Uh, yes, hi, thank you!
I am one half of the "Two Gringas"....
We're a little behind with the website and photos (something about having too much to do, or some excuse like that ... ;-).
I hope to have the site more current soon (tho' it's likely to be another week or so -- that's BST -- Belize Slow Time).
Meantime, here's something to keep you going...
Two Gringas Drive to Belize
Day 6, Part 1 -- Tuesday morning 21 October 2003 -- Texas - Tamaulipas
"Bienvenidos a Mexico (but please, stay close to your own border)."
As a citizen of the USA or Canada, you are free to travel in and out of Mexico with nothing more than a passport or original birth certificate. Unless you want to go south more than 20 miles or so. *That* is another proposition altogether!
Mile 2855 - McAllen, Texas
Exhausted from staying up so late, we over-slept again, arrived late to Sanborn's for the Mexico auto insurance: we are not making the early start we need at the border.
Sanborn's is friendly and helpful and, for the four days' insurance we need, pretty much the same price as other numbers I've seen.
The best insurance they could offer us for my 11-year-old car was plenty adequate, and included collision and (the equivalent of) uninsured motorist coverage (but not non-collision loss like theft or vandalism), prepaid injury medical, accident-related jail bail and representation, and roadside assistance and towing; all with an in-Mexico toll-free number. Now, we didn't put any of this to the test, thankfully, but assuming all of it works, I found it more than worth the price of admission (which was somewhere around fifty bucks, I think).
. . .
Sanborn's has a long reputation for providing savvy guidance and route planning as well as the insurance, but I'm thinking that maybe this isn't quite up to the original standard that set the reputation. From our subsequent experience with their over-the-counter info and the Guides, I'd have to say that their general info is merely the generic advise that everyone offers, and the specific knowledge (like that the north end of highway 97 right across the border from them is CLOSED!) is no longer there.
In reviewing the dates on their documentation, it appears to me that they may have lost whomever the force was behind that route-planning reputation (and the Guides), maybe sometime around 1999, and it would seem prudent to consider the info as outdated. The folks at their office in McAllen are extremely nice, but do not, I think, have any knowledge beyond what feedback they get from their clients.
. . .
Insurance in hand, we zip over to a nearby gas station and top off the tanks (we had only clear Texas freeway from Austin: mileage = 37.8 MPG (!)), and over to the currency exchange next door.
Before attempting this trip I checked back through other folks' travelogues and made inquiries and the #2 problem (after #1: getting lost) was running out of pesos. Sanborn's recommended $250 to $400 USD, so I changed $500 at 11-point-something. We actually ended up burning about $300, but with very slight shifts in itinerary and/or "events" we could easily have used it all.
Gassed, financed and insured, we're off to the border! Based on many, many recommendations, we are traveling Mexico "turista" to Vera Cruz (which is a reasonable destination given our 4-day insurance, but nobody ever asked for the insurance), rather than "transmigrante" to Belize, which is, we understand, an entirely different headache altogether...
As turistas we are heading to the crossing at Pharr -- a couple miles south of McAllen, with an ETF (Estimated Time for Formalities ;-) of about an hour -- instead of McAllen with an ETF of 2+ hours.
It is already pushing 11:00 AM and our schedule is now seriously at risk.
Mile 2860 - Pharr, Texas
I am driving to cross the border (as it is legally my vehicle) and as we near the Mexican line in the center of the Rio Grande I am already beginning to suffer from encroaching gringmoronitis.
We stop at the toll booth on the US side of the bridge over the Rio. I look up at the uniformed gentleman with utterly no concept of his function.
"Where do we take care of our tourist and vehicle paperwork?"
There is a pause. He points south.
"At the border."
Denise leans over, speaking sotto-voce.
"Lena. It's a toll booth."
Finally there is an awareness of the large placard listing the tolls.
I hand the guy some money -- pesos, dollars, I don't know and I don't know how much -- I get a receipt which I hand to Denise and nearly kill it putting the car in gear. I guess I'm more nervous about this whole thing than I realized.
(OK Lena, get it together, try to remember to breathe evenly. You have been breathing, haven't you? Lena? Hello...)
The bridge is immaculate concrete, with beautiful pavement and tall, inwardly curved chainlink fencing to each side and a clear stripe between the lanes -- right up to the very center -- whereupon it all immediately goes to hell: the stripe disappears, large pavement flakes are lifting off, the resulting rubble scattered about, and the anti-jumper fences have mostly fallen off, in some places sagging on their supports, in others completely gone, with only the rust stains on the concrete left to testify to their former presence. As an engineer, it occurs to me that the bridge structure may, in fact, be one huge cantilever**, for all intents and purposes supported only on the US side...
