Laundry Baskets and Books: Our Smuggling Operation

444px-Books_of_the_PastIt was desperation. Pure, unadulterated desperation.

It drove us madly to scheming an international smuggling operation in which we involved our four youngsters.

Neither regret nor remorse are motivating me to come clean now, years later. (Really, I needed something to blog about, and this story was as good as the next.)

However, I may consider this our public confession of our contraband years.

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Books and Fools

It all began shortly after we moved to Chihuahua, Mexico in 1998. We were having a conversation with a local pastor who offered his help with anything we may need to become acclimated.

“Where is the closest library?” I promptly asked, realizing the books there would be in Spanish, not English. I was prepared for the challenge for both myself and our children.

His head turned and his brows furrowed as he asked, “¿Para qué? What do you need a library for?”

Questions like that are cultural clue cards. I took that one, filed it away, and answered matter of factly, “To have books to read at home.”

He snickered. “The libraries here do not loan out books.”

Shock registered on my face. “¿Por qué?

“We have a saying here in Mexico,” he answered,

“…if you loan a book to someone, you are a fool, but if you return a book you borrowed, you are a greater fool.”

If my mother would have been there, she would have told me to close my gaping mouth already, before a bug flies in.

That cultural awareness would prove helpful to me years later in managing a Bible Institute library in southern Mexico. Though it was a lending library limited to only students and staff, the end of the year inventory proved the saying true for some.

In 2004, Mexico City ignored, or perhaps tried to overcome, this particular cultural nuance when they hoped to curb crime and improve literacy by lending 1.5 million books – on the honor system – at subway stations around the city. They stopped the program after having so few riders return the books.

Border Runs

El Paso is due north of Chihuahua City. We would make the five-hour trip through the desert, and the one-hour trip through Ciudad Juarez, often. Sometimes we just needed to hear English, sometimes we simply needed to de-stress. We needed to retrieve our mail, all of it, unopened and unpilfered.

But we especially needed a library. El Paso had public libraries. Those libraries loan books. We could sign books out and take them into Mexico with us. Easy!

Not exactly. There were rules mocking us.

First, the librarians voice, “Fill out this form, ma’am, and return it with a utility bill proving your local residency.”

Then, the sign, “No borrowed items are to be taken into Mexico.”

It was then that the desperation for books, namely to sign them out to have at home in Mexico, overtook us, creating the wonderfully deviant smuggling plot.

A local retired missionary allowed us the use of their home address as our mailing address. Though we didn’t have utility bills, other mail such as credit card statements came in time and were deemed acceptable by the library staff.

Five library cards were issued (the baby didn’t need one yet). We lacked only one thing: a way to carry the amount of books we’d be signing out. Most normal people carry books in hand, or perhaps in a bag. Then again, most normal people don’t go to the library with a family of six to check out 60+ items at a time.

To the nearest Wal-Mart we headed, purchasing the largest plastic laundry basket they had. It was go-time.

Here is where we corrupted our children: we told them not to mention “home” or “Mexico” in the same sentence when we were in the library. And, no!, they could NOT say it in Spanish either, since the majority of El Paso either speaks or understands Spanish.

Each child was told to pick out ten titles, bring them to us for approval, then put them in the big basket. I felt somewhat criminal-minded  when we stood in line to check out and that sign would catch my eye and taunt me, tugging at my conscience as it reminded me I didn’t have permission to smuggle those books out of the country.

“It’s for the niños!” I mentally hissed back, wishing the sign knew I was home-schooling and we were starving, literarily speaking.

It stared back, hard and motionless.

“Okay, it’s for me, too!” I ‘fessed.

Into the back of the SUV my hubby carefully and systematically placed the basket along with the suitcases, ready to cross the border, go through customs and make the long journey home.

The border guards with their rifles showed less hostility over the basket of books than the stupid sign back at the library.

Todo Bien

The end of the story is a happy one.

We enjoyed hundreds of books during those years, the library received back all their loans, we paid any fines we may have incurred, three of my four kids graduated and went to college, the oldest is halfway through graduate school, and I bought a Kindle.

Back for a season in the USA, my hubby, my tween, and I still use laundry baskets and frequent the local library; the baskets, however, now carry laundry and our visits to the library end with either a bag or our arms carrying the numerous titles scattered throughout our rented home.

There are worse crimes than burning smuggling books.  One of them is not reading them.  ~Joseph Brodsky.  (strikeout and italics are mine).

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