Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"Labor Day"


The hotel provided me with a list of agents who sell insurance for Mexico. Down the highway, in Brownsville, I stopped at the Fairwinds Executive Inn, where "Sanborn's Mexican Insurance Agency" is located. Being a holiday, they were closed. Nearby is the Brownsville Convention and Visitors Bureau, so I went over to see about other insurance agents in Brownsville.

The gentleman there didn't know of any, but said it wasn't a requirement for entry into Mexico. He also said (contrary to all the warnings heretofore) that it is pretty safe in the Matamoros area and told me to look for the yellow-shirted "Matamoros Hospitality Tourist Guides." They are bilingual, and are there to assist tourists.

Encouraged by some rare good news about travel in Mexico, I decided to take my chances and just "go for it." Drove down International Boulevard to the crossing. To my amazement, there were no lines, not even any customs agents stopping traffic. I just sailed right through, and into downtown Matamoros. So easy!

Then the culture shock hit. Traffic was bumper to bumper, the narrow streets overwhelming with their activity; pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses, horns honking, exhaust belching, dust flying. I wasn't even sure where I was going, but that was the least of my worries. I could figure that out once I was through this downtown mess. Followed signs toward Ciudad Victoria, which seemed to be the right direction, south.

Here, one sees where all our cast-off vehicles go to die a slow death. (Crossing Texas, especially driving down highway 77, I saw many cars being towed in the direction of Mexico.) The typical car looked about fifteen years old and patched together as necessary. I saw vehicles being towed with ropes, with chains, being pushed by men, stuck in traffic unable to start. This brief exposure was enough to reveal how difficult conditions are here.

Many of the streets have unpaved shoulders, which are used by buses, including the school buses, for loading and unloading. Alternately dry and dusty or pooled with standing water, they are the source of dust clouds or splashing waves of muddy water, both undesirable when you're on a motorcycle.

The buses seemed to stop anywhere, discharging groups of children right into traffic, leaving them to weave their way between cars. You'd never see this in the U.S.; parents would have a coronary.

I didn't have any pesos, so one of my first missions (after escaping the worst of the congestion) was to find an ATM. As long as I was headed toward the airport, I felt there would be an opportunity to find one. Reaching the edge of downtown however, I was uncomfortable going any further without cash, so I turned around and drove back to a mall I had passed.

This was not like the malls I had seen north of the border. The parking lot was full of the aforementioned cars. There was a bank advertising an ATM, however at the neighboring storefront was a long line of people. I assumed it must have been a line for government welfare or benefit of some sort. I felt very uncomfortable parking my motorcycle and walking over to the ATM in view of all these people. It was not appropriate to flaunt my relative wealth.

Withdrawing a few hundred dollars worth of pesos, I quickly moved on. It was very warm, and the combination of heat and pollution was difficult to bear. I looked for a place to stop for a beverage, finding a convenience store a few miles south.

Inside, listening to the customers and clerk interacting, I couldn't understand anything that was being said. ("They talk so fast!") I walked to the counter with my soda and pulled out a 500-peso note to hand the clerk. She shook her head and said something while reaching over to open my wallet and pull out a 50-peso note. A fellow looking on just grinned. ("Silly gringo.") Sat at a table with my soda and a bag of jalapeno potato chips, enjoying the air conditioning.

Beyond Matamoros, I was relieved to break away from the traffic and fumes. Passed my first military checkpoint, complete with young soldiers carrying rifles, Humvees with machine guns, and sandbagged shelters. They just waved me through.

A short distance down the road, another inspection point. This appeared to be more of a customs station [May 2012 note: no longer open]. An officer waved me to the right, into a covered parking area. "Do you have a permit?"

The alarms started to go off. ("Oh, shit!") Of course, I had read that you need a permit. In my eagerness to put the border area behind me, I had completely forgotten the basics!

"Can't I do that here?"

"You need to do that at the border."

"Nobody stopped me there..."

"YOU need to stop. You could have very much trouble with the Highway Patrol. They could take your motorcycle."

"Oh. Yo soy pendejo."

"Go back."

I pressed the starter button, but the engine wouldn't fire. Checked a few things, then tried again. And again. No luck. "This is incredible!" I rolled the bike across the asphalt, out of the way of cars and trucks. I could find no reason that the bike should suddenly stop. Tried to push start it once or twice, but with it fully loaded, and a temperature hovering between 95 and 100, it was exhausting. I was already quite thirsty.