[** A cantilever is a horizontal structure supported only at one end, like a tree branch.]
Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas
And here, at last, is the Mexican border authority.
There are several non-descript buildings to the right, few signs and none of them in English -- on the surface, it would appear that the Mexican government has little interest in the non-Spanish-speaking citizens of its neighbor to the north.
Directly ahead is what is clearly a customs inspection station with multiple pull-ins and inspection tables. Unsure exactly what to do, we pull up next to the nearest unoccupied official-looking person and inquire.
"Where do we go for visa and vehicle paperwork?"
<<Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.>>
It is at this point that we discover that we do not, in fact, speak Spanish.
Or comprehend much either, for that matter.
And evidently we're guilty of hubris to have thought that Mexican officials working the US border might have some ability to communicate (or at least have signs) in English. Silly us. This is a crucial juncture in our education: Mexico is showing us how it's going to be.
I point to myself, Denise, the vehicle, then southward.
I make an exaggerated, questioning gesture and show him a passport.
The uniformed fellow gives me a sour look; he is realizing that I'm not going to simply go away. He points to a dirt lot past the customs area, then to one of the many tiny, nondescript buildings.
I hesitate; don't quite believe I'm supposed to just drive right past customs. The sour look is repeated.
The finger is now clearly jabbing at the entrance to the dirt lot. A sharp elbow from Denise acts as a spur in my side, and we trot off, right past customs, and park in the dirt in the beating sun.
We bail out of the Bomber and head over to the building which most closely approximated the official's gesture. There is a line of people inside, each grasping vehicle titles and such. We have vehicle titles and such. We take this as a good omen and join.
We wait. Others join the line. We wait. There are three "windows" open, but their occupants seem to have made little progress. Another fellow joins the line; he is speaking fluent Spanish to his next-in-line, and has an air of intelligence and long experience about him. Nice looking too.
"Habla Englais?" I inquire meekly. I really don't do meek, and this is a good indicator of just how far I've devolved during my short tenure in Mexico.
"Certainly, how can I help you?" Perfect American accented English.
He takes one glance at the paperwork I'm clutching and informs us that we're in the wrong line. Well, no, it's the right line, but at the wrong time.
He explains: first we walk 100 m. back north to Immigration, get a paper there, go to the next building south from there, pay something and get a stamp, go to the next building south of where we are right now, get a photocopy of that paper, come back to this building, give them all the papers, they will give us a paper, take it back to the photocopy guy, he'll stamp and sign it, bring it back here, pay something, sign twice, and you get a sticker to put inside your windshield. And make sure you get all your stuff back each time. He points to the nearest window: there are several forgotten drivers' licenses taped in the corners.
Profuse gratitude expressed, and with patience and sense of humor intact, we shuffle north to Immigration. There are no signs we can decipher, but we go in anyway.
It is a large, spacious room occupied only by a very young, cheerful pair of officials tucked behind a counter in the far corner.
"Hi. We're turistas, going to Vera Cruz?"
We hand them over.
"Here, make these paper."
English! (Well, sort of...) He hands us each a long strip of paper. And then smiles! We are nearly overcome.
He directs us to the kiosk in the center of the room where we are to make paper. We do so. Still we are the only customers.
We deliver the papers, all made.
"What you want?"
"To go to Vera Cruz."
"No -- *what* you want?"
I am stupefied. I have spent the past forty-something years trying to answer this question for myself. I have no ready answer.
"You want one month...six month...what you want?"
"Oh! Just a week! We're just going down to Vera Cruz and back."
"Six month OK?"
"Oh, yes, certainly, perfecto, six months it is."
He stamps and writes and stamps and writes. We have our passports back and a new paper each. He smiles blankly. We're done.
My ability to form English sentences seems to have been reduced to the local common denominator.
He gestures vaguely south. We exit the air-conditioned edifice into the dusty sun and shuffle southward.
We have a new operating procedure: enter every building, no matter how small or obscure, stand in every line, repeat until somebody does something.
On the second try, in a cramped little hut, we find a woman under glass who will not only accept our papers, but wants money to go with them. We take this as a good omen.
I nod my stupid grin and push 30 pesos under the glass. It pops back.
I retrieve my pesos, momentarily confused. What country am I in?
