As the election nears, immigration is a controversial issue. I understand the debate, because I grew up in a border state: Maine, which is defended to the north by Castle Black. But I don’t know much about Mexico. So I went there, the better to understand the cultural and anthropological ramifications of U.S. immigration policy at this contentious political moment. Also: to drive dune buggies. OK, completely to drive dune buggies.

I thought that getting into Mexico would be a little bit of a stressful process, as border crossings tend to be. But no, not really. In fact, you drive across the border from San Diego so fast that the banks of cameras scanning traffic don’t even have time to process whether your car is stolen. I’m riding with our off-road tour leader, Bruce, who explains, “The cameras take 30 seconds to run your plate. That’s usually long enough that stolen cars are already across the border before they can be stopped.” So why not just move the cameras back up the ramp, so they’d read the plates sooner? Good question. In any event, I have my passport ready, but nobody wants to look at it. Welcome to Mexico!

We drive two hours south, to Ensenada, and check into a ramshackle hotel, which is the only kind they have in Ensenada. I drink a couple beers at the bar (total tab: $3.43) and then wander into town to find a souvenir. I settle on a sign that reads “Cerveza Por Favor” made out of scraps of license plates. The vendor notes my Red Sox hat and asks if I like the Patriots. I say that I do, and he replies, “I’m sick of them. Every year, the Patriots.” I inform him that Tom Brady is suspended, though, and I think that makes him feel better. As does my overpaying for a sign made out of license plates.

I spend the next two days scorching across Baja in turbocharged side-by-sides made by Can-Am, in Quebec—just an American driving a Canadian dune buggy in Mexico, like everyone hoped would happen when they drafted NAFTA. Down in Baja, they don’t seem too concerned about, say, whether your vehicle is registered or whether you’re ripping doughnuts on the beach or doing 87 mph on a trail that might be a road (it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference). Nonetheless, I overhear one of my fellow drivers earnestly declare, “You come down here, see how people live, and it makes you thankful for the freedoms that we have in America.” I want to point out that we’d come to Mexico precisely because we don’t have the freedom to engage in long-distance buggy travel in America, but I hold my tongue. Seriously, though—the day before, I saw a guy on a unicycle juggling bowling pins at a stoplight. Mexico might have problems, but freedom doesn’t seem to be one of them.

After two days of miraculously not driving off a cliff or smashing into any cows, it’s time to head back to San Diego. The process heading north is considerably more rigorous. The line of cars is stacked an hour deep, but we take advantage of an insider trick: the medical emergency lane, which is evidently reserved for A) medical emergencies and B) anyone who bought a card that says you have a medical emergency. The card gets you in a special lane that heads right to the front. The fact that there is no actual medical emergency in our particular van doesn’t seem relevant to anyone involved. But a guy named Joe says, “If anyone asks, my allergies are really acting up.”

Even in the bribe lane, though, we have to do some waiting. Which means I have time to check out the billboard advertising butt implants. I mean, I don’t speak Spanish, but the photo makes it pretty clear what kind of treatment you’ll get at that particular clinic. Imagine that conversation on your way back over the border. “So, what was the nature of your business in Tijuana? And why are you sitting on that phone book?” Anyway, Tijuana Butt Implants is the new name for my fantasy football team.

We’re routed to a secondary inspection station, where a sign warns, “Your actions and conversations are being recorded.” While we’re waiting there, two of the Canadians in our group begin discussing a province-to-province taxation disparity that led to bikers smuggling tanker trucks full of maple syrup.

That’s totally badass, but I wish they’d shut up about smuggling, in the event that the border agents holding our passports are actually listening. Mexico is neither as scary nor as alien as it’s so often made out to be, but right now I appreciate the meaning of that passport. It’s awesome that we can drive to a foreign country where there are juggling unicyclists, discount cosmetic surgeons and dollar cervezas. But it’s also nice to come back.

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