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Sunday, August 28th:
Not even two miles south of Ensenada we round a bend to find the road blocked by two green military jeeps, positioned on our side of the road, both laden with heavy artillery. I suppose we could get around them by swerving into the northbound lane for a moment; but the line of fatigue-clad dudes standing there with hefty battle-rifles at the ready sufficiently discourages such a move.
We’ve heard tell of random military stops scattered throughout Mexico; but we’d also heard that they don’t have them on the Baja Peninsula. False. I pull over to the side of the road, in acquiescence to the authoritative gesticulations of one of the soldiers, who is issuing a firm and unambiguous directive to do so.
The soldier approaches my window, and I say hello. He speaks to me in Spanish. “Hola. Donde van?” Shit- what the fuck does that mean again? It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve had the need to translate any Spanish; and when I say “need’, I am referring to my 10th-grade teacher in my suburban American high school demanding participation in class lessons- a much lower-stakes scenario than this here confrontation with an armed phalanx of soldiers supposedly representing the military installment of a foreign land with dubious traditions of law and order. Well I know that donde means “where”; so I put two and two together to conclude that he means “Where are you coming from?” So I tell him “Ensenada, y San Diego”.
“No- donde van?” he says. Fuck. I was told there would be no interlingual translation required of me. Suddenly it occurs to me that he wants to know where we are going; so I emend my answer to “Cabo“. This seems to satisfy him somewhat; but then he ups the ante with a more challenging question:
“Llevas ningún armas, drogas, o contrabando?” This requires a consultation with the English-Spanish dictionary- the first of many such queries that will be necessary on this trip. I hold up a finger and say “Un momento, por favor”. Seeing that I am flipping through a pocket translator, the soldier bides his time by vaguely inspecting the car, viewing it from various angles, peering in the back windows, and using a mirror on a stick to view the undercarriage of the vehicle. Another soldier reaches in the passenger window and flips open the glove box, rummages around a bit and then closes it up and retreats. The rest of the soldiers stand by, appearing ready for anything, though not seeming particularly threatening at the moment. Flipping frantically through the pages of the Spanish-English dictionary, I continue my crash course in real-time Spanish translation, and then a light bulb pops in my head.
“Oh, I’ve got it!”, I exclaim to Chalk, excitedly, “he wants to know if we are carrying any weapons, drugs, or other contraband.” I turn to the soldier and say “No, no tienes ningunas de aquellas cosas (“No, we don’t have any of those things”). I cross my fingers that I’ve got it right; though I am not all that nervous, since I know we are not carrying any of the things that they’re looking for. But then again, fuck do I know about the relationship in these parts between “legal” repercussions and actual guilt? I’ve heard some horror stories. Anyway, though, mine seems like an eminently plausible translation of the dude’s question, given the circumstances; so I remain outwardly confident, taking care not to appear haughty or frustrated in any way. Chalk seems somewhat relieved that I have bounced back so handily with my answer, but remains only cautiously optimistic that I have interpreted the man correctly and answered his questions to his satisfaction.
“Bueno”, says the lead soldier, stepping back and waving us on. Boo-yah! I fuckin’ rule! Self-satisfied at my successful execution of the soldier’s nebulous mandate, I thank the man, say “Buenos tardes”, and slowly drive around the rigged-up jeeps painted in green-splotched camouflage paint, and resume my southbound trajectory on the Transpeninsular Highway.
Don’t Dangle Your Stash
Since we are carrying more than a thousand dollars in cash between us; I suggest that we move the bulk of our money to a more concealed, secure spot, and keep only small amounts of money easily visible in our wallets. I wrap almost all of our cash in paper, bind it with an elastic band, and insert it tightly into the coiled springs on the underside of the driver’s seat, leaving us with only about $40 apiece in our wallets. This would prove a critical move in due time.
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