Crossing into Tijuana, Mexico there is never anyone at immigration. So therefore I couldn’t get my tourist visa. Under normal circumstances I would have got it in San Diego before entering, but was limited for time. Before I knew it the bus was taking me to the main terminal outside of town. Sitting on the bus with me were two Americans. One of them spends each winter in Mexico and is used to this.
‘I’ve been down here often without a visa,’ he says, ‘they try to give me hassle for it when I return to the states, but I just say, ‘It’s not my fault there is no one at your border.”
At the bus station I got on a bus southward. As I was limited for time I couldn’t be bothered chasing them for a visa. After all it was their fault, as the American had so rightly pointed out, and not mine. So I figured I’d just have to be an illegal alien for a week.
The penitence for my laziness is paid on the trip back. I’m on a bus from Mexico City to Tijuana. The entire trip is to take 42 hours, non-stop. The further north you go, the more police and military checks there are. They become more prolific as you enter the state of Sonora. First we have to go through the military checkpoint. Everyone gets off while soldiers go through all the baggage. Then all freight is checked. Concern is expressed over boxes of pharmaceutical drugs. Five more minutes up the road we have to go through another checkpoint. The bus is surrounded by a group of mean-looking men with scruffy hair and dirty faces. Each wore a greasy, tattered yellow tee shirt bearing the name El Judicio del Estado (The State Judiciary). They come through the bus with sticks and torches and probe every nook and cranny, removing two of the passengers and taking them to an office for questioning. The irony of it is that the guys performing the search looked far more likely to be running drugs than any of the passengers. Another five minutes up the road we have to go through an agricultural checkpoint. For reasons still unknown to me, all the men on the bus had to get off. We form an orderly queue outside, and wait. A few minutes later we are told to get back on. Each of us casts confused looks at each other as we take our seats.
For the rest of the day we drive on through the desert unhindered. Once night falls the checkpoints become more prolific. One policeman asks to see my passport. He flicks through it and hands it straight back. I heave a sigh of relief. Later on immigration gets on board and checks my passport. Seeing there is no visa he asks where it is. I play dumb, not too difficult really as I’d just been woken up and am still shaking the sleep from my head.
‘When are you leaving?’ he asks.
‘Tomorrow,’ I reply, ‘from Tijuana.’
He shakes his head, returns the passport and gets off.
At god-knows what time in the morning in the middle of nowhere, I am shaken awake by another policeman.
‘Your papers please!’ he demands.
I give him my passport.
‘Where is your tourist visa?’
‘I don’t have one,’ I reply, and explain the situation to him.
‘You are illegal!’ he states.
‘It’s not my fault there is no one at Tijuana,’ I argue.
He is unconcerned with this and orders me to gather up my things and get off the bus. Outside I am subjected to a thorough search by him and a colleague. They are convinced I’m carrying drugs and pull absolutely everything out of my bag, delve through all my pockets, scrutinising everything, questioning me constantly.
‘You have drugs?’ he asks time and time again.
‘No I don’t have any drugs,’ I repeat.
‘Why are you here?’
‘I’m on holiday.’
I am then subjected to a body search and the guy grabs my crotch – a bit too hard for my liking – to see if I had shoved the drugs down there. At god-knows what time in the morning my restraint is admirable. The other guy is going through my wallet.
‘A visa card,’ he says to his colleague, as he pulls out my bankcard.
Perhaps they are hinting for a bribe? I think to myself. Should I? But if I do it could only make them more suspicious. My other fear is that they might plant something on me, throw me in prison and demand $1000 US for my release. I had travelled Mexico enough to know that this sort of thing went on in these remote parts. When he hands back my wallet I put it straight back in my pocket.
The bus driver is becoming impatient and soon closes the door and starts moving off. Panic strikes at the thought of being stuck in the middle of nowhere with these two dodgy-looking policemen. Instantly I grab my backpack and sprint off towards the bus, to the surprise of the policemen, and bang on the door.
‘¡No me dejas aquí (don’t leave me here)!’ I shout.
The policemen come chasing after me.
‘Where are you going?’ shouts one of them.
‘He is going to leave without me!’ I reply.
‘This is an inspection, he is not going anywhere. What are you worried about?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I reply, as my heartbeat returns to its normal pace, ‘I thought he was going to leave me here.’
His suspicion aroused even more, he continues his scrutiny. He orders me to remove my shoes and then delves through them. The driver gets involved now. He is ordered to produce his bus driver’s license. I think they suspected him of working with me. After a rapid exchange of Spanish he obviously manages to convince them that I’m an all round decent guy and not a drug runner. They then allow us both to get back on and be on our way.
‘Disculpe la molestia (I’m sorry for the hassle),’ I say to the driver as we speed on down the road.
‘Don’t worry,’ he replies, ‘The police here are idiots!’
I couldn’t agree more.
Back in my seat I sit and wonder if this had all been about me not having a visa. Would it have made any difference? Or would they have put me through that regardless? After all I am the only gringo on the bus. Just to be on the safe side though, I decide that in future I am going to make sure I get that tourist visa next time I go to Mexico.