Thursday, November 28, 2013

Feliz Cumpleanos en Ensenada!


We arrived in Ensenada just before sunset. I’d e-mailed one of the marinas in the area in hopes of securing a reservation. But I hadn’t heard back from them, so I didn’t know if we had a spot to stay. The marina looked pretty full as we pulled into a long guest dock and prepared to go ashore for information. Before we could hop onto the dock, a uniformed official walked up to the boat. We ventured a few words in Spanish and a few more in English and set off for the marina office, pretty sure that’s what we’d been told to do.
At least one of the office staff spoke excellent English and we got a slip assignment and instructions to be back at 9am to check in to the country. We’ve heard the check-in process has been much simplified in the past few years, with all the necessary offices in one location instead of scattered around town. But we were still grateful to have some help navigating the multi-step process, especially since I still felt insecure about my limited Spanish.

Our marina lay adjacent to the cruise ship dock and though there wasn’t a cruse ship in currently, we could see several security checkpoints and yards of fences surrounding the area. We wove our way out and walked over a small bridge to the tourist district. We spent a while wandering up and down to see what we could see. At certain moments, we could almost believe we were just exploring the next new destination in the United States, but in the next moment, a sight, sound, or smell would remind us—we’d made it to Mexico! We tried to take in our surroundings without tripping on the uneven sidewalks or falling into a gaping hole in the street. The streetlights blinked in patterns deceptively similar to those in the U.S. and more than once, we found ourselves rushing across the 6-lane crosswalk as drivers patiently ceded their right-of-way. Flashing signs hawked their wares in Spanish and English—Churros! Tacos! Jewelry! Viagra! We pinned the churro stand on our mental map and walked back down to the taco stand we’d seen on the way up. It seemed plenty busy, with not a gringo in sight, always a good sign for a foreign eatery. We stumbled our way through ordering and paying but had no trouble tucking away the savory tacos.

The next morning, we bustled around the boat getting ready for immigration. We dug into our clothes bag for dressy duds and tried to look a little more presentable than usual. Meira and I spent a few furtive moments tying up birthday gifts in colorful scarves and I pulled out a couple of birthday cards that were sent along by forward-thinking family members. We didn’t have time for a full-scale celebration, though. I gathered our paperwork and we walked up to the office to wait.

Enrique, our guide, arrived a few minutes after 9, and we hung out in the lobby with some other cruisers while he helped their captain arrange his paperwork. I picked up a brochure on the table and idly flipped through it. I happened to read a list of required paperwork and noticed that it called for our engine serial number. Bryan ran back to the boat and tore apart the engine compartment to get access to the number, molded into the engine block. He wrote it down on his hand and rushed back just in time.
I’d made plenty of copies of our passports and Coast Guard Documentation before we left, but had failed to print out proof of our Mexican liability insurance, a requirement to travel in Mexican waters. Enrique set us up on an office computer and we tried unsuccessfully to print it from a USB drive. Finally, I resorted to pulling it up from my e-mail. I fought with the unfamiliar keyboard and picked my way through familiar-but-foreign websites, hoping I chose the right buttons to click.
When we were all ready, Enrique shuttled us over to the customs and immigration office. We’d heard that clearing immigration is a bit of a pinball game, bouncing back and forth among the different office windows. We started at immigration, relinquishing our passports and filling out some paperwork.

They sent us over to the bank window to pay our $25/person entry fee.

We took our receipt back to immigration and got our passports stamped.

Then we moved over to the port captain’s window.

They sent Bryan outside to a little room jutting out on the side of the building where he made some copies of his tourist visa.

We had to pay the port fee at the bank where we’d just used our visa, but the port office didn’t accept credit cards. We hadn’t yet picked up any pesos; we’d been told that we could use our credit card for all the fees. We rustled up the $20 USD fee, grateful that we had a little cash on hand.

