El Candido (short non-fiction)

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This is a short story that i wrote recently about an awesome trip that we took down to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico about seven years ago. We drove for about 30 hours down the peninsula with my wife’s sister and brother-in-law, and had several adventures along the way. This story is about a particular “challenge” that we faced once we arrived in Cabo:

El Candido

“You have to trust me if you ever want to leave this place,” the man yelled. He sat in the front seat of a noisy, rattling vehicle that passed for a taxi and spoke back to us. “When we get to the police station, you just do what I say. How much cash do you have?” It was the third time he had asked us about money, and we started to think that getting in a cab with him had been a bad decision. The man was much smaller than me, and I was with my brother-in-law, who had been a rugby player in high school. We each stood four or five inches taller than this shifty character that we had met just an hour earlier, but that might not matter if he pulled a gun or a knife.“El Candido” was the only name he had given us. We were introduced to him after being led through several bars and back-alleys of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Tom and I both spoke the language fluently and had tried to negotiate the price of a fishing trip, but after we insisted that we wanted a lower price, the fisherman said he might know someone who could help us. We left the crowded streets and air-conditioned shops of the tourist zone and followed him for several blocks through the twisting, unmarked streets of Cabo. Then our fisherman stopped, and punched a number into his cell phone. He began speaking rapidly in Spanish, using slang terms and idioms that neither of us understood. We were nervous about being in this part of the town, where we were the only people with white faces. Tom and I agreed that leaving our wives back at the cantina on the pier had been a good decision. They were safer there, surrounded by other tourists. The fisherman put the phone back into his pocket, and once again spoke slowly enough for us to understand. “My friend will be here soon. You wait here,” and he began to walk away. “Su nombre es El Candido”, then he was gone. Tom and I were left standing in an alley of buildings patched with rusty sheet metal and windows covered in plywood. “Kind of feels like every movie about people getting kidnapped in Mexico,” Tom joked.

We heard footsteps, then a young man walked casually around the corner. He was at most two inches over five feet tall, and he was thin. He looked to be about our same age – mid-twenties. El Candido had short, dark hair that was neatly styled. He wore a clean, red t-shirt with loose-fitting jeans. He looked like he had come straight from the campus of a junior college in southern California, rather than a dirty alley in Mexico. “So, you brothers want a fishing trip? How much cash do you have?” He was interested to find that we spoke Spanish fluently, but he spoke to us in English. We learned that he lived for ten years in Oregon, and went to high school there. “I was in a gang,” he told us without expression, “then I got sent back to Mexico.” He asked if we were over twenty-five, and if we were both married, then he told us that he could hook us up with a good deal if we went to a presentation at a time-share condo a few miles down the coast. “The same guy you talked to earlier will take you fishing, he gets paid, I get paid, and you guys don’t have to pay a dime,” he explained.

Each hotel in the area offered tourists some incentive to sit through a live, ninety minute infomercial where they tried to convince you to buy into their vacation club. We had already been stopped by a dozen salesmen on the beach trying to sign us up for the same thing. “The only thing is that you have to pay the deposit, so that they know you are actually going to show up,” El Candido explained. “I give you the receipt then you get a nice breakfast at the hotel and your money back too”. He asked us for the second time how much cash we had on us. We didn’t have to lie when we said we only had a few pesos. We had spent what little we money we had with us on souvenirs and lunch earlier that day. We determined that our car must not be very far from there, and we could go to the bank and get the money that we needed for our deposit. “Sure, that works,” he said. He followed us to our car, which we discovered was no longer there.

We feared that our car had been stolen, but here were three or four cars on either side of ours that were also missing. When we asked the attendant at the nearby parking lot, he informed us that the police had come by earlier and taken all of the cars that were parked along that part of the road. When we had arrived that morning we pulled in at 45 degrees, following suit of the others that were already parked there. The signs indicating that it was a restricted zone were covered by thick palm bushes; we had not even thought to look. I knew that it wouldn’t do any good to panic, but my mind jumped immediately to what we might have to pay to get the car back. I could tell that Tom was concerned too; it was his car after all.

“The police and the tow truck drivers work together here,” El Candido explained. “It’s a trick. They won’t let you go until you pay, but it will take maybe three weeks to get it out even if you do.” I saw Tom’s eyes widen. I was sure that I had the same expression on my face. We learned that the cars were always towed to the police station to find out who the owners were, before being taken off to the impound lot. “If we can find the car before they take it to the impound, you might be able to make a deal,” El Candido mentioned. “I can take you to the station, but you have to trust me.” We flagged a taxi and headed off. El Candido had suddenly become our life-line and only chance at getting our car back.

It was immediately apparent that the shocks in the taxi were at their limit with two gringos loaded in the back. We bounced along the rutted pavement, scraping several times. “Just trust me guys, we’ll get the car back. 100 bucks, that should do it,” El Candido suggested once we reached the ATM. “And get the money for the time-share deposit too. They won’t let me book it unless I give them that. Sixty bucks.” We knew that there must be a reason that El Candido wanted to help us get our car back, and we were both skeptical about paying the deposit from the beginning. We decided quickly that that trusting this guy was our best chance. He wouldn’t shoot us for $160, would he?

Our white Subaru hatchback was still covered in dirt and dust from our 30-hour drive down the peninsula. It was not a fancy or expensive car, but it looked to be about ten years newer than the other cars lined up at the station. It was the only one that wasn’t missing a bumper or a window, or covered in rust. The tow truck was parked behind our car so that we could not leave until they moved. “Oh yeah, we’re in business. If they ask for more money, just tell them this is all you have.” El Candido could tell that we were nervous about bribing a police officer and tried to reassure us during the ride over. “It’s not exactly a bribe, because they expect it. They will even ask for it, but they ask for a lot more if you’re not smooth about it.” He hopped out of the car and spoke to the officer briefly. They each pointed at the car, and two seconds later El Candido waived us over.  We walked over to them and then we all moved behind the tow truck so that it blocked us from view of the police station windows. We held out two fifty dollar bills, but the officer said sternly that it was not enough. El Candido looked surprised, and jumped in quickly on our behalf. He rattled off a few sentences in Spanish, again too quick for us to understand. The officer gave in. He wouldn’t take the cash from us directly, but told us that we had to settle with the driver who  climbed down from his truck and took our money.  The truck was moved and we were back in the car at last. The three of us drove away as quickly as we could, El Candido sitting in the back. We joked about how lucky we were to find the car and get it back. El Candido told us that nice cars like ours were generally “stolen” from the police station before they made it to the impound, then an officer would be driving it around town a few weeks later.  We dropped him at a bar near the tourist zone where he said he worked then we gave him the deposit for the presentation, which we hoped would lead to a free fishing trip. I was careful to hold onto the receipt that he gave us. Tom and I looked at each other, and started formulating how we would explain all of this to our wives. They were still waiting at the cantina and probably wondering if they would ever see us again.

When we arrived the next morning at the Starfish Hotel (which was more like a motel) we were only mildly surprised to find that they did not have the promised breakfast buffet waiting for us. There was just one man behind the bar in the lobby and he explained that they did not offer free fishing trips, or any kind of time-share presentation.  We spent half the day trying to track down El Candido, or the fisherman who had introduced us, but we could not find anyone who admitted to knowing either of them. Tom and I wanted to get our money back, but never really expected that we would see it again. We agreed that the sixty dollars he took from us was far less than we would have had to pay for our car if El Candido had not been there to help. In his effort to get some quick cash, he had betrayed us, but he had also taken us on an adventure that was much more exciting than any fishing trip.

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