One of the things we may have to get used to as we travel around the world is the fact that in many places law enforcement is paid very little and must supplement their income with “donations”, whether voluntary or forced.
We plan on using taxis, buses or other forms of public transportation most of the time on our travels. However, we rented a car for four days in Punta Cana to explore various parts of the island and to decide where we wanted to settle for about a month. We felt this gave us much more flexibility in checking out different neighborhoods and places to rent.
We took a day trip to Santo Domingo, about a two and a half hour drive from Punta Cana. DR-3 is a four to six lane modern highway that goes from Santo Domingo to Punta Cana, about 220km. It is quite a pleasant drive. The highway is supported by tolls.
It was late afternoon when we hit the first toll booth outside of Santo Domingo on our way back to Punta Cana. The highway here is six lanes, three in each direction, and spreads out into about seven toll stations. We picked a toll booth two or three lanes from the right hand side of the highway– this was our first mistake. On the other side of the toll plaza was a police pick-up truck with a police officer standing by it. He stepped out and motioned for us to pull over to the side of the road.
For those of you who don’t know me or haven’t seen me or my wife, we are pretty white. Go to the dictionary and look up, “pale white people” and I am pretty sure our picture is there. My wife is third generation American with Norwegian heritage and is a natural blond. For me, in the words of one of my Asian friends, “Carey, you are so white, you are pink!” My point is, physically, we don’t blend in here in the Dominican Republic. About 75% of the people in the Dominican Republic are of mixed blood – Spanish and African. Around 11% are African. There are a lot of foreign tourists in the northern and eastern parts of the country, not so much around Santo Domingo and especially not many that drive. I hate to accuse the DR police of profiling, but the thought entered into my mind.
I am trying really hard to learn Spanish. I am still definitely very much at the beginner level. I can pick up many words, I can order in a restaurant, ask how much something costs, call a taxi on the phone and actually have them show up where I am, find my way to the bathroom – you know, the basic stuff. Some people I can understand easier than others. I am not sure if it is their accent, the speed at which they speak, or something else that makes some people more difficult to understand. I had a tough time understanding everything the police officer was saying. Maybe it was because I was caught off-guard at getting pulled over. I don’t know.
“Blah, blah, blah, identificacion, blah, blah, documentacion,” he said. I was pretty sure he wanted my license and registration or whatever they call the documents showing ownership of the car. I don’t get pulled over by the cops often, but so far it seemed pretty standard, just like in the USA or Canada. I handed him my driver’s license and a piece of paper from the glove compartment. This seemed to satisfy him for now. He looked at these for a minute and then spoke again.
“Tu velocidad, blah, blah, blah, trente, blah, blah, blah.” Ok, velocidad means speed. Trente means thirty. I know I was doing more than 30km/h. I wasn’t exactly sure what he was saying. I think he was saying that I was speeding, but the thirty was throwing me off.
“Lo siento,” I said, “no hablo mucho espanol.” – I’m sorry, I don’t speak much Spanish.
“Tu velocidad, blah, blah, blah!” he said louder and more emphatically. “Blah, blah, blah, setenta u ochenta, blah, blah, cien!” I am sure he was saying that the speed limit was 70 or 80 km/h and he claimed I was doing 100 km/h.
Now if I was more accomplished in the Spanish language, this is where I may have started arguing with him.
- Number one – he was on the exit side of the toll booth. There were many speed bumps and rumble strips 200 meters before you reached the toll booth, so there is no way my speed could have even been 70 or 80 by the time he had any hope of seeing me.
- Number two – the speed limit is the speed limit. How could the speed limit be 70 or 80? It sounded like he was making it up as he went along.
- Number 3 – how could he tell what speed I was going? He had no radar gun. Even if he had a radar gun, there were so many cars that it would be impossible for the gun to focus on my car. Who was I dealing with, some kind of advanced Robocop with x-ray vision?
