How to Move to Mexico
by Sterling 'Doc' Bennett

For months before leaving permanently for Mexico, I stressed over the whole undertaking. We had to go through everything we owned and assign a status for it. Store it in the shop or upstairs for Dylan and Laura, who are taking over the house in July, 2005, or toss it, or give it away, or pack it in cardboard boxes for Mexico. The value of everything, in terms of usefulness and meaning, had to be determined. Everything. We filled one huge garbage bin after another. I went through every photograph I had kept for the Some Day album. I still took a small suitcase full.

A neighborís daughter and her husband were renting the house at a bargain price until Laura and Dylan came. I walked them through an entire list of This Is How This Runs, Here Is What Can Go Wrong, This Is How You Fix It. That is the way old houses are: charming, but delicate.

Finally, the day came. We had done the Mexican consulateís bidding in S.F. and made an exact list on Excel Works, in Spanish, of the number of boxes, each oneís cubic feet, its contents ≠ for electronic things: the make, serial number and description.

In other words, we had to be packed before we went to the consulate with our list: an impossible task, since, as everyone knows, packing is something that takes place right up to the last minute, when you take one last look and drive down the driveway.

Still, we managed to have fifty-one items (boxes, pieces of furniture, plus one grand piano) precisely listed when we went to the consulate. We took a laptop and printer along to be ready for any ďmistakesĒ that might have to be corrected. We managed to get our list signed in one day, something relatively unheard of. The one mistake was accepted: I had written ďblenderĒ instead of ďliquadoraĒ for blender, since I had seen it written that way in Mexican stores.

We rented a fifteen-foot GM Penske truck, and backed it up to the house. The day before we left, piano movers came and put the piano on the truck and tied it to the side of the enclosed bed. It lay ≠ with its legs removed and wrapped in old blankets, then shrink wrapped ≠ strapped on a ďpiano board,Ē a kind of sled made of very hard oak. I tied the piano again, on top of their work, just to be sure. Then we loaded the 51 other items. Unfortunately, there was much more, and we loaded that in, too, not at all sure how things would turn out at the border.

Just driving to Mexico is fraught with uncertainty. Moving to Mexico is exponentially more anxiety producing. No one, including the authorities, seems to know the requirements; or the rules are contradictory, or they vary. Some rules are enforced, some are not. It usually depends whom youíre confronting, dealing with, at various steps.

On the fifth or sixth of November ≠ stress has erased the exact date in my memory ≠ I climbed into the truck, and Dianne took the wheel of our 1997 Ford Aerostar van. It was packed to the gills with things not on any list, including one two-piece surfboard, paintings, tools, clothes, the silver place settings Dianneís father had given her mother at Dianneís birth, and a tray of sprouting broccoli seeds, for greens on the way.

A few days later, we made it to friendsí house in Tucson, where we spent the night and discussed with them various possible scenarios that might or might not unfold. The next day we drove to the Yellow Transportation Company, an American but Mexican-run enterprise, spitting distance from the Nogales border, which was a desolate gulley a few hundred feet south of the warehouse, marked by a rusty cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. There we unloaded the Penske truck ourselves and got to know the platform workers at Yellow. Two of them helped us push the piano across the truck bed to the truckís ramp, and down it came, all six hundred and fifty Steinway pounds of it, with me going through the motions of breaking its descent, on the front end. If it had leaned too far sideways, it would have gone over. But the ramp had a serrated metal surface and the friction against the piano board slowed the pianoís descent.

When the piano reached the warehouse floor, at a considerable angle, it stopped, maintaining its angle. Luis jumped into his forklift and threaded one tongue of it under the piano board, lifted slightly, gently, and backed up. The piano eased down level with the floor. With another tongue adjustment, we pushed while Luis backed, dragging the piano across the floor to its resting place to one side ≠ to be out of the way while we dealt with all the rest of the things we were moving.

Luis and the other man disappeared. They had to make a delivery with a trailer truck. We were alone in the warehouse ≠ a little surreal. We placed everything that had been in the rental truck on about eight palettes, bunching things in the middle of the pallet, so they could be held against each other by shrink-wrap. We tried to arrange things so they would not rub or bounce against other pallets or the piano package.

