The sun came up, the key went in the ignition, and we were off driving down a dusty highway in Argentina’s northernmost stretch. Cruising down through red and yellow canyons with cacti 15 feet high. Adobe villages passing by on both sides, hardly anyone else on the road. A blind turn around a rock wall reveals a straight stretch of road leading down through a valley, a cluster of cars seems to be slowing.
The local police have created a checkpoint, everyone must stop. We are next. Sunglasses come off. The policeman looks in through the window, asks for Kristen’s license and registration of the rental car. I sit there with a pile of maps in my lap looking busy. The officer hesitates, looks back at the mobile shack, then motions us to pull off the road. ‘Where are we going and where have we come from’ he asks. Salta and Purmamarca. I must get out of the vehicle. ‘Where are you from, is this a rental car, where are you going’ he asks. We were driving down the highway in the middle of nowhere without our headlights on, didn’t we know that this was against the law? We must both get out of the car and go into the mobile police shack.
Another officer is waiting inside. The officers look distraught. We look confused. There is a fine and it looks like we must pay it. Calculators come out and numbers are crunched. The fine in our case will be around 1200 pesos, or about 250 dollars. Really? The officers talk amongst themselves. Yes, really it will be 1200 pesos. The officers feel bad, what can they do? We were driving without our lights on in the middle of the day. They hesitate, they want to start filling out the documents for the fine. What should they do, they ask. I must present my passport, it’s in the car and I excuse myself.
Kristen stays inside the shack. She thinks quickly and explains that we are on our way south to volunteer on a vineyard in Mendoza in exchange for room and board. We are trying to save money and help out a local farm. The officers face changes and he starts to look relatively sympathetic for our situation. Meanwhile I grab my passport and search for any spare pesos. We have none, we spent them all paying for the last hostal. The chance to pay the officers a small bribe and be on our way fades into the dust.
I return to the shack and hand over the passport. The officers hesitate even more now. They ask me about volunteering on a farm. They wait around. It’s obvious they want a little kickback instead of not filling out the fine. What can they do, they ask us. This is a hard situation for us all they say. He starts to slowly fill out the form. He asks his partner what he should do. They discuss situation. At this point it is fairly obvious we are not going to give them a little cash. After all, we have none. We stand there blankly staring at them with a slight look of sadness and frustration. They decide to let us go, it’s okay, but we must use our lights. Kristen confirms that we will always keep our lights off while we drive. I correct her Spanish and say we will keep them on. The officers laugh. Hands are shaken. Wishes of good day and travels are exchanged. We are on our way again, headed south. Zero pesos lost.