Short of being locked up in a Turkish prison on charges of smuggling heroine, nothing makes you feel smaller or more powerless than crossing an international border even if one of the sides is your own country.
Last week on the way to San Antonio Stew and I congratulated ourselves on making such good time, about ten hours between San Miguel and the Laredo Bridge #1.
Ten hours of course is not very impressive to veteran San Miguel drivers who claim to make it in eight or nine hours. They must be driving Batmobiles. Even with minimal pee-stops, and driving with one hand on the wheel, the other on a donut and not letting up on the gas, ten hours is our record time.
Celebrations ended abruptly in Nuevo Laredo, though, when we tried to find the Vehicle Importation depot of Mexican customs. We drove left onto a driveway and then back out on to the street--a mere two blocks from the border--when we were waved over by a traffic cop, or whatever he was.
Little Schmuck is about the most printable description I can manage.
He identified himself as Officer Ortiz, shook my hand disingenuously, and informed me I had made an illegal U-turn and was driving without a seat belt. I plead guilty to the seat belt violation; I had unfastened it two minutes before to get out and ask for directions. I didn't make a U-turn.
No matter, except such fastidiousness about traffic laws seemed incongruous in this, one of the epicenters of Mexico's drug war where headless stiffs turn up in the bushes practically every week.
We were not, after all, meandering through some picturesque Swiss village where someone dusts off the petunias in the medians twice a day. Is harassing drivers of U.S.-plated cars the best way Nuevo Laredo can use their police power?
But what to do? I could have unleashed a torrent of epithets: My Spanish repertoire contains enough cuss words to make a madam gasp and reach for another shot of tequila.
After a ten-hour drive surviving on donuts and machine coffee, though, I didn't have enough stamina, so the guy climbed on the back seat and directed us to OXXO, a candies-and-soda chain similar to a 7-Eleven, where I was supposed to pay my "fine."
When we got there, the cashier gave me a tired, another-damn-gringo-moron kind of look, and proceeded to punch in some numbers in the cash register. A receipt popped out with two "commission" charges for approximately six dollars though "Officer" Ortiz told me the total fines came to about thirty-five dollars, which I paid.
It was all a scam, of course. A classic "mordida"--Mexican Spanish for a bribe or payoff--collected by someone whom I'm sure wasn't even a cop. Except there is really nothing you can do. Punching the guy in the face and mentioning something unpleasant about his mother would only make matters worse.
So I came to the only rational solution: Pay up and get the hell out of this dirt hole.
With a sigh we drove another five minutes north to the U.S. border station. There, a young uninformed woman who worked for, hmm--Homeland Security? Transportation Security Administration? Immigration? U.S. Border Patrol? Halliburton?--began questioning Stew in Spanish. He's of Norwegian descent and looks about as Hispanic as Santa Claus.
Switching to English she asked for our passports, where we were going and how long we had known each other.
"Oh, we've known each other about forty years!" Stew chirped, trying to sprinkle some light-heartedness on the otherwise dour exchange.
She didn't get Stew's humor--or didn't like it--and proceeded to check the trunk of the car, open our one suitcase, tap on the car doors, put a slip of paper under one of the windshield wipers, and send us over to Inspection Station No. 2, where there were two other weary travelers already.
At Station No. 2 we got what in the Homeland Security anti-terrorist manual must be called "The Treatment," a completely ridiculous time-waster for both the travelers and the U.S. taxpayers.
We were ordered to unload everything from the car and walk over other side of the driveway, about twenty feet away. Officer Jimenez, as his name tag said, emptied out all our stuff on a stainless steel table and set out to inspect each piece individually as if perusing a cargo of precious moon rocks.
A pill case? What are these pills? Vitamin C, niacin, Lipitor... What's Lipitor? Why do you take it? Why do you carry a small jar full of sea salt? Is this really sea salt? What's inside this white envelope? Why do you carry a quart of motor oil?
The thought "none of your damn business" kept ringing in my head but as with Mr. Ortiz on the other side of the border, one does not dare raise one's voice or ask any logical questions. Here, you're in a twilight zone of individual or constitutional rights.
I just felt relieved, so to speak, that we hadn't packed any suppositories and had to explain their purpose to Officer Jimenez.
On one side of us, the situation was much, much worse. Several members of a Mexican family were asked to stand by their large, Texas-plated Nissan pick-up and submit to their version of The Treatment.
In fairness, their multi-pointed, mountainous load did look a bit odd, like a huge fossil lurking under a tarp. But when the tarp came off it was nothing but a chaotic heap of household junk in the order of boxes, a rocking chair, lamps, more boxes, bicycles, what-have-you's.
That hapless family is probably at the Laredo crossing still, going through The Treatment.
On the other side, a single middle-aged man, I believe also of Mexican descent, stood patiently by his van which was empty, and a couple of grocery bags full of whatever resting on the pavement. In addition to every door in the van, he had been asked to open the hood to expose the vehicle's greasy and tired-looking motor.
Inside the van, the border officer had unleashed a mutt for a prolonged sniffing fest. This dog didn't have the officiousness of a beagle or the imposing presence of a German shepherd.
It was instead a scrawny, orange mutt who kept yipping in joy and jumping from seat to seat: "Whoopee! Is this the most fun game in the world or what?" If there were any bologna sandwiches left in the van, the dog surely ate them.
The dog was finally told to get out, put back on the leash, and given a squeaky toy that he carried away merrily.
Some Americans in San Miguel have suggested that taking photos of offending or offensive officers at the border is a good self-protection measure. That occurred to me, but then I figured I'd have my camera "confiscated" under some regulation of Homeland Security or the Mexican government.
That's why this blog has no pictures: I was scared.