Keeping a level head: I consider it a strength of mine, with a few notable exceptions. There was the time I flipped out on our neighbors in college for staging a boxing match against our front door in the middle of the night. By the time I realized what was going on, I was standing in the chilly air in the middle of the fight in my underwear, screaming like a banshee. And there was the time I unleashed my verbal wrath on Tom Danielson, now a top 10 Tour de France finisher, after he acted like a sally girl crybaby during one of our mountain bike races. But in general, I’m an even-tempered guy. And it was with this even temper that I envisioned myself dealing with police on this trip. Just be cool, I tell myself when I practice in front of the mirror.
For nearly three months; through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador- some seven thousand miles in total- we had not been pulled over by the police. As we bumped along the potholed highway in southern Honduras, our luck finally changed. The police had set up cones in the roadways and were waving people over to the shoulder, seemingly at random. Somehow we’d made it to within a few miles of the Nicaraguan border without being stopped, and then sure enough: the point, followed by the wave.
“Damnit! Just be cool, okay?” I said, pulling Nacho onto the dirt shoulder. Sheena nodded, wide-eyed. “Okay, I’ll be cool!” I wasn’t talking to her, but I kept this detail to myself. We were expecting the full body cavity search, or worse.
No bribes. No bribes. Just be cool. It’s just a full body cavity search. Be cool…
The officer slowly strode over to our window, chest puffed out. He looked over my head before snapping his face downward, peering at me over his aviator sunglasses. Classic.
“Where you coming from? Where you going?” He seemed like a man without emotions. The worst kind of man.
“From El Salvador to Nicaragua”, I said in the coolest way I knew how. He looked up the road, then down the road, and then over my shoulder at the interior of Nacho before looking at me again. His movements were slow, as if he were conceiving an evil plan.
“So,” he said, “have you tried the white melons?”
“The white melons. Have you tried them?” He lifted up his left hand, in which he was carrying a large white melon. “They’re the richest melons in Honduras.” He peered over his aviators, expectantly.
“Um, no sir”, I said, still being totally cool. WTF?
He reached his hand through my window and handed me the melon. “Try it. These white melons are so rich.” Then he stepped backwards, held up two fingers in front of his face, and flicked them to the side. Move along.
Showed him. Oh, and he was right. The melon was rich. Maybe even the richest in all of Honduras.
A couple of days passed without much in the way of police activity, although Nicaragua turned out to have the same type of police stops: cones in the road, officers pulling people over at their leisure. One day we made the decision to scoot from the north end of the country to the south end so that we could find a secluded beach spot to wait out the weekend craziness of Semana Santa. We were asking for trouble.
At the intersection of two main thoroughfares somewhere in the Nicaraguan countryside, a police officer waited. I was nervous. I looked both ways and then pulled out, making a perfectly executed left turn, if I do say so myself. Seeing a livestock truck fast approaching from behind, I signaled and changed lanes. Textbook. At this, the police officer shook his head in pity and waved me over. I had apparently done something very wrong.
“You made an illegal turn” he said, slightly invading my personal space bubble as he stood next to my window. He was messing with me. I felt my heart rate increase. I had a flashback of Tom Danielson and I wanted to punch him in the face. This was unsportsmanlike.
I pointed out my window at the road I’d just come from. “I just turned from over there, into the left lane. Then I signaled and changed lanes. That’s not an illegal turn.”
He shook his head wildly, looking down, his eyes closed. Clearly I knew nothing about driving. “You made an ILLEGAL turn! Big ticket. BIG ticket!” he said, flailing his imaginary pen against an imaginary paper in his hand like he was going to write me a ticket.
“Not a big ticket”, I said, “No ticket. I know the laws sir, and I know how to drive. I didn’t break the law, so I don’t get a ticket.” I was struggling to keep my composure.
He pointed his finger at the sky. “Only God is perfect” he said, shaking his head at me like I was some kind of heathen.
“I’m not claiming to be perfect, but I am claiming to know the law.” I said.
He stood at my window in silence staring at me. I stared back at him. Maybe he was waiting for the How can we make this go away schpiel, but obviously he was not privy to my personal promise not to pay bribes. After a minute he took a small step back.
“Can we go?” I asked. He said nothing. I eased my foot onto the gas, watching for a reaction. There wasn’t one, so I pulled away.
