You Must Learn to Speak Correct

Pem-pems (motorcycle taxis) will carry anything.

It is Saturday afternoon and we are riding on Randall St up past Benson where it becomes one way. The traffic is very bad here so we are glad we are on our motorbike because we can ride the narrow opening between the parked cars and the cars that idle as they wait in the traffic.

I slow as we approach the intersection and I see there are two police who are directing the traffic. You see this in many busy intersections where there are no traffic lights and the signage, if there ever was any, has been destroyed or is ignored. In these places you might expect that one police to direct traffic is enough but this is rarely the way. More often you will see three or four police in a busy intersection and, although they will be directing traffic together, they will seldom conduct in unison. This time there are two and they are working smartly together so that, while one directs traffic, the other seeks out offenders.

Stopped now at the intersection, we wait as traffic moves in the other direction ahead of us. Then I see the ‘seeker’ police approach and look us over. His expression is menacing as though what is about to happen is entirely personal. His eyes look to the front where there might have been a license plate below the headlight. Then he sidesteps, takes a stride, and turns to check the rear below the brake light. When he comes back around to the front he’s expression is triumphant.

‘Where is your plate?’ he says.

Before I can respond, he reaches down, turns the ignition off, and pockets the key.

I smile because it is my first formal interaction with the police in this country and somehow it is just the behavior I expected. Also, I smile because I am remembering the discussion that Jess and I had before we left the hotel.

‘Do you want to put the license plate on before we go out?’ she had said.

The license plate was in our hotel room one floor up with the bike’s registration documents. I had received them the day before from one of the drivers where I work who had acted as a fixer. I paid him USD 35 instead of the official USD 15 because it was supposed to save me from having to make multiple trips to the Ministry of Transportation, which it had, and to complete the process in just a few days, which it had not. Now, finally, we had the registration and the license plate but it was up there and we were down here and now we had our helmets on and the guard was opening the gate.

‘No,’ I said. ‘We have been driving for six weeks without it. What’s one more day?’

It is USD 50 as it turns out.

‘Bring the bike over here,’ the police says aggressively. ‘Over here.’

I shift into neutral and slowly walk the bike the few meters to where the police has pointed. There are many other motorbike clustered there on a protrusion of the sidewalk and many young men loiter around them. When I have parked the bike, I stay seated a moment longer to take off my helmet and wipe the sweat from my forehead. It is the first truly warm day since we are here, which means the rainy season is finally coming to an end.

‘Good afternoon, officer,’ I say.

‘You have no license plate,’ he says. ‘Where is your registration?’

‘My registration is at the Ministry of Transportation,’ I say. ‘I paid the 15 dollars and now I am waiting for them to issue the plate. I have gone there several times to get it but they say it is not ready yet.’

His expression shows that he does not like this response, I think because I have demonstrated knowledge of the cost and he knows of the great slowness of the procedure.

‘You go talk to him,’ he says, pointing to the other police.

I look back and see that Jess is standing next to the bike watching my helmet. She is surrounded by a swarm of young motorcycle taxi drivers. They are very excited by her and she is smiling, which I think is partly genuine and partly a defense to all the unwanted attention. She is experienced and I am not worried about her.

The police who was ‘seeking’ steps into the intersection to direct traffic and the other police, who is apparently his supervisor, approaches me.

‘You don’t have a license plate or registration,’ the second police says. ‘That is a 50 dollar fine.’

I repeat the thing about the cost and the delay by the Ministry of Transportation.

‘We are not the Ministry of Transportation,’ he says. ‘We are the police and we must make sure that you have the license plate and registration.’

‘I understand,’ I say, ‘but the Ministry has taken my documents while they process the license plate.’

I smile for a moment thinking how this could be a scene from a Kafka novel.

The second police decides not to quibble with me over the procedural details. Instead he says, ‘You are wearing a helmet. That is good. But you have no registration or license plate. That is a 50 dollar fine.’

I smile again seeing how he has won. Since he will not engage me on the procedural details and I cannot deny the fact that I am not in possession of the registration or license plate, my only recourse left is to quibble over the price. This, of course, concedes the fact of the infraction.

‘Officer, it seems that 50 dollars is very much money when I am trying correctly to obtain a license plate as I have explained to you. Maybe there is a smaller ticket for this particular situation?’

‘You see these people?’ he says, gesturing to the parked motorbikes and then realizing that their owners have all abandoned them to swarm around Jessica. ‘They all will pay the fine or the pem pem will be impounded.’

We go back and forth like this until I have put up enough of a protest to satisfy myself. I have the USD 50 and I know that I do not want the bike to be impounded because that will involve much more time and additional bribes. I know that a payment will need to be made as soon as the first police took my key and I know it is the cost of ‘doing business’ here but I also know that I cannot make it too easy because, somehow, ironically, that would be to condone it.

‘I think it will be best if I pay the ticket now,’ I say.

‘You want the bike to be impounded then?’ the police asks.

‘No, I want to pay the ticket,’ I say.

‘Then you must learn to speak correct,’ the police says.

I should smile at this, as I have smiled earlier at the situation, but now I am hot and sweating in the bright sunshine and I am ready for this to be concluded.

‘How is the correct way to speak?’ I ask.

‘If you want to pay the ticket, then I must impound the bike,’ he says. ‘If you will pay the fine now, then I do not have to impound the bike.’

‘I will pay the fine now,’ I say.

‘Come this way,’ he says.

He leads me off to one side and I thrust a crumpled banknote into his hand open palm. He checks that the amount is correct and then he begins to return to the intersection.

‘You may go,’ he says. ‘Make sure you get a license plate.’

‘You’re colleague has my key,’ I say.

He calls the first police who is directing traffic in the intersection.

‘Give him his key,’ the second police says.

The first police complies and I return with the key to the bike.

‘What is going on?’ Jess says.

‘We can go,’ I say.

‘Did you pay the ticket?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘I paid the fine.’

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