passport with Map

We were stuck on the border between Mexico and the United States.  Officials on the American side didn’t see reason to let my French husband back in the country.

No, Eric hadn’t done anything wrong.  He’s got a B-2 visitor visa which allows for stays of up to six months at a time over a ten year period. 

The thing is, official visa regulations don’t specify how frequently B-2 visa holders can visit. In theory, you could just walk across the US border into Mexico or Canada, turn around, and come right back to the USA. 

We’d crossed into Mexico before Eric’s allotted 6-months in the US expired.  So far, so good.

No reasonable person wants to overstay in the USA.  It’s not like in Sudan, where officers just smile and wave you past border control even though your visa officially expired two days back.  Or even Laos, where over-stayers pay a nominal fine for each extra day.

Nope.  Make a slip up with your USA exit dates and you’re likely to be barred from reentry for several years.  Possibly worse, in Trump’s America.

A Change of Plans

We exited the United States in southern Arizona with the intention of riding across northern Mexico through the states of Sonora and Chihuahua and then reentering the United States somewhere in Texas.

And then I got freaked out about safety.  That’s what happens when you spend too much time on the US State Department website.

U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in various Mexican states.

Gun battles between rival criminal organizations or with Mexican authorities have taken place on streets and in public places during broad daylight. The Mexican government dedicates substantial resources to protect visitors to major tourist destinations and has engaged in an extensive effort to counter criminal organizations that engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico.

Sonora is a key region in the international drug and human trafficking trades. U.S. citizens traveling throughout Sonora are encouraged to limit travel to main roads during daylight hours and exercise caution on the Highway 15 corridor from Nogales to Empalme.

Criminal activity and violence remains an issue throughout the state of Chihuahua and its major cities.

Cautious or Neurotic?

Over the years I’ve grown more—not less—safety conscious. Maybe that’s due to age.  It’s a well-known fact that risk aversion increases as we get older. 

But I think the main reason I’m less willing to take chances with my safety is that I’m better informed.   Well, at least I listen to more news (via podcasts—mostly from NPR and the BBC).

Don’t get me wrong, listening to a steady stream of the world’s woes as recounted by the media hasn’t made me fearful of exploring our planet. 

Our world is a wonderful place, full of mostly kind and generous people.  This is I know from first-hand experience. 

Iranians are NOT religious fanatics who want to kill westerners.  Poor African villagers are NOT thieves who will strip your bike as soon as you turn your back. Rednecks in Texas do NOT hate cyclists and attempt to run them off the road at every chance.

95% Nice

But there are a few bad apples everywhere. And kidnapping is an increasingly popular pastime in the 21st century.

I’ve listened spellbound as kidnapping survivors recounted their ordeals.  Experienced war journalists have given podcast accounts of being held by ISIS in Syria.  The wife of a factory owner in Mexico shared her experiences negotiating for the release of her husband.  A British woman told how she was awoken in the middle of the night by armed men who whisked her away from her resort off the coast of Kenya.  A despondent shopkeeper in Venezuela explained how thugs kidnapped his son as he trudged home from school.

So, yes, people do get kidnapped.   And it’s not just the wealthy that are affected.

What are the odds of foreign cycle tourists in Mexico getting kidnapped?  Probably pretty low. Targeting foreigners would mean international attention and that’s something most criminals steer clear of.

I know the biggest risk I run by riding across Northern Mexico—even in areas deemed extremely dangerous by the US State Department- is getting hit by a distracted driver.  Smartphone addicts are the real danger to two-wheeled travelers.

Facing Facts

I also know that I couldn’t really relax and enjoy a ride across Northern Mexico.  I’d worry too much. I’m the first to admit my kidnapping fears are slightly irrational.  But, as much as I might like to be a carefree individual who could ride her bike through slightly sketchy spots without concern, that’s not me. 

That’s why we were being held up at the US border post between Agua Prieta and Douglas, Arizona. The US immigration officials didn’t think our one-week stay in Mexico amounted to a substantial departure from the US.  Eric had just spent 6 months in the US and officials saw no reason to grant him six more, back-to-back.

Which would be really, really bad for us. We’d be stuck in Mexico(a place I’d concluded was too dangerous for touring) and we’d miss our planned flight from New York to Kazakhstan in early April.

Proving our Case

Our situation seemed pretty gloomy.

Luckily, a kind-hearted supervisor decided to hear us out.