Then he got to the point, “Blah, blah, blah, cincuenta dolores.” Fifty dollars US. Now understand, minimum wage in the Domincan Republic is $167 per month according to a couple of web sites I looked at. Fifty dollars is a lot of money! We had about 250 pesos in the front tray of the car for tolls. Right now the exchange rate is about 45 pesos to the US dollar.
“Cincuenta?” I said. I pulled out a 50 peso note and handed it to him. I was messing with him. I knew he said dollars, but I handed him pesos.
“No, no!” he said, shaking his head and wagging his finger. “Dolores!” he said and wrote $50 on a piece of paper.
“No tengo dolores,” I replied, “solo pesos.” – I don’t have US dollars, I only have pesos. This was completely true, we weren’t carrying any US dollars.
“No dolores!” he said incredulously. Then he walked to the back of the car and pretended to be writing stuff down in his book. Susan and I quickly discussed what to do next. She felt strongly that I should stand my ground and just sit there. I wanted to get on our way, so as inconspicuously as possible I pulled a 500 peso note out of my pocket and added it to the 250 pesos he had refused earlier.
He came back to the open window of the car. I held up the 750 pesos (about $17 US). He quickly pushed my hand down inside the car and with his left hand he gave me my license back and with his right he took the 750 pesos. “Blah, blah, blah!” he said angrily and motioned us along.
That evening I IM’d with one of my friends who lives in Paraguay and has experienced similar situations numerous times there. “Always carry a little bit of money in your shirt pocket, as much as you are willing to part with,” he said. “Never pull out a wallet or a roll of bills to show them how much money you really have. Until you are fluent in the language, you stand very little chance of being able to negotiate or talk your way out of it.” We took his advice. Little did we know we would need it the next day.
The next day we planned to explore the beaches of Las Terranas on the north side of the island. I had my small stash of pesos up front just in case. This time we took DR-4, a two lane road that went through numerous small towns. Sure enough we came to a police check-point with a few police officers. They waved us over.
This was a completely different experience in attitude and conversation. The policeman smiled and came over to the car. He introduced himself in Spanish, reached in and shook my hand and asked my name, “Mi nombre Carey,” I said, “y mi esposa es Susan.” He asked for drivers license, passport and car documentation. Seeing our US passports he switched to English. He spoke English quite well.
He began joking with me after looking at my passport. For some reason he started calling me, Chris. “Is your brother Jesus Christ?”
I played along, “Si, mi hermano es Jesus Christo.” – Yes, my brother is Jesus Christ.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “we just need to check a few things.” He asked where we were going, how long we had been in the Dominican Republic. He then asked me to step out of the car and open the trunk. He looked at the empty trunk, closed it and handed me back our license, passports, etc. and then said, “Ok, you can go. But let me introduce you to my friend.” A smiling man came over from the side of the road. “This is my friend, Juan,” he said. “And today is his birthday!”
Now it is perfectly possible that it really was Juan’s birthday. Everyone has one once a year, why not today? However, I had my doubts but played along. I shook Juan’s hand and said, “Feliz cumpleanos!” – Happy Birthday!
The policeman said, “It is up to you, but if you wanted to give my friend a gift for his birthday, that would be alright.”
I pulled out 150 pesos and handed it to Juan. “Gracias,” he said.
I could tell by the look on Juan’s face he would have liked more. I started to explain that I needed the rest of my money for tolls, but the police officer said, “Don’t worry, that is enough. Thank you. Have a good trip.”
It was actually worth the roughly $3 that the 150 pesos worked out to be. At least I had a good story, and the interaction with the officer was very pleasant.
So, we put about 1100 km on the rental car in those four days and got stopped twice. I guess that works out to one stop every 550 km. Had I been a little better prepared, I am sure I could have gotten away with less money at the first place I was stopped.
This was definitely a new experience for us. I don’t like getting shaken down by the police, but I guess it is a way of life in many parts of the world. And like I said earlier, at least I got a good story out of the experience.