The first true border crossing of this trip (no, Canada doesn’t really count) proves to be a bit of an adventure. Good thing we packed our smiles!
Before this trip began I did a little research, reading some articles about what makes a successful travel blog. The consensus seems to be this: You need to portray yourself as an expert. Whether you are an expert at finding cheap flights, an expert at finding the perfect hotel, an expert at travel photography; whatever it is, you need to come across like you know what you are talking about.
By contrast, this blog is about a person who does not really know anything. Perhaps I am an expert at continuing to smile, maybe I’m an expert at not getting tired of eating beans; but I still feel like a novice in so many ways.
However, perhaps now I can say that I am an expert at crossing international borders with my parents. Be prepared to bask in the glory of my competency. 🙂
How to (not) get into Mexico
Step 1: Planning ahead is vital. Be sure to cross the border at the absolute busiest time. The Saturday preceding Christmas should suffice. Crossing at a busy time ensures that you get your money’s worth from your immigration experience. It will not be a brief stop.
Step 2: Have some technical difficulties which delay your departure in the morning. You don’t want to beat the crowds (See Step 1).
Ready to roll:
Step 3: Take the West bridge over the Rio Grande. The traffic will already be backed up, allowing for ample time to study the amalgamation of belongings in the bed of the pickup in front of you.
A good example:
Step 4: Pay $3.50 to cross the bridge. Find the least spiky-est path to roll your motorcycle through the barricade.
Step 5: Wait on the bridge to get into Mexico.
Step 6 (optional): Give some change to the guy wandering through the traffic playing the accordion.
Step 7: See the long lines of foot traffic waiting to get into the US and be thankful that you are not one of them.
Step 8: After finally getting up to the gate, follow the guards instruction to just drive right through. Don’t take off your helmet. Don’t show your passport. Don’t ask any questions. Don’t tell them whether or not you have weapons. You are now in Mexico.
Step 9: Make sure your parent’s vehicle is still behind you. Wave some cars around to attempt to travel in tandem.
Step 10: Loop around to get to the big immigration building. You should probably tell someone that you are in their country.
Step 11: Arrive at parking lot for said building to find it absolutely packed with vehicles. Assume the gentleman in the reflective vest knows what he is talking about and follow his instructions to drive down a steep muddy embankment to an overflow parking area beneath the eastern bridge over the Rio Grande.
Step 12: Park vehicles. Tell your parents everything is going to be fine. Gather documents and march up the hill, across the street, through the parking lot to the immigration building.
Step 13: Very important: Be sure to forget what the word “paso” means (“step” in English). Even if one of your favorite songs in Spanish is called Pasos de Gigante (“Giant Steps”). Remembering this word will make the process too smooth.
Step 14: Follow what appears to be the main crowd of people to what appears to be the longest line. You will not be deterred by the sign saying “Paso 4,” because you no longer remember what this word means.
Step 15: Begin to have doubts that you are in the correct line, even though you’ve been there for about 30 minutes already. Listen to your mother and seek out some assistance.
Step 16: Find the staff member who is the tallest, talking the loudest and who is most demonstrative. He will be the most helpful. Use your Spanish to see if, by some miracle, he speaks English. He will respond in perfect English, explain the process as thoroughly as possible and remind you what the the word “paso” means.
(Seriously though, that guy was awesome)
Step 17: Follow the instructions of tall awesome guy to leave somebody waiting in the line for Paso 4, so you don’t have to wait there again. Choose the member of the party who is best at making new friends. My mother was elected unanimously.
Step 18: Take your Father and your documents outside to find a smaller door with a smaller line leading up to Paso 1. Meet a nice young lady in line who speaks perfect English and who verifies with a staff person that you are in the right line.
Step 19: Call your Mother to see how she is doing. She will have a new friend from Indiana by this time.
Step 20: After a 30 minute wait or so, you will be at the front of the line. This is your big moment, don’t blow it.
Step 21: Luck into getting a staff person who speaks some English. Explain that you will be in Mexico for more than seven days, while your parents will be here less than seven. There is no charge for a visa unless your stay is longer than seven.
Step 22: You now have three Forma Migratoria Multiples (FMMs) in hand. Your mother did not need to be seen to obtain one. Maybe they’ve heard of her? A staff person will instruct your Father to just sign for her. Seems legit.
Step 23: Following the directions of some fellow travelers, go wait in line somewhere between Paso 1 and Paso 2. The line is for a Banjercito (I’m not sure how to translate this…maybe like cashier/treasurer?)
Step 24: Take the advice of another traveler in line to leave your Father in this line while preceding on to the line Paso 2. Paso 2 is basically just a little window for making copies. They also sell books and bibles if you are in need.
