Friday, June 28, 2013

Crossing Over ~ The Final Mile

The next thing I knew I was awakened with a jolt and had to shield my eyes from the light.  We were stopped beneath a fluorescent-lit toll plaza that looked like the parking garage of a gigantic mall.  It was the frontera. We’d made it.  A new driver boarded and give us instructions:  anyone without proper papers (sin papeles) must get off the bus now.  

Only one fellow gathered his things and expeditiously debarked. Factories lined the border at these crossings, taking advantage of the cheap labor; he was probably heading to work.   

Over the din of restless passengers, the driver announced: from here you are on our own.  He explained it was our problem if we were not properly documented.  Everything but blankets and pillows needed to be removed from the bus or it would be confiscated by the immigration officers. Everyone would be responsible for moving all their belongings through the checkpoint and onto the x-ray belt – no help would be provided. When we finished, he said, he’d be waiting with the bus on the Other Side.

My adrenaline shot-up and the bus suddenly filled with commotion as people gathered their things. I checked my seat five times before proceeding down the aisle and off the bus amidst the pushing and shoving.

I breathed the night air, check my watch, a little after 2.  Then I kicked into action - first locating my six be-damned pieces of cargo.  I found them all, rather battered, but still with me – which seemed like a mixed blessing at that moment, as I contemplated lugging them one-by-one to the document checkpoint.
Joe spotted me from the other line as I struggled – each piece weighing over 20 pounds – the box of books had to be 50 - some were so unwieldy I could only push them along the pavement – and offered to help once he was through.  I cursed myself under my breath for packing all this crap – artesenias, clothes and shoes, books and papers. I thought I was so clever to wear some of the heaviest stuff –my brand new pair of Botas Garcia handmade boots which where were now rubbing my heels something fierce – and layers of sweaters and coats when it was darn near 70 degrees at dawn on the border.

All the guy in front of me had was a backpack and a Santa sack full of chicharones – pork rinds hecho en Mexico – and light as a feather.

It took four separate chess moves times six pieces before I got to the front of the line, where I was greeted by a young clean-cut Homeland Security Man. Morning mam.  He cocked his head and looked at me quizzically.  What is the purpose of your visit?

Sweating and panting, I reached into my backpack for my passport.  I’m going home, I replied.

Oh, you were living in Mexico?

Si, yep, oh, English, yes, for two and a half years – in the Peace Corps.

Okay, he responded, unimpressed, looking down at my mountain of stuff.  Anything to declare?

Like what? Tequila, alibrijes? I asked, being silly.


You know, those hand carved Oaxacan figurines – I’ve got lots of those. 

Oh, no, plants, animals, food, things of that nature – on the prohibited list.

No, nothing like that. 

Okay then, welcome home.  He waved me on through.

But it was not over. I had to haul everything to the x-ray conveyer belt while the army uniformed customs guys sat on their asses watching me sweat.  I hoisted each piece up and held my breath they glided through and came out the other end – no questions asked.

I was so close – just 200 yards to get to the bus.  I thought of that infamous Mexican saying:  ‘So close to the USA, so far from god.’  Panting and sweating, I started with the rolling duffle.  That’s when Joe and two other chicos appeared – lifting the boxes and carrying them across the plaza – and in a flash all six pieces were re-loaded and I felt the burden lifted off me.  That’s when I looked up and noticed the huge billboard illuminated in the dawn light:  Welcome to Texas, USA. 

A profound sense of relief and elation washed over me – all that worry and fear for nothing – then appreciation for the kindness and grace of the Mexican people - and a little bit of shame for ever doubting it.

We had 10 minutes until departure, the driver informed me; so I ran to the Valero and stood in front of the drink case dizzied by the options.  I opened the USD compartment in my wallet and spent my first two dollars on a Tropicana OJ. (Nothing close to a fresh squeezed Rioverde jugo de naranja - I knew I was going to miss those.)

When I re-boarded the bus, there was a different vibe in the air – or was it inside of me? The driver joked:  we’re waiting for you, senorita; we couldn’t leave without the gringa. Everyone was smiling and chuckling, anticipating their destinations. My seat mate and I finally struck-up a conversation.  Sr. Manual had made this trip many times to visit his daughter – one Christmas it took him 12 hours to get through border control, the buses lined up for miles. This was the easiest trip ever! 

Easiest trip ever?!  The irony of Mexico was with me until the end.

Then I dozed off and slept all the way to Austin. 

We were welcomed by rain – and dumped off at the Home Depot parking lot – ironic twist, usually the place where Mexicans wait for day labor work.  The bus was continuing on to Oklahoma City – god, those poor people had five more hours ahead - but a van was waiting to take the Austin group into town.

Forget it, I insisted, borrowing a phone to call my brother.

Then happily, I plopped down on the curb and felt the rain on my head. My boxes were getting soggy, and my hair was getting wet, but my butt was planted firmly (and safely) on the Otro Lado.

The End. 

