Today, while we finish packing, moving, and fitting out the Bobs, we bring you the true story of our worst travel experience…so far.
Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia
This is Road Tripping in America series one, before the truck starts. I’m Lisa and this is Paul and this is episode four: Six hours in a Mexico City police station.
Today, while we finish packing, moving, and fitting out the Bobs, we bring you the true story of our worst travel experience…so far.
Good trip stories are boring. There’s only so much you can say about that great meal you had in San Francisco, that amazing wine you tasted in Bordeaux, those three glorious days you sat on the beach in Cancun. Most of our travel stories are boring. We usually get lucky. But two years ago, we did not get lucky on our last day in Mexico City. Instead, we spent six hours in the police station. While this story is true, as remembered by me, I have changed peoples’ names.
The first time I started to wonder if calling the police was the right decision was when the machine gun walked into the apartment. The machine gun was attached to a guy, but I can’t tell you anything about him, only that he had a machine gun strapped to his back that felt like it was big enough for the barrel to be dragging along the polished black concrete floor of our Mexico City Airbnb. Only then did I remember that police in Mexico, as in many other countries, carry machine guns. Machine guns terrify me.
Before the machine gun walked in, calling the police seemed like exactly the thing that one should do when one returns to their Airbnb in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City after a late afternoon meal of tacos al pastor at El Tizoncito (the creators of tacos al pastor), after climbing six flights of stairs to the apartment (thanks to the broken elevator), after Jack spotted the cowboy boot footprints on the shiny black, absolutely unforgiving polished concrete floor, after David realized his phone was missing, after everyone realized that anything of value that they had hidden was missing and everything of value that they had left out was not missing, after Jack and Ann realized their credit and debit cards were gone and Jack logged in to his bank account to see that someone had already rung up $1,500 dollars in cell phone purchases and was continuing their buying spree as he watched. Calling the police seemed like the right response to all that.
I thought of calling the security guard first, but he hadn’t been at his desk when we came in. I thought of calling Airbnb for help, but Airbnb has gone out of its way to keep anyone from calling it for help and there’s no number posted for emergencies, or even regular issues. I messaged our host, telling her that we had been robbed (but what if she was in on it?). I tried calling 911 (it’s the same number in Mexico), first on my cell phone and then on the landline, but after being hung up on three times thanks to my inferior Spanish, which is adequate for ordering food and drinks and navigating to and from el baño, but not for the complicated task of reporting a crime and asking for help, I had to think for a minute.
We had all fallen into our roles seamlessly. The four of us are all the type who see what needs to be done and start doing it. We’re a great team in an escape room. Jack and Ann were on their phones, canceling their cards and David was trying unsuccessfully to use the find my phone feature, which – slight flaw – only works if your phone is on. I hadn’t lost anything other than a cruddy set of earbuds that I happened to store in a nice Beats case (it was actually funny to picture the thief’s disappointment at cracking open the nice case and finding a $5 pair of earbuds inside with a healthy amount of earwax in each little tiny perforation) (note to self: don’t travel with anything you would be upset to lose and treat your debit card just like cash).
Jack’s bank was telling him that he needed a police report to get his money back and so my brain was focused on obtaining that police report. I just couldn’t get through to the police.
Then I remembered the embassy. Sure, it was a Sunday, but we were tax-paying American citizens and they had to have some way to help us. I googled the embassy and called the non-emergency number and got a recorded message that the embassy was closed but I could leave a message (note to self: when traveling to another country, store the embassy phone numbers and address in a doc on your phone and write them down on a piece of paper so you have them when you need them). In a short time I got a call back from an annoyed sounding person who said that she was at the market and couldn’t do anything about the fact we had been robbed. I explained I was really only looking for someone who could help me translate to the police and she put me through to the embassy’s dispatcher, an absolute saint of a guy whose name I don’t remember (let’s call him Carlos) who helped me get through to the police.
So this Airbnb had one of those digital locks on the door where you punch in a code to get in and we were given the code in advance of check-in. There was no deadbolt or other way to lock the door once you were inside. While Carlos and I were on a three-way call with 911, Ann was by the front door on a call with her bank. I suddenly heard the sound of numbers being punched into the digital lock’s keypad. Beep…beep…only two more to go. Ann and I stared at each other wide-eyed across the room as the last two beeps sounded, then without saying a word, Ann took two steps over to the door and pushed it hard, just as it was starting to open. We heard a pause, then someone quickly running up or down the stairs.
What happened next, after the break.
