Lessons from driving in Guatemala

“Rutas alternas” have toll booths. They are fancy highways; the two directions separated; no potholes, little traffic, no one stops you once you’re on it. The freeways crisscrossing the country have potholes, and traffic, dead dogs, and checkpoints. They are manned by boys wearing uniforms and carrying guns: the police. You see them up ahead, and hope you won’t be pulled over. 

On the drive from Antigua to San Marcos, I am one of the unlucky ones. I stop the car. I have dark tinted windows, which is why I don’t wear my mask when driving: no one sees me breaking the law when I’m the solitary passenger of my car. So I put on the hazard lights, and pause my audiobook, and take off my headphones, and put on my mask. That new step of putting on a mask seems to take a lot of time. It feels like the police person outside must be waiting and wondering what I’m up to behind my dark windows. 

Make sure my nose is covered. Roll down the window. Smile: “¡Buen día!”

There’s two of them at my car; another team at the station waggon in front of me, and a sole police guy at the first car in our line of three unlucky ones.

So far, I always got to stay in my car – even when they were looking for reasons to collect a bribe. I hand my passport, my license, and the registration through the window.

“Where are you from?”

“Austria.”

“Where are you going?”

“San Marcos.”

He finds the page in my passport that holds my visa. Studies my driving license – a pink sheet of laminated paper with a picture of my 16-year old self glued into it; the same format and style as the Arian passes of my grandmother’s generation. I am always amazed when people abroad actually believe this is my driving license. I mean, it is – but it looks like something a 10-year old designed and printed in their basement. I suppose it looks too fake to actually be fake. 

He asks me to step out of the vehicle. They are going to search it, he says. I fish my flip flops out of the side console. He watches through the window as I wiggle my toes into them. 

I always drive barefoot when it’s hot. There’s a very unsexy reason for it, and it is Epidermis Bullosa Simplex. If heat combines with friction – such as the heat of a summer day and the friction of my feet against a shoe – my skin will blister. (Yes, I have tried wearing other shoes. No, there is no cure. And I am tired of having this conversation.)

I get out of the car, and smile. He sticks in his head, sees the ridiculously gigantic crate – a crate that would fit a Saint Bernard – that takes up the majority of the car. 

“You got a dog in there?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of dog?”

“Un pastor belga.” A Belgian shepherd.

“Uh. Those are bad dogs.”

“Those are great dogs.”

“Is he bravo?” A word that means different things, depending on who uses it: it can mean aggressive and mean; or gritty and courageous.

“Yes. She’s brava.”

“Does she bite?” 

“Yes. She bites.”

He’s joined by his companion, who’s walked around the car.

“How much is that dog worth?”

I look straight into his eyes. “A lot.”

He spits out a laugh. “Is your dog worth more than I am?”

I do not laugh. “My dog’s invaluable.”

Boy #1 asks me to empty out my pant pockets, and put the contents on the driver’s seat: my wallet. The keys to my AirBnB. A poop bag.

“Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am sure.”

“But are you sure?” His eyes, inquisitively. 

“Yes, I am sure.”

“Are you really sure?”

“Pat me down if it makes you happy.”

“If it makes me happy!” He laughs, and proceeds to touch my pockets, which are, surprise, empty.

His compañero picks up my wallet, and starts nosing through it. A couple bills. A check. Debit card. He is thorough, looking into the fold in the bottom of each pocket; sliding his fingers into every little opening. He puts it back down, then remembers the coin department, and goes through there as well. A handful quetzales and cents, and a lucky charm – a lady bug – a friend gave me years ago. 

I do not take my eyes off of his fingers in my wallet for a second, which means keeping my back turned to the other one, who is making smalltalk: how often do I go back to my country? How old is the dog? Are you here by yourself? Flicking a bill out of a wallet and into the sleeve of a jacket takes just a second; I will not give him that gratification. 

Dude #1 puts down my backpack, and dude #2 stops the smalltalk. He walks around to the passenger door, and proceeds to ruffle through my backpack, and the bag of groceries on the passenger seat.

Dude #2 moves the passenger seat back and forth. “El macho alpha todavía no ha aparecido?” he asks casually. Haven’t you come across an alpha male yet? He peaks under the blanket I’ve tied around the seat because Game sleeps there sometimes, and I don’t want her to get the seat dirty.

“No. Not yet.” Sexist jokes are part of those checkpoints. Either that, or they flirt. The first time I got stopped, I ended up exchanging phone numbers with the guy.

They motion for me to open one of the back doors, revealing a large bite pillow and a tug toy, and a 15-kilo bag of Kirkland; cut open and taped shut again so the kibble won’t spill out on the drive.

“Dog toys?”

“Yes.”

“Dog food?”

“Yes.”

He closes the back door, and comes up front again. If I were to smuggle drugs or arms, I would hide them under the dog, I suppose, in my underwear, or buried deep inside a bag of kibble. (This, by the way, is the lesson I promised you in the title: if you’re smuggling something, hide it under your dog crate or bury it in kibble. No one has ever looked there so far.)