Crossing Over ~ The Van from Hell

As the van sped down the two-lane highway, I felt a little of the fear melting away and rested back into the bench seat, closing my eyes and trying to let go.  But we seemed to be going forever, despite the out of control speed. I checked my watch with my LED light: already an hour had passed and no sign of a Pemex or any civilization, an unfamiliar road, deeper and further into the desert darkness. Then, suddenly we exited onto a dirt road and I felt my grip tighten on the door handle. Our headlights flashed onto a tiny town marker: Cedillo.  I’d heard of this pueblo – a third the size of Rio – but never had been.  

I looked over at my accidental compañero Joe; he shrugged his shoulders.  

I inquired with the driver, breaking the silence:  Where [the hell] are we going?

Picking up another passenger– don’t worry, the driver assured. Last stop before the Pemex.
There was no mention of this side-trip – more lies by omission – how many more would there be – and with each my fearing the worst?

After heaving over six speed-bumps we did finally pull up to a corner depot. An old senior loaded in;  and the driver took the opportunity to pick-up some marketing material, gifting each of us a commemorative Azteca calendar. Mine had the Virgin Guadalupe on the top; but I gave it back.  I really didn’t want a reminder of this whole episode.  I wanted to just get going.

Another hour through the dark desert before the familiar green and red glow of the state-controlled gasoline monopoly finally appeared like an oasis before us.  

We waited under the fluorescent lights. A young women sat on a wall outside the restroom peddling her woven palm dolls.  I was out of money. I had to buy 100 pesos of saldo – my final pesos – so I could text Rita and let her know I was okay. Was I okay?  But still no sign of the bus.  

At 8:30 on the dot the Azteca appeared – right on the revised time schedule.  I felt exhausted, though the real journey was just beginning.  As the bus pulled into the lot I realized it was just slightly fancier than a school bus!  Not at all like the picture on the flyer. 

I wanted to give up on this whole crazy adventure – but I knew it was too late.  I had to buck up – Rita was right. I was an RPCV now –a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer – part of an elite group that had made it through. Though I was not QUITE returned.

At the top of the stairs I discovered this bus was packed!  Was there even a spot for me? Kids were racing the aisles – I had to navigate around them to grab what looked like the last open seat, next to an old senior who thankfully shimmied over so I could take the aisle. But my seat would not recline – it kept folding forward when I wasn’t leaning back with all my weight.  There were no video screens or foot rests – the air was thick and stale – the overhead vents would not open.  This was as rustic as the little green ‘Verdadita’ bus that took me out to the campo to meet with the Zama Mamas.  But this was going to be a 12 to 15 hour drive!

Meanwhile I could hear them loading my bags and boxes on –I’d forgotten - I was supposed to watch each piece transfer, Rita had warned me. But it was too late. The doors slammed below and the driver was pulling away. And I forget to tip the van driver in all the rush.  I prayed he hadn’t done the same with my precious cargo as he’d done with the information – convenient omission. And then I realized I really didn’t care.  I’d be grateful if I just got my body across the border.

Oh, Mexico. I relaxed my head back against the grimy headrest, uttering my life-saving Peace Corps refrain.  You never fail to…confound, confuse, disappoint, obfuscate…and amaze.  I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, feel that acceptance sink into my bones – proof that I was passing the final test of cultural integration.  Instead I jammed-in my ipod earbuds, cranked up the jazz and closed my eyes, praying for sleep.

The Señor next to me who smelled of onions and cigarettes was snoring. Without an armrest boundary between us, he was oozing into my territory.  Talk about crossing the frontera! I white knuckled it for a few hours as the bus heaved and swerved like a white-water raft along the pot-holed NAFTA Highway. 

After a couple of blessed rest stops – there was no bathroom on the bus – things finally got quiet, the road got a little smoother, and the children had settled down to sleep. Ranchera music drifted from the driver’s FM radio and I could overhear his friendly conversation with the women on the first row.  I let myself be lulled by the sounds, felt myself smile to myself in the dark as it occurred:  this was just what I’d hoped for this final pass through Mexico. Then I drifted off.


Crossing Over ~ Hasta luego, Rioverde!

After two-plus years in Rioverde, my adopted Mexican hometown, I was preparing for a bittersweet departure. My final day was spent at Rita’s, nursing a well-earned tequila-infused going away party hangover, and trying to cram my two and a half years of Mexican life into three boxes and bags to travel with me to “The Other Side” – El Otro Lado as the Mexicans refer to it.  Not death (I’d hoped) – just across the border into Texas, USA.  
Lucky for me I didn’t have to hire coyotes to lead me through the desert and traverse the Rio Grande like my friend Rita once did.  I’d bought my ticket on the Azteca luxury line bus for just 950 pesitos – about 80 USD. It was supposed to be a 10-hour straight shot from my pueblo to the crossing at Nuevo Laredo and, from there, four more hours to Austin.

It seemed the logical way to go:  the airlines would have charged me an arm and a leg to check six big bags – and just getting to the Mexico City airport would require two or three buses and eight hours door to gate – in to opposite direction.

