Thursday, January 6, 2011

'This is very serious.'

I'm no stranger to being pulled over by the police while driving. It was nearly a daily routine when I was in college in Maine, driving a Volkswagon with the broken hood strapped to the roof, engine exposed to the elements.

But I've only been pulled over once in Senegal. Last week. And it was different.

I was rushing to the office to deal with some work when I got snarled up in traffic. Despite the black smoke coming out of exhaust pipes all around me, I had my window rolled down in hopes of a fresh breeze. I was listening to the radio when I heard a voice in my left ear say, "bonjour." I turned my head to see a cop, wearing aviator shades, on a motorcycle. He smiled and told me to pull over to the shoulder.

"You are evading a police officer," he says in French after I stop the car, the smile drifting off his face.

"Pardon me?"

"A police officer flagged you down at the last intersection, and you kept going. That is very serious," he says.

"I didn't see him," I protest.

Then a portly traffic cop arrives on the passenger side of my car, out of breath from his jog to catch up. He waves off the motorcycle cop and then tells me to open the passenger door. I do. He gets in and shuts the door. He settles in, and then proceeds to yell at me.

"What are you hiding, that you need to run away from me?" he says as a donkey cart squeezes by the market stalls behind him. He wipes the sweat from his forehead with a dirty white handkerchief.

"I'm very sorry. I didn't see you," I say, uncomfortable to have him sitting in the car next to me. I'm used to the Scarborough police, who stand at the drivers side window, half a pace back with a hand on their holstered revolver.

"If you didn't see me, it means you were not paying attention. And if you were not paying attention, you are dangerous and should not have a license. Give me your license and your papers," he says.

I pull the license out of my wallet and then grab the mysterious papers from my glove compartment. Having inhereted the company car from my predecessor, I admit I have taken a less than rigourous approach to keeping its documents up to date. He continues to berate me for trying to escape him as he files through the papers. Then he spots an expired paper, called a carte grise.

"This is very serious. You are guilty of evading an officer and you have expired documents. We must do a U-turn here and go to the police commisariat, at once. They will impound your car and we will sort out the fines. You have no right to be on the road."

I think to myself that he must be joking. A quick glance at the other vehicles on the street reveal heaps of twisted, rusty metal, chuffing out a carcinogenic nightmare into the crowds, their engines achieving the impossible by continuing to run. My old Fox would have fit in well here, I think.

"I'm wondering if you can just write me a ticket?" I said.

He pauses for a moment and sighs deeply. "Why are you arguing with me? You have no right to drive here. We're taking your car and we'll sort this out at the commisariat. The fine for failing to stop when I flagged you down is 6,000 CFA ($12) and the fine for your expired carte grise is also 6,000 CFA. So you will need to stand in line and pay that, and then fill out paperwork to get your car back."

"I'm terribly sorry for all of this, but I really need to get to work," I say.

He pauses again. "Two times 6,000 CFA. That is what you will pay. You will need to wait in line. I think you should start the car, and make a U-turn."

I notice he's looking quite comfortable in the car, examining his fingernails as he speaks. His order to make a U-turn has turned into a mere suggestion.

"I'm not sure I have time for that," I say. "I need to get to work. Can you just write me a ticket?"
"12,000 CFA is what you will need to pay... two times 6,000... at the commisariat. What you did is very serious," he says, with almost no energy in his voice.

By this point, I'm ready to play ball.

"Would you do me a huge favour, officer? If I gave you the money for the fines, would you be able to take it to the station and pay them on my behalf? I'm in a rush. I promise to get the carte grise updated," I say.

"Of course, yes," he says without delay, surprising me. "But I can't provide you a receipt."

"That is very helpful, thanks. If you can't give me a receipt, though, perhaps we can reduce the fines to 10,000 CFA?" I offer.
"Yes, that would be fine," he says. He takes the bill.

Then he looks at me: "Now be careful. You realise it is illegal to drive with an expired carte grise."

I think of a good come back, but bite my tongue.

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