An Ibis Hotel on the U.S.-Mexico Border
(Originally published in Zarez, a journal for social and cultural affairs, Croatia, translated by Višnja Vukašinović, 2014. For translated version click here.)
About five or six years ago, we were driving along the U.S.-Mexico border, on the Texas side, on our way to Brownsville at the Gulf of Mexico. From there we would cross into Mexico and drive south to Mexico City where we lived. I was driving our 1988 Chevrolet van with a 350 V8 engine that roared. The van was white (rather unimaginatively we called it Moby Dick) with a sliding door that had to be tied shut from the inside and shag carpet that took on the odor of the many people, shoes, drink and food that passed through that van. Driving it was like navigating a boat, or indeed a whale, through traffic, but on the lonesome highway it hummed along nicely and in the dark, with everyone but me either asleep or half-asleep, it was a peaceful way to collect my thoughts.
Raymundo sat up and turned on a light in the back and began rummaging around.
“¿Qué te pasa?” I asked him.
“Voy a hecharme un churro,” he answered. He was going to make a joint. I kept driving with the headlights making shallow holes into the dark, high Texas plain. It was the day after New Years and
it was cold outside. I was wondering at what altitude we were. We must have been very high. I hadn’t known that Texas got so cold. Most of the books and films I’d read and seen had Texas at a constant sweat, the border a shimmering heat wave and immigrants dying of dehydration and sunstroke, but now the fear would be freezing to death.
Raymundo woke up the rest of the occupants, which included Andrew our punk bassist and Naomi, a friend from New York hitching a ride, and they passed the joint around. Marina and Enrique had already left for Mexico City by bus a week earlier. I didn’t smoke because driving at night in a greasy van with the video-game-like scenery passing monotonously—already in slow motion—while high didn’t seem like fun. After they’d finished the joint—at nearly the exact moment they finished it—in the mirrors I noticed a big white truck. The closer it got the uneasier I became. There is something violent about the Texas plains that has to do with solitariness, the aloneness, far from anything a city-dweller is used to. If you cry out for help here nobody’s going to hear you; the yell would die out in a hundred yards, muffled by the wind.
Then I noticed it: it was a Border Patrol truck, one of those brand new big Ford trucks that they drive around in. The front grill is huge—the size of a bed for toddler twins—and the lights are large frowning squares. The fronts of automobiles are based on the human face, of course, and this one was a big bully.
I thought, “Well, that’s it.” We should have expected it, but somehow one doesn’t anticipate getting pulled over in one’s own country driving the speed limit and generally following the law, but the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t really our country; it’s a no-man’s land of police and thieves, lumbering bullies and quick and wily clandestine shadows. The Border Police’s lights flashed on, signaling that we should pull over. I turned on the indicator and slowly, very slowly, pulled to the side of the highway and stopped.
We waited in stiff silence. The police officer got out of his truck after a few minutes and walked, also very slowly, up to my window. I lowered it; the wind and cold entered and I squinted at him as he shone a flashlight into the van. He acted like a typical character out of thousands of films and television shows.
“License and registration,” he said. A large rigid cowboy hat sat uncomfortably on his head and he had a mustache. His uniform was the color of the army fatigues worn in Iraq and Afghanistan. At first inspection, he seemed entirely humorless and rather dense. He was like the doppelganger of the truck he was driving.
After giving a cursory glance at the license and registration (which miraculously we had in the glove box) he handed them back, for he wasn’t really interested if the van was registered or not, and he asked, “How many of you are back there?” and he shone the flashlight into the back.
“Four,” I answered.
“All American citizens?” he asked.
“No. Three Americans and one Mexican citizen.” I almost said “sir” at the end, but stopped myself. He hated us and he expected the same; as a matter of fact, he seemed to want us to hate him. His gestures and way of speaking communicated much more than the words uttered: he was domineering and dripping with volatile and nervous power. Out here on the Texas plains near midnight on the day after New Years with the snow beginning to fall (I noticed the snow with disbelief, another stereotype of Texas shattered) there wasn’t much we could do about it.
“I’m going to need IDs from everyone and the passport and visa from the Mexican,” he said. I turned around and, in a slightly mocking voice, said, “He’s going to need IDs and the passport and visa from the Mexican.” They’d already heard him, but I figured the best way to get through this with any dignity was to play it as the farce it felt to be, for he had already categorized us as guilty—but of what?
The police officer took the IDs and Raymundo’s passport and visa and went back to the truck, where, I imagined, he called them in to a dispatch station somewhere along that vast border. The van was silent and uneasy and my mind wandered, taking large leaps away from there to somewhere else.
