We finally settle in to our seats on the Ado bus in Tapachula Mexico. We are excited about our bus ride to San Cristabol de Las Casas, being that it is our first time traveling inland away from our boat since we began our cruising life last August. It is about to be hurricane season down here, and like all others cruisers, we had to make a decision as to where we are going to leave the boat. We chose to take our boat south of the Tehuanepec, where most hurricanes are born. This puts us in the state of Chiapas in Mexico near the Guatemalan border. Bill and I have never been this far south in Mexico before, so a trip to inland to a new destination excited us. We’ve been waiting at the Marina Chiapas for a weather window to take our boat to Bahia del Sol in El Salvador, our final destination for the season.
The half empty bus starts its motor and heads out on to the Tapachula highway heading north into the mountains. I watch out the window as the unfamiliar city passes, and see the ins and outs of the Mexican people going about their daily routines. As I fall into a trance gazing out the window, a dubbed Ben Afleck movie comes on the drop down TV’s throughout the comfortable bus. It catches my attention for a moment, but I quickly revert back to watching people outside. I am reminded of a book I just read, A Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins). It was about a woman who watched people from the train and ended up seeing something she shouldn’t have. I can see them, but they can’t see me. It feels a little invasive, but soon a slow down on the road ahead breaks my trance and the bus comes to a halt. Bill and I realize it is a Federal check point, and we also both realize simultaneously that we didn’t think to bring our passports with us.
The immigration police board the bus and scan the people for anyone who looks different then the Mexican people. I see them notice me right away, and they beeline over to us, and the indigenous looking man sitting across the aisle from us. The immigration officer asked to see our ID’s and we gave him our Driver’s Licenses. He quickly looked at them and said he needs our passports. We tried to explain that we didn’t think about it, but our passports were on our boat down at the Chiapas marina. He exited the boat then came back with a young woman immigration officer, she told us if we don’t have our passports we cannot continue on this bus ride, and we had to come with her.
We gather all of our belongings, and they load us on to a smaller van with prison bars separating the two women drivers from us. Once we squeezed in with all of our luggage, I watch these two young Mexican women as they check their Facebook and Instagram accounts on their phone with their long fake nails, and think to myself how can these two have upset our life so much today. There were already 5 people on this little bus waiting, like soon we would be too. All the 20 federal officers on the side of the highway kept looking around at each other like why are we taking the two gringos, it’s obvious to them that we weren’t trying to sneak into any country, but it seems as though the woman who was in charge of filling her bus with illegals wanted to do just that so she could go home for the day. Now we are just a number.
This is where we went wrong. We should have never gotten on that van. We should have demanded to call our Embassy, or be allowed to prove that we had Passports. We sat on that little bus for almost an hour watching the federal police pull over multiple buses until they had enough people to send our van on its way. They squeezed in a Guatemalan family of 5 in an already cramped van, and off we go to the Tapachula Immigration Detention Center.
As we approach the center, we drive past what looked like over a 1000 people from African or Haitian descent, surrounded by fences outside the detention center. Our van creeps past the group and then through the gates on to the compound. Reality sets in, and we finally realize how serious our situation is. Our small van of about 15 people gets unloaded, and we are told to wait on a platform. It was about 95 degrees, and 99 % humidity. Luckily, we had a little water left in our water bottle, but one of the families with children did not. We offered the rest of our water to the children. It was about 4:00pm, and Bill and I realize that our only hope is to get a hold of the manager at the Marina before they close. Our cell phone was getting dangerously low on battery. As we pull out our phone to call a detention officer yells, “No phone calls!”
We can’t understand why they wouldn’t want us to use our cell phone to get our passports. This seems very counterproductive to us. When the officers walked away we sneaked a call to Memo at the marina. We are always taken aback by the unconditional generosity of the Mexican people. The manager at the Chiapas Marina (his name is Memo) stopped his work day, and hurried to find our passports on our locked boat. On the phone, he told us that he would be there as soon as he could, we were about 45 minutes away from where he was.
After over an hour of waiting on the hot platform they tell us that all the women and children need to go over to the door on the right. The woman in charge starts shuffling us away from the men. Bill freaked out, and while pointing his finger back and forth between us yelled, “No, we are staying together!” All along we felt that we were going to be okay as long as we were able to stay together. At this time, they forced us apart and I went into a room with all women and children, a processing room. This is the room where you fill out paperwork explaining where you are from, and where they take all of your possessions. This is also the room where the woman who initially put us on the bus told us that we would be able to merely explain our situation to an officer, and then they would let us go. So, at this point I still had hope, but very soon came to the realization that she was just trying to shut us up the whole time. There was no explaining anything to anyone. We were literally just a number being processed.
