Friday, December 11, 2009

Posadas and mordidas are go...

Driving back very late last night from the capital I spotted a festive warning flashing electronically above the Calzada Roosevelt: Cero tolerancia, 0% alcohol, 0% drogas. Shortly after passing the Mixco turn off, we were duly waved over by two agents of the PNC.

Now the trouble is that this zero tolerance policy segues nicely with the unofficial Christmas bonus drive operated by certain rogue elements within the force. Indeed, you might say that the two weeks or so before both Christmas and Easter are the key fundraising fortnights in their we should have been ready for a bit of aggro when we planned to break out of our Panchoy comfort zone for seasonal shopping purposes.

We had both our licenses, the vehicle's SAT papers (in my name) and V — at the wheel — had both her cédula and her passport on her...but unfortunately I'd neglected to take my own passport into Guate with me. And so it was that I learned that not carrying my actual passport around (photocopies simply won't do) is an offence punishable by immediate deportation.

Of course the agente at V's window had something even more on-the-spot in mind, but part of this game is that the man in uniform can't actually bring himself to say it; he just assumes that the individuals that he is inconveniencing will understand the etiquette. "You haven't been stopped before have you?" he observed with a note of chagrin as we met his sharp statements with some of our own. (We are of course veterans of such stand-offs, but can hide it well enough.)

He eventually noted that he would let us off this time "porque usted es Guatemalteca", but I had the sense that V had worn him down a bit with her mindgames, and as if to confirm this, his well-wishes for the journey ahead sounded a bit like a veiled threat, much like a Mississippi sheriff might sneer "you folks have a nice day now."

Her best ploy was mentioning that his colleagues in Panorama were our friends and neighbours and making to ring up one senior named officer at the station there. She's carefully cultivated said law-enforcer; this is the kind of country where it's always handy to have a range of people you can call up in different situations.

Meanwhile the copper on scene had given it his best go too, insisting that she recite her cédula number from memory ( the peculiar marker of the true panze verde) and listing the various delinquents, including narcos and kiddyfiddlers, who'd been no match for his police-work over the years.

I must get into the habit of taking my passport out with me at all times, the policeman added...even when I nip across to the tienda.

The trouble is that I lose stuff. Last time I mislaid my passport (Phoenix, 2007) the British Consulate wasn't answering its phones and I had to trek across the Sonoran desert to LA in order to get their attention.


— 'Zero tolerance' is generally a seasonal rather than an everyday problem in Guatemala.

— The car in front stopped and its driver passed his papers to the police with a ten or twenty Quetzal bill inside. This is how the locals do it; they don't even have to apply the handbrake.

— If we'd been in the right-hand lane we could have driven on without stopping, but in this instance it would have been impossible to do so without llevandole al policia como corbata...given that he was standing right in front of us.

— Of course you don't need to carry your passport with you at all times, and I don't intend to start doing so from now on; though I might consider it when travelling outside my local jurisdiction, especially after 10pm.

— If it hadn't been my passport, it would have been something else, like the steering wheel on the right. They simply wanted their Christmas money.

— It is rare that the police in Antigua play the checkpoint fundraiser game or hassle tourists. Indeed Antigua has its own special force dedicated to helping and protecting visitors.

— I have never paid a bribe to the Guatemalan police.

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