Thursday, February 26, 2009

Encountering Authority

Author's Note: I had pictures. I had a whole roll. They "disappeared." Let's just pretend I've got pictures of big guys dressed in black with guns.
Getting stopped by the authorities at any time is a nerve jangling experience. We have all been there. The pleasant highway patrol dude pulls up behind us, our palms start to sweat, our breath hitches and a tightness forms in the pit of the belly. We haven’t done anything wrong -- and in fact at that particular moment, the speedometer reads a mere two miles above the speed limit. On the other hand, we know that at some point, some where, at some time in the not so distant past, we were bad. If you haven’t gone 40 in a 25 at some time in your life, you are not living life to its fullest.

Multiply this nervousness by four when stopped on the water, because inevitably the folks doing the stopping are armed to the teeth. The scariest guys by far on the seas we have traveled are the United States Coast Guard. USCG boats are highly efficient craft designed to play hoppy jumpy fun and rompy in the Potato Patch outside the Golden Gate. They come equipped with very large, automatic bazooka things mounted to the front. The men and women of the USCG take their job very seriously, the bull horns are loud, and they do not respond well to small talk. Last summer, we heard stories about the USCG stopping boats crossing over the US-Canada border that were spine tinglingly icky... enough so that the proprietors in harbors along the south coast of Vancouver Island said the USCG was scaring all their customers away.

Double the fear factor again when stopped by the floating military of another country -- though it appears unnecessarily so. Our first encounter with the flotilla of a foreign power was when we were waved down by the Canadian Coast Guard near Winter Harbor. While I’m frantically trying to find our paperwork, passports, and spare PFDs to demonstrate our legal permission to be drifting around in Canadian waters, DrC handled the formalities on the bridge:

“Hoy there! Y’all doing well?” asked the Canadian on the deck.

“Um... Yeah, yes, we’re doing well,” responded the ever glib and talkative DrC, “um... uh... and uh... you?”

“Oh yeah. Doin’ well here. You want some fish, eh?”

“Fish?” DrC was now utterly baffled.

The Coastie gave a friendly nod and held up two fish, “Oh yeah. We got ourselves a real nice catch here, and it needs eating. Your family would enjoy some rockies, eh?” During our Canadian Coast Guard boarding, we learned that the Canadian system of coastal service is a little confuzzling to the non-native as it combines their fisheries service with the more traditional defend and protect responsibilities customarily associated with flagged, armed boats. Apparently, these guys wanted to off load some by-catch of their research efforts before it went bad. Good eating, eh?

The Mexican Armada is considerably less glib albeit -- believe it or not -- even more polite than their Canadian counterparts. Just last night, we were politely hailed and then politely told we were going to be boarded for a “routine inspection... routine inspection, okay?” “Si. Okay,” because how else was Capitain Cone-her supposed to reply to a very large, extremely well armed military vessel. In very broken English, the radio operator invested a lot of effort in explaining to us precisely what was going to happen, when, how, and for what purpose. This gave us enough time to put on clean shirts and a skirt, stow dirty laundry, wipe off the salon table, and get water started for coffee. We couldn’t find the Coast Guard cookies so the girls made due with icing on graham crackers.

The sunlight was nearly gone when the larger vessel finally dropped a little patrol boat which sped towards us at high speed to conduct the “routine inspection.” Every single individual we interacted with -- from the patrol boat bristling with armature to the hand gun toting radio guy to his two rifle toting guards -- repeated this phrase “routine inspection.” It must say somewhere in the Mexican armada manual, “When approaching an American yachtista, do not scare the shit out of them.”

Or... it just occurred to me... maybe they were worried we would pull out our own guns. Because they asked.

You have any guns? No No. We do not have guns.

Do you have any drugs? Medicines, yes... drugs no.

Do you have papers? Yes. Can we see them? Of course.

How many people? How old is the captain? What was your last port? Where are you going? Can we do anything to help you?


How can we help you?

Um. Well, yeah. We were -trying- to get to Maruata before dark, but now because you stopped us it is pitch black. Do you have better charts than this piece of crap we got from C-Map?

OF COURSE! Come on back to our really big boat with the scary weapons all over the front. We’ll just whip out several copies of the chart of the coastline. And don’t worry, we’ll escort you all the way to Maruata which is just around the corner. We’ll make sure the locals here don’t feel any notion to rob you. It’ll be just fine. It’s all okay. There are no scary armed men here. It’s all just a “routine inspection.” Okay? And by the way, would you please take this little survey about your satisfaction with your routine inspection experience. How did you find our service personnel? Was everyone courteous? Did it take a long time? Did you get all your questions answered? How can we improve our boarding operations in the future?

I am not kidding you. It was like having dinner at Applebee’s. They wouldn’t let us leave until we let them know we were fully satisfied with our boarding opportunity and released them from liability for any damage taken during the process. We even have papers to prove that we have already “had our boarding” and don’t need another one. It was a complete This Is Mexico (TIM) moment... also known as WTF?

I admit, there was something very comforting about the large military craft that dogged our heels all the way into our anchorage. We let them know when we had safely dropped anchor. They were most solicitous, asking about the quality and set of the anchor and whether there were any pangas disturbing us. It was like getting put to bed by an overly solicitous parent.The captain then wished us good night’s sleep and a successful voyage before he motored off to protect, defend, and conduct polite and satisfactory boardings of other vessels plying the Michoaloan coastline.


Singing Land Cruiser said...

Holy Sittoto Toast! I remember driving down to Rocky Point. It was dusk and about 20 miles into Mex. I came upon coffee cans of fire dotting the center strips of the road. Just over the rise, the heavily armed uniformed men came into view. Well, needless to say, I was looking for a place to change my pants. I've heard stories you know. But, they just waved me through. Go figure. Stay Safe Toast. All the Best Michael & Christi Hargis
PS. Our "New to Us" Bus is in our driveway.

A Wannabe Travelwriter said...

Geesh, now I know that the "extra homework assignment" that I requested (have the girls send me an email on the craziest thing that has happened during or on, while the girls were doing the net) got superceeded by the Mexican Navy!

And then I had the gall to ask for research on the species distribution of jellyfish in this area.

I guess we will talk in Barra soon.
We are in G32 in the marina.

Hey, Toast - great blog post.

Anonymous said...

Holy smokes! We've been cycling Mexico for two months now and haven't even talked with the police - unless you count today when the only unoccupied space to lean the bikes against happened to be in front of the local police station so I went in there and asked what town we were in!

Anyway, I'm really, really REALLY happy to hear that all is well. We've seen nothing but very kind and polite Mexicans too.