On the Border





Short story today, as it’s Wednesday and the week is completely getting away from me. I just had a friend return from his honeymoon in Vietnam, and he was sharing his wife’s delight in finally crossing the US border smoothly. She is of Iraqi/French extraction, and even though she’s an American citizen, and has lived here for more than twenty years, her Arabic last name sets off alarm bells at customs. Every. Damn. Time. Now that they are married, there must be some checkmark that’s been removed from her file – they’ve breezed through customs ever since the ceremony.

We were swapping hilarious border crossing stories (the kind where you don’t wind up in a sweaty Mexican prison… though those make good stories, too) and this was my contribution to the pile:

When I was first traveling, I went to Belize several times as part of my Archeology program, and then later just for fun with some people from the program. This particular trip we flew into Cancun, because flying into Belize, for some reason, was (and is) freakishly expensive, and we could get into Mexico for like a dollar and a half and then take the proverbial chicken bus down to the border at Chetumal. We made a couple-day trip of it, stopping at Tulum(which back then was a nowheresville hippie paradise; I hear it’s different now) and Playa del Carmen, where I spent an hour negotiating down the price of a straw hat to keep my brain from baking onto the inside of my skull in the ungodly heat.

At the border, we had to get off the bus, and trudge with all our luggage into the customs house – which was, in this case, literally a shack with big tables where you put your stuff while the officers checked things out. Most of the people, this far south, were Mayan families headed back into north Belize laden with cheap electronics and crying children. It was hot, we were tired, and the bus was waiting on the other side of the shed revving the engine, I guess to encourage everyone not to linger.

My traveling companion, Elizabeth, was going to an archeology dig for the summer, and so she had an enormous backpack full of books, tools, clothes, and various extraneous crap. I was just along for the ride for two weeks, so I just had an enormous backpack full of extraneous crap. Both of our full-sized backpacks weighed at least 50 pounds, and they made a satisfying WHUMP as we heaved them on the inspection table.

There happened to be a clock right in my line of sight, and I noticed that it was 4:50 pm. Given the rummaging the locals were putting up with, I figured this could take a while. Fortunately, however, 5pm must have been quitting time for our inspector: she opened Elizabeth’s bag, looked resignedly at the contents – which resembled an upended hardware store – looked up at the clock, looked over at my bag, which promised to be equally organized – sighed heavily (“why me“, I could hear her thinking), and with a quick glance over at her supervisor, who was busy harassing some locals over their new television set, zipped up Liz’s bag un-inspected and stepped back, waving us to move on and beckoning the next person in line.

We grabbed our stuff and scooted, jumping back on the bus before collapsing in giggles. I have no idea why, but we felt like we’d just smuggled diamonds over the wall, and sat on pins and needles until the bus roared to life, backfired twice and lurched down the highway, taking us and our magic bags of crap onto the next phase of our trip. I hope our inspector got to go home early that day, or at least not more than five minutes late…


Photo above from the Keys, 2012. Not related to the story, I just liked it, and I thought you’d enjoy it more than a random photo of a customs shed.

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