Mexico City, early 1977
I had spent several pleasant hours in Chapultepec Park and at the castle and was walking back to my room near the Zócalo, through pleasant tree-lined side streets, when I spotted it in a second-hand shop window. It was not fancy, nor did it seem to be expensive, and I decided that it would make the perfect gift for Dale, who had been such a good and generous friend to me in Los Angeles.
After a protracted haggling session, more for my pride than profit, I exited the shop with a machete, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied up with string. The machete had an ornate handle and was complete with a leather scabbard. It had probably once belonged to a rich ranchero; it did not look as if it had ever been used for everyday work. I was very pleased with my purchase.
Early next day I checked out of my hotel and set out on foot to the bus station, that served the cities in the north of Mexico. It was a long walk and I was thankful that it was still cool, although the traffic fumes were already barely tolerable. The air was thick and every horizontal surface seemed coated with a layer of dust.
I had been told that on a clear day, one could see Iztaccíhual and Popocatépetl. At nearly 5500m they are much higher than Mont Blanc and much closer to the centre of Mexico City than Mont Blanc is to Geneva. If I had not seen the photographs of the two huge snow-capped peaks, I would not have believed that they existed.
Eventually I arrived at the terminal of Autobuses del Norte. It was situated on one side of a large plaza and I bought a one-way ticket to Tijuana, via Guadalajara.
I found my bus already at its stand, with the engine running, the air-conditioning on, and the driver in his seat. As it was not due to depart for more than half an hour, the driver told me I could leave my bag on the bus if I wanted to go for a coffee.
I remembered that I had some lottery tickets I wanted to check, so I set off for the plaza, where I was sure there would be a lottery seller with a list of recent winners. As I was leaving the bus I decided to take my machete with me. Although I was confident that my bag of travel-worn clothes would be of no great loss to me if it were stolen, I did not want to run the risk of losing Dale’s gift.
Once outside the bus terminal I could see a group of vendors on the other side of the plaza. I took my lottery tickets from my pocket and set off to see if I had won anything. When I was in the middle of the plaza I suddenly heard a loud whistle to one side and another behind me. I could see some men in uniform running in my direction with guns drawn and turned around to see who they were chasing, to find others running toward me. Within seconds I was surrounded by several hostile faces, with their guns pointed towards me.
‘Put your package on the ground and raise your arms’, barked one of the uniforms. Bemused and feeling sure that there must be some mistake, I obeyed.
‘What is in the package’ said the same voice, which belonged to a smarter uniform than the others.
I explained and one of the soldiers ripped open the package.
‘You are under arrest’ said the authority, not even asking to see my passport or papers.
‘What on earth have I done wrong?’
‘Since the riots at the university, it has been decreed illegal to carry a weapon in public’.
‘But I had no idea’.
‘Too bad for you, you can explain that to the judge. Take him to the barracks’.
And one of the soldiers grabbed my arm and led me off to a car park, while another hurried behind with the machete and wrappings. Rather bewildered, I found myself shoved in the back seat of a grubby decrepit two-door car, with the two seedy-looking uniforms in front of me.
What to do? How to get out of this? And my bus was leaving very shortly with my bag on board. I had heard horror stories of drugs being planted on unsuspecting foreigners, large fines being demanded, and weeks and months of waiting for the wheels of justice to grind.
‘So what happens now?’
‘You will be held until the judge has time to hear your case’
‘And how long will that take?
‘Who knows – one week, one month, maybe longer’
‘And what will be the outcome?’
‘Perhaps a sentence, perhaps just a fine’
I was trying hard to remain calm and rational, but I could feel my resolve starting to slip way. I had about $150 in a pocket and some traveller cheques in another, but once in the barracks they both would most likely disappear. And very minute took me closer to the barracks and further away from the bus. I felt I had to act quickly.
‘If it’s a fine, how much would it be?’
‘If I give you enough money to pay the fine for me, would that work? If the fine is less, you could keep the difference´’.
‘How much do you suggest?’
I took the money from my pocket and counted out $125.
‘That’s all I can afford; I need the rest for food´.
‘The machete is confiscated’
‘That’s fine with me. It has caused me enough trouble already’.
‘OK, let’s go’.
An immediate U- turn amid the blaring of horns, waving of fists and expletives, a handing over of dollars and a short time later we were back at the edge of the plaza. They let me out, shook my hand, wished me luck and sped off. I almost started to like them, thieves though they were.
I decided to walk cautiously around the perimeter of the plaza to the bus station. I could see several soldiers and I did not dare to risk another encounter with them. I reached the bus with five minutes to spare.
‘Did you enjoy your walk?’, said the driver, recognizing me.
‘It was quite memorable’, I replied, going back to the seat where I had left my bag. After what seemed like an interminable time, the doors closed and we headed out.
I don’t recall much of that journey north. I was quite shaken by the recent experience and the taste of my new-found freedom was almost intoxicating.
After Guadalajara I dozed off and woke up just before Tijuana, dreaming that the bus had been flagged down at a roadblock, soldiers entering, searching for a foreigner without a machete.
It was not until I walked across the border to the US that I remembered that I still had not checked my lottery tickets.