Out of the corner of my right eye I saw movement, something rushing toward me. A few milliseconds later there was a brutal thud as something hit my car. Instinctively I hit the brakes and turned my head toward the point of impact. There was a smear on the window, but nothing else.
In that slow motion that accident victims always describe, I noticed heads turning toward my car, people pointing their fingers toward me from a distance, others cupping their hands on the sides of their mouth to shout.
Then I heard a wailing next to the car, a sound all too familiar to any parent of a young girl. There were shouts coming from every direction. People don't get this animated when a pet gets hit in Mexico, I thought. Something bad is going to come out of whatever is happening outside this car, but I have to get out right now.
Some woman was already rushing down the sidewalk at a dead sprint by the time I got my dazed body out of the rental car and saw the little girl lying there on the sidewalk. Her face was contorted and covered with blood. Something was wrong with the shape of her mouth.
A kid the same age was trying to explain what happened to an elderly man. A younger man chimed in and from what I could pick up, they had seen the whole thing. I didn't know as much Spanish then as I should have for someone driving around Mexican villages in a rental car, but I knew some. I knew enough to tell that the prevailing chatter was "the girl hit the car," not "the crazy gringo did this."
So there was the first point of relief, but then thoughts led to the inevitable next question: "What am I supposed to do now?" I don't belong. I'm only in this spot because I missed the turnoff to the gated entrance of a fancy resort I was supposed to visit for my job. I was just using this one-church village for a big U-turn, easing down the narrow streets and keeping eyes peeled for stray dogs, kids chasing a ball, and popsicle vendors with a cart. But there I was with blood on my vehicle, standing next to a helpless young girl on the sidewalk who now looked nothing like she did a few minutes ago.
This was my first time visiting the state of Nayarit, in the mid-2000s, when I was on assignment for a travel trade publication and trying to navigate the often-illogical road rules on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Every time I have returned since and been in a rental car, something bad has happened, like there's some Huichol witch curse on me that only hits when I get behind the wheel.
Buses and taxis? Great vacation. Keys to a rental car? Trouble coming.
Granted, some of these mishaps were on me, like when I showed up at a rental car counter with a passport but no driver's license. They let me rent the car anyway, but said, "You'll be in trouble if you get pulled over." That time I only used the car to get from one hotel to the other on a family vacation and managed to avoid further mishaps.
Other times though, trouble seems to hang over my borrowed car like a cloud. Once, while trying to find a hotel with no signs that's so far down a potholed dirt road that you should really have a four-wheel-drive to get there, we stopped to ask for directions. After finding out we needed the longer potholed dirt road one over, I put the car in reverse and promptly bumped into a motorcyle parked in the road in my blind spot. It slowly fell to the ground.
Although I was going the speed of a sleepwalking elderly turtle at the point of impact, the motorbike owner acted like I had plowed into it with a bulldozer and then backed over it with a steamroller for good measure. He proceeded to tell us it would be very expensive to fix, that his means of transportation was ruined, and that this was going to disrupt his entire life. He said he had to take it to a mechanic (i.e., his cousin) to get it checked out.
So we drove to a house nearby and after a few slang-filled exchanges in rapid Spanish to elude our comprehension, the "mechanic" took it for a ride. While everything looked like it was working perfectly as we watched, he parked it with a grave expression of concern. He confirmed that yes indeed, this was going to be very expensive to fix, that his client's means of transportation would never be the same, and his customer would certainly need to be adequately compensated since the shocks were not working as they did before. His estimate was 8,000 pesos to make things right—about $450 at the time.
I knew that I could buy that exact motorcycle new for about 20,000 pesos and this one looked like it got wheeled out of a store at least five years ago. After some dramatic posturing on both sides that wasn't getting us anywhere, I apologized for the inconvenience and handed him 1,000 pesos. There were protestations and threats to call the police, so we relayed in Spanish, "If the police think we have not paid you enough, we will be at the hotel at the end of this road."
We never saw them again, but the bump had left a small mark on our rental car, the kind any U.S. agency would ignore but a Mexican one would seize upon as a big billing opportunity. That problem took a little well-placed mud to hide. We never got a visit from the police at our deserted beach at the end of the dirt road.
