((This one goes out to Uncle Jim, who is perhaps my most loyal and therefore awesome blog reader!))
((As a general warning – if you are a) someone who would prefer not to read about any of my potentially negative or dangerous experiences in this country or b) my mom, I advise that you skip this post. It’s not that bad, but I won’t be responsible for however you may react. Mom – seriously. Just skip it.))
For those of you who know me well, the title of this blog may not surprise you. In fact, you may be thinking to yourself, “How hasn’t this happened sooner?!” For those of you who may not be entirely aware, I have a small history with the police – from my very zealous driving career as a teenager, a warrant out for my arrest in a certain U.S. state, and a close encounter with a set of handcuffs at a Philadelphia protest that almost led to me spending the night in jail. Let’s just say that I am grateful that my wonderful step-father is a retired police sergeant, and that the level of unruliness at that protest far outweighed the, let’s say zealous gesture I gave that police officer and he was forced to un-cuff me and turn his attention elsewhere.
That said, today marks my first prolonged, international encounter with the police. Before today, I had seen the police in this country, and one set of officers on a motorcycle even pulled up next to me in my van to talk to me the other week, but it was clearly friendly conversation, even if I didn’t understand everything they were saying. Before I get into the story, let me tell you a few things about the police officers here. First, there are several types of officers – traffic police, regular crime police, etc. – and they wear different colored uniforms to designate themselves from one another. They are generally male, though I have seen some women, and they are generally young. I have not seen many older police officers, in fact, I would guess that they are all in there mid to late twenties to early thirties. Third, they carry guns. Of course, you might say – even in the United States police officers carry guns.
You don’t understand. Think about the last time you saw a police officer in the states. Where was his gun? Most likely, unless you were engaging in activities that you really should have avoided, his or her gun was probably strapped to his belt. Maybe the snap was undone for easy retrieval, but most likely, it wouldn’t be necessary – and both you and the officer would know this. Here, in this country, the young, hormone-filled officers do not wear their guns strapped to their belts with the little snap undone just in case. This is mostly because the guns they carry are far too large to be strapped to any belt. These boys, for lack of a better term, carry giant semi-automatic shotguns and M-16’s, slung at their sides from a strap. They sometimes wave them around when the talk. To say the least, it can be a little intimidating.
As I pointed out in previous blogs, I have been driving in the Dominican Republic, and it has been an altogether pleasant experience. It sometimes makes me feel like I would be better off if I were totally wasted while I drove, but, for the most part, it’s not much worse than driving in New York or Boston. I have done well with the aggressive-defensive balance and have not run into any trouble. Until today.
This afternoon, as I was driving from the city back to my house (and looking forward to being home since I hadn’t eaten since the day before and only slept a couple of hours the night before), I was waved out of the insane traffic and onto the side of the road by a woman. She was dressed so as to designate herself as a traffic officer and, because of the traffic, I had no where else to go but to pull over. (Mind you, I had been advised to not stop for the police if possible, especially at night, because often times they just want money) I pulled onto the side of the road, turned down the radio, and steadied myself.
The officer, on the large-ish side and with dark skin, walked up to my open window and looked at me. With a very serious look on her face, she opened her mouth and let loose a wild string of unintelligible, slang-riddled spanish that flew from her lips at far too fast a rate for me to ever hope to understand. This went on for what must have been several minutes, and she seemed generally oblivious to the fact that I was a) saying nothing, b) white, and c) staring at her with an entirely blank look on my face. I registered nothing, and I was doing my best to make it obvious.
Finally, she stopped and looked at me expectantly. I raised my eyebrow (yes, I remember doing it and then immediately wondering if it was a good idea) and let loose with my own string of English in return. In case she understood, I apologized profusely and told her that I did not speak spanish well enough to understand her and I didn’t understand why she had pulled me over and that I just wanted to get to my house that was right down the road. I could tell immediately that she did not understand anything I was saying, but I kept at it for dramatics. Perhaps if I overwhelmed her with my language as much as she had overwhelmed me with hers, she would just let me go. As you can probably already guess, this is not what happened. Instead, she continued to speak to me in Spanish and look at me expectantly, as if I would miraculously understand if she repeated everything she said louder and faster. At a loss, I continued to insist to her in English that I had no idea what she was saying.
