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.
The whole time I am reading this post, this is all I can think of:
Hopefully you can see it. Be safe. -Rob
Comment by Rob on April 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm
You guys ROCK! And are so totally cool. Glad you took notes from us and you don’t even want to know what we are doing now about insurance questions. Picture all four of us in the small office filling out the paperwork and our two little ones crying or running around wildly while we search hard (i.e. shuffle through our paperwork looking for a piece of paper that does not exist) and then saying, “oh I think the last marina/port captain/whoever kept our copy.” It’s worked two times so far…
We are enjoying your trip stories. Much love, Ali
Comment by Ali Schulte on April 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm
222 funny, luckily. Man, you give a whole new meaning to driving dirty. Is it a mere coincident that 90% of the ads on the side of this post are for dirt cheap car insurance?? I just followed my bus atop another flatbed to go have her guts ripped out and reinvented. Diagnosis is I threw a bearing in the bottom end of the motor. Good news is I think I may have finally met the only real mechanic who has crossed my path, via my frantically following a lime green beetle the entire way into and thru town the other day against my daughter’s pleadings. I wagered, “He’s got to stop for something.” Thank goodness for trains. I approached cautiously as to not startle him and let him know up front that all I was interested in was the name of his mechanic if he had one he’d recommend. And that was that. A generous family member is fronting me the pesos and I just may make it to my camping gig in Michigan at the end of May, VW Gods willing. As for my turbine, I’ve reached the conclusion that I shall start drying my drawers from the pole since I am highly disappointed in the poor performance and lack of any real payback on that investment. I’d rather keep investing in bottomless pits of heavy metal, like my bus. Drive on fearless road warriors, drive on. Eat some more melon for me.
Comment by sherrie on April 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm
Good call. Years ago we did a Capetown to Cairo trip in our 1970 Baywindow VW. We put together an “insurance” paper complete with a couple of gold seals. Needed it twice, worked like a charm.
We never paid a bribe either. The secret was hitting the roadblocks early in the AM before any drinking took place. After 3 years of working in Africa my wife had perfected the African female staredown, employed whenever the men are acting like jerks. The guys always try to either get a smile or some kind of reaction out of the women. The women respond with an icy “asshole, you don’t even exist” look that shrinks the gonads. Bonus is that it keeps things from turning into a male vs male ego contest, which guys (cops & soldiers especially) don’t want to lose.
Best story was lending a guy with a flat tire a jack. Turns out he was the customs chief at the Zaire border so no problems with our overstayed visa!
Comment by Jim on April 29, 2012 at 4:42 pm
You are an arguably funnier writer than most of the “comedic memoir” authors I’ve read (and I’ve read at least two…maybe three…four seems unlikely). If you ever find yourself bored, motivated, or held hostage at a publishing company, I suggest you compile your blogs into a book. Then, when you are a New York Times bestseller and featured in Oprah’s book-o’-the-month club (that’s the Irish Oprah version), you and Sheena can continue partaking in the awesome life…from your yacht: Nacho Grande.
Just puttin’ it out there.
Comment by Kelly on April 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm
@Ali: Nice hearing from you! We spent a lot of time on your blog before this trip. Hard to focus on much of anything non-travel related once you’ve mentally “checked out”. We wish you were headed south so we could hang out more, but I’m sure the Sea of Cortez will be amazing. Say hi to Pat and the wee mates for us!
Comment by Brad on April 29, 2012 at 11:13 pm
@Kelly: That’s so nice of you to say! Nacho Grande? I like the way you think. That would be worth writing a book for. I think I would go for a more Taco Bell themed “Nacho Belgrande”. mmm…
Comment by Brad on April 29, 2012 at 11:16 pm
Verbal wrath on Tom Danielson? Sally girl? Do tell!!!
Comment by James V on April 30, 2012 at 11:25 am
Comment by Ada on April 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm
This was an unbelievably great post! Self-insured is the only way to go. Definitely beats buying auto insurance in that weird, white room from that Progressive chick.
Comment by Rick Hosmer on April 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm
Thanks Rick! And by the way, she has a name. And it’s Flo ;)
Comment by Brad on April 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm
You guys are my personal hereos. Way to stick it to the man! Too bad “self-insured” does not work here in California.
Comment by Ian on April 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm
Ian, you never know until you try…
Comment by Brad on April 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm
I got here from expeditionportal, and just read your blog from start to finish. Wow! You guys are awesome! It has been very enjoyable to read, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Having a daughter starting college, and a son starting high school, I am not ready to try something quite like this, but I definitely want to see some of this. I have quite a few Mexicans that work for me, and they are always telling me I should go see Mexico. Obviously, I should take them up on that. Thanks for writing your blog!
