Part 1 of my trip took me to a country in a state of "High Alert" due to a terrorist attack of deathly proportion. Watching the total collapse of two of the world's tallest commercial structures, killing over 3,000 souls and putting tens of thousands of others at risk, undoubtedly called for this type of response by the U. S. government. It was a cross-nation alarm involving air, ground and sea transportation irrespective of destination or cargo. All domestic and private flights were grounded and those still in trans-oceanic or continental travel were diverted to other Non-American landing sights. Fear, comprehension and mass confusion had evolved. Within America itself; there was zero tolerence for what had become a "Defcon 4" emergency.
On twelve of October while the students and I were filming in the Madera Canyon, a rapidly approaching helicopter caught my eye. At an altidude of less than 500 feet, I identified the aircraft as N.I.A. It circled us twice. As the chopper slowed to within a hover, an armed uniformed soldier took great length to observe us with a set of powerful binoculars. Realizing we were photographing the desert fauna, the hilo increased speed and undramatically flew off to the south. My instinct came to the forefront and recognized the fact that we were less than 20 miles from the Mexican border possibly identifying us as illegal aliens entering the United States or even worse, terrorist practising with guns as our cameras had long lenses that could be mistaken for short barreled rifles. Later, my initial belief was confirmed and searching for illegal foreigners was a common routine performed by the N.I.A.
Several days later we decided to enter Mexico and film the local flavor. Recent experiences prepared me for the worst. At the Mexican border were two turn stiles with an arrow directing us "To Mexico". No guards, custom officials or State Police. We went through the stiles and were greeted with a "Welcome To Mexico" sign. Stupified was the word that came to my mind.
After a day of filming, we had just decided to cross back into the States when we heard police sirens. Preceding the police cars were several hundred Mexicans with placards, attired in gas masks, bandanas and holding baseball bats, large pieces of wood and other instruments of unknown purpose. This gathering was extremely boisterous yelling and screaming profanities against the American government. While I was filming right in the middle of the demonstration, a man rushed up to me and handed me his business card, all the while, yelling at me that he wanted my images. Okay! Was he the Mexican State Police, or just a bystander? As it turned out, he was the publisher of a Mexican newspaper that just happened to be at the right spot at the right time without a camera. In the newspaper industry, that is called a "No,No." I was happy to oblige. When I reappeared from the tumultuous demonstration, there were three very concerned and relieved students hugging me and showing definite relief for my safe return. The publisher also gave me a hand shake and thanking that I was still alive. Goes with the territory. Still observing this heated protest, officials on both sides of the border stood at their respective perimeters, allowed the demonstrators to vent their anger and eventually dispersed peacefully. The border gates were reopened and business returned to normal.
I packed up my camera gear, walked back to the border with students in tow and was asked by customs agents, (again only one question), "Periodista, reportero?" (Reporter or news photographer). I replyed "Si, lo soy." ("Yes, I am.") and was allowed through. No search, showing of visa, travel documents, birth certificate, nothing. Just that one question. The custom agent then put her hand on my shoulder and made one last comment with the look of considerable concern. "Senoir, ver su correo. Puede ser peligroso." (Sir, watch your mail. It might be dangerous.")
Although I had no idea what the agent was referring to, it was later in Tubac, Arizona having a late dinner, that I heard a report on CNN that journalists were being targeted through the postal service with the deadly substance "Anthrax". I now understood that warning with a delayed appreciation for the agents concern. Although published world-wide, I didn't think I would be a target, but in any event, I called my wife in Canada, told her the warning given to me and to be on the side of caution. More excitement was still to come in this trip of a life time.
Part 3 tomorrow....