What do you think about when you’re driving to the airport at 4:20AM? It’s almost always the same poser for me – will the gas pumps at a closed station work with a credit card? Or is there a big switch inside that powers them down until the workers return in the morning. Just when I think I have this one figured out, I see a car at a pump and I wonder, are they getting after-hours gas?

It’s been a month since I set down on these shores and now I’m heading back to the other side. I can’t say I’m thrilled at the prospect – like Christmas leftovers, it’s time for this portion of my life to move on. But my enlistment has a few more months to run and so I’m diving in once again. Each departure gets that much tougher and each morning sitting in the lounge waiting for a plane gets that much less interesting.

My time in Mexico was well spent between counting birds, photographing Santa in downtown Guaymas and getting to the bottom of the cruise ship mystery. Two years ago we went down to the docks and stood in the hot October sunshine marveling at a beautiful sign depicting the giant cruise ship terminal that was going to be built right there amidst the rusting shrimp boats. There were hotels on manmade islands, yachts worthy of a Greek shipping magnate and promenades crisscrossing the sparkling blue harbor. Knowing Mexico, we had our doubts and they were more or less confirmed when we returned this year. There were no islands, there were no hotels. There were some yachts, of the garden variety American retiree style and while there was a promenade, there was only the one. The shrimp boats had been kicked to the curb so as to be out of sight, but the harbor was hardly a sparkling blue – it was the same old black, shiny water. The biggest change perhaps was the elevation of the formerly ground level bronze of El Pescadore – the fisherman. He now stood high up on a brick pylon, well above a new traffic circle to nowhere. His explanatory plaque no longer visible due to its newly found altitude.

Needless to say, there wasn’t a cruise ship in sight confirming our long held suspicions that no one in their right mind would let their passengers off the boat and onto the waterfront in Guaymas. However a little web surfing turned up several cruise lines with routes called “Tour of the Mexican Riviera” and one even talked about tours in the area. While the central seacoast of Sonora has its charms, “Riviera” hardly comes to mind especially when compared to the ports that actually form the heart of the tourist industry – Acapulco, Manzanillo and Mazatlan. This part of the country is scenic, but that’s about it. The tourist industry is very basic and caters more to people who drive down from Arizona than people from Minnesota in search of the “real Mexico.” The web site descriptions of the local sights and stops were of course belied by our experience – the “giant cactus forest” is really nothing more than a big stand of Cardons out in the middle of nowhere accessible through the local town dump via some power line roads and the “charming colonial seaport” is really a nice 19th century cathedral surrounded by boarded up bars. The more I read the more the more I wondered so we went to the best font of information we had, our friend who works the desk at our condo place.

Sure enough, the boats had been there. They didn’t dock where they were supposed to; they docked around the corner by the naval base. And yes, people actually got off the boat and did things. Junkets for scuba diving and sightseeing, shuffling people from boat to van to fun. It seems that a real fiesta was held each time a boat came in with people from all over the region motoring in, donning local costumes and greeting the gringos, creating just the spectacle that one might expect here on the Riviera. I suppose if you blow up enough balloons and have a big enough Mariachi band, the reality can be overlooked especially if you’re only ashore for a couple of hours. This question answered, it was time to head home.

Getting into Mexico is far easier than getting out, a statement I suppose is true whether you’re riding north in a giant SUV or walking across the line with a gallon jug of water. In our case, the risk is low but the frustration is high. The string of checkpoints manned by heavily armed men is bad enough. It seems we now have to run a gauntlet of ever more connected militias, starting with the State Police, followed by the Federales, moving on to the Army and ending up with black ski-masked Special Forces. I will say though that all are cheerful and genuinely interested in whether or not we had a nice vacation. We passed each checkpoint and kept forging north knowing full well what awaited us.

There is a landmark that I look for each time we approach the border from the Mexican side – a block of tropically painted apartment buildings off to the side of the road. In the old days, before the new “fiscal corridor” was built, we used to take a neighborhood road through the junk yards and flea markets up to the crossing. If the line of cars extended back to the colorful apartments, you were going to have a long wait. They’re no longer as good a time marker as they were, but they still have a purpose – once you see them, you know that you’re close. And sure enough, they came into sight just as we crawled into the end of the stopped traffic. We were in for a wait.

Sitting at the border is like being in the middle of a store whose good pass you instead of the other way around. People walk by, knocking on your windows carrying the excess from the little factories of Nogales. Every year the goods change, some things leave and some appear. A few things have always been available, like Nortena CDs and wooden plaques with a shiny praying Jesus appliqué. There used to be battery operated birds in flimsy wooden cages, a favorite of mine if only because their motion activated song was so loud and annoying. Today’s fare included sheepskin vests for little boys, foam jigsaw puzzle maps of the US, a banquet of Mexican snacks, Christmas ornaments and stamped leather wallets. The young women start at the border, walk by tolerating your polite refusal, get to the back of the line and then start anew offering the same things over and over as though each time they pass it’s with something you might have missed on the first go-around. They walk, you nod and they walk – an endless conveyor belt of the same old things. We sat and we waited and 1:39 later it was our turn to be interrogated.

When you pull up you never know who you’re going to get or what they’re going to want. The highlight of all of our crossings is the stuff of legend – a 6’3” transgendered agent who freaked out in full falsetto at the sole uncooked chicken breast she had found in our cold box. Other times it’s been nothing more than a nod. On a few occasions we’ve been pulled to the side so that Sparky the Beagle could smell our tires. On one of those we were asked if we knew the people in the car behind us, an odd question to which I was grateful that I could answer with an honest “No way!” This time was much like the others aside from the attention my passport now gets due no doubt to the 22 China exit stamps I possess. This agent was mostly interested in the condition of the fresh fish we had, asking me three times if I had said it was frozen. Maybe he was trying to trip me up? Once across though we turned the boat northwards and headed back into the southwestern winter, our idyll on the beach at an end once more.

And so today I complete the circle I started back in early December. I began this cycle by describing the generic nature of airplane travel in comparison to its more intimate cousin, travel by car. I’ve not seen a single machine gun today, which is nice. But my most exciting encounter by contrast was the woman this morning that was in such a rush to get to the metal detector that she crawled under the ropes at the identity check station to be first in line at a newly opened spot. Never mind that she and I were the only two people in the whole security area. Some annoying fellow travelers with status and another yogurt in the lounge – travel this way is pretty limited in its sensuality. But I suppose there is something to be said for sitting and looking out the window and watching the big jets line up in preparation to be filled. Mine is one of them and in a bit I’ll be on my way once again.