January 10, 2014
by Stephen Jan in Nogales, AZ
Time: 19 Days
Distance: 3,803 miles
Odometer: 310,090 miles
Whenever we mentioned to people our plan to drive through Central America, everyone seemed to have an opinion about drug-cartel-infested Mexico. Security advice ranged from “Avoid the western border!”, to “the Eastern border is too dangerous!”, to “Northern Mexico is a war zone!”. People quoted gruesome newspaper headlines about decapitated heads found highways, recounted grisly scenes from Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and recalled terrifying anecdotes from the show Locked Up Abroad. If you’re looking for a reason not to cross a border, plenty can be found. If you’re looking for people who have actual experience driving across the border, they’re few and far between. To us, the border is a long black line on a map sprinkled with little black circles: Nogales, Tijuana, Matamoros, El Paso.
The Mexican influence on Nogales was obvious. And I’m neither referring to Spanish sign posts nor to blaring Latino music both of which can be found off the 2 Train on 125 and Lex. Nogales spans two countries. Separating the two territories is a tall, iron fence that cuts across the entire city, snaking up and down hills. It’s one thing to hear about these physical structures, it’s another to see it in person.
All that was required to clear the US side of the border were three rows of speed bumps. The wave to the non-smiling US border official was optional. There was no stamping of passports, no questioning, no paperwork. If i didn’t know any better, I would have thought the US government didn’t care who left the country. From my experience, you can get through most borders by following the car in front of you. If the car in front drives forward, I tapped the gas. If the car slowed, I would tap the break. Today, the car in front of me slowly drove past the immigration office, past the first group of border guards, and seemed pretty confident that he wasn’t going to be checked by security. This all didn’t make sense to me as i imagine at least SOME paperwork needed to be cleared. I followed on.
I wasn’t expecting to slip through the border without any paperwork but to my surprise, that seemed to be what was happening. I was thinking to myself how surprisingly lax this border was when Martha interrupted my fantasy and translated an audible whistling sound into “stop the car”. Whistle meant stop? I had anticipated Martha’s ability to translate Spanish. I never imagined she’d be translating bodily noises.
A border official approached and leaned through the drivers side window. Smiling, he asked me what kind of vehicle I was driving. I said “ambulance”. He laughed, “ah yes i know it’s an ambulance”. If there was a joke, i didn’t get it. I laughed anyway. Next he asked me where I was going. I told him we were headed down south through Central America. He asked me what my final destination was, I told him South America. He asked “Donation?”. I confirmed. He shook his head, and finger. “Can’t cross this border. Go to Matamoros.” My jaw dropped in confusion. Mike immediately interrupted and told him we were tourists and that we were going to Central and South America. Mike explain that we were just touring through the country. It didn’t change his stance. The guard still affirmed that we could only cross at Matamoros, more than 1000 miles away. As I searched through my brain for potential next steps, Martha popped her head out the back. The official asked “Espanol?” Martha: “Si”. They started talking.
Martha stepped out of the vehicle to discuss the situation with the officials. It was all going down in Spanish my jumping in wouldn’t have added much. I patiently waited in the drivers seat for some news. Mike sat next to me in disbelief. He raged for a good 10 minutes about how it made no sense for them to stop our car. Thousands of cars cross each day, forcing certain cars to cross only at Matamoros seemed implausible.
What happened next was a lengthly dialog where Martha single handedly managed to convince 3 border officials that we were cool and that crossing at this border made a lot of sense and that we should be let through. I suppose Martha is the only one that can tell you the full account of the verbal fencing match. She recounted the story to us explaining how they said vehicles of our weight class aren’t allowed to cross here, and that they need to enforce these rules to stop hooligans from illegally selling cars in Mexico to hurt the Mexican economy. Once again, things managed to work themselves out.