Ways to know you had a successful mini-vacation to Mexico City:
1) You have a hard time stepping into your pants due to muscle soreness on one entire side of your body. You’d like to say this was from falling off a Mexican pyramid, as that sounds way more adventurous than the truth- you jumped/fell off a wall at some Mexican pyramids. Instead, the real story is that after climbing up two enormous pyramids, both of which were terrifying, as heights may not be your “thing” and there are not nearly enough safely railings/ropes to make it the smartest choice ever, your legs were like jelly. Rather than thinking through the fact that you were doing well to be upright and making forward progress in the midday heat of Mexico City in May, a city that sits nearly a mile above sea level when you live in a city that clocks in at about 400 feet above sea level, you considered yourself invincible and without pondering the possible repercussions, you jumped (in the end “fell” is probably a more accurate verb, but for this part of the tale we’ll stick with the more self-guided “jumped”) off a short wall rather than walking around the long way to get to your destination. Said wall was about three feet high, but because your legs were still quivering from the last terrifying pyramid descent, when your feet hit the ground, rather than holding you up in a graceful manner, your thighs melted like butter and you hit the ground like a giant sack of potatoes. Yup. All the way to the ground. As you peel yourself off the red dirt ground, you brush gravel from your palms, calf and rear of your capris and try to make a nimble exit. (It’s hard to imagine an Aztec, native to the temple complex, biting it so hard, although you content yourself with the thought that all peoples must have had klutzes in their midst.) As with many injuries, it wasn’t the day of the spill or even the following one, but that third one when the soreness really set in seriously. Your colleagues might be sympathetic, but you know they are also laughing because there is no good way to explain your ridiculous limp and the groans that emanate from your cubicle each time you sit or stand. But, limping around the building after a vacation is just a sign that you did it right!
2) Those same pants fit a bit tighter in the waist because you ate all the chicken tacos and a good number of the churros in Mexico. You might be a picky eater, but the food in Mexico was right up your alley. Imagine a place where most items are brought in pieces and you get to assemble them, as desired. This means you can make chicken tacos without the hot salsa or with a few beans on top or without the fried onions or with a bit of cheese. You can have it your way, day after day. Plus, there is a lovely little corner restaurant devoted entirely to churros. You can get churros by the foot, you can get little churro nuggets, you can get churros with hot chocolate or ice cream or dipping sauces. You can get churros! (As a side note, because of the current Foreign Service hiring freeze, you did ponder, for a few moments, the need for a new career in the future and churro cutting guy’s job looked pretty enticing. Just you, a giant spiral of freshly fried churro, and a pair of sharp scissors. Churro cutting might be where it is at!) Needless to say, tacos and churros do not make for a skinny-traveler diet.
3) You caught up of months of chatter with friends, covering everything from common connections from previous posts to current Foreign Service policy and book recommendations to tales of first dates and matchmaking. Yes, you can keep track of friends by Facebook stalking them or through occasional messages here and there, but a few days wandering a city, exploring sites, and eating meals together creates the perfect opportunity to discuss all the things, from tiny to tremendous, going on in your lives and around the world.
4) You paid a small amount of money to watch grown men (and a couple of women) don tight spandex and fight it out in a sweaty wrestling ring, inside an arena that smelled more than vaguely like puke. You’ve seen it referenced online and you remember seeing clips of WWE on TV as a child, but you haven’t really experienced Mexico City until you’ve enjoyed an evening of luche libre wrestling. Of course, you can’t pass up the chance to sit in the crowd as the hawkers sell beer in cups that look like they can hold a gallon of liquid and bear witness to the craziness that is a luchadores match crowd. You might be a bit horrified by the things being yelled, bilingually, at the fighters, most of it wholly inappropriate for the eight-year-old sitting in the row in front of you, but boy did he get a multilingual vocabulary lesson that night. Yes, you cringed when Sam Adonis, the “American” wrestler runs around the ring with a giant Stars and Stripes flag with Trump’s face plastered in the middle of it, encouraging the crowd in their crazy screaming and you have to cover your eyes as wrestlers thrown themselves off the ropes onto the cement floor of the stadium, but you cannot pass up the chance to experience this ridiculous form of entertainment. (And, of course, your better half can’t walk away from the venue without purchasing his very own luchador mask, so Blue Dragon is now a part of your life for the foreseeable future.)
