Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to Cross an International Border Daily Without Going on Zoloft

At the beginning, the bridge was interesting, and by beginning I mean the first time I crossed. It quickly turned hellish for me and by week two I was furiously trying to ward off my seemingly unavoidable panic attacks. I have always been an impatient person. This goes way back. When I was 11 years old I went to a friend’s church for a summer school program and my art teacher became frustrated with my impatience. By the end of the summer he had sketched a poster for me with a caricature in a red t-shirt and blue shorts with a thought-bubble which read, “Patience Is a Virtue.” It hung in my room for many years but I never learned the lesson until I moved to Mexico. What better way to test a person’s patience than to tell them that in order to have what they most desire they need sit tight and wait for 10 years?

I have been in living in Juarez and working in El Paso for almost 2 years now and I feel like I can shed a little light on all of this now. I finally got to a point where I don’t feel like a maniac on the bridge. I no longer stare at the people in the cars next to me, eyes wild with confusion, wondering how in the hell they do this everyday without clawing their own eyes out in desperation. Yes. It was that intense for me. Regardless of how horrible it was at first, I have moved past that. If you can believe it, I actually enjoy my time in the line now. Not to go all Joko Beck on you, but I found my Zen in this line. There are actually times when the line is so short that I find myself flustered because my usual bridge schedule is interrupted.

The following is a list of my personal tips for surviving the line and thriving in the midst of it all. They may or may not work for you, but they’ve changed my life significantly. I know that in addition to obvious safety issues, a big reason that the border is a turn off for forced expats is because of the actual border itself. I just want to say that anyone can make it work. If I can do this everyday, anyone can.

1. Make sure you have car insurance in Mexico and the US. The last thing you want is to get into an accident on the bridge and have your insurance company arguing that you were technically still in Mexico at the time of the accident or vice versa. From a person that has been rear-ended in line more times than they can count on one hand, trust me when I say that this is extremely important.

2. Pay attention to which lanes go faster and develop a plan. With my schedule, crossing at BOTA, it’s the far left lane if I enter anytime before 6:00 am and the second lane from the left after 6:00 am. Going back into Mexico I make sure to always take the 54 so that I can get into the far left lane and avoid all the people who think they are special enough to cut in front of everyone else off of I-10. I have to take an alternate route to ensure that I can always get into these lanes, but it’s worth it. I have friends that also cross daily and say I’m nuts and think it’s best to be in some other lane, but in the end it doesn’t really matter what any of us think. (See my next tip.) Pay attention to school schedules and major holidays. This is huge. You need to leave early on the Tuesdays after three-day, holiday weekends. There is no line to get into El Paso on Good Friday. Spring break is a breeze on the free bridge while the kids in EPISD and YISD are out, but you can milk an extra week of easy crossing durante la Primavera by crossing at the Zaragosa Bridge while everyone in the Socorro Independent School District takes their break the following week. Obviously these tips aren’t helpful to people in other cities, but you get my point.

3. Commit. Once you develop a plan, do not stray from it, unless there is some sort of event that changes the dynamics of the line such as a terrorist getting murdered or lane closures due to a massive outbreak of chorrio amongst CBP. You gotta commit. It doesn’t matter which lane you think is better or worse. What matters is that you pick a freaking lane. One lane. If you don’t get in that line with a plan, you will just end up staring into the other lanes in desperation, wishing you could get into them. Yeah, yeah, you could just hope or pray or cross your fingers that someone lets you into that lane or you have the opportunity to cut. Let’s say all of your toe crossing and witchcraft end up working and you get into that lane… Guess what’s going to happen? Uh-huh. It’s going to stop moving. Pretty soon you’ll see that the orange car that was behind you in your previous lane is now ten cars in front of you. This is just the way the world works people! Don’t do that to yourself. Just make a plan and stick to it as to avoid hours of bridge torture wondering whether or not you picked the right lane or whether or not you should try to change lanes or whatever. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts we’d all have a very Merry Christmas. Pick a lane.

