Note: Tim Woodward recently returned from Mexico. This is the first of two columns from the trip.
MAZATLAN, Mexico – There was a time early in my column-writing days when I was best known for writing about travel mishaps. Readers liked my vacation-disaster stories because they made their own vacations look good by comparison.
The Woodwards of those days had a genius for getting sick on the first day of a two-week vacation, breaking down on mountain passes during howling blizzards, pitching tents on red ant hills … On one memorable odyssey, my daughters gave me the chicken pox.
A trip to Mexico last month was, to borrow from Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again.
At our destination airport in Mexico, travelers were instructed to push a button while passing through customs and immigration. If a red light flashed when you pushed the button, your luggage was searched. The only time we ever saw the red light flash for anyone was when my wife pushed the button. If the immigration inspector had known that searching my wife’s luggage is roughly equivalent to searching the contents of the Titanic, he’d have waved her through.
He didn’t. By the time he’d pawed through her clothing, DVDs, medicines, lotions, ointments, cosmetics, magazines, laptop, chargers and the collected works of James Patterson, the other passengers were having Margaritas on the beach.
But the real trouble was yet to come. It was a sneaky sort of travel disaster; we didn’t even know it had happened until we were in the checkout line at a grocery store after checking into our condo.
“OMG!” my wife said, rummaging through her purse with increasing alarm. “My debit card isn’t here! I must have left it in the ATM machine at the airport.”
This was a big deal. A very big deal. Our debit cards were our only way of getting cash and otherwise paying for things in Mexico. The pesos she’d gotten at the airport ATM wouldn’t last more than a couple of days. Without our cards, it was only a matter of time before we were sleeping on the streets.
“We’ve got to go back to the airport,” she said. “Maybe there’s a way to get the card back.”
True, in theory. Security officers can unlock the machines and retrieve lost cards. Back at the airport, however, we asked every security person we could find and were met with shrugs and apologetic smiles. Either they didn’t understand us, didn’t care, or were getting even for the guy who wants to build a wall along their border and trick them into paying us back for it.
Happily, I’d written down the number to call and cancel the debit card. Unhappily, it was the one number we were unable to call from Mexico.
We could FaceTime home to watch our grandson show us his new light saber. My wife could call her mother to discuss the latest “Gunsmoke” rerun at the senior center. But no combination of country codes, area codes or voodoo incantations would allow us to call our credit union.
“No problem,” my wife said. “I’ll just call one of the kids and have them call the credit union from home.”
She called both of our daughters. No answer.
She called both of our granddaughters. No answer.
She called our son, who always answers his phone. No answer.
Desperate, she called her 91-year-old mother, who took time out from “Gunsmoke” to call and cancel the card. (We later learned that none of the kids answered their phones because they were all out of cell range. While we were in panic mode trying to reach them, they were frolicking in the hot springs at Idaho City.)
With the card canceled, we breathed easier. But our remaining pesos wouldn’t last long, and there was no way I was stuffing my debit card into another ravenous ATM. The good news was that one of our daughters would be arriving the next day with her debit card so we’d have backup.
Expecting to be met with waves and smiles when we picked her up at the airport, we got neither. She looked as if she’d lost her luggage, been pressured into buying a timeshare and struck by lightning.
“What’s wrong?” we asked.
“The ATM ate my debit card!” she said, practically steaming.
What were the odds of that? Two debit cards eaten by two different ATM machines in less than 24 hours.
Pretty good, actually. It’s a security measure. If you don’t retrieve your card in a reasonable amount of time from a Mexican ATM machine after the cash comes out, the machine sucks the card back in. One of our neighbors at the place where were were staying, said it had happened to him three times.
“The banks’ security people open up the machines, take out all the cards and cut them in half,” he said. “That way nobody can use your card to make charges to your account. I just call my bank, order a new card and have them Fed-Ex it to me. It takes about five days.”
Five days? What were we supposed to do for five days with no money in a foreign country? Wash dishes? Bag groceries at WalMart? Pole dance?
Out of the question. I haven’t pole danced in years.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” my daughter said. “We’ll go to an actual bank, find a teller who speaks English and say we’ll only use their ATM machine if they can absolutely guarantee that they can open it up and get Dad’s card back if the machine eats it.”
A good plan, except that the teller at the first actual bank where we stopped said it was possible only at the bank’s downtown branch, many confusing miles away.
“You can try our ATM here,” he said. “But I can’t guarantee it will work.”
Considering that two of our cards had already been eaten and digested, this was a little like an airline captain who had crashed twice saying that he couldn’t guarantee a safe landing.
At the downtown branch, a teller assured us that the machine would work, and that she could open it and get my card back if it didn’t.
“Do you have the key?” my daughter asked.
“I want to see the key.”
Demanding? Yes. But you couldn’t really blame her, considering that she’d be staying in Mexico for two weeks and her only source of cash had been devoured in the first ten minutes.
The teller did have a key, but it wasn’t necessary. The machine worked, and the millisecond it spat my card out, I pounced on it like a starving hyena.
Cash at last! And it had only taken four days of our vacation.
That night while trying to fall asleep, I ruminated over all the things that had happened and gave thanks that we were solvent at last.
One thing bothered me, though.
Do they really cut up all those cards lost in ATM machines so no one can use them fraudulently? It would be the right thing to do, of course, but given the current state of Mexican-American relations it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed.
I think they’re going to use them to pay us back for building that silly wall.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.