5) You spent an afternoon in what must be the party boat capital of Latin America. Xomilcho is a cultural outing that must be experienced and you had no intention of not taking part. The kinder internet sites refer to it as “floating gardens,” and you give them credit for their diplomatic renderings, but you quickly realize that Xomilcho is a strange blend of bumper boats, picnicking, floating bars, and agile salesmen unlike anything you’ve seen before. After a price (per boat, not person) is negotiated, you settle in to your brightly colored party cruiser (cruising= being poled up the canals by a boatman, Venice-style, without the same panache) and head out for a two-hour float. Over the course of the next two hours you experience a water jam that would make Malaysian drivers proud, with boat owners calling each other idiots as they push off one another and the banks to try to make their way up the waterway. You also enjoy a snack of roasted corn in a cup, sold to you by a man in a small skiff. You can’t leave without the purchase of a plastic flower headband- all the girls are sporting them. You opt not to hire a floating mariachi band, although you do enjoy their music as they serenade other boats full of people out to enjoy El Dia de Los Niños. Oh, and drinks. Lots of drinks. Your boatman’s sidekick brought a bucketful of ice and beverage options at the outset and counted empties at the end. It can’t get more convenient than that!
6) You come home with the same passport you had when you left the country (as you know from previous posts, this isn’t always the case with Mexico trips). There isn’t much else to be said about this. Usually you are a very organized and contentious traveler and then sometimes the world conspires against you and you find yourself passport-less in a Mexican beach resort town. These things happen. But, they did not happen this time, so it counts as a win. Borders are crossed. Passports are stamped. All is good in vacation-land. (Posts about January’s missing passport can be found here and here.)
7) You feel like you need a vacation from your vacation to recover from said injury, weight gain, chatter, and hours of sightseeing. You get back to the United States and are a strange combination of exhausted and relaxed. (You fought a bit of a stomach bug on the way back, plus you flew United, so overall you are happy to have flown without any major incidents of any kind!) You are eager to get back to work and catch up on what you missed (and boy, did you miss things!) but you also struggle to wrap your mind around going back into the office and settling back into your cubicle. But, you struggle into your adorable coral-colored ankle pants because no one likes that guy who calls in sick the day after vacation. Sore and scraped and tired, you throw yourself back into your work and begin to daydream of your next adventure (Iceland in June!).
(A *huge* thank you goes out to our wonderful and gracious hosts in Mexico City,Jessica and Paul!)
(Photo credits go out to Thad R. and Paul O.)
(Time lapse videographer: Thad Ross)
Mexico: Stories by Josh Barkan
Recap, for those who missed “The Adventures of the Missing Passport (Part I)”: Long awaited trip out of D.C., land in Cancun, too excited to catch up with best friend, passport goes MIA. That about covers it! (Click here for the entire story.)
The perfect English, with a slight Spanish accent, “Passports for check-in, please” rumbling around my head, I dug through my backpack, knowing I didn’t have my passport. I keep it in one place- the top pocket of my trusty and well-traveled Jansport backpack, a pocket seemingly made in size and shape to house my passport when I am on the road. One quick glance told me it was not there. I went through the motions of digging through the other pockets of my backpack, my jeans, my suitcase, but all along I knew the effort was futile. It is wasn’t in the passport pocket. I didn’t have it.
As Thad continued to check us in and get the rundown on the pools, the always open buffets, the constant flow of beverages (adult and otherwise), and the tourism options in the area, I started making calls. You don’t work on the Foreign Service payroll for five years and not make a connection or two around the globe. I reached out to a good friend from KL (she was my boss, as the acting Consul General in Kuala Lumpur when I was working there, but bosses and friends are often overlapping on the Venn diagram of Foreign Service relationships). She is currently posted in Mexico City, so I thought she might be able to let me in on who was the American Citizen Services chief in Merida, the closest consulate. My hope was that the ACS in Merida would have good connections at the airport to see if my passport turned up there. She sent me the name of the ACS chief and I couldn’t be more surprised to recognize it instantly, but not from Foreign Service connections. As it turns out, the current ACS chief in Merida was our trainer for Peace Corps China ten years ago. I reached out to a friend from Malaysia who put me in touch with a guy she worked with in Cuba who we happen to have known from China, all to try to recover my passport in Mexico. Yup, that’s the crazy small world we live in!