We had expected to have to load everything onto another truck and have it taken to a customs broker somewhere close by, on the US side of the border. The broker there, as we understood it, would then go through every box to check on its contents and match them with the officially stamped list from the S.F. Mexican consulate.

Before Luis left, he suggested we skip all that and let him call a friend of his, also a broker. Eventually, the new broker appeared, young, looking hung over or on drugs, with blood shot eyes and a strained expression. Dianne, who is fazed by nothing, engaged with him with complete grace. What, for example, would it cost? $250, he said quickly. Hmm, $100 less than the other broker. Did we have to move everything to another place for inspection? No. What about all the things that werenít on the official list? This question seemed to bother him. Whatís in those things? Oh, all used stuff. Nothing new. Nothing could be less than a year old, according to the consulate. We were cutting that fairly close, really close on some items. He thought about it. Just add it to the pallets, he said. But itís not on the list. What is it? he asked again. Itís all used stuff, nothing new, household stuff. Put it on the pallets with the rest. We have some glass canning jars with different kinds of grains. Those canít go in. We have four sacks of grains: organic flax see, winter wheat berries, steel cuts oats, and short grained rice. That canít go on the truck until you have permission from the Department of Agriculture. How long would that take? A couple of days. It canít go on the truck. Weíre not sure what truck heís talking about; but it appears to be the truck thatís going to cross the border. We are feeling our way along. What do we do with the bags of grain? Put it in the van. Which of course meant more uncertainty. What would happen at the border, when we crossed with the van, we wondered. We have some new things, we confided, like a couple of air cleaners. Take them on the van. Will we declare them at the border? You have to. But they werenít on the list. Take them in the van.

He leaves. We will be seeing him in the morning. We dump the grains from the jars in a garbage bin. We pack the other grains ≠ 125 pounds of it ≠ into the van. We take some duffle bags off the van and add them to the pallets, to go with the truck. It seems we can do this. Our broker has suggested it, at least ≠ though the clerk at the consulate had told us we could absolutely not take any additional items other than those on the stamped list, neither on the truck, nor ≠ implied ≠ in the van.

In the dark, we drive back to Tucson, me in the truck, Dianne in the overloaded van. I tell her, theyíll probably stop me at about the ten-mile mark, the U.S. Border Patrol. We had seen the checkpoint on the way down. When we get to the ten-mile mark, we are all pulled off the freeway. I stop beside the agent. Where are you going? Returning the truck to Penske in Tucson. Whatís in the back? Itís empty, I say. To my surprise, he waves me on. He asks Dianne, whoís behind me, where are you going? Iím following my husband; heís in that truck ahead of us. Good night. Good night! We drop off the truck, tank full, and throw the keys in a slot. There is no sign anywhere saying itís Penske, but we see other Penske trucks. We drive to our friends, enjoy a second gourmet dinner, and fall asleep on the pull-out couch.

The next day we drive to Nogales again, to the warehouse. Our young broker appears almost immediately. He has spiffed up, heís well groomed, clear-eyed and very professional. Dianneís instinct, as usual, we better than mine. He hands us the documents and the seal that will go on the truck, to show that nothing was added after it left the trucking company.

We wonder what it all means. Did you inspect everything? It wasnít necessary, you said everything was used. All right, thank you. We pay him $250 and shake hands and say good-bye. He refuses our offer of ďa little extraĒ for coming to the warehouse, saving us the trip to his office. He will accompany the truck through customs on the other side. The truck driver and the young broker will push the button. Red light, they pull over for inspection. Green light, they sail through, seal unbroken. Or, some deal is made, is arranged ahead of time, or is made on the spot, at the moment. Or our guy know their guys, they are cousins, friends, or trusting business acquaintances. Or a combination of all of the above.

Luis drags the piano into the designated trailer truck, with me and Dianne pushing. Another man helps. We position the piano on the right side of the trailer bed, between two rings, each of which is supposed to support 1,000 pounds. I pull on each one to sense whether this is a plausible claim. I decide it is. The piano is positioned on its side, on its oak piano board, still wrapped in old sleeping bags and rugs. I do the tying: back and forth, back and forth, bowlines and half hitches. The piano must not fall over.

Luis lifts a pallet up onto a package of drums of some substance being shipped, and backs the forklift away, leaving each pallet high and dry. Then he dances around each pallet, holding a roll of shrink-wrap, striding around and around and around. When heís finished, he lifts the pallet off and sets it on the floor. Then he goes around and around again, catching the top part of the items with his shrink-wrap. He does this with each pallet.