This went on for some time, with her occasionally yelling to another female officer across the road and asking random passers-by if they spoke English. We were both exasperated, and at this time I had been sitting in an idling diesel van with no air conditioning with two hours of sleep and an empty stomach for far too long.
Finally, through a series of gestures, a few Spanish words that she managed to say slowly enough for me to understand, I figured out that she wanted to see my papers – my identification. Unsure what was appropriate, and glad that I even had them with me, I pulled out my Pennsylvania driver’s license, which I’m sure meant nothing to her, and my passport. She took my driver’s license and began copying my information onto a clipboard. This is when I started to worry.
Eventually, and in the midst of the small crowd that had gathered around my still idling and now fume-filled van, she handed me her clipboard, pen, and insisted that I sign. You can see how this might be a bad idea. I don’t know if it is my culture, the distrust that is so common in the United States, or something my mother said to me as a child, but my stomach turned at the thought if signing this paper I could not read, and I refused.
This, as it turns out, was a bad idea.
The woman officer became irritated, angry even. She shoved the clipboard and pen back into my face and yelled, again insisting that I sign and tapping the pen furiously against the white carbon paper.
It turns out, I am stubborn. (Thanks, Poppop.) I refused again.
She continued to yell. Other officers came over. Eventually, I was made to sign by a small troop of police officers, a lot of yelling, someone physically putting a pen in my hand, and the M-16’s swaying at the sides of the many officers around me. Disgusted, I took my copy of the paper, and read it over as well as I could. Apparently, from what I could tell, she had copied my information from my license onto a ticket for not wearing my seatbelt.
By this time, I was not feeling very well, and the mixture of the heat and the exhaust and the yelling had left me drained. The small crowd dispersed and the two female police officers strode off the road and waved me on. They were now giving me permission to re-enter traffic. I sat there and stared at them.
In those minutes, two male police officers appeared at my still-open window. One was taller, dark-skinned, and carrying no weapon. The other, shorter, and lighter skinned made very sincere attempts to speak to me in English. He seemed kind, told me that I was beautiful, and asked me about my tattoos. I was able to understand some, though not much, of his Spanish, and both he and his partner seemed to ignore my pleas for them to slow down when speaking. They continued to talk to me, all the while the women were still waving me back into traffic, more insistently as the minutes passed. I was dazed, but I understood when the larger and darker of the two asked for the blue slip of paper that the woman had given me. After glancing over it, he walked over to the women and a lot of yelling ensued, both amongst the three and from the lighter skinned officer still standing at my window.
I had no idea what was going on.
The yelling stopped, and the larger male officer walked back to my car, opened the door (at which point I thanked God that my stomach was empty), and got in. The smaller of the two did the same. The women yelled. I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw nothing but two male police officers staring back at me and the M-16 propped on the seat between them. He told me to drive.
I managed some form of calm and did not cry. They asked me where I was going (I think) and I told them. I kept repeating the name of the place and that I didn’t understand. “Villa Claudia. No entiendo.”
We made it around the bend, closer to my house, and they motioned for me to pull over. They spoke a lot of Spanish, none of which I was clear-headed enough to understand. They got out of the van, and the larger of the two opened the passenger door, leaned across the seat, took my hand, and told me it was ok. He then proceeded to rip up the blue copy of the ticket and the white original in a very dramatic and thorough act of what I can only assume was chivalry. Taking my hand again, he filled it with the tiny scraps of blue and white paper.
As I sat there in the van, now with my seatbelt on, on the verge of tears and thanking both men profusely, they each reached back into the van, took a scrap of paper each, wrote their names and phone numbers, and replaced them into my still-open hand.
As they walked away from my idling van, the smaller of the two turned and walked back to my window. “I can teach you some spanish, amor.”
Despite cultural and language barriers, I’m pretty sure I know what he had in mind.