Have you ever fucked up so bad that time stops, giving some great ethereal fist the opportunity to slip past your teeth, punch down your throat, and choke stop the conversion of oxygen in your lungs’ alveoli? That’s how bad I messed up on my first day in Guatemala.
We’d been at it awhile, both traveling and fighting. My girlfriend and I spent the previous night under the stars — it would have been romantic had it not been completely necessary. The van we’d been living in for months was in a sandy mess, as sideways and stuck as Congress trying to pass a bill. That fiasco caused me to alter my plans and depart the country of Mexico via its southern border in a rush, which in turn led to some terrible decision-making at a checkpoint 60 kilometers north of Guatemala.
It was a routine stop. We’d already been through at least a dozen military checkpoints along the serpentine sections of Highway 1 down the fingertip peninsula of Baja, California. The theme continued through Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and the other half-dozen Mexican states we had traversed with relentless disregard for what American libertarians such as myself refer to as a slightly annoying invasion of “a right to be secure in persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The tradeoff for uncrowded beaches and cheap margaritas.
So, when he flagged us down, it didn’t seem out of place. His authority and plastic identification badges were convincing in the grog of the previous day’s adventures. He asked for the vehicle import sticker, the one I knew I should have paid for 3,700km ago. I didn’t have it. He knew it. I knew it. The maroon monster affectionately named Falcor that we had been traveling in was never actually registered in my name. How I made it through 12 international border crossings without a proper title is still beyond me.
As in each of the previous stops on the trip, I slid the side door of the old Dodge Ram van open so the government official could inspect the contents of our life. An old futon mattress and a half-crooked balsa wood bookshelf, ill-constructed for the tumultuous dirt roads of Mexico, filled with dusty, creased books overlooking a not-quite shag blue carpet filled with illegal sand and chunks of surf wax. Not impressive by most people’s standards — his included.
Nevertheless, he hopped in and made himself comfortable. He assured us he could help with the sticker dilemma and pointed south toward the office. Like the law-abiding Canadian she is, my girlfriend took to the helm of the old V8 and pushed our trio south, with me riding shotgun. The white office building I assumed he was pointing at moments ago zipped past my right shoulder as his short arm gestured us forward. I looked back at the man sitting in the middle of my 8-square-foot living room with a sudden mistrust. The official logo on his grey polo shirt — covered by the now-swaying identification badge — showed the moniker of a well-known US-based massage parlor chain.
I repeatedly asked in broken Spanish where the office was as we rolled farther and farther from the checkpoint. Thirty kilometers after he’d convinced us to let him in, he informed us that the office is actually near the border and we need to keep driving. The situation became more uncomfortable when he pulled an old Nokia flip phone from his pocket and called “someone he works with,” giving them coded instructions on where to meet.
Everything about the situation was fucked. I knew it. He knew I knew it. The thin veil of authority he once possessed had faded and fell away. That squatty little prick clearly did not have our best interests in mind. Preemptively, I mentally committed myself to the impending violence as Lauren drove on, unaware of the peril at hand.
Long story short, I was able to avoid stabbing him in the neck and fighting the other two guys on motorcycles he called to meet us at the otherwise unpopulated area where he had us stop, which is what I thought I was going to have to. And Lauren got to have her first real get-away driving experience.
So, as I was saying, we cross the border and it’s our first day in Guatemala…
Editor’s Note: This is the first entry in a multi-part series of true stories from Leo Jenkins’ travels south of the US border.
Leo Jenkins is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, and the acclaimed author of Lest We Forget, On Assimilation, First Train Out of Denver, and With a Pen. Since his time as an Army Ranger medic, Leo has traveled through over fifty countries and competed at an elite level in both triathlon and CrossFit, while racking up over 10,000 hours of hands-on coaching experience in Olympic weightlifting, running, swimming, cycling, and cross-training.
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