Following the signs from the end of the trolley line at San Ysidro, my girlfriend Nikki and I made our way to the busiest border crossing in the world. The border that separates San Diego from Tijuana, USA from Mexico. If you have ever crossed at this border, then you would know it is defiantly not a two-way street in terms of the ease entering and exiting the neighbouring countries.
We were very aware of the arduously long waits on the Mexican side as thousands cued to cross into America, and the whole third degree on: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?… You get the drift!
However, we were completely unaware on how surprisingly uneventful it is to come into Mexico. We were so busy taking in our surroundings as we snaked our way through little paths in between buildings and over bridges, with all our luggage, backpacks and surfboards, certain we were approaching danger at every corner. Approaching huge turn-style gates with Mexican cops standing casually, their pump-action shotguns slung over their shoulders, our nerves started to raise as we prepared ourselves for the interrogation that surely awaited us.
Without even a glance in our direction, the Mexican cops let us pass and in we stumbled and had to ask each other, “Are we in Mexico?”. No hassles of customs or immigration, no stamps in our passports and no taxes paid! Did we miss something? Should we tell someone we have crossed and appeared in Mexico? I now know why the crims head straight to the border, no one cares who enters.
A little bewildered by the uneventfulness of the situation, off into Mexico we ventured, not giving the lack of stamps/papers and taxes not paid a second thought. . .
We had a great few months in Mexico, traveling from the top of the Baja Peninsula where cactus as high as telegraph poles stand tall in the desert and full-blown oasis’ appearing out of nowhere, to the bottom end of the resort towns around Cabo. Turquoise waters, good waves, hot days and on a dark desert highway with cool wind in our hair, we came across the hotel California!
We hit the mainland of Mexico next via a long ferry ride, in search of the Copper Canyon train that slowly winds its way up into the Mexican highlands over gorges and rivers, through and around mountains, up and into what is classified as Mexico’s most dangerous state. Against a few warnings we jumped on board, determined to see the Copper Canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in width and depth.
We had become pretty blazay to all the warnings of danger in Latin America. This was our second extended trip and while we took on board others’ advice, we assessed ourselves where we could sense danger.
Taking our seats on the train, we were met with awesome scenery. It felt like the real Wild West – a complete contrast to the tropical pacific coast we left from. Coconut trees were replaced with pines; log cabins with open fire places replaced beach side cabana and umbrellas; Mexicans riding horseback in ponchos and cowboy hats through town, just like a western movie!
While we couldn’t find horses to hire, we could find bikes and set out on an epic trail ride, up hills to Spanish mission churches, beyond mythical sounding places like Frog Rocks and The Valley of the Monks (though the official names are in their Spanish translation). The next few days we were walking bowlegged like a couple of cowboys in a quick draw due to saddle soreness! After the highland adventure we headed back to the warm pacific coast to chase waves, yoga and local markets, skipping from one tiny town to the next.
Christmas was fast approaching and as we were spending it in New York City, it was time to leave the slow-paced beach life we had become accustomed to and scoot into the monster metropolis that is Mexico City to catch our flight. Long bus rides are part of traveling Latin America, we had done numerous trips, some up around 30-odd-hours in South America and a record-breaking 42-hour bus ride, which lay in store for us in the later stages of this trip, so the 18 hours from Puerto Escondido to Mexico City was a breeze.
After meeting up with close friends and watching the Zocalo transform into a winter wonderland, it was time to embark on the sole reason (according to my girlfriend) we had arrived in this massive city. Chocolate! But not just any chocolate, oh no. These were special! (To her).
We spent a whole day and a lot of pesos, taking the metro to the end of the line, a place I wouldn’t recommend any tourist. That danger I was talking about, I sensed there. We convinced a taxi driver into joining the search, which lead us from the poorest areas right into the fancy gated community. “Otro mundo”, the driver kept mumbling to himself as we drove. Otro mundo” means ‘another world’. In this other world is where the chocolates could be found, in a serene yoga studio, a place the taxi driver had never dreamed existed in his city. The elusive chocolates had been found! We cradled the elaborate boxes protectively from taxi to metro, to the walk to our hostel. We weren’t even allowed to taste them (can you believe all that effort and not even a taste!!). They were delicately placed by our luggage, ready for our obscenely early flight in the morning, with me taking responsibility for their safety.
