Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Weapon of Mass Destruction (?) - Written by Troy

A few months ago, John McHoul and I were running an errand together and laughing about a friend that seemed to always have great stories as he adapted to life and cultural differences here in Haiti. We lamented that he and I were running out of good stories and crazy adventures of late. We credited ourselves with a great deal of knowledge and wisdom, and agreed this was surely the reason we enjoyed so few mishaps and misfortunes. 

We spoke too soon. Within an hour, we were caught in a torrential flood with two flat tires (including one that left the rim entirely), no working air pump or proper tools to fix the problem, soaked to the bone as we searched out roadside assistance from a mob of helpers and hecklers, and practically floated the truck home over the course of the next many hours. John and I quickly recanted our earlier claims of knowledge and wisdom.

Today, I had a couple of things to get done around Port au Prince. Two errands seemed like a reasonable amount to expect to accomplish in the year-end traffic and general craziness of the capital city. I decided to head out on the motorcycle, as my stops were on opposite sides of the city and in areas guaranteed to be crammed with ‘blokis’ (traffic jams). Before setting out, I received a notification from the US Embassy about the planned anti-government protests around the city today. I took pause and checked the expected route of the ‘manifestations’. The route was much larger and lengthier than other recent protests, and enveloped much of the city including areas I wanted to get to.  This was most likely going to cause blokis of epic proportions, based on recent history in our area. My decision to use the motorcycle for transportation was confirmed as a wise choice, and I scrapped one of the two destinations for today as it was directly along the protest route. 

I set out feeling wise and knowledgable and ready to enjoy an uneventful bike ride on a beautiful cool December day. All of my paperwork and safety gear was in order and in place. I was filled with confidence. As I walked out the door I saw a small can of pepper spray we have on hand for security/personal defense - like Tara carries while she runs - and on a whim decided to attach it to my keychain in the event that I ran into an ugly situation with angry mobs of protestors or motorcycle-thieving bandits (both fairly unlikely, mind you). 

I took the looooonnnngggg scenic route to get to the part of the city I was headed, ensuring I completely avoided the possible protest areas. It didn’t seem long at all, however - given the ease with which the traffic can be navigated on a bike and the beautiful weather and the fact that I was winning at everything. 

I was not entirely familiar with this scenic route, and probably a bit distracted by the scenery and all of my winning ways, wisdom, knowledge, what have you...and ended up a bit lost for a while. The roads were (somewhat) smooth, however, and I was undaunted. I rounded one corner wondering what the large home/compound was that I was nearing - then noticed the helicopter overhead, then the UN tanks/trucks, then the guns waving, then the soldiers and police officers pointing me in the other direction since apparently no one was getting anywhere near President Martelly’s house today. Oops. 

I meandered through the labyrinth of streets and away from the restricted area until I recognized a landmark, and proceeded to my first (and only) intended stop. The stop was a success, everything was prepared and in order and went entirely smoothly. After a bathroom break and a stretch (and a concern that I had broken my coccyx somewhere along the somewhat smooth roads) - I was ready to head back down the hill and take on the rest of the day with head held high. 

Due to the lost time from, well, being lost, I headed back to our area via a more direct route. This route would include part of the possible protest route but I had not seen or heard any evidence of trouble and decided to try it - knowing it would be easy and quick to change course on the moto if needed. I sailed down the hill enjoying the warm sun and cool breeze, very little traffic, and not a protestor in sight. Home base was only two miles away. I expertly navigated the only crammed intersection I had encountered and almost made it out the other side when I saw a police checkpoint. More importantly, the police checkpoint saw me. (It often seems that foreigners are particularly targeted in these ‘random’ checkpoints, but that is purely based on my anecdotal evidence and I could be overly sensitive after many ‘shakedown’ attempts...I digress)

I politely followed the officer’s instructions to pull over to the side of the road and stop my motorcycle. I turned off the ignition and removed my helmet as instructed. I have been through this drill before, and was feeling calm and confident. As I mentioned before, all of my paperwork was in order and I was happy to have a chat with the police to provide some additional entertainment for my exceedingly excellent morning. 

As I handed over my papers and license, one officer’s eyes grew wide as he reached for my keys and removed them from the ignition. He asked me what the small red canister was, and I nonchalantly informed him it was ‘gaz’ - pepper spray - for personal defense. I was starting to tell him about my friends who have been attacked while riding motorcycles and even bikes stolen out from under them in the past, and maybe even throw in a bit about the raging dangerous protests about town (which I’d seen none of) - but before I got very far he was holding the keyring up in the air and motioning others to come to his side as if he had just discovered a nuclear warhead poised to destroy our tiny island nation. 