This story is very long and I am going to try to edit it down for everyone’s sake, but suffice it to say that the ACS chief promised to reach out and see what could be found at the Cancun airport. With the next day being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nothing more would be done anyway, so we made plans to take the ferry to Cozumel the next morning and called it a night, three out of four of us carrying documents that allowed us to be in the country legally.
Monday rolled around and out to Cozumel we went, enjoying the sunshine, blue skies, and clear water. We did our thing out there, tried our best to ignore the people offering to rent us Jeeps, show us their tequila shops, and sign us up for every possible snorkeling and SCUBA-ing trip available. We gawked at the absolutely massive cruise ship in the harbor (that thing had waterslides on it!) and laughed at the 50++ crowd having a little too much fun at Senor Frog’s at lunchtime. Overall, not a bad way to spend our first full day south of the border. On the ferry ride back to the mainland, I got an email from the ACS team in Merida saying that the Cancun airport DID have my passport and that I should go out and get it. YES!! I could not have been more excited (and surprised) by this development. While part of me was hoping that it had been pickpocketed (taking a bit of the responsibility off of me for the missing passport), I was mostly happy to hear it had turned up and I’d have it back in my possession before dinnertime. High fives and a small happy dance ensued.
As the rest of the crew headed off to an afternoon of lounging by the pool, I hopped in a cab to the airport to go retrieve my passport. It’s about an hour each way from Playa del Carmen to the Cancun International Airport, so not a cheap taxi ride, but worth it to have my stuff back. With the email directions of how to get to customs to get my passport pulled up on my phone, I had to finagle my way through a variety of guards and “helpful” standersby to finally get to the glass doors that mark the customs areas, where my passport was being held. (Thank you college Spanish!) As I reached the last line of defense before the customs officials, the woman said to me, “But you aren’t a man…” in a perplexed tone. I dutifully explained that she must mean Michael, as that is the male form of Michelle and can be an easy mistake to make. She looked at me doubtfully, told me to stay put, and sauntered through the doors to the room I was sure held my beloved passport. After a bit, she came back, said nothing to me, but held the passport up, biodata page facing out.
Yup. That was a dude. Not me.
Apparently, one Mitchell Ross Fillmore (surname changed to protect the innocent) also lost his passport at the Cancun International Airport. Are you kidding me?! (There may have been an extra word between “you” and “kidding,” but I’ll leave that possibility to your imagination.)
The airport did have an American passport, but it was for Mitchell Ross Fillmore. Not me.
Downcast and disheartened does not begin to explain my state of mind. (Even in this moment though, I had to appreciate the humor in the situation. Stupid Mitchell Ross Fillmore. I hate you!)
I spent another hour and a half at the airport while they “searched” a variety of lost and found places, although I don’t get the feeling they were actually doing much behind the scenes. Frustrated and tired, I finally headed back to Playa in the early evening, figuring nothing else was going to happen at the airport and that I would check back in with the consulate in the morning.
After some dinner and time with my feet in the sand, a bit of internet research told me that there was a consular agent in Playa del Carmen, which would save me having to make the drive to Merida to get a new passport. I would still need to get an emergency passport (EPDP for those in consular circles) before I could leave the country, but I could do it all in a few hours rather than making an entire day of it.
9AM sharp on Tuesday morning, I called the consular agency in Playa and asked about getting an appointment for an EPDP. Once they got over the shock of me asking for the service by the consular name, they told me I was welcome to come in any time before 11AM, so I quickly hopped in a cab and headed down to their conveniently located offices. Once there, I filled out the forms and then had to run the necessary errands that go along with a getting an emergency passport overnighted in Mexico. First it was to the bank to pay the overnight shipping fee and collect the receipt to present to the agent and then it was to the photo studio for passport sized photos, ones that the shop helpfully photoshopped to make me even whiter than I already am! (Thad stood on a corner while I worked on the photos, enjoying a banana milkshake that he’d ordered himself from a street side bodega, taxing his Spanish skills to the max, but making it all the more rewarding to sip.) Back at the agency, I swore the passport oath (I felt like I should give it to myself, I did it so many times in Kuala Lumpur) and then headed back to the resort to enjoy the rest of our vacation, knowing that the awesome agency team in Playa del Carmen and the ACS team in Merida had my back. (‘Merica!)