At some point, we’d spotted another family in line and wondered if they were visiting on their boat too. When they had a minute to spare, they came over and introduced themselves and their 3 kids, one of whom was celebrating a birthday that day too. We only had a few seconds to exchange boat cards with our contact information, but I’m sure we’ll run into them again along the way.
Next, but still at the bank (are you lost yet?) they walked us through the paperwork for a temporary import permit for the boat. This permit is required if keeping a boat in the country more than 3 weeks, but the fee was nominal and the permit is good for 10 years. I started translating the information on the disclosure form, which asked about equipment we have aboard the boat, before realizing that the form was printed in English as well. We paid our import fee, this time with our visa again, and were sent over to the customs window. By now, the other cruisers had finished and Enrique had left to take them back to their boat. The customs office was easy, though, just a bit more paperwork and a tense moment while the official had Bryan push a button on a stoplight They use the light system to randomize boat inspections, but our light came up green—no tedious inspection for us!

We’d taken care of our Mexican fishing licenses in San Diego, so we skipped the “pescadores” window altogether. Before Enrique came back for us, we had finished making emergency copies of our tourist visas and were waiting on the curb when he pulled up.
Back on the boat, Hannah opened her cards and gifts. I was glad she seemed pleased with the books we’d gotten her and the spending money from her grandparents.

Bryan went looking for a place to fill our propane tank while the girls and I took a walk along the harbor. An expatriate liveaboard couple offered him a ride and helped him negotiate a fair price for propane. I don’t speak a ton of Spanish, but he knows even less, and we were glad to have help topping up our tank.
We met back at the boat, walked up to the bank district, and found a bank with an ATM. Again, the menus were familiar, but, when presented with several options, we didn’t always know which one to choose. “English” wasn’t one of the options. Finally, with pesos in hand, we walked on down the street, past shoe stores (“Zapateria Especial!”) and other shops. At one point, I noticed a couple of women carrying bags with yarn and was pleased to see, just a few doors down, the shop they’d just come from. All down the coast, Hannah had been looking for some yarn and some buttons for a couple of projects and she was so pleased to run across what she wanted here—in Mexico, on her birthday!
We walked back down toward the harbor and meandered past a souvenir shop. All 3 of us girls needed new shoes and the leather flip-flops caught my eye. The shopkeeper called in English and Spanish, “Come in! Come in! I have more inside!" He helped us calculate our size conversion and chatted with us agreeably while we flopped around his small shop trying out various styles. “Those would be better for walking a long distance, but these,” his eyes twinkled, “are for a night on the town!” We each settled on a pair and Bryan brought over a small turtle he’d been eying. We cobbled together the appropriate amount from a mix of USD and pesos (we still had mostly large bills from the bank, too large for most small merchants to break for us.) When he heard it was Hannah’s birthday, he offered her a choice of several small key chains. She chose one with a tiny leather pouch and he made a show of wrapping it for her in a sparkly gift bag. We’d heard of tourists feeling taken advantage of, or harassed by hawkers but we’d been treated fairly and kindly. If anything, we owed him more for the language practice and his friendly questions about our trip than for the merchandise we’d purchased.

On our way to the bank, Bryan and I both had spotted a restaurant that looked a little more authentic than some of the options closer to the water. We walked back there for a birthday dinner (complete with candle-topped chocolate cake!) and managed to order and pay without feeling ridiculous. Bryan even found his way to the men’s bathroom, despite its missing sign.

After dinner, we walked another block or 2 up to the supermercado. We were almost out of oatmeal and we picked up some boxed juice (a favorite boat treat, but hard to find in the U.S.), some cheese and a few other things. We forgot to get oatmeal after all and I had to come back the next day.
We’d stopped back by the churro shop—a literal hole-in-the-wall establishment—on our way to the restaurant, but they’d been closed. Now, on our way back, we stopped again. This time, we were in luck.

We each ordered a churro, hot, fresh, and filled to order with chocolate, caramel, cream, etc. They were so sweet, Hannah and I couldn’t finish ours.

And we still had one more stop to make! We’d promised the birthday girl a bag of kettle corn from a stall by the sea, so, even though none of us had a bit of room to spare, we stopped and bought a couple of small bags and took them back to the boat for another day.
Bryan’s birthday was filled with boat prep and a Thai dinner with friends in St. Helens on the first official day of our voyage. Now we’d celebrated Hannah in style on our first official day in Mexico. I wonder where we’ll be for my birthday or Meira’s!

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