EXPAT TROUBLE: OFF TO JAIL (Part Two)

by missfootloose on May 1, 2010 · 22 comments

in adventure, Africa, expat, Expat life, travel, Uganda, wildlife

Ever been in trouble traveling in a foreign country? Easy to do if you forget to use your common sense. Here we are, dumb expats on a bush road in Uganda, stopped by a drunk policeman. This is Part Two of the story. Last week’s post was Part One.

The Expats Get Arrested

The furious police officer, gun in hand, attacks us with a barrage of words. We are trespassing! Breaking the law! Committing a crime by being in the reserve! His hostile attitude is not comforting. We politely point out that only the back wheels of our car are in the reserve, that our window is broken and that we, being responsible people, wish to keep the road glass-free for other vehicles in this remote area. Such as the convoy of trucks from the Congo now stopped behind us. In the meantime, the Congolese truck drivers have decided a little entertainment is welcome after spending hours on the road. They’ve leaped from their trucks and have formed a circle around us to watch the spectacle. All this even more interesting to them because it’s now clear that the cop is so drunk, he’s practically reeling. What a show!

Our officer of the law is not interested in our story. He is interested in having an audience and showing off his superiority and power, he with the gun in his hand threatening us white foreigners. With his mean little eyes, he has all the charm of a wart hog.

Wart hog

He demands to see our passports and makes a great pretense of inspecting them, then starts in again and gives us hell for breaking the law while the Congolese truck drivers stand by and watch, mesmerized.

Then we notice something else. Another African, a young, handsome man in civilian clothes, has emerged from the police car and is now standing unobtrusively near us. “Don’t say anything,” he says quietly. “Stay calm.”

The policeman looks at me, stops his tirade for a moment, his beady eyes focused on the bread knife in my hand. If we thought the man was angry before, he is now livid. He demands to know what I think I am doing with that weapon in my hand. Am I going to kill the president?

“This is a bread knife,” I point out in a tone not likely to be appreciated by the officer. “I was going to cut bread.”

“Shut up,” my mate hisses in my ear. It’s not something he tells me on a regular basis, so I freeze. Of course I should have known better than to answer the cop the way I did. The cop, sweating and swaying, is now beside himself, captured by the idea that we are out to kill the president and that it is his duty to save Uganda from the likes of us. He shouts that we’re all going to jail and waves our passports in the air with one hand and his gun with the other. The truck drivers are having a good time.

“Get in your car! Follow me!” the madman shouts at us. “I’m taking you to prison!” Our passports in hand, he staggers off to his own car, followed by the handsome young man who has said nothing at all to him. Wimp, I think. We do as we are told, kept hostage by the man’s gun and inebriated mind. The road through the reserve seems endless and empty, leading us deeper into danger and despair. No villages, no people, no other cars. I think terrifying thoughts. About perishing in an African bush jail. About never seeing my family again. About being separated from my husband.

We drive and drive and if there are wild animals by the side of the road, like these zebras, I don’t see them. All I see are visions of what lies ahead, none of them happy.

ZebrasIf they are there, I don’t see them.

Then we reach a junction, the first one we’ve come across, and the police car stops. We stop. The convoy of trucks behind us stops. Out comes the handsome man in civilian clothes, striding toward us, passports in hand.

“Please,” he says as he hands them back through the open window, “please, accept my sincere apologies for this incident. You are guests in my country and this was an appalling incident and . . . ” He goes on to apologize effusively, in perfect British English, his embarrassment acute. He tells us he has spent time in England and was treated with friendliness and respect and wishes we could have been granted the same treatment in his country, but alas.

Through all this, the plastered officer of the law does not make an appearance. It occurs to me in a flash of brilliant insight, that our hero was unable to do anything earlier because making the drunk lose face in front of his audience would have been counterproductive. Alone in the car with him, he’d obviously used his diplomatic skills successfully. Not a wimp after all. I am ashamed of myself, of my ignorance. However, I am smart enough not to hug the man in full view of a convoy of Congolese drivers, and possibly that of one drunk cop who is now prevented from saving his country from evil foreigners.

Our hero goes on to suggest we get rid of the knife. These are bad times, he says, and people are nervous about the attempted assassination of President Obote and why take risks? He then points to the left. “This road will take you to Queen Elizabeth Park,” he tells us. “Please have a wonderful time and don’t let this incident ruin your opinion of our country.”

Road in Uganda

We thank him from the bottom of our relieved little hearts and watch him climb back into the police car, which continues on the road across the intersection. We turn left, driving as fast as the car and road will allow. I’d like to end this story by offering my thanks to all of you English people who treated our nice Ugandan with friendliness and respect while he sojourned in your country. You may well be the reason that two Americans, one Norwegian and one Dutch person did not perish in a Ugandan jail.