Comment by Rich on May 1, 2012 at 6:03 am
Thanks Rich, glad you’re enjoying it so far. There’s something deeply enjoyable about watching someone else throw themselves into a quagmire. Enjoy from the comfort of home, and try to make it out to Mexico one of these days. Drive down Baja and back- you’ll love it. Just not in the summer!
Comment by Brad on May 1, 2012 at 10:56 am
The story of Tom Danielson as crybaby, eh? To summarize:
When Tom and I were in college, there was a collegiate mountain bike race in Durango called the Squawker Classic. He raced for FLC, and I raced for NAU. We were racing Short Track Cross Country (STXC) on the first day, which is basically a 45 minute mountain bike criterium. Very fast paced and very hard (my favorite/best event).
Early in the race, Tom tried passing one of my teammates on the inside of a tight corner, and ended up wrecking. Meanwhile, I was riding in the leaders paceline, which had around 8 guys in it. Eventually, Tom worked his way back up to us and ended up on my wheel.
He’s always been better at road riding, and doesn’t have the greatest technical riding skills required for mtn bike racing. He kept trying to pass me, but couldn’t seem to find the right place. He’d get out beside me, but would get trapped by some rocks or bushes, and have to duck back in behind me. Bear in mind, I’m in a paceline, sticking to someone else’s wheel, and I have no reason to drop back and make room for him. If he wants to pass, he needs to be aggressive about it, or else pass the whole group.
Every time he’d get strung out beside me and get trapped, he’d fall back in behind me and say something like “F*** you!”. It was annoying while at the same time comedic. This guy keeps coming up beside me, then falling back. “F*** you!”, “You f**ker!”, “F*** you!”
This went on for a couple of laps, and every time he did it I wanted more and more to punch him in the face. I raced for years and never encountered someone who acted like such a d-bag. He seemed to feel entitled, and he thought I should ease up and give him my spot. That’s fine in road racing, but not in MTB.
Anyway, he ended up sprinting for the win with my other teammate, Scott, and beat him by a few inches. Scott tried to pat him on the back in congratulations, but Tom swiped his hand away and yelled “F*** you!”
I approached him after the race as he was surrounded by his groupies and laid into him. It went on for a while and attracted quite a crowd. He was wearing his national champion’s skinsuit, and I told him that it wasn’t a license for him to act like a moron. He acted pretty submissively, probably to save face in front of his friends, but I made sure to let him know that he was a certifiable d-bag.
In the meantime, one of his groupies turned to one of our guys and pointed at Tom. He said “You see that guy? He has more money than you’ll ever dream of having!” This started its own sideline show.
That’s the long and short of it. Later that year at the National Championships I overheard him saying, with a disbelieving look on his face, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Tom Danielson.” A real class act.
Comment by Brad on May 1, 2012 at 11:18 am
This is awesome! Close calls though!
Comment by Jamison on May 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm
toda una aventura…….. me parece que sera tu rutero en las proximas millas,,,,,,,,,,,, Ecuador.Peru..Bolivia.Argentina………… te estare informando al respecto que documentos necesitas para viajar en estos paises….saludos
Comment by mario on May 7, 2012 at 9:07 am
oh boy, is this hilarious or what? you two are consistently behaving in an awesome manner. keep it up!
Comment by michal on May 7, 2012 at 2:10 pm
Way to think on your feet! Those were some scary situations.
Comment by Kenneth on July 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm
We had a COPY of the vehicle Title I think it was… we had handed it over for many a shake down before WE OURSELVES NOTICED that in its patterned background hundreds of times was printed “THIS IS A COPY” …lol… we learned that color photo copied licenses laminated worked brilliantly… along with “Lo siento, no hablo espanol – touristas” repeated for about 20mins worked 10/11 (we were illegally in Colombia so we thought we better pay the man US$10 of is US$200 demanded shakedown) Safe Travels!
Comment by Daniel Kristensen on March 23, 2014 at 3:55 am
AMAZINGLY THAT strategy even worked when I had legitimately broken the law driving the wrong way down a one way street and then tried short cutting through a bus station to loose local policia which had been circling and were in hot pursuit… I DO NOT RECOMMEND this… we played incredibly dumb, lost and “no intiendo”… 20 mins later they gave up!!! THAT was a surprise I thought we were in for a massive fine… I guess they hate paper work as much as we hated being shook down!
Comment by Daniel Kristensen on March 23, 2014 at 4:04 am
Oh wow. As I was reading this from the very first paragraph I felt like things would get very very bad! It goes to show that even though I consider myself open minded that when it comes to dealing with foreign officials many stereotypes have effected how I feel.
Comment by Allen on January 13, 2017 at 9:38 pm