After years of working at UPS and, more recently, studying evenings at the local community college, Sam finally took a vacation. He got two weeks off. He bought round-trip tickets to Spain, with an arrival in Madrid and departure in Barcelona. He planned to backpack around, maybe even visit Paris or Morocco.
He was detained at the Madrid airport, kept in a holding cell overnight and then shipped back to the U.S.
Now, four days later, he sat with me in the wide, airy second-floor hotel lobby in Tulum town, Mexico. Loud party music blasted from clubs and restaurants on the street below. We ate mangoes and shared caguamas of Victoria, big 40-ounce Mexican beers. It had been a long day in the hot sun of the Mayan Riviera, Mexico’s Caribbean coast.Two hours south of Cancun, Tulum is famous for seaside Mayan ruins and a bigger, less developed beach, both also called Tulum. Cheap hotels, fish restaurants and travel agencies line Tulum Avenue, the main drag in town.
Earlier that day at the ruins, big iguanas lounged on green grass while we peered at strange inscriptions on the blocky fortress. Thousands of years ago Tulum was a seaside stronghold built of white limestone on rocky cliffs and beaches of powdery white sand over turquoise water.
Sam had taken a passenger van from Cancun that morning. A day before he’d flown in from Atlanta. Sam was chicano – a Mexican American, born in Mexico but raised in LA. His accent was more California than Mexico. He was dark but not tan, short and stocky with a shaved head and big black sunglasses, wearing flip-flops and a black sweat-soaked t-shirt. He was 34 years old. He had a good story.
Spanish immigration at the Madrid airport
Four days earlier he got off the plane at 8:30 a.m. in Madrid. Like everyone else, he waited in line for immigration, U.S. passport in hand. Then it was his turn.
“How long will you be staying in Madrid?” the officer asked.
“Just a day or two.”
The officer looked up from the computer, expressionless. “Why?”
“I’m going to travel around for two weeks.”
More questions – travel plans, job, family, financial resources, and finally, “What’s the name of your hotel?”
“I don’t have one yet.”
Fast typing on the computer. Fast scribbling on the immigration form. A stern look at Sam. Another look at the passport.
The officer handed him his passport and immigration form. “Please follow this officer upstairs.”
The holding cell, aka immigration jail
They kept Sam in a holding cell overnight and then flew him back to the U.S.
“What was immigration jail like?” I asked.
“First they had me in an interrogation room for hours. It was like the movies – big mirror on the wall, metal desk, good-cop bad-cop. One of them yelled at me, and the other said, ‘Everything’s gonna be alright.’ I thought I was doing well, but then they took me to the holding cell.”
“I didn’t have hotel reservations. I showed them my return ticket from Barcelona, told them I was going to backpack around. I said I was going to find a hotel on foot.”
“Right. Everyone does that.”
“It was weird. They kept calling me Mexican. I told them, look at my U.S. passport! You have it right there!”
The holding cell was down a labyrinth of white-tile hallways. The immigration officers took his belt away and put him in the room, a sad, sterile grey room with leaded-glass windows. Young and old, male and female sat on the bottom bunks of stiff bunk beds and at metal tables in metal chairs, playing dominoes, checkers and chess. A 20-something Brazilian with a long beard drew crayon portraits of everyone.
“Why did they take off your belt?” I asked.
He laughed. “So I couldn’t hang myself!”
Most detainees were Latin Americans, with a family of five from Michoacan (Mexico), five Brazilians, a few Venezuelans and one Guatemalan. The rest were Turks who didn’t speak English or Spanish but knew the Spanish word for Turkey.
“Were they guilty?” I asked.
“Of what? None of them had enough money or a letter of invitation. Those were the reasons for not letting them into the country.”
“Yeah, no hotel.”
Whenever the Brazilian finished a crayon portrait, he asked the subject whether they wanted to take it. Everyone said no except the children from the Michoacan family.
“Did you take yours?” I asked.
“No, he never got to me.”
They ate at 3:30 p.m. By 4 they were all let out, escorted to airplanes for the trip back home, all except Sam and one Turk. The Turk didn’t talk and didn’t play games. The lights went out at 11:30, but the TV stayed on at full volume all night.
A homecoming of sorts
They released Sam at 10:30 the next morning. They didn’t fly him back to L.A., but to Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport and mostly likely the cheapest flight from Madrid. He simmered down on the long flight and thought about what to do next.
“You must have been mad,” I said.
“Yeah, but what could I do? I didn’t want to ruin my vacation.”
At the ticket counter in the Atlanta airport, he figured out that a flight to Cancun was cheaper than to L.A. “So here I am. My girlfriend will come in a few days. We’re going to Chichen Itza.”
Chichen Itza is the most famous pyramid complex in Mexico and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It’s about 3 hours from Cancun.
“Cool. I haven’t been there yet myself,” I said.
Now in Tulum, we ate mangos and drank beer on the balcony of our cheap hotel. He hadn’t been to Mexico for years, and never down here in the Mayan Riviera.
Sam looked forward to seeing his girlfriend. She didn’t have enough time go to Spain with him, but she could take a long weekend off from work to see him in Cancun. She was the first person he had called from Atlanta.
“You know, Spain would have been awesome, but here I am! Those ruins were amazing.”
The sun began to set over Tulum town. A breeze picked up and music from the bars got louder. We went out for fish and beer.
“I guess Americans get deported too,” he said. “But I wasn’t running away. I was running ahead.”
Ted Campbell writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.
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