If you can’t make it to Monterrey, you can at least visit one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities.
Story and Photos by Jenna Kunze
Straddling a cup between her legs in a squat position behind our car’s passenger seat, Melina emptied her bladder as we whooshed past a third, decent-looking rest area. Life in danger, she refused to get out of the car for even the most basic reason. Her boyfriend at the time, an Eastern European who was visiting from Italy, had threatened to drag her out, but the threat was dismissed with the sound of pee on plastic.
“I am not getting out of this car until we cross the border,” Melina said again, for good measure, as she placed the jumbo-sized plastic cup we’d picked up at an Arkansas chicken joint back in the cup holder until it could be safely emptied. Fabian, the boyfriend, muttered thoughts about breaking up with her over this, “so unlady-like.”
Brennan, who completed our foursome, pretended to be vigilantly driving, not at all aware of the tension inside the car, only focused on the mounting potential dangers outside of it.
Barreling down a highway bleached by light, we were in a very real state of limbo, between US and Mexican territory. Technically, we were in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a binational metropolitan area. North of the Rio Grande lies Laredo, Texas, and south is the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. There were army tanks parked on the highway’s median, and barbed wire lined the straight road. Though we’d already gone through border inspection, we hadn’t yet crossed over the official border, where passports would be requested—and, incidentally, we wouldn’t. Though it had been our plan to all along.
“A road trip, yeah! Let’s drive to New Orleans. While we’re down there, we might as well go to Mexico, right?”
It was Melina’s idea, I think. She’s always rounding things: time, distance, age. The same way she told me recently that it’s basically summer (it wasn’t yet spring), that my year in Korea is basically over (six more months), that a trip to New Orleans was “basically” in Mexico.
I would have agreed regardless, even without the minimized distance. Melina could get me to agree to anything. She has this full-court press strategy that catches you in a tidal wave, regardless of swimming capabilities. More times than one, this has landed me on a plane, or close to one.
When I was living in New York City and she was home in Jersey, there were times when she’d call me to meet her in the IKEA cafeteria in Newark. The building practically shares a lot with the Newark airport, and we’d watch planes come and go out massive, floor-to-ceiling windows, and plot life events (that have since turned out way differently) over bottomless coffee.
“Tell no one, come now,” she’d say. And I would. Our friends, knowing how susceptible we were to each other, would panic when they felt one of us becoming a flight risk in America (one of us was always a flight risk in America), so secrecy was our default.
We committed to the road trip with full momentum, as we do most things. The night before, Brennan and I did a few quick Google searches on what might happen to his car flaunting a Pennsylvania license plate in Mexico, but stopped after reading “vandalism,” “theft” and other bummer words too many times.
Brennan, who is propelled by a similar sense of adventure-driven inertia, was down. So the four of us skated south in January, heading gradually towards Monterrey, Mexico.
We moved toward warmer weather with the impetus of finals leading up to spring break. Beginning on a Thursday, we sprinted to Tennessee in a single 14-hour overnight drive. Just being there felt warmer. In Nashville, we listened to karaoke with a barrel as a bar between us. “Tennessee Whiskey,” crooned cathartically by a solo man, set the mood for the whole trip and left us reeling.
We peeled our bathing suits off in the parking lot after swimming in Austin’s Barton Springs. In Mississippi, we were acknowledged by a pastor in a crowd of more than 100 during mass in a Pentecostal church. We ate the best tacos of our lives four different times with college friends in Austin. In New Orleans, we took off our jackets and kept them off, walked around in hatched glory. Were immobilized by jazz music at Café du Monde. Met a street poet.
By the time we reached the final leg to Mexico, we were on a roll, cruising straight from Austin on a watermelon-flavoured Sour Patch Kids high. We drove the whole way on Interstate 35 from Austin to the border overnight. To make up time (I was flying to Costa Rica with my dad after this and Brennan had already forfeited two days of the new school semester), and to save money, we would often drive through the night.
Except it didn’t always work like that. Once, when I was given the wheel from a droopy-eyed Brennan in North Carolina, I almost immediately pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot and reclined. “What state are we in?” Brennan’s voice woke me up a few hours later. His mouth dropped open in what I still haven’t pegged to be genuine surprise or mockery—probably both.
We were vaguely aware of the dangers of driving through Mexico the whole time, the same way you know that there are thieves in the world, but don’t really allow room for this thought until you get mugged.