Obstacle 1. It wasn’t until we arrived at Juarez International Airport and unloaded our luggage that I realised I’d left the chocolates at the hostel! Holy shit I felt bad! Nikki got in line to check in and I spent the first half hour running around to find a pay phone to tee up with the hostel a trusting cabbie for a pick up and delivery to departures! I’d left the chocolates’ fate in the hands of a random Mexican cabby.
Obstacle 2. Trying to leave Mexico. The effortless entry into this country months earlier was nowhere to be seen now. We had no stamps, no taxes paid, no evidence of how and when we arrived, we were stuck in Mexico as apparently this is all important stuff to have on departure by air. We couldn’t check in with our airline until we had entry stamps. We couldn’t get entry stamps until we paid our taxes. We couldn’t pay our taxes until the bank opened at 8am. Our flight was leaving at 8:15am.
Of course none of these places were close to each other, we had some ground to cover, some Mexicans to sweet talk and some serious quick thinking needed. Time was not on our side, so Nikki and I frantically ran through what we had to do to pull this off and make our flight. I was off to bang on the bank’s doors. Nikki was off to the front of the line to plead with the airline about our situation… RUN!
Off we went in our separate directions, banging on the bank’s barred doors. I saw movement inside and tried my best Spanish to explain our situation, getting back only “No problemo”. I had to wait.
Unbeknown to me, whilst this ordeal was unfolding a Mexican man with an airport ID had witnessed our situation and approached me saying he knows where an open bank is, “follow me!”. Off we ran, passing Nikki running the other way to immigration. In a flurry we swapped progress reports and the little Mexican and I continued to dodge and swerve our way to… A train!? Why are we getting on a train? Why are we leaving the terminal? Where is he taking me? I get a bad feeling about this as we board the train. Trying to process this, I make a split-second decision. Without a word to the Mexican man, I jumped from my seat and through the train doors as they closed behind me. I hoped I had made the right decision. The train took off in one direction and I bolted back to the bank, arriving in time to wait a very nervous 10 more minutes as the doors unlocked and tellers manned up.
I raced up, handed over the papers and pesos and in my best Spanish tried to stress the urgency of the situation, to no avail. I waited, drumming my fingers on the counter, certain it was rapidly approaching our flight time. Finally after another drawn out process by a blissfully-unaware-of-time management bank employee, taxes are paid! Then I went back to immigration to find Nikki who had somehow managed to talk the airline lady into checking us in, even though she could get in a lot of trouble as it was definitely not allowed. There was no hope of getting on the flight by now if she didn’t. Our bags were going to New York with or without us!
We got the stamps we needed from immigration and with absolutely no time left the security, who all knew our situation by now, fast-tracked us through, barely checking us. We must have looked desperate, desperate but trustworthy.
We sprinted to our gate, firmly believing we were too late. But after everything, there was our plane and a load of people still sitting in the departure lounge! A slight delay. We looked at each other with huge smiles of relief, bless this country where everything is a bit delayed, a bit unorganised, running on “Mexico time!”
In the first world we probably wouldn’t have stood a chance, not where things run so rigid with robotic criteria that must be met, with paperwork already acquired well in advance. But in Mexico, a few rules bent, a few delays, a lot of confusion and a great story. We had made it!
Oh and did I mention in the midst of the chaos, I ran into a little Mexican taxi driver holding three elaborate boxes of yoga chocolates? Standing in the terminal, trusting that the random stranger who had requested this delivery would find him on a whim, just as I had trusted that a taxi driver might pick up and deliver our chocolates to the terminal on a whim. Ah Mexico!