Once, while on tour in Europe, I’d decamped with a girl to wander the streets of Liege or Rotterdam or Mannheim or some such city. It was winter then, too, and just as cold but it must have been a seaside city, because I remember it being bitterly cold in a humid kind of way, when the sea air gets whipped around and pierces through your coat and pants and there’s nothing you can do to warm up except keep taking swigs off the bottle of wine and keep walking. I hadn’t told anyone I was leaving but I knew where we were staying—a squat in an abandoned office building with a—yes, it must have been Holland—with a Dutch guy named Stijn, who we called Stan, a very grumpy punk. There was no heating there except little electric heaters that barely penetrated the wide spaces, the extra-high ceilings. Mattresses were on the floor. There was a fine view, but it was dirty, eerie and cold.
Walking around with this girl seemed like an escape—she was tall and aloof and rather elegant in a way that contrasted with our day-to-day lives. It was getting well past midnight and we were drunk in an exhausted kind of way. Finally, I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to stay in that hotel? Can you imagine white sheets, crisp and starched and a hot shower and clean towels? I’d sleep for twenty hours.”
It was an Ibis hotel, but this one was new, made of red brick, glass and steel. The lights gleamed and the lobby, from where we stood in the street, had a cozy aura created by many colored, hanging lights—gold, brown, auburn, red, rust.
“How much money do you have?” asked the girl, whose name was Henrietta.
“Well,” I said, digging in my pocket, “I have like fifty euros.” I didn’t actually have any—the band had fifty euros and I just happened to have it in my pocket.
“I have some money on my card, I think. Perhaps we can ask the man to take this money in cash and charge the rest onto my card?”
The idea would never have crossed my mind, but instead of seeing myself on the street, cold and sleepy, my eyes retreated and I envisioned myself in a bathrobe and white slippers.
“Yes, let’s try. Let’s buy some beers here at the corner shop first.”
It worked—we stayed the night in this Ibis hotel and ever since, Ibis has become a symbol for me—of escape from dirt, shabbiness and, most importantly, the cold. I was daydreaming of Ibis now when the police officer returned.
He said, “I need the slip for date of entrance into the United States for the Mexican.” I looked at him for a moment trying to understand what he was saying, but then simply repeated the request to Raymundo, who might have a better idea—he being a Mexican—of what the officer had in mind.
“Raymundo, as a Mexican, the officer is going to need your ‘slip for date of entrance into the United States.’ Please give it to him.” I realized I’d have to lay on the sarcasm much heavier if I were going to get through to this hard, yet oddly brittle of a patriotic patrolman. He was tall and gangly, the kind of person whose limbs are too long and joints over-worked. He probably smoked 100s and had felt, since he was a teenager, awkward in his too-tall frame. His self-consciousness was converted into the role of bully, as is the case with many policemen and women, but it remained unconvincing. Given a fair chance (if, for example, he didn’t have a badge and gun) we’d have had him in tears in five minutes. But this was not a fair chance and his gun was worn prominently on his hip.
Raymundo, stoned, looked at me in confusion. “You know, Raymundo,” I said, now joking, “the entrance slip into the United States of America. Find it!” I still thought everything was a complicated joke and since Raymundo not only had his passport and visa, but also really was in the USA legally (this was not always the case: sometimes he over-stayed his visa for many months) everything would be fine. Systems have been set up to ensure that the innocent do not suffer; America is a country of checks and balances.
We turned on the lights in the back and Raymundo opened his huge duffle bag, which was, by this time of the tour, stuffed full of rolled up dirty clothes. He didn’t know where to start. He said quietly, “It’s here somewhere…” It’s not often you see Raymundo flustered.
I turned to the officer and said, “It’s going to be hard to find. What is it exactly?” The officer didn’t take the time to explain.
“Out of the car!” he summoned. “The Mexican goes with me, you all line up 15 paces from the car!” We were stunned. Now? Here? In the snow and dark and cold? He must be joking! But there was nothing joking about the man. As I mentioned earlier, he was a totally humorless kind of fellow.
“But he has the paper, he just can’t find it at the moment. He’ll find it! Just wait a moment so that he can have a good look.” My voice had changed from mocking to pleading (and with it my hold on dignity loosened) but the officer was not impressed. Has anyone ever convinced a police officer to change his or her mind once it has been made up? It reminds me of a referee giving a red card in soccer: why do the players bother arguing and pleading? The referee is never going to say, “Oh yes, now I see your point. I’m going to change my mind and I hereby revoke the red card.” Pleading under such circumstances is a sign of desperation, a loss of dignity. The dignified thing to do would be to accept the red card and, with a click of the heels, turn around and silently march off the pitch. I was the pleading player now, asking and explaining but of course to no avail. Raymundo was ushered off to the back of the big Ford pickup truck where there is a kind of portable cell with bars over the small windows, and we lined up in the rock and brush.
