There are a lot of amazing things about living in Mexico. Since we arrived, Rachel and I have met some of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever known. We’ve eaten amazing food, learned the language (ish), and enjoyed the peace that comes with a slower pace of life. But living the expatriate life is not without it’s challenges, and today is no exception.
In fact, the biggest challenge we’ve faced since living here has nothing to do with Mexico, and has everything to do with the United States. Rachel and I live about thirty miles from the US/Mexico border crossing, and we cross it pretty frequently. There are certain things that we just can’t do in Mexico; for instance, buy dog food, go to Trader Joes, drink Starbucks and withdraw from an ATM that dispenses dollars, rather than pesos (dollars are preferred in this part of Mexico). So every week or two, we plan a day to drive up to San Diego and do our chores.
Crossing the border into the States is completely and utterly unpredictable. It can take us anywhere from five minutes to five hours to drive through the customs and border patrol inspection stations. We’ve tried to logically deduce when there will be the least amount of back up based on commuter schedules, weather and holidays; but it’s of no use. So we always plan about three hours of “wiggle room” into our schedule, just to be safe.
So today, Rachel and I are making our way to the border, and I’m praying for smooth sailing. Unfortunately, we pull up into the line, and it’s bad… really bad. We’ve learned to gauge our wait times based on our distance to the checkpoint – a quarter mile = 1 hour, a half mile = 2 hours, more than a half mile = at least 3 hours. And today, we’re in the longest line I’ve ever seen.
And the longer the line, the more vendors there are on the street. There are hundreds of people selling anything you could ever want: burritos, blankets, NFL jerseys, statues of the Virgin Mary, tostilocos (pic below), jewelry and iPhone cases, to name a few.
“I guess this wasn’t the best day to bring the dogs with us!” I say jokingly to Rachel. We usually leave the pups at home, but today we have a ton of errands to run, so the they are coming along for the ride. This is their first time crossing the border back into the States, and I’m a little nervous that all of the vendors surrounding our car are going to freak them out.
“Oh my gosh, look at Nimitz’s face!” Rachel exclaims as she snaps a photo of him. He’s seen the vendors and is giving his best “What the hell is this?” look.
“Alright, I guess we just have to settle in and wait.” I lament. We’ve crossed the border enough to know that there’s no use in getting frustrated, especially not this early in the game.
But today, the wait is taking longer than I expected. I look at the clock and realize we’ve been sitting here for well over two hours, and we’re still at least a half-mile away from the inspection station.
“Ugh… This is the worst!” I exclaim and put my head on the steering wheel.
“I know,” Rachel says, “and now I have to pee.” This isn’t good. The border crossing is basically a line of cars on a highway with some pop-up vendor stands along the side. Finding a restroom, let alone a clean one, could prove to be tricky. “I’m going to get out and see if any of these vendors have a bathroom.”
“Ok,” I say, “I’ll be here!”
I watch Rachel walk over to one of the vendors, and it seems like she’s having some luck; until I see her turn around and walk back to the car.
“What happened?” I say.
“They wanted 75 pesos for the bathroom! Can you believe that? That’s like 5 dollars, and I am not paying 5 bucks to use the bathroom.”
She gets back in the car and we continue to wait, but word of Rachel’s full bladder must have traveled quickly, because a few seconds later, a woman approaches our car window and lets us know that there’s another restroom that only costs a dollar. Armed with this information, she grabs a dollar and walks back over to the bathroom lady. I see her go inside and when she gets back to the car she tells me that on her second visit the woman changed the amount from 75 pesos to 75 cents. I’d like to think this was a simple miscommunication, but I think we know better.
We sit in silence for a few moments, looking around at the miserable line, before I turn to Rachel and say, “Well, it’s clear that we’re going to be stuck in this line for the rest of our lives, so we should at least eat something!”
I see a woman walking down the street selling churros and I flag her down. If you haven’t had churros, they’re these deliciously amazing strips of dough, deep-fried and then covered in sugar. “Yes, I think this is what we need!”
We sit in the car and start munching on our churros, when suddenly, the entire mood in the car shifts. We start laughing and joking about the reality of our lives in Mexico. Then, I pull up to another vendor and ask for a bottle of water, I jokingly turn to Rachel and say “I wish I was ordering tequila instead of water!”
She gives me a mischievous look and says, “maybe we can order tequila… this is Mexico after all!” She rolls down her window and asks a woman if she has tequila. The woman replies with a laugh and says, “No!, Yo no tengo tequila!” but when she sees the disappointed looks on our faces she breaks into perfect English and says, “but if you seriously want tequila, I’ll get someone to bring it to you.”
We laugh and decide that taking a tequila shot from a random stranger on the street is probably a good way to get kidnapped, so we decline. But then Rachel turns to me and says, “Wait! I have an open bottle of two-buck chuck in the backseat from last night’s fiesta!” We have a quick discussion about the legality of drinking a bit of wine while in the car, and decide that since we’re only moving about 15 feet every 20 minutes, a small sip will probably be ok. We start rifling through the glove box and find a couple of pre-wrapped glasses that we undoubtedly snagged from a hotel during our road trip. We each pour a splash of wine, grab a churro and toast to our new life.
We spend the next hour talking, laughing and doing a lot of people watching. We even discuss the logistics of starting a flash mob at the border, and wonder if we would end up on YouTube, or in jail. But finally, after three and a half hours, it’s our turn at the inspection station. At this point, the two-buck chuck and the churros have worn off. But the way we turned something miserable into something enjoyable will stick with me. It’s a skill we’ll need a lot over the next year as we travel the globe.
So as we pull through the inspection station and into San Diego, I can’t help but think – of all the ways I imagined starting 2016, this wasn’t one of them. I never thought I’d be living as an expat, and preparing for a journey around the world. But today, even with my four-hour commute, this is the only place I want to be.