The moment the man spoke, I knew we were in for a ride. He had been standing there harassing another vehicle, and was just finishing up when he saw us coming slowly up the hill toward him. Immediately he snapped to attention, dollar signs in his eyes, and frantically waved us over.
As the police officer approached our window he straightened his back to give the illusion of professionalism. He looked at me and inhaled, pulling the corners of his mouth back to reveal his teeth, raising his eyebrows, and telling us with his grimace that we had really screwed up.
“I pulled you over because you have committed a serious infraction,” he said. He didn’t tell us what we’d supposedly done wrong until he’d planted the fear in our hearts and given it enough time to take root. He slowly swept his gaze over his boots, down the road behind us, along the side of our van, and then stopped at my face, staring, trying to be intimidating.
The moment he spoke I figured him out. His predictability was pathetic. In northern Peru all of the cops we’d come across had been nothing more than clowns in uniform, and he was no different.
“You, unfortunately, were speeding. What is the reason that you speeding so fast? This is a serious infraction.” He peristaltically barfed the words up from his gut and spewed them out for me to look at, as if to let me figure out what to do with them.
“I was speeding? That’s strange. When you pointed at me I was being overtaken by three vehicles in a row. Why didn’t you pull the overtaking vehicles over instead?”
“Those other vehicles have already been stopped up ahead. I radioed them in.” He pointed to his cell phone, which was clipped to his shirt near his shoulder. It wasn’t a radio, but he grabbed it and tilted it toward his mouth to show me that he could magically use it as a radio.
“How do you know I was speeding? I don’t see a radar gun.”
“My colleague at the bottom of the hill has the radar. He radioed you in and I stopped you.” We were in the middle of the desert, and he had no colleague at the bottom of the hill. In a desert devoid of all life, you notice when there are other living things around. Still, he wanted me to believe that we had been caught up in the middle of their sophisticated web of radios and radar guns.
I was visibly getting ticked off by his pack of lies. After having been pulled over by numerous ill-intentioned, corrupt police officers every day since entering Peru, I no longer viewed them as being in a position of authority. I found myself addressing them informally, as if dealing with a pest. They were sloppy, inappropriate, and impossible to respect.
“You committed a serious infraction. The ticket is 300 US dollars.” He threw that out there and let it fester for a while before continuing. “What are you going to do about this problem?”
“I’m not going to do anything about this, because there isn’t a problem. I wasn’t speeding, so there is no problem.”
The back and forth continued this way for 10 more minutes. He repeatedly told me about the infraction, I denied all wrongdoing, and he asked what I was going to do to remedy the problem. He was tireless. Finally he got the hint that he wasn’t getting anywhere.
“Does she understand what we’re saying?” he asked, pointing with his chin toward Sheena.
“Yo no entiendo nada!” Sheena said, clearly indicating that, yes, she did speak enough Spanish to understand what we were saying.
“Please get out of the vehicle.” At this, the clown walked behind Nacho and waited for me. I let out a stream of profanities and felt barely able to keep myself from throwing it in reverse and gunning it. I cooled off, got out, and met him behind the van.
When I met him, he was no longer speaking formally, now choosing to speak to me in a quicker, familiar tone. Sort of what you’d expect when being shaken down by a criminal.
“Look, just give me something material. If you give me something – a gift – I will let you go. What do you have in the van?”
“Tell you what,” I said, “I will give you a snack. You can either have a granola bar or a banana.” He had gone over the line, and I decided that I’d rather pay for a ticket than give this d-bag a bribe. We hadn’t paid any bribes yet, and I wasn’t about to start. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I knowingly let this scumbag walk away with anything of value.
“A snack is not enough. Give me your watch or your wedding ring. Are these surfboards? I would take a surfboard too.”
Who did this comedian think he was? “I’m sorry hombre, but I’m not giving you anything.” I decided to level with him – put all of my cards on the table. “When we left home, my wife and I agreed that we’d never pay a bribe to a police officer. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to give you anything. If you’re hungry I can give you a snack, but I’m not giving you my watch or my wedding ring or my surfboard. I’m happy to take the ticket.”
I knew I was putting him in an impossible situation. To give up now would be shameful. He would have lost to a gringo tourist.
“Just give me something material,” he repeated. His tone had changed; he was feebly grabbing at the fading chance of a successful shakedown.
“Are we done? I’d like to go now,” I told him. My internal filter was full and I no longer cared about the outcome. He stood there looking at my vehicular paperwork in his hands. After a few seconds he folded them slowly and handed them back.
“You can go.”
And so there in the desert we left him, the uniformed Peruvian bandito. The saddest of all of the desert clowns.