Friday, October 07, 2005

Things NOT to do when driving to Mexico

So, last Wednesday, we began our journey to San Felipe. We made a few mistakes along the way, though none of them ended up hurting us too badly. We didn't spend any time in a Mexican prison and we didn't have to bribe any Mexican officials. Still, it could have gone better...

Things didn't start all that well as we had not packed or arranged our supplies or secured care for Nala. My wife had not finished her homework and I had not proofread it. We did not have our car activities set out and I was still unable to copy an audio book to our device. Oh, yes, and Maya and I had a rehearsal from 7-9:30. Somehow, we got all the things done and even had the car loaded such that we just had to roll out of bed and go in the morning. This of course contributed directly to the first thing.

The first thing you should not do when meeting people at 5:30 am in a Target parking lot to caravan down to Mexico is to stay up until 1:45 am making trip preparations. Granted, they need to be done, but you really ought to start sooner. Six hour drives are not recommended on three hours sleep. This is especially true if you don't speak the language of the place you are traveling to.

But we did that anyway and had to suffer the consequences. One of those consequences is also item number 2 on our list. If you need to arrive at 5:30 am, do not set the alarm clock to 5:00...PM! It might get you a little extra sleep, but it only annoys the people who got up on time and are waiting for your sorry butt. And if you do make this mistake, try not to sound like the ringing phone woke you up. Blame your children for the delay or something like that.

We were fortunate in that the people we were traveling with are really nice and overlooked our tardiness. By a little after 6 the wagon train pulled out. We were given the privilege of being the middle car. This is good because they would have lost us otherwise. Our little 4 cylinder engine was no match for the Sequoia in front of us and the Beemer behind. We were barely able to do 50 on the uphill parts in the mountains. Craig wrangled from behind and we kept in cell phone contact while we were on the U.S. side of the border. We brought radios so that we wouldn't have to use the phones once we crossed. Roaming charges, you see. That segues nicely into number 3.

We stopped at a McDonald's in Colexico which is the U.S. city adjacent to Mexicali, where we would be crossing. Craig and I took our cars to get gas and Mexican car insurance while everyone else went in for a bite. We came back and stopped in for something ourselves. I opted for lowfat milk which I added to the cereal I had brought. Then we piled in for an uneventful border crossing. Getting into Mexico is very easy. I don't think anyone even asked us a question. We just drove straight through. That's when thing number 3 occurred to us. "Where's Curt?", I asked. Curt is Joshua's favorite stuffed friend. He's a bear with a Red Sox World Series shirt. He was in the car when we got to McDonald's, but did not seem to be present now. "Where's my cell phone?", I added, as I looked around for Curt. "I didn't have either one," my wife informed me. "I left the phone right on the seat," I asserted, a mild note of panic mingling with the lack of sleep. "Josh brought Curt to the bathroom with him," Maya recalled. Bollix.

We signaled and pulled over to the shoulder on the main highway in Mexicali. We were still very much in the city part. Cars wooshed by as the Sequoia idled in front and the BMW behind. Craig hopped out to find out what was going on and relay the information to Maria, the lead driver. We searched the whole car and found the cell phone. In the trunk. "Oh. Maybe I moved that when I moved our warm clothes," my wife said unabashedly. We decided we had to do a trunk dive for Curt, Josh screaming and crying the whole while. Alas, Curt was not there. He had to still be at McDonald's, on the U.S. side of the border. Border crossing on a work day, which this was, at rush hour, which this was, is a challenging proposition. After our tardiness, nobody wanted to add another 1-2 hours onto the trip.

So, we did the only thing we could. We broke out the cell phones and ate some information and roaming charges. There were two McD's in Colexico. We asked for the one near the border. I called it. A man answered. "Ola." I explained that we were looking for a stuffed bear that was left behind and that we had just eaten there. Clearly, he knew, right what I was getting at. "Ola?" he replied. The mild note decided to kick it up a notch. "Look...ummmm....nosotros...uh...left...un pequna...ehhhhh....stuffed animal." You just know THAT is going to work. "Ola?" Argh! "Look, can I speak to someone else?" *click* He hung up on me. He hung up on me! How hard is it to figure out that you don't speak the same language as the person on the other end and get someone who does?!? I called back, hoping to get someone else. I did! And they promptly told me I wanted the OTHER McD's. At least they gave me the number. So, I called that one and was getting nowhere again, when my wife stepped up to the plate. She is not fluent in Spanish, but is significantly closer than I am. She used far fewer Ums and Uhs and more Spanish words. After five minutes, they determined that they didn't have the bear. They also determined that they were not the McD's right next to the border. They gave us the first phone number again. This time, my wife had the discussion with Senor Ola. He was willing to hand the phone off for her because he could almost understand her. Grrrrrr. Well, she talked to the other person. "Did you find uno osito? A little bear?" The woman on the other end was the manager. She gave an excited reply, "¿Osa Menor? Sí. ¿Es marrón y borrosa? ¿Tiene una pequeña camisa blanca?" That means, "A little bear? Yes. Is it brown and fuzzy? Does it have a little white shirt?" We found Curt! They agreed to put him in a bag for us with our name on it and hold onto it until Sunday. We couldn't go back, but we had found our wayward bear and were assured of his return. Granted, the phone charges were likely more than the cost of the bear, but there are just some things you have to do when you're a Dad.