We spent the rest of the week touring archeological ruins, swimming through caves, bobbing in the ocean and eating way too much, but it was nice to know that the American consular section was able to take care of me quickly and efficiently. (Still, damn you Mitchell Ross Fillmore!)
To wrap up the missing passport saga, I had to get an immigration stamp in my new passport that would allow me to leave Mexico. (Not really wanting to leave Mexico, I thought about using the missing stamp as an excuse to move to Playa indefinitely, but alas, it seems I must return to a job and life on the northern side of the planned wall.) I stood line to meet with La Migra in Mexico, paid in USD cash (the only option!) for a small green stamp and then it was time to say goodbye to the January sun and sand.
The question remains though, how did I know I left my passport at the airport and am to blame for this whole mess when it was Mitchell Ross Fillmore’s passport at customs and not my own? Why not let myself off the hook and tell the story as if I had been pickpocketed, something I would have less control and therefore less blame for happening? Well, once I was re-ensconced in my D.C. cubicle, I sent a quick thank you note to that ACS chief in Merida, wanting to let him know I appreciated the help of his entire team. It didn’t take long before I heard back from him saying that as it turns out, the Cancun Airport DID find my passport and send it to the American consulate in Merida. (What!?! Ugh!!!) If it had been pickpocketed, it would not have turned up, which means it was my own dumb fault for leaving it on the counter at customs. I can’t even blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for this one. (Although, I do now blame him for many things around the house. If the trash is overflowing, I yell at Mitchell Ross Fillmore about it. If the peanut butter cookies are a bit overcooked, I blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for it. And if I can’t find a paper I am looking for or I screw up typing a book review, it is totally Mitchell Ross Fillmore who takes the fall. Pretty much from now until forever, Mitchell Ross Fillmore is my go-to scapegoat.)
Now, back in D.C., I’ve turned in my EPDP and am awaiting my full validity passport (one with a non-photoshopped biodata page) and have taken a few steps to up my organizational game. I am now the owner of an passport/document organizer that will make its maiden voyage with me to Johannesburg in a few short weeks and you can bet I’ll be a bit more careful when filling out my next customs form. No plants, livestock, narcotics or bricks of cash for this traveler!
“Passports for check-in, please.” These were the words, spoken in perfect English with just a hint of Spanish accent that made me question the very heart of who I am as a traveler. As my fellow travelers slapped theirs onto the counter, still sipping their brightly colored, fruit-on-a-toothpick laden welcome drinks, my heart stopped. In that instant, I knew my no longer shiny, a bit ragged on the corners passport was missing. At nine years old, it had visas and stamps from all over the world (okay, mostly, but not entirely the Asian part of the world), it had a photo of me ten pounds lighter and no gray hair peeking through the strategically placed blonde highlights, but in that moment, most importantly, it had my Mexican immigration stamp- the one that allowed me to be in the country and the one that would, theoretically, let me out of the country a week later.
But you see, I am an organized traveler. I pride myself on my plastic folder of pre-arrival airline ticket check-ins, hotel reservation printouts, pre-booked shuttle vouchers, and a highlighted schedule of when and where we need to be for various activities. I’ve got this! My Peace Corps era backpack is never without the travel essentials (pen for filling out immigration forms, aspirin for those long-distance flight headaches, Twizzlers for after the less-than-filling mid-flight meals, various hygiene products including but not limited to disposable wipes, toothbrush/paste, and all things from the feminine aisle.) And yet, here I was, attempting to check in to a lovely resort in Playa del Carmen, sans passport.
