Our travel luck has run out

My wife and I just got back from a long weekend trip with friends.  We’ve been to the greater Playa del Carmen area of Mexico a bunch of times. We figured that this would be an easy trip.  And for the most part it was.

Hotel Basico, as always, was awesome. The rooftop bar and pool is great. The food is amazing. I’m not sure how they do it, but the fried fish nuggets are amazing. 

Playa, sadly, is slowly being turned into a more rustic Cancun.  It became noticeable last time we went and this time it was all too obvious. More stumbling drunk idiots and more chain stores. This is not a good trend.

For a change of pace, we headed down to Tulum to check things out there. Overall, we liked the area. There is, however, a fundamental problem with area’s value proposition. Most of the hotels are on the water and are rustic.  We had some very serene moments just watching the waves roll in.  But that being said, the price per night for one of these hotels seems to average about $170. That just is too high a shower whose pressure resembles a Windex bottle and a room that lacks A/C.  At $100 or less, the value prop works, but I just have a hard time paying for what I know to be a glorified back packer flophouse. (And in case you think I am being a snob, I have spent many a night in low budget hotels around the world and loved them. Much love to Archie’s House.)

So our travel luck…

On any trip there will be some hiccup along the way, but nothing that cannot be accomodated. On this trip there were three.  First up, Sunday was Day Light Savings in Mexico. Who knew? Clearly we didn’t but, apparently, the hotel staff did but neglected to mention it. A bit of frantic pre-coffee thrashing about but I’ve done worse. We had planned on leaving an hour earlier than usual to grab some breakfast back in Playa so the time change didn’t throw us off too badly.

Second up – on the way to the highway and north to Playa, the check engine light goes on in our rental. Thinking that it is just a gas cap related, and frankly having no other options, we pushed on. Then the engine light started blinking. The car started to shake when I gave it the slightest amount of gas. And then it died at a stop light.

Plane leaves in 3.5 hours. We are 1.5 hours away. Car, though not smoking, was not in a good way. Clock’s ticking.

There’s a Hertz kilometer so behind us and so we coax and cajole the car back there. Sunday morning at 7:30, I am not expected anyone to be there.

But there was! And at this point I must credit my friend L. She is a fluent Spanish speaker. But how many non-native speakers are familiar with automotive vocabulary? So L conveys the situation. The staff were amazingly helpful. Within twenty minutes we were rolling again.

Thus far we have dodged about as much trouble as one would expect to encounter on a trip. But you know me better than that. The next thing we had to deal with was bigger than the first two combined.

North of Playa, we get pulled over by the Municipal Police. Again, L to the rescue. But how many non-native speakers know how to talk their way out of a speeding ticket? According to the slightly pudgy cop (or at least the guy in the cop uniform) I was speeding. And according to him there are two things by which the police cannot abide: speeding and drinking (I think he meant drunk driving). He referred to me as “Speedy Gonzalez.”  He might as well been reading from the “Guide to fleecing tourist” handbook.

Did he mention how fast I was going? No.

Did he point out the speed limit? No.

But did he know enough American culture to refer to me as Speedy Gonzalez. Of course he did.

And what happened next was he said that my driver’s licenses, and me, had to go a half an hour away to be processed. (Keep in mind that downtown Playa del Carmen was, at most, 15 minutes away.) This option didn’t see so appealing.

L, smartly, asked if there was another way to deal with the fine for speeding. Our friendly overfed constabulary said there was. We could pay the fee right there by the roadside. The only problem was that he didn’t have a receipt to give us, but if we didn’t mind we could jsut pay him anyway. Sure, whatever. Amazingly enough, Mexico fines speeders in US dollars… $200 to be exact.

$200. Think of your last speeding ticket. If you got hit for $200, you were likely doing over 80 with up to, but not exceeding, 2 pedestrians squished on your hood.  $200 for doing, at most 10 km/k over the limit in a 100 km/h zone, seemed a tad excessive.

We didn’t have $200 on hand and weren’t really in the mood to part with that much scratch, L pressed on and asked what the fine would be pesos.  You know pesos – the currency of the country in which we were currently pulled over by Officer Hada Couple O’Churros. And so he starts to write on his hand and comes up with a figure 2000 pesos.  The exchange rate was in our favor but 2000 was way more than we had.

How about 1200 pesos?

Ok. Let’s just keep this between us.

Sure officer. Have a nice day.

And just like that we had just negotiated our “speeding ticket” down to $75. We even paid him. Now I asked you, how many non-native speakers know how to bribe pay a speeding ticket to the police officer by the side of the road? This is not a set of phrases they teach you in your high school Spanish textbook.