Back to the story. What happened next was that we all lost our shit. I was still on the phone with Carlos and 911 and started basically shouting, “they just tried to get back in! They just tried to get back in!” David and Jack insanely ran out into the stairwell, one up and one down, but they couldn’t see anyone and all had gone quiet. Carlos told me the police were just arriving and I didn’t believe it, because our 15 minute call with 911 had seemed to be going nowhere. But they were arriving: I poked my head out the balcony window and saw two cars rolling up and six to eight people climbing out of them.
Carlos told me everything was alright now and I could hang up. All this time I had also been messaging with the Airbnb host, who had been attempting to enjoy the weekend somewhere an hour or two away, and she told me where she had stashed a hidden key so we could override the digital lock while we were inside the apartment. I ran my hand along the underside of the drawer she had directed me to and I felt a piece of broken tape, but no key. The key was gone.
And then the machine gun walked in, along with some other uniforms. The machine gun had to walk up the six flights of stairs too, thanks to the broken elevator. One of the officers started gathering info from us with the assistance of a laughably inadequate translation app on his phone and, based on how it translated my words into Spanish, I knew for sure it was not capturing what I was saying in any kind of comprehensible manner. I can read and understand Spanish at maybe a first grade level, but I can’t form it into anything other than garbage coming out of my mouth (note to self: must learn more Spanish). I was also distracted by my visceral fight or flight response to machine gun, which had me weighing whether it would be better to try to clobber machine gun guy in the temple with our brick bluetooth speaker (left in plain sight, so not stolen) or jump to the balcony next door and hide behind their planters or jump off the balcony down six flights and hope I didn’t bash my head on the street below. I missed Carlos’ reassuring nature.
The officer we were communicating with was strangely unimpressed by our forensic cowboy boot footprint analysis, and at first he laughed when he thought the thief had only charged $1,500 pesos (about $75 dollars) to Jack’s card, but then he realized it was $1,500 dollars (about $30,000 pesos) and got more serious. Then another officer walked into the apartment and he was holding David’s cell phone and brought word that they had found a guy hiding in the basement garage and basement guy had had the phone. David unlocked the phone to prove it was his, but the officers couldn’t just give it back to him, because now it was evidence. Into a ziploc bag it went and into one of the waiting police cars basement guy went.
While this was all messily unfolding, a crowd had gathered in front of the building. Two of the other building tenants came up to our apartment (they were expats from New England) and told us what was going on. It turns out that basement guy was the former security guard who had been fired two weeks ago. When the other tenants found out what was happening to us, they started talking to one another and finding some uncomfortably common themes.
The security guard had the keys to all units for maintenance and cleaning access. People had had things go missing over the last couple years since he had started – but only things that were hidden. Ten thousand pesos (or $500 dollars) here, grandma’s necklace there. If something hidden goes missing, it’s easy to think that you simply misplaced it, or you’re going crazy. You wouldn’t know when it went missing because it might have taken you a long time to realize it was gone. It’s a sneaky racket. The security guard also had the keys to all cars, because the building was valet parking only. The other tenants shared stories about gas tanks that were full when parked and then empty the next time the car was used, about unexplained small damages, nothing big, just a dent here and there that could have gone unnoticed in the notoriously bad Mexico City traffic. But everyone had had a bad feeling about the guy, and that was why they had all demanded the building owner fire him, which had finally happened two weeks ago.
So then I was feeling good. We had gotten justice for us, we had gotten justice for the building, and there was still enough time to have the low-key fish taco, mezcal, and Settlers of Catan night that we had planned. I was still up in the apartment, talking to the Airbnb host, while everyone else was downstairs, talking to the officers and other tenants. Then David ran back up and told me that the officers wanted us to come down to the station.
And that’s how I went on my first ride in a police car. Through the streets of Mexico City, three of us in the back and one up front. I only got into the car after I made David confirm that we could open the doors from the inside, that we wouldn’t be locked in. I took a picture of the car’s plate and badge number. It all seemed legit, but I was very paranoid and scared at that point. The driver was very amused to have American tourists in the car and I’m pretty sure he took us on a little tour of the neighborhood, just for fun. As we drove through the streets, bouncing over the little metal half domes that separate the lanes, I had a second, maybe bigger feeling of doubt that calling the police was the right thing to do.
The sun set as we were ferried through the city. In the back of the police car, we were all on our phone’s GPSes, tracking our route. The driver told us that we were going to the Fiscalía Desconcentrada de Investigación Cuauhtémoc to give a statement. David texted his sister so we had a record of where we were going and I dropped a pin to our Airbnb host, who was going to come meet us (note to self: always tell someone where you are going and if you can, let them know when your plans change, say, if you are being taken to a police station). Before I left the apartment I had packed everything that had not been stolen into my backpack, along with a water bottle and some snacks, not knowing where we were going or how long we’d need to be there (note to self: always bring snacks and water). I hugged my backpack, feeling very small in the back of the police car.