Then he picks the pallet up and runs it into the trailer and positions it. I check on each one, to see how itís going to ride, what itís going to bounce against. While he still has two pallets to go, the driver of the truck arrives, holding papers. He is ready to roll. Things are happening quickly.

We go into the office to pay. Whatís the weight, they ask us? We say, the piano weighs about 650 pounds, but we have no idea about the rest. The woman thinks a bit. She makes a call to Luis. She taps a pencil against her lips. 20,000 pounds, she says. We say, that seems a little high.

We go back out onto the deck. Luis extracts the pallets from the loaded trailer and positions them up and down the loading platform. Then he takes each one, lifts it, and reads the read-out of its weight on a computer just under the forklift roof. We trust Luis. He likes us, asks us about teaching and education, tells us about his plans. He would like to study German. He writes down the weight of each pallet, places each one on the truck again, in the same order. He adds up his list of individual weights. 2,300 pounds, he says, and hands us his page of figures. We take it to the office. The woman with the pencil accepts it without hesitation. She taps a calculator. The cost for shipping to Guanajuato is $650. That includes a 40% discount, she says. We smile and say thank you. We wait, while the other woman calls in the credit card numbers. They like Dianne, and the women chat in Spanish. I am wondering if they notice Dianneís very short hair. It takes five minutes. The driver wants to get going. I think of him a Mercury. His eagerness to get on his way makes me wonder if the border can stop him.

Finally the credit card authorization comes through. The woman holding the phone nods to the driver, and heís out the door. In a few moments, he will be pulling out of the loading area. We wonder what will happen to our things. We say good-bye to the office workers and Luis, get in the van, and drive cross the border.

It is a zone that is Kafkaesque and desolate, uncertain, for us gringos. But less so, perhaps, for people like Dianne and the truck driver and our young broker. We stop to pay 17% duty on the paintings and a few new items. This probably buys us credit in other ways, at least metaphysically, because, when we press the button a few meters down the highway, we get the green light and keep on going, heading into the interior.

We remembered there will be another customs point at the 23-kilometer mark, and we were right. Our car permiso was expired, and we thought we had better set it right. We took our papers to a window. They told us to get two copies of my passport, my FM3 (our resident visas, which we had had done previously by lawyer friends in Guanajuato), and my California driverís license. We go back to the window with the copies. A pleasant young woman looks up the data. They didnít used to be able to do this, but now they can. The window is built so that youíre talking to a window of thick glass. Your voice reaches the clerk through an opening below the level of your chin. She can hear you well, but with traffic noise, you canít hear her unless you bend over and put your ear to the opening. Itís hard to catch each important, instructing word ≠ more so, when youíre sixty-seven, tired, and stressed.

She says, you took the car back to the states without leaving the permiso with us. I nod. It is true. I say, in Spanish. We understood you didnít have to renew the permiso (permit to bring a car into Mexico for a year), if you had the FM3, which we have. She says, when the car eventually leaves Mexico, you have to give up the sticker; you can get another one when you return. You are delinquent by a year and four months.

I see a bureaucratic wall rising. I ask, what can we do? She gives me instructions about going somewhere around the corner. I go look for the place, but donít find anything that looks like a possibility. We get the in van. Dianne thinks we have to drive forward. We do that, but they tell us, we have to cross to the other side of the highway ≠ for something, which I donít quite catch. Dianne crosses on foot, asking questions at a funny looking building that looks uninhabited. I drive to the agent on the other side of the highway, who collects turned in permisos.

I tell my story. She asks, where is the document that your present sticker used to be attached to. I say, Iím afraid I lost it. She says, well, you canít enter Mexico. I roll my eyes, a habit Dianne has tried to wean me from. The woman tells us we have to drive back to the other side of the highway and see the Customs Agent himself.

I go back to the original window. I say, Iím sorry but I donít understand the next step. She comes out of her office. We go out to the parking lot. I peel off the sticker from the inside lower left of the windshield. We walk back to the Customs Agentís window, a tiny room with a modest cleared desk, and a man sitting behind it. Dianne tells me to go with the young woman. She, Dianne, will talk to the Customs Agent, absent of my sullen looks. The young woman dumps me and tells me to come and see her again at her window, when we have the Customs Agentís decision.

