Chapter 1. Texas border
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2008 All rights reserved.
(Shari) “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” Remember that commercial on TV? Well with the same tone of surprise and incredibility I say to myself “I can’t believe I am doing this.” Am I crazy to drive from Texas to Costa Rica? Some of you know the farthest south I ever traveled by land is Tikal, Guatemala. Now I intend to lead a group of people through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and then back. Am I nuts? More importantly are fellow travelers nuts for going along? I have spent months studying maps and GPS tracks and reading previous Wagonmaster’s guides in preparation. I have searched the Internet and used Google Earth for studying our campgrounds from the air. I have just about memorized each border procedure and I have made a folder for every border crossing that includes copies of documents needed for everyone. I can prepare no more. I just have to hold my breath and go. And you know what? I am excited about this trip. I think it will be one of our best. It sure is not one that many people get to do in a lifetime; the opportunities to see some fantastic scenery abound. When Bert and I flew to Costa Rica in November of 2006 to scout it out for this trip, I found that country the prettiest I had ever visited to date. (And I have been all over Europe and Australia). The fact that 10 of the 11 rigs on the trip have traveled with us before, does not hurt the situation. In fact Bert and I have started to call the group our “all stars”. Bob and Arlene from our previous two trips to Belize are again our Tailgunners. In addition to being great at that job, they have been on two caravans to Panama in the past. I will be relying heavily on their expertise I am sure. So as always, I start the trip with great optimism and anticipation. Will we have problems? You bet. Will be overcome them? You bet. Will we remember this trip as one of a kind? You bet. Stay tuned as the next 2-1/2 months unfold. I think you readers are in for a treat.
(Shari) “The best laid plans of mice and men…” Wasn’t it just yesterday I ended the day with such optimism? Well ….the best laid plans…. The Wagonmaster heading to Panama one week before our departure has informed us that if we are continuing out of Mexico in the south we need a transit visa and not a tourist visa. He finally got tourist visas for his group but warned us of the problem. Apparently the only place to get those types of visas is at the McAllen-Hidalgo border crossing. Therefore Bert and I decide to make a dry run to that border to test the system. First we travel to Progresso, Mexico, to get haircuts, teeth cleaned at the dentist and pick up tequila for margaritas. Then we travel to Hidalgo, park our car on the U.S. side and walk the half-mile to the immigration offices. Here we explain that we are going to Costa Rica and ask what type of visa we should get. The official asks where our last stop in Mexico is and we say Chetumal. He asks us how many days we want and we reply 180. He says we are tourists and then proceeds to stamp our visas as had been done in previous years. Quizzically, Bert and I look at each other as if to say, “What is the issue here?” We then walk to the next building to get R-Pup-Tent’s papers. (For those readers who do not yet know, we bought a small 24-foot Class C motor home for this trip and have given the 2002 unit the moniker “R-Pup-Tent”). We happily cross back to the U.S. thinking everything is fine and dandy until … When we get back to camp we hear the second Panama Wagonmaster had also taken a few of his people an hour earlier to the same border we went to. He got a different story from a different clerk. Again the issue is raised about tourist versus transit. Bert and I decide to send Bob and Arlene tomorrow to see how they fare. Gees, I will be happy when we get through this border. Only 11 more to go then. Yikes!
(Shari) In December, Bert had a great idea. Why not get all our foreign currency in the United States so that we do not have to deal with money changers at the borders and banks in each country? So I pursued the idea and when we got to Pharr we happily went to the local branch here and put in our order. Meanwhile we became aware that the conversion rate our bank was using was not very good and, in fact, seemed to us like highway robbery. They wanted 14% to do the transactions. When we found that out we were very upset since we needed to exchange quite a bit of dollars. We have been loyal bank customers for 35 years and even have special privileges like free travelers checks, automatic overdrafts etc. This morning Bert started to make phone calls to our home branch. We do not want to pick up the money even though it has already been taken out of our checking account. Unfortunately all the officers of our local branch have retired and we no longer know anyone there. We decide to make one last ditch effort and drive to the bank that has the currency. We present our case and the branch manager is very nice if not sympathetic. He calls some numbers but things do not look good to reverse the transactions and they probably would charge another 14% to take back the currency. We continue to argue our case. Then to our surprise and the surprise of the banker helping us, we are told we do not have to take the money and our account will not be charged. Boy, what a relief! I guess I will remain a loyal bank customer another 35 years.
(Bert) “Birding Costa Rica is only half the adventure. Driving there from Texas is the other half!” I wrote those words over two years ago as a header on my website describing the trip we are about to start in a few days now. Two years ago the itinerary was a sketch only; now we’ve filled in the details. Hundreds of e-mails to and about Central America, countless hours of conversation with prior Panama bound Wagonmasters and endless searching of the Internet and guide books are about to be put to the test. With every strategic link added to the itinerary chain I get more excited about the adventure soon to unfold.