That does seem to be the question of the day. I would like to blame it on a pickpocket at the airport, a story which I believed to be true for some time (more on that later), and one that would ease my bruised organizational pride, but in the end, I do believe the fault lies solely and painfully in my court
Here’s how it happened (along with my excuses for each step in the road to the missing passport):
- Too happy to be on the road again: We’ve been pretty landlocked in D.C. since arriving in August. Between starting new jobs, finding a place to live, organizing the belongings of a 2000++ square foot house in Idaho into a 700-square foot apartment in the city, and resettling Stateside for a two-year stint, we’ve not wandered far beyond the suburbs of Virginia, and that was only for a few dinners with friends and a trip or two to the mall. (The mall has Taco Bell. That is how I get Thad to join me.) For the last handful of years, we’ve never gone four or five months in the same country, let alone the same city. I was itching like crazy to go somewhere new, so when my best friend planned a trip to the beach in Mexico and invited us, we couldn’t say yes fast enough!
- Too excited to see my best friend after 14 months: For the first six years of our middle school teaching careers, we were joined at the hip. We carpooled together, we planned cross-circular lessons together (science and literature overlap in awesome ways, just try to convince 8th graders of it!), we spent a lot of time at Idaho Education Association activities together, we got together for hat-night poker parties on the weekend, and we talked- constantly. But, as life does, it moved us both in directions we never would have anticipated that first day of our teaching careers, sitting across from each other on the hard benches of the district cafeteria, definitely feeling like the new kids on the block (first year teaching does feel a bit like you are “Hangin’ Tough”). I joined Peace Corps and moved to China for two years. While I was gone, she moved school districts. I came back to our original district; she got engaged and then married. Thad joined the Foreign Service and we moved as the needs of the service dictated; she went to nursing school, became an amazing trauma nurse and joined the ranks of traveling nurses, crisscrossing the US to work in understaffed ERs around the country. Now, we don’t see each other nearly as much as we used to. All of that to say, I was beyond thrilled at the chance to spend a week together, gabbing and gossiping, quietly judging our fellow resort-goers in a way that our husbands just don’t do. This excitement may have led to a lessening of my normal organization and travel awareness.
- Too fast of form filling out: In the end, I do believe this was my ultimate downfall. I made it through immigration fine- forms fine, passport fine, smile and be nice to the border guard. All fine. Next up was the line for customs. On the plane, I filled out this one-per-family form, stuck it with my passport and didn’t think about it again, going right back to my audiobook. (I was listening to The Lost City of the Monkey God, which is a fantastic non-fiction story about the uncovering of archeological ruins in Honduras. It is topping my list of favorite books for 2017 right now. I highly recommend it!) Somehow, in my form filling, I didn’t read the directions clearly and all of the boxes that I should have checked “no” on, I checked “yes.” Needless to say, when we got through the massive line at customs, the official was not impressed that I declared that yes, we did have fresh produce and vegetable matter with us, that yes, we had been in close proximity to livestock recently, that yes, we did have large amounts of prescription medication on us and yes, we were carrying more than $10,000 in cash. With absolutely no humor in his voice, he sent us across the room to a table with blank cards and made me redo our form. The table. That is where my troubles began. I am 99% certain this is where I lost my passport. I think I must have set it down on the counter to fill out the new form attesting that no, I did not bring diseased food products with me, I did not have sheep and goats in my apartment, I did not plan to sell RX narcotics, and I did not have bricks of cash in my carryon. Frustrated and annoyed at myself about the original form, I was off my game. I hurriedly redid the from and skittered back into line, probably (highly likely) leaving my passport in its adorable cartoon owl cover with its nearly decade of rainbow of visas and stamps sitting on the counter.
The next two hours flew by as we tried to meet up with our friends, who it turns out had landed at a different international terminal at the Cancun airport. After a relay of calls back and forth, descriptions of outfits (“Me? Pink hoodie and blue jeans. You?”), surroundings (“I’m at AirMargaritaville, where are you?”), and the shuttle (“Look for a white van.”- this one being ridiculous as every shuttle between Cancun and Playa del Carmen is a white van), we finally found each other, hopped in and spent an hour car ride catching up on the last fourteen months since we had seen each other.
The next thing I knew, it was, “Passports for check-in, please” and a realization that in that frazzled moment at the Cancun airport, I betrayed years of international travel organization. I was an undocumented traveler in Mexico.
(Stay tuned for part II of the saga of the missing passport and our Mexican adventures.)