Report # 3: The Red Button

October 13, 2014

            Sometimes the dreaded red button is not such a bad thing.


            The red button, as commuters to Mexico know, is the randomizer at customs. The buttons lie in wait in every international airport and border crossing. At the airport, when you work your way to the head of the line with your suitcase, the gatekeeper official has you push the welcome button. Ditto at the border, after you cross the bridge and pull into the aduana lane; there the customs official pushes the button for you. The button turns on a light. If the light is green, you and your belongings pass through uninspected. If it is red, you pull your car over or heft your suitcase onto a table, and the fun begins. Gloved inspectors open and rifle through your stuff. Anything forbidden by regulations provokes questions, and usually leads to seizure of the illegal item. They are looking for drugs, weapons, large stashes of cash, envelopes full of diamonds, boxes of pornographic magazines, and similar major no-nos of the sort that are not our style. Linda and I seem to get the red button about a quarter of the time. The only time either of us ever came close to losing anything was when they caught Linda at the airport in Morelia with a hunk of blue cheese, but she managed to talk them out of taking it by saying it was a gift for her husband and promising to burn the rind. The real nuisance value of the red button is cramming back into your suitcase or box or car the items that you packed with such foresight and skill that you left not one cat’s whisker of unoccupied space.

            We paid the bridge toll in McAllen, and drove over the Río Grande to the mid point and continued across the Río Bravo to the far side (yes, the river changes name in mid stream). To our left, between the high fence that isolates the sidewalk from the cars, inched a long line of pedestrians from coming over from Reinosa to Gringolandia for the workday. Once across we followed a car and a pickup truck into the lane marked “Nothing to Declare.”

            Green: the car zipped through.

            Green: the truck followed and was lost from sight.


            A young customs official directs us into a stall. We open the doors and back gate of the CRV and his assistant, a young woman of about 25 with long black hair and a pretty smile, walks to the back of the car where she is confronted with a wall of plastic boxes through which she can glimpse books, clothing, kitchen stuff, hangers, a vacuum cleaner, and umpteen skeins of yarn. The only non-transparent container is one liquor box, so that is what the young lady opens first. Her eyebrows lift in question.


            “Files,” I say. “Research material.”

            “What is it you do? What sort of research?” the young man asks.

            “Well, we’re historians. Or maybe anthropologists. We write books.”

            I pull out one of our folding business cards while the woman flips through the files. The man opens the card up to the display of book titles.

            “Santiago! Santiago de Compostela?”

            Linda says yes.

            “You know, I walked the Camino a few years ago. Have you done it too?”

            We begin to explain our 40-year involvement with the pilgrimage road, and we ask him where he walked from.

            “Orense, the Camino de la Plata. It was wonderful, changed my life.”

            We allow how that seems to be the way of pilgrimages, maybe even their purpose.

            “I had a friend who walked it too. The first time with me, from Orense. Then she went back and did the Camino Francés, from Paris. Met her husband on the Camino.”

            We allow how we had also met on the Camino. The young woman at the back of the car has long since stopped looking at any of our baggage because she is intently following every word of our excited conversation. After about fifteen minutes of the sort of communing that happens when pilgrims find themselves together in unexpected places, he gives us his business card, we hug Andrés and the young woman whose name we do not get, say goodbye, close up the car, and head south on the long road to Oaxaca.

            The first night we stop in Pánuco, a river town about 40 swampy kilometers west of Tampico, a place where two of my miners had met and married their wives back in the 1570’s. It is ten degrees short of a hundred in temperature, and ten long of a hundred percent in humidity. We stay in the same hotel we’d stayed in a couple of years ago. Plug in our computers, turn on the email, and find a letter from someone named Michelle, which opens as follows (translation mine):


            “My name is Michele •••. You don’t know me but my friend Andrés is a young customs official at the border in Tamaulipas and he told me that he had met you a few days ago [it was less than 9 hours ago!] when you crossed into Mexico with your car. Everything that he told me about you and your wife Linda was a wonderful surprise.

            Manuel and I met on the Santiago Road four years ago and I am delighted to learn that there are stories with as happy endings as your is. Manuel is my husband. He’s a Spaniard. Andrés is the person who told me about the Camino and with whom I went the first time and thanks to him I met Manuel while we were walking. . . .”


            The long and the short of it is that Michele and Manuel now live in Chiapas, and she and Linda are Facebook correspondents and we are planning to go visit them just as soon as we can squeeze out time for a few days’ trip south.


            Hooray for the red button!

            The rest of our long trip to Oaxaca is relatively uneventful. Like most Mexican routes between where you are and where you want to be, ours does about four 5,000-foot changes of altitude along the way, the last one going up from the Puebla Plateau to the Mixteca Alta on a road that skirts a Grand Canyon, and then drops down through pine forests to the north end of the Etla Valley. It’s a toll road, mostly three lane (the middle one for passing: whichever side blinks headlights first claims right of way), and we really zip along with the exception of the sections of the steepest climbs. We figure we’ll get to San Pablo Etla in time for lunch at the Mercadito. And we would have made it, too, except that a kilometer short of the exit from the toll road we hit a bloqueo, a blockade. The teachers and trade unions and truck drivers and it seems half of the State of Oaxaca have moved into the streets to march in solidarity with the villages in Morelos where several massacres were recently discovered. We guess they figured that blocking the toll road that connects central and southern Mexico, and blocking all the approaches to the airport, would be a good way of getting the government’s attention. It never seems to have worked before, but still . . .

            This bloqueo is a good way to push our red button, certainly, and the red buttons of everybody else in the city who can’t get to work, or home from work, or to and from school, or go shopping, or whatever. Bloqueos, as we wrote last year, are not all that rare in Oaxaca, which is known throughout Mexico as the bloqueo-ingest state in the republic. But usually they last for only a few hours, and then things clear out again. This one looks like it might tie everything up for a longish indeterminate time.

            A guy two cars ahead of us does a 180 and heads back up the road we had just come on. Of course here it is a divided highway, with no way to cut to the other side, which means he is driving against traffic. But since traffic isn’t moving anyway, the risk is slim. We follow him. After about a half kilometer we see a couple of guys by the side of the road directing the adventurous few to detour on a wide dirt path down the embankment of the highway and out into the farmland in the flat valley floor. We tip the two guides—standard for such favors—and follow a mud-spattered Urvan down into the corn and sorghum fields. It is the tail end of rainy season so the road is rutted, muddy, and pocked with pools of standing water. We can’t help thinking of the words of the great philosopher Charley Brown, who once observed how “You can’t tell how deep a puddle is from the top.”

            It take an hour and a half with much starting and stopping and piling out to bush the van out of the mud. Our road-weary car gets camouflaged with mud. The road-weary travelers get tension headaches and some lovely pictures. And eventually we make our way out onto the International Highway a couple of kilometers inside of the bloqueo and, by coincidence, precisely at the intersection were we normally turn up from the highway toward Santa Cruz. We do indeed stop off at the Mercadito for a lunch of the only food left after the noonday crush, to hug Lupe and Irene, and the other Mercadito regulars we have come to know, to calm down, stretch a few of the kinks out of our legs, drink some fresh-squeezed orange and guava juice, and get ready for the next stage in the adventure: settling into what we have now come to think of as home.


David & Linda