This article is from the November 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Borderline Belize 

by Jeanine Lee Kitchel
copyright 2003 

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 to do.” 

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 Spanish.

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 in Belize?” 

“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 roll. 

“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 parking” area?” 

“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 passport!” 

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 border zone. 

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