Tuesday, March 25, 2014
the stolen purse / mexican police / learning spanish / mexico city 2014
I can't say how it happened because I don't know.
We'd sat down to have lunch in a small restaurant. Lunch in Mexico City usually means a meal of three courses. I don't like to eat that much in the afternoon, but when you're travelling, it's best to go with the flow. My one attempt to explain to a waiter that all I wanted was a piece of bread with cheese and a slice of avocado was disastrous. I got stale bread, an inch-high mound of melted chewing gum, a thin smear of avocado, and the whole doused with meat grease and drippings because the cook didn't want such a drab plate to leave her kitchen.
The three-course meals are actually only one meal served in three stages: 1) soup or salad 2) rice or pasta 3) meat or fish. Vegetarian options are nil. When I said vegetariano--which I'd checked in several sources to make sure I had the right word--I met with blank faces. When I said no carne--no meat--the waiters shook their heads.
You're thinking: this is Mexico; doesn't she know about beans? You go to Mexico. Try the beans. They're heavily salted and dosed with animal fat. I would sooner eat meat.
I haven't travelled a lot, but I've travelled. I know not to carry my passport and money in a purse. I still carry some form of bag because where else can I keep those daily necessaries I like to have within reach? Notebook, lip balm, kleenex, gum...
The bag I took to Mexico was a half-moon I'd sewn from a piece of paisley fabric I bought on St-Hubert. It wasn't even lined. I'd made it in a rush to use on a particular afternoon--and kept using it. Here, in Montreal, anyone with a decent eye would have recognized it was homemade.
Usually in a restaurant or cafe, even with nothing important in it, I keep my bag on my lap, but that day I slung it on the back of my chair, which was against the wall and more than a meter from the street with another table between ours and the street. The bag was still there when I reached for it to get my camera--yup, I had my camera in my bag--to take some pix of the restaurant interior. The gigantic papaya and cactus pads on the counter. The ongoing work of making tortillas. The woman pinched a ball of dough onto the press, squeezed it flat, flipped it to the griddle. The cooked tortillas got dropped into a large round basket. She moved non-stop, if at a relaxed pace. Depending on the meal you ordered, the waitress brought a stack of tortillas from the basket to your table.
I can't remember what R and I ate that day. I probably braved the salad--ie the tap water in which the lettuce was washed--refused the rice/pasta--ordered some form of tortilla dish.
When we finished and I reached for my bag to leave, it was gone. Nobody in the restaurant seemed to have noticed anything. Or--and I don't want to think this--they'd noticed and were complicit. The two men next to us were eating and talking. They were in their shirt sleeves. They had nowhere to put a bag. R recalled seeing an antsy man who'd sat at the table closest to the street without ordering a meal. He was talking on a cell phone. Or pretending to. But he was long gone.
I was trying to recall what I had in my purse. My digital camera was already three years old and not an expensive camera to begin with. But to me it was valuable because it was mine, and it had four days of pictures on it.
My prescription sunglasses would be useless to anyone who didn't have my exact prescription and focal point. Though I suppose the lenses could be popped out and the frames... I don't know what the frames would be worth in Mexico. I had to buy medication at one point and it was a twelfth of the cost it would have been in Canada, so maybe frames are really cheap in Mexico too. But, for me, those prescription sunglasses were a luxury--the first time in my life I'd ever had prescription sunglasses. A special treat.
My notebook, my notebook... I write fiction based on scenes and descriptions in my notebooks. Even if someone could read English and figure out what I'd written--of what use would my notes about Mexico City be to anyone but myself? I'm still more sad about my notebook and the pix on my camera than anything else.
There were other odds and ends. A scarf wide enough to make a shawl, but light enough to carry. Extra heart medication in an unidentified bottle. What if the thief took one of the blue pills to see what effect it had. He or she wouldn't notice anything unless they were attuned to how their heart beat. Maybe then he or she would pop the rest of the pills and it would make his or her heart stop. Ha! I should look that up--whether an overdose of Sotalol could be toxic.
