No! Did I miss it? How? There was only one lane! How the fuck did it happen!?
I had spent one month in California, one month with my aunt Sana. and her family. Kamilia had flown back to Montreal and it was time for me to move South. I double checked the car, the paperwork, and the itinerary. My destination was the coastal town of Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico. After a month in luxury, I knew the van life would be rough. For the first time, la Chichona and I would be alone on the road.
I had backpacked through Mexico before, from Monterrey to Cancun. In my previous trips, I had learnt to get around, to avoid dangerous areas, and to stay out of trouble. This time though, I was driving a 7-meter van, with Canadian plates, and all my possessions in the back. The stakes were slightly higher.
Signs of third-world appeared before even crossing the border. The road lanes, straight and respected in California, began to merge and curve in messy ways. Barriers and traffic cones tried to control the incessant flow of people pushing their cars in every inch of empty space. Animosity, aggressivity, and chaos ruled. It felt like driving in Marrakesh.
I elbowed my way through the cars, having a rusty sprinter van helped. A young Mexican customs officer attended me at the gate. She was cute in her black uniform, with her blue latex gloves. She placed a large yellow plastic sign on my windshield and showed me where to park. The sign read: “Full non-intrusive inspection”.
I parked where she pointed and waited. Twenty minutes later, I was still waiting, alone, with the yellow sign on my windshield. All cars were passing around me. I started having doubts, maybe I missed the instructions. Maybe my Spanish isn’t that good. Maybe I’m in the wrong spot…
I moved and followed the other cars, searching for another inspection area. And just like that, I was on the highway on the otherside. Fuck! How did that happen? No inspection, no passport stamp, no car permit, nada. I was now in Mexico…illegally.
I drove back to the border gates, parked near a high security building, and walked around asking for help. A customs agent told me to cross the border to the US, then to cross again. It was the only way to have my papers settled. Crossing the border to the US would take at least 4 hours and I had planned to be in Ensenada before sunset. There must be another way.
I asked a young security guard if someone had the authority to make an exception. He consulted his boss and came back; an uncomfortable expression tainted his face. His plan was to escort me to the immigration office, pretending to be customs personnel. We would start at the exit and transit through all security checks backwards. He said he knew all the security guards inside, except one. I had no better option. If it works I would be on my way to Ensenada this afternoon. If not, well…
He drew a map of the building and marked where I had to go. I got excited. It felt like a bank robbery. I put on my most confident posture and put my papers in a file folder. He walked ahead of me and gave me instructions over the shoulder. One by one, he saluted every security guards, with me trailing behind. I did exactly as he said. We reached the final checkpoint, the luggage scanner. He stopped abruptly and ordered me to keep walking.
I learnt dealing with the Moroccan administration that important-looking people are rarely stopped. I put on a mean face, waved the folder in my hand, and walked in a hurried, determined fashion. My heart was pounding hard. My hands were sweating. But nobody saw that.
I reached the luggage scanner and nodded a brief salute to the guard, then walked on. He nodded back. It worked! I walked through all security checkpoints backwards while people were having their bags scanned and opened. I reached the immigration desk like the rest of the world, happy and relieved. Half an hour later, I had my visa, the car permit, and big smile on my face.
The first security guy was waiting for me at the exit. He walked me back to la Chichona and leaned on the door. His whole body was begging. Had it not been for this guy, I would have wasted the whole day in bureaucracy and traffic. I shook his hand with a folded bill, thanked him, and blessed his family. He escorted me on the way out. God, I missed the third world!
My first day in Mexico was exciting. I had found and embraced a long lost mindset, the tranquilo mindset. In Mexico, everything is negotiable. If you ever get into trouble, tranquilo. There is always a way out.