Annie arrived at 9:13 PM in the middle of Merida’s rainy season on a Continental flight from Houston, the only direct flight into Merida from the U.S. She had not wanted to stop in the United States as she did not support that country’s politics, but had discovered that she had to in order to fly into Merida and not nearby Cancun. Annie was about to enter the University of Calgary to begin a career in international politics and because of her interest in Latin American studies, learning Spanish seemed like a smart idea. She had taken some beginners classes and so had a very basic grasp of the language, but the reason for this trip was to polish her language skills to get a leg up on the courses that would be coming at her in the fall.
Annie could not believe the heat once she left the somewhat air conditioned airport building. It was a sticky, warm mass of humidity that enveloped her, got into and under her clothes and made her hand, holding the handle of her carry-on bag, slippery with condensation as her body – and the luggage – warmed through, from the outside in. And this was 10:30 PM. She wondered how bad it would be the next day.
Her host Mom, who told her “Just call me Rebecca” when they had first talked on the phone after several weeks of emailing back and forth, had been there at the airport to greet her. Standing beside her was her 10 year-old daughter – Rebequita – who had stared up at her with an expression of cautious suspicion, as if to size up this new -although certainly not permanent – member of the family.
Rebeca (the Mom) now led her through the dimly lit parking lot to an older model silver mini-van. “Aqui estamos! Que calor, verdad!” she said with a grin and opened the rear first, before opening the other doors. The luggage man, perspiration staining his light blue shirt, lifted the one large suitcase from his dolly and placed it in the back of the van. Annie had wanted to drag her luggage out herself but Rebeca wouldn’t hear of it. Rebeca gave him some coins and a “gracias, joven” and he was off, half walking, half running to get inside and perhaps have a shot at another customer before the passengers dispersed.
As he ran, huffing and puffing and pushing the dolly in front of him, he made a little sign of the cross in grateful thanks for the tips received just now. It was only 10 pesos and probably one of the most miserable tips he had received in a while but he tried to concentrate on the positive and on getting back into the luggage pickup area where he might find some more passengers who needed help. The Continental Airlines flight was the only international flight at that hour and there was only one opportunity to get a few services in and make some tip money. The worst was when you had all their luggage piled up on a dolly, 10-12 suitcases and were ready to get out to the car, get the tip and hustle back in, they would decide to chat and catch up. And you had to stand there like some kind of living statue while you were completely ignored or, if someone should catch your eye, you had to smile politely and then look away, so as not to let them know you were itching to get on with it already.
The van moved slowly, in a line of several cars, until they reached the parking lot exit. Fortunately Rebeca had remembered to pay her parking ticket inside. On a previous airport visit, she had forgotten and after reaching the exit realized her mistake and had to leave the lineup of cars, park again and head back inside to pay the damn thing. The airport had installed machines that replaced the humans who used to work at the airport parking lot exit, making the process entirely automatic for about a week, when it was discovered that the new machines did not accept some larger bills and that they ran out of change rather quickly. The previously dismissed employees were now back at work in an office behind the machines, dispensing change and small bills for customers and occasionally charging the old fashioned way – by hand. Rebeca shook her head as she thought of the embarrassment of having to leave the lineup that day. She pulled out of the parking lot and merged into traffic on Avenida Itzes, towards Merida.
Annie sat in the front seat as Rebeca drove the three of them home, Rebequita in the back seat watching, on a screen strapped to the headrest of the seat, a DVD of what sounded to Annie like The Little Mermaid in Spanish. As Ariel chattered unintelligibly with her fishy friends, Annie suddenly felt tired from the long travel day, but she knew she had to stay awake just a little longer to meet the rest of the family. She was glad to see flashing lights ahead, blue and red and noticed the traffic slowing. Something to keep her awake.
“What it is?” she asked Rebeca, who was putting on her seat belt as she slowed the van down. Her agreement with her host Mom had been that she could speak in English only the first week and from then on, todo en español. Her host Mom would not speak English to her at all, unless it was an emergency of course.
“Es la policia” answered her host Mom, “un reten. Tienes tu cinturon puesto?” Rebeca looked at Annie’s seat belt and nodded approvingly. Of course Annie, conditioned like any good Canadian to strict seat belt laws, had put on her seat belt as soon as she got in the car and didn’t really understand the question, but did not have the interest or the energy to get into a discussion on seat belt regulations in Mexico.
Rebeca rolled down her window as they approached the police checkpoint. The three lanes from the airport were becoming one and Annie noticed how all the cars jostled for position, horns blaring, to get into the only lane that was open. No one seemed to want to give an inch. She wondered if her host Mom would let the little car to the left of them with the family in it get in front of her, but no way. Rebeca stared straight ahead, oblivious to the traffic around her and satisfied that she was now in the correct lane. Traffic was now moving at a snails pace.
They arrived at the checkpoint. Annie saw a black and gold police pickup truck with a black canopy on the back, a second smaller black police car – both with blue and red lights flashing – several dozen traffic cones with lights inside them marking the lane they were in, and a large, bright light hanging from a tree that shined directly into their faces. Policemen wearing black on black uniforms topped with black bullet proof and carrying menacing machine guns. Across the street, for traffic coming in the opposite direction, the scene was the same. Some of the policemen wore ski-masks. Annie felt nervous excitement at this blatant display of law and order.
“Porque…hacen…” she gave up trying “why are they doing this?” she asked Rebeca.
Rebeca said nothing and concentrated on the policeman now approaching her drivers side window. The officer wordlessly pointed a flashlight into the interior of the van through the open window, pausing briefly on each of the three faces.
Annie was annoyed by the light in her eyes but she sensed it was not a good moment to voice her objections.
Rebeca said nothing and looked back at the officer.
“Adelante” he said, waving his hand.
Rebeca rolled up her window, looked at Annie and gave her a tired smile. Annie smiled back.