A bit of a pall hung over our time at the beach. On the way down, MLW had read an article in USA Today highlighting problems crossing the border at our regular location – Mariposa Rd. in Nogales, Arizona. That crossing has always been a bit of a crapshoot, with normal times of 30-60 minutes occasionally increasing to hours depending on the weather and the time of year. At the extremes, one time we drove straight up to an open gate and crossed in 15 minutes, another 3+ hours sitting in the pouring rain. Another year it was so bad that they closed the road and sent everyone through a different crossing in town. In short, you just never know, but with the current situation on the border, the likelihood of some grief was higher than normal.

The article depicted the conditions over Thanksgiving weekend. Reportedly, asylum seekers were rushing the border in some arguable manner and the Border Patrol had reportedly addressed the problem by blocking some of the gates with metal shipping containers. The result, in the case of one woman they interviewed, was an 11-hour wait to get across. That number seems preposterous considering the hours of operation, but nonetheless, that’s what we are working with. When we arrived on the beach and got settled, I went looking for a website or app that provided border crossing conditions and sure enough, CBP had one. I installed it and started monitoring the reports and sure enough, Mariposa Rd. was running 2-3 hours of wait time. We filed that thought away and went about the rigorous work of enjoying our vacation.

Normally on departure day from Mexico, we pack up our stuff and leave the condo and head for lunch in town. That tradition puts us on the road by about noon, with a border arrival time of 4:30 to 5:00. Given the uncertainty though, we decided to half-pack the car the day before and try to get out earlier than normal. So, we just that, and after breakfast in the condo and a quick stop for coffee to go at Meri-Meri we were on the road by 10, with a much earlier border arrival of 2:30 or so.

The drive north is not super interesting. First of all, you’re not looking forward to your vacation. Second of all, there are some things to deal with – the crazy road around and through Hermosillo and the military checkpoint north of that town. On the whole, though, the scenery is typical Sonoran Desert scrub that may or may not be hiding new things like immense solar panel farms and Bougainvillea be-decked vineyard entrances. There may be stuff to look at, but it rarely changes.

On this day we decided to take the old diversion at Hermosillo having been less than impressed with the new toll road that we had tried on the way down. Just as expected, the old way is much shorter and considerably faster and was improved since our last trip by new pavement in the formerly bad stretches. The northbound choice is clear – the old way is better, and the verdict will remain out for our next southbound journey – expediency vs. a white-knuckle drive on cramped roads through neighborhoods.

The aforementioned military checkpoint has evolved over the years. Originally it was literally a guy sitting in a lawn chair under a patio umbrella on the shoulder of the road who asked where you were going. Then it evolved into something slightly more official, a lot of soldiers standing around a mand-sized hole in a parking lot that you were forced to drive over allowing them to search for contraband stuffed into the guts on the underside of your car. That was a tiny nightmare for me, always imagining putting one wheel into the pit and breaking my vehicle. Over time, the hole-in-the-ground station was augmented by those little asaderias and llanterias built from abandoned construction debris that pop up anywhere in Mexico that cars are forced to slow down because you can never have enough grilled meat or tire repairs when waiting.

Eventually, the place evolved into a very official and efficient stop that was designed to check commercial vehicles. Automobiles were shunted to the side and generally stopped for no more than “where are you leaving and where are you going.” One year though they must have received a grant from the DEA because they suddenly had a brand-new airport-style baggage scanner. They made us stop, unload our suitcases and bring them inside where they yelled at me for putting my soft bags on the metal machine too violently. We passed the inspection despite my lack of respect for their new-fangled gadget.

On this day, we had a hybrid experience. The first guy asked me the requisite question and then blew a police whistle and told me to “go over there.” Over there was another heavily armed guy wearing a full-face mask who was waving an orange flag, pointing to a second “over there.” Finally, someone motioned me into a spot and began with a second asking of the regular question. He though wanted to look in the car, so I got out and made a little joke about the weather being freezing in the desert. I always find that a little humor in the local language eases the tension. And judging from the Americans standing in front of us with a look of terror on their faces while the soldiers loaded their luggage onto a dolly, I thought perhaps a little tension-lowering was in order.

My soldier asked me if I spoke Spanish, and I replied, “a little.” I added that I speak it well enough until the conversation gets difficult at which point, I don’t speak it at all. He laughed, asked to look in my cooler, pawed at what was left of our groceries and sent us on our way with “Buen Viaje.”

One way we kill time while driving is translating the various road signs. Every bridge is named, and some of them are interesting, like “Puente Agua Blanca,” a bridge celebrating whitewater over a desert wash that I’m sure hasn’t held flowing water in the last 10,000 years. Some are local place names and others named for the flora and fauna. But the real interesting signs are those offering warnings and those associated with construction.

“No Maneje Cansado, Tu Familia Espera” warns you not to drive if you’re tired. “Si Toma, No Maneje”
simply says, don’t drive if you’re drinking. But the one that continues to intrigue us, year after year is “No Deje Piedras Sobre el Pavimento,” don’t leave rocks on the road.

Seriously, who is that one for? Trucks that don’t care? Parents allowing their children to throw rocks from the family SUV?  It’s a mystery as yet unsolved.

A bigger mystery though was a small orange construction site sign that simply said, “Grava Suelto.” Our much-abused Spanish dictionary didn’t cover it very well, so I asked MLW to look it up using Google Translate and the result was interesting. “Grava Suelta” returned “Long Verteg.” A quick Google search confirmed that “verteg” doesn’t appear in English. So, she tried the other translation app I have on my phone and it returned “Loose Gravel” which was not unexpected considering we were in the middle of torn-up road detour.

This was now becoming interesting. I asked MLW to change the Google Translate input settings to “Detect Language” and the output to “English.” She entered “Long Verteg” and Translate detected it as Dutch, with the English result being “Distorted Lung.” After a few more steps of translating Dutch to Spanish and Spanish to English and “Grava” and “Suelta” individually (which Translate handled correctly,) we came to the experimentally determined conclusion that we had discovered a most obscure bug in Google Translate – “Grava Suelta” in Spanish comes across as “Distorted Lung” in Dutch if you ask it to translate it into English as a phrase.

Try to calculate the odds of that!

Back to the worry at hand. We arrived at the border at 2:38 PM and the line was long. Not as long as what we’d seen on the way down, and certainly not 11 hours long. But long enough. I kept a close eye on the CBP app, and it was reporting 150 minutes. We inched our way up to the gate and were waved up 74 minutes after entering the queue. There were no asylum-seekers charging the border and no metal shipping containers blocking gates. It was just another average day at the border.

The agent who interviewed us was nice enough. I always take off my sunglasses and roll down my sleeves (to hide my tattoo) and the only thing he asked was that MLW remove her sunglasses. He checked the back and opened the cooler, came back around and re-entered his booth. Looking at his computer screen and my passport, he asked, “When was the last time you crossed the border back into the US, Terry?”

That brought me up short, and I had to scramble for the answer. Normally it would be “April” when we return from our trip to Europe. This time it was October, on our return trip from Quebec. The gear slipped into place, I answered correctly, and we were on our way home.