A couple officers demanded that I present ‘authorization’ papers for carrying such a weapon, and I shakily explained that I had no idea that was necessary and again tried to explain the purpose of the offending item. They asked me who I intended to ‘shoot’, and when I told them I didn’t want to shoot anyone...which is why I wouldn’t carry a gun - they told me that it would be better and more legal to have a gun on me than this little red weapon of mass destruction. “Only the most specialized SWAT team in Haiti is permitted to serve with devices like this!”, I was informed. Even these fine men of the law could not use such lethal weapons, and so on. I begged forgiveness and explained my ignorance, also asking for them to understand my confusion since I BOUGHT THE PEPPER SPRAY IN A STORE TWO MILES AWAY ‘over the counter’, as it were. They were hearing none of it. I was told to turn my bike around and follow them back to the police station around the corner. I could not immediately comply, as my handlebars were locked and the bike was not in neutral - which upset them greatly. Upon pointing out to them that I needed the keys one of them was still waving around in the air - he accused me of planning to ‘shoot’ him with the gaz and then make my escape. I almost rolled my eyes. He took out a pair of plastic restraints/cuffs momentarily, and my good mood started to wane. I asked him to take the can off of the keyring and let me use the keys. Suddenly my good mood was over and done with. 

I walked the bike a couple blocks flanked by three officers. This provided great entertainment for the machanns and moto chauffers lining the streets. ‘Gade yon blan!’, they jeered. I tried to smile. We arrived at the ‘Commissariat’ - a blue and white 20’ shipping container converted into a one room police station - common at many major intersections. A handful of impounded motos leaned against the sides of the box. There were three plastic lawn chairs and a broken metal and faux wood desk inside. Stacks of driver’s licenses and national ID cards were strewn across the desk, along with one steno pad and a folder full of dogeared photocopies.

I left the moto on the street, not wanting it to join the pile of other bikes. I was ‘invited’ inside, and told to sit in a chair that nearly collapsed when I sat down. I found that if it had the back legs propped against the wall behind me it would support my weight. 

I continued to ask for grace and understanding, and was repeatedly interrupted with lectures about the seriousness of my offense. Ignorance was definitely not an acceptable excuse, and the primary officer launched into a diatribe about the dangers of the lethal weapon I was illegally carrying. I repeatedly pointed out that I obviously had no idea or I would not have had this menace bouncing around on my handlebars in the open hanging from my keychain. One of the dogeared photocopies came out of the folder on the desk and was laid before me. I was asked if I could read French, and before I could say yes, the officer expressed in grandiose fashion that he was obligated to arrest me and have me transferred to jail, due to the seriousness of the offense. 

He looked over the paperwork and asked whose motorcycle I was driving. It is registered in John’s name, which I shared and explained, and at that moment John was calling my cell phone. I showed them the name from the caller id, and that it matched the paperwork, then answered John’s call and told him what was going on. He laughed and wanted more details, but I was not at liberty to have a long discussion. When the officers asked what my boss had said, I informed them that he laughed at me and would lage’m net (leave me completely) if I was in trouble. They seemed shocked. They asked what John would do if I ended up in prison, and I let them know the absolute truth: he would laugh even harder. Of course he would help me in any way - but not without a great deal of joy and laughter at my misfortune. Don’t worry - this is how we love.

The officer asked if I understood what a dangerous weapon I was carrying, and what it could do. I started to describe my intentions and understanding of how pepper spray works, but was interrupted again with a long list of the risks - including death to infants, people with heart conditions, and asthmatics. I choked on a laugh I tried to stifle on that last one, mostly because I was surprised the Kreyol word for asthmatics is: asthmatics. All three officers were taken aback by my apparent relaxed attitude and laughter given the grave circumstances, and I tried to regain a deferential composure. 

According to the officers, it did not matter that the gaz was legally purchased at a legally operating retail store nearby, because any store can sell whatever they want and caveat emptor and all that. 

The primary officer made a call and informed someone on the other end that there was a prisoner in need of transport...only I could tell the call was fake because he never dialed or touched a single button on the phone first. I was also informed that my moto was being impounded but I could see it still on the street and I had the keys in the helmet in my lap. 

