There isn’t anything much worse than having a migraine while traveling. Fortunately, I don’t get them very often. Certainly traveling by car with a migraine is preferable to slogging through a forty mile bike ride with one. Even so, it’s not my favorite. The dizzingly loud and colorful crazy that is the inside of a Soriana Supermercado didn’t help and Tony had to tuck me back into the van, throbbing and nauseas, with prescription drugs and a moratorium on all talking by the children. This was not how I wanted to spend our last full day in Mexico.
We left Papantla under grey skies with the last few items we’d been hunting for procured in the local markets and headed north. We were planning on Ciudad Victoria, but ended up settling on Soto de Marina, as it shaved an hour off of the day and only added half an hour or so to the final drive for the border. It’s a nowhere town, it’s the turn off for La Pesca and the coastal villages. For us, it was just a place to sleep after a happily uneventful day.
We arrived, exhausted from a longer than expected drive (aren’t they all?) and began the fiasco of sorting through the van and preparing for the border crossing in the morning. Half of the kids went to the room to work, Gabe remained on van cleaning duty, Tony and I moved back and forth disposing of all fruits and veggies, half bottles of wine, one last can of beer that wouldn’t be consumed, and making sure things that fell into the “questionable” category for the border, like the vanilla beans… which MIGHT be considered an agricultural product… were stowed in the less obvious spots.
It was on our second trip down to the van, making our way through the narrow, tiled hallway that things got exciting. Out of nowhere appeared a man in a shrimp colored dress shirt with an assault rifle, not held casually, as we’ve come to expect, but gripped in a business like manner, making his way, cautiously, into the hotel. We shifted past him, exchanged glances and stuck our heads out of the doorway. There was Gabe, blissfully unaware, cleaning the van, and there were three more armed men, guns in hand, hiding behind cars and definitely not smiling. I grabbed Gabe and threw the van doors shut, locking them behind us. Tony whirled and headed back into the hotel to get the rest of the children.
It was kind of a long five minutes, waiting to see if my family would emerge, listening for gunfire, contemplating the stupidity of being in the van with keys but no ID, no money, no nothing, with armed men between us and the rest of our world. The guys with guns glanced between us in the van and the doorway of the hotel. It tried, likely unsuccessfully, to look nonchalant. Gabe knew better than to ask questions. I was never so glad to see Tony’s big bald head as I was in that moment, stern and at the head of a column of wide eyed kids. They piled into the van and exploded into a thousand questions which were sternly hushed by their Dad. I opened the van door and hopped out, as lightly as I could manage, donning my most winning smile, to ask the kind sirs with guns trained on the hotel door if they thought it might be okay for us to head out for dinner. They said it would be fine, and in fact, they looked rather relieved to have us out of their way. Not as relieved as we were, to say the least. The kids kept their heads down and we gingerly skirted the cars being used as blockades before breathing a huge sigh of relief. On the way out I noticed the “guitar strap” on the AK held by the man hiding behind the blue car was local police issue, by the embroidery on it, and Tony noted a police car parked further down the street. It seems that these fellows were plain clothed officers who were raiding our hotel after some shady suspect. After the recent violence in this part of the country the law enforcement folks have completely lost their sense of humor.
We ate dinner slowly, keeping one ear cocked in the direction of our hotel and were pleased to find, upon our return, the resident kids playing in the lot and all signs of nefarious business moved elsewhere. Naturally, we took the opportunity to have a “home school health and safety lesson” on what the appropriate response to armed men is (cooperation) and what to do should gunfire erupt around you (lay down.) The students were attentive, to say the least. We thanked God for a windowless hotel room (not usually on our list of preferred amenities) and slept. Well, most of us slept; Tony kept one ear open and one eye on the door most of the night.
With the dawn we hit the road and headed north with purpose, stopping only for the worst of the military puestas we’ve had yet. I didn’t particularly appreciate the humor of one young guard who smiled, cocked his finger, and put it on the window one of the children was looking out of. I wasn’t thrilled about the armed man getting INTO the van and rifling around the back seat with the children in there either. However, we kept smiling and, eventually were waved on. It makes me sad that this is what my Mexico has come to.
Just when we thought we were home free, the Duana strikes again. Mexican border guards have a machismo that is rarely matched anywhere else. I think it must be a requirement of the job. The van was stamped out, no problem, the sticker removed and receipt procured. The passports were being stamped, one… two… three… pause. Bigger pause. “These papers are not right, you don’t have the right papers! Why do you have these tourist papers for 180 days when you only needed thirty? Why do you have tourist papers when what you needed was trans-migra papers? You left the country and came back in somewhere else! You should have papers from there. These papers are only good to come in and then go back out at Tamulipas!” I stifled an eye roll. “These are the papers we have. These are the papers the guard said we needed. Yes, we passed out of Mexico and into Guatemala, then Belize and then back into Mexico at Chetumal. The guard there said that these papers were fine and we needed nothing else… they are good for 180 days.” “Well he was wrong! This is not good. I’m going to have to report this, these are not the right papers, your destination was not Mexico so you were not reporting the whole truth… blah, blah, blah.” Tony sensed a crack in the language barrier and added in English, “Well, we’re not going back, so what are you going to do? Do we need to pay more? Or are you going to stamp us out?!” A supervisor appeared, the entire story was recounted to him. He looked at me, “Next time, if you’re leaving the country be sure to get the trans-migra papers,” he explained again, “And then pay again when you come back into the country on your way back from your destination. What was your destination.” “We didn’t have one, we’ve just driven in a big circle, we asked at every border crossing and got everything they said we needed, we can’t help it if they gave us the wrong papers.” I omitted the piece of information he did not need, which was that we had hoped NOT to have to turn in those tourist cards because we didn’t particularly want to shell out a couple hundred bucks for a second set and were quite happy when we’d been allowed to keep them (legally, of course!) The original guard furrowed his brow and there were more chest pounding intimidation techniques. I carefully guarded the three passports that had been stamped out… three of the children. “Well, what are we going to do here?” I asked, “We’re not going back to Belize for new papers, and you’ve already stamped half of us out.” The original guard continued to protest and demand that this be reported to the “officials.” The supervisor smiled, shrugged, and said, “Stamp them out… just make sure you ask for the right papers next time.” As if we’d intentionally asked for the wrong ones in the first place.
Texas never looked so good. It makes me sad to be so happy to be out of Mexico. I love Mexico. It’s one of my very favorite places, but it’s not the safest place at the moment, at least not the northern half of the country. If we could spend another month or two south of the capital city, it would be lovely, but I certainly wouldn’t want to drive back in. Our first stop was Walmart, for laundry soap and decent chocolate and a bag of real potatoe chips. Second stop: Pizza hut, for pizza and the long awaited SALAD. Third stop: divide and conquer: Ezra and I are at a laundromat, washing everything we own while Tony and the rest of the kids get the van washed and vacuumed and the oil change; we’re a solid 5K miles over. With a little luck, we’ll be with friends tomorrow night, hugging children we haven’t seen in a very long time and celebrating another safe return.