What happened next, after the break.
Back to the story. When we got to the station around six PM, we were escorted to a back-of-house area and told to stand in front of a sign that said ‘don’t stand here’ in Spanish. We were directly across from two bathrooms in a dirty, grimy hallway, in front of some ancient cubicle furniture. Some of the people from the apartment building were there already, giving their statements, and it felt strangely festive, like we were part of some strange reunion. The hallway we were standing in also served as the main corridor to march perps and machine guns from here to there and it was filled with the special reek of infrequently cleaned toilets, urinal cakes, and that unique smell that wafts out Mexican plumbing.
As the other tenants and building owner were giving their statements, a couple machine guns actually walked basement guy down the hallway and everyone from the building started yelling at him, and he actually smirked back at them. Basement guy was put in a room down the hall, in view of our hallway post whenever the door opened. We tried not to make eye contact.
Hour two: seven to eight PM. Our Airbnb host walked in and until then, I had had some doubts about her (we’ll call her hosty), but she was basically crying and brought us all giant bottles of water that she shoved into our hands while apologizing profusely. She couldn’t stop talking about how this guy must have ruined Mexico for us and all Americans, how she was sure we were going to go home and tell all Americans never to come to Mexico again, and so on. It sounds and was ridiculous but it was also adorable and seemingly authentic and I only half-doubted her from that point forward.
We had been wondering why we had been standing in the ‘no standing zone’ for almost two hours with no one talking to us, and hosty explained that the police were waiting for a translator to come help us (note to self: understand the basic legal customs of the place you are going). Apparently the law provides an official translator for anyone who is not a native Spanish speaker, and it being Sunday night, it was taking a while for our English speaking helper to get there.
Hour three: eight to nine PM. Our translator showed up – he was a short, tortoise-like old man who had an aggrieved sort of air that communicated that he should be retired by now, but somehow he was not, and now here he was, late on a Sunday night, called down to the station to translate for some American tourists who were only robbed of a few possessions. This was his life.
Tortoise-man translator spoke to the police. Then he came back to us and told us that we just needed to tell the police that we saw basement guy stealing the phone and then we could get our police report and go. He told us that what we had found ourselves caught up in was a sort of informal, speedy court trial. We weren’t just giving a statement and getting a police report like we had thought, we were actually part of a mini-trial to convict and imprison basement guy right here, right now (note to self: really, just read up on a few of the local legal customs. Just a few.).
Hour four: nine to ten PM. Being honest Americans who are taught to never lie to police officers, we said well, no, we didn’t actually see the guy take anything, but all the evidence seemed to point in that direction. By now we had watched countless perps peeing, because apparently closing the door would be a safety issue. Ann and I had split one tissue four ways to use as toilet paper because the bathrooms lacked any sort of paper product (note to self: always bring more than one tissue when you’re headed to the police station), we had grown tired of standing in the hallway and sat on the grimy floor, and our last night in Mexico City was steadily slipping away. We had started to wonder out loud to one another if calling the police was the right thing to do and if we should just leave. But we weren’t ready to lie.
Hosty explained to tortoise-man translator that things are done differently in America, that we aren’t used to this system, that we won’t just say what the police are telling and wanting us to say. Tortoise-man’s patient veneer evaporated and after another thirty minutes, he left. I guess we only got two hours of translator service on a Sunday night.
Being the oldest man in the group (or maybe, less cynically, being the owner of the phone, the main piece of evidence), David had been designated as the spokesman by one of the officers and they had regularly been taking him back to a cubicle room to try to get him to sign a statement saying that he had seen basement guy steal his phone. I didn’t want to be the spokesperson, but I couldn’t help but constantly worry about David being our designated speaker. He’s the kind of person who used to joke around about bombs in the TSA line, which led to jokes in the TSA line being made illegal. He jokes to ease tension. The jokes were going to be lost in translation, and the machine guns walking up and down the hall weren’t used to people laughing in their place of employment anyway. It was tense. The other building tenants had long gone home and the marching of perps and machine guns through the hallway had started to slow down. Cubicle guys ordered a pizza for dinner. For them, not us.
Hour five: ten to eleven PM. We had to catch a flight the next day at 6 AM. The apartment was in disarray, there was a bottle of mezcal that was going to need to be poured out, and we weren’t going to be getting any more tacos. As we sat in the hall, the idea of going back to the apartment and actually sleeping there that night felt more and more impossible. The current security guard was the one who had given us the entry code, but according to the other tenants, he was friends with the old security guard. Would he retaliate against us for reporting his friend? Would basement guy’s family or associates try to get in while we were sleeping? Since the key was gone, we had no way of locking the door beyond the digital lock, and there weren’t enough pieces of furniture to block all of the entrances.
Hosty was still hanging on at the station with us, though we were now on one side of the hallway and she was on the other. Hosty offered to put us up in her other apartment, but it was farther from the airport and even though she was going out of her way to be helpful, I still didn’t fully trust her. I wanted to be at an anonymous hotel, in an anonymous room, with lots of staff members around, close to the airport. After a bit longer, hosty came over and said she had booked us two rooms at the main airport hotel.
Hour six: eleven PM to midnight. We now knew we had a safe, anonymous place to sleep that night. We had to be on a plane in six hours, at the airport in four hours. The police wouldn’t give us the report or David’s phone because there were endless forms to fill out and endless conversations to be had and we still wouldn’t just say that we had seen basement guy stealing the phone. They had given up on us. We had felt like we had to stay there until someone told us it was OK to leave. But our daylight time in the station had been weird and we were not ready to see what happened after midnight. We all agreed that it was time to leave now. We were just going to walk out. Hosty said she would stay and see if they would give her the police report and David’s phone. After six hours, we didn’t even care anymore (note to self: listen to the voice in your head that tells you when to leave).
So we just walked out of the station. After six hours of feeling like we couldn’t really talk, or move, or leave, no one said one word to us or even appeared to notice as we walked out. The outside air was indescribably lovely. It felt like emerging from a cave into the daylight. It was late and dark and our last day of vacation was over, but right outside the station doors, we felt free and relieved. While waiting for an Uber, we tried to take a quick selfie to memorialize the moment, four people huddled around a phone trying to inconspicuously snap a photo, well aware that while we were able to just walk out of the place, others really couldn’t leave and still others were there for much more serious reasons than a few stolen items and a few thousand dollars gone. We thanked the Uber driver again and again for picking up four shadowy figures from the police station at midnight. We still had to rely on strangers, but we were on guard.
When we got back to the apartment, new security guard was there at his post and he gave us a look that made me very happy that we were only there to grab our things and leave. We quickly packed up and I took copious pictures of the place (note to self: it’s not paranoid to take time-stamped photos of your Airbnb before leaving even when you didn’t get robbed). Then we called another Uber for the thirty minute ride to the airport hotel.
Once we got to the hotel and into our rooms around one AM, we opened the bottle of mezcal that we couldn’t bear to pour down the drain and it finally hit us what an insane experience we had just gone through and how many opportunities there had been for it all to go wrong. Ann took a very long shower while the mezcal sat uncomfortably in our bellies. Did we do the right thing? Should we have just let it go and enjoyed our last night of vacation? Could we have?
A few minutes later I got a call. Hosty was in the hotel lobby with David’s cell phone and our police report. I went down to meet her and she handed everything over, and she just looked wiped. Exhausted and teary and shaky. I wanted to give her a hug but I didn’t, but I wish that I had. I still can’t read this without choking up at this point. Hosty didn’t have to do what she did for us, but she did it anyway.
When we read the police report, it said (in Spanish) that we said we saw basement guy steal the cell phone (note to self: know when to fight and also know when to stop fighting).
After a restless couple hours of sleep we were on the short flight home to Denver, a few pairs of headphones, a couple pieces of jewelry, and a few thousand dollars lighter. I’ll never use Airbnb again, the inability to get help when needed was eye-opening; I’m now a dedicated VRBO or Sonder user, places with full-time support or onsite staff only. But I didn’t write a bad review for the apartment or hosty. I didn’t write a good one either. That kind of situation, with all its nuances, is impossible to sum up in a few hundred word review. A month later I still didn’t know if we had done the right thing. Two years later, I still don’t know if we did the right thing. What would you have done?
But hold on. Don’t get me wrong. I love Mexico. We’ve been to Mexico six other times, including two earlier trips to Mexico City before this ill-fated trip. People have always been amazing and welcoming to us. The culture is vast and interesting. The food is excellent. I can’t wait to go back. If it hadn’t been for covid, we’d have already been back. We’ll just be a little more paranoid going forward. We’re adding a couple tools to our traveling kit: a motion-activated camera like the Blink Mini from Amazon and a traveling door lock to use when we’re inside. And we’ll be even more careful about what we bring with us. But we’re going back.
Next time, we leave Fort Collins and take you along on our first official day on the road in the Bobs. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in a Colorado police station!
Until next time, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com, for more. If you are enjoying this podcast, please subscribe to it and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Thanks for listening!