21
Sep
08

driving permitted

When I took Drivers Ed. (Driver’s Ed.?), there was a lesson on the ‘driver’s checklist’, a series of quick equipment-checks before starting up the car. I apply that list to the bug:

  • Hand brake: does not work.
  • Seat belt: too short on the driver’s side, too long on the passenger side.
  • Gas: maybe?
  • Head-lights: ornamental.
  • High beam lights: a bit tired.
  • Dashboard: non-existent.
  • Rear view mirror: there is one.
  • Large back-cushion so my legs reach the pedals: CHECK!

I love this car, because even if it’s efficacy is questionable, it’s concept is sublime. There is not a feature in the car that does not contribute toward displacement. The absence of a few key features (Power-steering? What?) only means it’s got “potential.”

It can be a little frightening on the road alongside all the SUVs, Land Cruisers and military vehicles. More than once, a military truck has pulled alongside and the driver stared down hard at me. I keep expecting to be pulled over, partly because the license plate is so worn, you can’t make out the numbers. I keep wondering what they want, but maybe they just want to look. The sense of vulnerability and fragility keeps me alert. I reassure myself often by thinking that if I run into a pedestrian, the car will just bounce off without harm to man or machine.

 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I pull up into the parking lot of the police station for motorist issues and park the car in front of a bench-full of Burundians (it’s never clear if people are waiting for entry or exit). Policemen in two-piece cobalt blue uniforms and frumpy felt berets lugging AK-47s mill around a wide gate. I lock the cardoor and walk away; I’m here to get a Burundian driver’s license.

(A I’m typing, my iTunes just randomly pulled up The Cure’s “Mint Car.”)

When I walk through the gate, the first thing I see is rows and rows of rusty crumpled old cars and motorcycles. Some must have been there for years because they have sunk into the ground, probably from repeated rainy seasons. In the back row, I spot a red VW bug. A few cars over, there is a white one. I’m not sure why there are so many cars sitting around but I make a mental note to come back. Bujumbura is like a massive garage sale sometimes.

Beyond the cars, the space opens up into a large courtyard with a three-story tower in the middle, ringed by two-story concrete blocks of offices. The offices have numbers on them, but other than that, there is no indication of where to go or what to do. But it’s too late. The minute I walked in, all eyes turned on me. I can’t break stride now. I just have to…what? Where?

The office blocks are elevated from the courtyard so as I walk past, dozens of police officers are staring down at me, some smirking, some are not – at all. I spot two who are greeting each other on the stairway up to the office level. As they’re shaking hands, I walk up, work through some Kirundi greetings and hold my hand out. “I’m Jeff.”

I imagine the combination of curiosity, amusement and authority must be quite pleasant because so far, this approach works pretty well. After the giggling simmers down, I ease in some French and explain “Ndashaka un permis de conduire. Ngiye hehe?” (‘I want a driver’s permit. Where do I go’?) The two officers confer and try to decide between themselves whether I need to go through the whole application process or if I have an international license. I tell them I have an Illinois license. Then I explain about Chicago and the connection to Obama. Big smiles, thumbs up. Thanks, I know. One of the officers, says, “Okay,” and he motions me to the office in front of us. I step in and there is an old man on a chair in front of a desk and a robust officer sitting across. Upon seeing me enter, the old man gets up to offer me the chair. I try to explain to him that he can stay a bit longer and I’ll just stand, but he’s already up and the officer isn’t stopping him. He seems almost apologetic for having sat in the chair I am about to occupy. It’s weird, always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Once the old man leaves, I sit down and see that set against the wall is a single bed, a thin foam mattress over a fatigued metal frame. I just hope the guards use it only for naps.

After chatting with me for a while and making me think he’s the guy, he’s the one who’s going to process my application (is there one?), he gets up and says that we have to go upstairs. I wonder why we talked for so long then.

Upstairs, he guides me to Office No. 1, the Commandant’s office. He tells me I need to get the Commandant’s approval first before I can apply for the permit. “Approval.” Sure. Unfortunately, the Commandant’s door is locked so I stand around waiting for a good hour. As I’m waiting around, I fall into conversation with the officer next to me, who is also waiting for the Commandant. While we’re both turned away from the office doors, looking out onto the courtyard, he whispers to me, “Can you get me a job?”

