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  • For many years several of my women friends and I hiked regularly in the mountains that surround San Cristobal. After the Zapatista rebellion, however, there were too many people in the mountains still walking around with guns, so we stopped our treks. But there is still one very beautiful walk right outside of town, which we continue to enjoy. The hike is upstream along a small river, through a deep valley and to the mouth of a cave, out of which the river emerges. Along the way it is possible to meet a Mayan with a mule carrying charcoal or a bunch of Chamulan children watching over their sheep.

    An American couple, Bill and Kathy, lived in San Cristobal for a couple of years and we became close friends. They too loved this special hike. They have since moved back to the US but return every year for a couple of weeks. On the final day of one of these visits we decided to walk along the river to the cave. I put my dog in the car, picked up another friend and then met Bill, Kathy and their children on the edge of the forest where we left my car as well as their rental car.

    We were lucky. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning. Small white clouds crossed the sky like little sheep. Birds were singing and the air smelled of honey. We explored the cave and relieved our feet — hot from hiking — in the cool mountain stream. We shared intense conversation and treasured introspective silence and, finally, enjoyed a tasty little lunch. It was a brilliant day of pure joy.

    Around two in the afternoon, we returned to our cars, except that our cars had vanished!

    We kept looking back to the forest path along which we had wandered so happily just a few moments before and then back to where our cars should have been waiting for us, but each time we checked, it was only confirmed that our cars had disappeared. We could not believe it.

    Our cars have been stolen, echoed in my head and I felt my heart’s fierce beating.

    “We have to alert the police!” I heard myself shout.

    One of San Cristobal’s advantages is that it offers more than two thousand taxis. Whenever, wherever you need one, two or even three are available, even as far out from the center as we were. Bill and I hopped into one, telling the driver to get us to the police station as fast as possible. The others returned home in additional taxis.

    It was a Saturday. Behind the ruin of a desk in the station’s office sat a bored policeman of la policia del tránsito (transit police). He wore golden rings on two of his fingers and a golden chain around his neck. He even showed two gold teeth whenever he opened his mouth. The man did not seem happy about our arrival and the weekend work it might bring.

    “They have stolen our cars!” we conveyed together with my fluent and Bill’s more limited Spanish.

    “Well,” the policeman demanded, “describe your cars to me!”

    We did.

    “Where did you park your cars?

    “Up there on the edge of Peje de Oro,” I answered.

    A grin flitted across the policeman’s face. His body relaxed with the knowledge. He led us to a window and pointed into the sad looking police yard. We could hardly believe our eyes — there were our cars staring back at us!

    “How is it possible that our cars are here?” I asked, feeling a fury build up inside me.

    “Your cars were illegally parked. We had them towed.”

    “We did not park illegally,” I protested. “Parking is allowed where we left our cars!”

    He did not contradict me. Instead he changed the justification. “A man who lives where you parked called us and said somebody had abandoned two cars in front of his house.”

    “We parked at 9:30 this morning and then went hiking for four and a half hours. That is not abandoning a car,” I pressed on. But I realized that my indignation was not moving the alegre (happy) policeman at all.

    “You each owe us two thousand pesos for the towing, or two hundred dollars,” he proceeded calmly.

    I shouted. “I will not pay anything. I was not illegally parked.”

    “Then,” the policeman concluded calmly, “Your car will stay here.” Another policeman entered the room. He could have been the first officer’s twin. Then both disappeared, leaving us alone.

    It would be impossible to voice our protest to a higher authority until Monday when the full police force was on duty. There was no way around leaving our cars where they were and going home with only our outrage waging havoc in our guts.

    My husband knew the chief of the policia de tránsito. Monday morning he telephoned him. But this connection only repeated what we had heard earlier. “We had to tow your cars and to do that we had to pay the towing company. If you want your cars back you must reimburse the police.”

    We told all our friends the story, of course. Someone suggested we contact a new radio program where citizens who felt they had been treated unjustly by government officials could complain. We went to the radio station. After listening, the broadcasters told us, “You are not the first people this has happened to. Many citizens have made similar complaints. The police and the towing company, apparently, have discovered a new way to generate income.”

    Our complaint was put on the radio. The following day the police telephoned us at home. They said I could come and pick up my car. There would be no fine.

    “The second car, though,” the caller said, “Cannot be returned. We checked out the rental car and discovered that it is stolen.”

    I was bemused by the police’s investigative capabilities.

    Bill took the news easily. He called the car rental company in Cancun where he and his family had started their holiday. They sent a new car that gave them yet another unexpected day in San Cristobal. In spite of this, they still made their flight back to the States.

    A month later the police chief resigned.

    Art by Kiki

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