I had a nightmare the other night* that I was driving along a scary back road in deepest Mexico when I was captured by a drug cartel. In my dream my family just drove off and left me for dead. I eventually managed to escape (after hours and hours) only to find my loving family nonchalantly eating omelettes in a café up the road.
*it was bloody weeks ago but that’s how long it’s taken me to get round to writing this.
I blame this nightmare partly on the fact that Tony Baggins “encouraged” me to watch the gruesome entirety of Breaking Bad. I can only usually cope with a horror TV show like Don’t Tell the Bride, where the groom spends £3000 on his stag and £49.99 on a wedding dress off eBay.
I also partly blame this dream on the fact that I once actually WAS held captive in Mexico.
Let me take you back to the vintage year of 2003. The year of Finding Nemo, England winning the Rugby World Cup and Beyoncé going solo.
Stonking year. Snaps to you ’03.
It was also the year I spent trying to convince Cambridge University to let me in to, like, study and stuff. I’d been rejected the previous year and decided to reject their rejection.
Although I wish I’d thought of this:
I reapplied to the same college for the same course and was interviewed by the same tutor in the same interview room exactly a year after I’d first been rejected.
“Oh. You again” he said. I kid you not.
But I got in that second time. There’s a lot to be said for freaking people out with imposed déjà-vu.
Anyhoo, in order to reapply I had to take a gap year I hadn’t intended to take. While friends jetted off to save rainforests and learn Cantonese and build schools I found out we had neighbours with family in California.
“DISNEYLAND!” I thought.
So California it was. I didn’t build a hospital or discover a rare butterfly, but I did get an awesome tan.
I also met the family who were to become some of my favourite people in the world and I’m still friends with 12 years later.
Don’t ask why we’re posing in hats in a changing room, I haven’t a clue
Not knowing they’d have a BRIT staying with them, this lovely American family had already booked a spring break vaycay for shortly after I arrived and, not wanting to leave me home alone for the whole time, I was signed up to go on their church’s week-long mission trip to clean and serve food in a town in Mexico.
At least it would give me some conversation fodder if I met back up with any of my hospital-building or butterfly-discovering school friends.
One of the biggest memories I have of the mission trip happened before we’d even left the car park (paaarking lot) of the church. My host mum (moooom), on having discovered I’d only really packed a boatload of bikinis and summer dresses for my time in Californiahh, insisted that I needed to be more covered up for a mission trip and proceeded to pack the most modest clothes she could find: pilgrim fancy dress from her daughters’ Thanksgiving school pageant.
I was assured that this was the EXACT kind of thing US citizens wore when they went to Mexico.
Predictably, my little pilgrim heart sank when I was dropped off at the coach.
Everyone was dressed head-to-toe in the Cali uniform of ’03: Abercrombie
I arrived dressed like THIS (only I wasn’t bloody smiling)
“Is this what people wear in England?” I was asked, shortly before I was asked “if people still drink water out of wells?”. I don’t much blame them given my get-up.
In the meantime – in order to get a visa for the next part of my gap year in Sri Lanka – I’d had to post my passport back to me ol’ ma and pa in the UK.
Risky move, living abroad without a passport and travelling across the border to Mexico? Yes. Turns out it was, thank you retrospect.
I’d asked the group leader before the trip began, and before I sent my passport home, whether I’d be OK without it. Going across the border to Mexico and all.
“Sure! Just take a photocopy, you’ll be fine. They accept photocopies.”
On the way to Mexico our passports weren’t checked at all. On the way back a week later – however – the border guard asked to see all our passports. One of the group leaders in the front seat of the bus handed over a bundle of passports and my solitary photocopied one.
The guard leaned his head into the van and scanned the group.
“Whose is this?” he asked waving around the bit of paper that was now looking embarrassingly below-par for border control.
“I need to see your proper passport. You’re not a US citizen.”
My pilgrim heart fell.
Admitting, of course, that I didn’t have my passport with me, I was taken from our bus to a holding cell. I was asked why I didn’t have it. I was told I’d have to wait in the cell until it could be sent over.
“But it’s in ENGLAND!” I started sobbing, like the delicate flower I am. “That could take DAYS!”
They left me alone in that little holding room – my very own Mexican border naughty step – for about 3 hours.
Eventually the guards came back and said if I paid $300 – in cash – I’d be permitted to leave. I didn’t have $300. My pilgrim outfit must have been worth about 75 cents, MAX.
They escorted me back to the bus of tired, hungry, legal US citizens – the friends I’d made over the last week in Mexico but were probably now sick of the sight of me – and I had to ask in a little, timid pilgrim voice if they could kindly cough up $300 between them.
It was mortifying.
I know you know this, but never go abroad without a passport. It’s funny the patently obvious things you learn upon life’s merry road.