Even our Texan friends’ warnings didn’t make us blink. As one friend texted me, and I did my best to ignore: “Y’all are a druglord’s candy.”
At a truck stop near the border, though, warnings became glaring, soap opera–like signs. It was our very sweet Denny’s waitress that pushed over the first domino.
She was middle-aged but youthful, with hoops strung from her ears and a fierce maternal instinct. I went to the bathroom while Melina engaged in her standard critical analysis of each menu item, verbalizing “uh huh” after carefully cross-referencing the ingredients, photo representation, price and general appeal of each meal. When I came back to the table, there were pancakes and a piece of paper with a name and number written on it.
Mexican herself, our waitress warned us of the perilous danger bred in a border city like this one. Drugs, burglary, murder. For every 100,000 residents, there are 4.92 homicides—enough to rank 34th in a list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, according to Mexico’s Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice.
For its part, the US Department of State has a travel advisory suggesting citizens “defer non-essential travel” because of “violence and criminal activity, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, pose significant and continuing security concerns, particularly along the highways between Piedras Negras and Nuevo Laredo.”
Our waitress wanted us to text her when we got there, to call if we got into any trouble. She took photos of us after we paid the bill, she said, in case she saw us “on one of those TV shows.” We didn’t ask the kind she was talking about.
This bells-and-whistles stop sign was effective for two out of four of us. Melina and Fabian. The way caution affects them is rooted deeply into their separate European beings, and causes them both to say things like, “Of course I need a scarf; I’ll be sick for weeks without one,” even when temperatures float comfortably above freezing.
Brennan, in contrast, doesn’t even own a winter jacket. The last coat he had, he wore into the ground, and then kept it as a prop to look poor in African countries and avoid panhandlers. He keeps paper towels in his car in case of emergencies, and is not afraid to ask for directions. He could have been an excellent Boy Scout.
“Guys, it’s fine,” Brennan and I told them. We weren’t going to the border city, we were just going through it.
To appease Melina, we checked facts with a gas station employee restocking the fridge. Her brother lived in Mexico, across the border, and travelled back frequently. “You’ll be fine,” she smiled at us. “Just be careful of spikes in the road. Cartels will set ’em up as traps so they can rob you.”
This is what Brennan was doing—being careful—while Melina was peeing in the back seat in an act of dissent. All she really needed to do, though, was look in her purse and discover, her voice raising a few octaves, that her passport was no longer inside.
Which is what she did, a few minutes later.
Things were flung and re-flung about the car. We each had our time to play inspector, all coming up with nothing more than our own photos inside each government-issued book.
We’d later find out her passport was still in Austin, safely on the ground of the photo booth we’d spent time in at a bar the night before.
But we didn’t know it then, which meant we couldn’t go to Monterrey. Even Melina was disappointed. We’d come all the way here! We were basically in Mexico!
“Let’s just go as far as we can,” Brennan suggested. He then turned to me. “What do you think we should do?”
“Go to Mexico,” I said.
Which, as it turned out, we could do. Once you enter Nuevo Laredo, over one of the three international bridges, you need to drive from one side of the city to the other to reach the migration offices. It’s there that we’d have needed to secure a Mexican car permit and get our passports stamped, if we were to drive to Monterrey. Since we couldn’t leave Nuevo Laredo without Melina’s passport, we’d be contained by the cities limits, so long as Melina had alternative proof of her US citizenship to return.
Once the unfriendly highway sprawled into a town with stop signs reading “Alto” and palm trees, tall and thin, the mood thawed and everyone was on board again. We were in Mexico. To prove it, we pulled over into an abandoned lot where a local woman under an umbrella was selling gorditas—savoury corn-flour pastries packed with meat, cheese and who knows what else. We drank real sugarcane Cokes from glass bottles and shed another layer—this time down to our T-shirts. We parked on the street and repeated “Did you lock the car?” multiple times to whoever had the keys.
As we walked down the street, people hung out of windows, staring at us.
Brennan would later remark how dumb it was for Melina and I to walk around, apparently Caucasian and with big DSLR cameras dangling like catnip from our necks.
The neighbourhoods of double-gated properties corroborated the statistics we’d read. The houses, mostly ranch-style and dilapidated, had large steel gates where property met sidewalk, and an additional locked gate around patio areas.