After the girl hit my car that first fateful trip and I surveyed the scene, I took stock of the characters gathering around me, trying to figure out the players. The wailing woman on the sidewalk was probably the mother, the other little girl a sister or best friend. Relatives, a respected elder, a cop strolling down from the top of the hill, then a stern man of my age walking quickly in his cowboy boots and shiny belt buckle, with a creased forehead.
The father? Damn, he looked like he could kick my ass without even trying, especially with an angry mob looking on. I grew increasingly worried about my pitiful Spanish fluency. Back then I was still on Round 1 of the Pimsleur course and hadn't taken any formal lessons. Sure, you can get by in English at a resort in Puerto Vallarta, but what happens when you've got a bleeding girl on the sidewalk beside you and a village of Spanish-only speakers figuring out whether to grab the pitchforks and torches or not?
I was pondering all this when I first saw Carlos. He was a full head taller than anyone, with wild hair sticking up in all directions, tattoos running down his arms, and eyes that pegged him as someone who had probably sampled every pharmaceutical experiment that has ever passed through Mexico. He had on ripped-up denim shorts that sagged and nothing else, his feet and chest both bare.
He bent down and looked at the girl's face like he had seen it all before, then consulted with the father and mother. "We goes to doctor," he said in English. "You drive car."
U-oh. I was in deep now and the one English speaker besides me was taking charge. I'd heard more chatter and seen more pantomine and the consensus was going my way: she ran into me.
Still, when it came to who was going to deal with the problem at hand, that didn't matter. In their eyes I had the perfect combo of three characteristics that made me the person to get her to a doctor right now: "white," "wheels," and "wealthy." The third one may have been ridiculous in my own reckoning, but not in theirs. I had a car. It was air-conditioned. I was wearing nice clothes. So unlike them, I obviously had enough money to pay the doctor.
So off to the doctor we went, the serious father Gabriel going into the back seat, cradling his bawling daughter in his arms, thankfully not even thinking about kicking my ass. Carlos, who had shaky hands and a permanently lit cigarette, was a brother. Mother wailed her goodbyes and most of the village population looked on as I hit the highway going toward the doctor's office.
"Take it easy," said Carlos, in an accent that made me remember we were near a backpacker surf spot.
"What's your sister's name?" I asked him.
"Take it easy," he answered.
So I asked him in Spanish. Juanita. Age 8. Just three years older than my own daughter was at the time. Would I be as composed as her father was in the back seat, with my beautiful little daughter looking like she just came out of a boxing ring after 15 rounds? Would I want to lash out at someone over this, even if it wasn't his fault?
Ten minutes from the village we got to the doctor's office. Someone called ahead and the doctor was waiting, rushing everyone inside. He and the nurse cleaned the girl's face, this action accompanied by ongoing screams of pain and an onslaught of tears. After the cleanup they gave her a shot as she wailed some more. But soon the doctor picked up the phone and made a call, simultaneously talking to the father and shaking his head. It didn't look good.
"Eighty-five pesos," said Carlos, waving a finger toward the nurse.
"Eighty-five pesos," he repeated, pointing again. Weakly, I held out 100 pesos. The nurse gave me 15 pesos change.
Carlos told me to take a left and drive, that we were going to a larger hospital. I had assumed as much, but wondered how long this would all last. Despite my best efforts to put it out of my mind, I couldn't help but dwell on the fact that I was already late for my appointment at the swanky hotel. I didn't have my contact's number with me either.
"You need a shirt," Gabriel said to Carlos in Spanish, so Carlos told me to stop in the village, telling me in English that he needed to talk to his mother. He walked back toward the car buttoning up a shirt while still holding a burning cigarette.
It took us a half hour to get to the hospital in a town up the coast, which turned out to be only a few rooms larger than the doctor's office we had just left. This guy meant business though. A curtain was drawn, trays were rolled in, and masks went on. The screams and crying commenced again.
Gabriel and I walked outside and sat on a bench. We could still hear his daughter loud and clear and other parents mumbled condolences to the father. I tried to make small talk in my crappy Spanish, but it sounded forced and I felt stupid for trying. So we sat quietly and waited.
"Give me 80 pesos," said Carlos, staring at me unblinking with those dilated pupils and holding out his hand. I tried to ask him what it was for, but "Take it easy," he replied.