We didn't immediately think of going to the police because I hadn't lost any money. Was I going to complain because my favourite hair clips were stolen? My notebook? My photos? I felt so dumb. You can travel and be careful all the time. It's the one time you're not that something happens. I was mugged in 1985 in Barcelona and that was a lot more scary. I lost my passport and $5000 of travellers' cheques. Travelling and having access to your money is so much easier since the advent of banking cards. You only have to go to a machine and take out what you need. Before that, people had to carry travellers' cheques for the whole of their trip. R and I were travelling for a yr in Europe and I got mugged three months into the trip. I spent one very scary night feeling like a non-person. Mind you, it all ended well except for the fright. American Express reimbursed all my travellers' cheques, and a darling Spanish photographer, who wore a velvet smoking jacket and had a waxed moustache (not quite Salvador Dali), made the most flattering passport photo I've ever had. I think he airbrushed it.
Having my purse disappear wasn't as bad--not as shocking--as being mugged. It still took a while to remember that travel insurance might reimburse me for my sunglasses and camera. Might. Maybe. Who knows with insurance companies? But I would need a police report in order to make a claim.
We made our way to the station that the guidebook said handled tourist problems. The ground floor of the building was cavernous, divided into numerous tiny cubicles separated by walls topped with glass. From where I stood at the counter, I could see many heads bent over their desks. Everyone looked busy. No one noticed me--or noticed in such a way as to respond. None of the cubicles even opened toward the counter. It wasn't clear who was responsible. A police officer walked past and ignored me.
Since I anticipated that the procuration of a police report could take some time, I wanted to get started. I stepped around the counter and called out, "Hola!" This was why I'd studied Spanish, wasn't it? So I wouldn't be tongue-tied in a Hispanic country.
The woman at the first desk looked up in surprise. Maybe I wasn't supposed to step past the counter uninvited. At the same time, I saw that the task, in which was so engrossed, was the close examination of the glossy photos in a fashion magazine. So we had one of those visual exchanges that last less than three seconds, but that readjust the climate between the participants. I let her understand that I knew she wasn't working. She waved at the chair before her desk and asked what was wrong.
That was when I realized what else had been in my purse that was stolen--my Spanish-English dictionary. I didn't know the word for stolen and would have to guess at what--to my English ear--sounded Spanish. I knew that a purse was un bolso. I said, "Mi bolso es robo."
She looked startled. I don't yet know how to form past tense. My Spanish classes didn't get that far. My purse obviously wasn't being stolen while I was sitting there. People listening to foreigners could exercise a little imagination, eh? Maybe robo wasn't the right word either. I decided to add another syllable or two. "Mi bolso es robado. Robodo. Robolo..." Gone! I showed her I was sitting there without the requisite accoutrement that often hangs off a woman's shoulder.
By then I was speaking (shouting?) loudly enough that the woman at the next cubicle had got up to come listen. She was sucking a long caramel candy on a stick. I assured both women I was not carrying a passport, credit cards--tarjetas de crédito--or money in the purse. We did learn some useful vocab in my Spanish classes. I explained that I wasn't trying to pursue justice or find the thief. I only wanted a police report for the... here I blocked big time. No idea what the word for insurance was, so I used French. It's a completely impractical notion, yet the belief still persists that Romance languages are similar. I said, "para mi assurance."
Later that evening, when I bought a new dictionary, I looked up insurance. It's seguro. No wonder no one understood.
A police officer in a bullet-proof vest had joined the group. He and the two women conferred in rapid Spanish which I couldn't follow. The woman with the caramel candy said she would help me and returned to her desk.
The woman at whose desk I was sitting seemed to feel the problem had been solved. She returned to her magazine. Then, as if she'd just remembered, she upended a fancy paper shopping bag that was on the corner of her desk. She'd been given some hand cream samples, several small tubes, maybe on her lunch break. She dabbed cream on her hands, rubbed them together and smelled them. She didn't offer to share, which was just as well. I only use unscented products. She opened a drawer in her desk where she had other hand cream samples, which she scornfully tossed in the garbage, and dropped the new tubes in the drawer.
Through the glass, I could hear the woman at the new desk slapping papers about on her desk. I could only see her head--she was still sucking on that lollipop--seemingly busy on my behalf. I wondered how she could be filling out a police report since she hadn't even asked for my name.
The police officer in the bullet-proof vest reappeared and announced he was ready. The woman with the lollipop rose briskly and came around to where I sat. She had a torn scrap of paper which she read out with laborious effort.
I appreciated the effort she'd taken to write this out. Perhaps I can't express myself as well in Spanish. I thought I could, but I realized no one had understood yet I hadn't had any money stolen. Maybe it's my accent. I have a friend who speaks Spanish and tells me I have a German accent, which doesn't make sense, but I guess my brain and my mouth get mixed up.
