Pardon me if I go all Sophia Petrillo on you.
Picture it, 1988, Ocean City, New Jersey. I’m two years out of college and I’m ready to take my first vacation on my own. Something where I fly somewhere. I’m unattached, so this is a solo adventure.
I think, I keep hearing about Cancun, a fairly new resort that was built because its beaches were considered really beautiful! No matter I’m living in a beach community at that moment, and never visit the beach. The 23-year-old ’80-guy me can’t imagine a vacation without a beach, or a mullet.
Option 2: Maybe finally see the West Coast. Everyone says San Francisco is the prettiest city in the United States and I hadn’t been west of the Mississippi at that point. I don’t mention to the girl I’m casually seeing that the Castro hold a certain appeal, too. Information is hard to come by. It’s the ’80s, so all I have is brochures from the travel agency a few blocks from my job.
My job is reporter/graphic artist/editorial cartoonist at the Sentinel-Ledger, a Jersey Shore weekly that gave me my first newspaper job. I worked there day and night in a newsroom that vaguely resembled the sheriff’s office in Mayberry. It was a perfect first job. Also, eye-opening.
A story came to the newsroom that made me re-think my travel plans. The mother of a college-age boy was desperate because her kid was in a Mexican jail. He had been in Cancun and took an excursion with some other young travelers to see the ruins. They got pulled over, and the cop apparently found some pot in the car. Naturally they were all detained. They could get him out of jail if only she knew who to bribe, and how much. That was all I needed to hear. I chose San Francisco for my little adventure.
I thought of that when I saw a letter to the editor last week in the Los Angeles Times. Previously, the Times’ Sunday Travel section devoted a lot of ink to the pleasures of the Yucatán Peninsula. Everyone was happy. Then someone responded to the package, writing a letter to the editor with a “warning” for would-be travelers. Police had pulled them over in downtown Mérida and threatened to rape his wife. An absurd story, and unfortunately it is what comes up today in a Google news search. And the expats of Mérida immediately came to their city’s defense. On social media, the backlash was even more intense. Hardly anyone believed his story. Not that police won’t give a driver a hard time … but gang rape? … in the middle of downtown Mérida? Luckily in this day and age, there are ways to publicly correct a damaging letter to the editor.
It could have been an honest mistake. One commenter suggested that at best, the letter-writer had confused “violación” (of a traffic rule), with “violar” of his esposa. But even people who had been hit up for bribes or confronted unscrupulous cops thought this story was a bridge too far. The letter will inflict a lot of damage just days after the paper had done so much good for Yucatán’s travel industry. Why? Mainly because the letter-writer is piling on. The corrupt cop ruining a gringo vacation is a recurring story line.
Elsewhere, on a Facebook page about Mexico travel, a person who drove all the way down from California to Yucatán complained that once he got outside Mérida, he was hit up for a bribe. He asked if anyone else had been in this situation and what they did. In 23 hours, 110 replies followed with a wide range of opinions. Don’t do it! Stand firm. Oh, just get it out of the way and pay. If politicians can take bribes, why not the cops? One person swears by this tactic: Mangle the phrase “No hablo Español” as “Yo No Fumar Español.” It stops any attempted transaction cold. “My favorite phrase… It’s so confusing, it works! I’ve yet to pay a bribe. My goal is not to pay a bribe while traveling, not so much for the morality of it, more for the sport of it,” he wrote.
So the same old stories about Mexico and bribes still surface, but today they are countered by replies from people with a clearer sense of balance. If there were a Facebook back in 1988, I might have explored the country a lot sooner than 2010.
Not that things turned out all bad: San Francisco was memorable, and I didn’t meet with Hurricane Gilbert.