4. After you observe enough to develop a plan, do not pay attention to anyone around you. Try not to rear end anyone though. You don’t want to be that asshole. Get in the zone, have a dance party ala PBS Sit and Be Fit, karaoke, go big or go home. Enjoy your alone time and do as you please. Pick your freaking nose for all I care. Who cares who’s watching? This is your time. You can never get it back so you might as well enjoy it. Do whatever you have to do (see #9) to avoid noticing which lane is moving faster than the one you are in. You can easily drive yourself crazy thinking like that.

5. Despite my last tip, DO try to make friends with a couple of bridge workers. The question isn’t if you will break down in the middle of the bridge, but when. You may be as lucky as I do to have wonderful, helpful friends in your border town, but they may be unavailable to help you. Or you could be new in town and not know a soul. It doesn’t really matter because when you are stuck in rush hour traffic on an international point of entry the only way to get your car out is going to be by pushing it. Who’s going to help you push it up the bridge for the next 45 minutes at a speed of 2 feet per hour? Why… the cigarette salesman of course! Yup… yup. #hankhillvoice This is why you need to make at least one friend who is always in line when you need them. My friends are the cigarette salesman, a dude with one leg (who can only help by rallying the troops in a moment of desperation) and my beloved car-duster. I made friends with cigarette dude because DUH and I take food to the amputee because if I only had one leg I’d want to be either drunk, high or stuffed and after much thought I decided I’d get into trouble if I passed out mescal to the disabled. I let the car duster (laughably referred to as a car washer by some) do his thing on my truck once a week for 10 pesos a pop. I bring them all tamales for Christmas. The relationships I have built have resulted in them being more than willing to help me on several occasions and I am forever grateful for it.
Side note: Albeit interesting, do not, under any circumstances, make friends with or stare at the coyotes. Let them do their thing. It's not of your concern. I do not feel the need to elaborate on this one.

6. Carry an extra set of clothes. You could be stranded in America because of car problems, or bridge closures, or for lack of a better way to phrase this; you could piss your pants. Yeah. Shit just got real. Sometimes you are in line for a long ass time. Sometimes you gotta go. We’re all human. I have luckily never shit my pants on the bridge but I will never rule out that possibility. Keep a bag packed and in your trunk with a change of clothes, some toiletries and a small amount of emergency cash. I’m talking $20 tops.

7. Be nice to Border Patrol. I mean overly nice. I’m sure I am going to get some slack for saying this, but I have never, ever, waivered on the advice that a sweet friend in Matamoros gave me years ago. I am always nice to CBP and I know for a fact that it pays off. Even if I am gritting my teeth as I smile and think, “Fuck you, you dumb motherfucker. You have no idea what my life is like or where I came from or where I’m going or who my husband is or which way is up so why don’t you just suck it?” I still smile. Every. Single. Time. The result of my efforts is that 99.99% of the time CBP is actually nice to me. No, you didn’t read wrong. They smile and tell me to have a good day and ask me if I ever rented that movie they told me about a couple of weeks ago and man, it sure does suck that I have to go through all of this immigration stuff and thank you ma’am that’ll be $7.00 state tax for the tequila, “enjoy your hangover.” For reals.

8. Leave early enough that you rarely risk being late. Even if it takes you an hour to cross most days but once a month you get a random 3 hour day, leave early enough to allot for a 3 hour day, every day. This isn't an Emily's-opinion-tip. This is a keep-your-fucking-job tip. Do you know how often I hear about landscapers or receptionists or housekeepers or whoever’s from Juarez that my co-workers or friends or clients in El Paso end up letting go because they are considered unreliable due to inconsistencies from crossing the bridge? You don’t want to be that person. Not even once. Being late tells people that you don’t respect their time or them. End of story. What to do with all of your extra time? I chose to nap in my car at random locations. My favorites being Walmart, McDonald's and the local golf course. You could also use any of the following suggestions:

9. Enjoy your time in line. I know that this may seem impossible, but trust me, you can do it. My personal life-saver was finally caving in and getting a Smart Phone. It is easily worth the extra $30 I pay a month and then some. My top Apps for border crosser are...