Denise produces thirty dollars and saves the day, it disappears under the glass. Sounds of stamping. Papers come back plus a receipt. The glass woman smiles blandly. We're done.
"Copy." The vague gesture is southward.
"Copy." Denise repeats, dragging me out the door. She seems to be learning the drill faster than I; maybe because she works for a corporation...
We trudge further southward, pass by the vehicle building, knowing better this time, and in the next hut discover the Copy Guy. He's a happy, round sort of fellow, and cheerfully makes copies of our stamped and restamped papers, hands them back, no charge, and another smile! No English habla-ing, but the big smile more than compensates as he shoos us off northward to the vehicle hut. His optimism is contagious.
We are finally back where we started. There is only one person before us for three windows. We take this as a good omen. Two windows promptly close. We wait.
We approach the final window. The fellow reaches for our paperwork.
<<Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.>>
"Er, yo no habla..."
The paperwork screeches to a halt on its trip under the glass and reverses direction.
He waves us perfunctorily off to one side and begins serving the next (Spanish speaking) person in line. No other window is open. I am at a complete loss.
But strangely, Denise seems calm and unconcerned. Well, she works for a corporation, so...
"I guess we wait for the English speaking person to get back."
And who knows when that might be. Another no-English client is helped, exits.
The guy who was helped before we weren't helped reappears with a paper and bellies up to the no-English window. After a minute he exits with a wad of documentation and a shiny new sticker. Denise is shrewdly observing from the sidelines; taking notes, her expression inscrutable.
For the moment we are the only customers in the hut -- I take the matter in hand and boldly step back up to the only open window and resubmit my wad. This time the paperwork is accepted.
"Copies." It is a request (in English!).
"How many?" He actually looks up at me for the first time. It is a look of overwhelming forbearance.
The number required seems to be somewhat variable -- we had been advised to come equipped with up to four copies of everything. I peel off two copies of everything I have and hand them over. He sorts through for the ones he wants, shoves the rest back. He begins comparing each photocopy to the corresponding original, letter by letter as near as I can tell. He makes paper.
A document is pushed my way with a vague gesture southward. My passport, drivers' license, vehicle title and registration remain firmly in his custody. I have a momentary, disconnected feeling, as if this stranger who won't even look at me has my clothes.
Meanwhile, the wily Denise, who has figured out the drill, snatches the document.
"You stay here, don't leave this window, I'll be back."
In the absence of any coherent thought of my own, I do as bidden, blocking access to the one open window. Thankfully, my position goes unchallenged, as no one enters before Denise returns and shoves the document to the no-English guy, who's activity suddenly resumes as if Denise had popped in a fresh battery.
"Where'd you go?"
"He made a copy?"
"No, he signed it."
"He signed it..." I had no idea copy guys had such clout in Mexico.
We are interrupted by a request for money. This time pesos are the desired unit of exchange. We take this as a good omen.
A new, very fancy document appears.
"You. Sign. Here. Here."
I sign. I sign. There seems to be something magical about the number two here.
A portion of the document is torn on dotted line, the remainder turned over to reveal a very fancy sticker with holograms and some serious, imbedded electronics. I've never seen the like. And these people can't afford English signs...
He says something about the car window. I start to ask--
--but before I can cause any more trouble Denise hustles me out the door, across the customs inspection area, and toward the parking lot.
The car is roasting in the noon sun. The solar oven has been reinvented. We climb back into the Bomber and start the engine and A/C.
"Put it there." Denise points to the lower-left corner of the windscreen.
"How do you know?"
"That's where everyone puts it."
How my copilot has come by this rare information I do not know, but I've stopped caring. The magic sticker is applied.
"Now let's get out of here."
I try to comply with Denise's command but there is no exit to the dirt lot which will permit access to customs -- the only way out is the way we came in, which is well beyond the checkpoint.
I drive to the exit, poke my nose out into the road, wait for a customs official to indicate what I should do. Two uniforms look at us, then turn their backs.
Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas
We drive off into Mexico. It's a little after noon.
. . .
Lesson of the Day:
It takes two gringos to equal one Mexican. Every situation from route finding to ordering lunch seems to require both a pilot (doer) and a navigator (spotter); and the undivided attention of both at all times. No matter how smart you are, unless you're born Mexican, you can only do one or the other, not both. Don't leave home alone...
. . .
(By the way, the whole border dance took just about an hour.)
== End of Day 6, Part 1, Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas ==
BTW, to find our what we're up to here in Belize, please take a glance at-- http://StormEngineered.com