I ask him what’s wrong with being a police officer. He tells me he doesn’t like it, that he doesn’t make enough to support his family of four. I ask how much he makes, and he says police make about 50,000 to 70,000 Burundian francs a month (about 40-60 USD). Soldiers get about the same. That’s about 500 to 700 USD a year, not too far above the 400 USD per capita GDP average for Burundi. With rising food prices…sometimes, I find it hard to blame these guys if they want to make a quick buck off a trumped-up traffic violation. It’s a shitty thing to say, but there aren’t really sides to this. There’s very poor and too poor. I’m not so quick to assign right and wrong in these kinds of situations anymore. Understanding is pretty hard sometimes.

At noon, someone emerges from next door, Office No. 2, to tell me to come back in two hours, after lunch. I ask that they transmit my request so the Commandant can sort out the “approval” before we meet. They promise me they will.

When I return, I head right back to Office No. 1 and am told that the Commandant will get in at 3 p.m., another hour.

On the doorway to Office No. 2, there is a sign that reads, “Everyone must pass through the door. All foreigners must pass through the window.” I find this too funny, so I point it out to the nearest police officer. It doesn’t seem like he gets it (it’s a subtle French gaffe) so I walk over to the window and start to step through the opening. Everyone freezes in mid-task and looks at me, mouths half-open. “I’m a foreigner. I’m supposed to pass through the window. That’s what the sign says.” One of the non-officers pulls the sign off the door and reads, “…foreigners must pass through the window.” She says, “That’s what the sign says. Is he supposed to go through the window?”

It’s a ridiculous ploy, but the situation is no less bizarre. I’m in a large government complex surrounded by hundreds of policemen with little structure and a very arbitrary sense of justice. One mistake and I’ll never get what I want. The only thing to do is to diffuse the situation, no matter how asinine the tactic. Getting a smile is all I ask, all I need and maybe, all I can hope for. It may not be all I want, but without it, I’ll never get anywhere. If I willfully reduce the interaction to a joke, I sacrifice complexity but gain something much more valuable: a clear goal, a chance for a concrete result. I make a small mental apology to intelligence and dignity and jump through the window.

Laughter and head-shaking ensue. If I act like a clueless moron/foreigner, I have a better chance of succeeding – that’s so messed up. After making sure that I’m supposed to talk to the Commandant, that someone notified him of my request, I walk back out through the door.

For the next hour, I lean over the railing, watching the activity in the courtyard. I watch cars roll in and out. Curiously, I see two fire engines pull up and park. There are no fire-fighting trappings on the trucks. (The complex used to be a fire station. The tower in the middle of the yard is where they hang the firehoses, which are still there.) I can’t think of any reason why the police would drive around in those elephantine clunkers but it’s amusing to see.

At three, a sedan pulls in. The driver is in a light-blue short-sleeve shirt. I’m sure it’s the Commandant. But then he parks the car across the yard from me and a soldier emerges from the back. After about three minutes of me just watching the car and who else might be get out, the driver starts honking. He doesn’t stop. People start to look around. What does he want? I look at the people around me, but they’re just as puzzled. For some reason, I know he’s honking at me, so I point at myself. A hand reaches out of the car and waves me over.

As I’m walking across the yard, I wonder how I’m supposed to request approval. When I reach the car, I confirm that he is indeed the Commandant. He says yes and then asks me for a piece of paper. On it he scribbles something I can’t make out. “Is that all I need? I can get a Burundian license now?”

“Yes.” Approval granted.

This story would have an amazing ending befitting its drama if I had actually received the license the same day. Getting something so complicated accomplished would have been a major victory. As it turns out, once I get my approval, the Commandant drives away. When I go to Office No. 4 to have my application processed, they tell me the Commandant needs to sign other parts of the permit, so I’ll have to wait a few days. Fine. Just a few more days. That’s still pretty good.

I leave the compound feeling confident that I’ll have a license soon. Under the watchful eyes of the police and the benchful of people still waiting for something, I pop open the door to my car and drive home.

(Tomorrow’s the day.)

Advertisements

0 Responses to “driving permitted”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: