Goodbye, USA – Bievenidos A México – 01 June 2004

by Jim on 2014/06/01

[Jimbaux just needed . . . to realign.]

I awoke the morning of 1 June 2004 in Laredo prepared to enter Mexico for two months, rested after a long day of driving from Bayou Lafourche from shortly after midnight and ending with some pictures of trains on the international bridge over the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, if you are a Mexican) shortly before dusk and a disturbing set of incidents on the automobile international bridges.

The United States Of America

I don’t recall what time or how I awoke that morning, what I ate for breakfast, or how long I looked for photographic opportunities before I found my first one, which was this already-then-rare pair of Southern Pacific B-boats in Union Pacific’s former Missouri Pacific Railroad yard in Laredo at 08:48.

The shot settings were f/6.7 at 1/500 of a second.  I was ever-so-mildly tempted to stick around for a day in the hopes of seeing and photographing these things in action, and I don’t think that I ever saw an SP B-boat in action – or even at all – ever again; so, these things were definitely in their twilight when I photographed them here, and you’re probably shaving with them today.

I was apparently unable to get any shots of trains on the bridge, which would have been taken from the other side of the bridge due to the morning lighting being different.  I did photograph two northbound trains, but I don’t recall if I even saw them on the bridge.  Eight minutes after the previous picture, I photographed this northbound train at Sanchez Street and Santa Rita Avenue.

Eleven minutes later, at 09:05, I photographed one more northbound train at Chicago Street, with what appears to be a UP hi-rail truck next to it.

Both of those shots were taken at f6.7 at 1/350 of a second.  Photographing that train ended a roll of Velvia 100F.  The trainwatching for the morning was finished, although I don’t know if I knew it at the time, and it was time to put the USA behind me for a few months, meaning that I had to do a few things before I crossed the border for so long.

First, I made a trip to the Laredo post office in a nearby neat old part of town between UP’s yard and the road to the international automobile bridge to drop off film-processing mailers with the rolls of film that I had taken so far.  Yes, I was still – in mid-2004 (yes, it is almost embarrassing now) – shooting film, meaning that I did not see the pictures from this day and those neat afternoon pictures on the international bridge from yesterday until I got back home to Louisiana two months later (and didn’t want to risk taking them to Mexico or going through a hassle trying to find a place to process them there only to have to take them back home with me, with all of the risks involved with that.)  The absence of instantaneous results provided by digital photography is so difficult to imagine now!  In some ways, I do miss the excitement of getting slides back, but I definitely do not miss the costs associated with them.  I do wish that I had, at the time, had the good sense to have invested in some cheap digital point-and-shoot camera to go along with my film SLR camera, particularly for this Mexico experience, as there were definitely many things that I could have and should have photographed that did not need to be super sharp or telephoto; I had to rely on other people’s point-and-shoot digital images, and you’ll likely see some of those in the next two months along with my scanned film pictures.

Second, I tanked-up at the Gonzales-Exxon in Laredo for $31.34, my last cheap American gasoline for nearly two months.  In addition to saving money, this would allow me to get somewhat settled in Monterrey before having an experience of buying gasoline in Mexico – where, at the time, there was no credit card payment for gasoline and where you cannot pump your own fuel – for which I felt I was not quite yet ready!  My Spanish was, at the time, very weak and very rusty, even though I was good at pronunciation.

Third, shortly after it opened (probably around 10:30), I went to the nearby Popeye’s restaurant for an appropriate taste of home for my last American meal for a long time.

Then, it was time to put all of the fear behind me, just cross the border, and go.  For the months leading up to this experience, I had felt somewhat bored, unfulfilled, isolated, sheltered, inexperienced, and unintelligent; one purpose of this experience was to address those deficiencies.  I did not just want to be the guy who looks at neat pictures and reads stories from other parts of the world; I wanted to be the guy taking those pictures and having those experiences.  I wanted to both be a character in the story and be the storyteller.  Traveling alone in a foreign country has inherent risks no matter the country, but many perceptions of how dangerous a place Mexico is persists, many of which have a rational basis even if taken too far; sadly, although Monterrey had historically been in one of the safest parts of Mexico, in 2010, it became a scene of terrorism, making me glad for my experiences there prior to that time.

So, during the late morning, after my Popeye’s meal, I crossed the border again, had to deal again with men jumping on the hood of my truck without my permission, and drove out of Nuevo Laredo as fast as I could.