These were the days before international cell phone roaming, but I realized I had a pay phone card and thought about my missed appointment, already two hours past. Even in Mexican time that is downright late. I found a pay phone and made a call back home, getting my wife to call my contact and explain what happened.
I returned to the bench next to the pensive father.
The nurse called us in. I made sure she really wanted me to come, then realized why as I saw the policeman standing next to the hospital bed where the girl was lying, her face wrapped up with bandages and gauze, tears streaming down her one unbandaged cheek. The policeman soon realized my language skills were lacking and turned to the father. I didn't understand most of the questions or the answers, but Gabriel repeatedly shook his head in a no answer while alternating his eyes between the floor and Juanita.
The policeman asked Gabriel to sign something, but not me, which I took as a good sign. Emptying my wallet was preferable to a Mexican jail.
Next the doctor started talking with Gabriel though and it didn't take any grasp of the language to see that the news was ugly.
"Take it easy," said Carlos and motioned for me to come outside. He had a new pack of cigarettes in hand and tapped out one to smoke. Through a bit of two languages and some hand motions, I got the general overview. Three teeth knocked out. A broken bone in her face, three stitches outside and two more in her mouth. She'd have to go to a dentist for implants once the swelling went down. I was sure this family couldn't afford all that.
"Give me 200 pesos," Carlos said on cue as he stamped out his cigarette on the ground. He pulled out a slip of paper with a doctor's name at the top. A prescription with three medicines was listed, probably heavy-duty painkillers. He bounded off to the pharmacy across the street.
A nurse called me back into the hospital and asked me to take a seat at the desk. With Gabriel looking on apologetically, she presented the hospital bill. After initial pain killers, five stitches, two doctor consultations, and three types of prescription medicine, the total I had laid out came to a shade under $42—a fraction of what I pay just to get a cleaning from my dentist. Someone told me later that if Juanita had needed to spend the night at the hospital it would have been about $18.
Maybe I was wealthy after all.
"Take it easy," said Carlos as we loaded up the car and headed back to the village. Nobody spoke during the drive. A crowd gathered around as I parked the car near the family's house, a murmur making its way around as people spied all the bandages and the significantly darker black eye, still filled with tears. The mother started bawling as soon as she saw her daughter, holding her close as she carried the fragile girl into the house.
"I'm sorry," I told Carlos in English and Gabriel in Spanish. "It was an accident." If I had learned anything in my studies of Mexican culture, it was that this phrase absolves everything. We are just passengers in this life and only the Americanos up north are brazen enough to think they can alter the course of fate. What happens happens, then we move on.
After my distracted appointment at the luxury resort, where we drove past a golf course that was $250 for one round and where rooms ran more than $1,000 per night, I drove back to my own more modest hotel in the fading light and made a phone call home. My daughter told me about her day and some game she was playing with her dolls. I let her talk away as the pesos clicked off 5 at a time on the card phone. Just before it got to zero, I told her good night and that I loved her.
When I returned to the Riviera Nayarit this year, I worried again about my local curse. After all, the signs were ominous before I even left. I reserved a car from my local airport in central Mexico weeks ahead of time, with Budget Rent-a-Car. When we got to the airport though, loaded down with a month's worth of luggage, the agent shook his head and said, "No cars."
When I explained that we had a reservation and offered a confirmation number, he just shrugged. "Call them and try to get your money back if you already paid," was the best he cold do.
So we went to Hertz and took what we could get, for far more money. Instead of a nice mid-sized automatic, we ended up with a tiny hatchback with manual transmission and automatic nothing.
I got all the way through the highways of Guanajuato and Jalisco with no problems, but it only took an hour into the state of Nayarit before the curse returned. As I pulled out of a grocery store onto a 4-lane road in the dusty town of La Peñita de Jaltemba, there was one car coming from the left about 400 meters away, then a motorcyle coming in the far right lane from the other direction. So I pulled out across the road, into the left lane to avoid the motorcyle, and got up to speed.
It turned out that the motorcyle driver was a policeman and apparently my rental car, sunglasses, and Panama hat screamed out "Target!" because his lights went on behind me. I knew I had done nothing wrong, so at first I thought he just wanted to get by me to nail someone else who really committed a crime. I pulled over to the right lane to let him pass, but he stayed on my butt and turned on the siren.
