“I can give you green-eyed babies.” My Spanish was bad, but I am pretty sure that is what my policia was telling me.
My afternoon in Los Petates with the two policia flooded me with memories of my first excursion into Mexico and Central America. I had been in Mexico less than three weeks, and this particular Wednesday was an all around bad day. Trying to save money I drove the non-toll road from the Ruta del Tequila to Guadalajara. It was early in my adventure and I had not figured out my basic rules, specifically, what was the population and just how large was my next destination. I was surprised to discover that Guadalajara is a teeming megalopolis, the second largest city in Mexico. It is huge and beautiful and completely congested with traffic. I had spent the previous two weeks sleeping in a not-so-romantic cabaña on the beach and camped out at a secluded, pristine lake nursing my no-see-um bite riddled body in the cool water. My half-page guidebook map was little help negotiating the ancient city, and when I found that I was near one of my desired destinations it was impossible to find a space to park. The parking goddess was definitely not with me that day. Nor was any other god or goddess.
After a couple hours trying to find something, and more than three hours behind the wheel, I pointed the car back out of town. I had run out of patience, I was nearly out of gas, and I desperately needed cash. I discovered that even the minor tasks of money and gas were a huge challenge. I was on the wrong side of the street, there was no place to park, the bank was obscured by a delivery truck, on and on. I finally found success and a bank down a random side road and there was a gas station a couple doors down. I filled my tank and stocked up on my go-to road trip food, Squirt and Fritos con Limón. With money in my pocket, gas in my tank, and a few wrong turns later, I was finally on the Cuota out of town and on my way to Sayulita.
Of course, the sun began to set well before Sayulita, so I took the exit for Chacala. The guidebook made it sound like a sweet little spot. After more than seven hours on the road, I could use a little sweetness. Luna and I pulled up in front of a hotel, completely exhausted and in desperate need of a pee. The friendly dueña and her daughter, who thankfully spoke English, greeted us and got us set up in a nice, expensive room. To my horror, I had locked my keys in my car. Of course, my spare keys were also in the car.
The daughter tracked down a locksmith who came to my rescue within an hour later. He tried the driver door. Then he tried the passenger door. That failed so he fiddled with the back door and the sliding side doors, all to no avail. Back he went to the front door. By this time, I was hanging out in the hammock in the garage trying desperately to decompress, when I heard a small popping explosion. I didn’t think much of it, kids in Mexico love fireworks, and it was late-evening playtime. Ninety minutes later, the locksmith was able to unlock my Honda Odyssey. He hurriedly asked me for 250 pesos, hopped on his motorcycle, and away he went. One part of me was happy that my car was one of the most difficult cars to break in to; another part of me was pretty frustrated that it was so hard to get into; the final part of me was livid when the passenger-side sliding door shattered to a thousand pieces when I climbed in and closed my door. That popping explosion was not kids playing with fireworks, it was my window.
I learned one lesson when I lived in Los Angeles. Never think that something can’t get worse, once you think that, you are destined for more trouble.
The dueña allowed me to pull into her secure garage, and promised to contact her insurance in the morning to see if the window was covered. All the next day I waited for a reply, that didn’t come until I had no choice to stay another night, for a mere $50.00/night (this might seem inexpensive, but when you are planning to travel for a year on a very limited budget it is a bit rich). The next day was a similar scenario, with the daughter calling all over the area looking for someone who had the window I needed. They were so helpful, for another fifty bucks per night. While she was calling around, she sent me off with vague instructions on how to get to the secluded beach, a nice hike out of town. I was ready to work up a sweat and hopefully blow off some of steam.
Friday, I set off in the morning, prepared for both nice long hike and a pleasant day at a beach oasis. It was still early in the morning when I found what I believed to be the beach, but there was a huge locked gate that wasn’t yellow like I was told, there were numerous “Cuidado los Perros” (Beware of Dog) signs on the gate, and I did hear growling dogs behind the gate. I figured this must be another one of those private, gringo estates and kept on walking.
A short while later, disaster came knocking on my own gates. Montezuma came for his revenge, and he was serious. I headed down a trail that seemed to lead to the water. I trucked on until I could truck no more and had to duck behind a tree and evacuate. I dropped my bike-style running shorts, changed into my swimsuit bottoms, and continued hiking down the hill. I assumed I would find a nice little beach were I could go for a cleansing swim. No such luck. The beach was a rock and bolder strewn spot with waves crashing against the boulders. I returned the way I came, looking and feeling ridiculous in my swimsuit and hiking boots.
