Several times on our way traveling south out of Merida, we had passed the police, stationed under an overpass stopping cars traveling back and forth. Often, we too, had been stopped, questioned briefly and then told to pasa or continua.
In the Yucatan, the police do practically nothing. They drive around with their lights on all the time instead of turning them on when they’re chasing someone. Four or five police officers will pile into the back of black pickup trucks labeled with yellow lettering designating them as “police vehicles”. They’re heavily armored and armed, but I’ve never seen them do anything of value. At the same time, however, I’ve never had any problems with them either.
On our way to Palenque last year, we encountered tolls where police were sitting behind barricades up to their eyes with machine guns pointed at traffic as we passed through. John and I had joked about their lot in life.
“So you’re either gonna go to work and stare out from behind bags of sand all day at cars driving by or you’re gonna get shot in the head. These are your options.” We speculated that the officers had magazines and maybe even portable television sets behind their little barricades and wondered whether a potentially deadly job with that sort of isolation and psychological stress would lead eventually to enlightenment. I tried to imagine what it would be like to go to work every day knowing that my job was to be a target for snipers and it made me sick to my stomach.
“Their job is to be either bored to tears or scared to death.”
John usually drives in foreign countries partly because it costs more for there to be two drivers on rental vehicles and partly because he’s a better driver than I am. He likes manual transmission cars, which are cheaper to rent and I don’t, at least not in countries where there are donkeys, horse carts, shepherds, sheep, ducks, cows, chickens, goats, and people standing, walking, or bolting out into the road randomly. John enjoys the challenge of driving in foreign countries. I don’t.
On the night when we returned from Yaxachen, it was dark by the time we reached the police barricade south of Merida. John’s tummy was upset, probably from being folded into the car all day. It was raining gently off and on. He didn’t have his driver’s license (though we had a copy) because we had been robbed on Wednesday. And tonight, of all nights, the police pulled us over. John pulled over and engaged the emergency brake. I rolled down the window to talk to the officer.
I’ve asked John many times to “play stupid” and act like he doesn’t speak Spanish when we’re talking to the police or other authority figure. I can translate from Spanish to English when someone else is thinking for me. I can just act as a go between then, but it’s hard for me to think AND speak when I’m nervous, if I’m hurried or if I’m being scammed. But John wasn’t feeling well. And he was upset. So he wasn’t inclined to keep his mouth shut.
I was flirting with the police officers, thinking that we were being scammed, hoping perhaps to manipulate my way out of it but I was concerned about being removed from the vehicle and separated from Lydian or John at the same time. John leaned over with our police report from our robbery and suddenly asked (clumsily) in broken Spanish if the officer could cut us a break.
“Fuckin shut up and speak in English…” I leaned over and whispered discreetly, but John persisted in Spanish.
I shot him a look.
Finally he got it, but it didn’t matter. They wanted some money… una multa (a fine). It was one of those “under the table” situations where we give them some money and then they don’t write us a ticket. And John and I had to switch places. They wouldn’t let us go unless I drove the rest of the way back to Merida because we only had my driver’s license. John’s had been stolen and all we had was a copy of his. This was a bull-shit reason for giving us a fine and making us switch places, but we played along just to get out of there. We’d been conversing with the officers for over fifteen minutes and I just wanted to get out of there and go “home” to the Holiday Inn.
Of all the situations that emerged over the course of 48 hours from getting robbed to being scammed by the police, the most frightening was definitely the 45 minute journey with me in the driver’s seat from the police barricade to Merida.
When we switched places and I took the wheel, John accidentally left the emergency brake engaged. I didn’t know this and by the time we took the exit to Merida, the brakes were all but gone. I told John that the brakes weren’t working, but he scoffed at me. I veered into the wrong lane to wait my turn to pull into the chaos of a roundabout because without any brakes, I had no control over the car.
“Yeah, the brakes are spongy…” John said, sort of, blowing me off. “Just pump ‘em.” he said, leaning forward to get a 360 degree view of our situation at the roundabout. It was my turn to… “GO! GO! GO!” He yelled.
I threw the car into first gear and pushed on the gas. There was screaming and darkness, the sudden glare of headlights coming toward us. Horns honking. Brakes screeching. People yelling. I yelled “Fuck!” a few times as a sort of mantra while shifting, clutching, and pumping frantically at the non-existent brakes. I barely avoided swiping a dark blue, beat up car ahead of me. Another car barely missed hitting us from the side. Lydian let out an audible gasp and a whimper. John yelled, “OH MY GOD! Go THAT WAY! THAT WAY!”
In my defense, I CAN, in fact, drive a manual transmission in a normal country with normal laws and people who have defensive driving skills. In reality, my driving style is very Mexican indeed and I could get used to the lawlessness of the roads with an automatic transmission and adequate braking system but roundabouts in Mexico are even terrifying with John behind the wheel and deadly with me in the driver’s seat and doubly so without brakes. Around we went as I took my place among the cars, cursing loudly as I merged to the outside (horns honking, people yelling obscenities at me) and then pulled into a Wal Mart parking lot nearby.
I pulled into a stall without brakes, nearly crushing the poor parking attendant as he ambled across my path and I pulled into the parking space and slammed into the cement barricade. I felt shaky. Nauseated. I turned off the car and we took a moment to look at each other briefly in the silence, our eyes wide and shifty, panting. That brief silence in the car after our near death experience made the small, cramped space feel sacred like a church. There were no words, just… gratitude. We had survived my 7 1/2 minutes behind the wheel in Mexico.
We opened up the car and got out. My legs were jelly.
“Oh my God. That was SCARY!” Lydian said with a totally serious look on her face as she got out of the car. “I really thought we were gonna die.” Then, as we walked toward the store, she grabbed my arm for emphasis, “No, Mom…I mean I REALLY thought we were gonna die.”
“I know Sweetie…” I told her, sighing heavily. “I thought we were gonna die too.”