Inside a police station

Remember this post? The one I wrote about being pulled over in Mexico? During our two years in Mexico, I think I ended up getting pulled over about five times. Considering I had only ever been pulled over once in the US and didn't get a ticket, this was a pretty new experience for me.

Today I had another new experience.

The day started out pretty well. We had been invited to go to the beach with friends, so we canceled our regular Saturday plans and decided to head to the beach!





We literally had the beach to ourselves, but that's what happens when you live in a country that is roughly the size of Colorado but with a population roughly equivalent to Indianapolis. Solitude is not hard to find.

It was a beautiful morning (sorrynotsorry to all of you buried in snow and freezing temps), but Jill and Daniel both had birthday parties to attend, so those two and I left. Jeff and the two littles stayed longer and got rides home from friends.

First it was off to the birthday party of Daniel's classmate.


We were pretty impressed with the home. This party was for two sisters: seven and eight years old. There were three large bouncy houses, a trampoline, a soccer match, catering, a huge pavilion, loud dance music, cotton candy machine, etc.—lots of fun. We stayed with Daniel for an hour or so, and then I left to take Jill to her party.

I had a vague idea of where the party was, but I wasn't completely sure. I just knew a close landmark.  I almost made it to the landmark that I thought I was driving to when I passed a different landmark that made me think that that was actually the landmark I was looking for. (All of this confusion can be blamed on me trying to communicate in French over the phone. Foreign languages are so much harder over the phone.) So I turned around and was following Google Maps, but I had also called the mother of Jill's friend having a birthday. The mother asked me to wait and speak to her husband who spoke better English. Well, in the midst of that, I apparently turned onto a one-way street. Facing the wrong direction. I only drove the distance of maybe two buildings before I realized all the cars were facing me and saw a sign indicating I was going the wrong way. At that moment, a police officer knocked on my window. I assumed he was being helpful and was trying to warn me that I was going the wrong way and he didn't want me to get hurt. But then he was adamant that I turn my car off. And then he demanded to see my papers. I am very used to complying with authority, so I handed him all of my papers. Then he told me to park the car and follow him into the police station. Apparently one of the two buildings I passed going the wrong way was a police station. I asked him to give me back my papers, but he did not. So Jill and I followed him into the station. 

We entered a small room with two benches, two desks and chairs, a small window, and a fan. Now I was with a man "who spoke better English" than the first police officer who only spoke French. This new man was not wearing a police uniform, but he assured me he was a police officer by showing me his gun. (Do they not have badges here??)

I asked him for my papers back. He explained (I think) (because this part was in French) that he was going to write me a ticket for the traffic violation, then I needed to take the ticket to the Treasurer to pay, and then I could return to that police station with my receipt of payment, and then he would return my papers. Well, I knew enough to know that I should not leave that room without my documents. 

I had been calling Jeff (still at the beach), but he didn't answer, but he finally texted me that I needed to call the Embassy's Regional Security Officer. So I called the RSO and interrupted his Saturday. (In hindsight, this is what I should have done before even handing the police officer any papers or exiting my vehicle. I'm just really too used to doing what ever police officers tell me to do.)

I'm pretty sure now that the police officer actually had no right to stop me or request that I exit my vehicle. What I do know is that the RSO spoke on the phone with the police officer, and then suddenly "it was finished." During their phone conversation, two more police officers joined us in the small room and sat across from us on the benches. They had very large sticks/batons. Jill started shaking and fervently whispering to me asking me if they were going to beat us. I tried to reassure her that no bodily harm would come to us, but even though no one was hurting us, it was very hard to feel brave in that situation.

I tried to explain that I had no problem with getting a ticket and paying the fine since I actually had driven the wrong way on the one-way street, but the officer just kept repeating that "it was finished," that the Embassy would take care of everything, and that "we are thirsty, my sister, and we should go get drinks." I did not take him up on the offer of going to get drinks at the store next door and took my papers and left.

What I am leaving out of this story is how many times I tried really, really hard to not cry. I had limited success. It seems so silly now that I was so scared, but I was in a part of town I'd never been in before—technically a different town actually,—and I was communicating in a language that I am not the best in (but I'm so grateful for what French I do know), and I was in a small room with a man in normal clothes who was claiming it was a police station and he was a police officer and who was insistent that he would not return my legal documents. It was just stressful. As I tried to stay calm, I kept repeating to myself: This is an experience that will give you empathy. This is an experience that will give you empathy.

