I had been through enough stops by now to recognize the usual questions: "Where did you come from," and "Where are you going," and "Do you have any guns." This didn't sound like any of those familiar queries. He seemed to be asking if I had a lampara.
I had no idea what a lampara was, or why he wanted to know if I had one, but after several rounds of pantomime it occurred to me to pull the flashlight out of my glove compartment. That brought a big gold-toothed smile to his face, and another question: "Cuanto?" I knew that meant, "How much?" Was he inviting a simple business transaction, or hinting that the gift of a flashlight could bring this search to a happy conclusion?
I figured I had nothing to lose but the flashlight, a small price to avoid unpacking the bus. So, I handed him the lampara and, as graciously as I could, said "Para usted." That was as close as I knew how to say I wanted to make it a gift. He thanked me with what seemed an overly formal "Muchas gracias." He kept the flashlight without any further offer to pay for it, and sent me on my way without any further searching.
Downtown Catavina: A La Pinta hotel,
The next time I was stopped at the Cataviña checkpoint, it was after dark, near the end of a long day's drive. I recognized the soldier at my window as the same one who had relieved me of my flashlight a year earlier.
and the only gas for a hundred miles.
He squinted, trying to look inside my unlighted car. It was late, he looked tired, it had been a long day for him, too.
Finally, he asked another unusual question. My Spanish was a little better by now, and I understood him perfectly: "Do you have any batteries?"
I was exhausted from driving all day, but I wasn't that stupid. I'd be damned if I was going to give him my spare batteries, so he could use my own flashlight to search my car in the dark. So I put on my sincerest "I'd like to help, but..." face, and shook my head. "No," I lied. "No batteries, no guns, no drugs."
He looked more tired than suspicious. Then he smiled. "Ah, and no bad women hiding in the back, eh, señor?" His gold tooth flashed as he laughed at his joke, and waved me on.