Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 2

Mexican traffic law, explained

Driving south through the Central Valley of California we came upon Mexico in bits and pieces.  A rack of Mexican comic books in a convenience store.  At a truck stop the only music tapes are Mexican.  More Spanish-language radio as we scan the dial.  Advertising signs in English and Spanish, then later only in Spanish.  And finally, advertisements for Mexican auto insurance.  But still only pieces of Mexico.  Latin embolisms in a northern matrix.

We crossed the frontier at Calixico.  It looks very much like a border town, but still an American border town.  For all the dark faces and Spanish signs, the visual clues confirm that we are still in gringoland.

    And then we cross a few yards of border and we are in El Norte no more.  With the abruptness of walking onto a stage set we are in Mexico, and all the clues of sound and color and proportion and surface  --  all signs of spirit visible and invisible  --  have changed and we are gone from the protestant North into the Latin South.

    We cross into Mexico in the late evening and turn east on Route 2, to drive through the desert at the mouth of the Colorado River.  To our right, far out of sight, the river empties into the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortéz.  

    The pattern of Mexican traffic begins: few cars but many trucks, wide and ponderous, and huge buses, also wide, all hurtling themselves down the highway as if pursued by devils, their draft in passing almost knocking us off the road, itself a long, straight, two-lane blacktop stretching off into the eastern darkness.  Behind us, a desert sunset, beautiful of course, but it’s late and it is too much trouble to turn around and look.  And what’s ahead of us is more interesting: Mexico.

    For several hours we travel parallel to the border and then, at Sonoyta, we turn south and east and begin our descent into the Republic.

The map is non-committal on the condition of our route, which is in places fine and modern, and in others rough and broken and shared with cattle.  El Patrón and I are dozing as Roger drives.  It is quite dark outside.  We are on a rough stretch of road, but the bouncing of the car, now familiar, goes unnoticed.  Then lights flash and Roger says “Oh, oh,” and pulls to the side, this being one of those stretches where there seems to be no actual road to pull off of.  A Chevrolet pickup with a great deal of optional chrome stops ahead of us and two men dressed like parking garage attendants climb out and come back to our car.  La Policia.

    Papers are examined and there is much serious talk as Roger and the police stand back from the car.  At length, Roger sticks his head through the window and announces that he needs 15,000 pesos (approx. US$5) to settle an illegal passing offense.  They had originally wanted 50,000 pesos, but Roger had chatted them down.  And he had passed a bus illegally, so the whole thing was quite fair.  And there would be no concern over a bad mark on his driving record, as this was a cash transaction.

At Hermosillo we stop to eat at about four in the morning at a very North American-looking truck stop.  Sunrise comes near Ciudad Obregón.  The land changes from desert to irrigated fields.  Children walk along the road to school.  There are men on horseback and men on rusty bicycles.  There are poor little villages with grand and beautiful names.

    Outside the window of our car is Mexico, but inside is still the air-conditioned order and comfort of the United States.  Soon enough the heat and dust of Mexico would wash away the residuum of our gringoism, but for now we are tired and content to take Mexico in small doses.

At Los Mochis a policeman waves us over.  This time I am driving.  I smile and Roger does the talking.  This, it turns out, is pure fraud.  The fellow is just supplementing his income.  He and Roger talk long and philosophically, and at length the policeman comes back and shakes my hand and wishes us a good journey.  Roger has convinced him that we aren’t going to pay.  As I drove away I saw him pull over another car, apparently at random, to try his luck again.

    This is how Mexican traffic law works, explained Roger.  The police are paid a pittance and must do this in order to make ends meet.  It is a sad thing, but necessary.  The fellow is embarrassed to have to do it, but that is how things are.  It is no more than an informal tax assessment to pay police salaries.  And besides, this way you know your money is going to someone who needs it, and not being paid to the government where it will be wasted or stolen by some politician.

    Warming to his subject, Roger continued: Mexican justice is not a cold, bloodless affair as it is in the protestant North.  Here it it is warm and personal  --  one might say it is Catholic.  A policeman stops you, claiming that you have done something which at that particular moment you may or may not have done, but almost certainly have done sometime in the past, and announces that you must pay some exorbitant fine.  You protest and for a while argue facts and legalisms, but this is just an opportunity to size each other up.  Then talk may turn to where you are from or such like, and at length the policeman will mention his great concern for, say, the Sinaloa Police Youth Slow-Pitch Softball League, a most deserving movement to help poor orphans, but, alas, sadly in need of funds to buy gloves and shoes for the impoverished muchachos.

   Formidable, you exclaim, for only that very morning you had remarked to your wife that you had been wanting to find some way to assist the poor orphans of the district to engage in wholesome sport, but, alas, you knew of no way to do this.  Would it be possible for the officer to convey for you a small donation to this worthy organization?

    Well, now, of course.  How it pleases the heart to find a gentleman such as yourself so generous to these poor children.  It would be a great honor to convey your contribution in small, unmarked bills to the cause of these worthy youth.  And as for that trifling infraction, please think no more of it.  Have a good journey.

(to be continued . . .)


  1. I love the way you describe these transactions with the police... I had one such transaction in a cab in Bangkok this summer--I think the police just wanted cigarettes and I don't smoke!

  2. Jeff: Glad you enjoyed the police stories. I have several others and they are similarly unexciting. I know some people have had a scary time -- one young woman was afraid she was going to be raped in the basement of the police station when a senior officer, whose children she had taught to ice skate, saw her and pulled her out of there. So it’s quite possible that I have led a charmed life and other people’s results may differ.