Los Algodones, Mexico (April 21, 2021)

So, the post you’ve all been waiting for: my daring trek across the Mexican border for dental work.

Back in Tucumcari, you may remember that a two-time Vietnam vet in a cowboy hat gave me the suggestion to pay a visit to a little town in Mexico where Americans and Canadians flock for affordable medical care; a place with 3000 dentists lovingly nicknamed “Molar City.”

Since my molars were indeed overdue for an exam, and since it sounded like a fitting adventure to tack on to the trip, I considered myself intrigued (to say the least). Not doubting the trustworthiness of my cowboy, of course, I still saw fit to do some research in Flagstaff before committing to the decision. I found an article on THE most trustworthy site (lol) that gave a detailed rundown, and I called over to one of the most seemingly reputable places: Sani Dental Group (whose website had something amazing, astounding, awe-inspiring: a list of prices of services to consult beforehand!).

The main question I needed cleared up was regarding my documents, or lack thereof. Not intending to leave the country when I began my trip, I’d hit the road without my passport; the cowboy swore that as a U.S. citizen I could travel there and back on just a driver’s license. The flawless-English-speaking receptionist at Sani backed this claim up, so I made an appointment and set a course for Yuma the next day.

The cowboy had given me basic instructions for crossing the border from Yuma which proved substantial: pay $6 to park at the Quechan Tribe parking lot on the nearby Indian reservation, and simply walk across. He failed to mention the reservation was just barely across the California border, so I found myself unexpectedly adding California to the list of states I saw on my trip. I intended to verify with an authority at the border that I would, in fact, be able to get back with only my license… but there was literally no one manning the crossing.

So down to Sani I went– past the immediate swarm of hawkers trying to swoop newcomers off to their affiliated doctor, dentist, or optometrist. The town is small and the clinic was a short walk from the border, along streets that had the feel of a “quintessential” Mexican [tourist] town, but with inordinate amounts of medical businesses amongst the souvenirs and local crafts.

My stop at Sani was quick, painless, and almost unremarkable. The facilities were clean and trendy, the staff were friendly and personable; I had a consult, got talked into X-rays (every time!!), confirmed my sensitive tooth was cavity-free, and had my teeth cleaned by a nice woman with Venezuelan dental school credentials on the wall. X-rays, cleaning, and $10 COVID-sanitation fee (*shrug*) came to $110.

And then I had a few hours to explore before the border closed at two. I walked just beyond what felt like the area of town geared toward the medical tourists and found a sleepy, rural, somewhat picturesque village of palm trees and colorfully-plastered houses. And then (cuando en México, ¿no?) it was time for some $2 tacos and an enormous $5 margarita at the place just across from Sani.

The border crossing to return to the United States was, as you might imagine, a little more intense. A long-ish line had formed along the rusted iron barrier, and I admit to getting a LITTLE nervous about my passport-less state until I saw a number of others with U.S. licenses at the ready to present. The border agent raised her eyebrows when I told her I was a photographer who’d driven there from New Orleans (“You… drove all the way here… to get your teeth cleaned?”) but let me through without a hassle.

(And oh boy, were Mom and Dad relieved when they got that text I was back across!!)

I do want to just say a few additional words about how this journey was one made possible by, and which really revealed, my almost overwhelming privilege in this world. I was brought to Los Algodones by my true need of dental care and sense of adventure, but there was a part of me that felt I needed to see with my own eyes this place where mostly-white, mostly-Americans could saunter (after paying a casual visit to the Indian reservation casino to make use of its parking lot, without the appropriate documents) across a border that is such a true barrier– such an existential threat– for so many.

I don’t have a wise conclusion or revelation to make from my experience, but if you were thinking to yourself that there was something that felt a little off about my even having the experience, just know I felt it too.

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