as we arrived in Laredo, we had to come to a dead stop since (unsurprisingly) a couple of Texan drivers had gotten into a fender-bender.  We took the next exit to use the bathroom and gas up, which was a good call since that was next to the last exit we could have done so in the States.

            Highway 35 just ended in the form of a tollbooth, which we came upon without warning.  R—– and I got in separate lanes, paid our two dollars and I THINK we entered Mexico or perhaps it was just a no man’s land between the border.  Fortunately, R—– was in the lead since she followed the confusing directions to the place where we had to get out vehicle permit.  At first, we were cued in the parking lot.  Then R—– wisely decided that we should park.  We got out of our cars and entered hell.

            As soon as we walked into the building, we came across a long line.  I instinctively knew not to wait in it without knowing what it was for.  We asked the guy at the end of the line if he was getting a vehicle permit.  Thank goodness, he told us that we had to fill out immigration papers first and get our things photocopied before wasting our time in like one hapless traveler had.

            We waited in a much shorter line for our immigration papers.  Then we had to go to the bank window to pay $21.  We returned to the immigration window, where we were granted 180 days to be in Mexico as tourists.  We then went to the photocopy window to have our passport, driver’s license, title, registration and immigration papers photocopied.  THEN we got to wait in the mind-numbingly long line.  I’m talking three hours, moving at a snail’s pace.  I’d jumped out of my skin and back again only to discover that the line hadn’t moved much.  We’d found out the hard way that Saturday was the worst day to cross.

            To reach our final destination, the line snaked past a row of car insurance companies, where R—– and I had taken turns to buy a couple of days worth of insurance.  Once we reached the travel permit line, we were relived to discover that we only needed a title OR the current registration.  We got our temporary vehicle permits that expired in 180 days and bolted.

            Since we were mentally and physically drained, we decided to revive ourselves by eating at the little café in the building.  I knew it would be dodgy, but watching R—– eat her dripping-with-grease chicken tacos was worth it.  She professed to have a sensitive stomach; so I offered to take a picture of her eating her first authentic Mexican meal that would give her noninfectious diarrhea.  She declined.

            Once we got in our prospective cars with R—– in the lead, we entered yet another damn cue in the parking lot.  I was pissed.  I beckoned an employee who happened to be walking by to ask him what the line was for, yet my effort was in vain since he spoke less English than I did Spanish.  We both pointed to the temporary vehicle permit that I’d affixed to my windshield, but neither of us could communicate the deeper meaning of our pointing.

            Since the cue was moving with the same snail’s pace as the line in the building, I had plenty of time to get out of my car and ask a man who had plates from the States what the line was for.  Apparently, we were in line to give BACK the very temporary vehicle sticker that we’d waited three hours for!  I relayed that message to R—– and we quickly made our way to Monterrey.

            Well “quickly” isn’t exactly true.  We actually attempted to drive the speed limit.  We figured a couple of gringos with out-of-country plates had better do the speed limit, but that damn near got us run over.  (I’d love to see some of those young Colorado blonde women who slow everyone down in the left lane, heading to Colorado Springs, attempt that bullshit in a Mexican left lane.)  It was like a scene from “Close Encounters of a Third Kind”.  One second, you’re passing some slow-ass in the right lane only to discover there’s an SUV riding your bumper, trying to run over YOUR slow-ass in the left lane. 

            After about twenty minutes of that crap, we encountered what looked like another border crossing.  The patrol officer didn’t speak English, but I’d figured he wanted to see my passport and immigration paper.  He glanced at it and waved me through.  I pulled through and waited in the lane for R—–.  She was soon waved through and then I think we were officially in Mexico–without anyone ever searching through our cars, which were full of stuff.  All legal shit, of course.

            Since I had the lead, I decided to speed up to the flow of traffic, but not as fast as the SUV devils.  About five minutes into my “adjusted speed”, I saw the flashing lights of a border patrol car.  I thought, “Oh shit, here we go!”  I slowed over to the right lane and R—– followed suit as the border patrol zoomed by.  We saw up ahead that the border car had stopped one of the SUV’s.  A few minutes later, we passed a parked SWAT team.  (Just that morning in San Antonio, we’d read an article that had made front page news about a group of SUV-driving Mexican drug dealers who’d shot up Nuevo Laredo, hunting police officers.  Nuevo Laredo is just across the border from Laredo.)

            The rest of our drive was quite uneventful except for the beautiful, unspoiled countryside.  At one point, I lost sight of R—– since her car didn’t accelerate well going uphill.  Unlike an American highway, the Mexican highway had next to no exits for food or gas.  We passed a couple of cars that were either broken down or stopped to use the bathroom on the side of the road.  I was a little nervous about one of the cars breaking down, but we made it with no problems.

            Monterrey looked just like some average American city except most business signs were in Spanish.  We stopped at a grocery store, which has Texan roots, H-E-B.  We used the bathroom and bought a phone card.  We asked a nearby taxi driver for directions for the street we needed.  This time, R—– reluctantly took the lead.  She navigated us perfectly to the Liverpool mall, which was rival to most of the malls in the States. 

            We called A–, who met us at one of the restaurants in the mall called Sanborns.   Sanborns was like a mini-department store that had a full bar and a restaurant—my type of place.  A– met us about 30 minutes later and led us through some harrowing traffic during the twilight hours of about 8:30 pm.  

            A– first led us to my house, which turned out to be a beautifully furnished, big three-bedroom house, with two full bathrooms, a half bathroom and a servant’s bathroom (toilet and shower) just off of the laundry room.  Since I’d arrived a day before my roommate, M—-, I got the master’s bedroom, which comes with a walk-in closet, huge tub, a king size bed, and a view of the mountains.  I’ve been rewarded for my two years of suffering in those shitty apartments in Egypt!

            Today, we just completed our first of many in-services before school starts on the 18th of August.  Although some teachers had time to work in their rooms, the 7th—9th grade teachers couldn’t since our classrooms on the newly added fourth floor were still under construction.  As much “assbackwardness” as I’d suffered at Schutz, I haven’t let a little thing such as my classroom not being ready get me down.  Monterrey’s swinging with alcohol, sushi, and general cool happenings.  If Instituo San Roberto  turns out to be another shitty school at least my housing and the city are terrific.

            By the way, I just got a mailbox address at Mailboxes Etc in order to get my mail more reliably than with the Mexican postal service.