They really wanted to find something today. Maybe I look like a drug dealer now because I forgot to put on my baseball cap before rolling down the window. I’m letting my hair grow out, and it’s at that stage where my head looks like a topiary that stuck its finger into a power outlet. Or maybe it’s because I’m driving barefoot, and going to San Marcos. Everyone knows that San Marcos is where gringos congregate to align their chacras, heal their crystals, grow magic mushrooms and drink cocoa. (I don’t know what’s the deal with the cocoa.) It’s a coincidence San Marcos is where I found a good AirBnB for the month. But I suppose I look bastante dishevelled and stoned with my bare feet, the scrub growing on my head and Game’s rainbow blanket on the passenger seat.

Guy #2 turns to me. “Usted no smoking?” 

“No.” For a second there, I thought he was asking me for a cigarette. 

“No smoking?” He makes a gesture with his hands, as if inhaling from a joint.

“No fumo.” I don’t smoke, and I have the irritating habit of repeating English verbs Spanish speakers put into a Spanish-language sentence back to them in Spanish.

“No smoking?”

“No. No fumo.”

“¿Seguro que no?” Are you sure you don’t smoke?

“I’m sure. Sorry.” I shrug. 

He nods. “You can go.” His friend hands back my documents, and I get in. Time to move on. They are already waving down their next victim.

It is interesting, this game. You hope they won’t stop you because it’s like improv theater: anything can happen, so you can’t be prepared. One time, somewhere between Guatemala City and Jutiapa, a police guy demanded to see my dogs’ paperwork, which, he said, shaking his head dramatically as I looked confused, I was legally obliged to carry when transporting a dog in my car. There is no such thing – the document he demanded does not exist, and we both knew it. I needed to bribe him anyways to get on with my day. The upside is that you can also bribe your way out of actual infringements, like the time I forgot both my passport AND my driving license and “bargained” my way from “I might have to deport you” down to “let me just pay you a generous ‘fine’.”

It’s hard to faze me with a cultural experience like eating tamales, learning to salsa, or being stopped at a checkpoint. There is one crucial difference between these experiences though: you choose to order a tamal or learn to dance, while the checkpoints just happen to you. That significantly lowers the degree of enjoyability of your cultural experience, which is a shame: true enjoyability requires a sense of agency. 

I just sat down and solved checkpoints (you are welcome) to make it more fun next time, both for myself and for you:

Checkpoint BINGO

(Inspired by Jane McGonigal’s book Superbetter.) 

The picture shows a 9-square BINGO board, numbered left to right. The middle square, #9, reads "FREE!" 

Images in the top line:
1 Elephant
2 Cutting board with a cut-up sausage
3 Man handing a bouquet to a woman

Images in the middle line:
4 Bag of gold coins
9 FREE!
5 Gun
6 Dog
7 Treasure map
8 Wallet

When to play:

At any cross-country drive or border crossing in Latin America.

How to play:

1. Pick your rewards:

1A What will you win when you get BINGO (a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row of 3 squares crossed off)? Make it something you can easily treat yourself to within 24 hours after reaching your destination – something small, but special. Example: I get cheesecake when I win a game of BINGO. 

1B What will you win if you succeed at the smuggle quest? It can either be a second round of your first reward, or something different. The same parameters apply: you’ll have to be able to treat yourself to it within 24 hours of completing your drive. As for me, I get a second slice of cheesecake!

2. Opt into the game before starting your drive by printing out the BINGO sheet, and carrying it with you in your car, along with a pen to cross off squares. The tag point is putting your equipment into your car and saying: “If I get pulled over, I get to play!”

3. Your smuggle quest: I once asked a police person what they are looking for when stopping cars. They said drugs and arms. You are going to pretend that you are on a mission of smuggling an object or illegal substance to your destination. It can be any small object – for example, a toy car – or substance – such as the small sugar envelopes you get with your coffee. Before you embark on your drive, hide the object or substance somewhere safe in your car, in your luggage, or on your body. Caveat: you may only use each hiding place once. So the more you drive, the more hiding places you will have to come up with – it’s got to be a different one each time. 

You win the smuggle quest if your object or substance is not discovered by the police or military guards at the checkpoints, i.e. they do not come across it when searching you and your car. If you win the smuggle quest, you automatically get reward #1B, and you get to cross off square 1 on your BINGO board.

The squares on your BINGO board: cross off whichever happens! Mentally as it is happening, and with your pen once you’re on your way again!

1 Smuggle success!

2 The police or military person makes a sexist joke. 

3 They flirt with you, ask for your number, or find a reason to touch you.

4 You bribe them.

5 If you wanted to, you could easily reach for and grab their gun. (You’ll be amazed how often it happens; how easy it would be …!)

6 You are asked to take your dog out of the car.

7 They question a real document you carry (your passport, driving license, papers for your car etc.) or ask for an imaginary document (which, obviously, you do not carry).

8 They search your wallet.

9 Congratulations, it’s your lucky day: you get this square for free just for having been pulled over!

You win reward #1A if you cross off 3 adjoining squares – horizontally, diagonally, or vertically.

Have fun! 

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