If we had disappeared there, no one would have ever known what happened to us

<IMG src="/images/14229-13631/Nogales_edited.jpg” width=476 border=0>
The road to Nogales, Mexico.

One of the questions that I’ve been asked about the trip is whether there was any point where I feared for my life.  The short answer is yes – but only once.  I did not write a blog entry about the event at the time because I did not want to worry my mom.  Now that I’m safely back in Toronto, I can tell the story.  

We entered Mexico from Arizona the morning of June 13th at Agua Prieta.  Ted and I had no problem getting our entry stamps and temporary import permits for our motorcycles.  The trouble began when Tom tried to get a permit for his bike.  Because I had bought the bike on Tom’s behalf here in Toronto, it was registered in my name.  Unfortunately, you are only allowed to bring one vehicle into Mexico.

We were already across the border.  Border formalities were voluntary.  There was nothing stopping people from driving across the border without doing any paperwork whatsoever.  It was up to you to ensure that you had the proper documentation for the inevitable police and military check points (of which there were many, particularly in the rebellious states of Oaxaca and Chiapas in the south).

Foolishly, we decided that we would ride to the next crossing where I would attempt to get a permit for Tom’s bike as if it was the only one I was bringing into the country.  When we got to Naco (about an hour away), we were told that we had to go to the town of Camanea to get the vehicle registered.  When we got to Camanea and finally found the vehicle registration office, we were dismayed to discover that they had a national internet database showing that I had already brought a vehicle into the country. 

Tom’s bike was there illegally, and could be seized if we were stopped by the police.  The lady helping me informed me that there was a police check point about a half an hour outside of town near the village of San Antonio (which was not on our map).  She said not to ride the bike through the check point under any circumstances because it would be impounded. 

She then said something along the lines that I would have been allowed to take a second vehicle into the country if Tom had been related to me.  I tried saying he was my cousin, but that didn’t work.  They already knew we were amigos.  Thinking that maybe she was fishing for a bribe, I asked if we could pay an extra “administration fee” to get the permit.  The woman looked at me like I was from another planet.  I felt bad – she was not trying to get a bribe; she was genuinely concerned for us and just wanted to help.

The plan at that point was to ride to a third border crossing, Nogales, to try to re-enter the country claiming that Tom was my cousin.  It seemed the only hope of getting a permit for Tom’s bike.  Nogales was to the northwest.  We would be racing against the sinking late-afternoon sun to get there before dark.  

We were making good time until I spotted the police check-point the helpful woman had warned us about.  We pulled off to the side of the road about 100 metres before the booth.  We couldn’t just turn around without arousing suspicion and inviting a possible police chase.  Instead I walked up to the policeman on duty and asked for directions to Agua Prieta, knowing full well it was back the way we had come.  Once the officer gave us directions, we could “legitimately” turn around.  We would look like dumb gringos instead of suspicious gringos who deserved to have their bikes impounded.

On our map there was a thin gray “other” road leading to Nogales from somewhere along the stretch of highway we were on.  A few hundred metres before the police check stop, there had been an unmarked dirt road leading into the hills.  Was this the alternate route to Nogales?  We decided to risk it.

The road was dusty and sandy and very rough in places.  At one point there was a cattle guard missing the entire centre grid.  The big gaping black hole would have easily swallowed a motorbike.  Apart from a few cattle and a couple of ranchers, we saw no one.  The sun was getting low in the sky.  We were running out of daylight, and we didn’t even know if we were on the right road.

Finally we saw signs of a town in the distance.  My feeling of relief quickly vanished when we came around a corner and ran into a makeshift road block.  There were two pickup trucks parked facing each other.  Guys in wife-beater shirts sporting AK-47s were standing in the middle of the road.  No one was in any sort of uniform. 

I was thinking “this is it, we’ve run into banditos and they’ll take our bikes, money, and passports.  We’ll be lucky to get out of this alive.  No one would ever know what happened to us if we were to disappear here.”  There was nothing to do but keep riding.  I was actually surprised when they simply waved us through.  It took a little while for my heart to stop pounding though.  Had the AK-47 guys been guerrillas?  Drug traffickers?  Banditos waiting for a bigger prize?  Or just some guys who liked to hang out on the road with AK-47s?  

We entered Nogales through the most squalid slums I had ever seen.  There was open sewage running in the dirt.  People lived in shanties made of sheet metal and plywood.  We wound our way through the slums of Nogales and eventually found our way back to the main highway (15) and headed north towards the border.  Nogales was a chaotic border town with heavy traffic and a multitude of bars and strip clubs.  It was a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Eventually we fought our way through the traffic to the Mexican aduana.  We parked our bikes in a dirty street across from a strip club.  Ted watched the doorway…er… our bikes while Tom and I went to try and get a permit.  We were told we’d have to go to “km 21” where there was a banjercito.  Tom was ready to head back to the States and fly home from Atlanta.  I convinced him to stick it out until we had tried to get the permit one more time.

It was getting dark as we rode out of Mos Eisley.  We soon found that the km markers were counting down, not up.  Where was the vehicle registration office?  Again Tom wanted to turn around and head for the US on his own.  Again I convinced him to at least stay one night in Mexico.  It was already getting dark.  He finally agreed. 

We set off looking for a motel.  Before we found one, however, we saw a sign saying “temporary vehicle import permits 2 km ahead”.  In the end, it turned out that we could get a permit for Tom’s bike if I signed the title over to him.  Since this was what we had been planning to do anyway before leaving Mexico, I gladly obliged.  It was after 10:00 PM when we finally emerged, permit in hand.

We realized we hadn’t eaten since we had had breakfast at a diner near our campsite near Bisbee, Arizona that morning.  Ted had seen a hotel about a mile back.  We were glad to discover that each room had its own garage, which was perfect for our bikes.  We didn’t realize until later that this was a hallmark feature of the love motels which are so popular throughout Latin America.  Neither did we realize that we would be charged by the hour.  They phoned us at 5:00 AM to tell us that our time had expired.  When we left at 8:30 AM, we had to pay an extra $10 for the extra time we had taken.  Initially I thought they were just trying to fleece the gringos.  The fact is we had only paid for a few hours.&nbsp
; I guess they didn’t expect us to go the whole night. 

Bienvenidos a Mexico.

25 thoughts on “If we had disappeared there, no one would have ever known what happened to us

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