July 3, 2006
Mordidas, Ripoffs, TruckStop Whores — The Move Ends
Moving is hard.
Sarah and I had spent weeks packing and sorting out our lives and possessions. Triage of two lives is hard. We had sold our house and business and bought a house in Puerto Vallarta. Mix this with a “What have we gotten ourselves into?” feeling deep in our guts, and things get complex, emotionally. Changing cultures takes some time and we were at the end of a two year decision. Or at the start of another.
For a while I thought that that we could fit everything we wanted to take to Mexico into our small ’94 Toyota pickup, but it was soon apparent that we were hanging on to more than I had expected so I bought a small trailer that was soon also filled to capacity. The truck wasn’t really made for towing but it was strong and I was patient. 55 mph was to be our top speed, even downhill. Most of the drive to PV was uphill.
It took us two days to get to the Mexican border from N. California, with stops in Bakersfield and Tucson. In Bakersfield the attendant at the Shell gas station short-changed me and the manager of a 76 station in Banning flat-out ripped us off for $50 by switching our prepayment for gas to another pump and then denying it. The cops were called and the cop agreed with us but said that there was nothing he could do.
These weren’t the biggest ripoffs of the trip. Beware of traveling in the US, tho. You don’t see it mentioned much outside of foreign travel books, but count your change and keep your eyes open when on the road in the US. I’ve lived in a small town for too long: trust is easy with neighbors, not with the road. I’ve heard a lot of foreigners complain about how dishonest American businessmen are but didn’t believe it all that much until now.
In a similar vein, everything negative you’ve heard about moving across the border to Mexico is probably true.
We had obtained a menaje de casa from the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco (paid $127 for it). What they didn’t tell us at the Consulate was that this document was worthless at the border.
First we went to the wrong Nogales crossing. We went to the ‘regular’ one (the one that on the signs said was for travelers, not commercial trucks) and were immediately turned back because they didn’t know what a menage de casa was and we looked commercial to them because so many boxes were piled on the truck and trailer.
Getting turned around at the border after being rejected by Mexican Customs is not easy. There is no line going into Mexico but there was a mile-long line going into the States. The Mexican guard had to open a special gate and try to convince people who had been sitting in 105 degree heat for hours to let us cut in. Lots of angry looks. but he had the gun.
And then the US customs officers, even tho they had seen the whole process of us being turned back (they were stationed 30 feet away), tried to have some fun with us by threatening to treat us as if we were bringing in a load of Mexican goods (drugs). Fortunately, after getting the initial shock reaction from me (I blanch easily), they laughed and let us back in with a “Good luck…”
At the commercial border crossing, we simply drove through thinking how easy it was. Then, after about 21 km, we came to the real customs entrance. Then the trouble began.
We were told beforehand that it would be necessary to park and go to an office to declare our menaje de casa. The officer there didn’t know what it was. He sent us to another office where the officer said that the menaje would not work. We would either need to declare our possessions as “Commericial” and pay an import tax on them or go back to the US and find a customs broker to “facilitate” the entry.
It would be impossible to go back to the US with this load of possessions (I’ll explain later, maybe), so I opted for the commercial entry. In retrospect, since I had decided to stay in Vallarta for any of the foreseeable future, declaring our property as “commercial” was a good idea because if we ever do decide to leave, we don’t have to take it with us, as we would have had to with the menaje de casa permit.
They asked for a value of the load since value is not listed on the menaje de casa because it is immaterial. Bringing personal possessions in with a menaje is supposed to be temporary and is not taxed.
I was “suggested” to declare $2000 for the value (with about $300 US tax). After about an hour of discussion, I got it down to $1000, but they insisted that I also had to pay $120 US for “document preparation.” I saw no way out of this and the load was worth much more to me than the $270 official and non-official mordidas being “suggested.”
They don’t say directly that you must pay. They say that you have a choice, either pay or go through hell with the broker and US customs. The choice was always mine and the people I dealt with were always “friendly” in a non-Kafka-est manner.
The $150 IVA tax was official with official papers and paid to a government bank account, but the “preparation fee” was in straight US currency, paid to the man at the table in the last office.
After this, we got to the familiar red/green buttons at customs. For the first time in my life, it came up red. This was 10 meters from the last office where the mordidas was paid. The officer manning the red/green light was much more interested in how much we had paid the last person than in inspecting our stuff. He let us go with a knowing smile.
Next we went to an office where the truck and trailer were to be registered for Mexico. This was simple (costs about $40 with a credit card charge) but the trailer was rejected because it was new and we didn’t have a ‘real’ registration form from California (I had bought the trailer days before and California mails the official registration in a month or so). This problem required going to the aduana office which was closed. But a man walked up and said he could help.
At first he said it couldn’t be done. Then he took us to a customs official at another booth who simply stamped the form and said “OK.” No charge.
With our truck and trailer legal, we proceeded to the next and last Mexico entry with another red/green button. What a relief when it came up green. What a disappointing surprise then the guard pulled us over anyhow to inspect. Green isn’t always green.
Fortunately, there must be some honor involved in the mordidas process because when we showed the inspector our “paperwork” from the last inspection, he quickly passed us through.