We made our way down the road in silence. “I think he wanted a bribe”, I said. “Yeah, I think you’re right”, Sheena responded. I told her what he had said about God and she giggled. He was really trying.
Our freedom only lasted about an hour before we were summoned to the roadside again. This time we’d done nothing out of the ordinary, so we weren’t too concerned. We were already acting really cool at the time, so we just kept doing it as Nacho came to a stop.
“Coming from? Going to?” The officer asked.
“From Playa Poneloya to Playa Majagual” I said.
“All right. May I see your license, registration, and insurance?” At this my heart skipped a beat. Car insurance isn’t required in most countries, and we usually buy it at the border where it is required. If you had car insurance down here you’d spend years trying to collect on it in the event of an accident, so we don’t bother unless mandated. We didn’t have it for Nicaragua, as we didn’t think it was required (hindsight note: it is).
I got out my license and registration and handed it to him. “Here you go.” I hadn’t formulated a plan yet, and hoped he’d forget about the insurance.
“Insurance. Can I see your insurance? You do maintain insurance, right?” He said. I needed more time to think.
“Que significa ‘seguro’?” I asked, pretending not to know what the word for “insurance” meant. My mind raced. I recalled that in Belize, the fine for driving without insurance was $3,000.
“If you get into an accident, insurance pays for the damage. Do you have insurance?”
“Ohhhhh! Of course!” I said. I slowly unlocked the security box under my seat where we keep our important paperwork. I figured I’d rifle through some papers and then pretend I couldn’t find it. At least it would give me time to think.
As I leafed through the folder, I saw it: my full coverage insurance, expiring in 2014. I had completely forgotten about it! The only trouble: it wasn’t real. I’d felt foolish and a little dirty while creating it in Photoshop several months before our trip. The idea had come from the Bumfuzzle blog during their around the world sailing trip. From their website:
We, like at least half the cruisers out here, consider ourselves to be self-insured. However, a promise that we’ll pay for any damage that we do doesn’t seem to cut it here. Fortunately we foresaw that this was going to be a problem and we created our very own self-insurance company. We pay a deductible of $0 per month to ourselves in exchange for coverage equal to the amount of our bank balance. We even issued ourselves some insurance paperwork that looks pretty official and passed some very close scrutinizing by the Greek authorities.
Should I use it? I wondered. Before my more sensible side had a chance to pipe up, I was handing our fake insurance to the officer. Confidently, of course, and in a totally cool way. He seemed confused and stared at the paper for a long time. My heart pumped and I felt like the veins in my neck would explode. You’re going to jail, punk! I thought to myself. This is serious. Don’t drop the soap!
Sheena’s eyes were burning a hole in the side of my head, I could feel it. Before either of us lost consciousness though, the officer handed my paperwork back.
“Have a nice day”, he said, and we were off. I had a little explaining to do, as Sheena was not aware of my criminal preparations prior to this. ”You’re welcome.” was my only defense. She pretended that I was a complete moron, but I could see a smile through her condescending frown.
The final shakedown, the big test, came with our next and final traffic stop, not thirty minutes later. It was getting old, and I was getting cocky. The officer pointed to us, then pointed to the side of the road.
“License, registration, insurance please.”
“Here you go”, I said, handing him our mix of legitimate and illegitimate paperwork. He matched my license up to the registration and looked satisfied. He took one look at our insurance and held it up for me to see. He paused. I nearly crapped my pants, but then caught myself.
“This isn’t valid in Nicaragua.”
I knew he was right, but I had to keep the ball rolling. My mind flashed back to the USAA insurance I used to have back home.
“Actually this insurance is good in Nicaragua. It’s the official insurance company of the US Military. It’s good everywhere in the world. You know, if you’re in the military you never know where you’ll end up.” It was a Hail Mary. I had dragged the US Military into my lie. If there is a hell, I would certainly end up there.
He called another officer over. “Hey, does this insurance work here? This guy says it does.”
“Nope, it’s no good.” The other officer said. Just then, a car came racing through the checkpoint and the second officer ran to stop it. Our officer seemed unsure what to do, and tried to get the attention of his colleague. After a few attempts he gave up. He handed me the papers and looked at me.
“Am I free to go?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. I drove away.
“Gracias!” Sheena squealed from the passenger seat. Way to play it cool, Sheena. Way to play it cool.