I passionately pleaded our case.  Eric wasn’t entering the country in order to ‘steal’ a job from a hard working American. We really did just want to ride our bikes across the southern US.  In a last ditch effort to convince the officials of our honest intentions, we pulled up bank statements and photos on our laptop to prove financial solvency and explain our bike touring project.

After three hours of tense dialogue, the coveted stamp was issued.  Eric was in for six more months.  Now it was time to ride to Tucson.

passport with Map
Bike touring in Arizona
Back in the USA. Legally.
Complications at the Border

10 thoughts on “Complications at the Border

  • Mark Watson
    February 24, 2017 at 5:09 PM
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    What a pain in the ass! Glad you got back in ok! We have minor difficulties at the US border everytime we visit so I can imagine your frustration.

    Reply
    • World Biking
      February 25, 2017 at 10:08 AM
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      Definitely a stressful situation I wouldn’t want to repeat. We’ve actually encountered worse snags at international borders. We were turned back at the Bangladesh border because we hadn’t obtained visas in advance–even though the government’s official website states that visas on arrival are available at ALL border crossings. End result: a 500-kilometer detour.

      Reply
  • Grace
    February 25, 2017 at 10:28 AM
    Permalink

    Smartphone addicts are the real danger to two-wheeled travelers.
    So true!
    Luckily, a kind-hearted supervisor decided to hear us out.
    So happy to hear that the kind-hearted supervisor heard your case.
    After talking with other Americans who have crossed American borders numerous times – have come to the conclusion that the amount of difficulty /hassle Americans have (and also non-Americans with valid visas) when entering into the U.S.A. – is pure down to if they meet a friendly border official or not. (Of course this could change with Trump).
    Personal examples:
    As an American – once flew into the States for a week to visit my family. An extremely rude border official spent a couple of hours searching all of my luggage, going through my personal papers and demanding to know who I would be staying with for the week. He did not want to let me in.
    Then a couple years later my European husband whizzed quickly through customs but suddenly was called back. The friendly customs lady said, “I heard that you’re travelling with a bicycle – and I just wanted to warn you that there is a big winter storm coming this weekend. So don’t head into the mountains too quickly. ”

    Reply
    • World Biking
      February 25, 2017 at 2:57 PM
      Permalink

      Sounds like you stumbled upon one of the worst of the bunch. On par with the US border official who refused us water on a remote US-Canadian border back in 2011. Our country is one of the most polarized places on earth–home to some of the kindest and most helpful people on the planet plus a hefty sprinkling of difficult people.

      Reply
  • Daniel Díaz
    February 25, 2017 at 1:39 PM
    Permalink

    Glad you made it back. If you do decide to tour Sonora, you are most welcome at my house in Hermosillo. I’ve done several routes in this state, and I’m surprised myself of how lovely people are. Cant wait to explore more of Sonora!

    Reply
    • World Biking
      February 25, 2017 at 3:06 PM
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      Thanks for the invitation! I certainly agree with you that Mexican people are lovely. We toured all through Mexico in 2011 and enjoyed tremendous kindness and hospitality. Our recent decision not to tour has absolutely nothing to do with the Mexican people. They are as hardworking and hospitable as any people on the planet.

      Reply
  • Jen Sotolongo
    February 25, 2017 at 5:18 PM
    Permalink

    What a pain. It’s amazing that they almost forced you to stay in a place where you didn’t feel safe because one week away from the country wasn’t long enough. I’m glad that they eventually let you through. I imagine it will only get worse, as you mentioned. Guess you’ll just have to spend your money elsewhere. Weird how that works.

    Reply
    • World Biking
      February 25, 2017 at 6:49 PM
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      It was a tricky situation for us and we’re thankful everything worked out in the end. The officials we dealt with were professional and I don’t fault them for doing their job.

      I’m not sure our budget bike tour is doing much to boost the American economy, but tourism to the US is actually down since the change of administrations. This will be painful for many, particularly for unskilled workers in the service sector who may lose their jobs.

      Reply
  • Bryan Young
    February 28, 2017 at 4:09 PM
    Permalink

    You would think since you are married to him and you are an American from Missoula, Montana, that they would be understanding… Because of the current political climate here in the US, my home, I am leaving indefinitely on my own world bike tour. I hope I don’t offend anyone by my political statement.

    Reply
    • World Biking
      March 1, 2017 at 6:07 AM
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      Hi Bryan,
      Congrats on your decision to go touring! We are going through challenging times here in the US. I, too, am distressed by the current political situation. Travel has taught me to appreciate many aspects of America even more, but at the same time recognize that we could be doing better in many areas.

      Reply

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