By Joyce Holdread
David held the xeroxed copy firmly down over the “tails” side of the quarter. With a red crayon, he rubbed lightly all along the round rim and over the spread-winged eagle. There. The official “stamp” was complete with the national symbol of the United States of America. He executed a few more copies — just in case.
We’d spent nearly six months teaching in the monastery school. Now we prepared to drive back up to the border over a long weekend to renew our visas. A six-month stay was the maximum for “tourists.” Several of our ex-pat friends in San Miguel, as well as Father Francisco, had told us we should be armed with several copies of our driver’s license — colored, clipped, pasted on thick card stock and laminated. David’s eagle “stamp” was his finishing touch. In Mexico, a stamp was the insignia of everything official.
We crossed over at Reynosa -McAllen and mailed the checks for some important bills. Next, we did some shopping and satisfied our gringo hunger pangs. Last, we renewed our visas and headed back down Highway 97. Somewhere, a bit south of San Fernando de Presas, the local traffic cop ordered us to the side of the road. Transport on this major highway was heavy this time of day and progressing slowly in both directions.
“Licencia, por favor,” the policeman asked with a scowl.
David fished in his pocket for his wallet and drew out one of the recent creations. He handed it to the officer.
“From Colorado. My brother-in-law was working in Colorado — Pueblo, I think. Where are you going?” asked the officer.
“San Miguel de Allende,” said David, hoping he had understood the question correctly.
“It’s still a long way to San Miguel. What are you doing there?”
“We are teaching in a small village school about 8 kilometers outside San Miguel,” I answered. “We have to be back by tomorrow.”
“Oh …, that’s why you were speeding — going 20 kilometers per hour over the speed limit. That brings the fine up to quinientos pesos,” said Señor Mordida (Señor Bribe). He began writing up the ticket.
“¡Quinientos pesos! Oh, señor, that kind of speeding would be impossible in this traffic.” Fortunately, I remembered to accompany that with a big smile. A genial tone and a friendly smile would go a long way to ameliorate any challenge to his machismo.
“No, señora, I was standing right here and clocked you when you passed. The speed limit is 30 km per hour and you were going 50,” he replied. “You also were trying to pass the semi ahead of you in a no-pass zone. And your license plate number begins with “3.” Only those beginning with “6” or “7” are allowed to drive on this road at this time of day.”
“What’s he saying?” David piped up. “What’s the trumped up charge this time?”
“He says we were speeding — 20 km per hour faster,” I reported. “Also that we were trying to pass in a no-pass zone. And our license plate starts with the wrong number for driving on this road now.” I rolled my eyes as I spoke. The officer still had his head down checking off all the “proper” boxes on the ticket.
“So how much is the fine?” David asked.
“Five hundred pesos, but we shouldn’t pay it. He’s just trying to squeeze a bribe out of the gringos.”
“You’re darn right,” David remarked. Turning to the patrolman with a smile, he stuttered out the Spanish equivalent of “No can pay.”
“Señor, the transport truck was already far ahead of us when we reached the no-pass zone. And we had no idea that the initial number on the license determined the days on which you could drive on this road. We aren’t from here. We don’t know these things,” I said, as charmingly as I could manage.
“It doesn’t matter,” he retorted. “You need to find out the regulations when you live in another country.”
“Señor, if we can’t pay because we don’t think we committed these violations, what do you suggest we do?” I inquired as affably as possible.
“Well …, you can see the judge,” he sniggered, his authority a little shaken.
“If we don’t want to pay, we have to see the judge,” I told David.
“Ask him how we can do that. Where is the judge and when can we see him?” he replied.
“Well, thank you, señor, for providing us that option,” I beamed courteously. “Yes, we’d like to see the judge. When and where can we do that?”
“Uh …, well …, you’ll have to wait five days. The judge only comes on Fridays.”
“Well then, could you recommend a good hotel somewhere close by?”
By now Señor Mordida was sizing up the situation and realizing that many other drivers and profitable possibilities were slipping past him. The “kickback” from these gringos was not very likely. And the potential action of the judge might provide him a “kick back” in his career.
“Listen,” he said, “I can erase these two infractions. That makes it only 200 pesos. Just pay that and you’ll be on your way.”
“Oh, señor, I’m so sorry …, but we can’t do that. We don’t feel we were speeding.”
Just then he noticed a brand new Lexus with Texas plates approaching from the oncoming traffic. He held out his left hand to indicate that the driver should stop. With his right hand still clasping David’s driver’s license, he motioned that we should remain where we were. He quickly scuttled across the road to the glowering Texan.
“Here’s our chance,” said David. “Let’s just beat it out of here!” He maneuvered the Nissan back onto the highway, watching in the rearview mirror as we started down the road. Señor Mordida took a few steps toward our truck, holding the driver’s license firmly in his upraised fist.
“You can’t leave here,” he shouted. “I have your driver’s license.”
We smiled and waved and wished him luck with Mr. Lexus.