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6th September 2010

The Lesson

posted in Travel |

We were driving back north to the airport to pick up the last member of our vacation group, who having a prior and unbreakable commitment had to arrive a day later than the rest of us. The drive was easy, the highways in this part of Latin America being constructed mostly in completely straight lines cut through the jungle. The transitos were out in force, and we saw numerous vehicles pulled over by these traffic police, so Mike, who was doing the driving, kept to the ever changing posted speed limit and  drove conservatively. Adding somewhat to our jumpiness were the numerous roadside assistance utility trucks, which provided free assistance for broken down vehicles. These roadside assistance trucks were painted in the same color scheme as the transito pickup trucks and included the same red and blue light bar used by the police. The only way to distinguish the utility trucks from the transito trucks were words painted on the side of the truck, whether it said assistance vehicle or police vehicle.

With three-quarters of our driving distance covered, and still obeying the speed limit, we noticed a southbound transito truck effect a drastic stop past his U-turn access, back up on the highway into his oncoming traffic, take the U-turn, sped up to catch up to us, pulled alongside our vehicle, and motioned that Mike’s seat belt wasn’t on, then he pulled us over. At this point, we were pretty certain that this was a phoney traffic stop whose purpose was to solicit a bribe because there was no way the transito could have seen the state of our seat belts from across highway divided by a generous green space while driving at speed.

The transito approached and greeted us, “hola.”

We responded in kind, “hola.”

“You speak Spanish?”

“Poco.”

His face showed some slight disappointment that we barely spoke Spanish. “My English not so good.”

We volunteered, “our Spanish is not so good.”

He then asked us where we were from. We told him Pennsylvania. He responded with “Pennsylvania? Mmm, chica…” while pantomiming the hour-glass female shape with his hands. We thought it wise to agree with him, so we smiled broadly with injections of much appreciative “si, si.”

He then questioned us where we were going. We told him that we were going to the airport; that we were going there to pick up a friend who was arriving, indirectly letting him know that that we weren’t necessarily on a tight schedule and that he wouldn’t have us over a barrel since we didn’t have a flight boarding deadline.

Neil, whom we were going to pick up at the airport, took this inopportune time to call up on the mobile phone. I motioned to the transito that the phone was ringing, hoping that he understood my hand signals that I was telling him that I wasn’t armed, and that I was reaching into my pocket to answer a mobile phone.

“Hi Neil. Can’t talk now. We’re pulled over on the side of the highway making the acquaintance of a very nice policeman. I’ll call you back. Bye.”

Hearing this exchange, the transito complimented me, “your English, very good.” He might never have heard an Asian speak English before, so this could very well have been an eye-opener for him. For all I know, he may have never heard an Asian speak at all before. I thanked him and added that “my Spanish, not so good.”

By now, this meet-and-greet had gone on for several minutes in a hodge-podge of broken Spanish and English. Our initial apprehension had now given away to mild amusement, and I was beginning to wonder when the bribing part was going to commence and how it would be broached.

The transito requested, “your license.” Mike took out his license, and handed it to the transito. He took a cursory glance at it, and then made hand signals of a person walking, and gave commentary, “you tomorrow, must walk, must go to station to pay ticket.”

“We have to walk where?”

“Tomorrow, you pay ticket.”

“We have to pay ticket? Tomorrow, we go?”

“Yes, ticket. Or if you no want, you can pay now.”

“Oh, we can pay now? How much is the ticket now?”

He pondered a moment, and thoughtfully asked us if we wanted the cost in the local currency or US dollars.

“Dollars.”

He though a moment more, then took out a pen and wrote a number on his palm and showed us: 150.

“Wow, that’s a really expensive ticket,”  and we hesitated as Mike and I gave each other mock concerned looks.

He then opened an avenue for us by asking, “in your home, how much seat belt ticket?”

Well, that’s a mighty fine question. I didn’t know the answer and neither did Mike, but that’s not important. In the previous year, Mike had been pulled over at 3 o’clock in the morning driving up to the airport to catch a plane. Being a debutant at his first bribery outing and somewhat in a pickle to get to the airport for his flight, Mike failed to negotiate and acquiesced to the opening demand of one hundred US cash dollars. After getting to the airport following his encounter, he called us to inform us that he got fleeced on the highway. We in turn consulted Antonio, a local we knew, and he emphatically declared, “you never pay more than forty dollars.” So, the answer to the transito’s question was not how much such a ticket would cost back home, but rather what we considered was equitable, what we were willing to pay as the bribe, and thus the starting point of haggling.

Mike and I looked at each other assuredly, and with much nodding of our heads we both simultaneously blurted out, “not that much, maybe twenty or thirty dollars,” agreeing with each other, then we both looked with innocent eyes back at the transito.

He nodded almost sympathetically, not so much in agreement with us but more of an acknowledgement, as if he himself was sorry for the inequities of the differing penalty amounts between our two countries. He returned his pen and attention to his palm and wrote down a counter-offer, and showed us the revised number: 50.

Mike and I started jabbering amongst ourselves, the gist of it basically came out to that it was still kind of expensive, and the we didn’t have that much money on us, so we raised our offer to forty dollars, which it seemed was acceptable to him, because he iterated the expectations and parameters of this roadside transaction by itemizing, “no ticket, no receipt, forty dollars.” And so it was agreed.

Still trying to work the price down a bit more, albeit belatedly at this juncture, Mike pulled out thirty dollars making a big show of how meager his wallet was and passed the money to me to hand to the transito who had at the onset had approached on my passenger side of the vehicle. I handed the money to him through the open window, which inexplicably took him aback a little bit. He pushed the money back into my hands, and taught me to keep the money low and below the bottom edge of the window whenever possible, and the actual handover was to be done discretely. Having been instructed of bribery etiquette, I handed the money to him again, this time making sure to follow protocol by keeping the money low and out of casual sight.

He looked at the thirty dollars  in his hands and made signs that this was not the agreed upon amount. So Mike went back into his wallet looking through all the dividers and managed to pull out another five, which he handed to me, for me to pass on in the prescribed manner. The transito stood with an expectant look, waiting for the final missing five dollars. With much showmanship, Mike made it seem like a miracle that he was able to find the last five single dollar bills in his wallet, which he pulled out individually with flourish. Having received the full sum of the negotiated amount, the transito was much happy again.

One more piece of learning he wanted to import to us: “cajer.” His hand actions indicated a card being inserted into a slot. “Cajer dollar.”

We were beginning to get the idea that he was telling us that we should use our bank cards to get more money for our wallets. We thanked him for his advice, “yes, we will; at the airport.” The mention of the airport seemed to remind him that our friend had just landed at the airport, so waved us on to hurry to the airport so that we wouldn’t be too late picking up our friend.

I must say that as traffic stops go, both legal and not so legal, this one was the most informative: we received both teachings and advice, and I was personally complimented for my command of the English language, and all this was made possible by a most friendly and affable policeman.

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