I pulled over, asked in English what the problem was, and made it clear that we were confused about why his lights were on. I thought he may be fishing for a bribe, but protested like a proper stubborn innocent. When I kept being defiant instead of pliant, he got more and more frustrated. I wanted to play the dumb gringo on vacation, but my wife finally let loose with a string of relatively fluent sentences about how we had done nothing wrong, there was nobody coming in either direction except him in the other lane, and we were just American travelers passing through in no hurry.
He eventually asked if I had been drinking and I just laughed. En serio? It was not even 1:00 in the afternoon. A few minutes later two other policemen showed up and were even more annoyed that we were arguing. One had a mask on when he approached the car, but kept pulling it down to talk to us, which kind of defeats the point of wearing a mask during a contagious pandemic. So we kept recoiling and asking him in Spanish to please cover his nose and mouth with the mask when getting close to us.
"When I'm in your country you can tell me what to do," he said angrily. "When you're in my country I am going to tell you what to do." He then poked a breathalizer in my face, his deputy said "Cero" with disappointment, and the three of them walked back to the squad car.
"I guess we're getting a ticket," I said.
We did indeed, but of course we couldn't go pay it right then because it was siesta time at the police station. We would need to come back at least four hours later, the motorcycle cop said, to the address on the ticket.
Our hotel was a half-hour away and we weren't hanging around this dusty roadside town, so we left to go check in.
"It'll probably be about 400 pesos" the receptionist said when we relayed what happened. It ended up being 800 (around $40), plus about two hours of effort. We had to drive back to the town, then ask a variety of people where the police station was since the address on our ticket was one that Google Maps couldn't find. None of the people were right, but then we saw a cop on a motorcycle and asked him. He told us to follow him and we eventually ended up on a dirt street with garbage swirling in the breeze, at a building that wasn't visible from the main road.
We knocked on the door and the guy who answered was clearly sleeping before, dressed in shorts and a tank-top white t-shirt. We gave him our name and ticket as he rubbed his eyes and thumbed through at least 40 driver's licenses looking for ours. I started to feel better about not offering a bribe, but maybe the other drivers were just too broke for that. Someday they'll pick up their licenses...if they manage to come up with the cash.
A few nights later we were having dinner with two local Mexican friends and told the story of what happened. "You could have paid him 200 pesos and gone ahead," they agreed. "You didn't offer so he gave you a ticket." Sometimes having principles can really cost you.
In Mexico, a bribe is called a mordida, a "little bite." You know there's a lot of corruption when a bribe has a cute nickname.
In the past when I would see online discussions about Mexican policemen pulling over gringos, I would contest that the chances of that were very low. I'd been driving for a decade and a half in Mexico, in a dozen states, and had never been targeted by the police.
That ended on this trip though because I got pulled over twice.
A few days before heading home, I was trying hard to be a good driver, but on the streets of Puerto Vallarta and Nayarit, it's like a video game where you are never quite sure of the rules. Sometimes you turn left from the left lane, sometimes you turn left from the far right lane, crossing traffic. Sometimes you go veer right on a retorno and exit to do a U-turn. Sometimes the stoplights are right in front of you, sometimes they're off to the side, sometimes they're behind a leafy tree branch.
At some point, as I focused on the car in front of me instead of looking up, I apparently ran a red light. A few blocks later, blue lights flashed on the motorcyle behind me and I had to find a place to pull over. This time I played nice in Spanish, my wife asked politely what the problem was, and the policeman kept tapping his ticket book while telling us how much trouble it was going to be if he had to retain my driver's license he was holding. I would have to show up to the police station to pick it up. "With this infraction, it might cost you 2,000 pesos," he said, showing concern that he really didn't want to trouble us so much. "How much would you pay now?"
I knew the correct answer to that question: 200 pesos.
This time I probably was guilty, I said to myself, and the policemen in Mexico are criminally underpaid. So it's like a charity donation, after all, a contribution to the cause.
As he handed me the ticket book on a clipboard with my license on top, I slipped a 200-peso note under the first page and took back my license. We wished each other a good day and I pulled back out onto the road.
Next trip I'll find out if it also lifted my curse.
Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning travel writer and blogger who is based in Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running bargain travel blog here.
Portions of this story appeared previously in BestTravelWriting.com as "The Collision" after winning a Solas Award.
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