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15# Walking on thin ice

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Fuck! He took our passports… and why is the envelope red? I hope she sticks to the story… If not, we're doomed. Chill out, breathe… It will be okay

I left Montreal with a heavy heart, pushing the departure by a few weeks to spend more time with my loved ones. I had a close circle of friends, family and Natasha, the perfect lover. Spending my last weeks with them, I realized how lucky I was. But also what I was leaving behind.

The adventure was too intimidating, I did not want to go alone. Travelling in a group is safer, cheaper and more interesting. I looked for companions among my friends and even strangers, but found no one. In the end, I thought it would be good to start the journey with Kamilia, my little sister.

Growing up, Kamilia was the smart one. She cruised through classes with straight A's without breaking a sweat. I envied her. Due to her academic excellence, my parents accepted most of her whims. She moved in with me in her first year of university. We clashed over basic things like cleaning and doing dishes. After six months, I'd had enough of her and kicked her out. We had barely spent a week together since. That was seven years ago.

My mom wanted us to travel together. "It would do you two good" she said. Kamilia completed her studies in December and had quit her part-time job. She was ready for something new and going on a road trip to escape the winter was not the worst plan. I wanted to use this trip as an opportunity to work on my patience, to spend time with Kamila, to be a better brother.

We left on January 5th 2018, at 5am, in the middle of a blizzard. The streets were white and empty, except for the caterpillar trucks piling up the snow on the sidewalks. We drove west to escape the storm coming from the Atlantic. The truck trails were the only black marks on the ground. I followed them like a train in its rails for two hours when we stopped at Tim Hortons for breakfast. The temperature was -37° C.

We reached Niagara and booked a room for the night. Niagara is a touristy town

built around the falls. Besides tour activities and gambling, there isn't much to do. We found the waterfalls frozen. Giant stalactites blossomed, raw and majestic from the cliffs. They looked pure and powerful, a nice change from the shady tourist traps massed around them.

I was contemplating the landscape when it hit me: What if they don't let us through? Two Arabs crossing the US border in a self-converted van to go kitesurfing… not the best argument. A refusal at the US border would mean going back to -37C Montreal. It would mean looking for an apartment, going to the office and working 9 to 5 to get out of debt. A refusal would kill the adventure in its nest. The stakes were too high.

The van looked sketchy, aformer Dicom Express delivery van with the company painting still on the side. The trunk was full with all my belongings, and also the tools I used during the conversion: power tools, electric saws, chemical products, etc. I had brought everything with me without a second thought. What if they don't let us through?

I traveled to the US a dozen times, before and after 9–11, and knew how to avoid trouble. Folks at the border like things to be simple. Anything vague or undefined could be suspicious, and anything suspicious was trouble. That's the rule for white people. If you're brown or black… I needed to convince the US border agents that we were not a threat. For that, we needed a story. 

My situation was straightforward. I was working for one of the largest american corporation and had four weeks off. I intended to cross the US and go to Baja California in Mexico to kitesurf. I had the gear with me to prove it and had looked up a few schools to give an address in case they asked. I knew I would be okay.

Kamilia's situation was tricky. She had finished university, quit her job and had no foreseeable plans. Not a good start for a customs officials. I told her to say she was still studying and was coming with me to see my aunt in California. We rehearsed and added a layer of details for persuasion. If we stick to the same story to the details, we would be fine. Inshallah.

At dawn, we headed for the border. The wind was freezing and howling. I stopped in front of the tiny cabin, prepared our passports and waited nervously. The man inside was the stereotypical US border agent: fat, white and suspicious. He looked at the van and said something.

I opened the window and a gust of wind slapped me in the face. The man shouted something. I shouted back but no one heard a thing. The winds took our words and my confidence with it. He pointed at the door and ordered me to open the van.

I fought the wind and reached for the sliding door. It did not open. The cold… I opened the back doors and the man saw two rows of stacked black boxes. He went back to the cabin, took our passports and put them in a sealed red envelope. Then, he pointed to the big building and told me to go inside. We were due for a car search, and a full interview. Things were not looking good.

Kamilia speaks fast and in a low voice. It's hard to hear her and harder to understand. That's her normal voice. Articulating her words in a loud and slow voice to a US border agent would be a challenge. I told her to speak as if she was explaining her trip to a 6-years old and above all, to stick to the story. The whole adventure relied on her ability to keep it together. I was tense.

The man inside the building was a gentleman, educated and polite, the opposite of the gorilla at the gate. He wanted to know what we did for a living, where we were going and how long we were going to stay in the US. We both stuck to the story and Kamilia answered all his questions with an unexpected ease. He summoned us thirthy minutes later. We picked up our passports. We were clear!

It was 7 am, dark and cold, and the wind hurt our faces but we did not care. We had crossed the first and most difficult border of the trip, and started on the long bridge to the US. We celebrated with an extravagant gas station breakfast and drove toward the beach, to infinity and beyond.

I took six months of sweat and tears to convert la Chichona into a home. After so many misadventures, we were now officially on the open road. 

La Chichona Life was about to begin.


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