Dec 17

Day 11 – McAllen, TX to ?, Mexico – 121 Miles

by in Field Reports

Today has been a draining day. We woke up at 6:30AM to try to get everything packed up and cross the border early, if Kay’s back was ok. Kay’s back was *mostly* ok and neither of us particularly wanted to sit around in McAllen any longer than we had to, so we decided to head out.

We packed everything up. We’re still carrying around extra tires because we haven’t gotten around to mounting my new ones yet (and the tread on my existing tires is actually quite good still, considering that they have 8k miles on them – I just don’t particularly trust them in iffy conditions). We headed out, determined to change some cash at a bank before we crossed into Mexico. It took a while to get cash out of an ATM, and then to get it changed. Then we stopped at a grocery store to grab some emergency rations in case we’d get to “hidey camp” this evening (mac & cheese) and get gas, and that took longer than expected.

By the time we got to the border crossing at Progresso, our 6:30AM start had it turned into nearly 11:30AM. We pulled up at the office. There were only two people in line when we went to the immigration lady, and we thought we’d be lucky. But she started speaking Spanish to us, and when we conveyed that we don’t speak Spanish, she switched to English long enough to ask “Where are you going?” and then went back to Spanish to tell us that she couldn’t do our paperwork. We’d need to go to another border crossing “10 minutos” down the road.

So we had to turn around and go back through American customs. We had to wait in line, and the customs guy made Kay open his panniers and asked me some questions even though we didn’t have any stamps in our passport and hadn’t actually made it to Mexico. He told Kay that the lady at the immigration office could have processed our paperwork – she just didn’t want to. Presumably because we didn’t speak Spanish.

The “ten minutes” turned into an hour, wherein we stopped to grab a quick lunch (burritos standing by our bikes) and bathroom break. Luckily, the place where we stopped to use the bathroom was right next to the road we were supposed to take to the next border crossing, which wasn’t signed from the direction we were traveling but Kay saw the sign when he was coming back from the post office next door. (Still trying to mail off the stickers – post office was out for lunch.)

When we arrived at border crossing number 2 for the day, it was around 12:45PM. We went inside, and everyone seemed to know exactly which line to get into. Some guy whistled and pointed us to a line, so we went and stood in line but the official was waving people in from a different part of the queue. I tried to send Kay to get in that line, but the official then pointed us to go back to where we’d been standing. None of this was signed.

We stood in line for a while, and then when we got to the window the guy didn’t really speak English. He spoke a little, and we spoke a (very little) Spanish and got the paperwork that we’d need from him. He then sent us off to fill out the paperwork, and get back in a different line that still went to his station once we’d completed the form for the tourist visa. After he checked in our tourist visas, he sent us to get in line to pay for them.

We went. We waited in line. We paid. When we paid, the guy asked if we were checking in motos, and then indicated that we needed to go back to the immigration guy and then to aduana to check in the bikes. Went back to the immigration guy, who finally stamped our passports. Then we walked over and stood next to the aduana for a few minutes, and someone came out with us to the bikes to confirm that the VIN numbers on our registrations matched the VIN numbers on the bikes.

After that, we went back inside and waited again to pay for the bikes. Took a long time to get the temporary vehicle importation permits, but that was the last step. We were officially checked into Mexico! This happened at around 2:30PM, so it took us close to 2 hours with all of the waiting in line. All in all, it wasn’t so bad – I’m anticipating much worse border crossings further on.

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Side notes: $262 MEX for immigration and $448 MEX on your card to guarantee you won’t sell the bike (prices are per bike/person). You get the $448 back when you check your bike out of the country. Also, they want a photocopied sheet with both your passport and drivers license on it. They were able to make one at our border crossing, but better to have one in advance.
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But it had become apparent that we were in another world, and I was more and more regretting that we didn’t speak Spanish. We rode on for a bit, still thinking of lunch, and picked a random roadside rotisserie chicken stand to grab eats. I sent Kay to fetch food while I stayed with the bikes, and he came back with the most delicious chicken and potatoes that had been sitting in the chicken drippings… it was divine. By far, best meal of the trip. Was around $8, fed us both and we had leftovers for dinner.

While we were eating, though, something rather horrific happened behind us. We were right on a major road, and a pick-up truck came by and happened to hit a bump. The yellow dog in the back of the pick-up truck bounced up and came flying out of the truck bed… and landed in the road, where he was immediately run over by the car following close on the pick-up’s heels.

The poor dog made the most pitiful whimper. I’ve never heard anything like it. It immediately made me homesick for my own dog, who I haven’t spared more than a passing thought for since we started the trip. Kay looked over and confirmed that the dog was still down, and was bleeding from the head. I lost it.

I know it was just a dog. We’ve passed many more since leaving that town, dead by the side of the road, probably killed in similar accidents. The poverty of the people here is much more heart-wrenching than a single dead dog, but the dog was a touchstone for my life back home – something I could relate to. I suddenly felt very far from home in an unfriendly place. I ended up crying in my helmet for miles over that dead dog.

Shortly thereafter, we reached our first military checkpoint (where they had us stop – we’d passed one before where they waved us through). They made Kay open his panniers, but the guy just asked me if I spoke Spanish, and when I confirmed that I didn’t, he didn’t try to say anything else. I could see him admiring the bikes and could tell he wanted to talk to us, but we didn’t have a shared language to speak.

We had a similar experience at the customs stop we hit a little further on – one guy there spoke a bit of English but mostly we couldn’t communicate. He wished us luck, and we thanked him. That was more-or-less it.

Thinking I could use a bathroom break and a minor recalibration, we stopped at the next Pemex (gas) station we saw. While we were there, a truck load of military guys arrived and started going through the cars parked there. They searched the other cars. They searched people’s personal belongings. When I went inside, they were even getting a register printout from the cash register. This was totally alien for me. We simply don’t have anything like this in the US, but the people here were acting like it was an every-day occurrence. Kay started to surreptitiously film it, but one of the military guys noticed and asked him to stop. Nicely, but firmly.

Maybe ten or fifteen miles after leaving the Pemex station, I asked Kay if he was noticing anything weird with his bike’s front end. I wasn’t sure if the road surface was being weird, or if maybe I needed air in my tire, but I was starting to have something like speed wobbles. It didn’t feel like speed wobbles, though, and there was no reason for it to have started in the middle of the day like that. We pulled over again in front of a vulcanizer (tire repair guy – I might not be spelling that right) and I checked the air pressure in the front tire, and dialed up the pre-load a bit. Didn’t help – in fact, I noted that the wobbles were getting worse.

At this point, it was probably 30 minutes from sunset and Kay and I had no idea where we were going to sleep. We’d planned to be much further from the border than where we were, and we were thwarted by all of the open fields surrounding this major road. There wasn’t really any cover to hidey-camp – it was all wide open land. And the road itself was extremely busy – there was no chance to pull off without someone noticing. With all of the military presence, I just wasn’t comfortable trying to find a spot to hidey camp. So we really didn’t have a plan, except to keep riding and I assume we were both hoping for the landscape to change so we could find a hidden spot to camp.

But with my wheel being wibbly, on top of all of the other stress of the day, I was mentally shutting down. I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what was going on with my bike, and we had no place really to stop and figure it out. Then, like magic, we saw a “Hotel” sign. Kay asked if I wanted to stop, or if we wanted to try to find some place to hidey-camp still, and I completely bailed. I left the decision entirely in his hands – I was just too overwhelmed to try to figure out what to do. I didn’t feel very much like an adventurer at all, at that point.

Kay made an executive decision to stop at the hotel parking lot when we arrived a couple of minutes later. We pulled in, and I was having trouble putting my bike on the sidestand. I tried moving the bike a bit and was still having trouble – there didn’t seem to be enough angle to get the bike onto the stand. And then I remembered when we had a problem like that before, and asked Kay “Is my rear tire flat?”

Yep. The rear tire had been slowly going flat, probably since we left the Pemex around a half hour before. We had maybe 20 minutes of sunlight, and we had no idea how far we were to the next town. No idea what would be involved in fixing the tire. Yet here we were stopped in a hotel’s parking lot.

Kay went in and secured us a room, and it turns out the place is surprisingly nice. $30 for a night, secure parking in a guarded courtyard, internet (wired) and television, and a clean, pleasantly-decorated room. The beds are a little firm, but everything else is better than we could have hoped. Kay said when I wheeled my bike into the courtyard “the gods have heard your pleas.” And they had.

I have a flat tire. I assume we’ll be able to fix it in the morning, or take it to one of the tire guys who is ubiquitous in this area. We have a safe place to sleep, and the bikes are locked up in a secure courtyard. Hopefully we’ll have a better plan for tomorrow.

Mexico has caught us completely unawares, methinks, and left us feeling off-kilter. We need to learn Spanish ASAP.

Kay’s equipment notes: the latches on the Happy Trails panniers make it a pain in the ass to open them at military checkpoints. Particularly when you have something anchored down to the pannier handles (which we added), and using a padlock to secure them.

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