Good Cop, Fake Cop and Other Adventures

Sometimes, things don’t go so well on travels. During those times, it’s great to turn to local police to help you. Here are a couple of tales I’d like to tell at the request of friends.

I remember in the 1970 film version of “Superman” in which Marlon Brando portrayed Jor-El, packing up his son to send off from the planet of Krypton before its destruction. He tells his son to live on Earth, but not to interfere. In a way, I think that a traveler is supposed to live by a similar kind of Hipocratic Oath: Above all, do no harm. You’re there as a guest of the local culture. So contribute to it and participate. But don’t leave any negative impact on the community.

Nothing particularly bad has ever happened to me while traveling. (Inshallah, nothing ever will.) The local embassy for your country is the best place to start when things do go bad. Only once have I had to do that. And the embassy staff were very courteous in helping travelers abroad.

So, it’s sometimes tough to think what to do when things aren’t going so right. But generally you have to work things out for yourself as best as possible. Police are cool folk. I’ve greatly enjoyed my encounters with the police officers I’ve met over the years on my travels. Even when they are heavily armed, standing on truck beds with howitzers, because you’ve somehow ended up somewhere you shouldn’t have. They’ll generally guide you on your way and be courteous.

When anything bad happens, it’s probably better to ask the police to help than to try solving it yourself. For instance, in Mexico someone had put a temporary light post in the middle of a driveway. Pulling out of my hotel, my car bumped the post and a very expensive looking light bulb fell out of it and smashed on the sidewalk next to my car. Hmm. This is going to be awkward, I thought. Not knowing anything about the public works department, I decided to take some cash out of an ATM and go to the police station. I explained what had happened. They contacted the city contractors and got a quote to replace the light. The police captain told me the cost for the contractor’s time and the light. It seemed very reasonable. I paid. He didn’t issue me a ticket.

Of course, it’s good to be wary that there are people in some places who will impersonate police officers. So be mindful of your situation when you think that is happening. For instance, once I was driving in Europe. A guy in an unmarked car gestured to me to pull over. He came up to my window in a khaki button down shirt. But he didn’t look anything like an officer. I had had the honor of meeting officers of this country just a couple of days before. I knew how well they dressed. This guy wan’t an officer. He pulled a ratty piece of paper out of his pocket and pointed to it saying I needed to pay him x amount because I was driving a foreign vehicle.

Realizing I was being swindled, I told him that I needed him to write a ticket for me. He got very frustrated and angry. (Typically real police don’t react this way. Ticketing is the correct formal way to document infractions, not cash.) He said that I’d have to follow him to the police station at the next exit where he would write the citation. And he took my passport to his car and drove off very hastily. I tried to follow him, but he was doing his best to get away, it appeared. But sure enough, when I got off at the next exit there was a police station. I went in to report myself at the reception desk. There was an officer, looking like a properly dressed officer. Uh, oh. His uniform didn’t look anything like the khaki clad guy. I told him what had happened. He said that it wasn’t customary for police to pull over foreigners in unmarked cars. He said I was free to wait as long as I wanted. But he said my passport was probably stolen and that I should report it to my embassy to try to get it replaced.

Perhaps if I’d paid the fake cop his demanded cash, I could have retained my passport. But in the midst of a crime, it’s best to be cool and calculated. I think I did the right thing. And I followed the advice of the real police before I went on my way.

When you meet actual thieves it’s best to keep your encounters with them as brief as possible. When my bike was stolen in China, a person approached me offering to broker its return in negotiation with the gang of thieves who operated in the neighborhood. I told him that I appreciated the offer. But getting drawn into close association with thieves or paying them off, will just ensure that they will go seeking another victim again soon.

Make sure that anything in your baggage is expendable. Once, after a border crossing, a taxi driver offered me a ride to the nearest town. He and his colleagues made an ornate show of strapping my backpack to the top of the car. Then they said that they had to push start the car and started to wheel it away from me. I told them I didn’t want to ride in a broken taxi and started removing my bag from the straps. They tried to coax me to stay there while they push-started the engine and came back around the block. Sure enough, I got robbed. But they got nothing of considerable value. I even got my bag back after they were done riffling through it on the other side of the block.

I make sure to carry with me anything that I need, including medicines, back-up ID, an extra credit card or travelers cheque. Bad things can happen. But they shouldn’t spoil the trip. If your country offers an extra card-copy of your passport, buy it. Also an international drivers-permit can be very handy in a pinch. It’s little more than a translation of your domestic license. But the less you have to make police expend effort on your behalf, the better.

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