The drive north

We are now back in Florida. And far from a leisurely joyride, the drive from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Texas was nothing short of an adventure! It certainly showcased God’s grace and protection, for which we are so thankful. While reviewing our ‘exit plan’ out of Mexico a couple of months ago, Megan and I debated whether or not she should travel by road with me. Anticipating difficulties on the road in light of her going into the third trimester of our pregnancy however, we felt it best that she fly back in advance to Florida. I have driven in many countries. Few match Mexico’s generous proportions of hazards such as corrupt police, drug cartel roadblocks and roaming livestock. The thought of dragging my late-term, pregnant wife along for three-days of such ‘adventure’ would be absurd, especially when we could board her on a quick flight out to Miami.

So, with Megan safely in Florida, I spent the next few weeks wrapping up ministry responsibilities and preparing to leave Oaxaca, our home of the past two and a half years. Not keen on driving alone, I tried recruiting a ‘copilot’ for the road. Apparently the opportunity to drive through North America’s most notorious corridor was low on everyone’s to-do list, and I had no takers. Discussing this over Skype with my parents who live in Germany, my dad out of the blue offered to travel with me out of Mexico. For context, back in the 1970’s, before I arrived into the world, my parents were stationed as diplomats with the American embassy in Mexico City. As much as I was thrilled to have my dad’s company, I think it also gave him an excuse to revisit a place my parents used to call home.

The plan was to meet him in Mexico City, a place I wanted to avoid driving through at all cost. Oh well, I just figured the horrific traffic and bribe-hungry traffic police we were bound to encounter would just have to be part of the experience. It’s only fitting. My dad and I had many adventures together over the years. It’s our quality time. In Panama where I grew up, we explored remote corners of the country, blazed jungle trails with machetes, and donned scuba gear to scour murky river beds with metal detectors in search of long lost treasures. It was always a lot of fun. It had been a long time since we’ve shared any such adventures together, and if it meant braving one of the world’s largest, most congested city in a 16-passenger Ford van, so be it!

Departure day was a teary-eyed Saturday morning. With the van packed, I said farewell to dear friends and neighbors before setting out towards Mexico City, a six hour drive northwest from Oaxaca. Traffic was relatively light through Oaxaca and Puebla states, and negotiating the winding mountain passes was actually enjoyable. Along the way I was fortunate to encounter only a single Mexican army roadblock manned by a platoon of young recruits conducting routine vehicle inspections. The smiles on their faces masked their role in the ongoing drug war. They otherwise held their rifles close, ready to kill someone. But it was rather fun chatting for a few minutes. They asked about the contents of the van, and seeing the Texas plates, eagerly switched the conversation about life north of the border. After a few minutes’ worth of diversion talking with the gringo they had to return to their work and sent me on my way.

Only as I approached Mexico City did my stress levels begin to rise. Not far within city limits, two cars collided in front of me. Barely missing them I carried on through impossibly narrow thoroughfares while circumnavigating grandiose roundabouts. Only when I pulled up to hotel where my dad was staying did I realize how much adrenaline I had accumulated along the way. I parked in the hotel’s loading zone just off the main road, walked inside and almost immediately found my dad in the lobby. The question then was ‘where to park?’. Being in a rather nice part of town, the hotel had an underground parking lot. I wasn’t surprised to find out though that the van was too tall. It had to remain where it was, and I was assured that it would be perfectly safe. A security guard would watch over it, and so on. First day, no problems aside from British Airways not yet locating my dad’s luggage from his flight from Germany. On Sunday morning we awoke well-rested and checked on the van. It was fully intact. We hailed a taxi to take us to church. The rest of the day we wandered around town, and spent a few hours at a huge flea market my parents often frequented while living there. Returning to the hotel, all was fine so far with the van. My dad’s luggage was also found and delivered to us that evening. Things were looking up. We decided in any case it would be best to hit the road early Monday morning.

Morning arrived, and as if by some magic trick, the van – had vanished. I uttered a quick prayer while making an about face towards the reception desk, asking the Lord to help me trust Him in this sudden crisis. I knew the situation was completely out of my control. Panic was not an option. Calmly, I asked the young man there “where is the van?”. Surely there was some explanation. My heart sank as he told me he did not know, but “that it was probably towed”. Towed. Monday morning. We’re in the middle of the world’s third largest city, and the van – with all of our household goods – was mysteriously towed. Although relieved to know that I had removed the van’s title and registration, the logistics of finding and retrieving the van was not something I was remotely prepared to do. Fortunately the hotel managers owned up to their mistake – they after all assured me of the van’s safety – and started making phone calls.

At least two hours passed, and still no confirmation of the van’s whereabouts. Finally, they located it. It had been taken to a police impound lot a few miles away. Now to get it back. A hotel manager began photocopying all of the documents we would have to present and advised us of what to expect at the impound lot. We made our way there in a taxi, and I was relieved to see the big white van parked off in the distance amidst a sea of impounded vehicles. After standing in queue for quite some time, our turn came up. Handing the paperwork to the transit cop, he set about examining each page – as if by reflex – looking for reasons to keep the van in their possession. A misspelled name, a missing page, an expired date. I grew up in Latin America and expected this. Unfortunately, in such a situation we are at their mercy. When authorities are corrupt, any situation requiring ‘benevolence’ – such as releasing an impounded vehicle – commands a bribe above the standard release rate posted at the window. In Mexico,  a bribe is also called a ‘mordida’, which translates into English as a ‘bite’. Their strategy is to hold up the process, making it as unbearable as possible. Out of sheer frustration, or to simply avoid being worn down in this manner, many people would opt to offer a bribe. We were just as determined to not give in, as the cost of getting the vehicle back was already going to exceed US$80.00. The game ensued.

