Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Day I Got Pulled Over By The Traffic Police

Let me begin by stating the following:
1. I'm really really tired (ie. my sentences have a high chance of not being coherent).
2. This story is about a month old but I just kept forgetting to blog about it.
3. I'm really really tired.

I'll attempt to remain positive about the police on here but also be honest. Hm, that's a tough line. Bottom line, we try to not involve the police as much as possible because everything becomes more complicated and bribes and more money gets involved. Ah, bribes. Illegal in America and expected here. I had training on traffic police as part of my orientation and knew what I needed to do (ie. apologize profusely again and again) but was so scared for whenever it would happen. Since I am white (which to them equals a lot of money. I've truly debated on getting a shirt that says, "I may be a mzungu, but I'm really not rich. Really."), the chances of me getting pulled over for money were high. I knew it. This only added to my fear of driving in this crazy chaotic city.

Catharine's niece and nephew, Calista and Stephen, had just come into town that week. It was a Wednesday and even more important, it was Kate's birthday! Because of this, Kate had taken the day off which meant that *I* had to drive to the office ALL BY MYSELF. Freak out session included. Stephen and Lonnah joined me on the ride to the office. To help Kate with her party preparations, I planned on leaving the office at noon. I knew that I would be driving home all by myself with no one in the car to help which seriously scared me. The vehicle that I drive is a huge lifted Prado. Check out this beast:

The Prado had been up in Northern Uganda for awhile and was lifted for the terrain up there. My little 5'3" self has to literally climb in. If I was standing next to it, I think I go up to the side mirrors. Not only is the Prado high but it is wide. I am used to my little two door Honda Accord. This vehicle is perhaps three times the size of my little Honda. Add to this that the roads are narrower, filled with people, unclear lanes, pot holes, gargantuan speed bumps/mountains, crazy boda boda drivers, even more crazy taxi drivers and your every day crazy driver. Insane.

I was about to leave the office for my first trip alone. I called Kate to tell her that if I wasn't home in 30 minutes to call and make sure that I was still alive. Me? Dramatic? Nooo. But seriously. I wanted to make it home alive. Just as I was about to leave, Stephen asked if he could ride back to the compound with me so he didn't have to stay at the office all day. Could he!?!? YES, what an answer to prayer. We left the office and headed home. I made the scary turn onto Kampala/Jinja Road and got to the right turn onto Port Bell Rd. Going onto Port Bell is usually easy because there's actually a light. The turn signal came on and the long line of cars began to race through. As I started turning, the light turned yellow. As I turned onto Port Bell, there he was: khaki pants, khaki shirt and those notorious white sleeves. It was a traffic policeman and I'm sorry, what is he doing? Wait, is he waving ME over? Oh. My. Gosh. I pull over and he comes to my window. I roll the window down.

Me: "Hello sir, how are you?"
Traffic Policeman (TP): "I am fine. We have already arrested your friend behind you and are going to take you to jail."
Me (after I told him that the guy behind me was not my friend but he didn't mean that anyway): "I'm so sorry sir, what did I do?"
TP: "You ran that red light and you are now going to jail for it."

Tears threatened to come into my eyes as my anxiety increased. What do I do? What do I say? I knew from my training not to argue with the officer but to just repeatedly apologize. Stephen, however, did not have such training. I had to hold back a smile as he tried to argue with the officer about how I did absolutely nothing wrong. At one point, I told him to stop talking or something like that. Those details are hazy (Stephen, feel free to add any details that I'm forgetting. It was kind of a crazy time in my mind). The officer asked for my license and I handed him my International Driver's License. He then told me to unlock my doors. I did so and he got into the backseat and told me to drive.

Me: "Sir, where do you want me to drive?"
TP: "We're going to the police station. Just drive."

As I begin to drive, he starts small talk: "How are you enjoying Uganda so far?". I think my response was something like, "Great until now". We talked some more as I drove. I continually apologized and then asked what I could do. Ah, that was the key question he was waiting for.

TP: "Oh, do you mean what can you do for me?"

Realizing that all this was purely about money, I reluctantly said, "yes". We agreed on a price and he had me pull over. At one point after we agreed on the price he said, "This is only if you're willing". I wanted to laugh. Willing!? This guy clearly only wanted money. I did nothing wrong but he would take me to jail if I didn't offer him money. What in the world. After I pulled over, I handed him the money. He left and that was the end of it.

There's interesting discussion about bribery here. In these situations, you have two options on who to pay money to. Police officers get paid about $25-40 a month. They have families to take care of on top of this. When they complain to their supervisors that they need more to survive on, they are told to get it in any way they can. Enter bribery. I was driving around lunchtime. The officer was most likely hungry and in need of lunch. His family is also extremely poor and in need. Enter option 2. You can forego bribing the officer and get taken to the Central Police Station (CPS). I've yet to go there but have only heard the stories. Before entering, you'll be approached by another officer attempting to get a bribe before you enter the dreaded court scene. No matter what, in every court situation here, you must plead guilty. The American in me goes crazy with this. You'll be charged at least five times the amount that you could have given in a bribe plus this money goes into the pockets up the higher up and more corrupt. There is a third option which involves you talking your way out of things with the officer and not having to pay a bribe. That's the option that I'd like the most but I need to work on my "talking out of" skills. Not there yet.

The situation itself was NOT fun. It could have been worse and I learned a lot about culture through it. As much as I pray that it will never happen again, I KNOW it will. Now, I'll hopefully be more prepared.

Whenever I see a traffic police officer now, I cringe inside and pray that I won't get pulled over...

...and sometimes, I glare at them behind my sunglasses.

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