Archive for December, 2015

It was a weird experience buying myself out of custody …

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

The first indication that our Mexican driving experience would be different from others was when we collected the rental car. The welcome was friendly, yet business like, but very clear – any damage, however minor, and we would be charged. They went over this point in great detail and they (helpfully?) advised us to video the vehicle in its current state. I turned and saw another family who it appeared had been through this experience before; the whole family – two adults and two children – were checking each panel of the vehicle, one by one, and then photographing each one. It was a message we picked up throughout our travels – the majority of Mexicans don’t have very much, so they need to look after what they have.

Having left the airport, we soon encountered the three omnipresent hazards of which there was generally no warning – speed humps, holes in the road and dogs.

The Mexican speed humps (topes) come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from harsh to downright violent. There is little smoothness or finesse to them – they are semi-circular and often not dissimilar to a piece of rail track in shape or effect. Sometimes there is signpost indicating the driver’s imminent arrival, but often there is not. In addition to the fixed ones, locals also put thick rope across the road when they want you to slow down to buy their wares.

The speed humps are generally in and around towns, a little like the dogs. Packs of dogs are everywhere and presumably due to the heat they like to sleep during the day – on the road. What makes it particularly problematic is that – understandably – they like the shade which makes them difficult to see when there is sunlight all around the rest of the area.

The holes in the road, however, can be anywhere. These range from gaping holes across the whole of a motorway, as occurred a few hours before we were driving on it, and large holes which locals have placed crates in to ease one’s passage, through to roads that are peppered with all sorts of size holes across long distances. I was relieved I had opted for a Jeep on several occasions.

Whilst watching out for all these obstacles, being new to the country, we needed to map read our way around. Many signs weren’t signposted, GPS didn’t work in the more remote areas, many roads weren’t on the maps, and the maps were in Spanish when the places had their place names in Mayan – the names being completely different from the Spanish names.

At least the army and police checkpoints were well signposted. We must have been through about 30 or 40 of these. They are set up to monitor the alleged drug smuggling, arms smuggling and other criminal activity. Once we were identified as tourists, we were usually waved through without much ado, but larger vehicles in particular were usually given closer inspection.

The weather also had its say. Heavy rain and little or no drainage led to significant water on the road. In Merida, the area’s largest city and where the pictures were taken, the water had fallen for the previous 12 hours. It meant that in the Monday morning commute, driving was difficult particularly as all the holes in the road were hidden. The trick was to follow a local – and make the assumption that if they suddenly made a move to the left or right, they were avoiding an underwater obstacle. In a city where probably only 10% of the population had cars, it meant that people were trudging through water covered pavements and getting splashed by cars. They seemed both resigned and used to it.

All of the obstacles and challenges I have identified so far could be managed, avoided or negotiated without too much trouble. There was one challenge though that was more problematic – the dishonest police officer.

We were in the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto, a hundred miles or so south of Cancun. As we pulled up outside the tourist office, a police officer on a motor cycle drew level with us and demanded my driving licence. I handed it over (apparently, if I had been Mexican-savvy I would have taken a photocopy with me and handed that over), he put in the carrier on his motor cycle and he told us to follow him. He stopped about half a mile away at a spot where there were few other people and explained that I had been driving above the speed limit (which I hadn’t).  He offered me “no ticket” and the opportunity to pay him 4,000 Mexican Pesos (M$) – “no ticket” was the only English he could speak, he used a small notebook to communicate the cash required. I asked for a ticket, but that apparently wasn’t available. I said I wanted to go to the police station to deal with the matter, but he wasn’t having it – the only way I could have my licence back was to pay him M$4,000. There was a stand-off. I knew not to get angry – my reading had told me that in this situation that is the number 1 rule – but I also knew from a police acquaintance that recent intelligence indicated that sometimes travellers were taken hostage or suffered physical abuse – such as losing fingers – in such encounters with the officers purporting to be from the police or army. Eventually – about 5 minutes later – he crossed out the “M$4,000” in his small notebook and wrote “M$2,000”. Having in the back of my mind the potential worst case consequences of failing to reach a settlement, I offered M$1,000 and he accepted. He took it, I got my licence back and he told us to get out of town. He wouldn’t tell us his name – perhaps he realised it wasn’t through a desire to be friends on Facebook.

A good bit of work for him – the equivalent of a week’s pay in about 10 minutes. We were easy pickings with Thrifty Car Hire having their logo on our licence plates. For us, a scary, uncomfortable and disturbing encounter, and one which left a bad taste for the rest of the holiday. It was a great holiday – Mexico is a wonderful country to visit – but as we left the hire car centre to return to the airport I sighed. In some ways I was pleased and relieved to have handed back the car (in the condition we received it) and to have concluded the driving.

This incident occurred several months ago. I wrote to both the Mexican authorities and the British Embassy in Mexico at the time and I did not receive a response from either. It seems that my encounter with the officer is accepted practice – indeed the officer’s approach in the middle of a town indicates that he sees it as acceptable practice. And that is what, at the time, was most unacceptable about it all.

Perhaps the independent traveller has to accept this when visiting developing countries. Perhaps I should be pleased with the negotiations I undertook bearing in mind the possible consequences. On reflection, perhaps I need to accept the different culture and not try and overlay mine on theirs. Sometimes we just have to accept what appears on the face of it to be unacceptable. Perhaps I should be pleased I didn’t lose a finger or get kidnapped …


Clear Focus, New Heights – #5

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015