Day 4 – Austin to Tampico (Part 1)

We were up extremely early this morning to make it into Mexico. Up to this point in the trip we haven’t left any earlier than 1030 in the morning, generally after a pretty solid breakfast. Today was different. Today we were out the door and on the bikes just before 0500 because we knew it was going to be a long day under the best of circumstances. We were planning 5 hours to McAllen where we would cross over to Reynosa, Mexico. From there it would be another 6 hours to our final destination for the day, Tampico. That was the plan. Today, was a little different from the plan but that is what adventure is all about, right?

It was so amazing to be on the roads before the sun in Austin. The air wasn’t cold but it definitely wasn’t warm or hot yet. It was just a really nice cool as it flowed up my sleeves and around my neck as we left. Packing up the bikes, in the driveway, in the dark had left me a little overheated so the air was a welcome relief from the heat packed into my jacket. The black pavement blended perfectly into the inky blackness of the pre-dawn sky as we made our way out of the hills on our way to the main southern drag that would eventually take us across the border so it felt like I was gliding deeper into the farthest reaches of space as I split the two. By the time the sun started to peak out over the edge of the landscape we already had 2 hours and 140 miles into our trip. It felt really good to know we had beat the daylight by getting a big jumpstart on our mileage. It also felt really good to know that we wouldn’t have to go nearly as far in the incredible heat of South Texas. When we had left North Carolina I knew we were headed into warmer temps but I was not prepared for what that would feel like on a bike traveling 70+ mph. Every other time I had been traveling at speed on the bike the air rushing around me felt good. It felt cooler than sitting still on the bike which was always welcome during the summer months. As we neared the border something strange happened to the air around us. The heat persisted even at higher speeds which made it feel like riding in a sauna. Imagine one of those hand dryers from the men’s room blowing directly in your face and you will understand what south Texas heat can do to your ride. Initially it was interesting and remarkable but after a short time my dry mouth and crusty nostrils just wanted a tendril of relief to waft through my helmet.

The cell signal was spotty, so instead of making calls or listening to music, I used the time to just reflect on how I was feeling as I neared the beginnings of what I called, “the real trip.” Before we left we heard countless warnings from people that had been to Mexico and plenty who hadn’t. We read reports from the State Department and other travelers from the blogs. We poured over the most recent information we could find on Some of it was calming and insightful but some of it left me with anxiety and worry. I was told I was crazy to even attempt a trip down to Mexico. It is too dangerous and you just had a kid. The people on the forums were much more reserved but still carried tons of warnings and advice. I wondered why those warnings were never heeded and why I always took them with a grain of salt as we approached. Maybe it was because the border always seemed so far away. Maybe it was because it wasn’t real until today. I didn’t have to worry about the tales and the circumstances because I was still at home. All that was going to be changing today in just a few short hours. Worry started to enter my mind and my heart but I decided to push it away as best as I can because I was locked into making this trip now. I have always trusted my instincts to guide me away from danger and although I had heard a billion different terror stories my heart told me everything was going to be just fine. Is fear a reason to deny opportunity? Is danger enough of an excuse to walk away from experience? Do I have to change my mind now that I have a young son at home?

I find my answers to these type of questions really cloudy. It becomes far more clear when I think about how I hope my son eventually answers these types of questions. My hope for him is to look at fear as exactly what it is, a guide. Nothing more. When fear strikes, it shouldn’t paralyze you but allow you a chance to analyze the sources of that fear. I want him to use fear rather than being used by fear. When others back away, I want him to step forward and realize life isn’t always safe or comfortable. The best way to dispel fear is to journey into the darkness. Each step will show you there is nothing to fear and you will be able to live a bolder life. My excitement rose significantly as we neared the border because I knew just a year ago I wouldn’t have made this trip. Not only did I not have the bike but I wouldn’t have considered something this far outside of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have internalized all the warnings and negativity until I simply assumed a trip beyond the borders of the USA wasn’t in the cards for me. I would have rationalized it as me being responsible or caring more about my family than the journey. What I realize now is this journey is all about my family and what kind of man I want to be in this family. Do I want to show my son that the best way to live life is inside a bubble where only other people’s stories get told or do I want to show him that sometimes prudence needs to take a backseat to action? I was proud of myself for taking a leap when countless reasons existed for why I shouldn’t. I want my son to look for reasons to say yes to challenge and experience because those are harder to find than the excuses we use to avoid all risk.

