We reached Zacatecas in the early evening. After two long days driving through the desert from Ciudad Juárez, we were excited to explore the first of the old colonial towns that dot the backbone of Mexico. This was years ago, before smart phones or Google or Trip Advisor, but I was well equipped in the back seat with my Lonely Planet guide, studying the city map and the recommendations for budget hotels. We found ourselves in a charming narrow street off the main plaza.
“This one on the left looks good,” I said.
“Go check it out.” S— pulled into a parking space behind a beat-up Toyota pickup truck.
The two-story hotel appeared clean and basic, reasonably-priced, with two rooms available: one for me and S—, one for my father. When I returned to the car, I noticed a sign in front of the truck, partly in Spanish but mostly in incomprehensible symbols; it seemed to refer to the parking rules on the street, but I had trouble deciphering it.
“I’m not sure we can park here overnight,” I may have said.
“It will be fine,” —would have said. “We’ll be gone first thing in the morning.”
Or maybe I said nothing. S—would have accused me of being a worrywart. We were complete opposites: me deliberate and cautious; she bold and impulsive. That was the least of our problems. I was approaching forty and determined to try for a baby; she was seven years older with a son already in college, and no interest in starting over with child-rearing. There was no compromise position, which was obvious to everyone except me for a long time. Now it was clear our tumultuous two-year, on-again, off-again relationship was in the final inning. But she didn’t want to pass on the adventure, and I didn’t want to do it alone, and we usually avoided huge fights while traveling, so there we were: driving my father around Mexico in a dilapidated rented VW Beetle.
We’d flown from California; he’d travelled from England. Still going strong at seventy, he was there to conduct on-the-ground research for his next book. He had already published fourteen books, mostly historical biographies. Now, for Maximilian and Juárez, he was focused on the attempt by Napoleon III to establish the Austrian Archduke as Emperor of Mexico, and the liberation movement lead by Juárez, who became a national hero. The plan was to visit every corner of the country that had played a role in the 1860s conflict. Although my father was bright and charming, practicality had never been his strong suit, and it was a given that all the driving, navigation and logistical arrangements would fall to the two of us.
We settled into our hotel and spent a pleasant evening exploring the old town center, admiring the pink stone architecture and the cathedral’s ornate façade. My father located the building where Juárez was almost captured in January 1867, taking notes in the 3x5 soft-covered red journal he carried in his shirt pocket. We found a museum that would open at nine AM, and after a brief visit there, planned to hit the road, onward to San Luis Potosí and Querétaro.
In the morning, as we loaded our bags into the Beetle, I noticed a slip of paper tucked under the windshield wiper.
“Damn,” I said. “It’s a parking ticket.”
S—grabbed it and laughed. “Well, we’re leaving town.” She tore it in half and tossed it into the trash. “Let’s go.”
I had visions of us being chased to the highway by a diligent meter maid, but nothing happened. So, I forgot it.
Until we stopped later that day in San Luis Potosí. I was sitting in the car alone while my father went to take one more look at the Governor’s Palace where Juárez was based for several years, and S—hunted down fresh fruit. I was studying the map but looked up in time to see a police officer writing a ticket for a vehicle clearly parked in a red zone. And then I watched transfixed, as he pulled a screwdriver from his belt, walked to the rear of the car, and removed the license plate.
I froze, the proverbial lightbulb going off in my head. Once the officer left, I got out and walked as nonchalantly as possible to the back of our own vehicle. The license plate was missing.
Maybe I suggested we return to Zacatecas, apologize profusely, offer excuses about the ticket having blown away in the wind, pay up, and retrieve the license plate. Or maybe I just looked at S— and she said, “No.” Zacatecas was two hours back, and our itinerary called for us to end the day in Querétaro, still more than two hundred kilometers ahead.
My father was probably oblivious, absorbed in taking notes in his tiny handwriting. Or being polite, avoiding all conflict and decision-making. “I’m entirely in your hands,” was a phrase he used throughout the trip.
So, we carried on. In Querétaro we inspected the Convent of La Santa Cruz where Maximilian was based during the siege of 1867, strolled through the network of pedestrian streets and lively plazas, admired the floodlit buildings at night, ate street tacos, and bought a woven wall-hanging for my mother. It was a joy to discover these off-the-beaten-track towns, and I was relieved everything was going smoothly.
The following day, our goal was to navigate a route around Mexico City and head south-east toward Oaxaca, the city where Juárez spent his youth. We must have made a late start out of Querétaro, because it was already dark when we reached the vicinity of the huge, sprawling capital metropolis. Even on the outskirts, we got sucked into a maze of congested streets and confusing traffic signs, with road construction everywhere. We were lost and tired and wanted to call it quits for the day and search for a hotel, but I couldn’t figure out our exact location.
Suddenly, a police car reared up behind us, lights flashing.
“Shit.” S—pulled over, and an officer approached the driver’s window. Another lurked over his shoulder.
“Buenas noches,” S—said, turning on the charm that was always my undoing.
“Dónde está la placa?” the officer said. First thing out of his mouth: where is the license plate?
“No entiendo, seňor.” S—bluffed: I don’t understand.
“Dónde está la placa?” he repeated, gesticulating toward the back of the car.
He gestured for S—to exit the vehicle, which she did. When he pointed out the missing license plate, she feigned astonishment and said, “Ah. Muchas gracias, seňor. Muchas gracias.”
She repeated this several times, with the officer demanding to know the location of the license plate and S—, back in the car, thanking him profusely for bringing its absence to her attention. At one point, his colleague started talking about “la multa,” rubbing the fingers of one hand together, while I in the back seat thumbed through the dictionary.
“What does he want?” my father asked.
“I think he’s asking us to pay a fine, or perhaps a bribe,” I whispered.
“We should pay him then,” my father said.
But S—switched gears. “Por favor. Dónde está un hotel, seňor?” Where is a hotel?
“Dónde está la placa?” they said.
“Dónde está un hotel por favor?” she said.
This continued back and forth. Maybe I was briefly afraid we’d end up in a Mexican jail, but it soon became like a surreal game of ping-pong: hotel, placa; hotel, placa. We eventually threw the police officers off their stride. “Un hotel?” They debated amongst themselves about where to recommend, pointing in one direction and then the other. Finally, to my astonishment, they gestured for us to follow them; they were apparently going to help us find accommodation.
They pulled out into the traffic, and S—followed. After five minutes, they turned into the courtyard of a small hotel. It looked deserted, no lights, completely dark.
“I don’t think so,” S—said from the curb. And then she drove off fast, leaving our cop friends behind.
I craned my neck, checking the rear window. The police were nowhere to be seen. “Wow,” I said. It wasn’t quite Bonnie and Clyde, but it felt close.
“Stick with me, honey,” S—said. “I’ll show you how to have a good time.”
We all laughed. My father, somewhat to my surprise, found it very entertaining.
We drove on for another hour before finding a place to stay, and the next morning headed to Oaxaca, where we spent four days at a delightful guesthouse six blocks from the źocalo. The owner immediately bonded with my father, spent hours talking local history, and introduced him to a man who offered a personal tour of Guelatao, Juárez’s native village.
I looked up the Spanish word for screwdriver, and with the owner’s destornillador in hand, removed the front license plate and switched it to the back, hoping that a missing placa in the front would be less conspicuous.
And I guess it was. We travelled another fifteen hundred miles without being stopped. We had other issues: the Beetle blew a tire on a stretch of highway near Puebla, and when we limped into town on the spare, discovered that the brakes were almost shot. So, the blown tire probably saved our lives. The repair shop negotiated with the rental company to replace the brakes while we waited hours in a hot, dusty park across the street.
They asked once, “Dónde está la placa?” but accepted our shrugs and “No sé.”
S—had to return to work, so she flew home from Mexico City and for the last week, I traveled on with my father to Veracruz and then all the way up the east coast to Matamoros, at the U.S. border. I missed S—but liked no longer having to juggle both her needs and my father’s. I relished the prospect of alone time with him, but found it exhausting to do all the driving and navigating, and I lost my enthusiasm for hunting down every single place Juárez had ever set foot. The Beetle had no air conditioning of course, and I became irritated. I realized S—had provided a buffer between us.
But we made a detour one day to a beach, fifteen kilometers off the coastal highway: a wide, deserted expanse of sand, with seemingly no interest in attracting tourists. A few decrepit shacks adjoined the parking area, and in the distance a small fishing boat was pulling in from an early morning expedition. I floated in the warm, buoyant water while my father dozed on the sand.
As I toweled off, I remembered childhood summers in Cornwall, when my father pretended to sleep while my brothers and I surrounded him with sandcastles. Now, he and I laughed together and reminisced about other family vacations. My father said how much he appreciated having this time together; he’d accomplished all he’d wanted and was grateful for my help. He told me he was proud of all my achievements.
We did not mention the placa.
We’d rented the car in Ciudad Juárez, from a Mexican company, but the agreement allowed for us to return it to Avis in Brownsville, across the border in Texas. We arrived late at night and dropped off the keys; they didn’t bother to inspect the vehicle—probably because it wasn’t theirs. We spent the night in a hotel with air conditioning and a pool and a bathroom where we didn’t have to place soiled toilet paper in the waste basket. Then we flew home in our opposite directions.
There was a message on my home answering machine. From the Mexican car rental company. It was in Spanish, long and rambling, slightly agitated, and difficult to understand. But one sentence was clear: “Dónde está la placa?”
They slapped my credit card with a two-hundred-dollar surcharge.
By the time the bill arrived, S—and I had fought again, and were no longer speaking. I considered asking her to pay half, at least. But it didn't seem worth the aggravation. It was a small price to pay, I decided. I was ready to move on.
Eventually, S—and I found a way to remain friends. We do okay as friends. And a few months later, I became involved with the woman who is now my wife. We have been together for thirty years and have raised a wonderful daughter.
Maximilian and Juárez was published in 1992, and subsequently translated into Spanish and German. S—and I are thanked at the top of the acknowledgments, and he dedicated the book to me. My father died in 2004, but I still receive modest royalty payments from his books.
I can provide no information on how, when, or whether the Beetle was reunited with its plica.
Barbara Ridley was born in England but has spent most of her adult life in California. After a career in nursing, she is focused on creative writing, and has published in journals including Forge Literary Magazine, Copperfield Review and Stoneboat, and a novel, When It’s Over (She Writes Press 2017.)