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.

Broken Contracts

Break FreeThere are contracts between people, and there are contracts between lawyers – the latter existing because contracts between people are fragile.

One of the reasons  I haven’t been writing was because I was negotiating a contract – a business deal. It started with a handshake, as so many business deals do. This was a contract between people, between men – me having something someone else wanted, he wanting something I have. The deal was for a certain amount, the deal to be completed by lawyers the next day.

The next day never arrived – instead, I got another representative of the company and family. And, right before Carnival here in Trinidad and Tobago, I was given a downpayment for a price for roughly 70% of the original handshake. I smiled and laughed, knowing I wouldn’t accept that offer, and returned their downpayment after Carnival. I simply showed that I understand the value they placed in shaking hands by returning the favor. I think they got the point.

Now I know how they do business and I can say that they don’t really respect contracts between people – I won’t name them, there’s really no need to. It’s no more than an attempt at a reverse bait and switch maneuver, as basic as that – and what I found was that once I got past that, they had nothing. So I raised my price, and they said they wouldn’t buy – and called me the next day, still trying to get me below the price of our original handshake.

“Do you think you can get that price from anyone in Trinidad and Tobago right now?”, I was asked churlishly. I responded in a firm tone, “Do you think I care?” 

And I laughed, putting it in the hands of someone the next day to deal with. I’ve seen too many contracts broken over the years – more than most, less than a few – to really care that much about a broken contract. I put it in the hands of someone else; I have no patience for people with money saying that the price is too high. Clearly, the value is not – pay the price or move on. 

It’s as if they do not matter to others, as if one’s word doesn’t matter, as if a promise is so easily broken. Trust is not something understood – Honor and Commitment are Gordian knots to be sliced.

And it’s not just business.

Social Contracts

 

There was a time when social contracts were more valued – we find pockets here and there among the rubble of civilization where they are still valued, where a promise or a handshake means something. When someone’s word meant something, when they were careful what they promised.

Now, we gamble on people’s greed in things more and more – not just financially but otherwise, be it emotional or otherwise.

And one thing I have learned over the years is that a world where one’s word is worth something is becoming smaller every year. Marriages, divorces, political promises, government reality, and so on. And because of that we do not trust.

And a civilization where we do not trust is not really a civilization.

A person’s word should mean something. Should. But now, unless you get a witness and everyone signs, it’s empty – expended air lost to the atmosphere, needless noise. And even with lawyers…

We are surrounded by broken contracts.

The Honesty Of Land

Yeah, I earned any calories I could possibly eat today.Working on the land daily, there’s a brutal honesty to it. It doesn’t lie; it doesn’t need to. It speaks openly of what it does, there is no subterfuge. In the tropics, the wet season is about to shift into dry – the last of the rains come with vigor and the grass grows where I had cut.

So I cut it again.

The small crops I had been able to sew at the beginning of wet season are cleared of bush, have been cleared of bush for some time – with the exception of the period where we got the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Brett, when it would have been irksome and perhaps even dangerous to work with a spinning blade between them, and when I tried to keep spraying chemicals to a minimum.

My crops thrive when a cousin’s are buried in bush; an Uncle who helped and advised him wanders by the day before Christmas and tells me their cassava is no good. He sounds surprised and frustrated when they let the bush master their land, overgrowing their cassava. In fact, the man who plowed the land for them still hadn’t been fully paid by them – the follies of their world made photosynthetic, just as the crops would have. I cannot speak to such things, I have my own things to worry about.

The land is honest and unforgiving. It has no give unless you work it so. It has no mercy, it has no guile. It compounds the forces of nature to be something greater than the sum of it’s parts.

I have sweat, blood and yes, tears, in the land. It inflicts cuts, bites, punctures and bruises to defend itself and, pushing through that, I have fleeting conquests doomed to failures without due care and attention. Piece by piece, it becomes more manageable – but manage it I must, or it will manage me. This is the honesty of the land, a stark contrast to humans and society where the social construct of promises were once made by those who worked with the unforgiving land, where it meant something, where now promises are something to be broken.

Then the human side – where people not getting paid to pick up rubbish cause people to dump rubbish on land they think isn’t managed – and so you manage that land, cleaning areas and keeping them clean. They no longer dump their rubbish there but somewhere else: People wring their hands in talking to me about it. I look at them now and say, “That is not my problem”, which is not true, but is a necessary answer for those who don’t maintain their lands – a truth that they need to wrestle with if they pay attention and act.

Opportunity: Missed by people because it comes disguised as hard work.

It’s like software engineering, except much more real.