The city bloomed with a vibrancy distinctly Latin American. Everything was painted in saturated teals and pinks, which made even the most unfriendly stone buildings look hopeful. Ripe clementines decorated trees, adding to the colour palette.
Still, we all jumped a bit when we heard someone yell, through a shield of fences, “Hey! Hey kids!”
He came to meet us at the gate, and entertained us in the entryway. The whole time he spoke, he leaned his left hand lazily over the iron entrance, displaying a thick slab of silver as his wedding band.
Ricardo, a retired Mexican who spent his career crossing the border daily to work construction in Texas, spoke to us like he hadn’t had a conversation in years. There were no gaps in his speech as he unfurled his life story to meet ours. He wanted to know where we were from and what we were doing there—but, mostly, he wanted us to get the hell out.
Last year, authorities found some Australian men scorched in their own van, he told us. We should leave by nightfall.
But the sun was still high and strong, so we went piñata shopping first.
There were dozens of side-street shops displaying paper-mache goods. Tons of crucifixes, and piñatas the size of children.
“Shops” is the wrong word for them, though. They were actually the entrances to homes, roughly renovated into storefronts. This wasn’t distinctly clear to us until I asked a woman, in my best high school Spanish, “Dónde está el baño, por favor?”
I followed her through a cramped kitchen where her daughter stood cooking at the stove, back through a closet-sized living room and into the house’s single bedroom, where this mother and her two children clearly all slept together. The bathroom had no light or running water for me to wash my hands, but I didn’t care. Melina was with me, and she sat on the bed, piled high with laundry, and played with a puppy while communicating in short Spanish sentences with the woman.
Nuevo Laredo wasn’t always as poor as it is today. “What was once a thriving border town has been engulfed in such extensive violence,” wrote Sue Averill, co-founder of the healthcare non-profit One Nurse At A Time, of the city’s fate. “It’s become a ghost town.” An economy that once benefited from local businesses, tourism and trade took a turn in 2000 with the arrival of what’s been called Mexico’s “most notorious drug cartel,” the Zetas.
We emerged from the house at the exact moment that Brennan and Fabian stared, mouths open, at a shattered paper-mache piggy bank in the shape of a cowboy boot on the ground. Brennan had knocked it over. “Shit,” he said, as he paid for the pieces of what we’d all keep as a souvenir from Mexico.
This, the broken piñata, was the only casualty we experienced in Mexico. We left later that afternoon for New Orleans, a drive we’d complete in the next 24 hours by sleeping in the car on a side street in Houston.
I think because we’re young, we’re often taken as naive. I think because we’re naive, we’re able to see things in the best way.
That is, with fear as a propellant, not as a deterrent.
Even pre-dating this trip, my parents have a special reserve tank of worry for the times they think my split-second decision-making process doesn’t allow for consideration of dangers. “You won’t be going there, will you?” my mom said on the phone to me, when I told her about a rebel insurgent group on a southern island in the Philippines. Apparently this wasn’t a rhetorical question.
“No, Mom,” I said. “I won’t be going to where known terrorist groups are.”
As an EFL teacher, I’ve become a master of simple synonyms. In daily lessons for all levels, there are countless words that muddle students’ understanding, so I’m constantly dissecting text with red pen on the board.
With a group of 12-year-olds last month, I had to break down “careful” in a lesson about stranger danger. “Does anyone know what this word means?” I began. Samuel raised his hand. “Like, don’t do something dangerous?”
I try to avoid telling a student they are wrong outright, but this interpretation gave me pause.
To be careful means to act with care, to be aware, to remain vigilant. It doesn’t mean to not do something because of its perceived dangers. Hell, there are dangers everywhere. Travel only exacerbates that by rendering you vulnerable in a new place.
“Just don’t be an idiot,” Brennan would say. That’s his interpretation of “Be careful.”
We never intended to experience only the most dangerous part of Mexico within a three-hour drive of Texas. If not for Melina’s lost passport, we would have pushed farther into the country, to a city where thousands of tourists visit daily. Instead, we crossed back into the United States. Melina used her American driver’s license to prove that she was a citizen, while another border agent checked our trunk.
“Oh, we were definitely lucky,” Melina recently said to me when I asked her about the trip. “I sometimes wonder if we would have died if I hadn’t lost my passport. The point is, would you do it again?”
She didn’t even wait for my answer before jumping to her next string of thoughts. Apparently, this was a rhetorical question.