Once again, in front of the gates with the snarling dogs, I could not take another moment of the boots/swimsuit fashion. I pulled my shorts from my backpack and attempted to squeeze my sweaty, sticky body back into my poly/lycra bike-style running shorts. In the midst of my struggle, the gate opened and out stepped a gorgeous man in nothing but shorts. I guess he heard my Luna chatting with the guard dogs. With my shorts around my knees and red in the face, both from exertion and embarrassment, I asked in my poor Spanish if this was the beach and could I enter. He told me it was and I could, and he excused himself for a moment. He returned fully dressed in his policia uniform. Well, to be fair, it was very hot and he had donned his vest, BDU pants, a gun, and nothing more. Thankfully, in the time it took him to dress and open the gates, I had been able to get my own shorts pulled up to their proper place.
He let me in and pointed the way to the beach. The beach was nearly deserted. I had my nice cleansing swim, Luna and I were tumbled by a few waves, we explored the beach, relaxed for a hot minute, then decided I better head back to the hotel to see if there had been any success finding a replacement window. As I was heading out, my policia was just arriving at the beach. He properly introduced himself to me, Ruben was his name, we chatted a bit then I left.
There was no success with the car window, but I spoke to a few people that afternoon and learned that I could easily go into Las Varas, only 15 km away, where there were a couple auto glass shops who could easily repair my window. I arrived at siesta time and all the shops were closed for lunch, so I had to amuse myself with lunch and a cerveza buen fria (good cold beer) while awaiting the end of siesta time. Once they did open, I was told that the earliest they could have a window delivered was Monday. I was forced to spend the next day hiking to the deserted beach to visit mi policia, Ruben.
When I returned Sunday, there was a group of men who had camped the night on the beach. Their fiesta must have been good because they were clearly hung-over. Ruben, my beautiful Policia, was hanging with his pals for a bit more revelry, before they packed up and left. For the rest of the afternoon he hung out with me, teaching me “Mexican,” joking about his Policia friends and their visit to the strip club, and allowing Luna to lick the sweat off his face with her dead beach creature ingesting mouth. Towards late afternoon, a large family arrived at the beach. Ruben went to greet them and returned with an invitation for me to join their picnic. He very sweetly gave me the best chair, a big glass of water, and because I don’t eat meat he made me a special sandwich of Bimbo bread, strawberry jam, and condensed milk. Ruben never had the chance to give me that green-eyed baby. I said goodbye that afternoon and never saw him again.
Before meeting Ruben, I had a cheek clenching fear of the Policia. They travel in packs, loaded onto the back of trucks, swaddled head to toe in black, ballistic Commando gear and reflective sunglasses, machine guns clutched tightly to their chests, and billy clubs attached to their belts. They are a scary looking group. The state policia are a little less scary, but similarly attired. The Municipal policia generally seem jovial and friendly, but given their reputation, you still don’t want to piss them off.
There are many checkpoints throughout Mexico, both military and police. I would get so nervous as I approached I literally did not remember the answer to “Donde va?” (where are you going?). A pattern began to emerge, every questioning devolved into the same conversation, “are you enjoying Mexico? Are you traveling alone? Are you married? Kids? No? Why not?” I began to look forward to these stops, I considered them my mini Spanish lessons.
In many of the towns that I stayed in for more than a few days, I would become friends with the local policia. As one of the only gringas in town with a dog on a lead, I was very recognizable. I felt like I had guardian angels watching over me. On Cinco de Mayo in Alamos the streets were lined with junior policia, giving me directions to restaurants and making sure los barrachos (the drunken revelers) didn’t cause me grief. While visiting the park with the 13 Stations of the Cross outside San Blas, the policia picked, peeled, and fed me green mango. In Taxco one policia found me a hotel that allowed dogs and carried my bags up the hill, and up the three flights of stairs to my room. It wasn’t until my return trip across the Yucatan peninsula that I was asked for a bribe, mordida. On both occasions, when I very succinctly answered, “no.” They were so shocked they just motioned for me to move along. So much for the cheek-clenching, scary men with machine guns and reflective sunglasses for eyes.
The photos the La Paz Policia showed me of the dead and tortured bodies reminded me of the 12 Guatemalan policia who were shot and killed near the border with Mexico. It is less than a one-hour drive from the border crossing to the first major Guatemalan city, Huehuetenango. In that distance, I was stopped at four military checkpoints. I was only lightly questioned, but young Latino men were being thoroughly searched, both their persons and their vehicles. I learned of the massacre at the hotel that night. I remember feeling great sadness at the time. Looking back now, I find the story heart-wrenching, the story of baby-faced boys, trying to create a better life for themselves and their young families, slaughtered because of other peoples desire to get high.