With Nuevo Laredo and environs behind me, I got on the toll highway to Monterrey, which passed through some mostly barren scrub country for the approximately two-hour drive to Monterrey; basically, Monterrey is about as far from the border as San Antonio, Texas, is.  Although the rest of the day was intense and memorable, with me driving through miles of a country I had only first entered the night before (and only a few hundred feet into it the night before) and into a grand metropolis and then a university, I only took one picture.  The opportunities for photography were bountiful, but the opportunities for this Mexico novice to take pictures were sparse.  For one thing, I was deterred by the sight of Mexican Army troop trucks carrying soldiers with guns on the highway.  I had never seen anything like this before (Hurricane Katrina did not happen for another year) and did not quite feel right taking a picture of it or anything else within sight of it; of course, on New Year’s Day of 2007, I photographed pictures of a Mexican Army base and was then questioned by soldiers there.  I had to concentrate on driving in a very unfamiliar world, with its different driving habits and rules, and on getting to Monterrey (where I was not yet comfortable with pulling over on busy city streets to park and where I would later have the opportunity to do it anyway) and ITESM in time, and I stopped on the Auto Pista to get this one and only one picture that day, my first picture in Mexico.

Most likely, this picture was taken in the state of Neuvo León, the border for which is not that far away from the urbanness of Nuevo Laredo (which is in the state of Tamaulipas), but there is a small amount of rural highway still in Tamaulipas.  In any case, anyone with a knowledge of the highway’s mileposting  . . umm, kilometerposting . . . system (or, at least, how it was in 2004) should be able to pinpoint a location of this photograph.

Driving into the city of Monterrey was a surreal experience.  ITESM is in the southern part of the city, and there is no highway beltway-loop type of highway around the city (although small parts of what could be considered one have since been built, but steep mountainsides already limit expansion), meaning that I had to go through the heart of the city to get to the university campus, passing by the UANL campus in the northern part of town (mentioned to reinforce the point of having to drive through town, that I had to pass one college campus in the city to get to another college campus in the same city.)  With The Other Side playing on my CD player, passing through (or around) the Cuauhtémoc Arch in the heart of the city was quite an amazing experience for this bayou boy; remember, I had not even moved to New Orleans yet, and I would not be able to do so for a year due to the big cost of this Mexico experience.

Despite the claims of the naysayers – friends, family, and colleagues – that I was doing something utterly foolish and even “brainless” (yes, I was told that by someone back home) by going into Mexico on my own with my own automobile, that I was risking kidnapping or other such things that seem to only happen to someone whom someone else knows but never actually anyone whom you yourself know, I made it through the heart of the city (I would later tell the other international students, almost all of whom were American and none of whom brought their own vehicles and who wondered about me driving in the city, that driving in Monterrey was no worse than driving in New Orleans) and to the ITESM campus with no problem (other than being a bit nervous.)  I found the international student staff, checked in, verified my identity, and asked to use one of their laptop computers so that I could e-mail my parents and one or two friends to state in briefest of terms that I had arrived safely in Monterrey and on campus.

One of the staff of the university’s international student program (at the time, the Wall Street Journal listed ITESM’s international program as one of the top in the world, and I’ll write more about the other international students in subsequent postings) placed a telephone call to Señora Gloria, who was the mother in my host family, that she could come and get me.  This was exciting!  Living with this family – there were three children, but they were all older than I was and out of the house – had a big effect on me.

I don’t quite recall how this transpired because it would be awhile before I could get to a computer for any length of time (although much of the information in these postings comes from my own memory or photographic log books, much if it also comes from old e-mails written in real time), but I seem to recall that Señora Gloria brought me to the house in her car and that I later had her bring me back to campus so that I could get my truck.  Perhaps they (both the family and the university) were so unaccustomed to international students driving their own vehicles that the thought that I did not necessarily need a ride to the house did not enter into the calculus, but I’d have probably had trouble finding the house on my own anyway, given the maze of a neighborhood where my host family lived, and, had I merely attempted to follow in my truck Señora Gloria in her own car, I’d have risked being left behind with all of the traffic lights between the university and the house.

Señora Gloria spoke almost no English, and my Spanish was not much better, having not had any formal instruction or experience in speaking the language since high school, but, both with my Spanish class and with living with this family, I would learn plenty of Spanish quickly.  While I was there the first afternoon, Señor Oscar called from his business and talked to me.  He speaks good enough English, which is helpful in the business that he runs, and we were able to converse.  That night, the three of us had supper together, and I settled in for my first night in Mexico, my first night in Monterrey, my first night this far south.

A absence of air-conditioning – without which I have trouble fully functioning when the temperature gets as high as it does in spring and summer – made the first night very difficult, but I was determined to ‘stay the course,’ and it would get better soon anyway.  I will write about all of this in my next dispatch from June 2004 in Monterrey!



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Ray Duplechain June 1, 2014 at 22:19

Good read, good memories; too, I bet…thanks…


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