The road goes on forever
Trip Start Feb 24, 2012
7Trip End Aug 04, 2012
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We parted ways with our trusty Toyota called La Monja in Santa Fe. At the beginning of the trip we had no idea what the destiny of La Monja would be once we entered the United States. We didn’t even know if she would be able to enter the US. We searched websites, wrote posts on forums, and I even called the border patrol to ask them about taking a Guatemalan car into the US. There was conflicting information from all sources.
So the morning we set out to cross the border from a cute Mexican town called Magdelena del Kino, we didn’t know where we would end up that day or how much paperwork we would have to fill out. We had become pros at crossing Central American borders because we crossed all of them twice. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua make it easy because they are in the CA-4 or the Central American 4. This means that there is little to no hassle to cross their borders. There is waiting in lines, getting passport stamped, informing customs that we have a car, and then that is it. This was done in the country you were leaving and the country you were entering. Usually it was an hour on each side.
Costa Rica and Panama were much more complicated with the need to visit at least 7 different windows to collect papers, signatures, and pay fees. This would take about 2 hours on each side of the border.
To cross into Mexico with a car you have to pay a $200 deposit. This deposit is to avoid leaving unwanted cars in their country. So this process takes a while, but they have a smooth system where everything can be done in two buildings with only two people. We ended up with a fancy sticker to put in our car that had a bar code on it. When we were stopped by police (which happened everyday), they did not want to see our Guatemalan paperwork of ownership. They wanted to see the Mexican paperwork. It was a clear system.
In all the countries, the border involved parking the car, walking around, standing in lines in the sun, fending off beggars and merchants, and inevitably making friends with someone. So when we left Mexico and entered the US we were expecting to spend an hour doing paperwork on the Mexican side and an unknown amount of time going through immigration and customs on the US side. However, to leave the Mexican side we went through a drive through window where they took off our sticker and printed us a receipt that the deposit was going to be returned. We didn’t have to show our passports or get out of the car.
Then came the dreaded American crossing. We were prepared for the worst case where they would tell us that the Guatemalan car could not enter the US and we would have to go back to Mexico and try to sell the car there and pay the $200 deposit again. We had heard so many stories about the US border from people who had crossed illegally, but we had never talked to anyone who had crossed it legally with US passports and a Guatemalan car. We waited in line – but for a change it was in our car. We could see the big fences, the shanty towns on one side of a ravine and the desert on the other. We could see all the video cameras recording us. We had our passports and were waiting to be pointed over to the side so they could search our car.
As it was our turn to go through the window, we pulled up with dread. I handed the woman border officer our passports, she said good morning, she typed in her computer, and then asked one question. Where are you coming from? I told her we had been in the Peace Corps in Guatemala and driven back by land and we were on our way to Tucson to visit my sister. She nodded. Typed some more. Then she walked around to the front of our car and looked at the license plates. She came back and said, Where are these plates from? I told her Guatemala. She asked if I owned the car. I told her I did. She did not ask to see the papers. She just gave us back out passports and said have a nice day.
We drove away dumb founded. We looked around to see if there would be a customs to go through. There was not. That had been it. A 3 minute interaction. How could the most heavily guarded border be so easy to cross? All the borders in Central America had been so time consuming and challenging. But here, since we had the American passports, it was easy.
As we drove north we still weren’t sure we were in the US. There had not been a big sign. There had been no indication if we had crossed the border. After a half an hour of driving we were stopped at a checkpoint. A man in fatigues asked us for our passports in English. He saw that mine said I was from Michigan. He asked where I was from. It turned out he grew up 30 minutes from where I went to college and his cousin had gone to Alma with me. It is a small world. I was no longer a foreigner; I could know people who knew family in my homelands. That would never have happened in Central America to us. I am an American and I am back.
We started noticing that the street signs were in English, but the road was still measured in kilometers. We asked ourselves if the US had converted to the metric system while we had been away. But after 100 miles, when we were just reaching the outskirts of Tucson, the signs doubled up – some measuring in kilometers and others in miles. Then when we entered Tucson, it switched to all in miles. We were in the US for sure. The next two weeks consisted of getting insurance for the Monja for the time while she was in the states, trying to sell her, and spending time with sisters we had not seen for a while.
We found out we could get a title on the car in the US because it had been written off by an insurance company as totaled in 1998 in Missouri. So selling it to someone who would take it back to Guatemala was the only way to get her off our hands. In the end we found a Mexican guy who ran a furniture shop in Santa Fe who bought La Monja. We passed by and saw that he had a sign in Spanish and some cars out front for sale. We thought at the least he could tell us someone who would buy our car.
It turned out he also had a shuttle service and a shipping service to Central America. He called a man to get the price to pay someone to drive down to Guatemala. He did the math and realized it could be a profit to him. We exchanged some cash, singed some informal papers, and walked away with out our car. It was all happening so quickly, it was the end of the trip.
But Joe and I still had to keep going to Minneapolis. We put all of our things in his old Ford truck called Mazy. So from Santa Fe, through Colorado, and across the plains to Minnesota we drove in Mazy. Mazy is a red truck, but she is different. She has air, heat, adjustable seats, untinted windows, 4 wheel drive, and is newer. She is much better suited to living through winter in the north.
We spent a month after crossing the border making our way slowly across the states. The US felt so special. We could finally be in wild spaces without being afraid. There was no longer that persistent threat of banditos coming to rob us because we were foreigners. I could go running by myself along isolated paths and not be stared at or hooted at. We spent a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains, walking around, climbing rocks, and enjoying summer. We ate a lot of sweet corn. It all felt new and exciting.
It has been two weeks since we saw the Road Never Ends Concert. It has been a whirl wind of meeting family, getting an apartment, moving in, setting up all those annoying but essential things like phones, internet, and insurance. We have been exploring Minneapolis.
With everything that has happened it is hard to reflect on what has been the best. There have been so many great moments on the roads of Central America. It has also been great to unpack the truck and not have to think about climbing into the back to get something, but instead be able to open a drawer and pull it out. It is also nice not to be stared at for speaking differently or looking out of place. But it is sad not speaking Spanish, and not having tomorrow’s scenery be completely unknown. For now the road has ended, but it will keep going in the future and that is the best feeling of all.