DON’T stop at the first few Pemex gas stations after the border. They are swarming with ripoffs. Even the attendants are ripoffs. I lost 100 pesos in an overcharge before I could blink, Everyone at the station was in on the scam. Watch your back. The cashier made out a receipt for the correct amount of purchase, and everyone went along with the verbal overcharge. We were thankful that the ripoff wasn’t as bad as the one in California, though this was meek consolation
All of the other Pemex station attendants, once we got away from the border, were honest.
It was in the stretch of road near the border where we hit a very large pothole and damaged the bumper and tow hitch of the trailer. The hole was about a meter across and 50 cm deep. Hit a full speed, it did a lot of damage. But we kept on. It was dark and we were tired and depressed. The feeling was that we could die at any moment, but we were immune to the threat. The trailer held.
We took the cuota (toll) roads instead of the libre roads all the way down through Northern Mexico. They aren’t bad, most with 4 lanes divided, but they are expensive, and a lot of them still take you through city streets. Since we were towing a trailer, we were charge 50% more than for a regular car. All together, the toll charges were about $150 US, with a high toll of $30 US and most being 30-50 pesos. Pemex gas stations are never more than 50 km apart so gas was easy.
We were warned to not drive at night in Mexico. This warning seems to be true for some roads and not for others (I know: “How do you tell the difference?”). The cuotas are safe and well marked, for the most part, and we drove these at night. Regular roads are not always marked with center dividers so they are very difficult at night. Cows and horses and goats and people on foot and bikes are everywhere and are very hard to see.
Our first night in Mexico we spent in Guaymas. I should have researched traveling with pets because most places don’t like or accommodate them. We ended up in a hotel tipico on the outskirts of town on the highway. We had to talk the night clerk into letting us bring in the dogs, but it wasn’t that hard because he had a puppy and there was puppy shit on the floor in the office.
The bed was a simple hard mattress on a cement platform, a very noisy air conditioner and a toilet with no seat. The Malibu Motel. It had seen better days and was now half used as a sign company, but the people were friendly. The night guard said that he was deported from the US for 5 years for some unspecified crimes.
Sonora State is hellish, dry and hot, just like Arizona and southern California (but without the smog). I liked Sinaloa State, except for Mazatlan. Sinaloa is the start of the jungle, tropical part of Mexico and seems to be a much more friendly area. The people seem to be generally doing ok, with agriculture the main income. I didn’t see the clapboard slums there like I did in Nogales.
Mazatlan, with the limited experience I had with it, was a dump. It is crowded, noisy and looks and feels just like LA. An intersection window washer was ready to punch me out when I told him “no” at a stop light and only the intervention of his partner saved us from a fight.
We couldn’t find a hotel or motel that would take the dogs so I thought I’d try to make Tepic (this at 9pm, after a full day of driving). Tepic was only a few hours farther but the road out of town was so bad that I pulled over at a Pemex truck stop and we decided to sleep in the truck for a few hours before heading out.
A man walked up to us when we parked by the other sleeping trucks. We were worried until we saw that he had a gun. He was the night watchman at the station and he was friendly and told us that he would watch out for us.
We started to fall asleep and a woman on a bicycle road up and started friendly talk with me. Sarah wasn’t totally awake and the woman didn’t see her. Sarah woke instantly, tho, and yelled, “EXcuse me” at the girl, with all the protectiveness of a mother or a worried spouse. I was just curious: I don’t often meet truck stop whores. The girl on the bike smiled and said goodbye and road off to the next truck.
We couldn’t really sleep in the truck because of the heat and the two dogs we had with us. So we headed out down the road before daylight.
Just a few hundred meters down the road from the truck stop, the road became new and easy, compared to the unmarked road to that part. It wasn’t cheap. This cuota was the most expensive of the whole trip, topping all at about $300 pesos.
Driving after a full day and half a night and with very little sleep wasn’t easy but we made good time to Tepic.
Highway 200, the road to PV from Tepic narrows down to an alley as it passes through the center of town but soon turns into the worst downhill stretch of road that I’ve seen in a long time. Straight down with lots of curves and long tails of buses and trucks and cars with drivers angry at our slow truck/trailer unfamiliar with the road. The only people friendly were the pickups with families piled in the back. The kids always waved and smiled.
Coming into the Banderas Bay area was a shock and a relief. I was happy to be so close to home but I don’t remember Sayulita and Bucerias being so yuppiefied with fancy signs and palm tree lined roadways and new billboards for gringo housing developments and “gentleman” clubs everywhere you looked. And it has only been a few months that I was last there.
It looked more like LA or Miami than Mexico. Change is fast and disappointing to some. The north Banderas Bay used to be a pleasant getaway but now it’s just another tourist trap. I suppose that other people who have been coming to PV feel the same way about the Southside. I’ve heard that Bill Gates and Vincente Fox have bought up large tracks of land up that way for development. Makes sense since Fox started building the new highway to “nowhere” there.
It’s good to be home. I kind of wished that it hadn’t been election day and that I could have gone to Que?Pasa for a cold beer or two, but there are other nights for that. We drove into Puerto Vallarta on the only dry day of the year, election day. Maybe that’s a sign.
This first night back we just unloaded the truck and trailer and slept.