Certainly the woman's colleagues--the woman with the hand cream and the police officer--were very impressed as she read these words.
I asked why I had to go somewhere else. She said it was because this other police station worked with my embassy. "What embassy," I asked? "You don't know what I am. Ustedes no preguntan cuál nacionalidad soy!" So, okay, that probably isn't a sentence at all. I have no idea if pregunta, which is a noun, can even be turned into a verb à la contemporary American journalism, but I am pleased that I remembered to use the polite form of address. I wasn't a total gringa.
I nearly got the lollipop bopped on my nose. Seems I was making silly objections. This other police station dealt with all the embassies. She waved me off. Couldn't I see the officer was waiting to drive me?
He was going to drive me? I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I asked how long it would take to get there. She splayed her fingers. Two. Maybe three. "Horas?" I asked. She nodded.
It was already four o'clock. We had tickets for the opera that evening. I wasn't missing it. I'm not such an opera buff, but I really wanted to get inside the famous Palacio de Bellas Artes.
As soon as I said I had tickets to the opera, everyone's manner changed. Culture is BIG in Mexico City. The lollipop got tucked into a cheek, the fashion magazine pushed aside. The officer said I could go to the other police station tomorrow. For now he would drive me to my hotel so I could get ready for the opera. I thought he was kidding. He waved a regal arm--which was cute since he was barely as tall as I was. I said mi esposo was with me, out there on the other side of the counter. I had a very tiny concern that I might be whisked off, never to be seen again. I still couldn't quite believe a police officer was going to drive us to our hotel so I could get ready for the opera.
In the street there was a formal changing of the guards kind of maneuver between my cop and the one waiting in the car who had to leave his front seat and get in the back behind my seat, so that R and I were as far as possible from each other. I reached for my seat belt--good Canuck that I am--and only when I tried to click it in place did I realize there was a submachine gun between the seats. I didn't know what to do with my seat belt and stupidly held it at my hip. The officer driving didn't wear his.
By then it was rush hour--though it might be rush hour all day long in Mexico City; I'm not sure when it ever abates--and the officer pulled some deft U-turns and tapped his horn to bypass vehicles. He asked which opera we were going to see. He asked what time it began. He didn't know I was only going to change my Tshirt and brush my hair, and then we were going to walk the half-hour stretch to the Palacio. Grab a cheap meal along the way.
Usually, when we arrived at the hotel there was a doorman or a bartender out front with a ready smile, but this time, when we showed up in a police car, everyone ignored us. If they had any curiosity, it was kept well hidden.
When I got out of the car, the police officer told me that it didn't matter if I went to the other police station. The thief had escaped. I would never get my purse back. Since I still didn't have the right word to explain about needing a police report for insurance purposes, no one had understood yet why I so particularly wanted to file a report. And now, in retrospect, dealing with the insurance company, I'm wondering myself.
But we did go the next day. The office of the policeman, who'd been assigned to deal with tourists, was only large enough for his desk and two chairs. I don't think it was a promotion. I don't think he was happy. He listened to my simplistic Spanish with no expression. When I finished he said--in very good English--that he needed two copies of my passport. I made to give him my passport and he reared back his head. "Aren't you going to make copies?" I asked. "No." I asked him where I should make copies.
When I returned with the copies of my passport, he placed the keyboard in front of me, twisted the screen to face me and told me to fill in the form. I guess he didn't want to have to be typing all kinds of foreign names, though he watched the screen closely and told me whenever I missed a slot. Then he took the keyboard and typed for a long time. I'm not sure sure to what purpose since, on the papers he gave me, there are only three sentences.
With great solemnity he said, "I am going to certificate this for you without charge."
Oh. I hadn't realized I was going to have to pay anything.
"If you pay," he explained, "you will have to go to another place and wait three hours and then come back to show me the proof that you paid."
So that was what took so long--waiting to pay. And now it was almost eleven, and this man wanted to have his lunch on time without having to wait for a tourist to return with papers he was going to have to certificate.
"Thank you," I said. I wondered how much it would have cost--just wondering, not because I wanted to contribute to the coffers of Mexico City. But I didn't ask because he looked like a man who could easily change his mind, and not to my benefit.
Of course, I had to go the market to buy myself a new cheap bag for my hair clips, my lip balm, my kleenex, a new notebook. Though I have to admit I didn't write much for the rest of our stay.