By the way, number 3 on the list? Don't let your children take anything out of the car at any rest stops!

So, now we were in the unenviable position of having to explain to Josh that we weren't going to see Curt for the rest of vacation. He didn't take it well. I tried explaining that Curt was just having a sleepover. He was going to eat chicken nuggets and play on the playground. We'd pick him up Sunday and all would be well. He was still not very pleased, so I broke out the radios. Distract him, I thought. He liked them and it did distract him, although he couldn't get the hang of pressing the talk button. So, he had me talk to him. Then I got silly. To amuse him, I started saying, "Aieeeeeee! Los Federales! Ayuda me! Ayuda me!" in a kind of high pitched voice into the radio. This translates roughly to, "Aieeeeeee! The state police! Help me!" He laughed. He wanted me to do it again. And again. This led to thing 4. I did it one more time and the radio crackled to life. Someone with an official sounding voice said "Ola?" and then rattled off a bunch of Spanish. Thing 4: Don't bust on the police on an open radio.

We decided to stop playing with the radios at this point. At the next red light, we did a Chinese fire drill to get the second radio to Craig and Kat. That way we could communicate without roaming charges as we drove. Things went pretty smoothly for a while, even though everyone was tired and cranky. Maria set a blistering pace that we were not exactly comfortable with. The speed limit alternated between 60 and 80 km/hr. We were doing 120. Knowing that the Federales like to hassle gringos, we were more interested in toeing the line. Additionally, she liked to pass in non-passing zones and stay in the other lane for an extended period to pass more than one car. At least that is what we thought at the time. It turns out the whole 'staying in the other lane' thing is a caravan trick to let you know it is clear to get over. That enables everyone to know when it is safe to pass. Live and learn. We were still going too fast. We were ripe for thing 5. There were a few contributing factors to thing 5. The first was our speed. The second was the bright sun behind us which made it hard to see when the lead car's brake lights came on. The third was not braking slowly as we passed a Federales cruiser on the side of the ride while decelerating from double he speed limit.

As we passed by his position, we noticed his car pull out behind Craig. I dare say we were all a little anxious. He followed for a bit and then pulled alongside Craig. We had all slowed to within the speed limit. He stared out the window of the cruiser at Craig, daring him to look. To his credit, Craig stared straight ahead. After a while, he tired of this and pulled alongside us. My wife was driving and refused to look. I sneaked a glance from under my hat. It was covering my face so I could feign sleep. The trooper did not appear to be in a good mood. His stern expression was accentuated by his slicked back hair and mirrored shades. He didn't see me peek and my wife refused to look, so he moved up the column. He pulled in front of Maria and enforced the speed limit with his presence all the waedgep to the ede of the desert. He tired of the game and the heat and pulled off at the last chance saloon on the edge of the desert for a beer. Bullet dodged. Thing 5: don't jam on the brakes in front of the Feds, especially when you are speeding.

Given this travelogue, I'm sure you are expecting trouble in the desert. Wrong! The only interesting thing in the desert was the military checkpoint and the men with machine guns. They looked at us and just waved us through. We evenuneventfulan uneventul pit stop at a road side "rest area". It was a bit sketchy. There was a man there who attended the area and sold cold beverages. He also handed out napkins as you walked by. This was to make up for the lack of toilet paper. He spoke no English, so I exhausted my entire Spanish vocabulary conversing with him while the kids went to the bathroom. Then Josh needed my help. When I went in, I found an interesting place. The urinals had been removed from the walls such that you had to use one of the two stalls. The door to one of them didn't open. This turned out not to be a big deal as the wall between the two stalls was missing. I found out what Joshua needed my help with. Hopping from one stall to the other through the missing divider.

We got back on the road and made good time he rest of the way. We pulled into the resort at noon and it only took an hour to get our rooms and keys. From there, we went to lunch arestaurantl restaraunt for our final mistake of the day. We pulled together a bunch of tables on the patio to make room for the twelve of us. Some of us ordered in English and some in Spanish. We waffled on whether or not the water was purified there. The waiter told us he'd bring us a pitcher. But we still weren't sure, so I went to the room and brought back bottled water, instead of buying theirs. We also brought our own wine. We confirmed that this was ok before we did it. The waiter was very nice about it. He uncorked the wine and put both bottles in a bucket of ice on a stand. Then the food came out. Craig and Miriam had ordered carne asada quesadillas. Twice when repeating the order, the waiter had said 'tacos' instead of 'quesadillas'. So, I stopped and corrected him. He got very impatient and said, "Si. Si. I know!" He brought out two plates of carne asada TACOS. Then he insisted they were quesadillas. Maya ordered chicken enchiladas with rice and beans. He brought her chicken salad on lettuce on a fish shaped plate. He then insisted she said "insalata" and not "enchilada". He relented and brought what she ordered. Miriam ate her tacos. Craig did not. The waiter scowled at us the whole time. When we finally got he bill, there was a $12 charge for uncorking the wine that we had not been informed of.

Thing 6: Don't piss off a grumpy Mexican waiter.

Next time, I'll tell you about the actual trip itself.