The Bribe

I’m an honest person, which is something everyone says or writes at some point with various levels of integrity. I have references on this honesty, though, and I’ve managed to live my life without too much sway in this regard in adulthood. As I have grown older, I have been even more careful about what I say or write because inevitably, you have to live by it – unless you’re a politician, which I have had the good sense to not be.

I wasted a paragraph bastioning my honesty because I have, on occasion, had to flex, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America where antiquated bureaucracies make corruption possible, though there was one incident with a police officer in Orlando, Florida. You see, you can be honest, but the world itself is made up of systems that less scrupulous characters will take advantage of – but are they less scrupulous or themselves victims of a system? That’s a debate that is best looked at case by case.

One particular incident comes to mind when I think of bribery.

I was in Nicaragua in 2005, part of my wandering through Latin America that was blamed on the publisher of Linux Journal but was simply an opportunity for travel I refused to miss at that point in life. And, as I do, I made friends with people in Nicaragua, and had gotten passable at conversational Spanish.

The day before I was to leave Nicaragua – I think I was going to Colombia next, I don’t remember – a friend needed a lift from Managua to Lago Managua. I enjoyed driving in Nicaragua because of the vast stretches of beautiful landscape, and the old Yaris I had rented was a surprising pleasure to drive only because it was manual, allowing me to eek out every drop of horsepower from the tiny engine. So we went, and I dropped him to Lago Managua, where he was to wait for a boat to take him to the center of the lake where he was setting up internet connectivity – he would later work at Amazon.com – and, with nothing there, I wanted to get back quickly because I was hungry and he dismissed me.

Heading back to the hotel in Managua where I would spend my last night, I had the little Yaris as close to airborne as possible… and a large truck was relatively slowly making it’s way somewhere. I flew past, overtaking it, seeing another truck ahead of it, when in between I saw the car – and as I drew parallel, AK-47s poked their way out of the open windows at the little Yaris. At me. I was already past them at this point, and had the little Yaris screaming for more air at the top of  5th gear.

I really could have used one more cylinder in that engine at that point – I forget what they were driving, but they easily caught me. The flashing lights set me a little at ease, so I pulled over, turned the car off, threw the keys on the dash and placed my hands on the top of the steering wheel. This is the universal way to say, ‘I’m not reaching for anything’.

Once they- there were three of them – saw I was no threat, the rifles got pointed away. They were speaking to me in Spanish about not passing a police vehicle, driving recklessly, and so on – so I decided to not speak as much Spanish as I knew and got them to hand me the Spanish/English dictionary in the back seat of the car so that we could figure it all out. After all, they had the drop on me with automatic weapons, the car I was driving was certainly no RX-7 or muscle car, and I was a very long way from anywhere.

They threatened to take my driver’s license so that they could track me down for a fine, which wouldn’t work – I needed that driver’s license for the next country – and I explained that to them. And then, in halting Spanish, I asked, “Is there a way that we can fix this without getting all of that involved?”

Long story short – it cost me $3 US to get out of that issue, which was probably the whole point – that would easily buy a bottle of rum. I was fortunate they were satisfied with what was in my wallet as well as providing them a good story they could laugh at.

That was a bribe. But it was also a way to get out of a painful situation where I was very vulnerable. I don’t know much about Nicaraguan police, I don’t know that this was the norm or not, but I do know in that particular situation I was pretty happy to leave $3 less, intact, and in good stead with the local police.

The point here is that you can be as honest as you want, but sometimes the easiest path isn’t the one that systems push us toward – and that’s where corruption comes in. Could they have wagged their finger at me and let me go? Of course. They chose not to, because they took me down a path where they got to shake me down. And I allowed them to do so because the alternative they offered in their positional authority was not attractive at all.

My honesty, my integrity – that would have meant little to anyone had I not simply gave them what was in my wallet.