14 September 2014
Almost Jailed In Montenegro
I was saving this story for my final blog on this trip because it’s an absolute travel gem. There are few days in my life that were more frightening, bizarre and hilarious all at the same time. It of course involves a car, as all great stories on this trip do. We’ve had difficulty getting the right car, difficulty finding gas for the car, difficulty parking the car, difficulty navigating the car around other drivers (I’m looking at you Turkey) and even difficulty backing the car up down a lane that got more and more narrow like the entrance to the factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That last one was the ultimate Austin Powers moment as the car was wedged between a wall and another car (see below). Still, nothing compares to this doozie of a day so buckle up and get ready for a rip roaring good time.
It all started in the hills of Montenegro just north of Niksic. We had been driving for about an hour since lunch and came upon some gasoline spilled in the road which caused us to slide a little bit and resulted in a minor fender bender. Because of our insurance, we had to call the police and obtain a report to ensure we didn’t get charged by the rental car company. Seems easy enough. Wrong.
A local guy offered to call the cops for us and while we were waiting it started to rain like it had never rained before. I mean, we’re talking biblical rains and here we are stranded on the side of the road. This is when we learned that the left two doors were now leaking, which meant said biblical rain was falling on Sarah and my head. Awesome. This is what also made us realize we’d need to have the car replaced. You can’t carry on in a car that’s taking on water. So the cop finally arrives and just immediately has that “You’re an idiot” air about him, shaking his head and surveying the scene as if to say “stupid foreign kids.” Now, while we are indeed younger than this officer we are by know means kids. I’m 30 for gods sake and we’re all either working professionals or obtaining higher higher degrees and yet his walk, his eye rolls and his general “you listen here sonny boy” demeanor is somehow wildly offensive.
Pasha spends a solid hour in the police car with him playing charades about what happens before he takes Pasha’s passport and drives away with no indication of what will happen next. Our hopes of quickly picking up a new car and continuing on our trip are fading very very fast. So now we’re once again stranded on the side of the road taking cover in an abandoned building. As we’re standing there, another car swerves and slides and crashes IN THE EXACT SAME SPOT AS US. We run to help and make sure everyone is okay, which they are, thank goodness. His car is completely undrivable and a small contingent of burly southern European men push and cajole it to the side of the road.
A few more minutes pass and a tow truck arrives. No doubt this is for our car but because there are two accidents the driver looks thoroughly confused. Sarah and Aditi are pointing at our car like “hey man, take ours. We were here first. Lets get this show on the road.” Fortunately, the police officer rolls up again before any decisions are made. Seeing the second accident (and noting that it was caused by an upstanding father and husband), he bangs his head on his steering wheel and the air of superiority, though not completely gone, definitely begins to fade.
He assures the two truck driver that our car is in fact first up and we frantically remove all the bags from the boot as he hoists the little Skoda onto the flat bed, demands 50 euros in cash, then drives away with our rental car to god knows where. So now we’re on the side of the road. In the middle of Montenegro. With no car. And all of our bags. And a Russian family. And an irritable cop. What. To. Do.
Fortunately, one of the local guys offers to act as our translator and coerces from the cop that I will need to go with him to the police station to make a report. At the same time our car rental company has indicated that a replacement car won’t be with us until the following afternoon, which means we’ll be staying in wonderful Niksic for the night! Aditi - a newly minted lawyer - suggests she come along to the police station. Meanwhile, the rest of the team orders a taxi with plans to check us into Niksic’s only hotel. “Meet you there in an hour,” Aditi offers up as we pull away with the policeman. No such luck.
We arrive to what appears to be a police force in chaos. There are officers everywhere looking incredibly busy but actually doing very little. Cell phones are ringing constantly, people are walking with intent in every direction but as soon as you dig just slightly under the surface it’s all too easy to see that there is no substance to the activity. An office opens a filing cabinet to reveal piles of papers strewn in every possible direction. Bent, torn, upside down, you name it. Meanwhile, we notice another officer in the corner typing away on his computer using only ONE finger. Not one finger of each hand, just ONE FINGER. It’s utterly bizarre.
Aditi and I are shuttled from room to room, no clear sense of what is happening. The poor Russian man - who doesn’t speak a work of Montenegran - is being shouted at by a team of officers who clearly don’t speak a word of Russian. They’re using the “if I speak louder then he will understand” approach to no avail. Fortunately, we meet a man who speaks English and is in our same situation. He offers to help us along and genuinely saves the day. A solid hour later we’re brought into an interview room where I am asked to write down - in English - what happened. This takes no more than five minutes, during which the officer receives and answers no fewer than seven phone calls on his cell phone, his ringtone blasting “I’m Sexy And I Know It” every time. I hand it back to him and ask our new translator if he is able to find out how quickly I can get a copy of the report. He and the officer have a short conversation before he tells me “you have to come back in an hour to see the judge who will rule on your trial.” What the what?!
Offered no further explanation, Aditi and I beeline it to the hotel to catch up with the rest of the team, where we regale them with our absurd experiences so far before heading back to the station for our trial, which ends up not being at the station at all. It is now after 10pm. This debacle started at 5:20pm. An officer shows us to his car where we hop in to be driven who knows where. Five minutes later we arrive to what looks like an abandoned strip mall. Our car is parked outside, still on the tow truck. The office leads us into a lobby where we sit and wait for another hour before a woman walks out and says in English, “the judge will see you now.” We hop up, I pass her, walk in, her the door close, turn around and see that Aditi has been left outside. Oh no.
The room looks like the office of an insurance salesman in Glendale. Sparse walls decorated with inspiration posters, a few desks, the oldest Dell computers on earth and some very random characters. The judge is wearing shorts, flip flops, and a polo shirt. His clerk is sitting to his left and on “the bench” is my translator and myself. The cop is also sitting opposite us. There is also a random young woman sitting in the corner playing candy crush WITH THE SOUND ON who I learn later is the “official witness” to I have no idea what. The proceedings, I gather.
We start by my translator reading my supposed account of the accident which sounds like a East German style rewrite where I’m claiming responsibility for not only this car accident (that affected no other vehicles) but also everything else bad that has happened in the world from the dawn of time until now. “You accept you are a bad and dangerous driver and subjected society to danger by your terrible actions,” the translator read. “No, I didn’t write any of those things,” I respond, as we work together to rewrite the statement though I can’t read it so I have no idea what’s actually being put down. We then confirm my name as Kyle Tyler (wrong), my address as East Vagina Ave (also wrong, and “corrected” to East Viagra Ave, no joke) and my ethnicity as - wait for it - American Samoa. Despite correcting this the final documents of the court end up saying all of the above, which means if I am ever in trouble again in Montenegro they’ll be looking for a stalky islander who lives on Viagra Avenue.
Next the policeman goes and says their investigations have shown there was gasoline spilled on the road. I’m thinking, “great. The cop acknowledges there were unforeseeable obstacles. That should wrap this up and I should be out of here in no time.” Wrong. Even with this admission, according to Montenegran law I can still be charged with “public endangerment” regardless of the fact that it was an accident for which I was not at fault. I know this because my translator read directly from the 400-page book of statues that cover traffic violations ONLY. At one point I asked her if I might go to jail. Her response? “Let me ask the judge.” After a lengthy exchange she turned to me and said “no, but the judge says you will have to pay a fine. I know it’s crazy but this is Montenegro. It’s corruption!” At least she was honest.
With no further additions from me the judge rendered his verdict: A fine of 130 euros payable in cash only. As I had none on me (we had only just arrived in Montengro) the cop proceeded to drive me to an ATM where I pulled out money and was returned to the court. When I got back the translator said to me, “good news Kyle! While you were away I bargained down your fine to 100 euros!” Okay, let me start by saying this is excellent news but seriously, why on earth can you BARGAIN DOWN A GOVERNMENT FINE? This country is trying to accede to the European Union. This type of corruption just won’t cut it. Anyway, I paid the fine in cash, got a receipt with ten different “official” stamps on it, and was then returned with Aditi to the police station to pick up the police report. By this time it was after midnight - a seven-hour saga that ended with a criminal record for me, a fine, and a delay in our trip.
Now all we needed was a copy of the police report, which was of course the only thing we needed to begin with and it wasn’t even for us - it was for the rental car company! The officers told us it wouldn’t be ready until the morning (naturally) so we headed back to the hotel, drank lots of local brandy and regailed the group with our absurd happenings. As you might expect, the next day was equally absurd. More cops buzzing around like they had no idea why we were there, further delays, a fee that had to be paid at the post office to obtain an official receipt that had to then be brought back to the police station, several phone calls to who knows who and lots of single finger typing in the corner. It took nearly two hours in the end just to get a copy of the report. Our replacement car (a microscopic Chevy Aveo) arrived just after 5pm, concluding what was possibly the most absurd 24 hours of my life. But man, does it make for a great story!