Our little band was up and at ‘em, devouring breakfast by 7:30 am. We figured the 207 mile drive would take about four hours. That would leave us plenty of afternoon time in Puebla to find a hotel, do a little exploring, relax and have a nice dinner later.
I, more than anyone else, had been looking forward to Puebla since we put it on our destination plan. I have fallen in love with the ceramic style here called Talavera. Puebla is the home to the factory that originated the process in Mexico. L had already visited it with his tour groups and promised I was going to be impressed. I was almost like Pavlov’s dog every time the name Puebla was mentioned!
We were planning on following MX 57, which is a great freeway system that bisects Mexico from Irapuato to Mexico City. There it changes names and goes around Mexico City to rejoin with MX 150 directly into Puebla. Easy direct route except for a large half circle we had to do around the City proper.
The drive was really nothing exciting. Just a freeway with a bunch of countryside along side it. Not boring, since we were in Mexico after all, but the only major thing of interest was that we passed through the Strawberry Capital of Mexico. I wish I could remember the name. We discussed stopping and buying some preserves or something, but never could quite make up our minds and it was not an easy pull off and over anyway. So on we traveled towards the City, traffic getting heavier and heavier the closer we approached. It started to become more industrialized and populated also.
At this point, one needs to understand a little of the geography of the City. Mexico City proper is immense. It has to be with a population of over 23 million. However, there is also a state called Mexico that rings the northern half of the City. Two different entities. We knew we would be entering the state, just touching the fringe of it as we passed this huge metropolis. At some point, the freeway as we knew it up til then, ended. We were now traveling on city streets. They were four lanes, but unmistakably city streets, complete with stop lights. I pulled to a stop at one in particular and the route signs indicated that I needed to turn right when the light changed in order to continue on around the City. This I did.
Immediately upon making the turn, within the first 20 feet or so, several uniformed and armed police officers jumped into the street in front of us and waved us over to the side. They did not appear to be City police, nor were they Federal. They wore special brown uniforms with some sort of emblem that we did not recognize. I think they may have been special transit or traffic police. I pulled to the curb, with L in his usual passenger seat position as navigator. Two of the officers approached the passenger side, which was also the curb side, and began to talk very sternly to us. I, of course, had no idea what they were saying. We asked them if they spoke English, but they said no. Our plan of not speaking Spanish to anybody in authority unless we had to was dashed again. So from that point on L had the horrible task of translating to us and back to them.
They explained to us that we had just crossed into the no drive zone and would now have our car impounded, have to pay a fine of 6800 pesos ($630), would have to spend the night in the City and go to court the next day and meet with a Judge. He would decide if and when we got our car back and if we had to pay any additional fines. We were shocked to say the least. We had no idea that we had crossed some magical border. There had been no signs to indicate that a no drive zone was approaching or anything like that. Since we were just barely, barely into the zone, we told the officers that we would back up, turn around or do anything else needed to just turn around and leave the zone without driving any further into it. L explained that we were just dumb tourists trying to get to Puebla and evidently had made a wrong turn. We had no intention of even going to Mexico City. We were not allowed to leave. Once into the zone, once into the zone. You had to deal with it. At this point the officers returned to the pack they had come from, leaving us alone for a few minutes to ponder our situation. We were frightened, to say the least.
No way did we want to have to fork over $630 of our dwindling budget, spend the extra money for a hotel somewhere in Mexico City or spend the extra time there. We were also frightened of what the Judge would do. He could easily, in this loose system of justice down here, levy another fine against us. Plus we would have impound fees of an unknown amount to deal with later. L suggested, and we concurred, that they had left us alone to give us the time to come up with the idea of paying a "mordita", or little bribe, on our own without them having to suggest it to us. I had sworn to myself that while living in Mexico I would never pay a bribe unless it was a matter of life or death....like to avoid going to jail to become some macho man’s senorita!! However, we unanimously agreed that we would see if we could buy, coax, cry, or plead our way out of this and be on our way. At once, we all emptied all but the most minimal amount of cash from our wallets and hid it in various places within the car. We did not think that they would be searching the car, that was not their purpose.
When the officer reappeared, L explained that we were on the last part of our trip and that we had very little money left with us. But was there some way we could pay part of the fine to them directly and be on our way. Paying and negotiating a bribe is a very delicate thing. We mentioned an amount that we thought we could pay, I think it was $100. He immediately said no and restated the full figure of $630. (remember that we were really talking in pesos but I have changed it to dollars so you can understand how great the amount was) We all then pulled out our wallets and started passing money to L, in full view of the officer so that he could see how much we had. We came up with about $180. He still said no. So we gave L the remaining bits of money we had, everything. Every dollar, every peso. We showed the officer that our wallets were truly now empty. I think it came up to about $280 by that point. He said he would take $500 and let us go. We told him that we did not have it. He said that we were Americans and he would take us to a cash machine and we could just withdraw the difference and give it to him! L quickly corrected him that he was British and also told him that we did not have cash cards. We did all of our banking on Isla Mujeres and had only brought cash with us for fear of being robbed and having our credit cards or bank cards stolen. With that, the officer returned to the mob of other officers and left us to stew.
He returned shortly and told us that we should follow him. He would take us to the impound lot where we could get a taxi and go wherever we wanted until the next day when we had to appear in court. That made us almost frantic. We all reached into our pockets and withdrew the money we had stashed there and came up with another $100. That made the total $380. And he accepted it! L, bless his quick thinking heart, added a caveat to the deal before turning the money over. He reminded the officer that he was not only an officer of the law of Mexico, but also, being a Mexican citizen, he had a history of honor in his blood. (or words to that effect. Everything down here is so much more flowery and indirect) L told him that before we would actually give him the money, we expected to receive his oath of honor that they would stay with us and direct and guide us out of this zone. We wanted them to do this because otherwise right down the block we could get pulled over again and have to go through the same thing again. He kind of puffed out his chest and said he was indeed a man of his word and would be pleased to escort us. We all breathed a small sigh of relief.
But it wasn’t over yet.