Besides, the Azteca line sounded so much more adventuresome than flying. By plane the trip is clinical – you go from one agnostic airport to another without sensing the change. This way I’d have a chance to experience the shift in terrain and climate, feel the miles of road beneath the wheels, travel with the people, and see with my own eyes what this border situation was really like.

But when I arrived in parking lot where the bus was supposed to be waiting, there was no sign of a departure – not a soul in sight and no bus.  A guy emerged from behind the ticket booth smoking a cigarette and told us the van was coming – they were waiting for one other passenger from San Ciro de Acosta.  
I turned to my friends Rita and Sergio with a quizzical look.  Am I hearing him right, chicos?  Disbelief masked inklings of panic. 

Rita stepped in:  Un van?  Por Tejas, joven, to Texas? She probed the guy.

No, to the Pemex Station on the highway between here and San Luis, was his response.  I understood every word – but Rita translated anyway.  The bus would meet us there, load us up, and then proceed north on 57 direct to the border.

Y Ow-steen? 

Si, directo. 

But that’s not direct. They said it was direct – see, that’s what it says on the flyer. I poked at the words:  Salidadas directas sin transbordos.  Direct means they pick you up at the origination point and take you to the destination point – without stops – and certainly without transfers, I barked in English. 

When I got emotional my Spanish went out the window.  So Rita translated in genteel Mexicana style.  
The guy ignored her and walked out onto the sidewalk to finish his cigarette in peace.

She followed him out, grilling for info, something Mexicans rarely do.  Thank god Rita, my friend, was different.

Rita returned to the waiting area. I was milling around the linoleum floor attempting to quell a storm.  Sergio was playing a game on his flip-phone, trying to stay out of it.

No se, I don’t know, Anna, we can go to find the other bus.  Or we can wait and see if this other guy comes from San Ciro.  If he doesn’t, something’s wrong – and maybe Sergio and I go with you in the van.
I was scared, but I didn’t want to show it.  I’d been all over this country by bus for the last two and a half years – but suddenly the reality of the risk I was taking with this final bus adventure was hitting me.  
Maybe Rita could sense it.  Remember, Anna, she said.  Everything always works out in Mexico. 
I gave her a hug.  Maybe getting scared was easier that facing the fact that I was about to lose my best friend – or become very distant from her.

Es verdad, amiga, it’s true, had been true, up to now. I’d taken lots of chances over the two and a half years, traveled some very dangerous, deserted roads to get to my project communities, over rough terrain, in drug cartel hotspots – and I’d survived just fine.  But was this pushing it a step too far?

Just then a green taxi sped into the parking lot and pulled up in front of us – out stepped a young Mexican sporting a big beige Tejano (a felt Texas-style sombrero, not the straw farmer style I was used to in Rio) – and carrying one small duffel.  His jeans were sliding down his ass like some kind of hip-hop cowboy and puffing out of his ornately embroidered boots.

I turned to Rita and raised my eyebrows? 

She shrugged her shoulders.  If that guy can get a visa, why can’t I? she snarked.

Rita, I don’t think that’s the question right now. 

Suddenly a white van entered the parking lot and bounced across the pot-holes toward us.

What you want to do, Anna?

No se.  I’m going, I guess I’m going.  I don’t know. 

Look, you call us when you get to the Pemex, okay?  Everything will be fine.

But Sergio, please, get our photo, por favor.  I pointed toward the license plate and whispered:  get the numbers, clearly, just in case.

I hugged Rita close around the shoulder, tried to smile, keep it natural.  But I suspected these wouldn’t be the best pics for the photo album – not like the shots of us on our care-free thing-finder day – or the Huapango fair in Refugio in the rain – or last night around Rita’s table downing little shots of tequila called caballitos (little horses), pinching salty limes between our teeth and singing Mexican songs out of tune.

The driver ticketed each one of my six pieces of luggage and gave me the stubs.  I could feel the sweat rising on my forehead as I picked a safe place to stuff them, in the side pocket of my backpack.

Make sure you count every box and bag when you make the transfer, Anna, Rita reminded me as I climbed in.  I sat next to the young man from San Ciro. 

And remember to call me when you get there, Rita barked through the open van door. If there’s any problem, we come after you, okay. But don’t worry, you will be fine. You are a strong woman, Anna.  They will not mess with you.

The door slammed shut and the driver started up the engine.  It was sweltering inside – no air. 
I turned to my fellow-passenger, attempting to make friends, cut through the tension, calm myself, and asked: Nunca tomaste este autobus?  Ever taken this bus?”

Not this bus, he replied, in perfect Texas English. But, yeah, other lines across the border.

He was a Mexican-American. I felt my face redden, embarrassed for my bad job of racial profiling, but also completely amused that Rita missed it too.  He’d probably heard every snarky word she said.  I wanted to tell her; but all I could do was wave to her and Sergio now – and smile and blow kisses through the window.
The light was seeping out of the sky as the van pulled out of town, passing beneath the Bienvenidos a Rioverde arches for the last time.  Two and a half years behind me – I was too exhausted to feel anything at the moment but false sentimentality – and a yearning to be *home* - wherever that was now.  But the fear was still front and center:  we had 700 miles ahead of us and a border to cross.