I could tell they never had to administer a United States citizen in this room before. There were no labels that even said USA on them. The woman handling me had to scratch out a tag that had GUATEMALA and write USA. This woman spoke English, and had such a confused look on her face as to why I was there. She ended up being an advocate for us the whole time we were in custody. They took my purse with over $300 in it, the last of our ID’s, my cell phone, and my suitcase. I thought I would never see them again.
In this room there were about 20 women and 15 children being processed as well. I felt so much for the women with babies, I could sense the stress emanating off of them. Not knowing when they would get out and what was going to happen to them after they got out, the pressure of keeping their children happy and comfortable, and just physically being able to keep up with nursing and staying hydrated. Many of them had a baby in their arms, and another baby that could barely walk, but was forced to. These older children from 9mos.-18mos. Really took the burden of the conditions. Many of them cried constantly, wearing a single diaper trailing behind their depleted mother.
After we all got processed we were led down a hallway to place our belongings in a storage room. My advocate tried placing my belongings apart from the others, and while we are walking to our next destination she says to me, “I can’t believe they are putting you in here, it is not a very nice place.”
My stomach sinks. I immediately have visions of Orange is the New Black (Piper Kerman). I am the only white, blonde haired woman in this entire place. But I quickly tell myself that this is not prison, the people here, as far as I know have not broken any laws except trying to get into another country, so I try to stay as positive as I can as I walk through the locked cell door. I now know how it feels to go to jail.
I cause an eruption in the room of 1500 women and children. The Cubans were the most gregarious and outspoken. They yell, in broken Spanglish, “Gringo, what the hell you doing in here?” No one spoke very good English, and everyone wanted to hear my story. I start to explain, in my broken Spanish, how I left my Passport on my boat, blah, blah, blah. Just after I explained it to one group another new group heard I was there, and would come up and want to hear it again. They called me “Estados Unidos.”
“Estados Unidos, come here, tell us again” They were all so disgusted that the authorities put me in there, they couldn’t believe it. Everyone was so nice to me. They offered their mats on the floor, they wanted to give me their last bit of stashed food, fresh mangos, candy and cookies. I was surrounded by women who just merely stared and smiled at me. I tried my best to listen and understand their stories in Spanish. Most everyone I talked to was trying to get to the United States. The majority of people in this camp were Cubans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorians and Nicaraguans.
One woman that I spoke with quite a bit had been there with her 2 children for 43 days. She came up to me to tell me that her daughter had blue eyes like mine. I watched as she stood in the food line holding both babies, nursing one on each breast. She also wanted to show me that her 3 month old was getting a rash from being in this room so long.
Despite all this attention, I stood close to the front door the whole time, hoping that Memo would show up soon with our passports so we could leave. It had been over 6 hours, I had not sat down once, and it was getting late. The room was preparing for nighttime, and I started getting nervous. I did not want to have to spend the whole night there. The food line came and went and everyone kept asking me why I didn’t want to eat any food. Every guard individually came up and made sure I didn’t want any food, but in my mind, if I just stood by the door and never accepted being there, I would get out sooner. Come to find out, that is what Bill did in the men’s cell as well. They begin passing out mats to sleep on, and the floor was lined with people. My spirits start to dwindle.
After what seems like another hour of standing, a woman with a loud speaker yells out a list of names, including mine. We all line up to go out the door. I get across the threshold and see Bill right away, he wells up at the sight of me. Memo has showed up with our passports, and he has demanded to see us. We thought we were out. They lead us to an office and Memo is there. I run and give him a huge hug and say thank you so much!!!! He explains that they still need to process our paperwork, but it should just take only an hour max. We are deflated as they lead us back to the cell.
We do eventually get out that night, but not until 10:30pm. We sign some papers and they give us our passports back. A riot of such was forming outside of the detention center. The energy of the people in front surrounded by gates started escalating. The guards open the gate where the buses come in and let us out. It was a little disconcerting. It was dark, there was only a little half fence between us and over 1000 illegal immigrants that were protesting. We slink off into the darkness behind some large buses so no one could see us. We saw a city bus drive by and we ran across the street and got on it just to get away from that situation, not even knowing which direction it was going.
We eventually work our back to the marina, which was about an hour away. Memo had asked the guard at the entrance to call him when we showed up. He was appalled that they kept us 4 more hours when they told him it would only be an hour. We are so happy to be back on our boat, but we are exhausted. We pour ourselves a much needed glass of wine, and share our stories about our time inside the detention cell. I can’t help to think about leaving all those women and children behind. They were so loving, giving and hopeful despite their situation.
The next day, with passports in hand, we settle into our seats on the ADO bus in Tapachula Mexico, excited about our trip to San Cristobol de Las Casas.
We have now enrolled in the STEP Program, and recommend it to anyone who is travelling abroad. This is with the Bureau of Consular Affairs and stands for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. You let them know where you are traveling and they send alerts and notices for any issues. This service also helps the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency.