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It was nighttime on the local, speedbump-laden and dog-ridden highway from Chichen Itza back to the airport and we were in a rental car. There were three of us, my ex and I and a vegan guy named Chuck who ate mostly almonds the whole time we’d been in Cuba on a sponsored bike trip.

We had rented a car from the airport in Cancún upon arriving back from our trip to Cuba, our clothes stinky with bike trip sweat and misty Caribbean mornings. We decided to rent a car to drive out to Chichen Itza, the complex of pyramids and cenotes and not a small amount of tourist-oriented woven clothing, wall hangings and giant, impractical sombreros.

On the way there, we’d sprung for the touristy highway, with its smooth ribbon of asphalt and its high pricetag (a toll that cost something like $30 US). On the way back, we decided to take a local road so we could stop to eat somewhere, and chose Valladolíd, where we went to a white-tiled market and I had soft black bean tacos with tomatillo salsa and crumbled white cheese. After dinner, we kept our sleepy eyes on the road as we drove slowly so as to avoid dogs and both topes and túmulos, two kinds of speed bumps on the Mexican roads.

And then the traffic stops began. Vegan Chuck was asleep in the back, I was the one with the best Spanish, so I was on high alert. The first stop had to do with the fact that we had only a rear license plate. The police flagged us down, explained to us that we were missing a license plate, and we explained it was a rental car, that this was how it came. We presented rental papers, licenses, passports and hopeful smiles. They told us to tell the rental company of the oversight and sent us on our way.

The second stop had them looking for drugs. It was another type of police, and they had us get out of the car while they did a quick search of the car, the footspace, the middle console. They didn’t check our pockets or our luggage, but if they get paid by the find, I think they quickly figured out we were among the most boring of tourists, none of us had even had a beer at dinner.

By the third stop we were getting a little nervous. It seemed everyone who could have stopped us already had, and this was a roadblock, with flashing lights, and guards in military uniforms. We were ordered to get out of the car, and a guy who looked about sixteen recited a memorized statement that went something like this: “InthenameoftheMexicanmilitaryandinaccordancewithsection54321oftheMexicancodeoflaw thisstopistocontroltheillegalimportofarms” And then he took a breath. And I translated for my two companions. He and another guard walked me over to the trunk, presuming that I was their sole point of communication. Open the trunk, they said. So I did. Show me your luggage, they said. So I did. From back to front, we went over the car, with them instructing me to open, close, unzip, etc. And I did all of it. And then came the guantera.

La guantera,” he said. It sounded like lawantera. I scanned my brain. wantera wantera, what the hell is a wantera? I had nothing. So I repeated it back.

La guantera” I said.

Sí, la guantera” he repeated.

La guantera

As the guantera standoff went on, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t or couldn’t comply with his request. And then I mustered my best subjunctive and said to him,

La guantera, que quieres que haga con ella?” (What would you like me to do with la guantera?)

“Open it”, he said. The only problem being, I didn’t know what it was. So I asked him if he’d open it. But then he got suspicious. “I’m not opening it, I want you to open it,” he said.

And here’s where I had to admit my car-related vocabulary weakness. I had no idea what a guantera was. I told him I would gladly open it, if he would just tell me what it was.

And then he pointed at the glove compartment. You know, gloves, like guantes. As in guantera.

And I opened it, and there was no gun inside, and off we bumped, over topes and tumulos to return the car, full of tacos and green salsa and I, for one, a word richer.

From a trip to Cuba and Mexico in November 2000.