If you ever find yourself in Nicaragua, chances are you will run into the local policia. It certainly happened to me a couple of times. As with anything in life, upon further reflection, my interaction with these lonely souls has left me some insight on how I might have handled the situation differently. My overall conclusion is as follows: When in Nicaragua, do not call the police man amigo.
But before we get there, I think it’s only fair to provide you with some facts. The average Nicaraguan makes around $300.00 dollars (6900 cordobas) per month. If that doesn’t sound like much, it’s because it isn’t. Quite frankly I have no idea how someone could make it on that amount of money. More than make it they seem to be well fed, extremely well clothed (next to Nicaraguan’s my family and I were dressed like aborigines), and always have a smile on their face.
When I first found out where the police fell on the spectrum of income I was shocked. As it turns out, the local police make around $50.00 dollars per month (aka – not enough). It occurred to me that since it was impossible to live on $50 dollars a month they must supplement their income. As I traveled throughout Nicaragua, I realized the means for increasing their monthly wage was as follows: White Americans Who Are Dumb Enough to Rent a Car. To end your suspense, I will go ahead and tell you that I am in the above category.
I should perhaps note, that I do not regret renting a car. As it turns out, I do not enjoy always having to take a cab. One, it is extremely expensive, and two, I am always at someone else’s mercy. For example, when I want to leave, where we are going, are all very defined in a cab. Not my cup of joe. Not that all of my cab rides were for not, what they did teach me is that driving in Nicaragua was very akin to an off-road derby. You drive as fast as you can, pass whenever you have the nerve, and honk at anything that strikes you. It seemed like it would be fun to drive with such reckless abandon and I have to tell you that indeed it was. One of the highlights for me on the trip was driving in Nicaragua. Please note that I used “me” instead of “we”. You will have to ask my wife if joy or terror was the main emotion coming from her from the back seat with the children. All of this joy does come at an extra price not mentioned in the rental car contract, namely, subsidizing the police income.
I had two experiences with the National Policia of Nicaragua. And perhaps I need to clarify at this point that while they are only getting paid $50.00 dollars per month, they are in fact real police officers. They have official looking uniforms, the power to write tickets, and a very real gun (sometimes more than one). It occurs to me now that it seems silly to have the least paid individuals in a society the most heavily armed and with power to enforce the law. In Nicaragua though, that’s the way it is. And when you are apart of the notorious WAWADETRAC club, you are the number one target for these under paid and heavily armed law enforcement officials.
So when I pulled out of the rental car parking lot just minutes after renting my new car, it was no surprise to me that a police blockade was waiting for me. A heavily armed man walked into the middle of the street and motioned for me to drive to the shoulder. Or at least I thought it was the shoulder, as it turned out, stopping on the shoulder is illegal in Nicaragua. He meant for me to stop in the far right lane. In any case, I rolled down my window and let the Spanish begin to flow.
I’m going to push the pause button at this point to tell you all something very important: I do not speak Spanish. My linguistic background consists of Koine Greek, Ancient Hebrew, some French, and some Magyar. No Spanish. I downloaded an app called “Jibbigo” on my travels that translates what I say or type that has also doubled as my Spanish tutor. In exact terms my reservoir of Spanish knowledge consisted of 10-15 phrases and approximately 30 words plus or minus a few. I just want you to know that when I say that I “let the Spanish begin to flow”, it was from an extremely shallow pool of knowledge.
Now, back to the police officer standing outside my window. He came with ticket book in hand. Before he could utter a word I decided to issue an enthusiastic greeting of “Que Paso Amigo!” It felt good rolling off the tongue and I felt as if my introduction would make an excellent first impression on the law enforcement official. You see, at the time (and still now), I was largely ignorant of linguistic rules of etiquette such as “vos” vs. “uste” in the Spanish language. Apparently, my greeting was akin to giving the nice man the finger for pulling me over. My wife, who is aware of such things, later told me that she wanted to die in the seat behind me and was legitimately afraid that I had managed to land myself in jail. The officer did not seem to appreciate my greeting either. Nor did he return my warm, affectionate smile. He simply babbled on about something, the only word I understood was “ticket.” Not good. I handed him about six documents that were in the glove box plus my driver’s license. That seemed to appease him. He spoke the word “ticket” again and I reached for a different item, my wallet. I had read that Nicaraguan police often accept bribes and I had prepared a special wallet in order to make me seem less affluent. I tried to offer him 100 cordobas (about $4), but he continued to write. After a few seconds I pulled out a 500 Cordoba bill. This got his attention. He briefly looked over his shoulders, grabbed the bill and then told me to “vamalos.” So I did. Honestly, it is one of my best memories in Nicaragua. I had never bribed a law enforcement official before and I have to say, you should try it sometime, it was exhilarating. As fun as it was though, it still cost me around $20.00 US. I told myself that on my next interaction with the policia, I would try and get out of it without paying a dime. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would only have to wait six days for my opportunity.
It happened as I was driving back from my friends, Deborah and Roy’s (phenomenal people by the way) coffee finca. A police officer pulled us over at another random blockade. I repeated the same drill. At this point, I had learned a few more things in Spanish and skipped the informal “Que Paso Amigo” and replaced it with “Buenos tardes” or good afternoon. I was able to have a few pleasant words exchanged before I grabbed the documents that she wanted. As she looked over them a local women and her small boy came by my car speaking to me excitedly. I thought they were saying that they had met me in town. I made the mistake again of letting the Spanish flow, this time I uttered the word “si.” Apparently, she was asking for a ride into town. Next thing I knew the back door flew open and she and her son inserted themselves into the rear of the vehicle. That brought the total persons in the vehicle count to 7. In case you were curious we did not rent a minivan, we had a Toyota Corolla. I smiled at the woman and her son and returned to the police officer. It then occurred to me that this was to my advantage. For one, I thought it was less likely for the police officer to accept a bribe in front of a local and two, I thought me giving a ride to a local would make me seem like less of a “gringo” and more local. I turned back to the police officer and began to inquire if she had any children, how old they were, etc…After a few minutes, she handed me back my documents and we were off without paying a dime. A few minutes later our unabashed stowaways exited the vehicle and we were on our way.
Two separate experiences, one cost me $20.00, the other was free. Being a WAWADETRAC has its risks. If you insist on being a member of the club, the following steps will help you from getting into trouble: avoid calling the police amigo, they don’t have a sense of humor; bring a bribe, it beats going to jail or having your license seized and held at the local bank; pick up hitchhikers when pulled over, there is strength in numbers; and lastly, unless you are fluent in Spanish, avoid the urge to banter or make jokes. I would definitely suggest that you rent a car when you are in Nicaragua. If you follow these quick and easy steps you should be fine. After all, The WAWADETRAC Club always has room for more members and the Nicaraguan Police need to make money somehow, don’t they?