(BTW, I’ve heard from a reliable source that you offer 100 pesos and go up from there. Live and learn.)

So this threesome of troubles combined with the far larger Thailand affair has got me thinking that our travel luck has run out. For nearly 10 years we have had flawless travel luck. Best room in all of San Sebastian, for free – sure. First hand account of the brutality the Khmer, told quietly, honestly while sitting in traffic in Siem Reap – a treasured memory. An unplanned side trip to a family olive farm – a lovely surprise. I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve had more than our share of lucky breaks on the road. I’ve got to face it – we used up our good travel karma and now have to pay back the debt.

Not that that is going to keep us from traveling. I mean what’s the worst thing that could happen to us when we hike the Inca Trail this summer… on second thought, don’t answer that.

14 thoughts on “Our travel luck has run out”

  1. Negotiating a roadside speeding ticket? Clearly you haven’t driven enough in India, otherwise you would have had the practice.

    So, you’re planning to do the Inka trail in the summer? Well, no matter what price you have to pay karma for it, do it. Because that first view of Machu Picchu is totally worth any price you pay. There is absolutely nothing else that I have ever seen that even comes close (http://blog.nishantkaushik.com/?p=102). It is by far the single most amazing place I have ever been.

  2. I figured one of my friends from India would comment on this. Frankly, I don’t have the kind of mental strength required to drive in India. Further, being an outsider, I’m not sure I’d survive the learn curve to get into the groove of driving a) on the left side of road and b) using my horn as a turn signal. 🙂

  3. hey, think about the poor cop, he is not bagging all of that cash, he has to pay the rental company staff for getting all the license plate # & make & models for the rental cars going out that day…

    then again, how is this experience much different from all the DC police officers sitting in their cruisers around the neighborhood intersections in Georgetown, sipping Starbuck lattes and giving you a fine because all of our wheels weren’t properly stopped before proceeding across the intersection. Why fight real crime? In DC they have quotas for fines & parking tickets. In Mexico they cops aren’t paid enough to be able to support their families, certainly not enough to risk their lives combating the cartels, so at the end people do what they need to in order to make ends meet and stay safe doing it.

    If you want a predictable and non-adventurous travel experience (not to say rainy) – go to Sweden! 🙂

  4. Well, I got pulled over the same day, maybe he was just getting warmed up that day, because there was no recourse. I couldn’t understand his complicated instructions on how and where to pay the ticket and even when I offered to pay him on site (100 pesos is all i had on me) he wasn’t interested. I didn’t have the time to pay the ticket, wait for them to show up with my license….so i took the ticket and let them keep my license. I just hope this doesn’t come back to haunt me….

  5. The problems with the car were atributed to “bad oil.” My guess is not so much bad oil, but lack of oil in the engine… never will know for sure.

  6. that’s the way it works in Mexico, you should not complain as much because you did pay the policeman and it seems that you even asked the guy for a deal. coruption will never stop if tourists keep giving the police money to arrange their issues. you should have taken the time to go to the police station, pay the fine and ask for a receipt like you would have done everywhere else. for you it’s just a great vacation story but people in mexico struggle everyday with policial coruption and yes it is much easier to pay on the side of the road.

  7. Good insight into this. If I had the time I would have gone to the police station and done this all above board. I totally agree that the issue of corruption is far reaching and has much more of an impact to the day to day lives of people in such regimes as it does to tourists.

  8. I also got pulled over on that road on my way back to Cancun from Tulum. I paid 50 pesos. The best thing is if you had said ‘ok lets go the half an hour and get processed’ he would have probably let you go without having to pay anything, the same if you had insisted on the ticket he would have just let you go. The trouble is if we keep paying bribes they’ll keep trying to get them. Still your not to know unless someone tells you, usually after the fact 🙂

  9. I’ve been pulled over the last 2 years on that road from Playa to the airport. Got off the first year with a warning, not this year. Cop pulled me over at Playa and said I was speeding. Not, I was going 70 in a 70kph zone. He saw the luggage in the back window and asked where I was going. Unfortunally I said the airport. I think if I would have said Cancun for 2 days and Playa for 2 days, he would”nt have any control over us. When he asked to be paid for the ticket, I said just give me the ticket, he did. My worry is, when we go back in Feb. if I get stopped again, they will want many dollars or go to jail for not paying the fine. Anyone with ideas? Anu ideas on paying the ticket? Beware driving this road with luggage showing. Ed

  10. Don’t be scared to call the cops bluff in Mexico (if you’ve got time on your hands) they want quick cash and to get on their way. Patience and pay nothin at all 🙂

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