Facebook - Duh
Instagram - To take pictures on the bridge through rose colored lenses
Words With Friends - to practice your English
YouTube - so Jenna Marbles and Harto can make you laugh and you can check out old school hip hop videos.
Currency Converter - so you know the best times to change your dollars to pesos or vice versa
Pandora/Tune Wiki/Slacker - for the times when local DJs make you want to slit your wrists with a toenail clipper
E! - to keep up with The Real Housewives even if you don’t have Bravo in Mexico
Kindle/Play Books/Overdrive - Check out your local library. The El Paso Public Library has an option to checkout books online and download them onto the Overdrive App at no charge.

Before I had a Smart Phone I would occupy my time by putting on too much make-up (watch that blush in the dark, the red break lights with fool you,) painting my nails, tweezing my eyebrows, reading books and magazines, talking on the phone to friends and family members who are actually awake at 5 am, balancing my checkbook and of course, contemplating the meaning of life.

That’s it. Those are my tips. I’m not going to be an ass and make something up just to get to 10. The line has taught me to not sweat the small stuff. I’m okay with imbalance and imperfections now. If anything has become abundantly clear in the past two years it’s that life is what you choose to make it. You can curl up in the fetal position over this stuff or you can accept that you can’t control everything and embrace the ups and downs.


  1. Good list. I can understand that you have to come to a point where you just have to accept everything and find a way to keep yourself busy just to stay sane. I have only been visiting here in the states for 3 wks now and I cant stand the traffic, sad I know but you get used to things and I like my traffic in our little town better :)

  2. As a former daily crosser (but going in the opposite directions), I can agree. The agents got to know me if you are super nice and they responded in kind.

    I HATE jerks that think they can create their own lane or the rules of waiting in lines do not apply to them. When one of them bumped me in line, I got him back good. I was in no hurry to get home so I made a police report. Held him up for an hour and a half.

  3. LOVED THIS! What an excellent post :) Really well thought our and informative. Thanks for this :)

  4. Number 10: Practice your kegels.

    I am really impatient, too, and have to talk myself down to keep from getting so hot under the collar about the unnecessary wait for an entrance to the good ol' U.S.A. I have a ready pass and am waiting for my Sentri, but there are times I get in the wrong lane and there is no way to fix it. I sit in the regular lane for 2 1/2 to 3 hours with my ready pass staring at me from my visor. Now THAT really ticks me off. I could have saved at least an hour. My fault. The lanes for San Ysidro in my opinion, are very poorly marked. My Kindle has come in handy and I thank whomever I cross when I want to and don't have to do it daily like you all hard workers.

  5. This was so well written! I used to cross the border for shopping trips and have had a long commute to work but i don't even own a car now and live in Puerto Vallarta no where near the border and you had my attention the whole time!

  6. I love this! I don't live near or cross any international borders on a regular basis, but, honestly, some of these tips work just as well for dealing with commuting traffic in Boston, which is what I have to deal with daily.

  7. Emily, I don't know how you did it, but you almost made me want to move to Juarez just so I can enjoy that border crossing...all the fun activities you suggested while waiting...all the crazy stories...but for real I admire your tenacity and your creative ways of learning to embrace and live with these things. You're awesome :D

  8. Wow Emily. You are truly one hard working lady! If I am not being intrusive, when does your typical work day begin and when do you get back into Juarez each night? Do you work Monday-Friday? And I used to whine about commuting for one hour. I need to be thank-ful and stop being so trivial. Great blog. Thanks for putting me into perspective.

    1. I work from 8am-5pm Monday through Friday. I leave the house at 4:30am on Mondays and 5:30am the rest of the week. I am usually home around 6:00pm. Not too shabby.

  9. Not shabby at all considering you really leave one country and go to another for work. Amazing!

  10. Great Blog! I was wondering about how much does car insurance in Mexico run. thanks

    1. It varies based on the value of your vehicle and type of coverage but we pay about $250 US a year for full coverage, including theft and vandalism. Significantly less than our US policy which runs us about $1400/year.