Just after 9:00 p.m. last night, I was pulled over by Mexican police in an SUV. I was in a left turn lane across from the Walmart in downtown Puerto Vallarta. The light was red and they were behind me, lit up like a Christmas tree. They spoke over their loudspeaker, but I couldn’t understand a word. Folks stopped in the cars around me turned to look at me, the back of my head and the inside of my car ablaze from the light of a glaring spotlight. I shrugged at everyone and mouthed, “N-o e-n-t-i-e-n-d-o.” I must have seemed ridiculous.
When the cars in my right lane moved forward, the police pulled up alongside. I now understood they wanted me to pull forward against the light, across the intersection, and stop. I clarified, in Spanish, whether they wanted me on the right or left. “Izquierda,” the driver responded.
He started by asking me whether I spoke Spanish or English. I offered that I spoke a little Spanish. He then explained my transgression: I should not have used the intersection a ways back to transition to the lateral, the name of the outside lanes from which left turns are made in Mexico. Windy suggested the same thing several times recently, so I nodded and asked, “Really?”
With my license in hand, he pantomimed writing a ticket and told me he would do just that. He said in Spanish that I could pay the $500 peso fine on Monday and pick up my license at the same time. I scrunched my eyebrows in a worried look I inherited from my mom and said, “I don’t understand.” He repeated everything in broken English.
I could see where this was going, but I wasn’t hurrying us along. “Where do I go on Monday? Where is the police station?”
“Do you want to pay it now?” he said.
“You said I have to pay Monday. I’ll need to get my license back. Where is the police station?”
“Two-hundred pesos, you pay now.”
“You said five-hundred, on Monday, at the police station. I’ll need to get my license back. I’m confused.”
He handed me my license in a bid to help me understand. In broken English he made it clear that I could pay now and avoid the hassle and big fine on Monday, my choice. I put the worried face back on and dug around in my pockets, it was still dark in my lap. I knew I had a couple of 500-peso notes and a couple of very small notes folded together. With slight-of-hand that would have impressed Houdini, I presented 70 pesos as all the cash I had. They accepted my offering and drove off.
During more than three months driving in Mexico, I was never pulled over. During our entire road-tripping odyssey from D.C., I was never pulled over. I haven’t been pulled over in probably eight years. Why was I in the left turn lane across from Walmart late at night? To hand over the keys to our car’s new owner, waiting for me in front of Walmart. I was less than a football field’s length away from never driving this car again.