Apparently, itís up to him, whether we are forgiven for losing the stickerís adjoining document. Dianne explains the situation to him in her clear direct Spanish. He signs the waiver. The two men after us, gringos, are not so successful. They lack proof that their car, a company car, has permission from the owner to enter Mexico. We translate for them. The man applying for the waiver is actually the owner of the company, hence of the car, too. But he must produce a business card to prove it. He only has a Xeroxed copy of one of his business cards. The Customs Agent decides against him. He and his associate must return to Nogales and come back with real proof. They are stunned when we tell them. We leave them to their misfortune. I am back at the original window of the young woman, with the dispensation in my hand. In ten minutes we have our new sticker and are on our way, deeper into Mexico ≠ utterly drained. A few meters ahead we approach The Button again. We get the green.

We drive in the dark, something one should not do in Mexico. There are things in the road often: rocks that truckers place to keep their rigs from rolling as they work on them. Cattle, horses, or burros, which are black, or at least very dark and impossible to see until the last second, when it is too late. We finally find a motel in Magdalena. In the morning, we hurry on. The truck, with our things on it, is hurtling down Mexican route 15, and we are racing to Guanajuato, to get there before the piano does. We call Yellow in San Luis Potosi in the morning to learn about the progress of the truck. It will not move on Saturday and Sunday. We have time.

The following Saturday we arrive at Samuelís tienda (grocery store, modest), two blocks of steps up from our house. His sister-in-law Lourdes, a woman who rarely speaks, and his son David carry the whole contents of the van down to the house. We pay them 100 pesos each. They park the car in the space we rent for $50 a month, and we fall into bed, newly re-united with our cat Lilus, who had flown down ahead of us with some veterinarian friends. Lilus keeps us awake, demanding reassurance.

The next day, Dianne makes phone calls. Goyo, who has moved pianos for the Festival Cervantino and his crew are standing by. Goyo has cased the approach to our house. They will carry the piano down the side of the canyon from the truck. Carry it. The truck is supposed to have a ramp. There was no ramp attached to the truck we saw speeding away from Nogales. Our friend Marie, first oboe in the symphony, has been talking to the trucking company and the piano movers. She has a faxed copy of the official list. The truck is due on Monday between 11 and 11:30 in the morning. It arrives right on time; the piano movers are ready.

They disassemble the pallets and carrying all the permitted and not permitted items down to the house. Then they move the piano to the edge of the trailer. There is no ramp. The trailer truck had backed almost all the way to Samuelís tienda, blocking access to the whole barrio. The left rear wheel of the tractor ≠ the outer wheel ≠is suspended over a drop off. I photograph it with my digital camera. I sense the carriers are uneasy with my photographing. I think they think Iím recording evidence. They tip the piano over the edge, and down it comes. Somehow the five of them break its fall. It seems impossible. Then they place thick leather harnesses over their shoulders and lift the piano onto a dolly.

The dolly doesnít work on the uneven steps, and they return to carrying. It takes them 30 to 45 minutes ≠ maybe an hour ≠ to carry it down the alleys, through the garden gate, through the garden, up the first set of garden steps, across the garden again to the stairs that lead up to the level of the living room. The movers strain, stop, set it down, lift on the count of three, strain, struggle ahead, set it down again. The weight is really more than five men can handle. It is hard to distribute the weight evenly. There are two looped leather straps, very thick, which go around the shoulders of two men in back and two men in front and then under the piano, one strap in back, one in front. The fifth man guides and heaves. I take pictures the whole way. If I can figure out how to send them through my new Yahoo webmail, I will do so.

At last, they get the piano into the sala, the living room. They attach the legs, and then stand the piano up. When everything is assembled, Dianne sits down and plays part of a Back piece. The piano is still in tune. Everyone is amazed at everything: that they got it down the hill and into the sala, that it plays, that the task is completed, that Bach is with us in the sala. Dianne pays them 3,000 pesos, with a 500-peso tip. We have arrived. The piano has arrived. Everything we packed has arrived.

When everyone leaves, Dianne cries. She and the piano have completed a very long journey. She is very happy. And we both are exhausted. I still have various questions.  

 

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