* * *

So, dear reader, tell me a harrowing tale from your travels. From what dangers have you escaped? What scary confrontations with foreign officials did you survive? Go ahead, give me the shivers.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Witzl May 1, 2010 at 10:40 am

I love the way you closed this: my sentiments exactly. One act of kindness and consideration can have far-reaching consequences, and the same can be said about acts of cruelty or inconsideration. Which isn’t to say that we should only treat people decently if we’ve been treated accordingly by their compatriots, but by doing so, we are the best possible ambassadors for our country, wherever we happen to be living. I love how your young diplomat friend had the smarts not to antagonize his companion and make him lose face. What a great guy.

Years ago, my boyfriend and I were stranded in Spain with car trouble and a French man stopped to help us. I was really glad to have encountered him when, on our way back to the Netherlands, we had a horrible experience with the French border officials, the worst possible ambassadors for France.

By the way, YOU are a great ambassador for Holland!

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Ash May 1, 2010 at 12:16 pm

As British Expats in Nigeria, we have witnessed hairy moments and uncomfortable scenes. Mostly through misunderstanding or people just trying to survive in all the wrong ways.
I must say this is the exception to the norm and the Nigerian people have been welcoming beyond our imagination.
Something the news often leaves out back home unfortunately.
I am enjoying your blog and shows that although Expatriates do encounter such trouble abroad, the overall experience is overthrown by welcome. You do have those who are power hungry, but those who choose to accept and welcome the diversity of other people, learn to pay it forward.
The young man who helped you had received kindness from Britain and he returned it. A true lesson in treating others as you would want to be treated.
The police man handled it badly, but at the same time I wonder what has caused him to become that way and to feel it’s acceptable to threaten others? I don’t know the answer, but he must have a heart somewhere to have listened to his friends reasoning.
I have come across many who do not understand our presence here. However the majority want to know, to learn, and to see for themselves where we come from. Only through talking to others wherever they are from and welcoming them into our lives can barriers be lifted. I hope that policeman learnt from his actions, I’m sure you left a mark on him, albeit just on his conscience.
Great story & Thanks for sharing!

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Kate May 4, 2010 at 8:11 am

Saving face is such an important concept in many countries, isn’t it? In Bahrain, it is considered extremely impolite to rant and rage at someone in public for this very reason. Much more can be achieved with a softly softly approach, though you do have to learn patience – something which doesn’t come easy to Western expats.

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Miss Footloose May 4, 2010 at 11:53 am

@ Mary Witzl, thank you for the nice compliment! Fortunately I’ve learned that wherever I go the good people far outnumber the bad ones, and of course we must never judge an entire country or population by the behavior of one bad citizen or official.

@ Ash, I agree that what we hear and see through the media at home is usually the negative side of life in foreign countries and people often have a skewed idea of what the reality is. The more all of us get the opportunity to “share bread” with others, the better we learn to appreciate our common-ness and learn to be tolerant of differences.

@ Helen Ginger, staying cool and not fanning the flames of conflict is such a good lesson to learn!

@ Kate, yes, saving face is very important in lots of places. We noticed this also in Indonesia when we lived there. Cultural sensitivity to these types of cultural issues is a must when you live overseas.

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Brenda May 4, 2010 at 2:21 pm

What an intriguing story. Glad all’s well that ends well. 🙂 I’ve been to Africa but didn’t have that kind of excitement.

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Butternut Squash May 4, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Captivating story telling.
I’m so glad you survived. These adventures always seem like a great idea until the shit hits the fan. Pass the peace!

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LadyFi May 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Wow.. what a story! Thank goodness it turned out well.

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parTea lady May 5, 2010 at 8:32 pm

That was a very exciting tale of your trouble in Uganda. Don’t you wish more people were like the young man who helped you. It’s hard not to be judgemental when you are accosted by someone like the plastered policeman.

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jolie jamie May 5, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Great story!! After reading Part 1 I couldnt wait to read part 2!!
I love that I found your blog!
Take care,
Jamie 🙂

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Welshcakes Limoncello May 5, 2010 at 10:14 pm

UYes, a great story. Love the warthog comparison!

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GutsyWriter May 6, 2010 at 4:09 am

Oh, how I wish my father could write a comment on your blog. Perhaps I should ask him to read it. He’s 85 and reads mine. You see, my parents lived in Nigeria for 17 years and have so many stories. I was 0-6 when we were there. 1957-1963. The one story I remember was how our Great Dane saved my mother from a Nigerian who broke into our house with a knife. My dad was in Europe and the man broke in. Once our Great Dane put his front paws on the man’s shoulders, he dropped the knife. “Take your horse off me,” he said, and ran away. I love reading your stories. Please tell me you have a book coming out with all of them soon.

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dutchbaby May 6, 2010 at 4:11 am

I just love happy endings! What a great/harrowing/exciting/terrifying story.

