Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stories from the Road

When I travel, particularly across international land borders, I always have it in my mind to use what I'm seeing in a Corine book. Why? Because that lends authenticity to the books.

So this trip, I set out to ascertain whether a fugitive would have a hard time making it to Mexico without a passport. They are now required at all airports if you come into the country by plane. The standards are a bit more relaxed in other cases.

Here is my story. I arrived in San Diego from Houston (via Denver) and got a taxi to my hotel. I showered and let my fabulous agent, Laura Bradford, know I was in town. Around noon she picked me up and we went to take care of some business. After that, we went to Borders, ate lunch at Gordon Biersch and saw a movie (a horribly traumatic experience, as the violence was beyond even what I can stomach -- and that's saying something.) Though it was a good movie, I can't recommend District 9 for anyone who dislikes gore. So then we went to Toys R Us, as I had promised the boy, who has a birthday coming up, and then we ate dinner at Cheesecake Factory. It was an awesome, productive day.

She picked me up in the morning on her way to work and dropped me off at the Greyhound station, where I bought a ticket for the 12:20 bus. I didn't want to be waiting in TJ airport all day. Contrary to what Krusty the Clown says, it is not the happiest place on earth. Once I'd bought my ticket, I ate breakfast downtown and moseyed over to the mall. I bought some lovely French perfume, signed stock at the B.Dalton and browsed there for quite a while. I came out with a fairly large bag of books, despite my best intentions only to buy the few at Borders. Then I meandered down to Body Works, where I did manage to resist buying any lotion. A miracle! From there I made my way to Starbucks, and started Marjorie M. Liu's DARKNESS CALLS. Her writing just blows me away.

Around 11:15, I headed back to the bus station. I know some people find bus travel very skeevy, but I love the slice of humanity it offers. There are young buff dudes, some skaters, some surfers, and there are old people with stories in the lines of their faces. There's always a chatter of languages; Tuesday, I heard French, Japanese, and what I think might have been Albanian, along with the ubiquitous Spanish. It's fun to imagine where people are going and why -- if you like people watching, the bus station is great for that. San Diego has an upscale bus station compared to Houston, which was a little scary. Anyhow, I read the Liu book in conjunction with the intermittent people-watching. At 12:20 my bus boarded and I was on the way to Tijuana.

This is where things get interesting. On the bus, we stopped at San Ysidro (still in CA) to let people off, but nobody checked our luggage or passports. We continued on to the Mexican border, where the bus stopped again. One person pressed the button for the whole bus. (If you're not familiar with how Mexican customs works, when entering the country, you press a button. If you get a greenlight, they wave you through. If you get a red light, they search everything you own.) As far as I can tell, it's totally random. Therefore, if the bus gets a red light, you have the same thing happen, but it's not just you; it's everyone on the freaking bus. Naturally, we all had our fingers crossed because that can mean serious delays. But we got a green light, and so we just rolled right into Mexico. They took me straight to the airport.

That means nobody looked in my bag or asked for a passport. My writer's mind immediately got busy with this. Say you're a fugitive with a bag full of money. If you take the bus across the border (and you get a green light, as does happen), then you absolutely could live in Mexico. I started thinking how that would work and that it would be smart only to change a few thousand at a time to avoid attention. Living in Mexico, I know it's very possible to go cash only and there are property owners who would be happy to rent a house to an American who paid six months rent up front.

So moving on. My story gets even stranger. I had printed my boarding pass at the hotel, so I avoided the check-in counter completely. When I left Mexico, they took my turista immigration card, so I no longer had a visa, technically. (You just fill out a form and get it stamped at immigration. It's not like a US visa.) I showed the man at the first security point my print-out and he waved me through. Again, he did not request ID. I stopped at the immigration desk, intending to fill out a form, so I would be all nice and legal again. The man attending the desk was asleep. Not a little asleep, like dozing, oh no -- he was snoring. I could not rouse him. I stood there for about a minute, clearing my throat, and he didn't respond. I shrugged and went on my way. They did scan my bags twice before I got on the plane, so flying in Mexico would be right out if I were a smuggler with a bunch of money. However, if I hadn't gotten off at the airport -- if I had continued to the TJ bus station, I could've continued traveling in Mexico with nobody paying any attention to what I had or what I was doing. Good to know for future books, I think.

I went through the customs a second time at TJ airport (after the very cursory button-pressing at the actual border). I pressed the button and got another green. The lady behind me was sad about her red light, but she only had a tiny purse. I went to the security checkpoint, where he again checked my boarding pass but did not request ID. My bags were scanned a second time and then I was at my gate, ready to fly to Mexico City, with no immigration papers and no one to verify I had a valid passport. Interesting, right?

I'm so planning to use this stuff in a Corine book. How does the real world inform your work?

1 comment:

Pearl said...

The snoring immigration desk attendee? HILARIOUS and I thought things were bad with customs on African airports. I stand corrected!