To his chagrin he found a ‘snag’ in our paperwork – an expired vehicle registration form. When we initially drove the van into Mexico from Texas in 2011, I had to register it as a foreign vehicle in my name. At that time, the registration was valid for only six month, at which point the vehicle would have to be driven to an international border and re-registered. Changes in the law since then however, eliminated the need to do this. So long as I – the person to whom the vehicle is registered – maintained a current residency visa (FM3), the vehicle could remain in my care beyond the expiration date indefinitely. This is well documented on an official Mexican government website. Fortunately we anticipated this scenario, and I had a printout of that webpage with me. Determined to extract their bribe, they ignored all the new law and pressed the issue. We were determined and pushed back. But as the ‘law men’ they probably felt rather indignant to have a foreigner explain the law to them. They moved us to a new window with a different agent. Finally, as they they wouldn’t let up on the registration date issue, we had to ask for the supervisor. The middle aged police sergeant we were referred to looked at us, and immediately decided that we were wrong, pointing to the expired registration date. The situation went from bad to ridiculous. We had been working on this for hours. The longer everything dragged out, the more risks we faced. The van was sitting in the lot, and by this point people knew it was bound for the Texas border. This, along with the amount of stuff inside, we feared, could possibly make the van a tempting means of sneaking drugs across the border. If it had remained in the lot overnight it would certainly be compromised. We would have had to remove each item and thoroughly check to be sure drugs or other contraband weren’t planted before continuing north. We really had to get on the road…hours ago!

Up until now my dad had been unusually quiet, looking on somewhat bemused as the hotel manager and I worked out this situation. He’s faced his lion’s share of these situations over the course of his career, and was quite content to let us work our way out. Suddenly, after we seemingly hit a wall with the supervisor, he decided to chime in. We were at a critical point. Our fate rested on the whim of an aged cop who was just told – by us – how to do his job. In Spanish my dad began to explain, “my son and his wife have been helping in this country as missionaries…working with tribal people and trying to do good for Mexico and its people…” He went on to mention that he himself worked at the U.S. embassy in the 1970’s and was “utterly disappointed with the handling of this situation”. There came a quiet pause, followed by an unexpected equivocation by the sergeant. “Okay, go”, he replied, adding “be sure you update the registration” as a face-saving measure. A window of opportunity was opened. We wasted no time signing the remaining release papers, paying the standard fee, and driving the van, still intact, out the gate.

We hit the road as lunch hour was drawing to a close. Traffic was heavy but we made our way out of the city. Hours later, as dusk was closing in we arrived safely in San Luis Potosi, a markedly quieter town that is occasionally marred by drug-related violence. After a good night’s rest in a local hotel, we continued north Tuesday with the goal of crossing the border at Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, into Laredo, Texas, before nightfall. For the next eight hours we vigilantly maneuvered through Mexico’s midsection. Sticking to the toll roads, we travelled through the regions of Mexico designated by the U.S. State Department as off limits to non-essential travel – at least by government employees. Some of these states, such as Coahuila and Tamaulipas, border the U.S. and have seen some of the worst drug violence over the past few years.

The scenery of northern Mexico can be mesmerizing on the senses. Under clear azure blue skies, the passing landscapes were big and beautiful. In the more remote places, misty mountain ridges, cactus clothed hillsides, and vast fields of blooming agave plants were only occasionally interrupted by a loudly painted adobe house. In my mind I felt as though I was traveling through two different worlds at once. One was incredibly peaceful, distracting me from another world that was incredibly broken and troubled. I looked ahead down the road, scanning each side while observing the horizon behind. We only stopped to refuel, and wanted no encounters – not with the notorious ‘federales’ or federal police, nor with the drug cartels that often set up roadblocks. I already began to miss our home in Oaxaca; at the same time I was eager to cross the border. Just a few hours to go as we passed massive maquiladoras near Saltillo and bypassed Monterrey. I prayed as we continued on along through Mexico’s northern border region.

We reached Nuevo Laredo by 5:30 pm. Anticipating more hassles crossing the border, we were pleasantly surprised to be waived out of Mexico before crossing the Rio Grande towards American territory. Upon crossing the bridge the road fanned out into multiple entry points, each manned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Cameras were mounted everywhere, peering into each passing vehicle from nearly every angle. We slowed down and made our way in queue. The suburban truck in front of us pulled was given the signal to approach the guard station. We observed as the driver talked with the agent. Suddenly after just a couple of minutes, we watched as a team of at least seven border agents converged on that vehicle, dragged out the driver, handcuffed and led him away. I thought about the collision that took place just ahead of me while in Mexico City, our van disappearing, and now this event unfolding before our eyes. What more lay ahead? I just wish I could be arriving in West Palm Beach, embracing my wife after so long. The agents moved the suburban away, and we were given the green light advance. The agent who had just initiated an arrest less than five minutes ago asked for our passports. “Busy day, huh?” we asked. “Yup” he replied. “What are you carrying?”. I was glad that I spent the night before utilizing the hotel’s business center to compile and print a detailed inventory of our things. “Returning home to the States after two and half years as missionaries in Oaxaca”. “Here’s a list of our things”. He poked around a bit for a couple of minutes, and told us to move on. “Thank you Lord” I sighed with relief while proceeding forward into Texas. We obviously had no reason to be retained for any reason, but in light of the recent series of events, it was nice to know that we were finally in the clear. And back in the United States. Considering the close calls, and all the messy things that could have happened since leaving Oaxaca, God was incredibly merciful.

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