(Caveat: Mum, you may not enjoy this yarn.)
We were free-spirited New Zealanders on a six-week road trip down Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Fun loving, surfing, camping, and the world was our oyster. By the time we arrived at Cabo San Lucas we were dizzy with the intoxicating mix particular to Mexico, of hot salty air, freedom, fish tacos, beer and beaches. Here on the southern tip we befriended a troop of American old timers and one of them – the Dude’s doppelganger from The Big Lebowski – gifted us a supermarket bag full of mull.
But in his lazy voice the Dude issued us crazy kids with a warning: driving northwards was precarious, he said, the police were vigilant for drugs and would stop and search vehicles regularly. Waste not, want not, we figured. So with the frugality characteristic of a Kiwi on the road, we smoked ourselves silly under the scorching Aztec sun before the journey home. Then we were off back up the stick of dirt.
There must have been signs alerting us of the roadblock ahead because I remember that we had enough time to finish smoking a joint and roll another, which I stuffed down my pants. We approached the roadblock. I really don’t remember at what stage I started to get nervous and the rest is pretty hazy (our minds do top jobs of glossing over traumatic memories).
Stationed on the highway, a couple of teenage-looking soldiers stood holding machine guns larger and heavier than the boys themselves appeared. They motioned for us to pull off the road and into an old, gutted gasoline station. I remember that we parked next to a wall of photos. They were of people who’d been busted with drugs and were presented like proud parents boasting their child’s achievements. Except that none of those pictured, posing with bags of white powder strapped to their torsos and legs, were smiling. Neither was I.
I started to shit myself. More machine gun wielding officers beckoned us out of the truck. As casually as I could I hopped down, but then saw a sniffer dog and was struck dumb with terror. F**k. F**k, f**k what now?
I spoke in Spanish, “Where’s the toilet?” Tunnel vision ahead as I beelined it to where the policeman pointed. Walking past the pictures I recall wondering what the inside of a Mexican prison might look like. I don’t know what happened after that, but the next thing I knew I was standing on the forecourt watching my friends’ lips moving, their arms waving me over – panic had silenced the world around me. Then I was in the car and we were driving away.
Over the past fortnight, the ten-year old memory has slowly unfolded as I follow the story of a 14-year-old Australian boy who is sitting in a Bali jail cell. He’s been accused of possessing 6.9 grams of cannabis. Upon hearing the report I was incredulous. How could you be so careless whilst abroad? Then I remembered.
Nevertheless, Australians have had enough high profile cases thrown in their faces to make them think twice. The name Schapelle Corby, for example, strikes a chord of fear and caution for those heading to Bali. The 33-year-old woman is serving a 20-year sentence in a developing world prison for the importation of 4.2 kilograms of cannabis to the resort island. If Corby’s story is not deterrent enough, there’s the Bali Nine and Scott Rush’s passing death sentence for trafficking heroin.
Now six years on, the Australian public raises its eyebrows at the arrest of the Bali Boy. How could we have forgotten that the Indonesian law system deals with drugs fatally? While a kid’s mistake has turned into a typical media hyperbole and Australia’s politicians scramble to help him for campaign brownie points, there is a take home lesson for all travellers.
Geared for hedonism, these resort towns are adult Disneyland’s. With Bali you’ve got the debauchery of Las Vegas sans gambling, the sunny days of Saint Moritz without the ritz, and the revelry of Cuba – with it’s rum too! Signs for cheap arak (local rice wine) and (illegal) magic mushrooms decorate the streets, men from dark alleyways whisper, hashish? From the third story of a flashy tropical nightclub I can understand how people fall down the rabbit hole.
If you’re the sort of person to be tempted by these wonderlands you have to check your ‘holiday head’ – that state of stupor induced by living life outside of regularity.
It’s all too easy to be seduced by the freedom a developing nation inspires. Many of the rules that conform us in the west can be bent. In Bali for example, it’s represented by chaotic traffic and recklessness on the roads. We drive without seatbelts, weave in and out of the traffic with no regard to lanes and bribe our way out of fines. In fact, we can talk or buy our way in and out of most things. But not everything.
The unofficial privilege, this preferential treatment white people receive, does not translate to immunity, as Corby, Rush, and now the Bali Boy have demonstrated.
As visitors in a foreign land we should remember that while not all the rules apply, some do. And when they are enforced it can be a surprising and stinging wet slap to the face.
PS: When faced with the difficult choices when travelling, try asking yourself the question, “What would my Mum say?!”