It was time to start looking at the basics. Pulled out the left primary spark plug to make sure it had spark. It was difficult to see in broad daylight, but I did notice it was dry. With all the cranking, I would have expected to see a wet spark plug. The right hand one was the same. "I think I have a fuel pump problem." (And it was just replaced in Vermont!) "Now what?"

I was sucking down the water pretty fast. Second lesson (after "get a permit"): carry more than a liter and a half of water, even when traveling main highways.

I had pretty much drained the battery, so I looked for a way to recharge it. I was carrying an official BMW charger. I just needed a 110V outlet. I happened to find one at the back of the inspectors' building. Moved the bike over and hooked it up, but it was obvious it would take quite a while.

There was a payphone mounted to the outside wall in the inspection area. It required phone cards. (Lesson 3: buy phone cards.) I went back to the officer who first stopped me. He asked what was wrong. When I explained, he said "o, la bomba de gasolina. It is good you stopped here. To the south it would not be good."

I then asked if there was a phone I could use to call the U.S. "O, no. Too much."

"I'll pay."


Another officer directed me to a small shack nearby, which was apparently a store. I went over and shouted "hola" to get somebody's attention. Finally a man emerged from the house just behind the shop. I think I woke him.

"Tiene una carta para telefono?"


I went back to the inspection station and sat on a bench in the shade. I had gone through most of my water. I was just going to sit and wait for some stroke of genius.

After a while, yet another officer came around the corner and handed me his cellphone. "Rapido. Dos, tres (minutes)." I wanted to call Lester at "Frank's Motorcycle Service" to see if he could recommend a course of action. There was no answer. "Damn! It's Labor Day. Cerrado." The officer understood and shrugged his shoulders. He had tried.

I sat there, as vehicles pulled in and were inspected, then moved on. Occasionally, I'd go back to the bike and try to crank it over, but the battery was still nearly lifeless.

The first officer (the only one who spoke any English) finally came over to me and asked, if he could find someone to do it, would I like a tow into Matamoros?  

"Yo pienso." ("I guess.") I wasn't sure what I would do from there.

On one of my attempts to start the bike, it fired up and ran for a few seconds before sputtering to a halt. A young man washing vehicles behind the station seemed as excited as me to see it start. But that was it. I couldn't get it to repeat.

The officer came around the back and said he had someone who would take the bike, "no charge. Do you want to go?"

I hesitated.

"You have to hurry..."

"Okay!" I hastily packed up my things.

The two fellows had a pick-up truck with a flat-bed trailer stopped on the opposite side of the highway. I ran the bike across and the young man from the inspection station came to assist. The four of us lifted it onto the flat-bed. These guys even had heavy-duty tie-down straps! (Lesson 4: I should have bought those tie-down straps I was looking at in Austin! The ones I was carrying were worthless.)

Thankful for the kindness of strangers, and my good fortune, I was now trying to anticipate what I would do if they leave me in the rather sketchy neighborhoods of downtown Matamoros. I finally broached the subject. "Necessito a...Brownsville"

The driver explained he could not take me there, nor could they take a trailer into the city. They would take an alternative route around the city, and get me close to the border. We pulled into a parking lot just across the street from the border crossing entrance.

After rolling the bike off the trailer, I turned to them and said "yo quiero pagar para ayuda." I wanted to pay, but they just shook their heads. I insisted and held out 1,000 pesos (about $100), but they wouldn't have it. "I insist!" The driver said it was too much. I handed him a 500-peso note. He shook his head and smiled. Still too much. This time I wouldn't accept "no".

Before parting, I asked their names: "Charlie" and Juan Manuel Rios Lomeli, then took a picture. Thanking them again for their help, I started to push the bike towards the border. Turning back, "no problemo," I assured them.

"Charlie" and Juan Manuel Rios Lomeli bailed my ass out of a difficult situation. About twenty miles south of the border, my bike died. They hauled me and the bike back to Matamoros, and as close as possible to the border crossing. For this, they wanted no compensation.

It was not going to be easy. Hot and very humid, I was forced to rest after only a few hundred feet. My next stop was in front of some kind of office. A group of young men in uniform came out and gathered round. "How much did you pay" one wanted to know, pointing at the BMW. I could see the wheels turning in his head, and didn't feel comfortable staying. They were looking at each other, and I had no idea what they were thinking. One mentioned a repair shop in Matamoros. "No problemo," I said and pushed on.

An officer at the Mexican toll entrance observed my slow approach. I parked my bike and walked over to see if I should push the bike through the toll gate. He said "yes", then asked if I wanted water. "Si!"

