Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Hello Mexico, goodbye Tijuana!

At last, I am a legal non-residential immigrant in the USA, but not without some cross-boarder excitement in the delightful town of Tijuana (Mexico). My US VISA needed an official stamp to validate the said document. This required me leaving the US for a few hours, to queue in the border town of Tijuana to re-enter the USA. This I had to do en-route to the Badlands of South Dakota, as I was asked to give the keynote lecture at the Association of Avian Veterinarians meeting in San Diego a day before my VISA was to be valid. Here was the problem. Given my VISA was not yet valid, it required me enter the US on my ESTA tourist VISA… and then 24 hours later, I would have to get my J1 VISA activated by leaving and returning to the USA. All too complicated.

After arriving in San Diego to attend the AAV meeting, I very soon had to contemplate making the cross-border sortie with two of Karen Rosenthal’s (University of Pennsylvania’s) most trusted colleagues and friends (Dr Tia Greenberg and Dr Bianca Zaffarano)…the fact she was sending an ex-military police kick-boxer (Tia) for protection should have had alarm bells ringing in my mind. Karen decided to stay at the conference hotel. Tijuana can’t be that bad…surely?

As we drove towards the border, a mere 20 minutes from the conference hotel, the jokes about “Kevlar armour, drug lords and gang wars” were bantered friendly between us…. Tijuana can’t be that bad…surely? Tia and Bianca were having a great deal of fun...while I was a tad worried.

We arrived at the border and I was greeted with a typical US border crossing, but not quite like the ones I’m used to crossing between the US and Canada. The fences seemed much taller and sharper here. We walked to the steel turn-style gate that was the border crossing, more of a rotation than a crossing and I was soon in Mexico…a handful of folks and I spun into Tijuana. Tia and Bianca called helpfully from the other side of the gate, as they had both forgotten their US passports, “Good-luck Phil…write to us”. I followed the trickle of folks from the gate towards town, as I knew I would have to cross over the major road entering Tijuana to get to the border control for the US. I was confident that this would only take a couple of minutes…I really should have googled this.

As I passed two Mexican border guards…I think this is what they were, as they were more like a pile of body armour holding large guns…they looked at me and smiled…I think I know what they were thinking. Maybe I should have taken my best shirt and tie off for this journey, my briefcase and Panama hat made me feel quite conspicuous…ho-hum. Leaving the Mexican border control (of which there was none!). I was greeted by folks offering me taxi rides into town, various spicy foods and a tiny puppy…the latter two being easily confused. The pathway led to a winding bridge that lifted you slowly over the border highway towards the US checkpoint.

There was a queue. Not just any queue, but one that stretched as far as I could see… I wondered what all these folks were queuing for, but in my mind I was blocking the inevitable answer…the US border. We Brit’s are pretty good at queuing, but this queue makes a mile long January Sales queue look like a picnic. Clutching my passport, papers and briefcase to my chest I waded into the mass of humanity. It was clearly much busier leaving Mexico than it was entering.

1 hour of queuing and I was at the first checkpoint. Security waved a group of us through and we started to queue again, but this time with concrete buildings and steel fences around us. I could not decide if they were trying to keep people in or out…maybe both. Slowly we snaked our way off to the distant promise of the immigration end to my hour and a half queuing exercise was tantalizingly near. At last I was able to place my passport with my shiny new VISA before a border control officer. He looked at it and then at me… “Sir, this does not have a stamp”. Whilst this was a valid point, I did not see that there was a problem…I simply replied, “I was rather hoping you would give me the said stamp”. He looked back at the page, “I can’t do that Sir”… bugger, was my VISA the wrong sort, did my photo make me look too dodgy, what had I done wrong?…thankfully nothing. Apparently, I just needed a different kind of stamp to the one he had. “Sir, you have to go back to the Security check point and go to the VISA and Immigration office for your stamp” he then added… “at the other end of the queue”. Crest-fallen, I slowly dragged my feet back towards Tijuana…it was not letting me leave its grip easily. I was visiting Mexico for a second time in the same day. Tia and Bianca on the US side of the border, waiting for my re-entry, were getting bored and decided to torment Karen back at the AAV meeting. They had already started texting pictures of complete strangers to Karen with the messages, “Is this Phil?”, “Does Phil look like this?” etc….20 successful migrants were being run past Karen’s iPhone to provide a positive ID for me. She was beginning to get a little nervous…so was I.

Reaching the border again, the first guard who had let me through to the control area looked at my VISA and smiled… “Sir, you have to join that queue”…he pointed beyond the border crossing into Mexico, to a second queue, leading back towards Tijuana. I realized that it would be futile telling him that he had earlier directed me through to the border control that afternoon and the wrong queue…I was soon back in Mexico, in a new queue. The new queue seemed to move more quickly than the last, which was quite heartening…until I found out why. I was soon in the low-ceiling immigration offices with a small group of fellow queuers waiting for stamps, signatures and our forms to be processed. Ahead of me, two ladies were in heated conversation with two border officers…the handcuffs came out, they were applied and the said ladies led away…the queue cautiously advanced. I thought it best to look at my paperwork again, this time with the attention of a person checking a bank-transfer slip with their life-savings on the line.

At last I was summoned to the counter. I carefully, politely, even timidly placed my passport and paperwork on the counter. Nervously I smiled, but trying not to look too much like someone nervously smiling. “What do you do for a living Sir”…every time I hear this my heart drops. “I’m a palaeontologist”, suddenly I had his full attention. “You’re a what?”…at this point I wish I had considered saying, I’m proctologist, librarian, insurance salesmen, or anything but a palaeontologist. I dug myself even deeper by saying, “I dig dinosaurs-up…as you do”…a blank stare greeted me. “Who pays you to dig dinosaurs, Sir”…his neighbouring colleague was now also getting interested in the Englishmen in his pressed-shirt and tie…crossing the border from Tijuana, claiming that he digs dinosaurs for a living. “I work at the University of Manchester in England, where I teach palaeontology”…the two exchanged a glance, “You can get a dinosaur degree in England?”…weakly I said, “Sort of. You also have to do other subjects as well, like geology, mapping and stuff”…why was I now apologising for teaching palaeontology! They both grinned, watching me squirm. They turned their attention back to the pile of paperwork, ticking boxes, stamping forms and scribbling notes…I at last felt they were with me, in the same way that a teacher might benevolently lead a slow pupil to an easy answer. I looked over my shoulder to make sure the two officers with the handcuffs from earlier had not returned…hopefully they were still busy. “Your all done Sir”…”Am I? Is that a good thing” I asked nervously… “Just go to the counter over there, pay your 6 bucks and your free to queue again”…my heart skipped a bit, never had the prospect of a long windy queue seem so appealing.

A mere 30 minutes of extra queuing and I reached the border for the second time. Confidently I handed over my passport and VISA papers to the same border control officer I had seen earlier. I was clearly anonymous to him, but I thought I should smile at him nonetheless. I’m sure that my smile looked like one from our ex-prime minster Gordon Brown…one of his ‘special’ smiles…the kind that would frighten small children or urge you to close a door in someone’s face. I really was not feeling like smiling, but felt it was the right thing to do. He looked down at my VISA and stamped my passport...the stamp looked familiar, in fact it was the EXACT same bloody stamp that I had re-queued for, but now I had two. I could not suppress a small manic laugh, possibly combined with a nervous twitch or two. “Your good to go Sir”. I forced a ‘Thank you Sir’ and then grasped my passport and papers, walking the remaining 50 yards to the United States of America. I was now officially a non-residential immigrant.

Tia and Bianca greeted me on the other side. We decided to text Karen… ‘Phil has been arrested and incarcerated’ …we let the phone ring off.

Next-stop, South Dakota!

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