Blog # 23: Re-Entry

March 23, 2011


We crossed the border at Reynosa late Tuesday afternoon, driving half way across the Río Bravo and then the other half across the Río Grande. The name change in midstream is not the only thing that changes from the south bank to the north bank of the river.  We change too. Suddenly we are speaking mainly English for the first time in four and a half months. Sometime we have to grope for words. My voice drops in pitch: for some reason my Mexican voice is higher than my US voice (strangely, this is not true in Spain, where my two pitches are on par with each other). The customs agents are all bilingual so they understand us. The signs over the entry turnstiles are bilingual too, and on one of them the Spanish is misspelled.


As we drive through McAllen we are aware how certain of our expectations have shifted too. We expect adequate signage on the highway, and are surprised when halfway through the city a turn lane isn’t appropriately posted. Routes are signed in Mexican cities, of course, but somewhat randomly, and not by route number but by the name of some city along the way that could be a suburb or a town 500 kilometers distant, but rarely both, and rarely the same on two successive turn signs. Over the years in Mexico, to find our way we have come to rely on my sense of geography and by pulling over every four or five hundred meters to ask folks if we are on the right road. In the US we expect posted distances to be exact: 9 miles to Whistlestop means 9 miles. In Mexico 16 kilometers to Pozo Florido signifies only that the town is distant, but not very distant. At the outskirts of Zirahuén is a sign that says it’s 6 km to Santa Clara. At the outskirts of Santa Clara it says 7 km to Zirahuén. Our odometer says that it’s 13 km.


Signs on American stores are terse and generic. They rely on brand identification. Dick’s Sporting Goods. Ace Hardware. CVS Pharmacy. Signs on Mexican commercial establishments go on for paragraphs about the products on the shelves or the services being offered. Not “Dentist,” but “Doctora Esmeralda González Enchagaray, graduate of the Universidad San Nicolás de Morelia. Cosmetic dentistry. Root canals. Cleaning.  Gum Diseases. Crowns and bridges. Monday to Friday 10:00-8:00; Saturday 10:00-8:00.” We have never visited a country more visually word-cluttered than Mexico.


We greet people in Gringolandia with a hello and a handshake, not a hug.


It takes us a couple of days in Mexico to cease taking note of the fact that toilet paper goes into a basket and not down the toilet. Ditto, in reverse, when we come north. We stopped in a money changing establishment a couple of hundred meters this side of the border to buy some dollars, and in the WC I found a plastic-lined basket next to the commode, put there for their Mexican clients who otherwise would likely throw their soiled papers on the floor. 


We’ve eaten in a couple of restaurants in the States now and it still seems wrong not to find bowls of salsa—at least one red and one green—on the table, along with a saucer of halved green limones and some pickled carrots and onions. It seems wrong that other diners walking by our table don’t wish us “Buen provecho.” It seems wrong that waitresses leave dirty dishes on the table until everyone has finished eating, instead of clearing them away the instant they are empty. It seems odd that up north all the orders are served at once, not one at a time when they are ready.


When we stop for red lights here nobody comes up to wash our windshield, or to sell us today’s newspaper or mangos dusted with chili on a stick. At intersections there are no clowns in whiteface juggling torches. When we park at a restaurant nobody washes our car.


We already miss the sounds and sights and smells of the trip from Zirahuén to the border, not all pleasant, but all intense. The dust storm that enveloped us as we crossed the high plains north of Jalapa. The jagged , petrograph-covered cliffs at Chalcatzingo, near Cuautla, and the thrill of being stared down by an orange-browed motmot halfway up the cliff. The frustration of rooting around Chiautla for an afternoon and not finding one single trace—archival, physical, or anecdotal—of the converso miners who worked there in the 1540s. The spectacular drop from the central mountains to the coast, a plunge of 2,500 meters in about 15 kilometers, with the mist filling the gorge on one side like a puffy cotton blanket, and the vegetation becoming increasingly tropical with each hairpin turn: thickets of bananas, lianas and strangler figs, ferns the size of Volkswagens.  The fact that Mexican streets —any street, at any time, in any town— are full of life. (Driving through a small Texas town we needed directions, but there was nobody on the street to ask.) The kaleidoscope of fresh fruits and vegetables in every village market. The imaginative, socially conscious, artistically gifted, and often whimsical graffiti that adorn walls from big cities to tiny villages. The unescapable routine cacophony of Mexico: radios, TVs, donkeys braying, chickens clucking, screaming kids chasing each other around the plaza, cars with low-fidelity speakers mounted on their roofs advertising today’s bargains at the feed store or the 4:00 meeting of concerned mothers of pre-schoolers, trucks shifting gears, church bells. The fact that with the exception of one or two aberrant places, in Mexico you are never out of the sight of mountains.


Driving across south Texas, the highest hills are the cambers on the highway.


This year offered us lots of familiar experiences and some new ones too. We jounced over the usual 10,000 topes. On the other hand, we didn’t get stopped by the traffic police even once, not even with my blonde very gringa looking wife behind the wheel. We kept unbroken our string of driving in Mexico without running across a single other New England license plate, though we saw old pickup trucks by the hundreds with California plates and by the thousands with plates from Texas. Disappointingly, or not, we didn’t experience a single seismic event during our stay, which was a first for us. As was the fact that in over 4 months in Mexico neither of us caught a case of the digestive rumblesluice that Americans usually reference to Moctezuma.  It took our first drink of water back in the US to arouse that demon.

As the miles unwind behind us, we look forward to getting home. And are sad to be leaving home.


David & Linda