The Human Contrast

The cousins who own nearby lands fumble through their own relationships with their siblings and try to cash in on the land; I make efforts to see some of them when they come to Trinidad to visit them – we grew up with each other – but they had no time for me, leaving me to sit alone outside. One even blocked me from going inside. I arched an eyebrow, having made the effort to go visit, and realizing that they did not want to see me. This was compounded by the one time during that period where I reached out, at a nearby restaurant with someone giving me advice on the land – out of all of them, one showed up, and he simply spoke with the one advising me.

Meanwhile, people come to me complaining of them, and I shrug. It is not for me to deal with, I am not one to do what they are doing and I am not one to do for them what they do not do for themselves.

Another is going abroad, asks me if I want anything – I did not ask – so I do mention a few things. He calls me from the airport to tell me where he’s going, where the gift he left for me is, and I ask him to let me know if he orders a particular item for me so I don’t try to source it locally. Meanwhile, the people who he promised to do something for see me on a daily basis and ask me for updates that I cannot give. I hear nothing from him other than part of a deluge of WhatsApp messages wishing me ‘Happy New Year’. He returns nearby, I still hear nothing from him. Well, ok then.

I am becoming more like the land every day, and since the land is alien to them, I grow alien to them.

One aunt spreads lies about everyone in the family, calling everyone greedy when she made sure her brother was isolated and left everything to her in the Will before he died. If you want to find the greed, find the one who has what they think everyone wants. She’ll choke on it eventually. I let her know that on my birthday after she asked to see me, after she spread lies about me, just as she asked me to help her manage her gains – ill-gotten in my opinion. A skeleton choking on a crust of bread.

Last year, another aunt went away and I checked in on her human project, an adolescent who came from a shattered home and less than pristine circumstance that she had taken in. He made promises, he broke promises, he is young – but he did not meet the social contracts that brought him there. In the end, he had to return to where he had come from but, for the duration and after I regularly checked in – not because it was important to me, but because it was important to her. She returns, it’s not spoken of. I make arrangements with her to visit her not once but twice; both times she goes out on recreational sojourns while her husband and I stare at each other. I had tried. Messages to her were rarely answered, if at all.

My time spent on all of this robs me of time to do what needs to be done. No more.

And I’m safe, because the odds of any of them reading this is pretty low.

Meanwhile, others see what I’m doing and help in their own ways – some plants here, some compost there, some business advice, planning advice and planting advice. I do the same. We build relationships like that of the land, not of society. A throwback, I think, to times when people worked the land.

The Human Contrast, Part II

I go to the towns now and then. I will sit and watch people drinking coffee and doing their best to impress each other at one local center, preening. I go get my haircut, I watch people in branded exercise outfits drive to the gym so they can be physically active – I’ve lost 3 inches off my waist in the last month alone (with more to go) over the last month. They pay to be members. What an odd way to live – and I used to live like that before I thought it through. A little before I ended up in the hospital. There’s a lesson there.

I watch the lowered cars pull in, screeching to a halt on the speed bumps or near potholes, impractical in a country that has a debilitating inability to build and maintain roads. Pickups with ‘4×4’ emblazoned on them sit on pretty wheels, nothing more than street cars that run on diesel. SUVs have been made too expensive for most by the government, and their last refuge are these pickups to give them a false sense of security when driving because they can look further ahead – but they can’t brake as well in a pickup. Taxis stop in the middle of the road to drop off their passengers rather than move to the side and allow traffic to pass.

On social media, I read someone’s whine about not being treated seriously in technology and it reminds me of how I had felt and what I had communicated over a decade ago – interesting since I’m not much older than the one complaining now. Without compunction, I wrote that we are not owed change, that whining doesn’t change anything, and that when he gets out of his selfish moat of self-pity he should get back to trying to change things – advice I had to give myself over a decade ago.

It’s a rat race, and the trouble with rat races is that they are full of rats.

I am becoming a misanthrope, some might think. Sometimes I think so. Yet when I reflect on it fully, I am simply becoming what I need to be in a world where people are busy trying to become what they are told they want to be.

And therein is the real contrast. Where someone’s word should be unbreakable, where relationships are valued and treated accordingly. I am becoming me, and this drives a wedge between myself and those who are busy trying to become what they are told they should want to be.

Be who you need to be. The trouble with the world is a lack of honesty to the self about the self which leaks into everything else.

Indigestion

The Boy Who Cried WolfThe sky has fallen –
Chicken Little has been
Reported dead,
And the boy who cried ‘Wolf’
Is being digested
In a large intestine.
Fortitude is lost in these
Bowels, but it is too late
To apologize,
To say:
“I was mistaken!”,
That this time it is true
And that It Doesn’t Matter
Doesn’t Matter
Anymore.