“Can we get sweaters? It’s cold!” Andrew asked lamely, after Raymundo had been put into the cell.
“No, you cannot approach the vehicle,” the officer answered. “We’re waiting for a K9 unit. Wait there. Do not move.”
This was worrisome. The others had just smoked a joint and who knew what kinds of drugs were tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the van? Even the most thorough cleaning could never eradicate all of it and the van, needless to say, hadn’t been cleaned in a long time.
Eventually the K9 unit arrived. This man was much friendlier (people who work with animals always seem to be nicer) and, I wryly noted, Mexican. Or that is to say Mexican American.
The K9 officer greeted us with a smile. “Do you give me permission to search your vehicle?” he asked.
“Hell no!” I answered. I knew my rights—or at least I knew one of them—thanks to the Fugees album in which Wyclef pronounces, “You cannot search my vehicle without probable cause.” The officer shrugged and turned to set his dog to work on the outside of the vehicle. The dog was eager and went to work on the van single-mindedly, searching all points as high as it could reach, its nails audibly scratching the worn out white paint.
“Hey! The dog is scratching up our van!” Naomi yelled from a distance, her arms crossed, shivering. The officers ignored her and the dog kept scampering, neurotically searching. When it got to the sliding door, which had been open this whole time, it hoisted its front paws up into the van and took quick, deep smells and whimpered. Though the police officers were not allowed to search the inside of the vehicle (according to Wyclef) this was pretty much the same thing. The dog continued whimpering and seemed concerned about something. I watched the scene from above, at this point, imagining myself in a federal prison and thinking about how strange the orange jumpsuit would look, how out-of-place on someone like me. It hardly seemed to matter at this point, though a knot of fear was forming in my stomach.
After about ten minutes the original officer, the one that looked like a caricature of a Texas patrolman, stepped aside to consult with the friendlier Mexican officer. I overheard the Mexican officer telling the other one, “There is something, but not enough to charge them. Really there’s nothing we can do.”
The Texan officer seemed disappointed. “Nothing at all? What was the dog indicating?”
“Maybe they smoked recently. Like I say, there’s something, but it just doesn’t hold up.”
After a pause the Texan officer turned to us and said, “OK, you are free to go.”
“What about our friend?” I asked in disbelief, as if that were a minor detail that he’d already forgotten about.
“He’ll be processed and deported.”
“What does that mean? Where do we find him?”
“You can check the drop-off points on the other side of the border. Not sure at which one he’ll end up.”
Half an hour later we were once again driving in the direction of Brownsville but with the intention of going to the next border crossing, located in a town whose name I now forget, where we’d cross over into Mexico and wait for Raymundo to be dumped off. I’d heard of this happening: busloads of immigrants unceremoniously dropped off in Mexico, from where they fan back out along the border to try again. Immigrants from Central America don’t carry IDs so that they can claim to be Mexican and be dumped at the border instead of their respective, farther-flung countries. But which border crossing? There were two relatively nearby and a third some distance away. And when? We discussed all of this while driving, fully awake now, alert and adrenaline pumping through our veins. God! What a change of events! Raymundo’s seat was empty and it felt like an alien ship had hovered over us, transporting him straight through the roof.
After five days of waiting in a dull hotel on the Mexican side of a nameless border town, I called Raymundo’s house in Mexico City. He answered the phone.
“Raymundo?!?” I said. “You’re there?”
“Yes, cabrón,” he answered. “My mother is just making lunch.”
“Damn you!” I said. “We’ve been waiting in this hellhole checking every border crossing and all the buses for days! What happened to you?”
“I told them I was in the USA legally. They didn’t believe me. I told them to check the computer. They did and said I wasn’t listed there. They wanted me to sign a paper saying I was being deported. I knew about it; I didn’t sign. It means you can never come back. Signing the paper was easy, they said, I’d be free in a few minutes, or as soon as they drove me back to Mexico. I said ‘fuck you.’ They put me back in the jail. Finally they found me on the computer. It was New Years and the computers hadn’t updated from the earlier year yet. They said ‘sorry’ and let me go. My dad bought me a plane ticket.”
“And what about the drugs? You know a dog searched the van? We were there for ages.”
“I had the drugs in my pocket. You know that little pocket with a zipper in the sleeve of my hoodie? I had it there. It was with me in the back of the police truck.”