(Bert) First reports, up to a week ago, were by e-mail. Then birders arriving at the Pharr campground reported seeing others at Bentsen Rio Grande. We knew most of our fellow travelers were already in the Rio Grande Valley and by evening all gathered in Pharr. At 5 PM it is quite a reunion with lots of hugs and warm welcomes, for you see all but one couple of the 21 people traveling with us have been on at least one prior caravan with us and almost everyone knew someone else also on this trip. Shari and I call these our All Stars because they are all favorites and we are anxious to travel with them again. At the party, Woody and Gwen show up. Although not going with us this time, they have gone with us so many times they know many of this group and later seven of us go out to dinner to celebrate some more.
(Shari) Our first orientation meeting consists of only nine people and that includes Arlene, Bert and myself. Only the six people that have never been south of the US border with us are required to attend. At this meeting we cover food and water issues, travel procedures, safety issues and caravan etiquette. After two hours we are finished and the afternoon is free to take care of last minute details. Tailgunner Bob, with his great thoroughness has found some initial problems. Mike and Kay have an oil leak. Bert and Shari have some fittings that have never been greased and Lee and Pat have an unworkable air conditioner and a lost 10 year hologram. Arleen, Chris and Lee and Pat will have to spend tomorrow afternoon at the border solving the problem. Mike and Kay have already had their rig in to be fixed and Tailgunner Bob greased our fittings. We have a lively social hour at 5 PM and even Gwen and Woody from previous trips join us.
(Bert) The farther the trip, the more borders crossed, the longer our orientation sessions last. This year we divide the sessions into two and the first was yesterday, designed for those that either have not traveled south of the border or else are first time travelers with us. Today’s session is for everyone. While the group is greeting each other, playing Shari’s puzzle game designed to get everyone to exchange a piece with everyone else and partaking of a continental breakfast Shari provided, I am taking photos of the group. I am surprised at the broad and genuine smiles I’m capturing, as previously with most groups at orientation the faces show tentativeness and reserve. This group has the smiles and laughter of well-known friends. Shari and I discuss border procedures, campgrounds, road conditions and, above all, suggest ways to keep our travels safe. By 11 AM we are ready to hand out the travel logs and birding guides and within another hour we are done. For seasoned travelers the session is mostly review; for others I hope they have retained three-fourths of what we discussed.
(Shari) It is hard to get everyone’s attention to start the meeting. Usually the group is subdued but this year I have to call them to attention numerous times in order to start. The atmosphere in the room is excited, friendly, jovial, talkative and comfortable. I have a new personal portable public address system that helps me get the group’s attention. I think it will save my voice and make it easier for everyone to hear. There should be no excuses for not knowing what is happening. The meeting lasts 3 hours and at its conclusion everyone exchanges some of their dollars into pesos. As Bert hands out his bird check lists I hear murmurings in the rooms about how great they are and how much work they involved. Someone even suggested that Bert copyright them. I think those checklists are a unique feature of our trips and I know for a fact Bert spends hours on them. In the afternoon, thankfully, Chris accompanies Lee and Pat at the border. Since he knows Spanish he is able to address the problem and after many hours their hologram issue is solved. Thank you so much Chris. Unfortunately they do not make it back in time for another lively social. Day 2 – January 14 – Pharr
(Bert) In spite of our concerns about getting visas and importation holograms, everything proceeds like clockwork this morning. We head to the border at 9:30 AM and by 12:30 we are back at our campground with the tasks completed for all in the caravan. Perhaps one improvement is that we went to the Hidalgo-Reynosa border instead. This is Mexico’s prototype of a redesigned, modern and efficient building and staff. All is in one building, with relatively easy access and steps marked one, two, three. Some will remember the frustrations we had last March when we returned through this border. Shari and I checked it out again and found another return route we could have taken – an unmarked one running counter to the designated one. With that route we could have avoided our circumlocution nightmare and with our new found knowledge we now plan on returning this way after Costa Rica.
(Shari) I do not know what the problem is. The two Panama Wagonmasters have had problems at the border and have had me concerned for days. We take our group today and just sail through. I think my halting Spanish endears me to the border officials or they are just having a good day. In any case we are all done and home within 3 hours. Unbelievable! I can spend the day finishing details. I go to the bank and withdraw tours funds. I go to Wal-mart and make a significant contribution to their bottom line. The afternoon turns cloudy and misty but a group of hearty souls meet outside for a social. John says he is ready to go and is at the pacing stage. I think we all are ready to go. I know I am. Ralph and Dorothy treat us to a Whataburger. It is a last ditch effort to appease the junk food habit. The aroma alone could add 10 pounds to my body. We hit the sack early, feeling comfortable with our traveling companions and our trip preparation. We can ask for no more.
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