In December 2008 Josh and I had a crazy idea. We were living in Mexico City at the time trying to figure out how to get ourselves, our stuff (and all the stuff that I had accumulated at Mexican markets on the weekends) back to the States. We were going to move to Austin where I had just gotten a job and would be starting at the first of the year.The airlines were way too expensive and had restricted the number of bags you could take… there was no way that 8 suitcases plus two guitars and a full size keyboard were going to fly… no pun intended. Our next idea was to offer the guy across the street $800 for his amazing VW “combie” van painted with a colorful hippie mural, including an awesome depiction of Jim Morrison. But, alas, that was not meant to be… it had a cloth roof and while that was super cool, it probably wouldn’t make it across the border. So, we decided on renting a minivan, driving 550 miles through Mexico and meeting Josh’s dad Dennis at the border to pick us up for the rest of the journey to Austin.
The day of our departure, we set out early in the morning for the Mexico City airport via metro. We had a reservation with Budget, since that was the only rental location that seemed to rent minivans in Mexico City. When we arrived to pick up our van, the man behind the counter basically said (in Spanish): “Ohhh… That van you wanted? It just drove in from the Yucatan… and it doesn’t seem to be working.” He stuck his thumb over his shoulder toward a blue minivan that looked like it had seen better days, currently jacked up in the air in the repair shop. “The mechanic doesn’t get in until 9am.” So we waited around for a half hour for him to arrive, and as expected he laughed heartily and told us that the van was not at all drivable.
I started to panic, ever so slightly. Josh and I decided to walk down the street (well if you could call it a street) to the next rental place… no van. In fact, there were no cars at all, because it was the day after Christmas. At this point I started to hyperventilate and probably began rambling in accelerating run-on sentences… “All of my stuff is packed… and I am ready to move home and leave Mexico… and it’s the day after Christmas and I start my job on Monday… so give me a freaking van!!”
Thankfully the next place we found had a minivan – a mom car had never looked so beautiful to me – and we nervously drove it back to our apartment in the south of the city. Keep in mind that neither of us had ever driven in Mexico City before, and we hadn’t operated a car for the past 1.5 years. Yeah, it was a little stressful.(!) Once back at the apartment, I packed every square inch of space of the van with our stuff, covered it with a giant orange blanket, and declared that we were ready to go!
And so we began our journey. Because it was the day after Christmas, it was probably the one day a year that you could see the mountains literally all the way around the bowl of the city – almost no smog. It was a perfect and beautiful day to say goodbye to our beloved Chilangolandia.
Have you ever heard the saying “all roads lead to Rome?” Not 30 minutes into our trip, we took a wrong turn off of the highway and found ourselves being channeled into the heart of Mexico City (with no opportunity to turn around) on Reforma, the largest grandest avenue of the city. Finally as we neared the Zocalo (main square) I persuaded Josh to take an illegal U-turn to get ourselves out of there instead of getting lost in the maze of the old city. But what a memory – driving down beautiful Reforma on our last day (nevermind that we were yelling at each other about finding a way to turn around) in a minivan with everything we owned.
We made it to San Luis Potosi that night at sunset where we were able to breathe a small sigh of relief. I had been nervous at the prospect of leaving my guitars and piano in the car so we lugged them into our hotel room, much to the annoyance of the bell boys, who apparently expect an extra tip for piano-sized cases. Whoops, we were running out of pesos… sorry, chavos. Our plan for the next day was to drive at a leisurely pace to Monterrey where we would spend our second night. We stretched our trip out over 3 days, mostly because we preferred to drive during the daylight when it was a little safer on the roads.
The next day as we drove through miles of countryside in the state of San Luis Potosi, we began to see camps of nomadic looking people alongside the road. They were tending goats in the median and burning small fires along the road. Occasionally groups of women waved at us frantically in unison apparently wanting us to pull over and stop. With the gray low clouds that day it was like a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (which I had just read)… needless to say we kept on driving.
By the way, check out the real dirt devil we saw out in a field as we were driving. I’m pretty sure we saw some tumble-weeds too. But that might be my imagination.
We were stopped at several military checkpoints where we were asked if we were transporting animals, guns or drugs. We told them no, but honestly we could have been toting a monster sized crocodile in a cage underneath the orange blanket in the back and they wouldn’t have noticed – surprisingly nobody cared about checking under the blanket. We kept driving and came upon miles and miles of strange looking cacti trees. It was like driving on the moon.
We began seeing the Sierra Madre mountains as we headed into Monterrey. We were surprised to find that Monterrey felt a lot like the States – streets, hotels, restaurants, businesses. Our only regret about Monterrey is that the brewery where they make “Indio” was closed for the day by the time that we arrived. (Side note: Indio is the best Mexican beer there is… and it is not exported anywhere. Tragic!!)
On the third day we headed for the border. The plan was to drop off the rental car in Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican side of the border, have Josh’s dad cross over, pick us up, and cross back over into Texas. As we drove into Nuevo Laredo and called Josh’s dad on our cell phone to see where he was, we found the service to be shoddy at best. The border in Nuevo Laredo also isn’t as clearly defined as you’d imagine. You have to wind through the small town streets and there’s no main highway to the crossing bridge. So, as we cut in and out of communication with Josh’s dad, we parked ourselves in our minivan at the only Church’s Chicken in town and waited anxiously for Dennis.
Miraculously (and after many fervent prayers) he found us! We transferred all of our junk into Dennis’s Yukon and drove out to the airport to drop off the minivan with the rental company, which seemed simple enough. I stayed in the car with Dennis as Josh ran into the airport to find the rental counter. The Nuevo Laredo airport really isn’t an airport at all – it looks only big enough for a helicopter or two, with one security guard and almost no cars in the parking lot. Once inside Josh was informed by a friendly sign that the rental guy with Hertz was out to lunch. It was 2pm, which is definitely lunch time in Mexico.
The Hertz guy had helpfully left a phone number, which we called, and Josh spoke to him in Spanish. Now, keep in mind that Josh and I aspire to be honorary “chilangos” – Mexico City people. We thought that time ran slow in Mexico City (which it definitely did, according to American standards), but comparatively time nearly seems to STOP altogether in Mexican border towns.
“Sorry, I’m out at lunch,” said the guy on the phone, in his thick Norteño accent.
“Ok, when do you think you’ll get back?”
“1, maybe 2 hours,” he said. This can roughly be translated as “2, maybe 3 hours.”
Josh relayed this information and we all simultaneously shook our heads, wide eyed. I probably started to look murderous.
“Well,” Josh said, taking in my unstable expression as he spoke slowly into the phone, “We need to leave and cross the border now.” He glanced at me, “So we need to drop off the car…now.”
“Well I guess you could leave the keys with Yolanda…”
“She works at Avis… but she might be out to lunch too.”
“Ok well if she’s here can I leave the keys with her right now?”
Turned out, Yolanda was there and she reluctantly took the keys, looking very grumpy that she wasn’t at a 3 hour lunch herself, and making no promises that she would ever remember to give them to the Hertz rental car guy. But by that point we didn’t care. We peeled out of the airport parking lot and finally found the end of the confusing winding line to the border where we waited in the queue for nearly 3 hours. By the time we finally pulled up to an immigration officer motioning to us at the border, I was ready to say goodbye to the three-day knot that had been growing in my stomach. We were almost home!
“Papers?” the immigration officer asked brusquely.
I handed him Josh’s passport and mine, and Dennis handed him his driver’s license.
“Where’s your passport or birth certificate?” he squinted harshly at Dennis.
Dennis turned white.
“Sir,” I interjected, “I researched online and called the border authorities and they said it’s fine for an American citizen to cross into Mexico with their license and registration if they stay within the border zone.”
“No ma’am! This is Mexico! You always need your passport or birth certificate when you cross into Mexico.”
We all stared at him, wide-eyed. As my stomach suddenly dropped, I began to dig in my bag. “I’ve got the print-out right here, sir, you can read it. We must have gotten very wrong information.”
At this he growled “Wait right here,” turned on his heel and disappeared into the booth to check our documents.
I’m not sure what Dennis was thinking at that moment, because he’s so nice that he probably wouldn’t ever say, but I could see the beads of sweat popping out on his forehead.
“Don’t worry,” I think I mumbled, “We’ll stay together.” Poor Dennis, it was my fault. I had done the research; I had gotten him into this mess! Visions of Dennis incarcerated in a Mexican jail flashed through my mind, and I reminded myself that I needed to breathe so that I wouldn’t accidentally pass out. I tried to quietly run through my mental rolodex to determine whether I had any connections to any high ranking US government officials.
After what seemed like a terribly long time, the immigration officer stomped angrily back to the car window and glared at us. “I want you guys to cross the border and don’t come back into Mexico without the proper documentation, ok?”
I am not sure if this actually happened or not, but in my mind, Dennis immediately floored the gas, and we screeched past the rest of the officers, past the people getting searched, past the rest of the crossing bridge, and as we drove into the US I think all three of us loudly and simultaneously let out the breath we had been holding for the past 15 minutes. I was overwhelmed by the sudden release of all of my pent up nervousness from the last three days (and the last year and a half for that matter). I’ll never forget the way that Laredo looked at sunset that evening – it’s literally burned into my brain. It probably won’t ever look that good to me ever again (come on, it’s Laredo!). But it sure did look like home sweet home to me that day.
Was it crazy for us to move from Mexico City to Austin by car? Maybe. We can cross it off of our bucket list, at least. Our experience was stressful because of all of the logistics and unexpected events, not necessarily because of any dangerous situations. Sure, it might be a little crazy to hang out near the border these days because of the drug wars, but a lot of it is hype. (That said, DON’T go to Juarez right now… please.) But generally driving through Mexico was a lot of fun, with beautiful scenery, and we felt very safe in the cities of Monterrey and San Luis Potosi. I just would have enjoyed it a bit more if I weren’t in a rental car dragging along most of what I owned. But I tell you what… the next time I have to move a sofa in 100 degree Texas heat, watch a mover break my set of dishes right in front of me, or have to fight tooth and nail with an idiot at the cable company to move my service… it definitely won’t be a very big deal at all.