He disappeared inside the office then came back out with a bottle of cold water. Wonderful! It took over an hour just to reach the start of the Veterans Bridge across the Rio Grande. From there, it was another two miles of so to American Customs. The traffic lanes were too narrow to accommodate me and the bike, so I had to use a pedestrian sidewalk, barely wide enough to push the bike along.

It was about a 3-1/2 mile push from Mexican Customs to American Customs. With the heat and humidity, I had to stop about every 50 to 100 yards to rest from the exertion.

It's a LONG way across the Rio Grande!

Except for a mile or so of slight upward slope, most of the time I was pushing the bike over fairly flat ground, however my muscles were getting pretty "rubbery" and my hands very sweaty; it was difficult to control the heavy bike. It scraped against the tall concrete walls. Now I was having to stop every 100 feet or so. The sun set and the heat eased just a bit, but the humidity seemed to increase in the stagnant air.

I felt relieved as I started to reach the traffic back-up for the American side. I was also coming to a slight down-slope. The bike wouldn't coast, but it was much easier to push. But up ahead, there was a chain-link gate. I felt a slight panic at the thought of being unable to fit the bike (with it's wide cylinder heads and panniers) through the narrow opening. It just cleared, without having to take any gear off.

I took a long rest before finally climbing on the bike and coasting downhill the last hundred yards, past lines of cars. A U.S. Customs agent looked at me, and my situation and just said "have a nice day," waving me on by. I pulled into the large flood-lighted inspection area and parked. Walked directly to a water fountain and drank for about a minute. Asked an agent if there were a phone I could use, and he took me into the office and told me to use their phone.

I called the "BMW Motorcycle Roadside Assistance Plan" to see what they could do to help me out. The woman I spoke with was at first impatient and short with me. She made sure I was aware they only cover the first $100 in towing charges. She went off line to look up the nearest shop and towing service. "That would be San Antonio, and would cost about $1,000 for towing and storage." I don't think so.

She went off line again to research another idea. I sat watching a Customs officer come in and sit down with a bunch of what looked like palm leaves.

"What's that," I asked.

"Lemongrass. You ever hear of that?"

"Sure. They use it in Thai food, don't they?"

"The Mexicans like it too. You chew it." he handed me a leaf to try. It was quite intense and flavorful.

"It's against the law to bring this in?"

"Yes. Grass is by far our most valuable product. We protect all our grasses." He pulled from his pocket a handwritten list of all the agricultural products that can be considered a "grass" (such as corn.)

This guy was very serious, without much sense of humor it seemed, but still showed compassion and a desire to help. He said the station was closing and suggested I move the bike to a nearby "Circle K" where the tow company could meet me. He drew a map for me, then went out to continue inspections.

The Roadside Assistance lady came back on the line. She had discovered there was a local motorcycle shop in Brownsville and thought about having it towed there. She contacted the only tow company in Brownsville, but they refuse to tow motorcycles. She told me that I could call the police "if you feel you're in danger" and they could compel the company to tow my bike. I would have to pay the bill though.

I told her I would "explore my options" and call back if I needed their help. Filled up on water, then started pushing again. The "Circle K" was about half a mile away. Mosquitoes were starting to attack now, and it was difficult to swat them without stopping. Eventually, I just let them bite. By the time I reached the convenience store, I was drenched and wasted.

Inside the air conditioned store, I drank about a quart of soda. Called brother Drew to check in with family and let them know the situation. Across the street was a "Burger King" restaurant; walked over there to get something to eat (and another 20 ounces of liquid.) Called Jeff to check in with him.

A mini-van taxi showed up at the convenience store. I had seen him before and went over to see what he'd charge to take me and my belongings to the nearest motel, then return me to the bike so I could push it unladen to the motel. "$16 to 18.00."

We loaded everything in and went to the "Super 8", about two miles away. In a rough part of town, and without high-speed internet service, I asked "Lorenzo" for the next nearest option. He said it was about five miles from my bike. Checked into the "Rose Garden Inn", dumped everything in the room, then we returned to the motorcycle. It was about 12:30 a.m.

"You're not really going to push that, are you?"


"It's too far..."

"It's not a problem. I have all night."

He pointed out the best route to follow, then wished me luck. "I'll check on you," he added. A short time later he drove up with some passengers. "These guys will help you push, if you want." But I couldn't accept their offer. Stubbornness, or not wishing to impose. I don't know.

Pushed the bike through darkened neighborhoods, waking probably every dog along the way. One more stop to re-hydrate with another 20 ounces of ice-cold soda. It took over two and a half hours to reach the motel, arriving around 3:00 a.m.

After about six hours and nine miles of fun, a cool shower provided some much needed relief.

Now, to figure out where I go from here.

No comments: