I Was Fine When the Bombs Were Going Off

Days 42-44 – Los Angeles, California, USA to Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico - 8,586 km

Tijuana street scene

‘No se puede otorgar más de un permiso por persona,’ the customs official explained simply and politely in Spanish. ‘More than one import permit cannot be issued per person.’

‘Pero usted sí puede otorgar el otro permiso de vehícuo a ella como lleva una carta de autorización de mi, el propietario titular, y la carta es certificada por notario,’ I replied. ‘But you can issue the other vehicle permit to her as she carries an authorization letter from me, the titular owner, and the letter is certified by a notary.’

‘What relationship does she have to you?’ he asked.

‘She is my partner,’ I said.

‘Then if you are married it is fine,’ he said. ‘I will only need to see the marriage certificate.’

‘No, we are not married,’ I said.

‘Oh, then it cannot be done,’ he said. ‘You see you must have a legal relationship to grant authorization of the vehicle for temporary importation purposes.’

‘Perhaps there is some additional fee that we can pay to circumvent this regulation?’ I asked hopefully.

‘No, there is none,’ the customs official replied matter-of-factly.

I stood before his desk a moment longer waiting to see if he might yield to the attempted bribery or to compassion or to the annoyance of my hovering before his desk. He sat there tranquilly and returned my gaze until I realized that we were out of options and we left the small customs office. We sat down on a step outside the office and ate a snack from our tank bags while we discussed our situation and sorted our various papers and photocopies into some kind of order.

‘So you can’t import your bike because it’s registered to my name and we’re not married, and I can’t import more than one bike at a time,’ I said.

‘I understood that,’ Jess said. ‘And without the permit we can go throughout Baja with no problems but we won’t be able to take the ferry to the mainland.’

‘Yeah, or to take it out of the country when we want to cross into Belize,’ I added.

We believed we had thoroughly investigated the possibility of registering the motorcycle in Jess’s name back when we bought it but dismissed the idea because she does not have a residence permit.

‘So we have to get married,’ she said and I tried to decipher if her smile was more from shock or excitement.

Jess and panda at San Diego Zoo

We had crossed the border into Tijuana earlier that morning after staying the previous night at my cousin Jamie’s condo in San Diego. The border crossing was easy and then we had followed the signs that pointed to the customs office where you could obtain a ‘Permiso de Importación Temporal de Vehículo’ or Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit. Here we had swiftly gotten our tourist visas, which, like the vehicle permits, we only need for travel outside of Baja California, but at the customs office we were informed that the vehicle permits were no longer being issued from this location.

‘Sigues las senales hacia el aeropuerto y por allí pregunta por Garita de Otay,’ the customs official said. ‘Follow the signs towards the airport and around there ask for Garita de Otay.’

We followed the signs but the maze of over- and underpasses quickly got the better of me and in the end I paid a taxi to lead us there.

‘Conducza despacio por favor,’ I said to the taxi driver. ‘Drive slowly please.’

Then to Jessica I said, ‘Stay on my six so I don’t lose you in the traffic.’

‘I will,’ she said but after a few turns and stoplights several cars had cut between us. I began slowing so not to lose her but as I slowed several cars cut between the taxi and me. Eventually Jess caught back up and then together we caught up to the taxi and we three stayed in tight formation until he pulled over and pointed me towards a small office at the end of a dusty dirt road beside the Otay border crossing.

‘Aquí está el Banjercito de Otay donde pagas el permiso de vehículo,’ he said. ‘Here is the Banjercito de Otay where you obtain the vehicle permit.’

We pulled up and parked our bikes beside the office.

‘What happened to staying on my six?’ I said to Jess.

She made a sheepish grin and then she said, ‘I took a moment shifting gears out of first and all of a sudden all these cars had jumped in front of me!’

After sorting our gear and withdrawing our documents from inside the panniers we had gone into the Banjercito office, which is the bank of the armed forces, to obtain our vehicle permits. When the official saw that both motorcycles were registered in my name, he directed us to the customs office, which was one office down, to see what might be done.

‘So we have to get married,’ Jess said as the conclusion to our review of the situation.

‘You’re so calm and relaxed in these situations,’ I said. ‘I’m feeling all nervous and anxious and actually quite depressed by this.’

‘You wanted an adventure,’ she said, ‘and anyway we’ll find a way through or around this obstacle. It might just delay us a little.’

After some further discussion we decided to find a hotel in Tijuana and from there to further research our options by internet – in particular to research what documentation would be needed to get married in Baja California.

With our documents back in our side cases, we started off back towards Tijuana center where we had previously seen signs for the hotel district. But our excitement for the day was not over because with one wrong turn we were suddenly stopped in the traffic of cars trying to cross into the United States and there were no exits.

‘Fuck! This is my fault,’ I said over the drumming of our engines as we waited in the traffic. ‘The sign said San Diego but I thought there would be another exit or two towards downtown. I didn’t realize how close we were to the border.’

We inched forward over 20 minutes or so with many of those in cars urging us to split lanes to get to the front of the lines faster. Eventually, I saw a break in the short wall that separated those leaving Mexico from those just entering. I pointed it out to Jessica and she cocked her head quizzically as if to ask, ‘Can we really do that?’ I nodded an affirmative to the question I assumed she was asking and we cut through the space and sped off back into Mexico.

It was another 20 minutes or so into the city center and then a series of aimless turns until we found a very modest hotel with secure parking. After unloading the bikes and confirming the presence of a working Wi-Fi signal, we walked in the direction suggested by the desk clerk and found a small, outdoor taco restaurant.

‘They’re really good,’ Jess said as she shoveled what remained of the second taco into her open mouth. ‘I like that you can put the salsas and everything on yourself.’

‘I can’t tell you how relieved this makes me,’ I said.

‘Why?’ she said.

‘Because this is the cheapest and most common food for the next few months and I was concerned that, if you didn’t like it, it would be all chichi restaurants for us.’

She frowned and said, ‘I’m not that difficult.’

‘You’re the pickiest eater ever,’ I said.

‘I just don’t like when they put sauces on things,’ she said.


We spent most of that evening on our respective computers searching the Internet for information about temporary vehicle importation and about getting married in Mexico. We even called several resorts and wedding planners in Cabo San Lucas for information about prices, scheduling, and what documents are needed. We discovered that the only thing we needed that we did not have with us was our birth certificates.

‘My mom thinks she has a certified copy of mine but otherwise she can get one for me tomorrow,’ I said after ending the phone call with my mother.

‘I only have the short form at home so I would need to get the long form,’ Jess explained. ‘Then it needs to be certified by the Ministry and then legalized by the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa.’

She searched and read on further and then added, ‘I could have the long form expedited to my mother and that will cost $75. Then she could overnight it to the broker who will get it certified for $175 in two days and then legalized for $150 in five days and then they overnight it back to my mother and she overnights it to us in Cabo.’

‘That’s going to take at least three weeks if all goes perfectly and then it’s close to $1000 with all the overnight fees and then even the cheapest wedding planner, blood test, and marriage license in Cabo is going to be at least $500,’ I said in complete despair.

We also tried calling the immigration lawyer whom we had spoken to some months earlier about obtaining residency for Jess if we decided to stay in the States after the motorcycle trip. We wanted to know how marrying in Mexico or in San Diego and then leaving the country might prejudice our chances for residency after the trip. We didn’t get through to the lawyer but the online message forums made clear that US Immigration would not let Jess back in on a tourist visa if they discovered that she was my spouse and we would have to file for her residency from abroad.

Then later in the evening I had an idea and I even began examining the vehicle registration document from the DMV.

‘You know, this is printed in two colors and it has no particular stamp or watermark on the paper,’ I said. ‘Could it really be so difficult to scan it, swap out my name for yours, and then print a new copy?’

A discussion with my sister decided that it would be easy enough for her to do in Photoshop if she were provided with a good enough scan.

‘Do they verify the registration of the bike when they issue the permit?’ Jess asked rhetorically because she knew I hadn’t the answer to that.

‘Can they really have access to the DMV database?’ I asked rhetorically in reply and this launched another half-hour of Internet searches and skimming through message board postings.

That night I slept very poorly because the situation was unresolved and we were without a clear, viable way forward. When I woke early in the morning I couldn’t remember why we had been so convinced about the futility of registering the motorcycle in Jessica’s name.

‘The dealership couldn’t do it because I didn’t have proof of address,’ she said when I asked her about it as soon as her eyes opened that morning.

‘Ok, but now you have proof of address from the joint bank account we opened,’ I said, sitting upright with the computer on my lap.

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Your mom sent me an SMS this morning asking the same thing.’

‘I’m reading postings about all the Canadian snow birds that come down during the winter and they buy a car in the States because it’s cheaper than bringing one down with them. The snow birds aren’t proper residents any more than you are so how is it different if you use my mother’s place as your address?’

She shrugged and with little more discussion we decided to cross back into San Diego and give it a shot. Our hotel was very close to the border so after a few turns we were back in the stop-and-go traffic of cars trying to enter the United States.

‘Will there be any problem for me crossing back because I don’t have residency or an onward ticket?’ Jess said over the idling of our engines.

We decided that, if they asked, our story was that we were going back to Africa in a few weeks and we had only wanted to get a quick taste of Mexico before ending our motorcycle trip. This time we slowly worked our way between the cars, despite the width that the side cases added to the bikes, and soon we had passed through immigration without any trouble or need for a story.

After crossing the border it was less than 20 minutes and we were at the California DMV office just off the Otay Mesa Freeway. Another 45 minutes and we had completed the transfer of title and Jessica held the new vehicle registration document in her hand.

‘I’m emotionally wrecked from the last two days,’ I admitted when we were back at our bikes outside the DMV with Jess’s new vehicle registration safely filed with her other pertinent documents.

‘Yes, love, you really fell apart for a while there,’ she said.

‘I know I did,’ I said. ‘It’s so shameful! To think that I was the Security Focal Point for like 20 NGOs in South Sudan when they started shelling the town.’

‘I’m sure you were much better then, love,’ she said.

‘I was much better,’ I said. ‘And I was fine when the bombs were going off all around us in Iraq. But the lack of a vehicle permit threatens to end the trip and I totally despaired!’

We had lunch and then we crossed back into Mexico and very quickly found our way to the Banjercito office where they issue the vehicle permits. The official smiled when he recognized us from the day before and within 20 minutes we had paid our temporary deposits and were issued each with a separate vehicle importation permit.

‘Aren’t you relieved you don’t have to marry me, love,’ Jess said when we left the Banjercito office with our permits in hand.

‘Yes, Bean, I dodged a bullet, didn’t I?’ I said.

We stayed that night at the same modest hotel near the border as we had the previous night only this time I felt much more relaxed and I slept very well and soundly. The next morning we packed our bikes with a renewed sense of excitement and we followed the free highway south out of Tijuana and away from the border.

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