Step 25: After waiting in that line, stroll confidently to the window. They will speak no English, but will be impressed by your ability to mix up the verbs “llevar” (to take) and “llegar” (to arrive/come). They will see that you have made some copies prior to coming and instruct you on which other ones you need (assuming that you can explain the situation to them in coherent Spanish). The lady here will also tell you that you are ready to proceed to Paso 4.
Step 26: Go retrieve your Father from Paso 1.5…..or whatever that line is. He will have made a new friend by this point as well.
Step 27: Attempt to return to Paso 4. Tall awesome guy will still be doing his thing, even though a couple of hours have now passed. Tall awesome guy will look over your information and your copies and let you know what else you need. He will inform you that you still need a copy of your Dad’s FMM (Visa form) and the original registration for their car (which will still be in their car).
Step 28: Call your Mother to make sure she is OK. Let her know that you still have some hoops to jump through. She will now be at the front of the line at Paso 4, just letting people pass.
Step 29: March with your Dad out the door, through the parking lot, passed the food carts, down the hill, back to where the vehicles are parked. Retrieve the registration form and march back the other way.
Step 30: Go back to the line for Paso 2, the copy station. Hand over the 5 pesos for the last copy, Dad’s FMM.
Step 31: A fellow traveler will ask if you can take her husband (not sure), David, to the front of Paso 4 with you. She has been very helpful so agree to give it a shot. David will speak some English and be a pleasant addition to the party.
Step 32: Tall awesome guy will no longer be acting as a gate keeper for the Paso 4 line. Instead, tell the situation to an official looking guy wearing a flak jacket. In Spanish, tell him where your Mother is and inform him, “Somos tres.” (there are three of us) He will direct you around and lift one of the line barriers for. Position David between yourself and your Dad and sweep him to the front of the line with you. He will be very thankful.
Step 33: Mom will appear to be doing OK. At this point you will have some regret at not teaching her the word “adelante” (go ahead). She has been getting by with a smile and hand signals. She has met some nice friendly people, though.
Step 34: Wait for the instructions to go up to one of the clerks at the desk. Hope that you get someone who speaks English. The clerk will be a young gentleman who does not speak much English, but who is very helpful.
Step 35: Do the document dance. Spread out all of your documents and hand over each one in turn. The customer at the next window will speak English and be able to help with a few translations.
Step 36: Take care of your parents and their vehicle first. They will not need to pay for a visa since their stay will be less than 7 days. They will just need to pay a deposit of about $340 US to bring their vehicle into the country. (This fee is meant to discourage people from bringing in vehicles to sell. It is refunded upon exit)
Step 37: Take care of your motorcycle. You will need to pay the visa fee, about $25 US, since you are staying longer than 7 days. Your deposit will be about $440, since your vehicle is newer.
Step 38: Ask the clerk if he needs to see your Mexican insurance. Since you already paid for it, you kind of want to show it to someone. He will say to just keep it with you.
Step 39: Ask about your parents getting their deposit back if they return over a different border. The clerk will say that is fine, but highly recommend steering clear of Reynosa, saying that it is “feo”(ugly).
Step 40: After a multitude of stamps, signatures and stickers; you will be told that you are all set. Welcome to Mexico!
Step 41: Exchange vigorous high fives with your travel companions.
Phew! What an experience! We left our hotel at around 7:30am and were not done at the border until noon. It was a wild ride. However, I should make sure to mention that this sort of experience is not necessarily typical when crossing into Mexico. One of the people that my Mom talked to said that they do the whole process in about 20 minutes when they cross in the summer. More than anything, I think it was just bad timing.
Furthermore, I can’t really say that it was a frustrating experience. Though it took a long time, we met so many nice helpful people who tried to help us out. There is almost a sense of camaraderie among travelers, as everyone is in the same boat. My parents were real troopers, too. As lost as I was with the language barrier, I know it was worse for them. They were still smiling at the end though.
I think my parents were a bit surprised by the lack of English speakers and signage at the border. Linguistically speaking, the transition from English to Spanish takes place in Texas. Once you cross the border you shouldn’t expect anyone to speak English. Culturally, we probably only saw 3-4 people among the hundreds who would be considered Caucasian. We stuck out a little bit.
My Mom commented about how amicable everyone seemed. No one in line seemed to be getting impatient. We never saw anyone get angry or upset with one of the staff. Strangers tried to help each other. Though this was a confusing experience, I can’t say it gave us a negative first impression of this country. Perhaps this is a good way to sum up Mexico: The quality of the people much exceeds the quality of the systems.
Perhaps the best thing about our crossing was that we never felt unsafe at any time. Nuevo Laredo has some rough spots, but the area along the border is very well patrolled.
That’s all for this episode! Next time we will learn the rules of the road in Mexico. They seem to be based purely on Darwinism. Thanks for reading!
Keep remembering the word “paso,” everybody!