Over and over again I asked to be given a chance to leave with my lesson learned, but to no avail. Eventually, one officer asked how I spoke Kreyol so well, and I launched into my usual jokes about all the Haitian food I eat and how the language came to me. I sensed them starting to come around. I had relaxed by this point. I knew that I was going to be there a while, and after a failed attempt at accusing them of harassment (which was quickly met with an obviously rehearsed speech about racism and their desire to uphold the law at all costs in the face of the evil overrunning the country), I decided the best play was to play nice and win them over with charm.

I asked them not to ruin the end of the year 2014 for me, and how that would be a very bad omen starting off the new year...and by their reaction I knew I had a chance of avoiding prison. They laughed and agreed that I must be Haitian if I was so superstitious. I played that line for quite a while. During a break (while they arrested another guy and took his moto for bad papers or something), I called a friend who works in the Haitian police at the National Palace (back when there was one). She outranks all of the men I was detained by and agreed to come to help me if possible. Armed with the confidence of backup on the way, I went back to entertaining the officers with ‘Pawol Granmoun’ (Haitian Proverbs), and appeals to their obvious good nature and concern for law and order and the good we are trying to do in their country and couldn’t we all just get along, et cetera. 

I asked if there was any chance I could leave before the planned protests reached the area, and they seemed incredulous that I could have such information. I worried that this would be proof of my spy career and ill intentions with the pepper spray - but their shock was that foreigners in the country could know such information. I told them the US Embassy sent out notices via email and facebook, and they all launched into a long conversation about the superiority of the US and the ineptitude of their own government. One asked where else they could go, to which another answered: “I’m going to his country” as he motioned towards me. I stayed quiet.

By this point we were all being friendly and even shared some bags of labapen (boiled breadfruit), and I ponied up a few gourdes for some bags of water to drink. It was a regular party...only inside a shipping container police office that I couldn’t freely exit. A few other people came in and out of the ‘station’ while we were talking, and it was clear that my situation was not going to be discussed with anyone else present. Whenever the others went out, it was back to feeling like a shakedown. I kept working the New Year’s angle. Giving gifts and bonuses at the end of the year is a BIG deal here. One officer asked how many people I had given end of year gifts to, and I told him it was a lot - since we have been here for many years and have a lot of employees and it is an expensive time of year. They nodded in agreement and another asked how many I gifts I had given. I told them at least fifteen, maybe twenty. They asked how many more I had to give out...and the game was afoot.

I told them I was pretty sure I had taken care of everyone, although I had a sneaking suspicion I may have forgotten a few. Yes, a few - three to be exact. I closed my eyes and exclaimed ‘Yes! It is like I can see their faces before me! There are three people I have yet to give gifts to for the end of the year.’ They were smiling, as they knew we were finally all on the same page. I was smiling too, since I knew my backup was on the way, and that I only had the US $ equivalent of three bucks in my pockets. That would NOT qualify as an acceptable ‘gift’...and I didn’t really want to ‘give’ one anyway. I really layed it on thick as I bent down and prayed into my helmet asking God to reveal to me if there was anyone I had forgotten in my end of year giving (method acting learned from one John McHoul) The officers were quite amused by my antics and we were all getting along swimmingly. 
Shortly afterwards, my backup entered the room and told the men there that their mother had arrived...and I was her father. I was utterly confused but the officers all knew exactly what she meant and straightened up right quick. One immediately handed over my papers and showed her that I had them. I pointed out that he still had my license and that was returned in short order. We all had a nice chat about our mission and work here in Haiti. They gave another speech about the dangers of the lethal weapon I was carrying, to which my friend replied that she carries it (they said of course she could because she was a police officer) and that she has her daughters carry it as well and no permit or authorization was necessary (they had no reply). I told them I was more than happy to leave the can there, but that was treated as a ridiculous idea and said it was fine for me to carry it, but to keep it in my pocket. Say what?

We said our goodbyes, and I bolted out of the area as quickly as possible. The weapon of mass destruction was safely tucked away in my pocket so that all of the babies, heart patients, and asthmatics were protected. 

-Troy the not so wise, or knowledgable 

word made it to the kids at home ...
they texted this photo to me as a possible police intimidation tool

When I got home I knocked at our gate with my helmet still on.  Isaac acted like he wasn't sure it was me and stood staring at me confused.

I said, "Hey Buddy, it's me."

Isaac said, "DAD??? What are you doing here?  I thought you were in jail!"