Much to Jill's and my relief, we walked back to the car and drove away. The police officers had told me what part of town I was looking for, so I tried to follow what I thought they said (again my French is not so hot), and I made it to the right area. Then I called the dad again, and he lead me the house. 

It was another super fancy house, and Jill seemed to be enjoying seeing her friends. And then I looked at my phone and saw this message in a group message of all the parents of all the kids in Danny's grade.




Oh my goodness. I am that mother! And I was one town over, about thirty minutes away. Then my phone rang and it was Daniel's teacher from last term. (She was at the party where Daniel was.) I spoke with Daniel, and he told me he was not hurt but that he was bored and really wanted to go home. I got in touch with Jeff. By this point, he had just left the beach and was on his way back. Daniel's party was within ten minutes of our house, so it made more sense for Jeff and our friends to swing by for Daniel on their way home. Daniel called me again from the teacher's phone asking me where I was, so I told him that his dad was coming. (When Jeff arrived, he discovered that Daniel had a fever, so I think that must have been the real problem. I don't know how you can be bored at a party with three bouncy houses.)

So Jill and I stayed at her friend's party. Jill recovered pretty quickly from our experience at the police station. I slowly recovered. When I told someone at the party what had happened, I was told that I messed up by not just giving the police officer some money and then driving away. (When I later told my neighborhood guards what happened, they said the police officer messed up and never should have stopped a diplomatic car in the first place.)

While I was trying to relax and calm down at the party, kids started swimming, and one right in front of me almost drowned. I later saw the child walking around, so he was fine, but I've never seen a kid be under that long unintentionally. It was added stress to an already stressful state. (Speaking of almost drowning, I really need to blog about Daniel's birthday pool party. I'll do that soon. Why are there so many children in this country who don't know they can't swim??)



And now we're back home safe.

And I think I do have more empathy. I understand better how scary it is to have someone with authority take away your papers that contain your legal rights. I have an inkling of how scary it is to have a language barrier between yourself and an authority figure. And I know how scary it is to have someone show you his gun when you have none. I have a taste of how scary an African police station can be. But just a taste. I know that many, many people have had experiences much more traumatic and that don't turn out all right in the end like mine did. But for my relatively peaceful life, this was a pretty big deal.

And I also know what it is like to be the only person with your skin color at a party of forty or so people. Even when most people are nice to you, simply always sticking out is a little tiring. There is something very comforting with being able to blend in with a crowd.

Comments

  1. Michelle, I felt a lot of stress for you as I read about you trying to find your way to the party in a new area, plus the challenge of struggling with the language. I also felt your stress with the whole police station scene, and not being able to get a hold of your husband. And that it wears on you, to not be able to blend in. I could relate to all of it. Thanks for writing. Thanks for sharing. You are brave, and you're doing great!

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  2. I am so sorry you had this kind of day. I know you are not one for self-pity or drama, but I think you’re entitled to indulge in a bit of both here!! May tomorrow be much, much better. —Kristin C.

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    1. Apparently, I do have an inner flair for the dramatic, because when the first officer said I needed to go to “gare,” my brain shouted: “WHAT?! Did he just say JAIL?! Am I really going to have to go to jail? What will happen to Jill??” Then I settled my brain down and remembered that “gare” is French for “station.” Deep breaths . . .

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  3. Ugh. It's so frustrating when a great day takes a bad turn. I'm glad it all worked out, but am sorry for your stress! —Alli C.

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  4. I'm so sorry to hear that! —Edna

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    1. Thanks, Edna! It really was okay in the end. And even during, they spoke calmly. They never touched me. I shouldn’t have felt as scared as I did.

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  5. I would have been so scared! You are so brave. —Brooke B.B.

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    1. Oh, I was scared. I definitely wished I had Jeff with us! But I’m grateful I didn’t have all four kids.

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  6. that is insane. —Kelly C

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  7. Sorry to hear that you faced this experience Michelle but glad that your daughter brushed it off so quickly. There is no perfect way of dealing with the police officers in Africa. —Kady D.

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  8. Yikes. That is scary! —Geraghty

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  9. Wow what a day! You are so brave to have even gone and tried to find Jill’s party to go to. Sounds like you need to be extra careful venturing out! —Cynthia L.

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  10. My heart goes out to you. Totally understand how it can be a scary experience. So glad you’re ok. Reminds in Juarez being pulled over by the police man with the big guns for doing an illegal turn. I know he wanted $ but I wasn’t going to give it to him. So I sat there until he let me go. Still scary. —Lori D.

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    1. Living in countries where police officers make so little and don't always get paid and thus always want bribes is so complicated.

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  11. That is so scary. You were so brave!! Glad you guys are ok!! —Chelle Belle

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  12. Me gusta leerte. Pero ahora me “pegaste” un susto! Im so sorry Jill and you went thru all this ordeal. Don’t you miss Mexico?!?! ‘Cuz Mexico sure misses you! Un abrazo! X❤️X —Leticia O.

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    1. Extrañamos muchísimo a México!! 🇲🇽❤️Pero Gabon está linda también. Muy diferentes, pero los dos tienen muchas cosas buenas.

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  13. Man, what a day! Glad you are all ok. Now I vote you go take a hot bath or read a book or something relaxing!! —Jessica M.

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    1. You have really great ideas!

      That text from the other parent about Daniel keeps coming back to me. So dramatic with a few words in each text and then that super sad picture!! I felt so helpless being so far away.

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  14. I'm sorry that you had to experience what you went through. We lived in Warsaw , Poland when Amy was 3 years old and Jimmy was in the first grade. We had a license plate on our car which clearly states that we were foreigners. The Polish police stopped us for no reason and asked for money. They took Jerry into the police car while I waited in our car with the kids. They told Jerry to pay the fine, even though they didn't really give any explanation. They took Jerry's wallet and took all the money in there. Thank goodness he didn't carry much , and I had more money with me. They never gave us a ticket or receipt or paper ... they just took the money and told him to leave. I was so furious and upset !! We were told by other Americans that it's not unusual because the police officers don't make much money and they just stop foreigners to make some extra money for themselves. —Mayumi Fox

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    1. 😱 You were wise to both be carrying cash and not having it all in one place.

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  15. Wow. What a scary experience. I am so glad you’re ok! —Rinna

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  16. That was far too intense...so much in such a short time!! I would need weeks to recover. Whew. So glad you are safe!!! —Tiffany H.

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    1. Agree!!! ☝️☝️☝️ Miss you!! ❤❤ —Michelle B.

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  17. What a scary experience! —Ashley B.

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  18. Oh my! I can’t even imagine what I would do in this situation. I’m so glad it all turned out ok in the end. —Meredith S.

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  19. Just read your blog post. Cried for you. —Ames

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  20. I would have been terrified, as well. So glad you are safe! —Ralph P.

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  21. Wow, Mimi! What a scary experience. —Colleen O.

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  22. Wow, that is crazy Mimi! I am so glad it all worked out but sorry you had to go through all that. Sending you ((hugs)) —Christy E.

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  23. Siento mucho que estubieras ahi aunque fuera poco tiempo y mas lo siento Por Jill pasaran eso entre la confucion del idioma. Y permanecer en un lugar asi. Espero que esten bien y recuperandose del susto ... Muchos besos y abrazos —Anayancy

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  24. You must have felt so vulnerable! You are brave and I’m impressed at your language skills. Take it easy and let yourself recover from that intense stress. —Jill F.

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  25. Désolée, vraiment les choses de l'Afrique. —Y. Koffi

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    1. J’aime le Gabon y les personnes Africaines que j’ai connaît ici. ♥️

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  26. I was so anxious reading your post. My heart is still racing. I begin to imagine how you felt! Your family is always in my prayers. I'm glad you all got home safe and sound! —Emily K.

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  27. Mimi, I'm so sorry all that happened to you! I'm so glad it turned out okay. Poor little sick guy at a party, too. —Heather K.

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  28. This sounds like a grown up version of the book "The Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" and I think you are so brave. Even if you did cry!

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  29. Hmm, looks like I am a slacker and never commented on this one, either. So glad everything turned out ok that day, I remember from the family chats it was a very crazy day for you!

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