About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 2

Day 2: Tapachula, Chiapas

(Day 1 ends, "... We were at Tapachula, on the Guatemalan border, before noon.")

And there we waited. At the crossing, we were told that the boys and I needed a visa to enter Guatemala. There was an office in town where I could get one; we found the address easily. It was a private house, with a desk and a couple of chairs in an otherwise bare room beside the entrance. A maid told us that the "consulada" would be there in a moment. "Un momentito", which stretched the way momentitos do, to an hour, then two.

In mid-afternoon the consul bustled in. She looked like a house-wife in her Sunday dress, more at home wielding a broom than a visa stamp. She sat behind the desk, shaking her shoulders as if to settle the cape of authority on them.

"Your passports?" she said. I handed them over.

"But you're Canadian!"

"Yes," I said. I fostered a faint hope; maybe she would send me back to the embassy in Mexico City. I could go home to my kids!

"Canadians don't need visas for Guatemala," the consul said. "You go back and tell those idiots I said so!"

Back at the border, the "idiots" took our word for it and waved us through. I got the impression that they didn't much care. They had done their duty; whether this was to pass the buck or to earn the consul a tip, I couldn't tell.

The customs officers were not so lenient. They routed us into a bay, and ordered us to empty the car. All of it, down to the last sandwich. Then they proceeded to strip off the door panels and the hubcaps, remove the seats and the spare tire. They unpacked our bags, spreading the contents out on the cement floor, each item displayed separately to be examined at leisure. The shady area in front of the building filled slowly with onlookers, border guards and soldiers carrying rifles.

I had long ago adopted the trick of packing underwear and personal necessities on top of the rest of my clothing; when the polite Mexican border guards opened my suitcase, they always closed it quickly with an apologetic shrug; "Sorry, lady, it's just the rules." It didn't work here. My bras and panties were the first things laid out on the ground, one by one, for the idling soldiers to gawk at. They stayed there until the inspection was over.

It was hot and muggy. The boys stripped down to their underwear. George, Carlos and Paco took off their shirts. Raquel and the guards and I sweltered. At least the Guatemalans were used to it; Raquel and I suffered. We were both dressed in the long-sleeved blouses appropriate for a summer in Toluca, at 11,000 feet. I complained that I felt faint and nauseated, and Carlos selected a bag of saline solution from the ranks of medical supplies gathering dust on the floor. A soldier came over, gun at the ready. "Get away from there!"

"This lady is sick. I need some medicine for her," Carlos explained. The soldier looked at me, then gestured with the gun.

"Go ahead."

Carlos brought me the bag. "Drink this," he said. "It'll help."

It tasted warm and salty, like half-cooked soup, like tears. It was almost beyond me to swallow each mouthful, but with Carlos and the soldier looking on, I felt that I had to finish the whole bag. It did work; the nausea passed.

Finally the customs inspectors were satisfied that we had nothing hidden in the car itself. All our belongings were displayed, from my underwear at the left, to the medical supplies at the centre, ending with the contents of Carlos' duffel bag. At the far right, the army helmet sat alone. One of the soldiers went into the building to report. After another wait, the Comandante came out, swaggered out, I should say. His uniform was flawlessly ironed, his shirt fresh. He kept one hand on the holster of his pistol.

He started his inspection at my left, with my clothes. He stood looking down at the items at his feet, then stared at Raquel and me, as if deciding which one of us the clothes fit. He didn't hurry.

The next section; the children's clothes. Then Raquel's. George's. Nothing was passed over lightly, not our food, not the folded blankets, not the bottles of vitamin pills and aspirin. It took a long time.

When he reached the end, he stood staring, as if in horror, at the army helmet. He snapped out an order and one of the soldiers came over to us. "Who owns this helmet?" he asked. He escorted Carlos, as carefully guarded as if he were attempting to escape, over to where the Comandante waited.

"Is this helmet yours?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are you an American?"

"No, I'm Mexican. You have my identification."

"Are you in the army? Are you CIA? Why do you have an American army helmet? Are you planning to fight? Are you a mercenary? Who are you working for?"

The best explanation Carlos could muster was that the helmet was a souvenir, and that he thought, since we were going into an earthquake zone, that there might be falling objects to protect himself from. It wouldn't have convinced a child.

At last the Comandante tired of his game. He turned away. "You can go now," he said over his shoulder.

Of course we couldn't. It took over an hour to re-assemble the car, pack our bags, and cram them all in, any old way this time. It was dusk before we pulled out onto the highway.

"You should have left that helmet at home," Paco said as soon as we were out of hearing.

"No, we're going to need it; you'll see," was Carlos' answer. "God told me to bring it. He has a purpose for it."


The Pan-American highway here was narrow; two lanes following a twisting cow-path through the mountains. In the sudden night of the tropics, the forests on either side were black. There were no house lights. But the area was populated enough, and it seemed that most of the residents were on the shoulder of the road. Most were whole families, on their way home from the fields, maybe, or just out for a breath of fresh air now that it was cool. They walked single file, the father in front, the mother carrying the baby, then the children in order of size, with the tiniest toddler at the very end. Other groups, mostly young men, were lying on the banks with their heads on the pavement. George drove slowly, keeping to the centre line, even in the face of oncoming traffic. Finally he stopped, and we curled up to sleep in the car until dawn.

To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001

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