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.