Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Crossing the Border

The border crossing at Nogales’ Mariposa Gate seems too easy to be true—you just drive past a sign that says “Entering Mexico”—then drive through a few miles of steep earth walls with barbed wire. But of course it’s not that easy--there’s much more processing to be done 13 kilometers south at the immigration offices. Here is where we knew without at doubt that we had crossed into Mexico.

Nogales is the busiest border crossing in the Western part of the continent. In addition to all the trucks carrying produce, and the regular traffic back and forth, it handles the annual influx of thousands of snowbirds traveling in RVs from Canada and the USA. You might think there would be a smooth system for these people, most of who don’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. But no—it’s a very confusing place with many people standing around with clipboards, some with guns, and a few with uniforms. There are several different buildings to go through, two or three different officials to talk to, copies of documents to be made and at least two different payments to be made to get the permit for taking a vehicle into Mexico. But there are no signs or maps to explain the process—and the only person there who speaks fluent English is the copy man.

We parked our car and made our way to the nearest office along with a number of others. This is the immigration office where you apply for your visitors permit. Three uniformed men stood behind the counter speaking very fast Spanish to people ahead of us. Harry and I lined up and when it was our turn presented our passports to one fellow. Without a word he gave us each a form to fill out for the tourist card. It took only a few minutes and a few simple questions for us to get the documents. We asked where we were to pay and were waved towards another door. So with our tourist cards in hand went through the door into a big courtyard with buildings on all four sides.

Right ahead of us in the middle of the courtyard was a tall booth with a huge sign saying COPIES – NO TIPS. We knew from last year that we would need copies of some of our documents so we went up to the wicket where the very helpful fellow explained in perfect and colloquial English exactly what we needed, what the process was and where we should take the papers. He made the copies for us and put them in order and directed us to the correct building. We asked how much for the copies and he said, “You pay me what you want to.” The sign says No tips—but you can pay what you want to the only person there who can explain the process. This guy must make a fortune!

The next step was to get our temporary importation permit for the van. This is the complicated part. Only one person can import one vehicle and the name on the registration, license and credit card must match. It wasn’t too difficult for us as we’re driving the van, but for those towing a trailer or a 5th wheel or another car (which many snowbirds do) it is a very complex business involving much discussion between officials, additional copies of papers, and a great deal of confusion as to what the costs were and what the rules were. None of the officials spoke much English and not one of them was able to answer a question about how much the peso amount was in US dollars. Even for us with just the van it took close to an hour and three different credit card transactions in pesos.

As an introduction to Mexico it’s just about perfect. Everyone is polite, there are officials everywhere, the process is complex and inefficient, and the one who controls it all is the copy man, who takes no tips but asks you to pay whatever you wish. This is just so Mexican!

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