by Jeanine Lee Kitchel
Jeanine Kitchel, a San Francisco Bay
expat, moved to Puerto Morelos several years ago. This delightful short
article is a chapter segment from Jeanine’s upcoming book, Where the Sky
is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya (January 2004, Enchanted Island
Press, $15). This non-fiction travel account leads the reader on an
adventure that is not only fun to read but just the ticket for anyone
who has ever dreamed of retiring in Mexico. Kitchel bought land, built a
house, and retired in Puerto Morelos in 1997. Watch The Mexico File for
a book review when her book is published. Jeanine contributed an article
on Puerto Morelos for the October 2003 issue of Mexico File.
Night had fallen as we pulled into the
federal customs area at the border dividing Mexico and Belize. What is
it about night border crossings that scares the bejesus out of me? I
wondered as I gazed at a uniformed federale armed with M-16. His
outpost, dark and securely locked, looked like a third world Checkpoint
Charlie, a scene out of a ‘50s film noir.
“No pasa,” he explained, when I rolled
down the car window to ask for instructions.
“I guess we can’t take the car through
until we speak to someone inside, “ I told Paul.
We moved the car closer to the garrison
and stopped. In what would be the first of several bad decisions, we
left the car parked in the federal zone. That night we simply weren’t
thinking. We were frazzled, bewildered, rebuffed – and scared. Never
before had we been at a border crossing without a tourist visa. Now all
we had was a letter from Mexican immigration asking us to leave the
country. Who wouldn’t be scared? We had no idea how the border patrol
would digest that bit of information. Obviously immigration viewed us as
wayward types. What would the border police think?
“Let’s go ask and see what they want us
We crossed the pit-holed, two lane road
and walked with trepidation towards the Mexican immigration offices. We
needed to start there to receive an exit visa from Mexico before
crossing into Belize.
Near the entryway of the non-descript
government building, we passed two men in uniform, smoking cigarettes. I
could feel their eyes on me as they sized us up. At borders, I’d learned
to avoid eye contact with anyone; it simplified things.
On entering the fluorescent brightness of
the customs area, a man in a brown government uniform asked in Spanish
how he could assist us.
I explained we had a letter from
immigration for him, spelling out our predicament. We planned to cross
over to Belize for three days, then come back to Mexico, our adopted
home land, where we now lived and owned a house.
As I recounted our plight, one of the men
we’d seen smoking on the front porch came to listen. Then an animated
discussion began between these two men as to how our situation should be
handled. Within a few minutes, it was obvious that Colonel Hernandez,
one of the smokers from the porch, was the man in charge. El jefe.
“Do you have a vehicle?” he asked in
I assured him I did.
“Where is it parked?”
I pointed to our car; it was just within
sight, parked by the aduana (customs) station.
“Actually, I need to clear the car before
crossing the border,” I told him.
“Too late. They close at 3 p.m.,” he
replied curtly. “Let me see your papers. These are fine. You can cross
now. I’ll stamp them,” he continued as he stretched out his hand towards
one of the clerical workers, who instantly grabbed a rubber date stamp
and handed it to the jefe.
Bam-bam! Bam-bam! And we were legal again
– ready to depart Mexico.
“Just leave now, cross over, and return
this evening,” Colonel Hernandez commanded, as he handed me the newly
stamped documents. The ink was still wet.
“But I thought we had to spend three days
“It’s just as easy to do it this way. You
live in Mexico; you’re in the process of applying for an FM3; you own a
home here. I understand your situation and will approve this. Just cross
the border now. You will be back in fifteen minutes.”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I asked, as I
felt a small knot forming in the pit of my stomach.
“Of course,” he nodded, his eyes never
leaving mine. “I am in charge.”
No doubt about that.
Paul and I exchanged glances. We both
wondered about the car, but here was Colonel Hernandez telling us all
was fine. He had stamped our papers, our exit visas. We were ready to
“Gracias. Hasta luego,” I said without
conviction as we walked out into the now nearly pitch black night. The
razor wire on the bridge gleamed menacingly, and the other aduana
watched us depart as we picked up our pace while heading for the bridge,
the boundary between Mexico and Belize. What it actually crossed over, I
was not sure, so black was the night. I assumed it was a river.
Once the immigration office was out of
sight, I started to panic. “Paul, what about the car? Is it okay?”
“I don’t know. Did that look like a “no
“God, I’m not sure. I think we better
hurry!” I urged, as we started trotting towards Belize. We could see the
immigration offices from where we were, but the distance looked at least
two hundred yards. In itself, the crossing was poorly lit, fraught with
pot holes, ditches, the occasional rock, and a steady stream of other
travelers who were slowly making their way through the darkness. Our
fellow immigrants were Mexican, some black Caribes, but not another
gringo in the lot.
The closer we came to the Belize border,
the more orderly it appeared, and their immigration offices looked newly
remodeled and brightly lit.
I entered first, now in panic mode,
tearing my passport from my purse, and whispering loudly to Paul, “Your
Behind a glassed-in enclosure sat an
attractive black woman with fine, high cheekbones, skin the color of
dark coffee beans, and hair neatly plaited in corn rows with bright
beads worked in at the ends. To pass the time, she was paging carelessly
through a fashion magazine. She looked up as we ran in; it was a slow
night for border crossings – no one else was in line. In fact, the
entire building was empty except for her, us, and a lifeless security
guard at the door. On our entry, she straightened herself and watched us
approach, putting the magazine on the counter.
Full panic had hit, and like a derelict,
I threw our passports on the desk in front of her. It finally occurred
to me – we were illegally parked on the Mexican side of the border,
smack dab in the middle of a customs zone. If the Mexican authorities so
desired, they could seize our car.
“What am I supposed to do with these?”
she asked, an edginess to her voice.
“Can you stamp them, please? Mexican
immigration said we could cross over tonight, and come back tomorrow
with our car.”
“Oh, so that’s what Mexico told you? What
do you think we are? Some trivial little country that you people can
just use? You think you can run across the border,” she had that part
right, “and have us stamp your passports? Then scurry back to Mexico?
Well, I got news for you, girl. You have to stay in our little, bitty
country for three days before you’ll get a thirty-day extension on your
papers. Using us! Why don’t you spend some of your tourist dollars here?
We’re sick of this – always back to Mexico they go.”
At that point she started to shake her
head and mumble, “People using us like this – sick of it.” She was now
moving her head from side to side, in rapper mode.
Talk about an attitude. I grabbed our
passports from under the glass casing before her hands could touch them
and Paul and I were running again, now towards the door, then through
it, and back towards the Mexican border.
Once outside, almost out of breath, I
gasped, “Paul, we’re in no man’s land. We don’t have an exit stamp for
departure from Belize. Maybe Mexico won’t let us back in, and our car is
illegally parked in the federal zone! What are we going to do?”
“Run as fast as you can!”
We dodged diminutive Mexican women
hunched over with bundles, jogged around mothers pulling weary children
by hand, tried to avoid deep ditches that dark, beleaguered night. We
were indeed in limbo, some nether region that connects countries – the
Belize customs officials, all along the
bridge, watched in wonder as – after just having viewed us run into
their immigration offices – they now watched us run back out towards
Mexico. They were no doubt wondering exactly what we were asking
ourselves, “What’s Mexico going to do?”
© Jeanine Lee Kitchell 2003