Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mail-less in Somerton

Cocopah Casino RV Ghetto
We are at the Cocopah Casino in Somerton, Arizona (map).

Yesterday we had a fantastic drive through the real Mexico on our way to San Luis del Rio Colorado. By "real" I mean a part of Mexico where absolutely everyone waved at us enthusiastically, not a single sign was in English, nor a single price posted in US dollars. We saw plenty of US license plates, but not a single other gringo. (I don't know why Mexicans are driving around with California plates, and I'm not going to ask.) I have to admit to some small trepidation before taking this route, but we are really glad we did it.

The trepidation, incidentally, came not from any safety concerns (although everyone seems to ask us about that), but rather that Odyssey can be difficult to maneuver in tight quarters, or through stands of low-hanging trees, or on roads with significant vertical inflections. Maps of most of Mexico are spotty at best, and the coverage in our GPS is almost non-existent.

What made this segment possible and mostly worry-free for us was Google Earth. It turns out that most of the route had high-res satellite imagery in the database, and I was able to scope the whole route out fairly well from the air. I also used Google Earth to push-pin all the turns along the way, and then I translated those into waypoints to be loaded into the Garmin 7200, which then gave us a great deal of navigational confidence.

And so it was that we passed through Colonia La Mariana, Ejido Durango, Ejido Dr. Alberto Oviedo Mota, Colonia Aguascaliente, Estacion Coahuila, and La Grullita, on our way to Sonora and San Luis del Rio Colorado. Mostly small towns, and 100% Mexican, although I suspect the gringo dirt-toy crowd comes through periodically (we saw signs for "Sand Drags" occasionally, the only English words we saw other than "car wash", now a bona-fide Mexican noun).

We stopped at a large Pemex outside San Luis, and, after checking that they took credit cards (rare for Pemex, but more and more operators are taking them), I proceeded to top off the fuel tank, another 550 liters (145 gallons) at the same 5.73 pesos per liter that we paid in Mexicali (and also saw in San Felipe), or, again, about $2.07 per gallon. Interestingly, this station was self-service, also rare in Mexico, so after talking to the guy in the little booth, I pumped the fuel myself. The trouble then started when I went to pay, wherein the attendant told me my Visa was declined.

They did not accept any of my other cards, so Louise tried her Visa with the same results. OK, no problem, I figure that perhaps Visa just did not know we'd be in Mexico and were being cautious, so I'll have to call. Off to the Oxxo across the street, where I am told there are cassetas de telefonos.

40 pesos later, I've found out that not only is my card good, but no attempt has been made to process it, according to the bank, so it could not have been declined. Back to the Pemex.

After a little more back and forth in my very broken Spanish, the attendant finally figures out that the transaction amount, over 3,000 pesos, is probably too big for his terminal. Aha! Why didn't I think of that earlier, before traipsing off to the Oxxo? This has happened to us even in the US -- the card terminals at many gas stations have a strict limit of X dollars that they will run, and if you try to go over that amount, the error message is often cryptic and can appear to be a "card declined." After re-running it as two transactions of 2,000 and 1,150 pesos, all was well. But is cost us about an hour at the Pemex (and 40 pesos at the Oxxo).

We proceeded from there through the bustling city of San Luis and lined up for the border. We lost track of time, but it was well over an hour in line before we made it to the inspection station, where the well-scarred steel and concrete bollards were only an inch or maybe two further apart than the span of our mirrors. I had to line up precisely straight, and ease through carefully, with one-inch jogs to the left or right as needed to clear.

We were immediately busted for carrying eggs, which earned us a full-tour inspection further ahead. Again I had to ease through, because if I just made the left the guy wanted me to, I would have obliterated one of the guard shacks with my tail swing (right until I hit another bollard -- these guys are ready for tanks and APCs to come at the border).

As Odyssey often does, we attracted enough attention that every Customs and Border Protection (CBP) guy who was not otherwise busy (and please explain to me, with an hour-plus line, how any of them could not be busy?) showed up for the tour, including some head honcho with rank insignia that would have said "Major" if he was in the Army (I have no idea how to read CBP rank insignia).

They confiscated the eggs, but believed us when we told them the dozen-plus bottles of wine and liquor came with us from the states, especially after Louise asked, "Have you had the wine in Mexico? It's terrible." Meanwhile the Major and I had a long chat outside about the bus, and he was particularly interested in what we paid for diesel in Mexico, on account of having a diesel pickup truck himself, and thinking about putting an extra tank in the bed so he can fill up south of the border.

Other than the eggs, we cleared the border without hassle, but between the Pemex Visa debacle, the line to get in to los Estados Unidos, and the CBP dog and pony show, it was well past dark. San Luis, Arizona, has a brand-new Wal-Mart Supercenter, and we stopped to check it out. Uncharacteristically, Louise was really hankering for dining out, and this new store was far enough from town that there were no dining options at all, other than the Subway inside the store. So we just picked up some fresh produce and other essentials -- for some reason, we needed eggs -- and then moved on, knowing that this casino was here just another 15 miles down the road.

We did have to drive right through Somerton and the post office where our mail should be, but only overshot by three miles or so. The casino has a designated RV parking area -- almost an RV park, really, with wide and well-marked spaces but no hookups. They charge $5 to park overnight, but that amount is good for up to three nights. The 50-space lot was nearly full, and we were lucky to find a space. We soon found out why: there is really no limit on how long you can stay, as long as you keep paying the $5 every three days. $1.67 per night is pretty cheap, and the whole lot is full of (mostly) Canadian snowbirds, some of whom look like they've been here all season.

The casino and adjoining hotel (and, adjacent to that, the old casino no longer in use) have enormous parking lots, and I imagine if the RV lot had been full, the same $5 would have allowed us to park in one of those. After we got squared away and paid our $5 in the gift shop, we had dinner at the lone restaurant on-property, a buffet affair that was, uh, acceptable, and priced right at $10. Most of the choices were -- can you guess -- Mexican, as were all of the half dozen restaurants in town three miles away.

Today I pulled the scooter out to go get the mail, which, it turns out, has not yet arrived. Priority Mail from the US Post Office has "priority": We just don't tell you what Priority you'll get. Good thing our $5 covers us for tonight, too.

Tomorrow I will make another mail run. With any luck, we'll be ready to go, mail in hand, by mid-day. Not that we are in a hurry to get anywhere, but as of tonight we are now completely out of water, having last filled up on February 29th, and we'd like to shower.

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