I know this seems like a pretty heavy mental activity for such a free and open area of the ride but Southern Texas in September heat can feel excruciatingly large. We eventually made our way to the border town of McAllen, TX and it was a little unnerving because there is an awful lot going on right there. For some reason, I felt like it would be a straight road directly across Mexico with no real hurdles but let me dispel that fantasy if any of you share my ignorance. There is a full blown city right there and more than a couple stop lights before you cross. We found our way to the right path thanks to Google Maps but got ourselves a little turned around as we passed into the Mexican side. We veered right instead of left and almost left the border area without a stamp, registration or insurance. Needless to say to anyone who has done even a little research about riding into Mexico, this oversight would have been very bad for the remainder of our trip. Luckily, a kind gentleman on his way back from lunch recognized our looks of dismay as we neared the exit and turned us around to head back to the very large building where we would eventually take care of all necessary items. We thanked him, in English, and made our way to what was going to be my most frustrating part of the day.

We entered at the far right door at Reynosa which brings the insurance office up first on our left as we step inside the cool air conditioned confines. There were four gentlemen on folding chairs outside the office spilling into the walkway ever so slightly as they laughed and shared chips while sipping from their individual sodas. Immediately after the insurance office comes the immigration office which had one gentleman sitting inside giving us a knowing glance as he beckoned us over. He asked for our passports and all the necessary paperwork in Spanish and once we figured out what we had and didn’t have he sent us all the way to the opposite end of the building to check in the bikes properly. We grabbed all our jackets, helmets and tank bags for the long walk to the opposite end of the building just happy that we were at least inside where it was much cooler than the midday sun beating down outside. I remember being vaguely aware that it wouldn’t have taken much to get my bike into the back of a pick up while I was in here and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. I pushed that fear to the back of my mind convincing myself that nothing would happen. We made it to the bike check in and registration section. They first asked to register the bikes which was a large $400 fee which I tried to pay with my credit card. A Discover card. She handed it back to me simply saying, “No.” I got this sick feeling in my stomach as I realized that card was the only one I had brought. Uh oh. I meekly looked at Joe and asked if he might be able to help as he was a stall over and well on his way through the process because he brought more than one card and something other than a Discover card. He handed me his still warm from use card, which I promptly handed to the attendant. She handed it back and told me the card had to have my name on it. Big uh oh. What was I going to do? Joe and I pooled our on hand cash (mostly Joe’s) and just barely got me over the $400 collateral registration. The remaining entry fee (~$50) was put on Joe’s card without any restrictions. We had passed the first window but I was already sweating pretty bad as I understood just how unprepared I was for this border.

I went to the immigration window again and he reviewed all of my paperwork, provided me with a stamp and told me my last window would be the insurance man just to my left where Joe was finishing up after paying a few dollars for five day insurance coverage. With a smile he told me he was all good but I was going to need to head into town to pull our cash because we were both empty and the insurance man only took dollars or pesos. Crap. I asked a few of the men outside the window if they could point me to the nearest bank and they motioned over there shoulder, into town and a few blocks over. I got the feeling this wasn’t going to be as easy as they made it sound. I asked Joe to hold everything he could of mine and I headed out the door, into the heat and into my first Mexican town to find a bank which was supposed to be about 10 minutes away.

The streets of Reynosa don’t run parallel to the border crossing but instead in a crisscross pattern offset about 45 degrees. Thinking about it now, this shouldn’t have affected me as much as it did but for some reason it felt like stepping off the curb onto Mars. My mind was really thrown. I was also terrified to ask for help from anyone I passed assuming they would recognize me as clueless and take me for everything I had which was next to nothing. I passed school children and women on their way back from the grocery store. I passed young gentlemen dressed in light colored suits and others in work pants and dirty t-shirts without saying a word. I tried to be a shadow. After about 20 minutes of searching I was starting to get worried because I didn’t want to return empty-handed and looking even more foolish than I already have while also being covered in new glistening sweat. Just as I was going to give up, I saw the sign. I was almost there. The vestibule was occupied when I arrived so I retrieved my Discover card and said a little wish to the universe that it would let me off with a warning this time so I could get some money and continue. The woman inside left holding the door open for me as I smiled slightly as if to say, “Don’t worry, I look like this all the time.” Once inside, I slid my card in the slot and was met with an unfortunate buzzing sound like the one you hear on Family Feud when someone receives their third strike. Not good for me. I called the number on the back of the card hoping it was just a small international unlock issue. The customer service person on the other end informed me of the rarity with which I was likely to be using this card while in Mexico. My heart and my head sank. So far Mexico is not really going my way.

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