One time my girlfriend and I were shopping in an arts-and-craft market in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We did not find what we were looking for in the market approved by our employers, the Holland-America Line, so we crossed the street to the more “authentic-looking” mart. All the goods were displayed in short straw huts and we were urged to come inside as we passed every hut. Finally, it looked like one hut may have what we were searching for so we ducked our heads and entered the dark hut. When we turned around we both saw about ten men’s faces blocking our exit. The hair on both our necks raised at precisely the same time but we kept our cool and sauntered out without skipping a beat. Before anyone had any time to think things over, we had fastened our pace to return to the safe haven of our ship.

Thank you for two great posts – I’m glad I arrived late and didn’t have to wait a week between posts.

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Miss Footloose May 7, 2010 at 8:34 pm

@ Helen Ginger, yes a cute lion, but better not have him jump on you while you walk by!

@ Just as well you missed this kind of excitement when you wre in Africa!

@ Butternut Squash: You stay safe in your travels!

@ ParTea Lady, yes, it was a lesson on several lessons!

@ jolie jamie, glad you enjoyed! Welcome. I have more tales, but mostly of a tamer sort!

@ Welshcakes: It was fun looking for a good warthog photo!

@ GutsyWriter: What a great story you have here! I’m sure your father has many stories of your life in Nigeria and maybe you should write them down when you visit him. I love hearing other peoples stories.

No publisher yet for my book, but don’t you worry, I will let you know!

DutchBaby, thank you for your story! That was scary indeed, and who knows how it might have ended. Your instinct/intuition served you well.

Thanks everybody for your great stories and comments!

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injaynesworld May 8, 2010 at 12:47 am

Stories like this just strengthen my conviction that there is no need for me to put myself in such peril when the whole world is now on DVD.

So glad you are safe.

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Miss Footloose May 11, 2010 at 12:20 pm

@ Injaynesworld, yes but what about all the other fun you are missing!

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Vagabonde May 13, 2010 at 1:51 am

I enjoyed reading your scary tale. I don’t have a real bad experience to speak about, just several little ones. One I remember was in Cairo. My first cousin is Armenian Egyptian and his daughter was taking us to the Cairo Museum, my daughter and I. She was explaining all the artifacts to us when a security guard said we had to go to the Head Security Office. Once there they wanted to arrest her because they said she did not have a guide permit. I told them she was not a guide, she was our cousin. They would not believe me because she is a petite Armenian looking lady, I have red hair and my daughter is blonde almost 6 ft tall. I started getting very upset because they were going to take her away even though she kept saying we were her family – they had her papers. Finally I remembered that my French passport is under my maiden name, which is Armenian, and placed it under his nose and told him to look and that I was Armenian, so he let her go. We were in there a long time and I was so scared for her. Another time, many years before, I was in Cairo again and taking some pictures. I did not realize I took the picture of a bridge. I had about 4 policemen around me screaming, wanting to take my camera, telling me I was an American spy. They wanted to push me into their car so I started hollering in French saying I did not speak English, so they let me go, after taking my films. I had other little problems like that, that’s all.

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Walter Knight May 14, 2010 at 3:26 am

Why write fiction when real life is so interesting Your tale of almost being arrested in uganda is a great example of culture clash.

I write science fiction (check my website), and explore culture clash between humans and aliens. It struck me that Uganda might as well have been a different planet. Your first hand knowledge insight would be a great resource for culture clash writing science fiction novels. Maybe if you write fiction, you should consider science fiction. Anyway, I loved reading your tale from central Africa. Your wanderings would be an interesting book in and of itself.

Wally

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Miss Footloose May 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm

@ Vagabond: You certainly have adventures to talk about! Those two incidents were quite scary and I’m wondering if these officials were trying to get a bribe out of you.

@ Wally, thanks for the compliments. You’re right, sometimes during my travels I wonder if I’m on another planet, but mostly I find that if you look close people really all want the same.

The book is written and I’m looking for a publisher!

Now tell your friends about my site ;)! The more people enjoy it the better chance I’ll have to get it out there.

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Davis November 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

A nice thing about a story like this is its timelessness. A good travel story needn’t be fresh from happening when it deals with how people have always acted and almost certainly will in the future. And the passage of time gives us the perspective to see and understand what happened much better than we likely would have at the time.

Since I, too, am writing about things that happened once upon a time, I am delighted to see someone else doing it so well.

The world was a more interesting place before we all were wired.

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missfootloose November 20, 2011 at 1:15 am

Thank you! Yes, I agree. I like writing about things and events after the fact so I see them better and have more time to think about the writing. I’m not always good writing off the cuff and in the moment, which is what much writing today is.

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Michael December 27, 2011 at 6:03 am

Reading this reminded me of my youthful encounter with police in Malawi. Fortunately, it was not laced with an underlying threat of violence, as in your case, but disturbing nonetheless.

I accidentally found myself at the front gate of the President’s mansion on the outskirts of Blantyre. Police took me into custody until they were assured of my harmlessness.
Michael recently posted..Detained by police in MalawiMy Profile

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missfootloose December 31, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I enjoyed reading about your adventure with police in Malawi! Even doing the most innocent things can lead you into trouble some times.

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